How Dance Competitions Are Surviving the Pandemic

Courtesy Shake the Ground

Dance competitions were among the first events to be shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in the U.S. in mid-March, and they've been among the last able to restart.

So much of the traditional structure of the competition—large groups of dancers and parents from dozens of different studios; a new city every week—simply won't work in our new pandemic world.

How, then, have competitions been getting by, and what does the future look like?

When the Pandemic Hit

In mid-March, when competitions first began seeing cancellations, charting a path forward felt like taking shots in the dark.

"What made this thing so frustrating and scary was that we didn't know what we were dealing with," says Shari Tomasiello, CEO of Headliners. "We didn't know if it was going to be for a week, two weeks, a month. We didn't know if we would be able to reschedule events, or when we would be able to reschedule events."

While Tomasiello completely canceled some events, about 90 percent of her studios said that they wanted to move forward with competing, so she rescheduled as many as she could. Many of these eventually had to be canceled too—Headliners ended up holding just 12 of its 34 planned competitions. One of those canceled events was Headliners' Nationals, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the company's annual revenue.

A young masked dancer standing against a Headliners backdrop holds a certificate that says "Headliners Judge's Award"

A recent Headliners competition.

Photo courtesy Headliners

With only two venue refunds in hand, plus losses from airline tickets and trophies that will become outdated, issuing $400,000 in refunds for the studios who requested them was a big financial hit for Headliners—a major portion of its operating budget. (Though the company did, thankfully, receive a PPP loan.) But for Tomasiello, working with each studio to come up with a solution was essential to maintaining Headliners' reputation. This meant a combination of partial refunds to cover graduating seniors, partial refunds combined with credit towards a 2021 event, and full refunds.

Rhonda Marchant, president and founding director of Encore Dance Competition for the Stars, took a similar approach, offering her studios four options: receive a 120 percent credit for a future event; receive a 40 percent refund, 60 percent in credit and an extra 10 percent bonus credit; receive a 75 percent refund, 25 percent in credit and an extra 5 percent in bonus credit; or receive a full refund.

While the full refund was the most popular option at first (Marchant ended up doling out $250,000), as the panic died down, more studios saw the benefit of receiving credit for future events. Marchant, too, is grateful for her $90,000 PPP loan, and the fact that most of her venues gave her refunds or credits—but she also spent $50,000 on awards that would become outdated.

Not all competitions could afford to give refunds, creating a trickle-down effect that put studios in a difficult position. "I want to be compassionate to those competitions who weren't able to offer refunds," says Marchant. "But you have to look at the other side: What about those dance families and studios? A lot of these dance studios had to close for months, and they aren't getting any income, either."

Though Marchant had to cancel 15 competitions—including many of her Regionals—she was able to hold a version of her Nationals in Charleston, SC in July. "It wasn't the grand finale we had planned for," she says, and Encore DCS ended up losing money on the event due to a flurry of last-minute cancellations and studios using credits from canceled Regionals. 2020 ended up being Encore DCS's slowest season in over six years, forcing Marchant to lay off all part-time staff, and to file for unemployment herself.

The Reality of Pandemic Competitions

The few competitions that have gone on as planned since March have looked quite different from the norm.

Some—like Youth America Grand Prix, New York City Dance Alliance, Starbound and Break the Floor—have happened virtually. Tomasiello emphasizes that they aren't moneymakers, just opportunities to keep studios and dancers engaged.

Rather than holding a virtual competition, Lissette Salgado-Lucas and David Lucas, founders of Shake the Ground, launched a free online workshop series for their studios, and got to work formulating a plan for a potential in-person event.

In mid-June, Shake the Ground was able to host its first competition since March, in Jacksonville, Florida, with a whole new structure: studio blocks. Each studio had its own time slot in the venue, where the dancers performed all their routines in succession with a limited audience of one family member per child. Shake the Ground also livestreamed the events, as well as the awards ceremony, and trophies were mailed to the studios after the fact. (This was a popular setup for studio owners and parents, who only had to be present for a few hours instead of an entire weekend.) Shake the Ground was able to hold four rescheduled events in this format, including its Nationals, and several other competitions have implemented similar procedures.

A masked woman holds a thermometer up to a masked dancer's forehead, backstage at a Shake the Ground competition

A recent Shake the Ground competition.

Photo courtesy Shake the Ground

The extra effort Shake the Ground put into safety measures—including temperature checks, mandatory masks and hour-and-a-half cleanings between studio blocks—was noticed and appreciated by studios. But it wasn't cheap: While the industrial fogging machine, thermometers and endless bottles of disinfectant were a significant investment, the bigger cost has been the revenue lost from being able to accommodate approximately half of the studios Shake the Ground could with a regular competition; just enough to break even. (The company's revenue for the year is about 50 percent down, plus it issued $80,000 in refunds.)

But Salgado-Lucas and Lucas are confident they've landed on a model that works, at least for now. They have a full 2021 schedule planned with strong registration so far, and are lining up backup venues (like outdoor spaces and hotels) in case theaters have to close again.

Lucas says that surviving 2020 has prepared Shake the Ground for whatever eventuality 2021 brings. "We understand the environment now," he says, "and know that we'll be able to quickly adjust to it."

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