Local Business Update: Dance with Miss Rachel

A week before the virus closed schools, Rachel Cantor and her staff at Dance with Miss Rachel pulled an all-nighter (almost) and recorded two weeks of content for their 700 students, thinking they had prepared for the worst. Of course, none of us could even imagine the worst at that point, and a few weeks in, she changed her approach to running — in quarantine — what she calls a “big small business.”

“I realized I had to stop trying to just ‘make it through this’ and shift my mind to think of how can I make this an opportunity for my business — and especially for my families,” said Rachel, who lives with her family in Battery Park City (her husband has a day job, but runs her marketing and website) and who opened in 2013. “The question became, if I was starting out today in this virtual world, how would I translate my program?”

The studio (at 19 Warren between Broadway and Church) is hosting a couple live class on Zoom each day. All classes are then open to all enrolled families, so a big sister who has never taken a dance class could join one now. Ordinarily the studio has 92 classes a session for kids ages 18 months to 11 years, plus a baby music program that starts at 3 months. They then banked all the live classes into a YouTube library of “on demand” content, so kids can take class at any time. There are 102 classes there now, and the list grows every week.

Every Sunday, all enrolled families get a catalog of 17 new classes for every level of dance the studio offers. (Lucky for Rachel, she had a studio manager who has an expertise in video editing.) All that stored content has meant that she has even onboarded some new families as subscribers to the full catalog — at least a dozen so far — including a cluster of kids who moved to London. Dancers can also pay per live class and now almost every one has at least one child trying it out for the first time.

Even with all that, however, she felt there was still something missing. She knew that she and her staff missed the personal connection they had with kids, and she guessed the kids missed it too.

“I had to think, now that we don’t have those four walls, how do I sustain that closeness? What are these small things we can do to make the kids feel connected, feel like we are together? That’s as important as perfecting your arabesque.”

So the teachers now host smaller live sessions during snack time — where kids can just chat with their teacher, or do a casual singalong, or read a story, or make a craft. Each week has a theme — one week the theme was “family” and the kids and teachers all brought baby pictures of themselves to share. “It sounds gimmicky but those are the small differences that are making a small child come to a live ballet class rather than watch Daniel Tiger,” said Rachel.

Of course none of this has been easy, and the road ahead is far from clear. Dance with Miss Rachel opened a second studio on Feb. 3 on 86th and Columbus to great success — on their opening day they had 42 classes, and most of them were fully enrolled. Yet now that is an added weight and responsibility. The business was able to secure a loan from the paycheck protection program, but there are complicated restrictions on forgiveness that means a business like hers — which is part of the Phase 4 reopening — will likely have to give most of it back.

And since her own kids are small too, she knows how hard this is for parents to continue with classes. Getting a 2-year-old to sit in front of a computer for ballet class is not easy, and she admits, her classes are not cheap, “so you really have to think about what your expectations were and what your child is getting out of this class now. I get it.” She’s calculated that a strong 80 percent of her clients have stayed with her, and she is grateful for that. She is adjusting her own expectations as a parent, too.

“For now, I am just trying to cut myself a little slack. If my daughter can focus for 15-20 minutes in her gymnastics class — do a roll, listen to Coach Bob for a bit — I will consider that a win.”

There are some big questions for a dance studio to address in the near future: summer camp, which plays a big part in paying rent for those months. And the whopper: recitals. That may seem trivial, but it’s something her dancers spend a lot of time working towards and looking forward to. She’s channeled some of that disappointment in an interactive digital book she wrote, illustrated by her own dancers.

“These kids are so young — how do you talk to them about this?” Rachel said. “I hope some little gestures can help explain things to them, and to give them a little hope. This is not forever, and we are hopeful and we are planning for next year. That’s what we want to convey in everything we do.”