Dance Virgins – developing and marketing to new audiences in 2013


by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

During the months of October and November 2012, I decided to embark on an informal experiment exploring new audience reaction to dance performances. My goal was to gain some personal insight in to why it is so difficult to cultivate audiences to see dance. While this experiment, because of the sample size, cannot really be considered statistically significant, it does provide some basic understanding of the issues, which may prove advantageous in your own marketing strategies as we head in to the New Year.

There are numerous dance audience surveys that have already been published. However, these surveys tend to be on audiences already in attendance of dance performances; examining what motivates them to attend, as well as what will engage them to return. My goal here was to look at a sample that does not attend dance and see what would be necessary to convert them to becoming a new audience.

The design was quite simple. I selected twenty young professionals, who had not attended a dance performance in the past six years, and provided them with free tickets to shows in the region in exchange for their feedback via a written questionnaire on their experience.  The sample of twenty, quite honestly was based on what I could afford at the time, as this was done out of my own pocket. Tickets were purchased anonymously and venues/dance companies attended were unaware of this experiment.

Finding a random sample of young professionals between the ages of 25 – 45 years was relatively easy through a variety of singles and young professional organizations. Finding individuals who had not attended any sort of dance performance for the past six years turned out to be even easier!  However, finding an even number of males and females, willing to participate in this experiment, proved to be somewhat difficult. Ultimately, my sample consisted of 12 females and 8 males. The group had a median age of 32, but was equally spread out across the age range specified.  Average median income was $53,000. All of the participants had a college degree and some had advanced degrees. The group was also racially diverse – 35% Caucasian, 25% Afro-American, 20% Hispanic, 10% Asian, 10% unspecified or mixed race.  All participants had not attended a live dance performance in over six years and in actuality the average was eight years. Two individuals had not seen a live dance performance at any time during their adult life (over twenty-one years of age).

Each participant was given two free tickets to a variety of dance performances in the region. The performances were selected based on what was available during the time frame and listed on the Dance Calendar, but consisted of ballet, contemporary ballet, modern, cultural dance and a performance series in which multiple dance acts were featured. Participants were then required to fill out and return a simple questionnaire within 48 hours of seeing the event.

Below is a sample of some of the key results…

On a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the most positive, how would you rate your overall experience?
Interestingly enough, this did not seem to be performance specific, but was somewhat divided based on gender. Of the 12 females, the median average was 7.4 and of the 8 males the median average was 6.1.  Across gender, the average rating was 6.8 suggesting that there is some sort of disconnect with what was being viewed.

Did you have any expectations about what you were going to see?
This was an open ended question in which participants could freely write their response. Some had stated that they had looked up the dance company on the internet ahead of time. Others stated they were just trying to keep an open mind.

Of significance was the reported expectation that they may find themselves bored, instead of entertained. Comments ranged from “If I had actually paid for the ticket, I want it to be a fun night out, an escape from work” to “If I am paying for dinner and a show and parking, I want to have a really good time, a great night out” or “Truth be told, I am concerned about being stuck for over an hour watching something that I may not have an interest in.”

Managing expectations of potentially new audiences may be the key to their development. Upon further follow up, it was expressed by several participants that being able to see video promotions might provide such enticement, but that it could also have the opposite effect as well. Most expressed that they really did not know what to expect, which seemed to be the underlying issue. With most dance companies having limited marketing and advertising budgets, creating the right message as well as disseminating it can be difficult at best.

Was there a program provided at the performance? If so, did it provide any sort of description of each of the dance pieces beyond title, choreographer, dancers and music?
All of the attendees received a program at the performance but only 40% reported seeing a description of individual pieces. 75% stated that having a description would have been helpful and 25% stated it would not have mattered as the lights were not on between pieces to enable them to read the program. Of those who were provided a description in the program, all stated that it was helpful in understanding the piece presented.

Further exploration of this showed that participants, being new to dance, were seeking some sort of meaning or understanding for what was being presented to them. A context, if you will, in which to frame what they were seeing seemed to be fundamentally important.

What did you enjoy the most about the performance?
As you may have already surmised, this question created a complete gamut of responses – the costumes, the lighting, the venue, the dancers bodies, the music, when they did leaps or lifts, etc.  Responses seemed limited to the description of the more physical aspects of a performance. Only five participants responded with an indication that the feeling or emotional content was what they enjoyed the most. One participant stated that was the humor expressed in some pieces that “did it for him.” Two participants indicated that it was just a fun night and they liked the “overall presentation.”

What did you like the least about the performance?
Again participants could freely respond. For many there seemed to be a sense that they were supposed to get a message or deeper meaning from the performance that just did not happen for them. Comments ranged from “sorry, I still don’t get it” to “I know what I saw was some sort of social commentary, but I will be damned if I know what was being said” and “I get that the movement is telling a story, I just need an interpreter – sorry just too much work.”

Other comments ranged from “it moved too slowly” to again more physical descriptions such as “didn’t love the music” or “it just seemed like the same thing over and over.”

There seemed to be a mixed message in the responses. On one hand, participants wanted to understand or derive some meaning from the pieces presented. Yet, they did not really want to have to work to derive said meaning. This tied back to a more passive type of participation and the desire to be entertained expressed in other sections of the questionnaire.

Was there any post-show discussion? If so, was it helpful?
As it turns out, only 20% of the participants were exposed to any sort of post-show discussions. Half found them to be somewhat helpful, but stated it seemed after the fact. One participant stated that it actually made them feel worse as everyone else seemed to “get it” but them. One stated that it helped to “solidify what they were thinking and enjoyed seeing the personalities of the directors.” Interestingly enough, none of participants exposed to a post-show discussion felt that this would be a critical factor in their choosing whether to see a dance performance.

Would you attend another dance performance?
2 said definitely yes
5 said they would consider it depending on the program
7 said they were unsure at this time
6 said most likely not

The two definite responses had attended the same contemporary ballet program, stating that it was not only enjoyable but more accessible as a whole. They also felt that they fit in with “the audience dynamic that was in attendance.”

It was this statement that caught our attention and a follow up was done with those who were unsure or who were not likely to attend a performance again. When we asked them if they chatted with other audience members or listened in on the conversations of others, all responded positively. But almost all of them also stated that they felt that the audience was comprised mostly of dancers or at least people who saw a lot of dance. They went on to state that everyone seemed to “get it”, which made them feel even more like an outsider to the whole experience. In fact, this seemed to have a negative impact in which the perception was that there was a homogenous group, who all understood the dance pieces and they themselves were merely outsiders, who “just would never get it”.

There were actually a total of fifty questions, either multiple choice or requiring a short written response. What I have presented in this article is but a cross section.  Having reviewed the data along with two other colleagues, it seems that attracting and developing new audiences will require at the very least some of the following factors:

1. There has to be a conscious effort on the part of the dance presenter to develop and implement a plan for attracting new audiences to dance and their performance. While this is often discussed, development and implementation are too often left by the wayside because of limitations of time, staffing and budgets.

2. Marketing and advertising are critical for developing brand and attracting/enticing audiences. Messages need to have a “wow” factor but also extend beyond the dance community to community groups, young professionals and organizations where the message may be more readily disseminated. Use of video teasers, photographs and other visual displays are critical to enticing audiences. Here again, the constraints of budgets will continue to play a significant factor.

3. We need to go beyond post show discussions. Obviously, dance education in the schools would be the ideal in cultivating audiences over time.  But we need to help new audiences to be able to view and appreciate dance. Something as basic as a description of a dance piece in the program can go a long way to providing such framework. Other methods will still need to be explored. One suggestion was to provide a separate performance, which offered more of an educational component combined with actual performance, while allowing for questions and answers.  Please note I am not suggesting telling people what to see or how to feel or what point of view to take when seeing a performance. By offering some sort of framework initially, people will then perhaps feel more comfortable over time to venture beyond that framework to interpret the work according to their own points of view and form their own opinions.

4. With so many of the dance performances in Philadelphia having audiences comprised primarily of fellow dancers as well as friends and family, we need to be more cognizant as a group to make new audience members feel welcomed. I am not sure what the solution may be in this instance. It would be my hope that as audiences become more diverse, along the lines of dance community vs. non-dance community that this feeling of being excluded will eventually dissipate.

Developing and marketing to new audiences is time consuming and requires resources that many dance companies simply do not have. Nevertheless, it is critical that we begin to examine and implement strategies as a community that develop and educate new audiences. As resources and funding become scarce, this will be essential to both the growth and maintenance of the art we offer.


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