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The New Landscape of Dance Competitions

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It was the crash heard ‘round the country. In mid-March, competitive teams were focused on typical worries about late-arriving costumes or injured dancers when COVID brought the season to an unexpected and unsettling halt. “We went to one comp in February and never thought it would be the last of the season,” says Meghan Dunn Gordon of Velocity Dance Center in Oklahoma City. “Our kids had worked hard and done well, so at least it was a high note.”

That team was lucky. Many others never made it onstage, leaving costumes unworn, choreography unshown, dancers upset, and parents wondering what happened to their hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in fees and expenses. Summer 2020 came and went with most theaters and auditoriums still closed and restrictions still in place. What would the 2020-21 competitive season look like? How do you possibly plan for the unknown?

Amber Oslin Huffman of The Dance Complex in Maple Grove, Minnesota, realized the pandemic pause was the perfect time “to pump the brakes and look at what we are doing, what is necessary, and what is not,” she says. “Is our team program going in the direction we want, or are things just happening to us?” Meghan agreed. “This has forced us to make decisions. Rather than ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,’ we’re looking at what’s best.” Diamond School of Dance owner Alicia Knopps looked at how other youth activities in her community of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, were “dropping the ball,” and decided that what her team dancers needed most in these uncertain times was consistency. “I have moved mountains to keep everything the same as possible from auditions to summer intensive,” she says. “I feel everything we have done will be appreciated later.”

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In this strangest of seasons, winning might not involve trophies at all. Let’s take a look at these three teams’ strategies for success.

Participating in competitions isn’t cheap, even in a regular season, but for many studios and parents last season felt like a complete financial loss. Would parents spooked by the possibility of a second shutdown balk at this year’s competition costs? Her team families were hit hard by COVID shutdowns, Meghan says, and she wanted to know where they stood before making decisions. At several roundtable meetings she learned that “they felt they had made a large investment and were not done with last year’s dances.” In response, she decided to re-block and repeat last year’s entries, with each group getting one new dance only. 

Her families’ fiscally conservative stance also impacted tuition: Velocity offers two pricing plans, and this year about 65 percent went with the “basic class pass,” while in previous years, about 80 percent chose the pricier “all class pass.” By restructuring team levels and combining classes, Meghan was able to cut multiple classes off her payroll. She also restructured her teams’ 12-month payment plan to ease her families’ monthly burden—this season, she’s collecting competition fees earlier and in smaller installments, holding them in escrow and paying out to competitions only if it seems certain the events are a go.

Meghan usually plans her entire upcoming season in June to provide dates and events to parents well in advance. This year after securing a promise from parents to remain flexible, she planned a non-traditional schedule of early-season events—with everything subject to change—and announced a company fee increase for the 2021-22 season which allows her clients a year to prepare. “I’m being very transparent with the good, the bad, and the ugly, and our parents are trusting us to make the best decisions possible,” she says.

At Diamond, the greatest number of Zoom gripes came from team parents, who pay the highest tuition bills and “didn’t feel online classes were worth the value,” Alicia says. Many dropped, and by her May team parent meeting, Alicia knew she had to meet the situation head-on. “I knew I needed a rock-solid plan that offered stability” and would allay parents’ fears. Her plan had three major points: a cancellation (not a refund) policy, which allows dancers to stop tuition with one month’s notice; the studio’s willingness to purchase technology that would enhance any future Zoom experiences; and an extension of the traditional season by two weeks to absorb any potential short-term shutdowns.

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Teching-out the studio was a major expense. All four of Alicia’s classroom spaces now have livestreaming capabilities and wide-screen TVs. Teacher lapel mics and audio mixers guarantee quality sound, and cameras that hang from the middle of the studio provide a “student-eyed” view. “I also promised we’d only attend competitions that offered 100 percent refunds,” she says. “I made the season easy and risk-free—the only risk was costumes, and I promised to put on some kind of performance where the kids could wear them.” It seems to have worked. In early September her studio’s enrollment was down 200 (from 700 to 500) from pre-COVID, but her team was at 120, only about 20 students less than last season. “Fear is holding people back right now. They don’t want to sign up for something and lose money,” Alicia says.

Last March 7-9, Amber’s 150 Dance Complex team members were on a high after a successful showing at Kids Artistic Revue (KAR) Dance Competition. By the following weekend, in-person events had vanished—yet with KAR videos of all 220 entries in hand, Amber was able to enter her team in several of the online competitions (Radix, New York City Dance Alliance) that sprung up in response to COVID shutdowns. 

She was impressed with how competitions adapted to an online format, and when Hall of Fame announced an in-person event with separate time slots for individual studios and strict cleaning protocols, she brought 11 soloists to try that format as well. “Those families were agreeable to try this event no matter what it looked like,” Amber says. “We all felt this was one of the most normal things our dancers did all summer long. We were able to go back to the full team and say, ‘We’ve done it, and we can give you insight into how it runs.’” 

With those experiences, Amber made a commitment to her team families for a full, traditional season—all new numbers, no skimping on costumes. She moved auditions up to mid-July, held a two-week intensive, promised to attend “refund-only” events, and laid out this season’s truth as she saw it: “I have plans, but they are fluid; to participate you must agree to be fluid, too.” Parents responded, and her team is up about 11 members from last season. Amber felt it was best to attack the uncertainty of this coming season head-on too. “I didn’t want to make plans based on current restrictions, ‘cause they could change again,” says Amber, who has one team dancer who plans to Zoom in for all classes and rehearsals. “Instead, we are going to proceed forward as if this is a normal year and pivot around obstacles as they come at us.”

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Within the competitive team environment, this year has offered up unique circumstances as well as unexpected gifts. “Just managing emotions and people’s feelings has been challenging,” Meghan says. Some team dancers are living their lives like normal, while others have barely left their houses since March. Pandemic-shocked clients seem prone to bursts of anger, plus an unusual level of confusion. “It’s like they even forgot how to read the company calendar,” Meghan says, adding that on the plus side, typical team dramas over levels and rules have disappeared. “Everyone is overwhelmed and just trying to navigate all this.”

Alicia agreed. “We have been extremely organized with parents because our world is in chaos,” she says. Her conversations with competition companies—one that hemmed and hawed about possible closure refunds, another that promised an immediate check in the mail—helped her understand what her own customers were feeling. “If a team dancer wants to drop because they are afraid of COVID, maybe we’ll suggest they just do a solo,” Alicia says. “Giving people freedom of choice and saying we’ll work with them is better than letting them walk out the door.”

Amber assisted her team parents in the creation of a booster club, hopeful that its fundraising efforts will help ease their financial burden. She’s gotten in the habit of “over-communicating,” sending out reassuring emails even when she doesn’t have any new info to impart or explaining the evolving nature of live versus virtual events. “It’s less scary and stressful if they’re fully prepared for anything,” she says.

Meghan says, facing this year’s challenges is forcing her to become a better leader. She’s firmer—“Literally it’s ‘if you wear a mask, you can come to class; if not, you’ll have to dance on Zoom’”—and she can better diffuse clients’ anger about such decisions. Also, with class-size restrictions forcing decisions, she didn’t miss the endless hours she and her staff normally would spend agonizing over putting the team in “perfect groups.” “Maybe I’ll always do levels like this,” she says.

“Surprisingly, this has enabled us to be bold and make hard choices because life itself is already hard,” says Alicia, who cut ties with a team parent who complained that the 200-plus classes Diamond offered online weren’t free. Alicia’s also made tough decisions on spending (gone are her studio’s beautiful brochures) and staffing (she’s handling front desk duties herself). “Before when things were OK maybe you didn’t want to rock the boat, but now I’ve gone through this and I’m willing to walk this new path.” 

With the competitions themselves still learning how to navigate a new normal, Alicia is confident this season will provide plenty of positive experiences for her dancers, staff, and parents. “My teachers are figuring out how to do cool competition choreography with no touching,” she says. “I’m not sitting back and just surviving—I want to get back to thriving. We’re doing all we can to come out of this without missing a beat.”

At Velocity, Meghan is considering second-wave shutdown plans such as buying a stage for outdoor performances or partnering with another studio and flying in (or Zooming in!) judges to adjudicate entries. She’s also thinking up creative replacements for traditional team social events such as pool parties. “I’m trying to show the dancers things can be hard and different, but here’s what we’re learning about resilience and flexibility,” she says.

While this season will no doubt be different, Amber admitted that “there has to be a season or competitions will close. We as dance educators have to decide—do we want opportunities to compete in the future, or do we want to sit at home?”

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