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Thriving in the New Normal

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Call it the year of the improv.

Samantha Bower runs a family theater, a Broadway-focused performing group, and a dance studio with a large musical theater program in Sudbury, Massachusetts. This summer, when in-person education resumed but COVID-restrictions suggested that choruses shouldn’t sing and actors couldn’t touch, Samm knew the show must go on—but how?

“I’m an entrepreneur and this is what I thrive on. We are in a crisis and we have to solve problems and make things work,” says Samm, owner and artistic director of The Performing Arts Connection. “It’s knowing at the end of the day that I can’t just quit. I’ve worked too long and hard for some pandemic to take it all away.”

Teaching dance in social distancing squares might have its limitations, but studio owners who offer activities besides dance had additional challenges. How do you virtually rehearse a play? Coordinate a wind ensemble over Zoom? Spot an aerial from six feet away?

Samm’s initial thoughts of “Oh no, we can’t do this,” exacerbated by unclear state guidelines (Are we a youth sport? Are we martial arts? Are we a gym?), disappeared as she put her rethought-out program in action. Directors could block a musical and keep kids six feet apart. Students could read lines while wearing masks. Unable to touch props, students could mime. Without fancy sets or multiple costume changes, Samm still provided her students with a great theater experience. “We gave every child his or her moment. That’s what it’s all about,” she says.

Read on to learn how four studio owners reached into their own reserves of creativity to provide great experiences in theater, music, gymnastics, preschool, and cheer for their clients.

Nina Tishkevich is first and foremost a musician.

Throughout the spring shutdown and subsequent summer and fall reopening, her main concern was retaining the high-quality education Music & Dance Academy in Tucson, Arizona, has long provided its students. “We knew online classes have less personal interaction, so we tried to give more value,” she says of their music classes. Zoom lessons were recorded, allowing students to re-watch and practice the lesson again and again. Supplemental instruction included music-based interactive story times where young students could sing or play along, and pre-recorded educational videos for different age groups. Since a parent’s encouragement and support is a large part of a successful music student, Nina says, music parents received written articles via email and “parent training” sessions with faculty on Zoom or by phone.

While vocal or instrumental solo lessons were Zoom-friendly, it was trickier to transfer group music classes online. As a chorus works to perfect harmonies or a string ensemble a symphonic blend, it’s imperative that students hear each other in real time. The studio made a major financial investment in technology such as TVs, amplifiers, microphones, and cameras, and Nina invested time and money to train her teachers to adapt to online instruction. Pre-recording piano accompaniments and student headphone use worked to mitigate online lag-times and audio quality. 

As changes were made, Nina increased communication to parents, including sending out (and acting upon) surveys, and personal phone calls. “We are a big school but we try not to be big business,” she says. “When the director calls you to ask, ‘How are things going? Do you need any help?’ it’s a big deal.”

Nina’s long-term plan had been to switch her music program to a year-round schedule in 2020-21 and raise tuition accordingly for the extra weeks of instruction. Despite COVID, she did both. “We sent an email saying beginning August 1, tuition will be this,” she says. “We heard back from two parents—they questioned why, then said it was fine.” Throughout everything, her music program’s retention rate was 95 percent. Surprisingly, when the academy resumed in-studio private classes August 17, most of her music students opted to keep learning via Zoom. 

During the summer, Arizona COVID numbers “were a nightmare,” she says—about 60 percent of her dancers also choose the online option. “We can keep our distance now. That’s OK with me,” she says. She’s still planning two outdoor recitals for the fall—she’ll just roll a couple pianos outside. When the academy’s 25th anniversary all-school gala planned for March was cancelled, Nina held a “red carpet” recital for her dancers. Her music students’ live streamed performances lasted nine hours over two days. Graduating senior musicians are still being showcased in traditional solo recitals—only now they’re live streamed to as many as 25 family and friends. “It’s important for people to see the results of all the students’ hard work,” Nina says.

Southern Cheer Elite and Bloom Fine Arts Preschool,

two businesses in Lyman, South Carolina, closed for nine weeks this spring although, technically, they could have remained open. “Preschools here never closed,” Lindsay McKenna, co-owner with Amber Brackett, says. “Dance studios were considered essential businesses. I don’t regret closing, and we were able to open a lot sooner than studios elsewhere.” This summer, with studio enrollment down 25 percent from pre-COVID levels, having a preschool program “saved our business,” Lindsay says. With its building already open mornings for its preschool, the studio easily welcomed in 24 kindergarten through seventh grade students for their Learning Hub online schooling. Amber shifted her day-to-day duties to focus on the Learning Hub, assisted by one of the studio’s gymnastic coaches, a college elementary education major.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” Lindsay says. “We spent about $100 on Facebook ads, but we actually did very little marketing—most of the Learning Hub kids are current or former students.” Adding to the revenue stream was Southern Cheer’s decision to open the season six weeks earlier than the previous, a move that meshed perfectly with the studio’s plan to expand into a year-round program.

 “COVID gave us a logistical reason to start sooner: ‘We missed you and we know you want your kids to come back to class and back to normal’,” Lindsay says. “We played that card the whole way through.” Cheer and tumbling parents were polled to gauge their comfort levels with hands-on spotting and team stunts. While parents of private students wanted coaches to spot, most group classes remained hands-off. Cheer routines were adapted to eliminate contact.

Both Bloom Fine Arts and Southern Cheer followed safety recommendations, such as temperature checks and social distancing spots. But realizing there isn’t a tape square in the world that can stop an energetic three-year-old, the owners upped the preschool’s already high standard of cleanliness and have been meticulous about hand washing. The preschool also reduced its maximum enrollment from 14 to 12 a class.

Never a program that relied on fancy equipment, Southern Cheer classes were modified to reduce tumbling runs in favor of stations where students individually work on specific acrobatic and strength skills. Stations are cleaned after each rotation. With no time wasted waiting to take turns, Southern Cheer students are becoming stronger, better athletes. “This is something we are going to keep in our curriculum moving forward even after we are safe and can resume those other activities,” she says.

While being in the low-restriction state of South Carolina made some things easier, it also meant that Southern Cheer and Bloom Fine Arts had to lead the way. “It was scary to be first, but we just put one foot in front of the other, Lindsay says. “We have very loyal families, and others have become more loyal when they saw how we handled everything.”

At Kidz-In-Step Dance & Gym in covington, Georgia,

Jennifer Andrews-Smith’s gymnastics program is cruising. During eight weeks of Zoom classes last spring, she experienced “a ton of drops,” but her in-studio summer gym program filled right up and stayed filled as she moved into fall. “I feel very fortunate,” she says, adding that her dance enrollment is still slightly down.

She’s made very few modifications. When she opened 17 years ago, Jennifer capped gym class enrollment at 10 students based upon comments she had been hearing from parents about other local gym programs. “They wanted a more personal environment, not multiple classes in a big open gym, with the radio playing inappropriate songs for the teens” taking class in the same space,” she says. Today her gym program runs classes from Mommy and Me through high school, including a tumbling team that competes. The gym runs four classes four nights a week, with 10 kids in a class, and fall classes were completely sold out. 

Other than wearing masks, her instructors are teaching class the same as always. Equipment gets wiped down in between classes, and hand sanitizer is ubiquitous, but since Georgia hasn’t mandated masks, mask wearing for students is voluntary. When in-person classes resumed, Jennifer was careful to communicate gym safety measures to parents, but now that’s “not the message I’m sending. We’re carrying on doing our thing. I feel the parents can see what we’re doing and they are OK with it. I haven’t had one complaint.”

THE PERFORMING ARTS CONNECTIon finds a way.

Every single aspect of Samm’s summer musical theater program, including weekly workshops of shows such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Aristocats,” underwent a COVID revision. She maxed class enrollment at 10, which reduced her usual revenues by half. With a tiny backstage area, she nixed entrances and exits and instead directed students to stay onstage for the entire musical with a chair as their “home base.” That led to other creative directing choices: during a scene written for two actors, the others would be employed as background extras; songs written for leads became production numbers. Each child had one costume with a few changeable accessories that “lived” on their home-base chair—no one else touched it. Not your usual “High School Musical,” but a personalized experience for each child.

Moving into the fall, Samm had a cast of 100 working on “Moana Jr.” with an emphasis on acting and dancing. Early in the pandemic, choral singing was believed to be a super-spreader, and while Samm stays current on ongoing research regarding singing and COVID exposure, “The good thing is that we can sing karaoke at home and record it,” she says. For theater-based programs that must pay hefty royalties, loss of ticket sales from reduced audience sizes can be financially devastating. Samm’s summer productions invited only one spectator per student. To absorb that revenue drop and a less-than-usual fall enrollment, “Moana Jr.” featured simplified costumes (basic black, plus a colorful lei) and minimalistic sets and lighting.                         

It may not be business as usual, but at this point Samm is proud that she’s been able to keep her team employed, parents happy, and kids learning. “It’s been interesting to see how adaptable we are,” she says. “When you are thrown into this you might as well do it with joy and make it fun!”

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