Any savvy studio owner knows that bringing in guest artists is a good idea, whether for a two-hour master class or a weekend spent choreographing recital or competition routines. Your students learn new styles, get exposed to different teaching approaches and have the chance to network with professionals. But it can be a challenge to bring in the guest you want—paying for airfare, lodging, meals, hourly teaching rates, choreography fees—while keeping your bottom line in the black. And you want to keep master class fees reasonable for your dancers. But there are ways to economize, if you’re willing to think outside the box.
1 Go local. Can’t afford to bring in Justin Bieber’s biggest backup dancer? Ask a college professor or graduate student from your local university dance program. Or if you live within driving distance of a bigger city, take advantage of resources there to save on airfare and accommodations. “We’re in Connecticut, so there are many cities close to us—New York City, Boston,” says Gabby Sparks, owner of Sparkle & Shine Dance in Bantam, CT. “I can find people you wouldn’t imagine within a 30-minute drive.”
2 Play the long game. If you offer guest artists the chance to stay for a full week or to return once a month for three months, they might be inclined to lower their hourly rate. It’s a win-win: They get paid for more classes, and you can open up the opportunity to more dancers.
Longer residencies will help you build lasting relationships. “We create more of a bond with these teachers, who want to come back next year,” says Sparks about her studio’s weeklong summer camp. In fact, a recent guest artist enjoyed her time there so much that she ended up joining Sparks’ permanent faculty after moving to the area.
3 Take advantage of downtime. Scheduling master classes during off-peak times—when an artist might be home for the holidays, for example, or during the summer, when the convention circuit cools down—could cut you a break in their fee.
4 Shop around. Use a flight aggregator website, like kayak.com or skyscanner.com, to find and compare the cheapest airline tickets. If you know your studio schedule far enough in advance, try booking flights 54 days out from the trip. Studies show this is the optimal advance time to purchase a U.S. domestic flight.
5 Take it outside. Hold your master classes off-site to encourage students from other studios to drop in. By opening the class up to the general public and taking away the possible stigma of having to visit your studio’s stomping grounds, you’ll up your master class enrollment. “Other kids just don’t want to walk through your doors,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Orlando Ballet dancer Isabella Mendez teaches a master class for Sparkle & Shine Dance in Connecticut.
6 Collect up front. Carole Royal of Royal Dance Works in Phoenix, Arizona, recommends charging competition dancers a fee at the beginning of the year to cover a number of comp-related expenses—including guest artist costs. Suggested range: $250–$400.
7 Mi casa, su casa. If you know the teacher you’re bringing in personally, don’t splurge on a hotel room. Instead, offer your guest room as a cozy (and free) accommodation. “I would say that at least half the people I bring in stay at my house,” says Royal.
8 Let them side-hustle. If you need choreography for seven different competition solos, and your creative juices just aren’t flowing, offer your master teacher the chance to choreograph. You’ll get a much-needed break from dancemaking, and they’ll get the opportunity to earn a nice chunk of change. You can charge dancers a choreography fee that you pass on to the guest artist directly. Suggested range: $200–$250.
9 Pump up the value. Feel hesitant to charge $70 a head for a one-hour master class but know that’s what you need in order to break even? Ask your guest artist to do a short Q&A session with students after class. Their advice, professional experiences and personal anecdotes are an added value your students will appreciate.
10 Cover your bases. Ask your insurance agent if visiting teachers are covered by your liability policy. If they aren’t, make sure the guest artist has liability insurance and lists you as an additional insured. DT
Thinkstock; photo courtesy of Sparkle & Shine Dance
The holidays can make this time of year fly by. But busy studio directors know that December isn’t the time to rest on their laurels. “I’m constantly thinking of what’s coming up next,” says Jill Athridge, owner of Stage Door Studios in Sarasota, Florida. “I always say I’m an event planner—running a studio is a series of continuous events.”
We’ve compiled a checklist of things to consider this December, to give your business a year-end boost you might not know it needs. Trying all 10 would be overwhelming, but some of these ideas (or their shortcut versions) may inspire you.
1 Be a gratitude goddess. Athridge shows appreciation for her staff by holding two separate holiday parties at her home, one for her faculty and one for her student assistants. The staff party is catered, and she invites her teachers to include their significant others. Everyone brings a cheap gift to play White Elephant. “It’s a good ice breaker for the significant others you might not know, and everybody fights over the gifts,” she says. Athridge also gives out gift cards and baskets.
For her assistant party, she orders pizza or her husband grills burgers. She asks the students to bring White Elephant gifts and gives them personalized presents, like tree ornaments with the studio’s logo on them or specially printed studio shirts.
The “Too Long; Didn’t Read” Version: Write individualized thank-you notes. Athridge starts writing hers in November. “I don’t want it to be, ‘Thanks so much, Love, Jill,’” she says. “I have a staff of 17, so I try to write one or two a day. It’s more heartfelt, and they don’t sound the same.”
2 Show your website some love. Still have photos from seven years ago scrolling across your homepage? Swap them out for more recent ones. Raised your tuition? Update your pricing page. Embed the video from Nationals you’ve been dying to show off, upload bios for your staff or finally install the plug-in to include your social-media buttons.
TL;DR Keep your social-media platforms humming along through the holidays—with minimal upkeep—by scheduling posts with a social-media management program like Hootsuite or Salesforce Marketing Cloud. Tiered plans offer auto-scheduling on a number of social-media profiles at once.
3 Give your dancers a chance to shine. Don’t make your students wait until June to show off what they’ve learned—institute a winter performance. Athridge partners with the Moscow Ballet to offer her students (and other local dancers) the chance to perform as party children, mice, snowflakes and angels over two shows of the Great Russian Nutcracker. Her studio also participates in a holiday community parade down Sarasota’s Main Street on the first Saturday in December.
TL;DR Don’t have the resources to coordinate a full-length ballet? Consider inviting parents and friends to the studio for an informal showing of what each class has been working on since the start of the school year.
4 Get the 411 on what parents think. Build a short questionnaire—10–15 questions—with an online survey-generating program like SurveyMonkey, asking parents for mid-year feedback on your studio, classes, teachers and schedule. You’ll get a feel for which areas need attention or improvement and have the second half of the studio year to implement changes.
TL;DR Having trouble getting parents to fill out your survey? Offer the chance to win a tuition credit for every family that completes your questionnaire.
5 Tackle renovations or DIY projects. Take advantage of your winter break by deep-cleaning or refinishing your floors or re-taping your marley. Install cubbies, paint your walls or reorganize your prop closet or storage facility.
TL;DR If you have work-study students who need to max out their hours before the end of the year, or if your high schoolers need to accrue service hours before the semester’s end, now’s the time to put them to work.
6 Gear up for January. “In January, I get 100 new students,” says Athridge. “It’s that group of people who wanted to do soccer in the fall, but once that’s done, they think, ‘Let’s do dance again!’” She doesn’t mind the surge of new students, mid-year, because they’ve participated in a similar way before, and they’re willing to pay any extra fees to have a costume shipped faster.
Athridge cultivates this seasonally loyal following of students by visiting nearby elementary schools and sponsoring an ice cream truck during open house week in the fall. “All of the kids get ice cream and see that it’s sponsored by Stage Door Studios,” she says. “I pass out flyers, and my teen helpers wear our shirts.”
TL;DR Gear your December marketing to dance newbies. “I’ll do a promotion where if you sign up for classes as your child’s Christmas gift, you’ll get a free pair of ballet shoes to put under the tree,” says Athridge.
7 Hold performance reviews. Mid-year staff evaluations will help you measure your employees’ progress and track their goals. Have each teacher fill out a form (ahead of time) asking questions like: What’s been working for you so far this year? What hasn’t, and how has your performance been affected? How were your talents recognized? What do you want to improve on? Take notes, discuss any issues that come up in conversation and keep criticism constructive.
TL;DR Arrange meetings easily with a scheduling tool like Doodle (doodle.com, plus a mobile app). You can poll your faculty for dates and times that work for them, share your own availability and even send automated meeting reminders.
8 Get your (paperwork) ducks in a row. The deadline to file and send your employees and contractors W–2 and 1099 forms is January 31, but if you close your studio the last two weeks of December—meaning your faculty receive their final 2016 paychecks before the end of the year—you can get a head start. Meet with your accountant to plan your taxes and what you can write off. You’ll need your balance sheet, profit-and-loss statement and cash flow statement, at the very least.
TL;DR Ditch the shoebox full of receipts (and get on your accountant’s good side) by keeping track of business expenses throughout the year with Expensify. The app scans and categorizes receipts and tracks mileage. Even if you lose a receipt, you can import a credit card transaction into Expensify, and the app will generate an IRS-guaranteed receipt for any purchases under $75.
9 Review your business processes. Do any of your business practices need updating? Automating a recurring process such as registration could save you time come next fall (or in January if you offer mid-year registration). Or maybe it’s time to make the switch to e-mail marketing (as opposed to relying solely on handouts sent home) with the help of an easy-to-use platform like MailChimp or Constant Contact.
TL;DR Install studio-management software and watch your business transform. You’ll be able to review receivables at a glance, collect tuition online, track attendance trends and even organize your recital sequence.
10 Recharge your batteries. Resist the urge to tackle every single item on your to-do wishlist (even this one!) and remember to take time for yourself. Studies show that performance levels increase after breaks—you’ll get more done in a shorter amount of time when you take the opportunity to recharge. Whether it’s a short vacation or a few days’ rest, it will go far to reignite your passion and enthusiasm for running a studio.
TL;DR Give yourself an at-home spa night. Light a few candles, pour some wine, play soothing music and bubble the bath. A DIY manicure and pedicure or face mask are simple ways to pamper yourself without leaving the privacy of your own bathroom. DT
Asking the right questions in an interview will reveal if a candidate’s goals are aligned with your studio’s values.
Hiring the right teachers can seem overwhelming. Where do you find the most qualified candidates? What are the best interview questions to ask? What if you have to fire a faculty member? What’s more important, experience or attitude? Do references matter? Questions like these—not to mention assessing someone’s actual teaching and choreography skills—can leave many studio owners scratching their heads. And although a human resources (HR) department isn’t a requirement for a dance studio, implementing professional hiring standards should be—to ensure your next faculty member is the perfect fit for your studio.
The Search Is On
Hiring the right teachers involves knowing where to find them. Kristine Smith, co-founder and artistic director at InSpira Performing Arts & Cultural Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says tapping into her own network—including faculty and former colleagues—is the best route.
Facebook is also a valuable resource, filled with local dance groups (public and closed) that are easy to join and inquire within. Other proven options include posting an ad on Craigslist or at a local college’s dance department. “Even if we don’t have openings, we’re always looking,” says Suzanne Gerety, co-owner at Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire. You never know when you might need a new staff member, so keeping prospects on your radar will ease any future hiring.
#ProTip: What to watch out for Poorly organized resumés, how well a candidate follows your application instructions and the duration of previous jobs are all indicators of someone’s work ethic and employee dedication.
When interviewing a candidate, start with the basics. Ask questions regarding their dance background, experience, teaching philosophies and problem-solving techniques. Inquire about their strengths and weaknesses and how they collaborate best with others.
Establishing that they possess the general skills for the job is necessary, but even more important is asking the questions that will help you determine if they’ll fit within your culture, says HR recruiter Ashley Meunier. The most important question? According to Meunier, it’s: “Why do you want this job?” Today’s job market is competitive. Pinpointing someone’s motivations and passions will separate the good contenders from the great ones and reveal if their goals are aligned with your studio’s philosophy.
Smith agrees: “You could have the best resumé but still not be the right fit for our culture,” she says. To get a good sense of the person’s character, she conducts a series of interviews (over the phone and in person), plus she requires candidates to teach a trial class. During an interview, Gerety looks for these top-three qualities, in addition to experience and credentials: Do they have a positive attitude? Are they coachable? Are they a self-starter when it comes to troubleshooting and choosing music and costumes?
A required interview standard is avoiding questions about race, gender, nationality, age, marital status, etc., says Meunier. If the candidate brings up a touchy subject on his or her own, don’t continue the conversation. (You can always research the legality of a question or topic later.)
#ProTip: For your reference When it comes to an applicant’s references, Meunier says they’re usually not that valuable, because there are few people who can’t find someone to vouch for them. If you do reach out to references, ask open-ended questions in an effort to see how well they know the person. Consider vague responses from a co-worker or supervisor a red flag.
In the Line of Fire
Though asking the right interview questions will minimize the chances of having to let an employee go later on, firing a staff member can be an unfortunate reality. Gerety once hired a teacher with amazing credentials and choreography, but he wasn’t connecting with the students or fitting in with the studio’s neighborhood dance-school culture. Parents were complaining and kids were dropping out of classes, posing a potential threat to her business. Gerety was left with no choice.
“You’ll know soon when someone is not a good fit,” says Gerety, who listens to her gut. “Ideally, you have a teacher finish the whole year to avoid any disruption to the students, but sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes the longer you wait to let someone go, the more damage that will be caused in the end.” To make a clean break, be straightforward with the teacher—and, afterward, with your students. Be communicative, convey enthusiasm for the future and ask parents to come to you if they have further questions, so the rumor mill won’t start churning.
#ProTip: Let it go (professionally) If you think it’s time to let an employee go, gather all necessary information and reach a final decision (with any senior staff, if applicable) before the meeting with the employee occurs, says Meunier. In the meeting, don’t offer apologies, and don’t allow negotiations. Be kind but firm, and have a third party present. DT
Betsy Farber is a New York City–based writer and editor who’s written for The L.A. Times and Huffington Post.
Protect Yourself—with Professionalism
Conveying professionalism—from the interview process all the way until your new hire signs a contract—will create a trickle-down effect and let your faculty know you’re serious about your business. Suzanne Gerety, co-owner of Kathy Blake Dance Studios, has a faculty of 16 and 4 office staff. She suggests consulting your accountant on making everyone W-2 employees, versus independent contractors, whether they teach 1 or 20 classes a week. You’ll avoid the IRS challenging the legal validity of your employee classifications and potential unemployment benefit payouts. Know the employment laws in your state, and consult an attorney if you need guidance.
For further protection, consider adding noncompete and nonsolicitation (employees can’t solicit your students to join nearby studios after leaving yours) clauses to your contracts. It’s important to make your business values clear to new employees.
Kids, Put Your Clothes On
Seeing tiny tots covered in bling while gyrating to a suggestive song is a hot-button issue for judges, teachers and parents alike. Particularly when that’s the number that wins top honors at competition. Just how much of a factor is age-appropriate choreography, costuming and music in scoring? Or to put it bluntly, why do the judges continue to reward behavior that makes nearly everyone cringe?
The situation has improved somewhat, says Francisco Gella, choreographer and 24 Seven Dance Convention faculty member and judge. He thinks that because more competition kids have access to concert dance, via YouTube and live performance, they can see that in professional dance, the costume trend is more subdued. “I am seeing fewer problems, but it depends on which coast you are on,” he says. “I see more of these issues on the West Coast, which is more the center of commercial dance, whereas the East Coast is more tied to concert dance. Generally, the more rhinestones, the less technique.”
Last season he witnessed a group of tiny dancers shaking to “Money” from Cabaret, complete with fake currency attached to costumes that included bustiers and garter belts. “It did affect their score negatively; we consider appearance, costumes and confidence, all of which come together in a situation like this,” Gella says.
“Some teachers thank me for my remarks, while others just never come back,” he says. “We may have become desensitized about overt sexuality, because we can get lost in the process.” But it can be a reality check, he says, to watch the reaction of the general public when they see these tiny tots parading around in their skimpy attire at the hotel or a nearby Starbucks.
Scoring, of course, involves a variety of factors, and judges must weigh their decisions. “It depends on whether it’s only an issue of costume or only inappropriate content—or the combination of both,” says Gella. “If the dance is executed phenomenally, it will still tend to score high, based on the performance. But as judges, we do point out why we feel a costume may be inappropriate or if the choreography is too graphic for the age of the dancer.”
But when music, moves and costumes are all inappropriate, Gella will judge the number harshly. “I would go as far as penalizing it one award category lower,” he says. “Things get a bit tricky, because if that inappropriate dance wins, it sends a message that judges condone those types of dances.”
Choreographer Joey Dowling of New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA), points out that each competition comes with a somewhat different set of values. And what constitutes age-appropriate varies from person to person. “I will see parents and teachers screaming with enthusiasm when their tiny students are dancing in bikini tops and shorts,” she says. “They obviously think it’s OK. For younger ones, it is really more about the teachers and parents, because they are making or allowing the costume choices.”
Dowling has never deducted points for costume issues, though she might mention it in her comments. But inappropriate choreography is another matter. “The suggestive/inappropriate moves/choreography do have an effect on my overall score,” she says. “Some studios try to wear flashy costumes or do suggestive moves to cover up the fact that they are not trying to push their technique.”
If she feels uncomfortable by what has happened onstage, she has no trouble explaining why to those in charge. “At the end of the day you are paying to be judged,” she says. “I often find myself wishing the teacher spent more time listening to the music—and, more importantly, the lyrics to the song that 7- to 12-year-olds are dancing to. Several times while I am sitting in a judge’s chair, I am disappointed, thinking, ‘Why would this teacher let these minis dance to this song?’ It’s so important to make sure that the students know exactly what the song is about, the exact lyric on specific moves and how they are interpreting the song.”
She’s also a stickler for dancers understanding what they are doing—whether they’re juniors or seniors. And dance steps with direct sexual suggestions have no home in this age group. “Twerking is not appropriate for a 17-year-old,” she says. “They have no idea what it means. These are the best kids at the studio and that affects the younger students.”
What the Judges Want to See
Help your dancers improve their performance—and scores—with this advice from veteran competition faculty: Martha Nichols, Judy Rice and Suzi Taylor.
Connect with your ensemble. Everyone can be dancing at the same time, but not necessarily together, because they don’t acknowledge each other. “Relax and have a good time,” says Martha Nichols of New York City Dance Alliance. “Be grateful to be up there dancing with the people who you like. Be truly present onstage.”
Mind the musicality. Dancers need to listen to the music, and teachers need to work with their students to actually listen.
Pay attention to transitions. Be creative with transitions so they’re transparent (we don’t see them). In other words, don’t use skipping to go from one combination to another. Transitions separate the amateur from the professional.
Choreograph well within the technical ability of your dancers. Don’t be seduced by tricks, and keep choreography appropriate to the technical level of the students. “Resist the urge to stick poorly performed fouettés in each number,” says Judy Rice of Artists Simply Human. “It’s a holdover from the days of mandatory tricks.”
Be consistent when it comes to style. Don’t stick a classical pirouette in a hip-hop piece.
Wings are for exits and entrances. Dancers should not be visible in the wings, and they should be clear on which wing to come and go from. Go over this with your dancers before you get onstage.
Start strong. First impressions count. Even the way you come out onto the stage and stand is important.
Avoid unflattering angles. Turn or angle movements to avoid crotch shots.
Costumes should match the tone of the piece. An earthy number set to a cool indie song should not be costumed in hot-pink dresses with sequins and diamonds. It’s confusing.
Just say no to stirrup tights with shoes. Stirrup tights are fine with bare feet, but they cut the line with shoes.
Tags have to go.Cut the tags out of your costumes and use a Sharpie to mark out visible brand labels on shirts.
Wear the pair. The trend of wearing only one shoe so you can turn needs to stop. No professional company does this and neither should anyone in a competition team.
What the Judges Would Prefer to Never See Again
Watch for a stunned open mouth and other bad facial habits. Teachers need to work on more natural facial expressions. “The open mouth is never attractive. They might think it’s dramatic, but it’s not,” says Suzi Taylor of NYCDA. “The same is true of angry face.”
Looking at the other dancers to see what comes next or gazing about the stage. Wandering eyes are very distracting.
If you drop a prop, pick it up immediately, or everyone, including the dancers, will be looking at that clump of hair that just fell off in the middle of the stage. It’s distracting to the audience and the poor dancers who now have to find a way to dance around the object left on the stage floor.
Mouthing the lyrics of a song is irritating and distracting.
Hands are not like feet, in that they can be easily changed and they truly complete the line of the choreography. Clawed or paddle hands are just as bad as unpointed feet. “I either see Mortal Kombat claws or an open-holding-an-orange situation,” says Martha Nichols of NYCDA. “The hands are forgotten and the line stops at the wrist. Hands are part of the shape of the body. They can be a form of punctuation.”
Dancers who either over-perform or don’t bring enough. Dance with intention. “There’s been such a focus on technique, we forget that it’s still a show,” says Nichols. “Your steps might be beautiful, but what are you saying and why? I am seeing a lack of honesty.”
What’s in Your Dance Director’s Bag?
One can never be too prepared. When things break, rip and get left on the bus, that doesn’t need to ruin the show. Here are some things to be sure to pack.
Place a Go-bag
backstage so it can be easily found. It should contain Band-Aids, first-aid kit, hair spray, bobbie pins, safety pins, ice packs, hair gel, scissors, extra makeup, ibuprofen and tissues.
•Extra costume accessories (earrings, sunglasses, gloves, head pieces)
•Medical kit: Advil, Tylenol, Midol, tape, scissors, Band-Aids, New-Skin, Ace wrap, instant ice packs, tampons, finger splint, BENGAY.
•Rosin for the pointe dancers
•Bobbie pins, large and small
•Backup music in several different formats: CDs, iPad, flash drive
•Extra costume bin for the dressing room. It contains any and all extra costume pieces.
Paperwork to go
Create a comprehensive spreadsheet that shows every payment and the breakdown of what’s included: competition fees, observer bands, etc. There’s always a parent who insists that they pre-purchased an observer band when they really didn’t.
• Original registration paperwork and confirmations from the event
• Copies of release forms—one set for the convention, one set for the school director
• Packing list for all props, with load-in and load-out times
Conquering the Call Sheet
Sue Sampson-Dalena of The Dance Studio of Fresno recommends that you create a call sheet for each dancer with all of the following:
• A list of each dance she is cast in
• Call time to the dressing room
• Check-in time with appropriate staff member
• Any pertinent props or costume notes
• Who will pick up the award
• What room number they are to report to backstage
“We meet in the dressing room 90 minutes before our assigned competition time. I then take the dancers to another location in the hotel and we give them ballet class. I usually stake that out before I walk into the room,” says Sampson-Dalena. “After class it’s up to each individual dancer to then stay warm. My dancers are expected to help the younger dancers with quick changes, and of course support and watch their teammates compete or perform.”
Consider giving an inspirational note or small gift to each dancer during the wristband pass-out. “We like to include an encouraging note with candy or a small gift,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex. “The note will express our personal theme. We sometimes give candy, bracelets, inspiration rocks, Giving Keys.”
A Day in the Life of Stacey Tookey
Emmy-nominated choreographer Stacey Tookey has choreographed and judged for the Canadian and American versions of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Currently, she travels 30 weekends a year as faculty with the NUVO dance convention. Her schedule may be grueling, but she has a system that works. Friday and Sunday are travel days, with Monday reserved for time with her daughter and actor husband, who takes over child care during her weekends away. (If he has an audition, they get a babysitter.)
Tookey says she gets back as much from teaching as she gives. “I want them, through my movement, to get out of their heads and into their hearts. That’s a huge part of it—to see a change in a dancer in a short amount of time. I am so grateful to see that confidence get turned on. I will mention a dancer in the back and say, ‘I saw you,’ then the next day they are front and center.”
Here, she walks us through a typical day on convention duty.
Tookey (left), rehearsing with Makenzie Dustman and Kathryn McCormick of Tookey’s company, STILL MOTION
6:30 Wake up and shower. Get dressed in Lululemon leggings and a shirt, layered with a sweatshirt and sweats. “Layers are key ’cause you never know how cold a convention center or hotel can be. I have packing down to a science and travel with a carry-on and pack super light with just what I need. I always have a few luxuries like a scented candle, small humidifier and lots of gluten- and dairy-free snacks.”
7:00 Breakfast of egg whites, fruit and green or black tea, while FaceTiming with her husband Gene and daughter Harper. “I need time to settle in and not feel jolted into the day. I want to feel calm and ready to inspire and to be inspired. It takes some time to place myself in that mood.”
7:30 Head down to the convention floor to hug and reconnect with the rest of the teachers. “Our faculty is so close! We just saw each other last weekend, but we still need a minute to catch up.”
7:45 Warm up for 45 minutes with Gyrotonic and Pilates mat exercises and some yoga thrown in. Even though she has demonstrators, she needs to get her body ready for a hectic day of teaching back-to-back classes. If she has extra time, she will also do a My YogaToGo session in her hotel room. “As the mother of a toddler, I need time to just take care of me.”
8:30 Welcome and faculty introductions. “It’s the kick-off for our day.” She averages six to nine classes per day, including minis, juniors, teen, seniors and teachers. She has all her combinations set for the season with the same one in each city for each division, which allows her to see how various cities compare to each other and what they need to work on.
Tookey, with STILL MOTION company member
9:00–9:45 Minis. “The minis always make me smile. Ever since I became a mom, I have experienced even more joy from watching these young dancers. They are simply fearless and adorable. I can’t wait to see Harper win the mini ballroom.”
9:45–10:30 Juniors. “The juniors are the age group I am usually the most impressed with. They are so incredibly talented—and becoming so much stronger at a younger age each year. I feel that they are old enough to grasp more mature movement as well as take corrections, but they are young enough that they are still so confident and will do anything you ask.” u
10:30–11:15 Teens. “This age group is usually the most diverse in level and the most likely to need a pep talk for confidence to get them get out of their heads. It’s the teen years that are so difficult. Insecurities and self-doubt are strong, so my goal is to get them to break through that and allow themselves to shine. It makes me so happy when that happens.”
11:15–12:00 Lunch. Tookey makes time to sign autographs and photos. “I really enjoy this part, and I have been photographed in elevators and in the ladies’ room. I remember how much I looked up to my own teachers.”
12–1:15 Seniors. It’s important to build in time for inspirational messages. “I like to give a pep talk about the freedom to make mistakes, especially for the seniors. It’s such a difficult time. All eyes are on you.”
1:15–2:30 Teachers. “Working with teachers is always satisfying,” even though it comes with challenges because teachers expect different things from her, depending on their age. “I have young teachers who want to dance and older teachers who want to hear me speak. I work on my ideas about creating more expansive and refined dancers, how to push dancers beyond their safety zones.”
3:00 Break. Catch up on e-mails, shower, grab some food (and a tea) and FaceTime with Gene and Harper once more to find out how their day has gone.
5:00–10:00 Dinner with faculty. “We really enjoy each other.” During competition season, she spends the evening at the judges’ table.
10:00 Wind down with a hot Epsom salt bath. “Yes, I pack those!” Read a book or watch an episode of Parenthood or Scandal on Netflix. “As a new mom, I say good-night and go up to my room and catch a movie and enjoy some rare time to myself.”
11:00 Lights out.
Illustration by Emily Giacalone; by Bill Hebert, courtesy of STILL MOTION Dance Company; Thinkstock; Bag: Just For Kix, shot by Nathan Sayers
How do you deal with parents who owe you a significant amount of money but won’t communicate? I never see them, since they just drop their child off. I don’t want to embarrass my student.
When a parent or guardian of a minor child registers their dancer—whether online or in person—they should be required to accept your payment policy terms. This should include details about late charges or consequences, such as: “After 60 days, the student will not be allowed in class, unless payment arrangements have been made.”
The longer a balance is left unpaid, the harder it is to collect—especially when a student has been allowed to participate in classes past the time limit in your stated policy for accounts overdue. The parents’ unwillingness to communicate requires that you take a different course of action. If multiple phone calls and e-mails go unacknowledged, send your communication by mail—certified mail, to confirm receipt.
While refusing to allow a student into class can seem drastic, it is often what elicits a response from the parents. If parents are having financial issues, they may be embarrassed, frustrated or unsure how to approach you with this concern. In this case, you may want to discuss a payment plan option with the family.
Accepting debit/credit cards as a payment method has significantly reduced our past-due accounts. In the future, require all students to provide a backup method of payment.
Our personal connection to our students can make these types of conversations uncomfortable, but learning to run a business and hold people accountable financially is important for the future success of your studio.
Kathy Blake is the owner of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire. She and Suzanne Blake Gerety are the co-founders of DanceStudioOwner.com.
Photo by B Hansen Photography, courtesy of Suzanne Blake Gerety
How can we protect ourselves as owners when talented teachers who know their value hint about leaving if things don’t go exactly their way? Where’s the line on give-and-take?
Don’t let this attitude and behavior undermine your studio culture. It’s best to address it directly with the teacher in question. While confidence is an admirable trait, it shouldn’t be used as a way for a teacher to bully you.
A regular performance review is an appropriate vehicle for faculty to express areas where they think studio management could improve and, likewise, you can offer them constructive feedback. We recommend you include this in your teacher contract. You may find, for example, that a teacher wants more artistic expression—extra choreography opportunities, a chance to lead an outreach program—but doesn’t know how to broach that subject with you. We also suggest you conduct regular faculty meetings, with an emphasis on individual goals (as well as studio goals) to help you identify where your teachers want to grow personally and professionally.
Be certain your teacher pay rates are competitive, and see if a raise (even a slight one) is called for, based on a teacher’s performance and experience. But remember that in any business, good talent comes and goes. There will be times when, despite your efforts, nothing will change a teacher’s attitude—and in this case, it’s best for you to invite them to move on to other employment opportunities.
Kathy Blake is the owner of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire. She and Suzanne Blake Gerety are the co-founders of DanceStudioOwner.com.
Photo by B Hansen Photography, courtesy of Suzanne Blake Gerety
Clockwise from top left: Manon Chaney, Lesley Vaughn, Sarah Sporich, Aloysia Gavre and Nicole Reineman
Funky jazz music fills the space as a trio of advanced contortionists twist in unison. Across the room, burgeoning trapeze artists are building core strength atop Pilates balls. And in another corner, a group of beginners attempts to master the proper foothold for shimmying up the smooth aerial silks.
It’s a typical lively night at Cirque School, a circus-arts training studio set in an open warehouse-style space in Hollywood. The school attracts all types of enthusiasts—from amateurs looking for a unique fitness challenge to pre-professional Cirque du Soleil hopefuls. Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz have trained at Cirque School, as well as cast members of productions like NBC’s “The Cape” and CBS’ “The Defenders.”
And at the heart of it all is proverbial ringmaster Aloysia Gavre, who founded the school in 2009 on the heels of an illustrious career with Cirque du Soleil. Though she specializes in aerial hoop, Gavre is well-versed in all circus disciplines. Now she’s spreading the love, one student at a time.
“Circus led me to feel empowered and part of something bigger than myself. It allowed me to push my body to an absolute extreme, while not losing sight of beauty, grace and presence,” she says. “After years touring and performing with Cirque du Soleil, I found the need to share that empowerment with the general public.”
At Cirque School, everyone is welcome—in fact, the school’s motto is “For Anybody with Any Body.” About 80 percent of the 400 students are recreational amateurs, choosing from the starter class trifecta of Aerial 101, Acro Fit 101 and/or Flexibility & Stretch 101. Some of these students have advanced to specialty “trickster” classes in trapeze, contortion, hand balancing, aerial arts and more.
Gavre coaches Sarah Sporich on aerial silks.
As Gavre sees it, it’s all interconnected, and everyone’s an equal—no matter what the skill level. Classes are held in the open, where students of all levels can see the various disciplines. “It keeps our advanced students humble because they remember where they started,” she says. “And it inspires amateur students to see what their training could possibly create for them. It’s a noncompetitive, community environment.”
That inclusive atmosphere was what attracted assistant director Lauren Stark, who first enrolled as a student in 2009. Like many who train here, Stark was a working dancer who simply wanted to build the “special skills” section on her resumé—but she was hooked after her first class.
“In the dance world, people believe you can’t appreciate someone’s beauty or technique if her body doesn’t fit certain criteria,” says Stark. “In circus, it’s all about, ‘What makes you crazy original? What can your body do that no one else’s can?’”
Gavre first found an answer to that question at age 12, studying with Master Lu Yi of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. Lu Yi became her mentor after Gavre reached the milestone of holding a free handstand for a full minute. That’s when everything clicked, she says.
“I felt like I was home,” says Gavre, who became a professional performer at age 18, touring with Pickle Family Circus and Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam. “I’d never felt so charged up full of adrenaline. It was addicting.”
The school mounts two annual recitals, and advanced students can audition for large-scale studio shows.
Today circus-style training has become a bona fide fitness trend in Los Angeles and other cities. Gavre says it’s all due to the popularity of Cirque du Soleil, which had its U.S. premiere with We Reinvent the Circus in 1987 and now has 13 productions running in Orlando, Las Vegas and New York. “People crave that same exuberance they feel as an audience member,” she says.
But Gavre’s idea first took shape back in 2004, long before the fitness movement became trendy. She had just wrapped up a short-term run with Cirque du Soleil’s O and relocated from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. After five years of touring with Cirque and doing an average of 10 shows per week, she was feeling the mental and physical toll. “I needed a new challenge,” she says.
She started to experiment with what she calls a “cross-marriage of circus and Pilates,” calling on her experience as a Pilates coach while touring with Quidam. She rented space at Absolution, a now-defunct Pilates studio in West Hollywood, and began offering five classes per week.
At the time, she viewed the venture as more of a passion project, funding it through her ongoing performance income. “It was not a moneymaker, but I was extremely money-savvy and conscious about every investment I made,” she says. A Pilates studio was the perfect location to get feedback from experts in the field. “From those years of experimentation, I realized there was truly something magical there.”
In 2009, she decided to strike out on her own and teamed up with her husband, Rex Camphuis, to open the business. (The two first met 17 years earlier when he was a stage manager for Pickle Family Circus.) Along with the small staff she’d amassed while at Absolution, the team for Cirque School was born.
Marco Balestracci and Brandon Grimm are dancers who’ve become circus artists.
“I don’t feel like I truly started to run a business until we got our own facility,” Gavre says of the 6,000-square-foot former auto repair shop that she rents. (It was once frequented by stars like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.) “Then the weight of what I’d decided became exquisitely clear and scary.”
If she was scared, she didn’t let it stop her from ramping up quickly, offering 12 classes weekly. Seven years later, Cirque School now employs 22 coaches and holds 53 classes every week across the circus spectrum. “Having a variety of circus skills is what makes a well-rounded artist and person—from walking the wire to sitting on the trapeze,” she says. “Offering diverse programming is what has helped us grow and attract stellar teachers.”
One of the biggest challenges is staffing, and it can be difficult to find trained circus performers who are also qualified to teach. “Just because you’re a dynamo onstage doesn’t mean you have the capacity to empower students,” Gavre says. It’s also a matter of liability. “Having lucid teachers who are able to quickly give a modification or progression is incredibly vital to our safety standards.”
When she does find those rare individuals, Gavre works hard to retain them by offering her mentorship and referring them to outside performance opportunities. She often casts Cirque School staff in shows she choreographs for touring productions, like Cirque Mechanics and Cirque de la Symphonie and the school’s sister company, Troupe Vertigo. Though that can mean multiple concurrent absences while staff members travel to places like Germany, London and New York, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Someone from the business side might think it’s silly to take coaching staff away from the school to put them onstage, but it’s been a fabulous way for me to nurture and foster them as artists,” she says.
As a performer, Gavre specialized in aerial hoop.
Conversely, she capitalizes on her far-reaching Cirque du Soleil network to bring in guest artists for a monthly workshop series. Recent examples include aerial partnering with husband-and-wife team Carly Sheridan and Ivan Dotsenko and dance trapeze with Kerren McKeeman. “It’s great to be able to provide a different eye on technique, presence and performance,” Gavre says.
Students who display high aptitude are invited to begin training at the pre-professional level. If they accept, Gavre and her coaches create a weekly schedule of privates and group classes tailored to individual goals. ”I look at where they might fit into the performance landscape,” she says, adding that students may also audition for consideration. She encourages artists to become well-rounded in order to increase their opportunities for work. “This might mean having a contortionist take a clowning class to open up her performance qualities.”
No matter what level, students get to show off what they’ve learned at two annual recitals. Those who’ve reached “trickster” status can also audition for large-scale shows produced at the school. And pre-professional students get the chance to join Troupe Vertigo, which currently has a roster of 16 performers.
Gavre now choreographs for touring productions, including Cirque Mechanics’ Pedal Punk.
The company does anywhere from 6 to 18 shows annually. This summer marked the premiere of Tableaux, with an all-female ensemble of five aerialists, dancers and contortionists. “Troupe Vertigo is the place for Rex and me to elevate circus into an art,” says Gavre, who directs and choreographs, while Camphuis handles the lighting and technical direction.
Though Cirque School is primarily for adults, there is also an audition-only children’s program that includes summer camps and bi-weekly classes. Stark acts as its director, with 16 kids currently enrolled. Because of the high level of risk involved, previous training in dance, gymnastics or circus is a prerequisite for participation. “They also have to demonstrate the ability to focus and follow direction,” Stark says.
Cirque School’s own Troupe Vertigo recently featured dance artist Lil Buck.
There’s certainly a lot going on. While Camphuis deals with rental inquiries and other management concerns, Gavre handles class programming and teacher training. Together they make it possible for people to experience the electric charge that Gavre feels every time she takes to the air.
“I wanted to make sure everyone could try a circus class at least once in their life,” she says. “Challenging your body to the extreme can be life-changing, and I wanted to give that opportunity to anybody with any body.” DT
Based in Los Angeles, Jen Jones Donatelli is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Photography by Joe Toreno