Everything has changed.  Many dance teachers and musicians are struggling to find a way to re-invent ways to make money, and this blog is here to help you do that.  It’s going to be some time before social dancing is “social” again, and it’s going to be a different thing when it does start happening again.  Distance learning and teleconferencing is having a moment, and even after this whole thing is behind us, students are going to be receptive to (and even want) more remote learning opportunities. 
I’m very fortunate to have income from a day job, and other entrepreneurial pursuits now, but I did teach dancing for a living for many years. As such, please don’t buy any of my stuff, please support some of these fine purveyors of online content that are putting out new things, now (see Resources at the end).  My only goal in this blog is to help others learn from my mistakes and successes and hopefully spark some ideas for creative ways to make a fair living from the hobby that you’ve put so much time into. 

Why should you care what I have to say, and what did I learn?

I have produced an enormous amount of video material for the internet, for DVD, and for download, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons about what works and what doesn’t. There are many ways to make money by teaching online (certainly there is not just one way, YMMV), but there are also a lot of ways to waste time, and I want to help you avoid some of those. 
  • My first foray into video was downloadable videos for my students from my website.  On one hand it was a huge value-add for anyone who came to my classes.  On the negative side, students could skip class more easily, and I also didn’t really know what happened to these videos once they were downloaded.  What I learned: People love learning resources that they can take away on their own time. If you find that some people really like something on the internet, it’s often an indicator that there may be an opportunity to multiply yourself via the power of the internet and make money.  I had not yet set myself up to do that, but it laid the groundwork for many more projects. 
  • Danceonline.tv, my first venture, a Netflix style streaming dance platform with huge aspirations.  I had a lot of content, full hour long classes and more.  Where I failed?  I was using Silverlight, the streaming plug-in that many platforms (like Netflix) use.  Netflix was just a baby company then, and people didn’t want to install software to learn.  If I had given it one more year, everyone would have had Silverlight installed by default in their browsers. I think that tastes and times may have changed, and people are more willing to install something like Zoom to learn, but I think it’s important not to be too cutting edge. What I learned:  Make sure your lessons can be accessed on iOS, Android, computer, etc, and long lessons are not good for many students. Don’t require any software if you can help it. 
  • FreeSwingDanceLessons.com was my next venture. I did this on more of a tipping model (spoiler alert, I never got tips and I felt foolish asking).  I hosted my own videos here, which had an advantage:  I could control my search results, I could pull videos down or re-edit as needed, and I didn’t get those pesky FB/YouTube copyright violations. On the downside, I had to learn an ton about streaming, keyframes, data rates, etc, and when my traffic was good, I couldn’t compete with the optimizations that YouTube could provide for my videos.  What I learned: Let someone else do the hosting and streaming.  Always charge for premium content.  If you say it’s free once, you’ll never get money for it. You should have teasers, and paid content.
  • iDance.net. I filmed about 65 videos for iDance.net.  The advantage here was that someone else handled the marketting.  The disadvantages were that I was just one of many teachers in a sea of choices, and they had a format for filming, which meant I wasn’t able to show off my teaching style.  With iDance’s marketing people + two teachers to pay, the margin was very small.  What I learned:  Make yourself unique, control your own content, too many people to pay means no one gets anything
  • Aerials Videos: I did a number (4 to be exact) or Aerials DVDs.  They were good sellers because they were something I specialized in, but also not everyone likes aerials.  I opened myself up to a lot of liability, and I think I inadvertently taught a lot of people to do something they shouldn’t have been doing. What I learned: Find the sweet spot between inclusivity and what you are really good at, and never forget about liability. 
  • Lindy Hop Series: Probably my most successful series overall, I still meet random people on the street who learned from it.  What I learned: Find the pricing sweet spot for a large learning resource. Everything will eventually be dated, technology changes, so make sure you can yoink your content when you need to, and finally you can’t teach feeling well over video, so don’t try.  I also learned there are an enormous amount of people who want to learn dancing and don’t have time or feel comfortable coming into a city late at night to do so.  
  • Blues videos:  I did two series of Blues Videos. What I learned: I didn’t really have a local following to prop up my sales, and it as hard to teach the experiential part of the dance through video, so they didn’t end up replicating the experience well. Focusing on moves, shapes and visual elements is better suited to video than connection, or other “felt” dance concepts. 
  • Beginner Dance Series. I did several beginner dance series.  The thing about beginner material is that 1) There’s a lot of it out there, 2) It’s kind of boring and 3) The level of opinionation on the “right” way to teach fundamentals is high, so you’re going to get mixed reviews however you do it.  I recommend beginner material for people that own studios or already have a large base. What I learned:  The less your audience knows you personally, the more your packaging and marketting counts.
  • Many hundreds of class reviews on YouTube.  I learned that lots of people use YouTube.  They use it primarily to stream free content.  If you want to make money, you should use YouTube as a lead into your sphere, but you can’t really count on unlisted videos, etc to work.  What I learned: Vimeo is a great platform for private video.  YouTube is a great way to give away free content. Tags and keywords are REALLY important.
  • Many hundreds of hours of lessons I chose not to publish for one reason or another.  What I learned: Some of your effort will be wasted, and thats ok.  There are sites like RhythmJuice and Secrets of Solo that are amazing, and you shouldn’t compare yourself to them.  Shoot in small batches and pivot your efforts from there, don’t try to release massive amounts of content at once

Who is going to buy your videos?

People dance for one reason, and that’s that it makes them happy. This covers a myriad of reasons, but I think it’s handy to look at things that make people UNhappy about dancing. 
  • People get unhappy when they feel less skilled, e.g. not knowing the dances and steps that others are doing and enjoying together. Selling community makes people happy.  Having Facebook groups and such for your students is the value-add that makes people stay.  Especially in a time of isolation, togetherness is a valuable and worthwhile end. If you’re not being inclusive, you won’t succeed. 
  • People hate feeling as if they are stagnating in their learning, or feel like what they know/do when they dance is repetitive or boring. Selling inspiration makes people happy.  When you’re at the point where you’ve mastered something in a way that you can improvise and make the old new again, that’s something that people value.  

If you, as a teacher, solve these two problems above you’re going to be a long way on your way to solving the problem of how to get people to buy your online lessons.  

Let’s also take a look at your potential customer base(s), as you have many.

  1. Some will support you because they legitimately want to learn what you have to say, and they are hungry for dance knowledge and will do just about anything to absorb it. 
  2. A certain number of people will support your online video business, in whatever form it takes because they like you. Hopefully in an appropriate, admiration kinda way, where they want to support art and artistic things in their life because they too have / have had dreams and want to help others.  They may also want to learn and participate, but will often not be driven by pure dance knowledge.
  3. Some will buy online learning because they live to far away from a place to get it in person. These are likely not people you’ve met.  This category covers couples who like to see local bands, or travel to places with dancing on occasion, but also people who teach in very small scenes and are hungry for material to teach.  
  4. Some will buy online learning because going to a dance simply does not work with children, on-call jobs, service industry jobs, social anxiety, different abilities, lack of access to convenient transportation or other reasons.  

The first category is who most people teach to, however they are also the least profitable.  They learn quickly, they often have informal networks of piracy going on with other friends, and they also probably see themselves as a friend and don’t feel like they should pay you, certainly not full price. The kind of content you would make for this category of learners is very exciting, but it’s also probably too advanced and alienating to the other categories. 

The last three categories all have one thing in common:  They benefit from succinct, bite-sized learning chunks.

An online class hour or a video or a series, or a lesson should emphasize one key concept. 

One fantastic model for this is the guitar world’s Robin Nolan.  He’s a brilliant teacher, a great player, and his Youtube channel covers a vast array of topics from “how to hold your guitar” to increasingly advanced concepts. You will notice each video addresses one single concept.  Then if you are a more advanced student, you can purchase books, lessons, camps and more.  Anyone from an absolute beginner to someone who has been playing for 8 years can browse his channel and find something to learn.  His regular release schedule is also very friendly to the fickle nature of students.  He’s constantly reminding people that there are learning materials available, and adding to those resources each week.  He has valuable free content, and price points from $20-$2500 (books, guitars, camps, etc).  He has mastered how to appeal to people during their entire learning journey. 

One-off Lessons vs “Courses”

Selling your knowledge in classes where people must attend an online event at a particular time is hard.  You can’t sell that again later, time differences are a barrier, and people can’t revisit the material.  They are inherently less likely to spend money on an “experience”, rather than a “class” or “course”.  

However, I think this is completely opposite for music.  Dance parties and concerts are perfect for the “one-off” model.  In fact I think the Paul Constantino concert on Facebook Live was probably one of the best moments of modern Lindy Hop history, as are Dave and Kim’s soul parties.  If you’re selling classes, you should package them in a way that future students can look them up and purchase them. 

With anything, the timing of what you are putting out is essential.  Think deeply about what your student base is hungry for, and cater to that.  If you have filmed something, it’s always ok to hold it for a while until timing is better. 

Put limits on your time

If you do choose to go the route of remote private lessons, and one-time “events”, I recommend that you put some limits on things. For instance, if you teach a “one-hour” private, I think that the actual teaching time of said private lesson should actually be 45-50 minutes.  You have to account for your setup / connect time, as well as some wrap up and documentation, and emails.  Chances are you’ll often come closer to the hour more often than not, but you need to add buffers. 

For most students, learning for 45-50 minutes is plenty.  That’s enough time to learn, practice and wrap up a concept. If you teach a few lessons in a day and run them literally end to end without a break, you will burn yourself out.

Many folks who can buy classes online are still working, and for that reason they are busier than they’d prefer to be.  30 minutes is fine break.  Zoom Fatigue is a real thing, don’t overdo the time

Pricing yourself for success

We (as a community) have spent a lot of years expecting that dances run on time, expecting that they are well staffed, that staff is polite. We take for granted things like music licensing, insurance, setup, cleanup and more.  We also have, as a community expected that the people who spend their lives in the labor of love that is teaching and community building do so for a nearly poverty wage without setting up their retirement or a rainy day fund.  I expect that there are outliners, but that the average dance organization or teacher does not have a year’s emergency fund socked away.  There isn’t a margin in the pricing for it, and we need to change that.  It’s better to have a few students really value you than many students who don’t pay much, and we’re going to have to start charging for art what it’s worth, not giving it away because we so desperately want to share our love of it. 
As our lives come back to a new normal, we need to start paying for art in a way that allows the artist and teachers to have the same standard of living that knowledge workers and engineers enjoy. 
  • I do not love the “tipping” model for a whole lot of reasons I won’t get into, but if you do, I advise you to set up expectations.  Dancers start with a mindset that $1 to $3 is a suitable tip, and it is not.  If you do sliding scale, be sure to set up a recommended tip amount.  A dance class should cost more than a cup of coffee. 
  • Bundles are really attractive to students.  People are more likely to spend $50 to get three of something than $25 for one thing.  You should always try to find pricing models that make students feel like they’ve gotten a good deal, but also encourage purchasing in larger blocks. 
  • Patreon is an interesting platform.  On one hand I love what it’s about, and how you can generate consistent income.  On the other hand you will be on the hook to create monthly content, and your friends might be disincentivized from signing up since they will eventually unsubscribe, and they’ll feel awkward about it. In my opinion it’s better to have a single transaction and be done with it. 

Dance students (people in general really) have the most desire to purchase near holidays, which is why most businesses have holiday sales.  People with full-time jobs have time to work on their passion projects and hobbies near/during holidays, so make your product more attractive to them then. 

Tech Tips

The world of video gadgetry is impressive these days.  Almost anyone can produce high quality videos with ease.  My top 5 tips for making videos:

  1. Rent your equipment.  You can get a $6,000 camera for a week for a fraction of the price.  My choice is a Canon 5D Mark IV, which can do some really cool things and will make a video quality that will blow your mind. Feature films are produced on these, and you can offer things like 4k video and such.  Remember the highest standard for video now will be low/average in just a few years. 
  2. Use a decent microphone.  They  can be gotten for under $100 online, and will make things much nicer for your students. To that end, video teaching should include much less talking than in-person classes, but your students will shy away if your videos start with echoey, distant audio. 
  3. There are lots of free, easy-to-use video editing suites for every OS.  Adobe is also offering free Create Cloud during the Covid Crisis.  A little fade in/fade out goes a long way, and you can delete your mistakes. Subtle is best. 
  4. A uniform splash screen on your videos will give you brand recognition.  I wish I had done better with this, they are really great to have.  See Laura Glaess’s channel for a fantastic example of this.  
  5. Really learn to use things like hashtags, strong keywords and cross link all your social media. Every day that goes by, content becomes harder to find. 500 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute.  Being findable is really important. 

How to market and who to market to

In the world of swing dancing, there is a lot of software engineers, and when software engineers think of the internet, they think of things like TCP/IP, Stack Overflow, Cloud compute, etc… when the non-engineer-public thinks of “the Internet”, they think of Facebook and maybe Instagram.   For this reason, I think it’s nearly impossible for any business this day in age to survive without Facebook and Instagram advertising.  They also use re-marketting, which means that people who have searched Google for “dance lessons” will being to see your ads, which is huge.  
Sending out one campaign, email blast, or post is not going to do the trick.  It’s worthwhile to post on a few different mediums, in a few different ways.  Most dance orgs under-market themselves, as a result of how little pay is typically involved in promoting dance.  Don’t be shy – people want to hear about what you have going on and they want to support you. 

My top tips for creating your online content

  • Many, many people respond well to written summaries of what they will learn.  If you were to add PDFs or other documents to an online offering, it would be very appealing to a lot of people.  Many people believe they must see things written to understand them.  Whether this is true or not, it’s a huge motivator to the consumer.  
  • There are lots of folks who do not hear computer audio well, and even more that don’t speak English as a first language.  The less talking on your instructional video, the better. We’ve all been trained to talk too much by those students who try to poke holes in our teaching by pointing out the exceptions and edge cases.  Talk less, move more. 
  • Add-ons like a Zoom meetup are very valuable.  Student’s love opportunities to connect with their teacher and other students. In fact, I think one of the most important things you can offer students is bundles. Lessons, bonus recaps, Spotify playlists, meetups, Facebook groups, 1-on-1 sessions, Zoom Socials etc are all very very good things to bundle that are much more attractive than a simple dance course.  As a dance teacher, you are selling some combination of community, history, skillsets, social activities, a lifestyle, and exercise. 
  • Shoot in the highest definition you can. Media will always progress.  
  • Make sure you’re advertising on Facebook, Email, Instagram, Youtube and as many other platforms as you can.  Don’t depend on one platform to attract all of your students. Facebook is the most utilized, but there are many who don’t use it at all for fear of privacy concerns, etc. There are also lots of people that don’t check social media, so your email database may be the only way to reach them. 
  • Get written agreements between you and any other teachers / videographers / distributors you work with.  Things change, and good agreements will protect your intellectual property. 
  • Look at Zoom’s “Enable Original Audio”, or if you use another platform, look at how to to eliminate compression, noice cancellation and all the other things that videoconferencing software does to make their products work in open offices and airports. 

In closing….

I hope this was helpful to you in your quest to re-invent teaching.  If you have questions, post them below and I will try to answer them!

Other Resources