Anita Flejter of ‘Ultimate Tango School of Dance’: “Do not compromise the quality”

Do not compromise the quality. Line up real experts which you know will bring value to your participants. With so many events available right now, the first report you create with your participants is the one that will decide if they stay with you and come back to your next event, or you are done. As […]

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Do not compromise the quality. Line up real experts which you know will bring value to your participants. With so many events available right now, the first report you create with your participants is the one that will decide if they stay with you and come back to your next event, or you are done.

As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anita Flejter.

Anita Flejter is the CMO and Co-Founder of Ultimate Tango School of Dance, where Argentine Tango is taught not as a dance but as a philosophy of life. Ms. Flejter is exceptionally qualified to talk about online events as Ultimate Tango had to transition all their group lessons to an online format, either pre-recorded or ‘live’ on zoom, due to COVID-19. Ms. Flejter came up with quite a few tiny solutions that allowed her to translate the typically three-dimensional teaching experience onto a flat screen, and still make it work.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I always had a drive for improving things, and so among many trains of thoughts that ran through my head, the two most important were: “why is this done so poorly?” and “how can this be done better?” We are talking about a seven-year-old girl here. I always had a low tolerance for mediocrity and had — still have — a yearning to go places where ‘acceptable’ is an unknown term. I grew up in a small city east of Warsaw. It was the capital of what would be the equivalent to a state in the US. The communist era was approaching the end — you still had empty shelves in stores, lines for everything, and food rationed out by food-stamps. For a kid, it didn’t matter. When one does not know the other side, one cannot miss it.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

The one-word answer would be — destiny, if you believe in such a thing. As a first grader back in communist Poland, through whatever the selection process was, I was picked to be taken to the Ballet School in Warsaw (the capital of Poland), but my Mom refused. She claimed that I would have no chance to have a career in ballet with my ears sticking out so much. So instead of becoming a ballerina, I became a visual artist studying graphic design first. However, since being an artist was also considered risky, I chose to study art restoration with a specialization in monumental painting. And that was my leading career for years. After moving to the U.S., I spent years working in my original profession. You can see traces of my work in Rockefeller Center Murals or Museum of Natural History.

The dancing was always on the side, like a parallel universe running at full speed next to ‘normal’ life, and eventually it kind of took over. About ten years ago, I had an opportunity to become a co-owner of Stepping Out Studio, one of the two most prominent dance studios in NYC. And from there, things just took off in this entirely new direction. I became co-founder of Adelante Studio (NYC), and eventually, with my husband and partner, we created our very own school — Ultimate Tango, focused solely on Argentine Tango.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A mistake when we started to run virtually? Truth be told, it was not funny at all when it was happening, but in hindsight, it could make a funny story.

There were actually a couple of mistakes. We had a guest instructor lecturing about musicality in Tango dancing. Typically, during live events, the instructor alternated between demonstrating dance steps to pre-recorded music, showing rhythm on the stave, and playing the instrument to illustrate his points.

To accommodate that during the virtual seminar, with the lecturer joining from Germany and us from Medford, MA, we asked him to join as three panelists — three cameras instead of one. What was the right solution in theory, turned out to be quite a nerve-racking experience as we could not predict and, therefore, correctly spotlight where he was going to go next.

To not block the view of the stave, instead of pointing with the hand, he decided to use a pointing stick that was transparent and thus utterly invisible to the camera eye. On top of everything else, he thought that he could correctly predict the time delay but, he over compensated which is a common problem with virtual conferencing. He was playing music from an external speaker and talking over a microphone connected directly to the computer. Well — you can imagine how this went… Of course, that was months ago, and now Zoom had already addressed most of those issues, so there are no longer concerns,

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Many books can have an impact on a person. Some of them seem to appear when you need them. Some give you knowledge that you are seeking, and they influence you that way. Some give you a better understanding of who you are. The book that I read as a teenager and which stuck with me through all these years as a little memory, a little secret, is ‘Zorba the Greek’ by Nikos Kazantzakis. When I first read it, it showed me that the world would be what I make it. And that every woman, every human being, is eternally beautiful.

“Behind each woman rises the austere, sacred and mysterious face of Aphrodite. That was the face Zorba was seeing and talking to and desiring. Dame Hortense was only an ephemeral and transparent mask which Zorba tore away to kiss the eternal mouth.”

My favorite movie is ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ for many reasons; firstly, it shows how strong the power of the mind is and that what we truly and deeply care about cannot be erased, though it has to be fought for.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
 “Can’t you?”, the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.”
 Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
 “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

If it doesn’t work, try again. There is always a solution.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

As a dance school, we run a variety of events from simple Milongas (Tango dance gatherings) through to an array of seminars; workshops, conferences, exhibitions, theatrical productions, live music concerts, or dinner shows.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Teaching partner dancing in a ‘live virtual conference’ setting is an ultimate challenge. We do not want to simply do a demo and let people admire it from their side of the screen. It is not a lecture nor a show. It’s not even a yoga class where you follow the flow. To accomplish that, we came up with quite a few tiny solutions that allow us to translate the typically three-dimensional teaching experience onto a flat screen, and still make it work. Our goal is to teach. This means people need to leave the lesson feeling that they’ve learned and not thinking: “ok, I’ll look at the video later and try to figure it out”. I think for any teacher, that’s the worst possible outcome. If someone has to go and figure it out after attending the seminar, that means you failed. It is different from sparking interest and craving for more.

We use two or three cameras — one with a wide-angle view, one for the feet, and one from the ceiling — to redirect where participants shall be focusing. There are many props we created specifically for online seminars. After almost a year’s experience, all I can say is that, once again, the impossible became possible. From the instructors’ perspective we can see significant progress among those who braved the virtual experience but, there are also challenges; a virtual experience in COVID times requires a designated partner who is eager and willing to participate. It also involves arranging a dance space, your speakers, and a screen in a way that the instructors can see the participants, and vice versa. It is different than sitting in front of your camera with a virtual background behind. Therefore, what immediately occurs is a participant’s discomfort and fear that everyone is watching not only them but their private space too.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I found Milonga La Memoria to be an enchanting, fascinating event brought to life single-handedly by James Oh, the Loca Tango Project organizer. The event ran continuously every Saturday for a couple of months. DJs from virtually everywhere played the standard Milonga format tandas (and cortinas!) for all those who wished to listen live, or later at their convenience. It was created with James’s unselfishness to help Tango professionals survive the pandemic. And of course, it was executed with fantastic attention to detail and built a great atmosphere and community. There were 2500 participants, that is not a small number.

To replicate that… Organizing an event is a talent. The good ones are done by visionaries. The starting point is knowing your reason ‘why?’. Why do you want an event in the first place?

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Overscheduling. Inadequate content. Forcing so-called networking. Just to name a few. Besides, of course, technical issues.

It is the participant that shall benefit from the event. Leaving the event with a sense of accomplishment, gaining some new insight, knowledge, and learning about possible solutions to the problems they face. People are registering for all sorts of seminars to have their questions answered at a deeper level.

I truly do not want to spend three days of my life staring at a screen to then shut the computer with the feeling of failure and wasted time because I learned everything about the speaker and their success, but nothing about the subject matter.

It is also incredibly frustrating when, during a virtual event, the third speaker talks about precisely the same thing as the two before him or her. Why wouldn’t the organizer moderate the event by assigning and scheduling the subjects according to some sort of logic?

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

We are using Zoom and Thinkific, which is an online course hosting platform. That allows for easy scheduling, registrations, payments, hosting and access to the replays.

We tried many other platforms, but they were either too limited, not compatible, or were simply crashing too often, providing an unreliable experience.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

Rather than recommending a specific tool or software, I would like to focus on pinpointing the necessities. How they will be fulfilled, I think, is a matter of budget, crew size, the type and size of the event, industry, and the demographics of participants. Some participants will have a harder time dealing with the overall virtual aspect since turning the computer on can already seem like advanced technology. In which case, the clarity of the interface and the website’s design will be of the utmost importance. The industry aspect is also important, as some more technology-oriented industries will be laughing at the solutions we are using.

In any case, the necessities would be: the interface to promote the event, the software or platform that allows for scheduling, registering, and managing payment (and refunds), an email service, a platform that has at least some degree of automation to send the confirmations, schedules and reminders, the virtual conferencing platform and video hosting platform which allows access to replays. And most importantly — a bucket of high-speed internet. Jokes aside, do have a backup plan and an extra WiFi Hotspot for yourself and ideally an alternative presenter on standby to save you when your original speaker is having technical difficulties.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

One — Do not compromise the quality. Line up real experts which you know will bring value to your participants. With so many events available right now, the first report you create with your participants is the one that will decide if they stay with you and come back to your next event, or you are done.

Two — Whenever possible, request the outline of what your guest experts will be presenting to avoid redundancy. You can also use it in your promotional materials to make the topic clearer to participants and eliminate that part from the presentation itself, thus gaining the speakers some valuable time.

Three — Post presenters bios and all resources upfront to eliminate that part from the presentation. Again, time is of the essence.

Four — Schedule adequately. Just like real-life events, the online sessions cannot be scheduled back-to-back. This applies to all online events but, especially now during the pandemic, when everyone is working from home. There is real life happening that needs to be taken care of.

Five — Do not force networking. Virtual networking is different from an in-person event. We cannot scan the room in search of the vibe we are looking for. Online is more forced but also more intense. Carefully rethink the whole networking session(s) based on the industry you are in and the type of event you are organizing.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Get a piece of paper and make it clear to yourself what you are doing and why. Many events seem to be fitting into what I call the ‘checkmark category’, done for the sake of checking it off. 
 You need to clearly know what you are trying to convey, who your audience is, and how you will reach them. Once you know that, the rest is just strategizing and simple, regular event planning.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Dance Tango. An old-fashioned way of discovering who you are, connecting with others, finding love, making friends, building relationships, communicating, creating communities, and respecting codes. And meditating through walking in the embrace together and to the music.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have coffee with Barack Obama. I think he is one of the most gifted speakers. I have always wanted to ask him how long it takes him to prepare. Or does it just come naturally and he improvises on the spot?

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