Three studios hold outdoor classes: One makes a profit, one breaks even and one loses money. Here’s how they’re doing it, and why they all say it’s worth it.
With restrictions on gatherings still in place in many parts of the country, finding a way to keep classes running safely is very much at the top of studio owners’ minds. While hundreds have taken to online platforms like Zoom to stay in business during the pandemic, some school directors are finding that as social-distancing guidelines gradually lift, there’s another way to keep dancers engaged: outdoor dance classes.
But with small class sizes and the potential startup costs of creating an outdoor dance space, are outdoor classes a smart revenue move, too? We talked to three studios—one making a profit from outdoor classes, one breaking even and one losing money—about how to set up COVID-compliant outdoor classes and why each thinks they’re worth the morale boost.
Finding a Space, Setting the Stage
For Tara-Caprice Broadwater, director of Love2Dance in Novato, CA, the parking lot behind her studio was the perfect location for outdoor youth classes. “We’ve had to limit our dance styles to mostly urban jazz and hip hop—things you can do in tennis shoes on the asphalt,” she says. Though she doesn’t have to pay extra to use the lot, a fair amount of prep work went into it for the first day of classes. Broadwater and her husband spent three days zip-tying privacy screening to the chain-link fence, clearing out debris and posting signage around the area with social-distancing reminders. Her husband even created an outdoor handwashing station. The whole setup cost Broadwater a little over $3,000.
At Lake Tahoe Dance Collective in California, a portable stage purchased five years ago is now being put to use in a vacant lot across from a family’s house. The landowners were kind enough to let them use the land free of charge. “We gave the landowner proof of liability and added them to our insurance the same way we’d do if we performed at a theater,” says artistic director Christin Hanna. She brought portable barres from the studio and divided the stage into quarters so that each of the six dancers allowed in class can have their own taped-off section. She also taped off diagonal lines for across-the-floor.
When Lisa Collins Vidnovic decided to hold Metropolitan Ballet Academy’s 2020 summer intensive outside, she found the solution at a nearby Ukrainian church in Jenkintown, PA. “They have an outdoor stage that is really lovely,” she says. “It’s spacious, completely shaded and right up the street from us.” She does worry about the sustainability of paying double rent (for the outdoor stage and her home space), but is excited to have found a way to bring dancers together.
Considering the Costs
With class sizes limited to 10 in most places—and the potential added costs of creating or renting an outdoor space—the profitability of outdoor classes is not guaranteed. “It’s a fraction of the students we usually have,” says Collins Vidnovic. “It’s not going to be a revenue-positive situation.” She finds the classes worth the cost because they allow her to continue engaging her student body.
Broadwater had to raise her prices slightly to accommodate both the loss of income and the increased staffing needed to run outdoor classes. “We are definitely in a break-even situation, especially since we are playing catch-up on the lost income from the complete shutdown,” she says. Because classes are smaller, both Broadwater and Hanna have to offer more of them throughout the day. “There’s only so many hours in the day, and with only six students in each class, it’s hard,” says Hanna. She has been able to stay in the black, though, through a pay-what-you-can sliding scale of $0 to $20. “We have families who have been paying $20, which is more than our regular per-class tuition, but they want to support us and make sure we’re still around,” she says. “It has enabled us to have an income and still pay our rent at our regular studio that sits empty.”
Keeping registration fair has also been a challenge. For MBA’s summer intensive, Collins Vidnovic gave families a heads-up that it would be first-come first-serve. Within four minutes of opening registration, classes were completely full. Hanna requires that everyone register for every class ahead of time, and she takes a credit-card number so she can charge $10 for no-shows. At Love2Dance, where outdoor classes are capped at 4 to 12 dancers, depending on their age, Broadwater gave priority registration to students who had the studio’s new Zoom class membership, but may explore other registration models if outdoor classes continue through the fall.
Keeping Classes COVID-Compliant
Despite being outside, it’s still necessary to take precautions to quash the spread of COVID-19. All three organizations implemented rigorous cleaning procedures and safety checks to keep their outdoor classes as safe as possible.
Broadwater requires teachers and dancers to do a temperature check and wash their hands upon arrival. She’s made signs and videos detailing cleaning procedures, so families are apprised of the protocols. A professional cleaning service cleans the dance space after each class. For summer camps, she ordered individual bags of props for each kid, so they won’t have to share.
At MBA, Collins Vidnovic has a parent volunteer for every class session. “I wanted an extra set of eyes on the class to make sure we’re doing what we need to at all times,” she says. Each student has a number and a designated spot at the barre. She leaves half an hour between each class to sanitize the space.
Best Practices for Dancing Outside
With weather to consider, having a backup plan is a must. “If it rains, we have to show up on Zoom. If there’s extreme heat, we’ll Zoom,” says Collins Vidnovic. Likewise, Hanna says she’s never looked at the weather app on her phone so much. “I basically have to understand where the sun is at every time of the day,” she says. “Cloudy in 63 degrees is very different from sunny in 63 degrees. I have had classes where we had to do jumping jacks at the beginning before we could start barre.”
Teaching under these circumstances is drastically different, as well—especially without a mirror, a logistical challenge to include in an outdoor space that none of these studios chose to tackle. Without a mirror, students have to rely more on auditory feedback and less on the visual.
In addition to the “how,” the “what” may need to change, too. “You have to be aware of what you can do safely,” says Broadwater, “Since we’re on asphalt, we can’t do the groundwork. All students stay in tennis shoes. Because of COVID, you can’t do partner work or lifts.”
Why It’s Worth It
After months of social isolation, the response to outdoor classes has been extremely positive for these studios. Though not all of them have been profitable, they consider the classes well worth the time, energy and money spent to operate, because they have maintained connection to their community during an especially difficult time. “I’d like to continue working outdoors as long as possible,” says Collins Vidnovic, who says the fresh air and ability to be together has done wonders for her teen dancers. Broadwater agrees: “I definitely think it’s worth doing to maintain a sense of connection to your students and families. The students really appreciate it.”
5 Tips for Running Outdoor Classes
- Make sure you’re covered. “Different counties have different requirements for running outdoor classes,” says Broadwater. “Check into your liability insurance and find out the advice of your local government.”
- Have a detailed liability waiver that includes COVID-specific language. “You have to have a written plan of what you’d do if someone gets sick,” says Broadwater.
- Get volunteers. Parents and older students may be willing to help with cleaning procedures, demo-ing or even admin work.
- Shorten and stagger classes. Fewer students per class means more classes per day. Pace yourself!
- Be flexible. Have a backup plan for changes in the weather and sick teachers. Don’t be afraid to supplement outdoor classes with online classes.
Rachel Caldwell is a dance teacher and writer based in Berkeley, CA.