free classes

Editorial – Will providing FREE performances and classes online hurt us in the long run?

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

Let me begin this editorial by stating that I have a whole range of mixed feelings in writing this piece. This is not meant to provide any answers or clear path but rather to begin a discussion, one that is worth having given the current state of self-quarantine and our new “virtual interactions”.

The Philadelphia dance community and the arts, in general, have been very quick to adapt to the new technology in order to continue to conduct dance classes and even provide live and pre-recorded performances.  The arts have clearly been one of the few saving graces and vestiges of sanity in an otherwise overwhelming pandemic world and bombardment of disheartening news.

For many, this has opened up our art to new audiences and followers, strengthened our existing relationships, and has created a whole new arts community online. But during a time when the arts sector is suffering greatly, is giving all of this away for free helping or hurting us in the long run? Will this free virtual format be the new and expected normal, or will we eventually be able to convert our online followers to become paying audiences once this crisis has been averted? Will those of us who have taken online dance classes or engaged our children to do so as well, support the local dance studios and teachers once they are able to re-open?

Given the reality of the new financial hardship we are all facing and the skyrocketing unemployment rates, it seems somewhat callus to even consider charging for our services. Individuals and families are struggling as they have never before. There is very little disposable income remaining for “entertainment”. So this has become the argument on one side to keep offering free dance/arts services. In essence, providing a public service in a time of need.

But this has been a topic of discourse for some time now in which our art is often not valued as it should be. Performers are always getting requests for free performances and showcases in exchange for so-called exposure. The ticket prices of dance performances in Philadelphia are already significantly less than in other major cities, even for some of our more prominent companies.

So why now that our work seems to have more value than ever before are we still offering it for free?  At a time when dance companies, dance studios, and solo artists are in dire need, it seems that we should be offering our support more than ever before.

In my own “dropping in” online of over 50 classes and presentations over the past few weeks, I realize that many are still trying to get their feet wet in figuring out how to convert their classes to an online presence. So perhaps in this initial stage, it is fair to offer a “free trial”. I also have great concern that everyone has suddenly become a dance teacher and this is clearly not the case!  In several classes that I briefly viewed, the technique being taught was simply incorrect (as confirmed with several bona fide instructors) and in one case, it was simply dangerous (chance of injury).

But for qualified dance instructors and dance studios that have moved their living online, I would argue that they should be charging for their services and we should be paying something for their sharing of knowledge, experience, and expertise.  Online classes could be offered at a discount rate if necessary as compared to “in-studio” classes. For those in dire need, a “pay what you can model” or barter model could also be used to still allow accessibility.

For performances being developed and adapted for online viewing, I would argue that the company members, choreographers, videographers and editors should derive some financial benefit from their hard work and shared art. The ticket price for viewing these performances may not be at the same rate as attending a full evening live theater work, but every bit earned will help support artists in their time of need. For added fun and a bit of marketing, dance companies could pair up with their favorite area restaurants to over a discounted meal and show for a special evening at home.

Ultimately, it has been great seeing everyone, across ages and generations,  move and dance. The range of performances and instructional offerings has been no short of overwhelming. It attests to the strength of our community. When we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, I hope the public will remember that it was the arts and dance that brought us together in our celebration of humanity. Financially supporting our artists now will ensure their preservation.


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