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Staying Power: The Digital Studio

girl online education ballet class at home

The Great Dance Studio Shutdown of 2020 was, for many studio owners, an unprecedented nightmare.Some met the moment by offering a version of their in-person lessons online, then dialed back on virtual teaching as soon as occupancy restrictions allowed. Yet other studio owners discovered how to harness technology to enhance their studio offerings and even create previously unimagined revenue opportunities.

“As dance artists we have a unique ability to think creatively. Plug into your creative side and think big,” advises Neisha Hernandez, whose online offerings at Neisha’s Dance & Music Academy in San Diego range from a popular goal-setting program for recreational students to a virtual lecture by a sports psychologist for 100 company dancers. Let’s take a look at three studios with various budgets and tech know-how to see how each has found the awesome—and the longevity—in their online offerings.

Doing a lot with little

When the shutdown hit, Kristine Smith, CEO and co-founder of InSpira Performing Arts & Cultural Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, had just opened a second location in Newark February 1 and had little extra money to purchase fancy tech gadgetry. “My motto—and I say this a lot—is ‘find a way or make one,’” Kristine says. “I looked at what other studios did, and I wanted to do more, but it wasn’t in my budget. I had to do what worked for me.”

Relying on the technical know-how of her college-age twin daughters, Kristine’s initial shutdown strategy was to pre-record lessons that she uploaded to Vimeo or Google Classroom, but very quickly realized this system didn’t work for her clients, mostly Black and brown customers living in greater NY/NJ and hit hard by COVID.

Kristine pivoted to Zooming her entire class schedule, supplementing regular lessons with fun online extras such as a free daily storytime, Zoom dance parties (even with a DJ!), tea parties, and a mother-and-daughter paint party. While some stressed-out families did leave the studio, those who stayed appreciated her efforts to “lighten their load” and provide normalcy for their children, Kristine says.

When her 2020-21 season started in September, New Jersey’s maximum occupancy was 25 percent. Smith responded with a live/online hybrid of teams that switched off weekly: when “red” dancers attended class in person, the “purple” dancers would attend online. Students and staffers not comfortable with in-person instruction could take or teach class online only as part of the “blue” team.

This system—created with little financial expense—has been so successful that her website home page announces “The New HYBRID INSPIRA” in gigantic block type. It allowed Kristine to provide safety and comfort to a client base deeply scarred by living in the virus’s epicenter. After news of her studio’s hybrid model was shared on social media, dancers who reside out of driving distance, including those from southern New Jersey, Georgia, and Illinois, have enrolled and attend classes virtually.

A handful of parents balked at going hybrid, wanting a full return to the studio, but since Kristine and several faculty members lost close family members to COVID, safety was her number one priority. “I’m going to stay with this hybrid for the entire season,” she says, “but it’s also making me look at online as a potential new market.”

Tapping into tech’s potential

Last March when many studio owners were saying “What’s Zoom?,” tech-enthusiast Martin “Marty” Bronson anticipated a rush and purchased several quality webcams for Flourish Dance Academy in Carol Stream, Illinois.

As a tapper he believed great sound quality for online tap classes was imperative, but research turned up little usable info on how to achieve it. So Marty created a custom Zoom rig: a sizable rolling AV (audio-visual) cart with a large TV, computer, sound mixer, and wireless mic system.

It works wonderfully. The teacher’s vocal instructions are captured by the enhanced wireless handset (with rechargeable batteries) and fed through the USB mixer (a smaller version of the sort of professional-level mixer you might see at a concert) along with the music from his/her phone/laptop, delivering a balanced, consistent sound quality to students via Zoom. 

To train his teachers, Marty held multiple orientation sessions and recorded training videos, reiterating that good technical execution is not “just an extra thing they are being asked to do” but an essential function vital to the business’s continuing health. Within a week of its facility shutdown, Flourish was online and running smoothly. 

Yet for Marty, rethinking his studio in terms of tech has “opened up a world of possibilities we never imagined.” With no theaters available for his 2020 spring recital, Marty instead spent his regular recital budget on curtains, theatrical lighting, and livestream software, transforming one classroom into a black box theater space. 

For last winter’s recital, students’ performances were livestreamed for family at home from the black box using the webcams and audio purchased for COVID. The studio’s annual charity student showcase became a web series of dances and acting vignettes shared on social media. 

Performances can be recorded in HD and embellished with graphics and text from free OBS (Open Broadcaster Software ®) for a true professional look. “For a little money and a steep learning curve you can add tons of production value to your programs,” says Marty, who is in talks with several professional dancers about streaming/recording some of their work from his black box space.

By spring 2021, about 10 percent of Flourish students were still attending classes virtually, including two students who moved out of driving distance. Tech has allowed Marty to offer increased value to his current clients through providing private lessons and Zooming in guest teachers, and he believes it will continue to work to attract new clients: future marketing plans for Flourish will highlight the studio’s “live virtual” classes, he says.

This goal clearly answers the first question of what. It is clear, measurable, and you’ll know if you have succeeded or not at the end of the year. But it seems like a pretty massive idea, so it needs to be pulled apart into smaller steps in order to be achievable.

The great outdoors

When the shutdown struck, Neisha and her tech-wiz husband Bernard made an “instant” decision to Zoom the studio’s entire schedule of dance and music classes, and quickly bought five laptops and HD/wide angle webcams.

When in-person classes resumed for the 2020-21 season, that equipment was supplemented with Bluetooth speakers and headsets with mics and moved outdoors to five tents erected as outdoor classrooms in the Southern California studio’s parking lot. Ethernet cables bypass the uncertain Wi-Fi service and assure that both music and teacher’s comments patched directly into the online Zoom feeds are heard clearly by virtual students.

Realizing that any technology used in the outdoor tents would have to be set up and broken down every day, Neisha and Bernard kept the systems as simple as possible. A crew of three young men hired and trained by Bernard handle the setup/breakdown as well as the fans/heaters, lighting systems, tarps, and flooring at use in the outdoor classrooms—both say they are proud of these new tech-based jobs that didn’t exist pre-pandemic.

With imagination and open minds, Neisha and Bernard have thought of endless ways to exploit their studio’s new tech capabilities. The “Dance is My Passion” 30-day challenge, adapted from an idea suggested by another MTJGD™ member, was a rousing success. Twenty-five participants set dance-related goals and participated in both group and one-on-one virtual coaching sessions led by a studio teacher, sharing success stories and support through a dedicated Facebook page. “This was a way to re-engage students with our school,” Neisha says. “The kids gained confidence in themselves and bonded as a group. We will absolutely continue this in the future.”

Online programming included Princess Pop Up—students tuned in weekly to sing and dance with a popular “princess”—and Jingle Jam, a three-week session featuring 30-minutes of holiday-themed dancing. Both were hits with pandemic-weary parents uneasy about making long-term commitments—about half of the Jingle Jam participants were unregistered students, Neisha says.

With a tech-enabled studio, Neisha’s ability to hire subs and guest teachers has expanded from her local neighborhood to literally “the world.” This season her students have taken class from teachers hailing from Chicago, Northern California, Florida, Tennessee, and
even Japan.

Tech is here to stay

Neisha says her customers appreciate the freedom of virtual lessons: about five percent of her dance students are regular “onliners” with a handful who occasionally Zoom-in based on circumstances. “They can customize it to their lives—that’s why they are happy and staying,” she says, adding that her full music program is still online-only. The virtual recreational programming such as Jingle Jam “provides a whole revenue stream we didn’t have before,” she says. “I think digital offerings will become a part of everyday dance life,” Bernard added. “The tech is going to get better and easier for everyone to use. It creates the ability to reach more people, which is great for our whole studio.”

Marty’s advice for studio owners who intend to continue to offer online options is to update their technology to provide the best virtual experience possible. “A laptop in the corner of the room” won’t cut it, he says. And while he enjoys researching and learning about the latest tech, he appreciates that not all studio owners are so inclined. His suggestion? Search online for guides to setting up audio-visual systems—a quality system can be had for less than $1,000. If that’s an intimidating thought, seek out “good nerds” at your local music store or online tech-centric community who can offer advice.

“I’m psyched about this as an idea,” Marty says. “Once people get over their initial apprehensiveness, having a digital studio can only enhance our reach and improve
our engagement with customers.”

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