Is the dance studio sector having its digital disruption moment? As a confluence of pandemic and video streaming impacts the traditional market for dance classes, altering the dynamics of supply and demand, a new normal may be emerging before our eyes. Like the music industry before it, the grassroots dance community (and the studios that underpin it) may ultimately be required to reinvent old models of economy, as digitised and liberalised market forces sweep across the landscape.
Like society more broadly, the dance studio world is in a liminal space. Whilst a casualty-free ‘snapback’ seems unlikely, (given the history of market disturbances), the shape of things to come remains unknown. However, amidst the fever of uncertainty and speculation, the sector is undergoing a ‘root and branch’ review, asking itself existential questions which, a few months ago, would have seemed unnecessary.
Drilling through the layers, Nichola Hall, the National Marketing & Comms Manager for the Royal Academy of Dance, suggests, “This might lead to us having the conversation about what is quality dance teaching?”
In the new world of Zoom classes and celebrity-led video workshops, questions of pedagogy and duty of care are gaining traction. “What does it mean to teach a person through a screen,” Hall asks. “What are the skills that you need as an educator?”
Over the past couple of months the RAD have offered free sessions to support their members and the wider teaching community on this subject. They’ve talked practically about the platform most used – Zoom with tips on how to use break out spaces etc. They’ve also delivered tips on online dance pedagogy and interactive teaching strategies with the help of Dr Anja Ali Haapala, a dance researcher and teacher known for her work unpicking the intricacies of how people experience dance.
Yet, even as schools and trainers adapt to the tech, the studio ecosystem is confronting issues of ongoing viability. New players and product innovations will always disturb the balance of a marketplace but the abrupt, lockdown imposed shift to digital dance classes has introduced a moral hazard for studio operators.
Adelaide based owner (and former Ausdance SA President), Jo McDonald was initially enthused by the potential of online delivery. Her studio, Move Through Life, had signed up with Namastream just before the virus hit and, as a dancer, she was a keen participant in several online classes. “I love how the dance world has opened up and it’s wonderful what people are doing,” she explains, “but I just think people need to be aware of the impact some of this is having.”
As a classic suburban SME, Move Through Life has taken years to find and consolidate its niche. McDonald has struggled personally and financially to create a viable business that supports her in pursuit of her passion. She encapsulates the dilemma thus, “Studios who are trying to keep themselves open are now competing in a global market with people who are offering their product for free.”
Clearly, the entry of low and no cost options can serve to distort existing norms and, as a corollary, change customer expectation. “It’s like, if you open a new studio right near an existing studio and start offering classes for free, it has a negative impact,” McDonald argues. “Particularly when people who put out free classes are from funded companies and are being paid, because what they’re doing is undercutting…If you’re putting classes out there because you can afford to do so, it’s a very different situation to those who can’t. So, I can’t put classes out there for free because all my existing people will ask ‘why am I paying when you’re putting classes out there for free?’”
From Melbourne, professional dancer turned studio owner, Rain Francis, reflects upon the inherent hazard. “Studios have a moral responsibility to not take students from other dance schools,” she declares. “I can’t stand seeing schools poaching; and this comes down to culture. So, if schools are running online programmes, I think they have a responsibility to at least find out if that potential student is coming from another school.”
Although the pandemic has disrupted her businesses, (Rain & Lucky Academy of Dance and International Ballet Workshops), Francis remains sanguine, despite roughly 30% of her clients suspending their enrolments. “There’s nothing that compares to taking a class in real life,” she insists. “As teachers, we’re realising how hard it is to get the result you want from your kids [online]. Also, as a dancer, I’ve been taking some classes and, y’know, it’s really hard. It’s not engaging enough, no matter how great the teacher is. I find my attention wandering. So, I think it will be a novelty that will probably die off.”
Indeed, the “hands on” and communal aspects of dance training would appear hard, if not impossible to replicate through a screen. As Paul Malek, director of inner Melbourne campus Transit Dance observes, “Nothing will ever replace quality, face-to-face training. Perhaps, one day, we will work out a mixture of online resources and face-to-face; and find that balance.”
He adds, “Dance is about connecting and expressing, and also about shared experiences. You cannot do that through a screen alone in your bedroom, as you can in a studio or on a stage.”
Although Transit has not yet offered classes to the general online public, choosing instead to focus on its existing community, Malek jokes that he has “turned into a screen over the last six weeks.” The experience has us asking questions like, “how is a quality business structure for a great dance studio set up now, and what, in the end, is a great dance organisation?”
These are tricky but now essential questions for the grassroots dance sector, and by extension, the arts generally. For MTL’s Jo McDonald, the virus has shone a light on the psychology of the entire creative endeavour. “Artists need to change their mindset,” she contends. “Going from grant funding to giving away stuff for free is not helpful. People will pay. I’m perfectly happy to pay…But then I guess, people just want to share their passion, and maybe that’s the downfall of artists. They feel like money is dirty work. I mean, I’d love to get out there and offer classes and have 75 people log in. That’d be great; but realistically I can’t do that.”
Going forward, the dance studio ecosystem will be forced, like everyone else, to adjust. However, as the cycle of the disease plays out and governments shift their responses in and out of lockdown, the country’s 1.3 million dancers, (including 743k of them aged 6-13, 81% of whom take classes*), will not only need to be nimble but determined.
In light of this, the big brand clout of a century old institution like the Royal Academy of Dance may well be telling. Having already written to Ausdance National to advocate for the sector, RAD’s position is that the current viability crisis threatens long-term contagion. As Nichola Hall notes, “Not only, when you go as a toddler to your first lesson, do you fall in love with dance, but it’s the foundation for a wider love of arts and culture. The kids that come to class may never become ballerinas or dancers of any kind, but they do have an appreciation for the arts in the wider context and they are more likely to become the audiences of the future. At the moment, we’re cutting off that audience.”
This goes to the notion of community. Though we may be tired of the tokenistic jargon that floats around it, community and culture are likely to be critical to both individual studio and whole-of-sector survival.
“Our teachers are telling us they’re working very hard to keep their studio communities engaged and supported at this time; and there is a large cohort who are very committed,” Hall reveals. “However, there are also this group of people that have been introduced to dance for the first time, whether it’s through a Tik Tok video or an online class, and they’re going ‘why should I pay to go to that local dance studio when I can just watch a video with someone, especially a professional I admire, teaching online for free?'”
Meanwhile, at the Rain & Lucky Academy of Dance, there is a clear emphasis on studio culture. “We have a strong technical standard and everything, but we really foster the community and the family sense,” states co-owner Rain Francis. “And you don’t get that with a random online class.”
Looking beyond the moment, (mid-May as we go to press), Paul Malek from Transit Dance is similarly clear about the salience of community connection. “Support the community that these wonderful dance studios have created, so that they can keep training and keep their businesses going beyond COVID.”
Perhaps here is a call-to-action, not simply for governments and funding bodies but for the country’s dance lovers as a whole. While price point and convenience may appear attractive in the short term, and the novelty of taking classes with stars is an obvious temptation, the medium-long health of grassroots dance, and the numerous benefits that flow from the thousands of classes conducted each week in halls and studios nationwide, is clearly something worth supporting.
We will not be cooped up forever and when we venture back out we will want to dance again. Our question is: who will be there to guide us?
* Stats courtesy of ABS (2017/18) – quoted from RAD submission to Ausdance National (Apr 2020).
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.