Pilobolus’ Pivot: Inside the Company’s New Digital Classes for Older Adults

How the company known for testing the limits of physical prowess parlayed its brand into programming for older adults—and a new digital revenue stream.

Pilobolus performs in dark blue leotards for the women and shorts for the men. Several men kneel on the ground, lifting women above their heads with legs extended into splits.
Pilobolus is a dance company known for its feats of gravity-defying balance. Now, they’re helping older adults find balance through digital programming. Photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy Pilobolus

Pilobolus is known for its feats of gravity-defying balance, with chiseled bodies twisted in striking superhuman formations.

It’s a unique brand for the 50-year-old dance company, and not one you’d expect could be parlayed into programming—and a source of revenue—for older adults.

Enter Connecting With Balance, a movement class developed by Pilobolus veteran Emily Kent that combines dance, tai chi and physical therapy, and is aimed at helping adults over 65 improve balance and stability. Though the program began in 2014 with in-person classes, with the pandemic it went full-fledged digital—adding a new revenue stream for the company.  

A Growing Demographic

While it’s common for dance companies to earn revenue from a school or open classes, those programs are typically geared toward young dancers.

“Before 2014, we had taught kids, and nondancers, but never had anything specifically for older adults,” says Kent, who is the education director for Pilobolus. “I thought, How can we serve this population?”

A group of older women dance with their arms raised, as several other look on from chairs. They are in a large room with a big window, with a blurred tree in the background.
A pre-COVID Connecting With Balance class. Photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy Pilobolus

It’s hard to get people to take on new exercise programs, especially later in life. So Kent focused on the risk older adults face from falling—the CDC estimates that 36 million of them fall every year—as a hook in developing and marketing the class in a crowded field of fitness options.

While Kent’s class isn’t strictly dance, it has roots in the Pilobolus ethos and builds on its trusted brand. The class involves simple movements that develop balance, stability and mobility, often imitating everyday activities, such as reaching to move a chair or balancing a plate while moving.

“Pilobolus was founded by nondancers,” says Kent. “We are not just technicians who can repeat, but we have diverse movement backgrounds and can improvise and explore. This class is an extension of that.”

Going Digital

The in-person class first got off the ground in 2014 with funding from Pilobolus’ home state of Connecticut, which mostly covered the operating costs and kept the class price minimal. Kent would teach in sessions of eight to 12 weeks at a time, at senior and community centers and while on the road with the company. But as COVID-19 disrupted the in-person program last year, Kent was tasked with finding a way to keep it going—and covering the associated costs.

Her first step was to film a series of nine classes students could work with on their own time: three each of beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

“Students have long been asking me how they can continue their balance practice at home. We tried brochure-sized cards with moves and descriptions, we tried booklets with photos and descriptions. Nothing really worked,“ says Kent. “We finally had the time for a video solution.”

Pilobolus secured funds from local foundations to cover filming, then released the videos for $150 for the entire series and $60 for the beginner classes. To date, the company has sold over 100 downloads, 49 of the beginner series and 62 of the full suite.

Kent also offers two weekly classes on Zoom, which currently attract around 20 students per class, and go for $15 for a single class, $55 for four classes and $105 for eight. Pilobolus marketed the classes to presenting organizations whose programming was on hold due to the pandemic, some of whom asked Kent to teach classes for their own audiences.

Finding New Audiences

Though social media marketing was once thought of as a way to reach young people, today half of adults over the age of 65 are on Facebook, the most popular platform for that demographic. Pilobolus took advantage of the platform’s ad-targeting capabilities to reach users 55 and older. In the first two months of 2021, the ads brought nearly 150,000 video views and nearly 10,000 clicks at a cost of about 19 cents per click. They also brought new sign-ups to Pilobolus’ email list.

“We know video viewers are excellent retargeting prospects,” says Pilobolus’ general manager, Anna Bate. “So in addition to hitting them with this particular wave of marketing, it’s also a way of cultivating a better targeting pool that we can focus our spending on in the future for similar programs.”

Since the Facebook ads take users to Pilobolus’ website and the sales are on Square, Bate can’t say exactly how many sales are attributed to the ads. But during the period of the roughly $1,900 ad buy, sales were nearly $8,500.

The Future of Connecting With Balance

Bate’s next marketing idea is a “try before you buy” special, offering free access to one of the intermediate classes as a way to encourage people to buy the series or continue with Zoom classes.

But already the program has become a solid new diversified revenue stream for Pilobolus (before, it had mostly been supported through a single grant), and Kent estimates that she is reaching triple the students since launching the digital offerings.

There is more work to be done to expand the reach of the class, though, since the Zoom classes can accommodate more people and the recorded videos have more potential to continue selling as a somewhat passive revenue stream. Kent also envisions making the class into a certification program that can train other teachers.

“There’s only so much I can do, with the other classes I teach and work I do with Pilobolus,” says Kent. “I really see this as something that can grow, because every older adult needs better balance.”

The class’s pivot to digital has also been a learning experience for Pilobolus, whose marketing has previously been focused on performances and not on social media.

“It’s been interesting for us to learn how to market something different than our norm,” says Bate. “It’s something that will continue beyond the pandemic.”

Avichai Scher is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times and NBC News.