A Year Into COVID-19, What Are the Biggest Lessons for Dance Businesses?

6 dance business leaders on what they’ve learned in the past year, and what they’re changing for the long haul.

Months with no revenue. Pivoting to digital content and programming. Constantly changing restrictions on how to operate. The responsibility of keeping customers and students safe and healthy. These are just a few of the challenges dance businesses have faced during the coronavirus pandemic, many of them unimaginable a year ago when it began.

Yet dance business owners are creators at heart, finding ways to soldier on and learning sometimes-tough lessons along the way. Dance Business Weekly asked leaders from a variety of dance businesses what they’ve learned one year out, and how their businesses have changed for good.

  1. Community-building is key
A Zoom screenshot of 10 women dancing in their homes.
A Ballet Spot virtual event. Photo courtesy The Ballet Spot

“Since we’ve gone digital, we’ve gone from 32 classes a week to 100 classes a week. So there’s more people in our community now, and they’re taking more classes. We’re a place where people who love ballet can connect, and we wanted to keep that going as we grew virtually.

“We started free virtual happy hours with our community with a ballet theme every month. It’s an educational and fun experience. We do a ‘performance’ of a 60-second combination based on the ballet of the month. All of this is about the community, being friendly and knowing everyone who comes. That’s how we can differentiate ourselves with all the noise of virtual classes.”—Eliza S. Tollett, founder and owner of The Ballet Spot, a ballet-class–based workout studio and brand.

  1. Customer service comes first

“When the pandemic hit a year ago, we had to cancel everything. But I had already ordered over 5,000 costumes for all the competitions and shows we were planning to do. About 20 percent of parents said they didn’t understand why I had already ordered the costumes, wanted a refund and threatened to take me to court. I couldn’t get refunds from the costume company, so I decided to pay them back on my own.

“The refunds really kicked my butt, but I did it to save face and keep a good business name. This is my 18th year in business. I was not willing to lose that over a bad Google review or angry parent.

“Since we’ve been able to open again, there are fewer students who feel comfortable coming back, but they’re all happy to be dancing. I don’t even look at my numbers now. I just focus on getting by and seeing the joy of the kids dancing. That’s what matters.”—Tamara Whitehead, founder,owner, director, and choreographer of Triple 7 Dance Studio.

  1. Online classes are here to stay
A Zoom screenshot of 25 people, many of them older adults, dancing in their homes. Some sit and some stand; all have their arms outstretched above them.
A Dance for PD virtual class. Photo courtesy Dance for PD

“For people with Parkinson’s disease, our classes are a way to keep moving and be social. While we can’t offer the physical support of our in-person classes over Zoom, there’s been so many benefits. People who struggled to get to us in person can now participate from home. We’ve had new people join from around the world where classes for people with PD are not available. Some people don’t want to be public about their PD, so now they can join our classes with their camera off. They often feel comfortable over time and turn their cameras on and meet others.

“Our business model relies on various funders as our classes are free. But we’ve found that people participating are contributing more over Zoom than they did in person and are also becoming part of our membership program, which now has a lot more digital content for them to access. Virtual classes will continue for us in a hybrid model, even when in-person resumes.”—David Leventhal, founding teacher and program director of Dance for PD

  1. Nothing can replace touch and personal attention
Jennifer Babb, a white woman with dark hair, stands in front of a wall of pointe shoes in boxes, holding onto a barre and smiling.
Jennifer Babb. Photo courtesy Babb

“Last March and April, my store stayed open, but we had no customers coming in for weeks. I used the time to get my online store up, thinking that made the most sense. I had some orders, but it didn’t really take off.

“When things opened up more in June, people started coming back. If the store was crowded, they’d wait at the muffin shop next door until it was safe. They wanted to be in the store, touch the fabrics, try things on, ask questions. That’s what makes the store special.” —Jennifer Babb, owner of Dancers’ Boutique in Williamsburg, VA

  1. Embrace the opportunity of uncertainty
Two masked dancers in red leotards stand behind a masked teacher, watching as he demonstrates.
An Intrigue micro convention. Photo courtesy Intrigue

“Our conventions are in big hotel spaces and are planned far in advance. This past year, we’ve had to pivot 5,000 times. We started with all virtual, working 20 hours a day in our warehouse space to create a unique experience online. Eventually, we came up with micro conventions, where we go to studios and produce an event there, transform their space with lighting and bring our faculty. In some states, we’ve been able to host conventions at hotels, so we’ve had to figure out how to do those safely. We’ve had to get comfortable with booking them late.

“I think the success of the micro conventions has been the biggest upside. They are more intimate; the dancers can be seen by the faculty. I’ve been able to chat with teachers and see what their stories and struggles have been like. It’s not as competitive and, in some ways, more enjoyable.” —Kevin Aubin, creative director of Intrigue Dance Intensive

  1. You can do more on your own than you think
A large room with lots of tables and sewing equipment. Women in masks sit at the tables, hard at work.
Behind-the-scenes at Elevé Dancewear. Photo courtesy Elevé Dancewear

“The uncertainty of the pandemic pushed us to take more control and do more in-house. We bought our own sublimation printer and heat press, which has made us less vulnerable to disruptions in other businesses. This way, we can do a super-small run on our own printer fabric and have less waste. We don’t have extra fabric lying around and other things we don’t need because we decided not to produce that style after an order came in. It was an investment and we’re still adjusting, but now we have more control over our business.”—Lisa Choules, founder and owner of Elevé Dancewear

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