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Q: How do you attract students age 8 and up? Ours are mainly homegrown. A few trickle in from other studios, but it's just not enough.

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Business

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

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Business

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

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Business

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

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Business

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

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Best Studio Practice

Muhlenberg students can study aerial acrobatics, history and philosophy of circus arts and perform in the Circus Workshop.

It’s not every day that you see a student dressed as Rosie the Riveter spiraling gracefully toward the stage by way of aerial silks. But thanks to the Muhlenberg Circus Workshop, students at the small liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania, are taking their dance training to a whole new level—literally.

“We started offering aerial acrobatics courses in 2012,” says Karen Dearborn, chair of dance and faculty advisor to the workshop. “Our curriculum values diversity in physical training, so aerial was a great fit.”

From this beginning came what is now the Muhlenberg Circus Workshop, a multidisciplinary program that provides training, performance opportunities and even academic credit to the college’s growing circus arts community. Aerial class credits can be applied to dance-major concentrations in both performance and choreography, and, while students don’t earn academic credit for performances at Muhlenburg, the performances count toward the school’s co-curriculum and lab requirements. Sixty students auditioned for approximately 20 slots in this year’s production.

Dearborn eventually developed a class on circus history and philosophy to provide the aerial students with an academic grounding, but it was a couple of visionary undergraduates who realized their school was ripe with big-top talent.

New York native Henry Evans trained as a competitive gymnast and came to Muhlenberg to pursue a double major in theater and business. His roommate, Noah Dach, had a friend who wanted some help choreographing a Cyr wheel routine. There was only one problem: They had nowhere to perform.

“Circus is a dangerous artform,” Evans says. “There’s no way around that. But we managed to get some funding to purchase mats and safety equipment.”

Performances initially took place in a dance studio that had been specially equipped for aerial silks, but since founding the Circus Workshop in 2013, they have expanded into Muhlenberg’s theaters. The college hires a professional rigger to ensure the students’ safety, and students receive specialized training that targets the muscle groups required for aerial work.

Henry Evans (on the shoulders of Tommy McCarthy) started the Circus Workshop with roommate Noah Dach.

“We have been able to advance from fixed points to flying the apparatus while the aerialist is performing,” explains Dearborn; this allows the aerialist to be moved up or down. In February, she created a work for eight male students that featured four fixed apparatuses and four that flew. The Circus Workshop’s most recent production, VOD, included a flying apparatus as well, but only the most advanced students are allowed to use it.

“Many of our dancers have found employment after graduation because of their circus skills,” says Dearborn. In addition to two levels of aerial acrobatics and Dearborn’s history and philosophy of circus performance class, students can study commedia dell’arte, puppetry, performing magic and clowning, offered by the theater department. They also have the option of enrolling at the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy, during their junior year to study physical theater.

Acrobatic training has helped dancers in other ways, as well: the development of core and upper-body strength, improved control and balance and better partnering technique overall.

Evans and Dach, now graduates, have started their next venture: Atlas Circus Company, through which they hope to eventually create a center for circus arts in America.

“The fusion of dance and physical theater has been gaining ground in Europe for decades,” says Dearborn. “America is just getting started.” DT

Kat Richter is a writer, dancer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia.

Photos by Ken Ek, courtesy of Muhlenberg College

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Business

Can you suggest a good source for lesson plan ideas?

Like most educators, I spend a fair amount of time and energy creating curriculum and lesson plans. Recently, I was tipped off about ArtsEdge. ArtsEdge (artsedge.kennedy-center.org) is the Kennedy Center’s online arts educator resource. It has dance lesson plans ranging from African to hula to ballet. The lessons are a full set of instructions that also include extra materials, like rubrics and related printables, to hand out to your students. There are links to videos you can use, as well as a section on how the lesson connects to arts standards. (At this time, ArtsEdge is still referencing the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. They’re working to include the new National Core Arts Standards.) You can search for lessons by grade, arts subject or a cross-discipline—or any combination of the three.  

Just about any page has a tab bar on the side with links to related resources, like video, audio and other lesson plans. The site also has a section of about 50 short how-to articles on best practices. The topics range from teaching critiques to dealing with sensitive themes onstage. As if this treasure trove of material isn’t enough, there’s even an entire section of online resources just for students.

Be careful—this site is an overwhelming yet fascinating rabbit hole! I started out looking at Martha Graham, and the next thing I knew I was immersed in a break-dance video.

Barry Blumenfeld teaches at the Friends Seminary in New York City. He is an adjunct professor at New York University and on faculty at the Dance Education Laboratory of the 92nd Street Y.

Photo courtesy of Barry Blumenfeld

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Business

Use the hard-earned advice of these veteran owners and turn your struggles into successes.

To kick off the start of a new studio year this month, we asked seven longtime owners—with more than 200 years’ experience among them—for their single most important piece of advice for new owners. As it turned out, the information they offer is valuable for any stage of a studio business career. Whether you struggle with setting boundaries, communicating with parents or being transparent about fees, the knowledge from these seasoned pros will come in handy.

Debbie Lamontagne

North Andover School of Dance

North Andover, Massachusetts

350 students

40 years in business

Parents only want what’s best for their children. “Or what they think is best for their children,” says Lamontagne. “If you look at it from that perspective, and you’re positive and confident in your decision-making, then you’ll have an easier time. Things will run smoother.”

Lamontagne was only 20 when she first opened her studio. She was surprised to find that her biggest challenge wasn’t managing a room full of kids or coming up with choreography. “Dealing with parents was the most difficult thing,” she says. “It took me a long time to be confident. If you don’t have that approach, you can seem negative and condescending, and you’ll feel like you’re always on the defensive.”

Carryl Slobotkin

Jazz Unlimited Studio of Dance Arts

Marlton, New Jersey

1,500 students

46 years in business

Be transparent—even about expenses. “Be upfront with parents and give them as much information as you can: a description of your programs, the calendar of events for the entire year, your faculty bios, the cost of everything,” says Slobotkin. “That way, parents can’t come back and say, ‘I didn’t know.’”

This can be hard advice to follow, especially when it comes to fees—like how much it costs to be a part of a competition team. Slobotkin knows, however, it’s best not to surprise parents. “It’s very costly to be a part of our dance company,” she says, reflecting on her recent audition process. “My company director outlined every cost for the parents, and I thought, ‘Do you have to put out all the costs?’”

But not disclosing fees has backfired on her in the past: “We’ve had kids try out, and then parents decided, ‘No, we can’t afford this.’ So we couldn’t have their kid.”

Molly Larkin-Symanietz and Michele Larkin-Wagner

Larkin Dance Studio

Maplewood, Minnesota

900 students

67 years in business

Set boundaries for parents and kids. Molly Larkin-Symanietz and Michele Larkin-Wagner took over their mother’s studio when she passed away in 2011, and they’re dedicated to upholding her legacy—which includes sticking to the rules. They stress that it’s essential to enforce all policies.

“It’s hard when you’re building a business, because you don’t want to lose kids, but people love it when you stick to your guns,” says Larkin-Wagner. “Our mother had a big heart, but she was a stickler for rules and commitment and dedication from the kids. Everybody had to follow the same rules.”

Consider compiling your procedures and expectations in a handbook. By clearly stating what time classes start, which classes are mandatory, when rehearsals are, what teachers expect from their students, you set a tone of professionalism, mutual respect and accountability.

Carole Royal

Royal Dance Works

Phoenix, Arizona

400 students

37 years in business

Be available to talk to parents and resolve issues. “But not too available,” says Royal. “Have parents set up a meeting, versus ambushing you in the hallway between classes.” She’s trained her parents and staff to go through the proper channels: “At my studio, parents know to call and say, ‘I’m really upset about this, I need to talk to Carol,’ and my front desk knows to set up a meeting.

“Sometimes, if I know it’s a sensitive topic, I’ll go into the meeting with my assistant. I never want to be surprised. Don’t be meek, or you’ll get easily run over by parents.”

Mary Naftal

Dance Connection

Islip, New York

650 students

27 years in business

Don’t take things  personally. “Because we work so hard, when parents are negative, we take it personally,” says Naftal. “It can make you rethink what you’re doing.” Over the years, Naftal has developed what she calls the 48-hour rule: “Every time you have a bad day, or if you’re upset about something, don’t react for 48 hours. Take that time to calm down. After 48 hours, determine if it still bothers you—sometimes it won’t—and if it does, by then you’ll be able to handle it in a professional manner.”

Danie Beck

Former owner, Dance Unlimited

Miami, Florida

375 students

45 years in business as an owner and consultant

Be positive in your communications. “If you’re not excited, no one else will be—especially when you’re making changes,” says Beck, who shared that one of her biggest challenges was when she instituted a recital fee. She explained to parents why this fee would allow her to expedite ordering for recital DVDs, T-shirts, photos—that it would result in a positive experience.

“It worked because of how I came across,” she says. “You have to tell them it’s the best thing since chopped liver. If you say, ‘Well, you know, I’m not really sure about this, but we’re going to try it,’ then it’s already lost. That’s why we’re in this business—we’re part actors, as well. You might be dying inside—I was many a time—but I stood up and said, ‘This is fabulous,’ while thinking, ‘I hope this works.’ But it did work, because I let my parents know it was going to.” DT

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