Studio Owners

What It Took to Pull Off An Epic Virtual Recital

Jana Belot's 31-year-old New Jersey–based Gotta Dance has six studios, 1,720 students and, usually, 13 recitals. In a normal year, Belot rents a 1,000-seat venue for up to 20 consecutive days and is known for her epic productions, featuring her studio classes and Gotta Dance's pre-professional dance team, Showstoppers. Until March, she was planning this year's jungle-themed recital in this same way.

When the pandemic hit, Belot soon decided to do a virtual recital instead. Due to the scale of the production—300 to 500 dancers performing in each of the 13 shows—postponing or moving to an outdoor venue wasn't practical. (Canceling, for her, was out of the question.)

Unsurprisingly, Belot's virtual recital was just as epic as her in-person shows—with 10,000 submitted videos, animation, musicians and more. Here's how it all came together, and what it cost her.

Going virtual: Investments in staff and payroll

By the time her local public-school districts shut their doors on March 16, Belot had spent a week preparing and training staff in Google Classroom and Google Meet, so her 190-plus classes could continue virtually.

"It cost us significantly more to have virtual classes," she says. "We had an office administrator running the classes behind the scenes and an additional administrator texting class and camera reminders to dance families. On top of that, there was no change in normal operating expenses such as rent, electricity, telephone and insurance." Belot also chose not to discount tuition for virtual classes in an effort to avoid furloughing staff or cutting teachers' pay. Gotta Dance did experience a 10 percent drop in enrollment with the shift to online classes.

Coordinating a process for video submission for the recital was also labor-intensive. Gotta Dance sent out detailed instructions to families on how to film their dances at home and submit them to designated Dropbox folders.

Another challenge: Figuring out how to make videos of individual dancers look like one cohesive class. Belot came up with a system for students to dance along with a video of their teacher while filming.

A graphic showing how families should set up their home stage, with instructions on where to set up their laptop, where to place things, etc.

Part of the instructions Belot sent to her families.

Photo courtesy Belot

Distributing costumes: $15,500

Normally, dancers pick up their costumes at the studio. But during the height of the pandemic in New Jersey, Belot decided that mailing costumes would be a safer option. Between packing, packaging and mailing, this cost Gotta Dance $15,500.

Other expenses: Trophies, marley and more

Belot also took on costs for items normally covered by annual concert fees, which she refunded in full, and unexpected COVID-related expenses. This included roughly 800 trophies, marley for Showstopper pointe dancers, computers for teachers with out-of-date equipment, green screens and lighting setups, animation, musicians and more.

Video production: $26,000

To keep Gotta Dance's movie-style recital up to par with her usual live shows, Belot decided it was crucial to hire a production company, which cost approximately $26,000.

Same Day Productions synchronized and edited the 10,000 submitted videos, checking to make sure each was submitted correctly and developing a system to make sure the videos were perfectly aligned.

Gotta Dance's virtual recital plays on a laptop screen. Dancers in animal costumes dance across an animated jungle, and text telling the story of the Jungle Book is overlaid.

Gotta Dance's recitals included animation.

Photo courtesy Belot

The viewing experience

Once all videos were submitted, synced and edited, Gotta Dance livestreamed the 13 performances at the same times as the previously scheduled live performances.

It was important to Belot to ensure that families could watch the recital without experiencing technical difficulties. Gotta Dance sent out a Dropbox link with the show, in case families had trouble with the livestream, and set up a "Genius Barre" (a play on Apple's Genius Bar) of college-age alumni to help families troubleshoot any issues in setting up their television or computer. (The "Genius Barre" was also available to families who needed help filming or uploading their videos to Dropbox.) Belot did not charge families anything to watch the livestream.

Gotta Dance's recital playing on a laptop. The dancers, in animal costumes, dance inside the pages of an animated book.

Photo courtesy Belot

The total cost—and the payoff

Belot ended up infusing Gotta Dance with an additional $100,000 to produce her virtual recital, and to make up for lost concert fees and ticket revenue. While some of this capital came from a Paycheck Protection Program loan (which Belot applied for and received early), some came from Belot's personal retirement account. She believes her financial sacrifice was worth it, because it kept her students dancing, her staff employed and her traditions alive through an extremely challenging season.

Belot's investment also ensured that it was a seamless experience for families. "There were fewer hiccups than I expected," she says. "We were quite prepared."

Feedback from families—on both the experience and the final product—was overwhelmingly positive. "I saw so much care and devotion in those videos from our dancers and families," says Belot. It's fair to say that her families felt her care and devotion, too—and that she will see the fruits of her investment in years to come.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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