A New Generation
Nine Studio Owners Under 40
Bethany Marc-Aurele, 32
Hudson Dance & Movement
Hoboken, New Jersey
Hoboken is quite transient, so my enrollment fluctuates. Once children hit a certain age, families leave for the suburbs. It’s frustrating because we can never work with one child for an extended amount of time. On the other hand, new families are constantly coming into Hoboken, so we’re always getting new kids.
In 2010 I started a junior professional company for students ages 5 and older. They must (though usually they want to) come multiple days per week, which is expensive. But I refuse to turn children away, especially if they show potential, so I started to personally fund a scholarship program. Seeing that I could only do that for so many years, this year I started a nonprofit, which I’ve learned is a huge undertaking. There’s so much paperwork, and after you get the status and build the foundation, you have to find money and people to donate. It’s not an easy time right now; you have to find people who are really passionate about programs like this.
Space and rent are huge issues: We used to be in a basement down the street, but as we grew, the space didn’t hold everyone. Either I had to become a very exclusive school by auditioning kids and not accepting as many, or take the plunge and pay more rent for a bigger space. Now, we have three studios, but it’s still not as advantageous as being in the suburbs and finding a warehouse. My main goal is education, so I don’t want to throw a lot of students in a class just to make money. I only allow eight kids per class, with two teachers in each class.
I was young when I met my husband and now we have three girls: 8, 5 and 9 months old. People ask how I do it, and I just don’t think about it. Dance is as much of a passion of mine as raising my family. I hope it gives my girls a strong work ethic and teaches them that they can achieve anything they want, if they put the work into it. It’s challenging at times to find the balance between work and family, but it’s good for them to see that they will be able to do it, too, if they want.
Kate Jablonski, 26
Foundations Performance Center
When I first started off, I was 22, and people had a lot of questions for me. Not that they necessarily doubted me, but they recognized that I was young and asked me all the things they thought I didn’t think of. It was a challenge to be taken seriously. Like, “Oh, honey, we’ll get that fire code. OK, hon?” Well, no, I know what I’m doing, and please don’t talk to me like that.
I have a degree in business entrepreneurship from University of Illinois at Chicago. I think I’m innovative and have an entrepreneurial spirit, but I wasn’t so savvy in finance or accounting. So I knew that I needed an education, and I wanted it. It was really helpful when I was starting my company because I was able to work on my business plan in school.
One year ago I converted an old basketball gym into a rehearsal and performance space. Two rooms are separated by big ballroom doors with mirrors on one side. Both are studios for classes during the week, though the floor is about three feet higher in what we call the stage room. When it’s show time, we roll out carpets, chairs and risers into the lower “audience” studio, open the doors and cover the mirrors with black fabric. We also have a lighting booth. It’s been a huge undertaking financially, but I’m no longer thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m paying $200 an hour for this theater; let’s run in, set some lights and get out!” Our students perform all the time: We have improvisation showcases, student choreography showings, musical theater productions and more. If we did all that in rented space, we’d probably be spending between $40,000 and $50,000.
Lori Grooters, 37
School of Classical Ballet and Dance
West Des Moines, Iowa
Acquired business in 2004
So many studios are opening up in Des Moines and I really have to keep up my game to inspire our students. My challenge is knowing when and how to advertise successfully. We need to start attracting more families when their kids are young so that those 3- and 4-year-olds can grow with us.
Seven years ago we started taking some students to Youth America Grand Prix, which was new for us because we’d never done competitions before. My husband is friends with Sascha Radetsky—they grew up together at Kirov Academy in Washington, DC—and they were chatting about YAGP. (My husband is really the one who likes to get out there and talk to everyone about what’s going on. We’re definitely a team.) I thought it sounded fun, but I had no idea what I was getting into. It’s a lot of extra time, but it’s a great opportunity to work one-on-one with students. It gives them extra performance opportunities, and for the studio and myself, it helps us keep up with new trends in dance.
It’s difficult to juggle my family and my business. I have a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old. Every now and then I’ll get a sub because my kids just need Mommy. The hardest part is that when I come home late at night, they want to spend time with me, even though they really should be headed to bed. But they are around the ballet studio quite a bit. My daughter takes dance classes a few days a week, and my son takes karate there. It’s fun to peek my head in and watch when I have a chance.
Tori Rogoski, 35
Dance Education Center
Stevens Point, Wisconsin
The vast majority of my students aren’t going to pursue a career in dance, so we really focus on holistic training and building life skills. Even with the 3-year-olds we talk about healthy food choices versus foods you should only have once in a while. In staff meetings I always say that our number-one job is to make these students become great people, and number two, let’s hope they learn some dance along the way.
I decided to open a studio because I needed to be in the driver’s seat where I could make decisions and do things the way I’d like them to be done. At some of the other places I taught, I didn’t approve of the way students were treated. One studio owner would say things like “that little porker” or “that girl’s no good.” I think whether a student is going to be a professional dancer or not, every single one who walks through the door is so important. I felt a desire and a responsibility to give them my best and to build them up with dance instead of tearing them down. I have a couple of students who are overweight or obese, and I’m so happy they’re here at my studio, where we work on positive affirmation. When we’re turning I tell everyone, “Spot your own beautiful eyes.”
I regularly attend conferences and I’m constantly educating myself. I also make sure I go out and see shows. I maintain a good connection with the University of Wisconsin–Madison, my alma mater. I stay involved with them to know what they’re looking for in dancers, so I know how to prepare my students.
Robert Contreras, 37
Inspire Dance Company
Las Vegas, Nevada
Because of time and space issues, I have only two levels: junior, ages 9 through 12, and senior, ages 13 and up. My junior students come in for 2 hours and 15 minutes, and then the seniors come in for the same amount of time. We have our main company rehearsal on Saturdays. Most studios have their students there for a lot of hours, and I think that’s when kids get burned out. Studios tend to forget that these kids are teenagers.
When I started, I wanted to make everything easier for the parents. Our billing is done online. The parents can go in and make payments, and everything’s set up on automatic bill pay. No one really pays tuition in cash or check anymore; we just deduct it from their bank accounts.
I like to watch European companies, to see what choices they’re making. I believe they are ahead of the times. And I’m such an anatomy person—I’m always taking Gyrotonic and Pilates, to learn more about anatomy and body awareness. I take classes from teachers who will teach me exercises to help my dancers be well-rounded.
Erin Babbs, 33
Murrieta Dance Project
When I opened the studio, I was 26. Because I was younger than some of the parents, I didn’t get the same respect right away that they would’ve given someone older. The positive side was that I had a lot of respect from the students. They thought I was cooler and more up-to-date.
This has been the first year that I’ve really figured out how to balance being in control with delegation. Starting out, I wanted to do everything myself. I didn’t want parents to help—I didn’t want any outside help. But when you’re starting a business, you have to have people in different roles to make it successful. And roles have to be defined.
I now have 13 teachers, a bookkeeper (my husband) who works full-time and a front desk administrative assistant. My front desk person is a parent—I’ve been teaching her kids for nine years. Many people warned me not to hire a parent, but it turned out to be the perfect choice. We now have 20 volunteers for each of our two recitals.
One thing that we spent a lot of money on is our stereo system. Rather than go to Walmart and buy a cheap one, we really invested and bought amplifiers, mixers and really good speakers. Everything was purchased separately, so that if one thing breaks, we can replace that one part. We spent about $1,200 on each stereo unit, and after seven years, they’re all in perfect condition.
Jill Lynch, 35
Stage Door Studios
I opened when the economy was not doing well. My first year I didn’t have anyone working my front desk. It was me. I waited tables to pay for my salary or the ballet teachers who came in. But I tried to be smart. I was single. I lived with my sister. And I never rented space that was beyond my means. I started with two rooms. Then two women opened a preschool next door, so we started teaching dance to those kids and eventually shared facilities. We outgrew that and opened a studio next door in a strip mall, and we’re now at a point when we should look for a bigger space again. A lot of people think big. I was thinking small with hope to grow.
My second year I hired a manager, paying her in trade for classes. Now she’s on salary. You need someone who deals with the little issues that really frustrate you—like someone’s complaint about a tutu—when you’re trying to see the big picture. I thought I was saving by not paying. The amount of money that I lost that first year by not having someone in charge of billing wasn’t worth it.
We go into four local schools and teach dance. The schools charge us rent and then we charge the students for the class. It allowed me to expand my studio reach without paying for electricity and all those other costs. And I’ve seen kids come to the studio for more classes afterward.
Our Mommy and Me classes are free, September to November. It’s to get all the 2-year-olds in the community into my studio first. Because it’s free, there’s less pressure. Parents aren’t worried if their kids aren’t getting their feet into first position. About 9 percent sign up and those who don’t tend to come back when their kids are 3.
Sabetha Mumm, 39
Dance Vision and
The Ballet Academy
Bad as the economy was two years ago, I opened up a second location. People said, “What are you doing? Your timing is horrible!” Everybody was downsizing: cutting teachers, cutting classes, doing extra choreography on the side. We didn’t end up losing any kids, but we didn’t experience any growth, either. But because my timing was so “bad,” I could get into a space really cheap, and I could get mirrors and floors cheap, too. I opened a ballet-only academy so my students could have ballet six days a week, if they wanted. Because I gave it a different name—it’s in a different building—I get students from other studios as well, so they can get additional ballet training.
One innovative thing we started is Refer a Friend. If our students bring a friend to the studio and the friend stays ’til recital, we’ll give the original student a free recital fee. And boy, that gets them to sign up their friends in droves! We tried Bring a Friend Week, but it was impossible to teach class. The kids end up bringing a friend who’s maybe never danced before, so you don’t even get to teach a technique class. It becomes more of a PE class.
I started out just wanting to offer the best quality dance education that I could. As we’ve grown, I also focus on helping students find their career paths. I like helping them find their way to what’s going to happen after dance studio life.
It’s important to me that we have a great children’s and recreational program. I love the kid who just comes once a week and loves to dance as much as I love the kid who dances 20 hours a week.
Samantha Scotto Gobeille, 31
Arizona Dance Artistry
There’s so much emphasis right now on the commercial aspect of dance. But I want to bring in master teachers for ballet classes or have someone from Alvin Ailey come in rather than reaching for celebrities. Our kids have quizzes and ballet vocabulary reviews. We have anatomy lessons. At first it was hard to get parents to fully trust that I have a strong arts background. They just had to learn. Are your kids getting a true learning experience in manners and dance education? They saw the value of that, and it only took a year for us to double in size.
We try to do everything online. We use the EchoSign system, so that when parents enroll online, they can sign a tuition agreement on their computer or even their cell phone. We use North Social to help personalize our Facebook page. We do online ticketing through shOvation and use CostumeManager for all our costume ordering.
This past year we stopped all print advertising. Instead we’ve used that money ($3,500–$5,000) to do internal marketing. We started our Create a Class program. I once had a class with only three students and I didn’t want to cancel it. So, I called all three and said, “If you can each find a friend, we can keep the class.” They did and as a thank-you, I gave them all $50 tuition credits. That opened my eyes. Now we put it out there that if you don’t see a time on the schedule that works for you, we can add things. Once people knew about the incentive, they brought me business.
What I Wish I’d Known When First Starting Out
Seasoned advice from veteran studio owners
“I wish I’d known how to be a boss.” —Tony Williams
TONY WILLIAMS DANCE CENTER Boston, Massachusetts
● The art of dance and running a small business are very separate things. You are the friend of your students and faculty and need to separate from that. I learned that the hard way.
● Treat every student as an individual and with respect. You also have to realize that parent and student are part of the same equation. I would also remind teachers that students know when they are not your favorites. I make a point of acknowledging, in front of the class, students who may work hard, but who may not have the talent or a perfect physique.
● Students have more homework these days. Have a quiet place, even with a computer and an internet connection, so they can get school work done before dance class. We even have tutors available for our students. —Nancy Wozny
“My people skills would be far more important than my dance skills.” —Kathy Blake
KATHY BLAKE DANCE STUDIOS Amherst, New Hampshire
● Most people open a dance studio to teach dance. I started because I wanted to run a business. I hired people who knew more than I did, learned tax laws and eventually got a master’s in psychology in my 40s. After all, you are dealing with people’s hopes and dreams.
● I should have done management leadership training right out of the gate. Of course, you want to offer good quality dance, but that is just one aspect of what you do in running a dance studio. You mentor, hire and fire, coach, manage issues all day long. It’s very personal.
● The thing that really matters is having outstanding customer service. Terrific dancers and teachers are plentiful, individuals with people skills are harder
to find. You have to be able to handle complaints with grace. There’s not a day when I don’t get a complaint. You need tremendous physical and emotional energy. —NW
“I try to keep my emotions out of the business end; they belong in the dance class.” —Jane Weiner
HOPE STONE STUDIO Houston, Texas
● Never underestimate the importance of a good receptionist. That’s the first person a student sees.
● I made the mistake of starting with only one studio, which is very limiting when it comes to making money. I should have chosen a freestanding building with at least two studios and more parking. —NW
“If you just focus on the dancing, the business will suffer.” —Carryl Slobotkin
JAZZ UNLIMITED STUDIO OF DANCE ARTS Marlton, New Jersey
● After my first recital, parents complained about the costs of the costumes, so the next time it was leotards and tights in a less fancy hall. They complained about that, too. Since then, I have always had elaborate recitals.
● When I would see talented students, I would let them take extra classes. Then one day I realized I had many students taking classes for free. You have to be able to meet your needs, too. —NW
Photos from top: by Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Foundations Performance Center; courtesy of School of Classical Ballet and Dance; courtesy of Dance Education Center; by Graciela Federico, courtesy of Inspire Dance Company; courtesy of Murrieta Dance Project; by Meghan Manahan Photography, courtesy of Stage Door Studios; by Sarah McConnell, courtesy of Dance Vision; courtesy of Arizona Dance Artistry