While recycling and reducing waste are the most popular ways to create a green workplace around a dance studio, many owners are also focusing their sustainable efforts on installing energy-efficient systems, using recycled products in design and improving indoor air quality.
“Athletes need clean indoor air and a toxin-free practice space for optimum performance," says Sarah Barnard, a green-expert designer and a LEED-accredited professional by the U.S. Green Building Council. “Investing in sustainable improvements not only demonstrates a commitment to the environment, but also to student dancers' health."
Merging with another studio to create a bigger and better school
“Three years ago I was burning out, not making any money and the rent was killing me,” says Larisa Dahabi, owner of the former Mount Pleasant School of Performing Arts in Mount Pleasant, SC. “I knew something needed to change.” She reached out to Ann Bebergal, owner of the rival Academy of Dance Arts and brought up the idea of joining forces. “Ann said she’d hate for me to close my doors—but she should have loved that,” says Dahabi, because the two studios were, at the time, in direct competition. While studio owners may join forces for a performance or community event, combining their operations for much more is rare. Yet faced with rising operating costs, space limitations or dwindling enrollment, some find it makes sense to legally merge with their nearby competitors to create a bigger and often better school.
Today, Bebergal operates the Academy of Dance Arts while Dahabi runs the school’s performing company, and both are satisfied with the results of the merger. But as they’ll tell you, it’s not an easy task—merging requires careful planning, communication and negotiation.
Ann Bebergal and Larisa Dahabi
Academy of Dance Arts
Mount Pleasant, SC
When conversations about merging began in 2009, both Bebergal and Dahabi were skeptical. But as discussions continued, they found that their strengths as individual studio owners were complementary. For instance, Bebergal’s school concentrated mostly on training, and Dahabi had a successful performance program. Ultimately it was decided that the school would continue to run as Academy of Dance Arts under the direction of Bebergal, while Dahabi would run the Mount Pleasant Performing Arts Company.
Bebergal’s space was large enough to accommodate the extra dancers, and they added more classes to the schedule to keep class sizes small.
The two directors discussed every idea, but there were differences in their teaching styles that had to be ironed out. “I teach slowly and meticulously, focusing on technique and analysis of the basics,” Bebergal says. “Larisa tends to go for more complicated combinations, challenging their memory. She likes complex and fast. So I teach most of the young dancers slowly. But when the advanced girls take my classes, they get a chance to break down the movements to their basic content.”
Dahabi agrees about their differences. “I think that it actually enhances the dancer,” she says. “They become better prepared for dancing and adjusting in the future.”
Shannon Riegling and Cathy Smith
Shannon’s Progressions Dance Studio
When Shannon Riegling was looking to grow her All About Dance studio, she was intrigued with the idea of merging with Progressions Dance Studio to make it happen. “I was looking to move to something bigger, and Cathy wanted to concentrate on teaching. And that’s how our conversation started,” Riegling says.
The two met after Riegling placed an ad in the local paper expressing a plan to move to a larger location. Smith responded, thinking it was the perfect opportunity for her to scale back and eventually sell her business but still be involved as a teacher and co-director in the meantime.
Recognizing that the transaction was going to be complex because complete ownership would transfer to Riegling, they each found someone to represent their interests. “I used a consultant, and she used her husband and they negotiated everything, which I think is the smart way to do it,” Riegling says. “It wasn’t just a merger, so we all sat down together to make sure we weren’t overstepping each other.”
Today, the studio is known as Shannon’s Progressions Dance Studio and operates out of a newly remodeled facility that includes two large dance studios, a dance retail store and a waiting area. Faculty members from both studios were retained, and the bigger space allowed new classes to be formed.
But there were sticking points. For instance, Riegling ran her themed recitals with parent volunteers, while Smith was used to a more polished performance run exclusively by faculty and staff.
Another major difference revolved around scheduling. All About Dance had primarily offered combination classes (such as a ballet/tap), while Progressions Dance Studio conducted classes for each discipline. Ultimately, though, Riegling held final say, and Smith conceded to the scheduling and recital changes. But Riegling makes a point to listen to her co-owner. “One tip I can offer is that if you’re going to do this, you really need to establish who is going to make the final decision from the get-go,” Riegling says. “But we take each other’s advice and do what’s best for the studio. It all works out.”
Ballet Arts Minnesota and Minnesota Dance Theatre merged in 2006 to become the Dance Institute, the official school of Minnesota Dance Theatre, but not everything went as planned.
At the time, one organization was a school, and the other a company and school. The two rented space in the same building and competed for the same students and accompanists. They were always negotiating and dodging each other for use of sublets.
“Throughout the discussions that preceded the merger, we found great common ground in our belief systems, and our mission statements were similar,” says artistic director Lise Houlton, who enlisted the help of an arts consultant to mediate the process. “Having a merged faculty and accompaniment brought a spirit of collective energy to the building.”
Problems arose, however, when the new board voted not to fund Ballet Arts Minnesota’s outreach program that gave youngsters the opportunity to perform in Minnesota Dance Theatre’s Nutcracker Fantasy. This led to the departure of Marcia Chapman, Ballet Arts Minnesota’s original director, and two teachers. Most of the students remained, but it took some time for the dust to settle.
Houlton believes things could have been different and advises taking extreme care when discussing finances. “Look closely at the financial situation. Make a map and make sure there is a strong collaboration,” she says. “Ours could have been a kinder, gentler attrition, as opposed to people leaving after the fact with some heartbreak.” DT
Keith Loria is a business writer based in Virginia.
Making affordable choices for your studio
A few years ago, a veteran dance teacher working full-time at a New York City–based studio heard a sound that she knew meant trouble. She had let an old injury go unwatched for some time, and in a moment too late, she realized it had resurfaced.
“It sort of sounded like my knuckle cracking,” she says. “The pain that followed made me quickly realize that something was definitely wrong.”
Luckily, she had health insurance through her husband, but her major lower leg injury opened the eyes of a co-worker, who realized that if something happened to her, she would have no way to cover it. It wasn’t long before that teacher was out the door and working somewhere else.
This is an issue that resonates throughout the dance industry. Since many studios have few employees or hire mostly part-time teachers, health insurance is often absent from an employment package.
Douglas E. Yeuell, artistic director at Joy of Motion Dance Center in Washington, DC, says that because his faculty members are considered independent contractors, the studio does not provide coverage. “Offering insurance would sway the balance more into employee status, and we would be responsible for payroll taxes with the IRS,” he says. “It would be a huge financial burden that we couldn’t handle.”
A National Matter
The Supreme Court recently upheld President Obama’s aggressive health care plan, including the Affordable Care Act, which allows businesses with up to 25 employees the opportunity to qualify for tax credits of up to 35 percent to offset the cost of health insurance. (That percentage is slated to rise to 50 percent in 2014.)
Still, the majority of dance studios seem to follow the trend of other small businesses by not offering health insurance for their employees. Says one, who chose to remain anonymous for this story, “I would love nothing better than to provide health insurance for my dance instructors, but it just doesn’t make sense from a financial standpoint. The cost is just too much.”
Health plans that offer full coverage are costly, so it makes sense that a small business might avoid the subject altogether. But in a field where injuries abound and quality instructors are hard to replace, finding an affordable alternative that works for your budget is worth the research.
Making It Work
“Two increasingly popular choices for resource-challenged small businesses are limited medical plans and high-deductible health plans,” says Paul Broughton of Markel, a company that develops and underwrites specialty insurance products for a variety of niche markets. Both alternatives are less expensive per month for the employer, and they work especially well for covering employees who are young and in generally good health.
“Limited medical plans typically offer reimbursement in a predetermined dollar amount for various types of medical services, though the overall payments are limited in a calendar year,” explains Broughton. “And high-deductible health plans control costs by requiring patients to pay the first few thousand dollars of medical expenses each year (the amount depends on your plan). Then, employees typically have unlimited coverage beyond the deductible.”
“In some cases, providing health insurance can help offset the cost of other insurance, like workers’ compensation, general liability and property coverage,” says Broughton, noting that purchasing bundled insurance packages decreases expenses. “Another benefit is that if an employee has an illness or injury, they will be more likely to seek treatment if they do have health insurance. That means, they’ll be back at work sooner, decreasing absenteeism.”
Offering insurance can also help attract and retain a quality staff, which is something that Kathy Taylor, owner of Centreville Dance Academy in Centreville, Virginia, has seen firsthand. “I had purchased private insurance for my family, but when I looked into the option of forming a small group to include the three other employees who were in a similar situation, it was less expensive per person,” she says. “I was also able to offer the benefit to someone who I was looking to hire full-time. That helped her make her decision.”
Taylor offers employees a standard medical plan that costs about $4,000 per employee annually. “I pay the full monthly premium for the employee, and they pay any extra for additional family members,” she says. For her, the annual expense is worth every cent because it shows a commitment to her staff.
Taylor does not provide coverage for her 10 part-time employees, but all are covered under their spouses’ health plans. Likewise, Yeuell says that most of Joy of Motion’s 100 part-time teachers are covered by spouses or partners, or get their own insurance.
Yet not everyone has someone else to rely on for coverage, and not everyone—especially the self-employed—can afford an individual policy. In these cases, Yeuell emphasizes the importance of understanding an employee’s need for outside work. “A lot of our teachers also have a day job and may receive health benefits that way,” he says. “We are not the number-one source of income for these individuals.” DT
Keith Loria is a business writer based in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Joy of Motion Dance Center
Tighten your belt without choking your business.
Los Gatos Ballet director Marcie Ryken cuts recital expenses to fund outreach programs.
When Christopher Lynn, managing director of Ballet Conservatory of Asheville in Asheville, NC, opened the studio with his wife Angie three years ago, he learned fast that the costs involved with running a studio and doing a full-length ballet production pile up quickly.
“Between the backstage help, the sets, costumes and crew…it was more than we thought,” he says.
Like Lynn, other studio owners have found ways to make the most of their budgets—from modifying production spending to changing advertising strategies to be more effective. Here, Lynn and two other directors share how they’ve cut expenses and increased their bottom lines.
Ballet Conservatory of Asheville
When the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville first opened its doors, owners Christopher and Angie Lynn wore many hats. In addition to running and scheduling dance classes, the two did the bookkeeping, cleaning and all the odds and ends necessary to keep up the studio.
“We tried to do everything ourselves, but it grew too quickly, and we didn’t have the energy to do it all and still take our children out for dinner,” Christopher Lynn says. “We needed to find a way to get the work done that didn’t hurt our bottom line.”
Their solution? Bartering.
“We ended up having a parent with a cleaning service take on that responsibility in exchange for classes,” he says. “We have another parent who is a painter, one who does renovations.”
Thanks to the trades, the studio has been painted inside and out, the roof has been fixed and the Lynns have had more time to concentrate on the artistic aspects of running a studio.
“In some ways, bartering has us all more involved and committed to each other,” Lynn says. “We get to know the parents well and that’s important to us.”
Sometimes the parents will seek the deals out, while other times the Lynns will learn of a skill and offer the deal themselves. “Through our student connections we have a videographer, a couple of professional photographers, even a parent who works for a local CD-pressing company,” Lynn says. “Last year a very good photographer shot each of our three productions, attending at least one rehearsal and several performances. He also photographed dancers for advertising shots, showcases and our annual recitals—all in trade for free classes for his 7-year-old daughter, which would have cost him $700.”
When bartering, the Ballet Conservatory estimates the value of the services they’ll receive to keep the per-hour equivalent for the trade fair for both parties involved. They are currently creating a list of projects so that parents can trade in times of need.
“For some services, we just agree to pay them like a vendor and let them pay for their classes. This allows us to easily write off the services as business expenses for tax purposes,” Lynn says. “We usually barter for tuition only, and ask families to still pay for tickets and other fees. I believe people value the service more when they pay at least something for it.”
Susan L. Smith
New England School of Dance
Having been in business since 1986, New England School of Dance owner Susan L. Smith knows the value of advertising. After all, a good ad can bring in students or attract a full house to an upcoming recital.
“The biggest thing that I have changed over the years is the money spent on advertising, but I didn’t stop. I just alternatively advertised through social media and by using Facebook ads,” Smith says.
Over the past two years, Smith has spent $1,200 on Facebook ads, and although she’s not exactly sure of the return, she does know that it brings a great deal of people to her website. “It creates awareness, which is just as important,” she says.
Smith also saves money by taking over work she had once contracted out. She estimates she saves nearly $10,000 a year by taking on certain cleaning and administrative duties herself. “When you own a studio, you really have to do a lot of the cleaning and office work yourself,” she says. “My time is very much taken up by my business, and as I get older I find I am doing less teaching and more administrative work.” She uses QuickBooks for accounting, and she enlists a little help from her daughter to ensure things run smoothly.
She has also saved by cutting down on the number of backdrops she rents for the end-of-year productions, dropping from four to two. The shows might not be as elaborate, she says, but it allows the money to be used for other expenses, including the rental cost of the theater.
Los Gatos Ballet
Los Gatos, CA
“This is our 10th year in business, and we have managed to save by collaborating with other organizations for some of our bigger productions,” says Marcie Ryken, owner of Los Gatos Ballet in Los Gatos, CA. “It’s definitely helped us.”
Each year, Ryken’s studio joins forces with the nonprofit San Jose Dance Theatre for The Nutcracker, which she says has helped the studio grow while keeping costs down. Ryken directs, chooses a cast from open auditions and provides the artistic staff and some costumes, while SJDT provides the theater and takes care of production costs.
Ryken has also kept a sharp eye out for other arts programs in the area interested in trading or unloading old sets.
“Schools are a great resource because their theater departments often have great sets and props that they sometimes just get rid of,” she says. For instance, Los Gatos Ballet was going to have to spend a lot of money to build a carriage for a recent production of Cinderella, but Ryken learned of a nearby school that had one and was open to sharing.
“We probably would have spent about $500–$600 in materials, with an estimated 60–80 hours in labor,” she says. “We still spent about $100 in materials to paint and add lighting, but in the long run, it helped a great deal.”
Ryken allocates extra money like this toward the programs she feels need to expand, including her artist-in-residence programs, outreach and performance and educational opportunities for her students. DT
Keith Loria is a business writer based in Virginia. Photo by George Sakkestad
Decisions behind four recent renovations
This large studio can be divided into two smaller space. Clough (at right) of Just For Kix added a coffee bar and heat for hot yoga with the upgrade.
As anyone who has opened a dance studio knows, there’s more to think about than just location and class offerings. A plethora of decisions need to be made, from designing the floor plan, selecting materials and evaluating acoustics to purchasing and installing equipment. And once the studio is up and running, the desire to renovate or relocate eventually brings many of these same issues to the forefront.
When Cindy Clough was designing a new building space for her Just For Kix studio in Brainerd, Minnesota, she realized quickly that there was more to it than meets the eye. “You need to consider everything, such as coat racks, benches, message boards, things you don’t necessarily think of when renovating,” she says. “We totally built a new studio from scratch.”
With 17,000 square feet, the new space is now more than twice its former size. Total cost of construction? $2,250,000. “With our budget, we did everything on our wish list, but I do wish we would have researched a bit more,” Clough says. “In retrospect, there are things we would have done, but did not think of at the time.”
One of those things was storage, and as a result she was forced to give up two dressing rooms for storage space. She also uses space in a warehouse across town to keep seasonal items.
Clough also had a challenge with acoustics. “It’s a very warehouse look, all brick outside with arched windows round at the top. Inside, our ceilings are really high to keep that warehouse look, but that’s the one thing I had a hard time with when we switched,” she says. “I felt like acoustics were a problem, and in retrospect, I would have done that differently.”
To fix the problem, she added acoustic panels and drapes, but that added even more expense to the project.
Of course, there was plenty to be excited about. She installed mirrors on three sides of the studios, 12 inches from the floor, allowing her to see dancers from every angle.
“Our bifold door has proved to be a godsend; we are able to go from three to four studios,” she says.
The budget also allowed for some great additions and upgrades from her last studio. There’s a coffee bar with a state-of-the-art latte/espresso machine, and the studio has an additional heat source for hot yoga. There’s also great use of color.
“I feel our color palette is beautiful. We went with a violet, ballet pink and black with silver accents. All our doors are silver, and we used a metallic silver paint in accent areas,” she says. “It’s all very trendy and chic. It has a warm atmosphere. I love the outside brick and dentil molding, and the curved windows are beautiful.”
Consider the challenges facing Loni Lane, owner of the Noretta Dunworth School of Dance in Dearborn, Michigan, when she decided to upgrade.“My mother started the studio, and we had been in the same location for 25 years, but we were limited by the space,” Lane says. “We were at 2,500 square feet and we found a place that was 10,000 square feet. It was a dream I always had and I went for it.”
With a budget surpassing $1 million, the project began in January 2011, and thanks to a contractor friend, the massive renovation of a former Boys & Girls Club of America building they purchased was completed in time to hold classes less than 10 months later.
“The place was a disaster. We needed new plumbing and electric, windows were busted out; it was in bad shape, but the structure was great and the configuration of the rooms was wonderful,” Lane says. “We took the ceilings out, added a parking lot, changed the AC unit and made a beautiful girls’ dressing room in a 75' x 50' room.”
When it was time to choose the flooring for the studio, Lane chose to go with a Stagestep Springstep IV subflooring, being drawn to its durability and the fact that you can just simply clip the 2' x 2' panels together without screws. “We had the whole 10,000 square feet installed in four days,” Lane says. “And if we need to pull it up, we can, since it’s not permanent.” (Note: Lane chose vinyl top-flooring and was also required to put a vapor barrier in between the concrete and Springstep subfloors to control moisture.)
When Lane began teaching at her mother’s studio, the barres were already in place, so she had a tough time choosing what to use for her new studio. “I never had to deal with that before, since ours were cemented in and were metal,” she says. She also wasn’t certain how much space to allow when mounting the barres on the wall.
“My contractor installed the ballet barres and used stock handrails and stock brackets. I only checked on the diameter of the wood unfortunately, not on the distance from the wall,” she says. “When classes started, it was difficult to place feet on the barre and hands were also too close, so I had them come back and extend them so we got six more inches.
Another mistake was a paint decision. “I went with an eggshell finish, which looks really classy. But you can’t really wipe it off, so we get lots of fingerprints and footprints,” Lane says. “I wish I had put it at least five feet up on the walls and maybe carpeting or a Formica surface on the wall, so kids leaning against it or putting their feet up wouldn’t damage it.”
Throughout the process, Lane was faced with many decisions that concerned things she had never previously thought of. For instance, she chose crank paper dryers in the bathroom to help limit puddles on the floor; she went against soap dispensers, which were harder to maintain than bottles of pump hand soap; and she chose carpet squares over tile in the nondance space, because it was easier to replace each square if something got dirty.
“One of the things that people warned me against was adding a viewing window,” Lane says. “They said, ‘Kids are always looking up and don’t pay attention,’ so we have no viewing window here.”
Starting With a Blank Slate
Taking the opposite approach to the observation window was Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, who recently moved and renovated a new building for her Los Angeles Ballet Academy in Encino, California. “One of the things I love about the new studio is that when younger children walk in, they can look through the observation windows at the older children,” Paris-Gutierrez says. “It’s really important for students to connect—even visually—and I think this is a great way to do that.”
Paris-Gutierrez had not been eager to move, because her space at the time was only six years old. But the city had purchased her building and forced them out. “We had just gone through a big move not too long ago, so I left my old place kicking and screaming,” she says. “But since it was partly the city’s responsibility to find us a new space and give financial assistance, we found a great space.”
She says, “The new building was a completely blank palette and even had dirt on the floor.” At 8,045 square feet, the school gained 2,000 square feet and the project took nine months to complete.
“One interesting thing we did was we built a second level off to one side and put in a movable wall and soundproofed the downstairs, so we have two main studios,” she says.
Project architect Robert Elbogen explains that the wall does not rest on the floor at all. “The weight of the partitions is fully hanging from the massive steel beams we installed above the ceiling,” he says. “The wall panels are constructed of steel mini beams (studs) supporting the wall sheeting. The sound-reducing panels are on rollers and can be moved and stacked into a small receptacle (almost like a closet) on one side of the room for when we open the room up for master classes or events. When the panels are in (so that we have the two-room setup), each panel locks down to the floor for maximum sound filtering.”
For the downstairs dance floors, Paris-Gutierrez installed beige Harlequin Studio flooring—a vinyl surface composed of four layers to offer dancers extra cushioning—on top of a Bolo-brand, basket-weave floor. One of the earliest forms of sprung flooring, a basket-weave floor consists of several layers of overlapping wood, with foam rubber overlapping underneath.
In the upstairs studio, they use a multipurpose flooring that is very durable and appropriate for a variety of dance styles. Paris-Gutierrez insulated the floors with R-13 across the entire space. “This drastically mutes sound from transferring below (for the upstairs studio) and will give a crisp, not hollow, sound when tap dancing is done on it,” she says.
Paris-Gutierrez chose a gray marble finish, which helps with camouflaging scuff marks. “I love it and I think it’s very consistent,” she says. “The ballet dancers don’t like it as much because they think it’s too slippery. However, with the many surfaces ballet dancers often have to deal with at performances, auditions and competitions, having some variety is good for them to be adaptable.”
Photo: courtesy of Just For Kix