Dance Lessons at $15,000 a Pop Mark Ballroom’s Covid Comeback
(Bloomberg) -- When a dance school in Hong Kong became the center of an outbreak of Covid-19 last year, it was a hammer blow for an industry that became among those hardest hit by the pandemic. But participants say Ballroom and Latin-American dance studios are now bouncing back stronger than ever.
“People everywhere want to socialize again and dancing is bringing this resurgence back in full force,” said Wayne Smith, executive vice president of Arthur Murray International, which operates the world’s largest chain of dance franchises.
Before Covid, the multi-billion dollar global business had been booming, especially in Asia. But with salsa succumbing to social distancing, most dance groups were forced to go online, with solo performers submitting videos of routines for virtual competitions. At the top of the business, where wealthy enthusiasts vie to partner champion instructors, money buys private one-on-one sessions at home.
In November, when Hong Kong seemed to have beaten the virus, an outbreak of new cases suddenly appeared in the Heavenly Dance Studio and other clubs where wealthy women paid up to HK$6,000 ($772) an hour for lessons. The news turned a spotlight on the glitzy world of pro-am dancing, where top celebrities are whisked to client’s homes in private jets and an evening of rumba and cha-cha-cha with a world champion instructor can cost $15,000.
Dance legend Donnie Burns, 15-time world champion and President of the World Dance Council, who lives in California and traveled regularly to Hong Kong for 40 years to give lessons and attend events, said he was once being picked up in a private jet and taken to dance with a client whose house “was like the Ritz Carlton,” with “a proper ballroom with a balcony.”
The November cluster in Hong Kong triggered the city’s fourth Covid wave with more than 700 cases linked to dance and singing venues. Christmas dance events, charity balls and competitions booked in five-star hotel ballrooms were all forced to cancel, costing the industry an estimated HK$40 million to HK$50 million, according to Matthew Kwok, vice president of the Hong Kong International Professional Dance Sports Council.
Usually during the holiday season all grand ballrooms around the city are booked months in advance with a non-refundable deposit. “A minimum charge for grand ballroom is around HK$500,000 to HK$600,000 per night,” said Jeffrey Cheung, a former five-star hotel event director.
The spread of the virus across more than a dozen schools as infected dancers visited different venues prompted concerns that the industry may take years to recover. Heavenly Dance Studio said in April it would close permanently because of the pandemic.
But enrollments around the world in countries that are opening up again add evidence to a growing expectation that consumer have amassed savings during the pandemic and are keen to spend again on social activities, especially ones that are considered to improve fitness.
Smith said Arthur Murray Studios increased global enrollments by 65% in the first 6 months of this year. And the number of people signing up for competitions was up almost 40%.“The pandemic brought forth a feeling of change and generated the idea of “let’s not wait any longer.”A key driver for expansion is Asia, and especially China, which had been expanding rapidly before Covid.
“The Asian market is a very desirable market to have franchises developed,” Smith said. “It has tremendous potential for developing a lucrative business.” He said the company is pursuing more business in China, but the pandemic placed plans on hold. A franchise is set to open in Goa, India in the next six months, and two recently opened in Sydney, he said.
It’s a social activity fueled by glamor, hit TV series, the growth of the indoor fitness industry and above all, by competition.
“It’s pure hard work,” said Burns. who started to dance at six years old and moved to Manchester at 19 where he met Gaynor Fairweather his dance partner for 23 years, with whom he won a record 15 world championships in a row. “We never stopped practicing,” Burns said, often rehearsing a single move from nine in the morning until 2 or 3 a.m. at night.
Under its two global organizations, the World Dance Council and the World DanceSport Federation, dancers from around the world pay top rates to hire champion partners, hoping to compete in the Blackpool Dance Festival, the oldest and biggest competition in the world. Held each year at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, England, there were more than 2,800 entries representing 56 countries in 13 events at the 94th festival in 2019.
Blackpool held its first ProAm event in 2014, and within five years it had 843 entries from 20 countries. Photographer and amateur dancer Sam Leung said an acclaimed world champion at the Dutch Open competition 2018 quoted him $580 for a 45 minute private lesson. In Hong Kong, tickets for a world champion performance, including three-course dinner, cost around HK$48,000 per table, Leung said.
But according to Leung, the fastest route to success is to spend HK$120,000 ($15,450) or more to hire an elite competitor as a partner. Pawel Kostrzewa, a world champion instructor who used to live in Hong Kong, said he’d only accept partners who already had a high level of skill. “I’m quite serious to get my student to some level that we can go for competition and not be the last couple there.”
When Covid broke out, the industry could not escape and its clubs and events were among the first to be shuttered by lockdowns. Burns said he used the time to publish a book, “The B.L.T.,” or Burns Latin Technique.
In Hong Kong, one of the fastest growing and most lucrative markets before Covid, the rebound has been slower because of the city’s reticence in opening up social activities.
“Those who are very passionate about dancing or who applied for competitions are returning, but beginners and newcomers are still quite worried,” said George Yip, Chairman of Hong Kong DanceSport Association. “We will have to wait until the pandemic gets better.”
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