IN CONVERSATION with
Rebecca Taylor, National Director of RAD Australia & Kathryn Hughes, National Examinations Manager of RAD Australia
This interview conducted by Josef Brown over Zoom, August 2020.
It goes without saying that 2020 has been challenging. Dance studios across Australia have been forced to shutter their doors for significant periods of time, adapt to online classes where possible to keep their students engaged and some money coming in order to pay rent, and sadly, some have not made it through and have been forced to close permanently. On top of this the private dance studio sector was faced with the indignity of being told that they weren’t qualified, or as qualified, to follow Government directives compared to teachers in the Public Schools sector by the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian.
The RAD were the first to leap to the defence of private dance studios responding to the Premier’s ignorance of the sector.
I caught up with both the RAD’s National Director, Rebecca Taylor and Kathryn Hughes, the RAD’s National Examinations Manager to discuss the impact Covid-19 has had on RAD Australia, how they’ve adapted and continue to adapt during this difficult time, and what lessons they’ve learned that they may integrate into the future workings of the organisation.
As many of you are no doubt aware Rebecca only recently assumed the role of National Director in mid-2019 and so it’s been a veritable baptism by fire steering the RAD through this unique chapter. The RAD of course had been gearing up to make 2020 a year of celebrations focused on their 100th anniversary of operations. Instead, it’s been a year of outreach, focused on supporting and building community, finding ways to retain the morale within the RAD community and hibernate their usual systems and procedures which have been developed over decades, to instead react flexibly to the present demands.
While the RAD provides a service and is widely respected as an educational institution, it too is a private business relying on the funds of its membership. As Rebecca said;
“The key impact on us as a business was having to postpone most of our ballet exams this year and having to move them to the second part of the year or even into early 2021. That has been the most significant impact. When we look at our business, we derive most of our activity from the ballet exams we do. The other impact area is faculty of education; our teacher training programs. Thankfully most of our teacher training programs were able to transfer to online delivery, yet it’s tricky; how do you support young people through a time when their studies are so interrupted and impacted?
In the most part, our student events program has had to be cancelled for the year. Our finals of our major NSW ballet competition were cancelled two days out and we’re still trying to get back to finish those finals. We generally offer 40 plus students events a year so it’s had a huge impact on our direct student engagement.
The main point, for those who may not have considered how the RAD operate, we’re not a ballet school ourselves. They might assume that when the ballet schools reopen that we’re earning money, but that’s not the case. We rely on membership and exam fees as our principle source of income, yet we also appreciate that the studios need a buffer, some time before they can engage with us regards student activity and exams.”
As such there’s obviously a lag between schools reopening and the RAD earning income.
“That said – taking a more positive spin – we’ve had an opportunity to dedicate our time to member engagement and support. Our focus has been, and remains asking; how can we support our members and their businesses through this time? Without our membership we wouldn’t exist.”
It’s clear from talking with both Rebecca and Kathryn that the focus so far, and into the foreseeable future for RAD Australia, has been to discover the pathways necessary to better communicate with urban and regional studios, to keep member engagement and to ensure their members feel supported. As such the RAD have been offering free webinars, personal development and online professional development.
They “bit the bullet” and shifted most CPD programs online, which Rebecca feels has so far been successful. I wondered if they changed the parameters of what was required to attain requisite CPD points and Rebecca explained that, “while there’s no specific modification, yet if people can’t meet the requirements, that’s fine. No-one’s going to audit them and say; you haven’t met it so you can’t be a member at this time”.
The other aspect the RAD did was to move the observation classes which provide CPD points, which they normally deliver in person, to an online delivery over the last month. Rebecca was clearly happy with the result explaining that, “we got a little creative and that was very successful. It’s clear our members really valued that experience”.
The RAD have also developed more formal structured programmes, such as the partnership with the The Australian Ballet’s, Education Department, where Katy McKeown offered free workshop classes to RAD members, which she felt was, “particularly good for our regional members who aren’t normally able to have access to the Company as easily”.
They’ve also been regularly engaged with member meet-ups in each region. These are informal sessions where members meet online with the Regional Manager, often alongside Kathryn, to talk through issues, ask questions about exams, share tips and build community.
For that has been one of the burning questions during this time and one Rebecca has continually asked; “how do we build and maintain a sense of community in a time of crisis? Because it’s incredibly important to keep that going”.
Regards continuing professional development she’s torn, as “ironically it can be a good time to engage with this if people are stuck at home or have more time. Yet it can’t be too costly, too onerous. So we’re trying to provide it in bite sized chunks coupled with free resources so they can up-skill. At the beginning it was simply things such as a free seminar on how to use Zoom for classes. We had one of our staff go through the logistics.”
The question of exams is a much more formal process led by London, and so far that’s meant the advent of video exams being put in place, which is a significant shift.
I was interested then to hear about the future and how the changes made during this time might impact the models of delivery of RAD Australia.
From my perspective, the changes to member support and mixed mode CPD are not something you’d pull back from. That would be nonsensical now we’re in a new world where things won’t be the same, and it’s has a particular benefit for our regional teachers. For exams, it’s hard to tell at the moment, as it’s based on the restrictions [border closures mean they can’t have examiners travel interstate]. The changes are continuing through to March 2021, but then the position will be; if Australia is still locked down regards travel then we’ll have to assess that again.”
Listening to Rebecca and Kathryn it became clear that the RAD have been very pro-active regards community outreach to support members, yet I wanted to know if there were specific shifts taken, perhaps developments forced upon them, that they’ve come to see as potential improvements on the previous model.
“I think like most businesses there’s long been an intention to be more tech savvy, a bit more flexible, more diverse in the offerings of how you achieve member engagement, information, communicate and support members. What Covid-19 did was force us to move to an online environment whether we were ready or not. The biggest silver lining for me personally has been the ability to reach more regional and rural based teachers that we tend to see and hear from less, and who see and hear from us less. Due to geography, regional and rural teachers don’t tend to have the same access to seminars, courses and events compared with their peers in the cities. It’s simply not financially viable to reach every town that we’d like to. So, I would say the thing we have to continue is the online CPD information and support. The silver lining has been reaching more of our members, more often.”
2020 was of course planned as a year of celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the RAD, and so the impact on those planned celebrations has been massive. I inquired whether they’d postponed and moved everything to 2021 or simply had to cancel.
“It’s too early to say. The intention was things would move. Yet it’s just too hard to tell at the moment. The reality is, when you’ve been impacted and your members have been impacted so significantly, and we have to rebuild the business, then we have to be smart about how we spend our money, where we invest it. So, the game has changed a little bit.
The person working on the centenary celebrations is currently working through options. But we’re still at a watch and wait stage. We anticipate there will be things, but they will likely be lower key and not everything will carry through.”
Most businesses have been affected in some way, and even if the business isn’t directly negatively impacted financially, individual anxiety is a concern and so I was interested how staff morale was at RAD Australia and how that might have been managed.
“The staff have been fantastic and I’m incredibly proud. We reflected recently on everything we have achieved and there’s been a lot. JobKeeper has underwritten us, as has the Cash Boost, and that’s helped and been important. We are back into exam mode again, so things are picking back up again toward some level of normal. The team have been amazing. Some people have taken leave, some have reduced hours, and I’ve been on a 20% cut since April; all to try and get us through this period and back on track. Everyone has been contributing where they can, and all staff have remained; no one has had to be let go.”
As exams form the basis for the majority of the RAD’s income, can you talk about how the examination process has changed and why.
“We’re not able to travel examiners interstate due to the restrictions, and normally our policy is not to use local examiners to ensure we avoid any potential conflicts of interest with examiners who teach in their local area exams, so that’s why we’ve had to move to online exams. In some areas of NSW and QLD we have a greater pool of examiners to draw upon, so there’s less conflict of interest. In those areas it means we can still bring someone in from Brisbane to Far North QLD for example without risking a conflict, or an examiner from Sydney to work in Newcastle or vice versa. It’s more difficult for places like Tasmania however, where we don’t have any local examiners. So, in that area for example we’re doing all filmed exams.”
While filmed exams are obviously a pathway forward, it did make me curious whether considerations had been made for camera placement. Is it just one camera, one angle?
Kathryn explained that it’s just one camera with the teacher running through the process as though it’s a normal exam. The camera is essentially placed where the examiner would sit. It occurs to me however that as we embrace – or might be forced to embrace – this brave new world of filmed exams, that moving forward we could potentially become a little more savvy and offer the examiner sitting in front of their computer the opportunity to see multiple angles, or perhaps a camera that can zoom in as required while the other keeps the full body shot. The technology is well established for this so it will be interesting to see how this process is expanded upon over the coming months and potentially years.
My last enquiry regards exams was the choice to make the demi-pointe optional for exams, and I further wondered whether this too might remain post-Covid-19.
“At this stage it’s an adaptation for exams that will stay until March 2021. The main reason for bringing this option in is that a lot of stores have closed, or they don’t have sufficient supply of stock at the moment. And the demi-point isn’t something you want to order online or work in for the first time in a home Zoom class. So, right now it’s March 2021 and I don’t know if it will continue or not.”
While that seems like a genuinely good and fair policy, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it is any different for pointe shoes? Are they not something best bought in a store too? Kathryn responded that, “we’re still asking that students wear pointe shoes for exams. My own daughter was in the predicament of needing pointe shoes during Covid-19, which she was able to get, but she’s barely had them on her feet because they were doing less classes, and so their teacher made the decision that they’re weren’t ready and has decided to hold them back for their exams. And I imagine most teachers would be doing that if their students aren’t ready, particularly for the Inter-Foundational students. We are also working with teachers to move exams. And we’ve said, if the current dates don’t suit, they can pick up the phone, have a chat and we might be able to work something out. We understand that every student, every teacher and every studio situation has been impacted differently and so we need to try and be as flexible as possible.”
Kathryn went on to explain how important the teachers meet-ups during this time have been, particularly those done early on. They gave the opportunity for teachers to talk to one another and share ideas and tips, to collaborate and for the RAD to better appreciate the specific challenges faced in rural and regional areas versus metropolitan areas.
A representative body for dance?
One of the conversations that has resurfaced during this time is whether Australia needs a representative body for the private dance studio sector; one which can talk to Government and lobby on behalf of the sector. As referenced in the introduction, this talking point resurfaced recently when the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian ignorantly suggested that private dance studios weren’t as qualified as teachers in the Public Schools system. Our industry’s lack of Government oversight or having a representative body seemed to work against the industry during this time. The RAD immediately fired off a letter eloquently articulating the industries concerns about the Premiers language and choices, with the aim of better educating Ms. Berejiklian, which was well received and shared widely within the dance community.
Discussing the idea of whether we need representative and/or regulatory body
Rebecca stated –
“Yes, the idea of a representative body has come up broadly in many contexts. The RAD has worked hard to represent the sector. Regards the letter, that was one of many letters we wrote at the time. That one was public, but there were many others we wrote talking to Governments, representing dance. In this work we’ve often collaborated with the likes of Ausdance National and Fitness Australia, who have been fantastic.
My position at the moment is that; it’s a conversation the RAD definitely are interested in being a part of. I don’t know what the answer is, as it’s a complex issue. The key point is, you need to have a funding model that’s going to support a regulatory body. No organisation can start playing that role without the resources and model in place. RAD Australia has an important role to play should that topic progress and I think one of the achievements for our sector during this difficult time has been to gain greater sector recognition. Now if you go in and look at Government advice in many States and Territories (though not all) you see the dance sector being named specifically, whereas at the beginning of the year we were lumped in with gyms and community centres. And that’s been due to a process of reaching out and making our voices heard both at the State and Federal level during this time and making them understand that we are a large industry.”
From talking at length with Rebecca and Kathryn it’s clear the most important message that RAD Australia have worked to get across is that they’re constantly asking; how can we focus to support our membership during this period and be as flexible as possible?
As Rebecca concluded; “There will be a lot to reflect upon and dissect coming out of this period, and while I don’t think anyone has all the answers right now, there will be many interesting conversations ahead and our industry will likely change because of it”.