Local Business Update: Downtown Dance Factory

There’s an added challenge here, when the mission is to teach kids to move through space, in concert, together. There’s really no substitute for that partnership. Dancers generally don’t spend time in the garret, Thoreau-like in the cabin in the woods. They like a crowd — and an audience.

And so at Downtown Dance Factory, they are trying their best to replicate that experience, even with their dancers scattered across the region. Classes meet live at scheduled times, and parents have said it is the only bit of normalcy in their lives. One called it their family’s “lifeline.”

“For our students who come once a week, we want to keep they joy they get in dance alive, so it’s not something that slips away,” said Hanne Larsen, who owns the studio with Melanie Zrihen. “But we also need to be here for the kids who have worked so hard to get where they are. We have nine kids going to LaGuardia as freshmen next year. They are like elite athletes — you don’t want them to lose ground with all the hard work they have put in.”

The studio has 85 of its 180 classes operating online on Zoom, and students are encouraged to take any other class the studio offers. (For example, a kindi-ballerina can step into a kindi jazz class to fill out her week.) Hanne and Melanie estimate that 90 percent of their students are now participating in the live classes on Zoom, and very few asked for refunds for this term. To date, they have been able to pay their staff.

They have also found ways to bridge the tech gap. When it was just a rumor that schools would close, Hanne and Melanie asked teachers to come in for a weekend to record dozens of videos of warmups and exercises; they are now organized by technique on a YouTube channel, so students can do some work on their own time. (There’s an especially evocative one below, where teacher Major King demonstrates from the Parade Grounds in Prospect Park with sirens wailing in the background.) They have found ways to tighten the security on Zoom by having an assistant logged on to each class to monitor participants and to help demonstrate, so the teacher can watch her students’ technique with fewer distractions. To keep the classes both secure and focused, they have disabled many of the Zoom functions: screen-sharing, chatting between students, the ability for participants to unmute themselves. The platform does allow the teachers to offer critiques, and the kids can be divided into groups where they then watch each other.

Teachers also have to design classes to fit in a small space when they are accustomed to allowing students to leap across entire rooms. And they are teaching from their own small spaces as well.

But there have been moments where the platform actually created new opportunities: classes with guest choreographers are now open to the teachers as well, so the senior dancers have been able to see their teachers perform the choreography of Al Blackstone, for example, from “So You Think You Can Dance.” And Melanie has gotten reports of younger siblings dancing along with the Zoom classes, or better, two babies in high chairs, rapt, watching their sibling take class in the kitchen.

“We have been able to get value in this arena — that’s been really comforting,” said Hanne. “We are just trying to go day by day to figure out what our dancers need right now and just try to adapt as this goes on. It’s still evolving, but we will keep doing this until we need to do something different.”

They are, of course, also trying to keep their business afloat. This is the time when the kids activity providers start booking summer camp, and all those here in the neighborhood are feeling that pinch (more on that soon). At DDF, summer classes and workshops pay the rent. In the dance world, a lot of summer programs have already been cancelled, but what things will look like here is the big question. Can classes be in-person at half capacity? Is it just more Zoom classes from home? Will families pay for that?

“If we can’t do summer, it’s a matter of if we can survive,” said Hanne. “So we will have to have a Plan B, and C, and D, and E.”

And in the meantime, the studio is finding ways for their dancers to share the dance experience, even if virtual. The latest project is the video above, which Hanne made on iMovie over the past week. The dancers were sent a piece of choreography by teacher Kaitlynn Edgar, and a deadline to submit their own taped performance.

“We understand that the arts are the first thing to go — at the end of the day it’s an added extra, a luxury,” said Hanne. “But this is the one bit of normal that these kids get in their week. It’s keeping them afloat. It’s connecting them with other people. And if you don’t have all of that, it’s a pretty sad world.”



  1. We are more grateful than ever to be part of the Downtown Dance Factory community! Virtual DDF has been a saving grace for our family during this challenging time! It has kept all three of our children active and creative on a daily basis! They are reminded daily that they belong to a community that stretches far beyond the confines of the walls surrounding them! They continue to feel nurtured, challenged, inspired and ‘seen’! We are so grateful and moved by the thought, effort and love that the DDF team has put forth to keep our children dancing and dreaming! ♥️

  2. So much love and appreciation for all the hard work the DDF family has put in to keep our kids connected and dancing.

  3. What Hanne and Melanie have done for this community is nothing short of heroic. From minute one they provided normalcy, community and routine to a very different and unprecedented time. Kudos to them and the DDF family for coming together and providing reassurance, camaraderie and an overwhelming feeling of love.
    Thank you!

  4. How incredibly lucky these kids are to have a home that extends past the walls of DDF and remarkably folds into the fabric of their lives. Now more than ever, I am so thankful for the community Hanne and Melanie have created. It keeps us connected and together and hopeful that when we come out the other side, we will love to dance together even more than we did before. Thank you for the heart and the soul you send out into this world. Love ❤️

  5. Dancing with DDF has kept the dancers active, sane and happy, and being able to spend time with their friends and teachers has kept a much-needed normalcy in their lives. DDF jumped into action and sent out videos and super-heroically put together a zoom dance schedule in a heartbeat, and our kids (and the parents) are so lucky to be part of the DDF family. DDF’s classes are something the dancers look forward to every day. Thank you so much, Hanne and Melanie and all the teachers for the love and inspiration you are giving our children, and for all you do for our downtown community. We cannot wait to see the kids back where they long to be, in the dance studio with their DDF family. Much love and thanks!

  6. Knowing my daughter has her DDF family has been a lifesaver for me and has been everything for her. DDF puts so much heart into everything they do, I can’t thank them enough.

  7. so many thanks to Hanne, Melanie and the entire DDF family – they are nothing short of amazing! so lucky to be a part of this talented and caring community! keep dancing!