Strategies for starting new competition groups
Starting a new competition team is a tricky business. It’s expensive, time-consuming and hard work for students, parents and teachers. Whether you’re adding a new division to your roster of teams, creating a young group to replace graduating students or starting fresh in a new studio with a competitive drive, knowing how and when to go for gold depends on your studio’s goals. Here, three owners share their strategies.
Stewart Johnson Dance Academy (450 students)
Hamilton Square, NJ
At Stewart Johnson Dance Academy, Kim Johnson-Spolitino and her mother, co-director Isobel Johnson, have about 60 members, ages 8–18, on their current competition team. Generally, they choose to add talented new dancers to existing groups of students, as opposed to starting a new team. (Johnson-Spolitino estimates that she creates a brand-new group every three to four years.) “If good kids come along, I just push them ahead onto the team,” she says. “It takes a couple years to get the number of students we want for each age group.”
Last year, she decided to start a new 10-member competition company of 7- and 8-year-old dancers. “We had some talented little students who looked like they were ready,” Johnson-Spolitino says. “We’ve been starting them younger and younger.” She says that waiting until they’re 10 or 11 will cost them opportunities, and they may fall behind their peers at other studios. She chose these students based on how they performed in class and in recitals, noting that their performance quality onstage is often the most important factor.
But this blossoming team won’t make its competition debut until this year. The kids spent their first season taking one extra class—focused on strengthening their technique, jumps and turns—and watching the older students compete.
Johnson-Spolitino waits until the team is ready to win, because the studio’s success in competition is a big draw for new students. “It’s one of the first things kids mention when they walk into the studio,” she says. “It motivates people to come to us, especially if the kids do well.”
Walker’s Gymnastics and Dance (300 dance students)
Janine Walsh starts a new group of entry-level competitors every season to keep growing the program. Her 5- and 6-year-old novices start small, taking only one ballet class per week, plus a one-hour company class, which combines technique and choreography. “We have a chance to introduce the experience slowly without overburdening the family,” she says. But they still compete just as often as older dancers—about four to five times per season.
As the students get older, she says, families come to understand the importance of additional training and added costs. By 8 years old, competing students take two ballet classes, one jazz and one tap class, if they’re interested. By age 10 they add a modern class. The 55-member company pays tuition based on the number of classes taken, just like recreational dancers (who average three classes per week). Intermediate and advanced competitors pay an extra choreography fee of $60 per routine. (Costumes are paid for separately.)
Since Walsh has played the dual role of studio owner and dance mom, she appreciates the importance of communicating up front with parents, especially when competition gets pricey. She asks parents to submit a request form at the start of every season, stating how many numbers they can commit to pay for, as well as a student “wish list” for solos, duos or trios (for an added fee). “If parents can learn up front what they’re going to get,” she says, “they’ll trust you more when decisions have to be made.”
DanzHouse (68 students)
When Kathalene Taylor-White opened her studio four years ago, she formed an eight-member competition group immediately, since parents had inquired about it when enrolling their kids. Initially, she thought the hardest part of running the team would be teaching the three routines she had planned. But she had not anticipated having to coach her 9-year-old students in handling the pressures of competing.
At their first competition, her students were inconsolable when they didn’t come out on top. “I had to teach them that the results are just someone’s opinion,” says Taylor-White. “It doesn’t mean that they’re bad dancers.”
And she made sure to explain this concept to her younger dancers the next year, when she had enough students enrolled to start a new minis group. “I tell new kids up front that it’s not just about winning a platinum,” she says. “But did you have fun? Did you learn? That’s been one of the hardest things to teach.”
To give her competition students an edge, Taylor-White upped their number of required classes. Instead of taking one ballet class a week, her oldest competition group must take three, while the others take two. She also added a hip-hop requirement, so they’d be more comfortable at conventions.
Last year, she started taking students to competitions outside of Memphis, to avoid continually going up against more established schools in her area. She rented a bus to take her 23-member team to St. Louis, but parents weren’t happy with the steep rental price, plus gas. This year, parents carpooled to bring down costs.
Taylor-White is very aware of the financial strain of competitions on students’ families. “They have to pay so much for costumes and competition entry fees,” she says. So she deliberately keeps her company fees low. Her competition students even get $10 off the regular monthly tuition of $150. This includes unlimited classes plus four group choreography numbers. Students pay additional choreography fees only for a solo, duo or trio, ranging from $150 to $180 each. Building enrollment takes priority over bringing in more money per student. Taylor-White says: “It’s worth it, because we really enjoy what we’re doing.” DT
Photo courtesy of Kathalene Taylor-White