In May, Stephen Mills will earn a BA from St. Edward’s University, a liberal arts college nestled in downtown Austin. That fact would be unremarkable, except that the 50-year-old Mills took his last college class more than three decades ago, and in the intervening years he pursued a successful dance career, ultimately becoming artistic director of Ballet Austin.
Mills never expected to be a college graduate, let alone enroll as a student while also leading a ballet company. But Ballet Austin is committed to education, and Mills finally had the time to pursue his degree thanks to an innovative program he helped create: a partnership with St. Edward’s that allows dancers at Ballet Austin and Houston Ballet to rack up college credits without cutting into studio time. The program gives working dancers a chance to earn a BA in the most convenient way possible: by building it around their hectic schedules and giving credit for their dance company experience.
Dancers have an incentive to earn a college degree. Often their careers are ending just as their nondancing peers begin climbing the rungs of the professional ladder—to say nothing of the specter of injury. But a dancer’s schedule is so complex that even continuing-education classes, which are typically offered in the evening, don’t provide a solution. And dancers can’t exactly beg off a performance the night before a paper is due.
With the goal of providing a smooth transition to a post-dance career, the St. Edward’s program offered its first classes to 19 Ballet Austin members in January 2008 and welcomed 12 students from Houston Ballet last fall. The university is a good fit for the ballet companies: A Ballet Austin board member is the school’s president, and New College, its undergraduate program for working adults, laid the groundwork for adaptive educational programming. So far, the partnership is paying off. The program received an award from the Association of Continuing Higher Education, partly for its commitment to underserved populations.
“I had no idea until I started working on this a few years back just how underserved dancers are when it comes to higher education,” says H. Ramsey Fowler, the dean of New College.
This is not the case at St. Edward’s. Company members take classes—such as Ethical Analysis or Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Romances—in accelerated seven-week packages, two per semester. A professor drives out to Ballet Austin every Monday night (the dancers’ day off) for class; at Houston Ballet, classes take place online.
The Dance and the Humanities degree, comprising 120 credit hours, takes up to three and a half years to complete, depending on how many college credits a dancer starts with. (Since the companies cover some overhead costs, students pay a discounted tuition rate of roughly $425 per credit hour.) Crucially, company members receive up to 36 credit hours for their commitment and experience as professional dancers. “All of the knowledge they’re bringing is important,” says Christine Stone Martin, company manager at Ballet Houston. “Just like your work history would help you with a career, this is their work history.”
Ballet Austin member and St. Edward’s student Paul Michael Bloodgood’s work history includes 12 years as a professional dancer. But Bloodgood, 30, is also a burgeoning filmmaker. He recently turned in a senior thesis on television censorship and is seriously considering applying to an MFA program in motion picture and television production, to be pursued while he is dancing—an ambitious goal he credits to his experience at St. Edward’s.
And Bloodgood’s colleagues? Their career plans range from entrepreneur to teacher to yoga instructor. Some intend to remain in the dance world, while others are looking to branch out. The question of whether the St. Edward’s program eases that passage is still far from settled: There has been only one graduate so far, former Ballet Austin company member Anthony Casati, who now runs a high-end home repair and remodeling company.
In the meantime, the college classes seem to have done more than broaden the company members’ career plans. Aria Alekzander, a 24-year-old Houston Ballet company member who started at St. Edward’s last fall, relishes seeing her fellow dancers catching a 20-minute study session on a lunch break or discussing the latest reading from an art history class. “Typically your day consists of analyzing yourself in a mirror and being told by instructors how to dance the way they want you to dance,” she says. Now, her brain is alive with activity.
This is exactly what Mills, who initially signed up for classes to set an example for his company members, wanted. He hoped to teach the dancers their value outside the studio, and give them an ability to communicate verbally what they might once have expressed through movement. As an artistic director, Mills already has his post-performance career plans worked out, of course. But even he learned something about himself from his St. Edward’s experience. “If you’re forced to read Plato,” he says, “it changes the way you think about things.” DT
Leigh Kamping-Carder is a New York–based journalist who writes about visual culture, the arts, legal issues and other topics.
Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, courtesy of Ballet Austin
Last year, when a large ballet academy held auditions for its annual Nutcracker, the studio owner knew that five “absolutely brilliant girls” coveted the role of Clara. But the owner, who has asked to remain anonymous, knew that one girl would leave the audition disappointed, since there were only four parts. “I’ve never had the scores so close and I’ve never had to eliminate a dancer so clearly qualified,” the studio owner says. “I just didn’t have enough performances to go around.”
The owner’s dilemma is likely familiar to any instructor who casts for recitals or competitions. Rewarding talented dancers while giving every student a chance to perform is tricky. But as long as you give every student an equal shot, establish open communication with dancers and parents and alleviate jealousies before they turn into full-scale conflicts, every casting session can be a teaching opportunity.
First, it helps to choose choreography that allows numerous students to play special roles. “I try to pick pieces that afford me the luxury of having many solos,” says California Conservatory of Dance Director Melissa Allen Bowman, who tries to give about 90 percent of her dancers distinctive parts. Or adapt a classic to suit your needs: Joan Robinson Borchers, founder of California Academy of Performing Arts (CAPA), has expanded her Nutcracker, adding overture dancers, junior maids, a Rose Queen (who would normally be Dew Drop) and a Dream Fairy. With four casts, that means roles for 75 students—and a chance for even the weaker dancers to get stage time. “That gives more girls a chance at plum roles,” Robinson Borchers says.
More importantly, make sure every student gets a fair shake at those roles: Don’t play favorites. For some studio owners, including Bowman, that means holding auditions that put casting choices in the hands of choreographers or neutral judges, rather than classroom teachers. “It’s tough because it puts the dancers on the spot,” says Bowman, “but they seem to feel that it’s fair because everybody gets a shot at it. Everybody.”
Jana Belot, director of Gotta Dance, goes one step further: She outsources casting to a panel of professional dancers who oversee a 600-student audition day. “It’s about the process of learning how to take your work ethic in the classroom and bring it with you to an audition,” Belot says. Every year new students surprise her with their talent, ensuring different students are cast from year to year, she adds.
Gotta Dance dancers are scored on specific steps and memorization skills using a numbered scale, with the top 100 scores going to the studio’s Showstoppers company, and the next 300 scores going to the Dynamite dance team. For lead recital roles, Belot pulls from the top scores and considers appropriateness for the role and body type. This year, as if to highlight the democratic nature of the process, half the solos went to dancers who weren’t leads last year.
But Belot’s approach isn’t for everyone. Bowman is wary of hiring professional dancers, who aren’t necessarily familiar with the way children learn and perform, to evaluate young students. “We teach these students every day,” says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East, “so we have a really good idea for who’s going to be right for certain roles.” Hoover has developed a process that she thinks preserves a sense of fairness while keeping casting choices in the hands of choreographers and stagers: Every student learns performance choreography, and most casting decisions are based on in-class performance, attendance, commitment and suitability for the role.
Last fall, Hoover began teaching students George Balanchine’s Raymonda Variations for BAE’s February recital. As the dancers worked on the pieces, both students and teachers recognized the strongest dancers, Hoover explains. She also double-casted and used understudies. For those who missed out on the solos, Hoover was happy to explain why (maybe they failed to take extra classes or languished in the back of the classroom every week) and to encourage the hopefuls. “It’s like a garden,” she told them. “Sometimes the daffodils will come up in spring, and we love the daffodils. But just because the roses bloom later doesn’t mean we don’t love the roses.”
No matter what method you use, transparency and honest communication are always critical to successful casting. In the weeks leading up to the final decision, explain the casting process to students. Be truthful about their abilities, but emphasize that dancers lose out on roles for countless reasons: lack of preparation, weakness in certain techniques, inexperience with auditions or simply not being suited to a role. Give them confidence in your objectivity. “Today you are all strangers to me,” Robinson Borchers tells her students on audition day, “and no matter how much I adore you, that will have nothing to do with the decision I make today.”
Of course, even a fair and transparent casting process can make rivals of classmates. “Are they catty? Yes, I’m sure they are; they’re kids,” Belot says. But studio owners can minimize jealousies. Belot requires cast members to sign a contract that, among other things, forbids them from talking about rehearsals during class time. Robinson Borchers has a “standing rule” that students must be kind, but she knows that that won’t always be the case—and warns her students accordingly. “We teach them early on in class that if you’re a good dancer, then someone else is going to talk about you,” she says.
Ironically, it is often the parents who are angriest when that list of names goes up. Mothers call Belot wondering why their senior dancers failed to secure a solo in their last year of classes; the Gotta Dance director is perfectly willing to show students their scores. Hoover, however, takes a different approach: She chooses not to speak to parents about casting decisions. Whatever policy you choose, it’s important to educate parents about the casting process, either in person or in a newsletter. “We tell parents that if their children don’t get the roles they want,” says one CAPA handout, “it doesn’t mean that they failed in any way. It is simply that, on that given day, with all the variables, they were not the right person for that role.”
As for the girl who lost out on the part of Clara, she decided to try out the next year for a different role. Time has healed the rift between the girl’s mother, who “went ballistic” when the decision was made, and the studio owner. “It’s very hard to hold firm to your policies,” the studio owner says, “but it is the only way to keep the trust and respect of your students and parents.” After all, not getting a role is often as constructive for dancers as nabbing the Nutcracker lead. “Along with learning how to do a tendu in ballet,” Hoover says, “is learning how to accept disappointment and turn it into a positive.” DT
Leigh Kamping-Carder is a New York–based journalist who writes about visual culture, the arts, real estate and other topics.
Photo: A panel of professionals evaluates students auditioning for a Gotta Dance production. (by Cathy Mondoro, courtesy of Gotta Dance)
Making food and drink available at your studio—whether through your main office, a vending machine or a donated refrigerator—can sustain students (and waiting parents) between classes and boost your business. And it can be as easy as making a quick trip to your local bulk grocery store. Here, four studio directors give you a taste of how it’s done.
DanceWorks Conservatory (100 students)
Kansas City, MO
DanceWorks Conservatory offers students a selection of healthy, low-calorie snacks, like granola bars, packets of peanut butter crackers and juices. “We try not to totally hop them up on sugar,” says studio manager, Lauren Taylor. Soft drinks and Oreos are also available, but most of the cookie buyers are dancers’ siblings. Taylor prices those offerings higher to discourage students from choosing them: A granola bar is 50 cents for two, while a single packet of Oreos costs 60 cents, and soda goes for 75 cents, representing roughly a 30-percent markup.
Taylor sells the snacks herself and accepts only cash. She stores the drinks in a mini-fridge and the food in a drawer in the main office. She usually spends $15 at Sam’s Club or Costco every two to three months. The $25 or $30 she nets helps pay for studio upkeep.
Dancers’ Corner (300 students)
White River Junction, VT
Doreen Keith, owner of Dancers’ Corner, keeps a vending machine in the lobby as a convenience for waiting parents and dancers who forget to bring snacks. A local company set up the machine and sends a technician once a week to keep it stocked. She selects refreshments from a provided menu, choosing popcorn and pretzels (which sell out first), animal crackers, granola bars, licorice, M&Ms, fruit juices and Coke products. She warns that not all parents approve of the junk food sales. One parent was appalled at the presence of the sugary drinks and took her child elsewhere. But students who spend hours dancing are entitled to a handful of M&Ms, says Keith. Plus, most of the soda buyers are parents. No item costs more than a dollar; however, the vending machine company keeps the profits. Keith’s only charge is electricity, which varies in cost throughout the year. The studio also sells coffee to parents for $1 per cup. Half of that goes to a scholarship fund.
Younger students who study for more than an hour can eat in the lobby during a five-minute break between classes. Older students, who dance for three or four hours at a time, can snack in class during choreography breaks. Keith has never had a problem with cleanliness, partly because she reminds students to clean up after they eat. “Quite frankly, I pick up more dirty socks than food-related items,” she says.
Corky Bell School of Dance (100 students)
The vast commercial-grade refrigerator in the lobby of Corky Bell School of Dance lets Ashley Bryant sell out of about $400 worth of refreshments—mostly sports drinks—every month. A studio family donated the refrigerator when Bryant took over the business three years ago. At first she was surprised that her dancers don’t buy drinks in bulk themselves. “Several of them buy two or three Gatorades a night and dance three nights a week,” she says. Bryant tried selling fruit as well, but it went bad. Instead, she sells fruit snacks, animal crackers, SunChips and Baked! Lay’s. Bryant asks parents to alert her about students’ allergies on the registration form, a policy she put in place after learning one student had a severe peanut allergy. She banned peanuts from the studio as a result, and she makes sure to notify teachers of allergic dancers.
Corky Bell is in a low-income area, so Bryant tries to keep her prices as close to cost as possible. Edibles start at 50 cents, while sports drinks cost $1 each, including a 20-cent markup. Most students pay cash. Some charge items to their accounts and settle up with the monthly tuition bill, while others have their parents put down $10 in advance. She runs the concession primarily as a convenience for her students, because the profits are just enough to pay the fridge’s power bill.
The Pointe! Studio of Dance (100 students)
At The Pointe! Studio of Dance, students purchase snacks on the honor system. And in the four years Gina Tate has used it, dancers and their parents have grown accustomed to honestly putting their change in a basket next to the refreshments. Only three students have been caught not paying—and none were repeat offenders.
Students can purchase bottled water and fruit juices for $1.25 from a refrigerator on the studio’s first floor, or fruit snacks, microwave popcorn, SunChips, Doritos and fruit for $1 from a nearby rack. Parents frequently donate goodies like candy and chocolate. Tate keeps the profits from the donations. She stops by Sam’s Club if the snacks are running low. On a typical bimonthly visit, she spends $45 or $50. A 30-pack of chips nets just over $20 in profit, while a 24-pack of 100 percent fruit juice can bring in $30. The studio contributes $60 to $100 of monthly concession sales to a student scholarship fund that pays for tuition and offsets costume and activity costs. DT
Leigh Kamping-Carder is a New York–based journalist who writes about visual culture, the arts, real estate and other topics.
Photos from top: iStockphoto.com/ShawnGearhart; by AJ Taylor courtesy of Lauren Taylor; by Diana Seaver, courtesy of Doreen Keith; by Steve Plimpton/Focus on Kids Photography, courtesy of Ashley Bryant; by Jamie Tate, courtesy of Gina Tate
When Bette Winslow decided to sell her eponymous dance studio in 2005, she refused to compromise on one thing: The space had to remain a dance school. Not a rental space. Not a piece of real estate. “I just decided that’s what it needed to be and to keep it that way,” she says.
The now 90-year-old dance instructor opened the Bette Winslow Dance Studio in 1986 on a stretch of pastureland in Taos, NM. But when it came time for her to retire, finding the right person to take over was no easy matter. Winslow’s daughters, Prisca Winslow Bradley, an accomplished dancer in her own right, and Liz Winslow Fruits, who taught at the school for 16 years, had moved on from the business, which still had some debts.
After a year of trying to sell the studio herself, Winslow hired a realtor, a former New York attorney who had recently moved to the area. He was able to find several buyers ready to pay cash, but they had non-dance plans for the property. “I don’t think he quite heard me,” Winslow says, “because he immediately found a buyer, and the buyer assured me that it was not going to be a dance studio.”
It’s no wonder that Winslow had a difficult time parting with her life’s work. Buying or selling a studio is not your average real estate transaction. A studio is a personal place, often reflecting the vision of its owner, a philosophy for teaching students and years of sweat equity, says Suzanne Blake Gerety, co-founder of DanceStudioOwner.com. “It is an emotional business,” she says. “That’s the bottom line.”
But that doesn’t mean dance studio owners can ignore the actual bottom line. “The passion that we all feel for the profession is outside of what the value is,” says Elsa Posey, RDE, director of the National Registry of Dance Educators. Veterans of the dance business agree: When it comes to buying and selling a dance studio, you have to be realistic.
Do Your Research
The advantage of buying an existing business is that, in many ways, the tough work is done. “If it’s already successful, and the community’s going there, they must be doing something right,” Gerety says. But experts recommend researching the location of the school and its reputation in the community before making an offer. “The biggest problem people create for themselves is that they move too fast and they don’t think through the details,” Posey says.
Also, buyers would do well to research the demographics of the neighborhood: Are there a lot of young families or schools in the area? Drive by the studio at different times to scope out the traffic and parking. Ask residents where they would study dance, and check the studio’s reputation with the local Chamber of Commerce or other dancers in the region.
Take an Inventory
Kate Johnson, a dancer since age 3, is in the process of buying a studio from a couple in New York State. (We’ve changed her name to protect confidentiality of the pending sale.) “One of my goals was always to own my own dance studio,” she says. That opportunity fell in her lap when she was laid off from her job, and a friend told her she knew someone who planned to sell his dance school after having run the business for 18 years. “When we figured out we had the same philosophy, then we decided we would go forward and look at the business aspect,” she says.
The first step is to draw up a non-disclosure agreement—a contract that says neither party can reveal details of the business transaction—which an attorney or accountant can put together.
Buyers should examine three years’ worth of financial data, including records of profits and losses; tax documents indicating how the business is set up; and insurance documentation. This can be a time-consuming process, if Johnson’s experience is any indication. “He knew how to run the studio, so he didn’t have to keep detailed books,” she says of the former owner. That left Johnson to figure out where the revenue was coming from: classes, rental income, the dancewear shop?
She turned the studio’s tax statements over to her accountant, who was able to explain in layman’s terms what the top three business expenses were. After many phone conversations and face-to-face meetings with the owner, she and her accountant pieced together a picture of the studio’s finances.
Next, both parties should get appraisals of what the business is worth, starting with the building itself. (Air conditioning, windows and showers are all marketable features.) Then, take a look at the other assets: the floors, ballet barres, sound system and office equipment. One seller’s list was so comprehensive it included the lobby chairs and an old barbecue in the storage room.
“Many studio owners think they have a gold mine,” says longtime teacher Helene Scheff, National Dance Education Organization. “In order to sell it, they need to take a look at it as if they were a buyer.”
Sellers should measure their annual income realistically, Scheff says, and be prepared to defend the numbers. Posey suggests thinking of your school as a florist or a dry cleaner—a business with less emotional weight. Even if you think your business is worth a million dollars, unless you can find a buyer willing to pay that price, she says, it’s not.
Value the Business
Evaluating a studio’s intangible assets is a trickier calculation. But putting a price tag on artistic direction and customer service can be done, and an accountant can help, Gerety says.
Buyers should be aware of how much of the studio’s profits are a result of the current owner. Take a look at what business systems she already has in place: Is the registration process automated? Does the school have a marketing plan?
Tiffany Adoranti admits that she rushed into purchasing the Caledonia Studio of Dance, located near Toronto, Canada. “I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but I said ‘Yes!’ really quickly without even looking into much,” she says. Adoranti, who had taught classes at the studio for about six months, took over the business from its founder in June 2008.
Adoranti agreed to pay 20 percent of the studio’s average revenue over the last three years on top of a lump sum for the inventory. That percentage was intended to cover the added value of the studio’s 11-year history, its status in the community and a roster of 300 students. Adoranti also opted to keep the Caledonia name, since the business had already invested in outdoor signage and merchandise.
For sellers, the question of whether to let a buyer use your name is one you should prepare for in advance. If you plan to retire, you may want to have a trusted new owner keep the name alive. If so, craft a licensing agreement or other legal documentation to protect your rights. “It’s not something you just shake hands over,” Posey says. However, if you plan to leave the community altogether, you may want to take your name with you. “You shake the person’s hand, you sign the papers, and you go,” Scheff says.
Plan for the Transition
In Ohio, one dance studio owner is planning to move out of state to be closer to her family. (She asked not to be named because she has not yet announced the move.) “I’ve been so committed to my studio, and the mission of the studio, that it has been difficult,” she says. She is holding out for a buyer who shares her philosophy of teaching: a focus on anatomy and technique. It’s a concern that many sellers face. A good way to begin this discussion, suggests Gerety, is to ask a prospective buyer, “What are you going to be excited about doing five years from now?”
Meanwhile, the Ohio teacher has spent the last year disentangling herself from the studio: Patrons now see her two or three times a week as opposed to every day, and she has worked to make sure her teachers know how to run the show without her.
A slow transition can help new owners retain current students, both reassuring them and getting them excited about the change in ownership. At Caledonia, it made a difference that Adoranti began filling in as a substitute before the sale. The former owner sent an announcement to parents praising Adoranti’s vision for the business. At Johnson’s new studio, one of the former owners will stay on as artistic director.
It’s important for buyers to remember that the purchase price includes three items: the space, the equipment and a list of names. You don’t own the students, Posey cautions. For sellers, it’s about letting go. “If you are able to say, ‘I’ve done my job for 25 years, I’ve built something that I’m very proud of and now it’s time for somebody else, and I’m not going to look over his or her shoulder,’ then it’s easy,” Scheff says.
In December 2007, Winslow signed a contract to sell her studio. Although she eventually lowered her asking price, she held firm on one key point: Her studio is still a dance school. “I think he finally got it through his head that I wasn’t willing to sell it any other way,” she says of her realtor, who bought her a six-month gift certificate to a local café when the deal closed.
The Bette Winslow Dance Studio has transformed into the Taos Academy of Dance Arts—headed up by the legendary flamenco dancer Teo Morca—and dancers are still taking classes within its stucco walls. For Winslow, the important thing for studio owners to remember is to decide from the beginning what you want. “Unless there’s some reason for making a compromise, don’t,” she says. DT
Is a Franchise Right for You?
In 2003, Heather Hardesty planned to open a dance studio. That is, until her boss asked her to take over the Kinderdance International franchise where she taught in Austin, Texas. Hardesty now oversees half a dozen Kinderdance locations and employs 11 teachers. “Unless somebody gave me the keys to their studio free and clear, I wouldn’t do a studio,” she says.
Franchises make it easy for dance teachers to open their own businesses. Compared to independent studios, they require relatively little experience or financial investment to start up and they consume less overhead on the whole. For a one-time fee, plus a monthly royalty, franchisees gain access to tested educational methods, marketing tips, ongoing training and, hopefully, a built-in following. Franchisees can also buy insurance, dancewear and other studio essentials at a discount. “By purchasing a franchise, you’re in business for yourself but not by yourself,” says Bernard Friedman, the co-founder of Kinderdance.
On the other hand, if would-be studio owners plan to develop their own brands, write their own lesson plans, or “if you want to go be creative and do it your way, then a franchise is not for you,” says Suzanne Blake Gerety of DanceStudioOwner.com.
Franchisees typically sign on for 5- or 10-year or longer contracts. And they must be highly organized, especially in the Kinderdance system, where classes are spread out between childcare centers and public schools. Of the 100 Kinderdance franchisees across the U.S. and five other countries, about 80 percent are happy with the arrangement, and others are looking for buyouts, according to Friedman.
For many Kinderdance owners, who are overwhelmingly women, the business is an opportunity for a second career or a part-time job, and they appreciate a work schedule that allows for family life, Friedman says. The franchisees who get into trouble are the ones who do things their own way. “Usually when they don’t follow the rules, they don’t do well,” Friedman says. —LKC
Let’s Make a Deal
When it comes to buying or selling a dance studio, the way the transaction unfolds depends on what each party wants. With the tips below, buyers and sellers can negotiate a price, a closing date and a deal that will benefit both sides.
A range of formulas exists to determine the fair market value of a business, including ones that rely on investment returns, cash flow, the balance sheet or specific intangible assets, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. When setting a price:
• Consider how fast the business is growing, as well as more general economic conditions.
• Find out the sale price of similar studios in the area.
• Determine what you can afford.
• Remember that the asking price is simply the starting point of the negotiation.
In addition to agreeing on a price, buyers and sellers may want to discuss conditions that will help make the transition smoother. Before you start negotiating:
• Learn why the studio owner wants to sell her business or, conversely, why the buyer is interested. Whether it’s for personal or financial reasons, the motive for the sale can affect who has more control over the talks.
• Make a list of the major points of the proposed deal, separating out the must-haves from the terms open for compromise, and stick to them.
• Be prepared to strike a deal. Be prepared to walk away.
If a seller is looking to make a hasty exit, the sale may close quickly—and on terms more favorable to the buyer. For those studio owners looking for something specific in a buyer, the process may take more time.
Other Tips for Success
Buyers should steer clear of any studio owner who is unwilling to divulge financial records, and sellers should be prepared to share that information.
• Put everything in writing, even if you’re friendly with the buyer or seller.
• Don’t rely on a professional hired by the other party. Find your own accountant, attorney or real estate broker.
• Don’t be shy. Ask the tough questions before you commit.
Leigh Kamping-Carder is a New York–based journalist who writes about visual culture, the arts, real estate and other topics.