Zoom calls, virtual conferences, online workshops — it’s the new normal of 2020. But let’s be honest, most of the time, these events feel like a poor imitation, leaving you with a sad longing for the real, in-person thing.
Luckily, that’s not been the case for the young dancers taking part in the Showstopper Virtual Dance Experience. Dance competition organiser Showstopper not only managed to pivot from in-person events to virtual but, more importantly, to make those virtual dance events feel like the real thing.
But how about we just let Nikki Cole tell you all about it? Nikki is Showstopper’s Director of Marketing and Media Relations and gave us insight into how Showstopper created a virtual event experience that rivals the usual in-person competitions.
Director of Marketing and Media Relations, Showstopper
Could you tell us a little bit about Showstopper?
Founded in 1978, Showstopper is America‘s first, longest-running, and most prestigious dance competition. Showstopper set the standards for competitive dance in America with the first and longest-aired dance competition television show, broadcasted on national television for 20 years.
Today, as a full production company, Showstopper hosts over 50 events a year throughout the United States and internationally. Each competition is equipped with the industry’s best judges, stages, background screens, lighting, and cameras. In 2019 our stages saw over 50,000 dancers from all across the world.
How has the 2020 pandemic impacted what you do?
The pandemic definitely hit us hard. Being in the event and entertainment industry, we were basically completely shut down. Out of about 50 shows we host each year, we had to shut down 8 shows in this past season. With 3 events a weekend, and between judges, hosts, tech crew, show directors, front of house, truck drivers, etc., we employ over 200 people a weekend. It was heartbreaking.
One of the hardest parts in all of this was seeing the impact this has had on dance studios. The teachers and studio owners really rely on competitions and classes to keep their business afloat. We have seen studios that have been open for as long as we have just all of a sudden have to shut their doors forever.
What is also unique about the dance industry is that dancers start practicing and learning their routines in the fall to compete in Regionals throughout the following spring and then at the big National Finals in the summer. And for these dancers, who devote hours and hours every week to practice, to never get to compete — it’s heartbreaking. Dancers are definitely some of the most passionate people out there, and it’s been hard on our community for sure.
What led to the decision to start doing virtual events?
We were lucky that we did figure out some ways to host a few (smaller) Finals competitions throughout the summer, and they were great. Seeing how appreciative and excited these kids and studios were just to be back dancing was amazing!
Our main priority is always to provide dancers with opportunities to dance. A lot of studios either weren’t comfortable attending in-person events, or their studio wasn’t open yet, or their state wasn’t open enough yet for competitions to come there. We knew we had to find some way to provide these dancers and studios with a reason to get back up and keep dancing.
What are the challenges you’ve faced in setting everything up?
Our biggest challenge was figuring out how to still provide dancers with that “competition experience” even for a virtual event. A few other competitions in our industry were also doing virtual events, but they were having dancers submit videos from past competitions or past performances. For us, this defeated the purpose. We wanted to get kids back dancing and studios a reason to open their doors.
So, we required only new routines, freshly recorded, to be submitted for our competitions. Much like going to competitions in-person, it’s a unique performance. If you mess up, you catch it and learn from it. If you nail a perfect jump, then you celebrate it and are rewarded. This was one of the elements of an in-person competition we wanted to maintain.
Much like what every company is experiencing right now, another big obstacle was technology. Adding the element of video submissions definitely created a lot of challenges for us. Not everyone knows how to film a high-quality video. We knew we would have to be very specific with instructions on how to film and upload video submissions.
So, how do virtual dance competitions work?
This is a great question! Honestly, everyone is doing it differently. But for us, virtual works almost exactly like in-person competition. You perform, you’re judged, and you receive your award. It was important for us to keep this experience the same for dancers.
We also wanted to give studios a chance to keep their doors open and classes running. So basically, studios or dancers have to record themselves performing their routine in full costume, hair, and makeup just like they would at a normal competition. We also asked that for every routine, dancers also submit an introduction, sort of as if someone was interviewing them before they go on stage.
Another big part of the experience we wanted to bring to our virtual events is dancing on stage. How could we make these virtual performances feel like they were still stepping out onto the Showstopper stage?
So we built a full competition stage in our headquarters, with all the lights, fog, staging — just like a real Showstopper competition. We built our LED screens as one giant, 40-foot wall behind the stage, and this is where we premiered the videos of each performance, making the dancers feel as close to the stage as possible. I think this is something that really sets us apart in the virtual competition world.
We also brought in judges to sit in front of the stage as they do at a normal event to watch the performances live as they premiere. When the event goes live, we premiere each submitted video on our 40-foot LED screens on stage and film the stage with multiple cameras, including cranes, so it does look like dancers are performing right on stage. After each set, we then have an award ceremony, just like at a normal competition, and award each routine. We wanted to increase the entertainment value, so we added judges’ live commentary after each routine, a host and commercial breaks.
We also added swag bags filled with merchandise, as a big part of the experience is dancers being able to purchase memorabilia at our store. Another super important element we wanted to include was the audience. During our live events, the audience is constantly cheering on the dancers on stage; studios gather in the audience for hours to watch their teammates perform.
What role does social media play in all this?
We were so happy to find the features Walls.io offered. This social media plugin allowed us to create a virtual audience so that anyone watching could cheer on teammates and celebrate wins at home! The plugin was super customizable and allowed us to embed it into our “virtual competition room” exactly how we wanted it. It kept engagement up on social and also helped spread the word about our events. People were excited to see themselves on the wall!
How did the dancers, their friends and family react to the new competition format, the social wall, etc.?
It was challenging at first to get the word out and for people to understand how our format was different from others. But once the first event happened, I think people really started to grasp how awesome this was and how similar it was to in-person events. Our next couple of events have grown immensely, and I think it really does contribute to the organic spread through social. Everyone who has taken part in the experience has loved it, and we have had several dancers and studios who have done every competition so far.
You’ve now got a few virtual competitions under your belt and a few more coming up. What have you learned from the experience so far?
We learn a lot every time. Mostly on the tech side, how we can adjust cameras to get a better picture or inputs to get better sound or scripts to keep our audience at home more engaged.
Obviously, having to adapt during the pandemic has been a challenge for everyone. But have you noticed any positive aspects of doing virtual competitions?
The biggest positive aspect is just giving dancers a reason to keep dancing and something to look forward to. Normally, our competitions are regional, so dancers compete against dancers from the same area. We also don’t go to every state or city so, unfortunately, we aren’t able to see every dancer in the US on our stages.
The virtual competitions were open to anyone, any age, any level, worldwide. Dancers had the chance to compete against other dancers from other countries, and we were able to see some incredible dancers that we normally don’t.
We have even seen several adults enter. It was so heartwarming to see two adult girls and their mom perform “Dancing Queen” together, an opportunity they normally wouldn’t have. Dance is for everyone, and this opportunity gave people across the world a reason to get up and dance and celebrate.
An original dance experience
Showstopper pulled out all the stops (no pun intended) to keep the competition season as normal as possible for dancers and studios, while at the same time seriously innovating the industry. The “Dancing Queen” video on Instagram that we linked just above shows how immersive the experience is, panning from the video displayed on the large on-stage screen to the judges in front of the stage and back.
Even with the different backgrounds unavoidable in video submissions, it’s an as-close-to-real experience as possible, thanks to the clever use of stage, lights and camera.
Showstopper’s successful pivot to virtual events shows that the real value of a dance competition in these trying times is for dancers to get the chance to keep creating unique performances that are honoured with attention by the community.
At the same time, the virtual competition also allowed a much broader group of dancers to take part in the competition, regardless of level or location, making it more inclusive and accessible. The virtual events are an original experience in their own right.
Creating a virtual audience
The elaborate stage setup makes it feel more real and creates a sense of normalcy. The dancers don’t have to be there in person, thanks to the amazing set-up using a 40-foot LED screen wall, multiple cameras, fog, staging, etc. And thanks to the social wall, which is embedded right under the live stream, neither does the audience, who can now cheer safely from their own homes.
Social media and social walls offer an opportunity to take virtual events from a one-sided presentation to a lively dialogue. When combined with a live stream, social media opens a channel between creators and audience, as well as between individual viewers. A social wall fosters engagement and encourages the audience to become active participants instead of passive consumers, creating a richer experience for everybody.
Let’s embrace virtual
Of course, not everyone has the option to create a purpose-built stage for virtual events, but there’s certainly something that we can take away from this example. What we — all of us: creators, participants, audiences — need in this time of global upheaval is for virtual events not to be a consolation prize, a sad and lacking facsimile that will only make us miss “the real thing”.
Let’s find new ways to create immersive experiences for users, using whatever technology and tools we have and can afford.
If you want to see how Walls.io can zhush up your virtual events, give our 30-day free trial a go!