Studio Owners

How Three Studios Pulled Off Their Virtual Recitals

The Dance Concept staff in the midst of their costume pickup event. Photo courtesy of Dance Concept

Year-end recitals are an important milestone for dancers to demonstrate what they've learned throughout the year. Not to mention the revenue boost they bring—often 15 to 20 percent of a studio's yearly budget. But how do you hold a spring recital when you're not able to rehearse in person, much less gather en masse at a theater?

"I struggled with the decision for a month, but it hit me that a virtual recital was the one thing that would give our kids a sense of closure and happiness after a few months on Zoom." says Lisa Kaplan Barbash, owner of TDS Dance Company in Stoughton, MA. She's one of countless studio owners who faced the challenges of social distancing while needing to provide some sort of end-of-year performance experience that had already been paid for through tuition and costume fees.

We spoke with Barbash and the two other studio owners to learn how they planned their online recitals, an option that ensured all participants—from students, to faculty to audience members—remained safe in their homes.

The timing and execution for these studios' virtual shows were similar, and even though ticket sales are one of the biggest income drivers of recital season, they all chose not to charge their families to watch the debut or to download the digital file. Instead they said they saw it as a way to thank parents for their continued support and to honor their dancers' determination.

"Providing a way to perform, even if it was in their homes—just to be able to put on their costume, do their hair and makeup—made them feel like they were going through the regular motions of getting ready for a show onstage," says Ann Schwenzer, owner of Studio A Dance & Performing Arts, LLC, of Avon, CT. "This is the time to show that we are resilient and that we are not going anywhere, that we love our dance families and want to continue to have an impact on their lives."

Here are some further insights into how these studios handled costume pickups, Zoom rehearsals and day-of-premieres.

Creating a Safe Costume Pickup Strategy

Recital prep starts almost a year in advance at Dance Concept with ideation, theme selection and costume previews. Students get measured in November; orders are placed in December. Costumes are part of a non-refundable performance bundle based on how many classes a student takes, and it includes tickets, tights and a recital T-shirt.

"Usually we pass out costumes in classes, but in virtual land, everything is different," owner Debbi Jo Thibeau says. That's why she developed a three-day curbside pickup schedule, with costumes and accessories bagged, alphabetized and boxed in advance. Her staff wore masks and worked in shifts to make it a fun drive-through experience.

Dozens of costumes in boxes and on hangers organized carefully in a studio lobby

Photo courtesy of Dance Concept

"We also added extra surprises like a bag of candy, a flower and a frisbee with our logo," she says. "From the very beginning we communicated several times a week with our families about our plans and have been very honest so we aren't overpromising anything. I think they really appreciate that."

The curbside pickup method went so smoothly that next year's costume handout might look a little different. Plus, the extra goodies ended up being good social-media PR.

Rehearsing and Editing Choreography Via Zoom

When your canvas is no longer a stage but a Zoom gallery view, it means reimagining formations and partnered lifts. It also means adjusting for any student attrition. "We kept the same recital theme, but some of the dances didn't end up being in the show," Schwenzer says. "We had a lot of success with ages 2 to 10, but some of the older dancers weren't participating in rehearsals."

A young girl in a pink costume sits on the floor at looks at a Zoom screen during her virtual dance recital

A Zoom recital rehearsal.

Photo courtesy of Studio A Dance & Performing Arts, LLC

During dress rehearsal week, students wore their costumes and did their hair and makeup just like they would have for the stage. They ran their dances on Zoom in the gallery view and Schwenzer recorded two to three run-throughs of each on her computer, choosing the best takes for the virtual performance. She sent all of the videos to a video editor along with the music and artistic directions, and once she received a finished file, Studio A's recital occurred on Zoom with a password-protected link. In addition to all of the dances, the show included announcements, a graduating senior slideshow, and pictures and videos from studio events. "We encouraged the premiere to be a fun movie-night experience," Schwenzer says, "and I offered a giveaway for $50 in class credit if families sent in pictures while they watched it live."

Hosting a Live Premiere

TDS Dance Company's "Castle of Dreams" recital will be pre-recorded and premiere online, with Barbash and other faculty members dressed up at the studio and emceeing the show in front of a green screen, à la the Oscars. A video production company will host the event on a dedicated web page connected to the studio's online store, so viewers have the option of simultaneously shopping for studio-branded hoodies, shirts and phone covers and can download a digital file of the show once it finishes airing.

A young girl takes dance class in her living room, wearing a leotard and sitting up very straight with her legs outstretched in front of her

A TDS student takes virtual class at home.

Photo courtesy of TDS Dance Company

The dances will feature an edited mix of Zoom gallery views recorded by faculty, solo videos filmed by parents and uploaded to Google Drive, and footage from the only competition the dancers were able to participate in this year.

The opening number will feature a montage of 40 soloists, each appearing for a few seconds performing to Andra Day's "Rise Up," and the finale will showcase students dressed in costume or in their recital T-shirt, freestyling to Meghan Trainor's "Better When I'm Dancin'." "I've been watching the clips come in, and they make me cry. It's the best finale we've ever had," Barbash says. "I hope it helps them feel good and puts a smile on their faces and pulls the year together for them in some way."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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