Why Off-Screen Student Engagement Is the New Essential Customer-Service Strategy

Zoom fatigue is real. Finding ways to engage your students that don’t involve a screen will keep both students and parents happy—and show the value of your business.

Dozens of colorful paper hearts taped in the window of a dance studio
Melanie Gibbs mailed care packages to students, including paper hearts for them to decorate and send back. She then displayed them in her studio windows. Photo courtesy of Gibbs

The value of online curriculum demonstrated during the past months of studio closures is undisputed. In fact, some studios plan to continue some level of online offerings even after they reopen their doors. But Zoom fatigue is real: Students and parents alike can tire of interacting through a screen and may be craving other ways of staying connected. If your area is highly impacted by the virus and you are unable to reopen anytime soon, you’ll need to find other ways to engage your students that don’t involve staring at a screen. 

We spoke to three studio owners who’ve implemented nonscreen activities about how they did it. These aren’t just strategies for keeping customers happy and engaged, but also key to retaining summer revenue—and giving parents a good reason to re-enroll their kids for the fall. 

Mail a care package of home props and activities. 

Melanie Gibbs, owner of Signature Studios Florida, which has three locations in South Florida, mailed what she calls “love packages” to each of her students, segmented by age. Preschoolers received items like beanbags and scarves, and advanced students got TheraBands and information on how to use them. All students received a paper heart, which they personalized and mailed back to be displayed on the window of their studio.

Gibbs’ staff is using many of these items as props during online classes, but she says that the students are also engaging with them after class—little ones play music and dance around the house with their scarves; older students practice their TheraBand exercises. “Now instead of them just coming to the studio on their dance day, they are dancing with us all week long,” says Gibbs. That deeper incorporation of dance into students’ daily lives can only mean good news for student retention and longevity. 

A young girl (maybe 4) smiles and holds a bean bag and a piece on paper.
One of Gibbs’ students with her love package. Photo courtesy Gibbs

Though significant labor went into these mailings, Gibbs saw it as a way to refocus her staff’s efforts, since there were no longer any in-person classes to manage. Where studio staff once spent time greeting students entering the lobby and helping them get settled and ready for their classes, they now channeled that time—and sense of human connection—into the love packages. 

Considering Gibbs recently spent nearly $80,000 in refunds for her cancelled recital packages, she might have balked at the cost of sending out props, but she considers it a smart investment in her business. “I’m a big believer in an abundance mindset,” says Gibbs. “It’s so tempting to go back to that scarcity mindset and hold on to your resources tightly. Obviously we’re being smart about our expenses, but it was important to me to lean into abundance and invest in hope.”

Creative movement prompts can keep students of all ages dancing off-screen.

Katrena Cohea, owner of Different Drummer Dance in upstate New York, has been giving students what she calls “mantras,” that she instructs them to explore through movement; whether an improvisation, an established warm-up sequence, a sun salutation or an across-the-floor combination. These have the power to give dancers a new perspective they wouldn’t get in the studio, she says. Crafting prompts with care and intention will ensure that this exercise stays connected to your teaching and your expertise—an important distinction as you assert the value of this kind of work to parents.

Another option: Create audio-guided classes or prompts that older students can listen to in their headphones on their own time. (They might even choose to go outside!) To keep them connected to their teacher and each other, ask them to share written reflections on this experience or create short videos.

Getting fresh air might be the most powerful antidote to the too-much-screen-time blues.

While some studios may find ways to hold classes outdoors, pending reopening guidelines, weather and finding a safe space to dance, Alana Tillim, owner and director of Santa Barbara Dance Arts, has been exploring another creative outdoor option.  

Tillim has made site-specific dance videos for the past several years—but sees it as an even more relevant option now, since dancers can more easily and safely social-distance in an outdoor environment. Tillim partners with a local venue—like a community garden—and creates a piece around a theme. The last video they made before the pandemic now feels especially prescient—it explored the idea of seeing a loved one for the last time, included text lines like “I really value my health.” In past years themes have included body image and #MeToo. 

Tillim says that this messaging has also helped establish and communicate her studio’s culture and values, and has positioned her older students as inspirational for her younger ones.

These videos have also become useful advertisements for her studio, and give students a professional film of their dancing for their college and summer intensive applications.

A word of caution: As you give students nonscreen options, be careful not to demonize screen time.

Virtual classes will likely be a part of our lives—and your business plan—far into the future. And, as Tillim points out, students—teenagers especially—are likely to be on their screens whether they’re dancing or not. Better they be taking a virtual dance class than scrolling through Instagram or Snapchat, she says.

The bottom line: Offering nonscreen activities—even as you build and sustain your virtual class offerings—fills a clear need, allowing you to continue charging tuition, setting the stage for strong fall enrollment and differentiating you from competitors. 

Lauren Wingenroth is the editor in chief of Dance Business Weekly and Dance Teacher