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

Dead-Fish Face

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.”

Wandering Eyes

Looking at the other dancers to see what comes next or gazing about the stage. Wandering eyes are very distracting.

Prop Problems

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.

Lip Syncing

Mouthing the lyrics of a song is irritating and distracting.

Weird Hands

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.”

Low Artistry

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.

•Extra props

•Rosin for the pointe dancers

•Nail-polish remover

•Hair nets

•Bobbie pins, large and small

•Safety pins

•Extra tights

•Sewing kit

•Hair spray

•Hair gel

•Scissors

•Tissues

Plus

•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.

Also bring:

• 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.”

Gift Giving

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
Chelsea Thedinga

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

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Joanne Chapman cultivates excellence and a familial atmosphere at her Canadian studio. Photo by Don Boskovic/Exposé Studios, courtesy of Chapman

Four incredible educators: Joanne Chapman, Claudio Muñoz, Pamela VanGilder and Kathleen Isaac foster their students' love of dance, whether instilling artistry, offering rigorous training or giving special needs students an outlet through movement.

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Business

Although there may not be one perfect way to run a dance studio, smart directors gravitate to certain practices that make life better for the whole community—owners, teachers and students. DT spoke with several savvy owners to get their takes on topics that will streamline your operation and free you up to focus on teaching dance.

 

 

4 Ways to Retain Valued Faculty

Make time for feedback Check in with your teachers periodically about how their classes are going. Give them time and space to discuss everything from behavioral issues to choreography ideas. Create goals together and help them make a plan to work toward achievement.

Free classes Your teachers may be still training, themselves. Consider offering free classes at your studio or education stipends for further study. An investment in their skills is an investment in the quality of their teaching. Many studios offer half-price or free classes for teachers’ children, as well.

Enrollment incentives Consider a bonus structure (on top of base pay) based on enrollment. For example, you can offer $2 more per child over a base minimum enrollment. Your teachers will feel more invested in the studio’s success.

Show your appreciation An end-of-semester or holiday gift, however small, can show that you value their contribution. A note and $25 gift card to a nearby restaurant can be a nice surprise for on-the-go teachers.

Do You Measure Up? It’s common for studio owners to pay airfare/mileage, hotel and a per diem for competition directors and choreographers who travel to Nationals and Regionals.

 

 

What’s in Your Registration Packet?

An overview of the studio

Calendar of events

Tuition rates and discount opportunities

Photo and liability

waivers

Concise handbook with dress code and etiquette 

Costume ordering information for the entire season

Class descriptions

Teacher bios

Weather cancellation policies

Sign-up instructions for Remind texting service for emergency news

Remind is a free app that allows you to send one-way texts to students, parents, faculty and staff. Send competition team schedule changes, weather-related updates about studio closure or photos of what hair and makeup should look like. With Remind, you can attach photos, documents, PDFs, presentations and even recorded voice messages.

TIP: Make sure everything in your packet is also available online.

Avoid TMI New dance parents can be easily overwhelmed with your three-pound package of forms and information. Consider sharing information in small doses, as needed, to let them get used to the dance studio culture on their own time. For example, dress code for class is an immediate need; recital costume ordering can wait.

 

 

Cash Flow IQ

Timing of tuition and fees can make or break your ready-money situation.

Try using a 10-month tuition policy. If your school year consists of 35 weeks, you would spread payments over 10 months, rather than 9. Parents would pay for 3 1/2 weeks of tuition every month, resulting in smaller monthly payments.

Consider collecting tuition for recreational and competition students at different times. For instance, tuition is due for most students on the first of the month and for competition/company students on the 15th, creating a nice mid-month boost of cash.

Collect a deposit Consider collecting first and last month (May) tuition for the year at fall registration. This ensures you’ll get your final month of tuition, should a family relocate from the area before the end of the term or the child decides to quit dancing.

Reward the early birds with discounts 10 percent, for example, for advance payment of the entire year or semester. Caution: Not all discounts are good for business. Run the numbers before offering huge discounts for students taking multiple classes. Unlimited classes for a set fee can result in lots of free classes, especially when coupled with sibling discounts.

Cover your summer Holding fall registration in May can provide cash flow during the lean summer months.

Late fees and other consequences for nonpayment Think of tuition as the ticket to participate in all aspects of studio life, which include the most exciting part for a dancer: performing. Your policy should state that unless tuition is paid in full, costumes cannot be ordered, and competition, convention and recital participation—as well as class attendance—is suspended.

 

 

Place of work

4 Ways Studio-Business Software Will Change Your Life

Review receivables at a glance Your online dashboard will tell you what you need to know to run your business smoothly, day to day.

Should you offer that winter intensive again? Let the data help you make the decision. Track trends and patterns of attendance to make an informed decision before adding a class.

Online tuition collection Let parents manage their own accounts online and keep track of their tuition payments—rather than call you.

Recital organization With all your students entered in your database, you will know if you have double-booked a dancer. You can even directly import the names for your recital program. No more typos!

 

 

Do you pay teachers as freelancers or employees?

The question of classifying teachers correctly as employees or independent contractors is more important than ever. If the IRS disagrees with your findings, back taxes, interest and a fee could be charged. Know the law and get it right! Tip: When in question, it’s better to err on the side of employment.

Your teachers are employees and NOT independent

contractors, if the studio:

*determines the teaching

fee and keeps track of hours worked.

*sets the curriculum

(e.g., what is included in a beginner ballet class).

*sets the class schedule and time.

*is where the majority of the teacher’s activity takes place.

Your teachers may be independent contractors, if they:

*operate a business, often teaching at many locations.

*invoice the studio.

*present a contract to the studio.

*determine the content of the class.

 

 

8 Steps to Better Social Media

Diversify Everyone is on social media these days, but not always on the same platforms. (Younger people love Instagram.) Balance your outreach between Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and there’s no need to post the exact same thing on all three platforms. Be dynamic and change it up.

Engage and inform Do not annoy by posting the same information over and over, or posting items unrelated to dance.

Avoid generic photos of little dancers in pink tutus Your audience recognizes a stock photo when they see one. It’s not about polish, but authenticity. Personalize your posts, and don’t be afraid to celebrate what’s going on within your studio’s walls. Post photos of your actual classes and studio life.

Boost your message Got a new class? You can pay a small fee on Facebook and boost that post to get it seen by a wider group of people.

Target your reach Create targeted Facebook ads by age range of children and income level of parents who live within a certain mile radius of your studio. Facebook has a handy help section to walk you through the process.

Private Pages You can create a private Facebook page for each group in your studio, such as for junior and senior competition teams, parents of small children and so on. This way, updates on rehearsals or costumes go directly to the dancers or parents who need to see them.

Videos We all know that people click on posts with photos, so why not have the dancers in motion, too? Keep your video under three minutes. And they don’t have to be videos of your students—there are wonderful inspirational videos out there that will lift your dancers’ spirits in a minute.

#Hashtags The concept was initiated by the Twitter community but is useful now across platforms. Create a hashtag for your studio while at a competition or an event, for example #StudioXNYCDA, as a way for everyone to keep updated in real time. It’s also a way for those not attending to follow your progress and success.

Tip: Be aware of the negative side of social media. Educate yourself on cyberbullying and regularly take the pulse of what’s happening in your social-media circle of faculty, staff, parents and students. Consider creating a social-media policy for teachers and staff who post anything related to the studio.

Sample policy Students and parents at the Kathy Blake Dance Studios abide by a code of ethics that also informs their social-media policy. “Students and parents are expected to use social media only to reflect the Code of Ethics. Students and parents using social media to disparage any aspect of their team, instructors, their peers or KBDS will be dismissed from the team. No video containing studio choreography should be posted on any social-media site.”

 

 

Resources

Business Support

3rd Level Business Consulting

3rdlevelconsulting.com

Dance Studio Owner

dancestudioowner.com

Financial Groove

financialgroove.com

Insurance

Anthony Insurance Services

dancestudioinsurance.com

K&K Insurance

kandkinsurance.com

Markel Insurance Company

danceinsurance.com

Scott Danahy Naylon, LLC

sdnins.com

Studio-Business Software

ClassJuggler

danceclassjuggler.com

CompuDance

compudance.com

Jackrabbit Dance

jackrabbitdance.com

MINDBODY

mindbodyonline.com

The Studio Director

thestudiodirector.com

Studio Organizer

studioorganizer.com

Studio Pulse

studio-pulse.com

ThinkSmart Software

thinksmartsoftware.com

TripleThreat Software

triplethreatsoftware.com

 

 

Contributors

Jane Carter

Dance Academy USA

Cupertino, CA

Cindy Clough

Just For Kix

Brainerd, MN

Suzanne Blake Gerety

DanceStudioOwner.com

Kim Massay

Kim Massay Dance Productions

Edmond, OK

Jessica Scheitler

FinancialGroove.com

Bonnie Schuetz

Boni’s Dance and Performing Arts

The Woodlands, TX

 

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Business

When husband and wife team Heidi Halt and Sergio Neglia founded Neglia Conservatory of Ballet in Buffalo, New York, they started small and slowly enough to give themselves time to figure out their individual roles. Halt, an accomplished ballet teacher, gravitated toward the business end of the studio in addition to teaching, while Neglia (who still performs for the studio company, Neglia Ballet Artists) taught, rehearsed the pre-professional company and handled much of the care of their two children. After 20 years, the couple now has additional instructors and two full-time staff members to help deal with day-to-day jobs, yet they retain the original division of duties.

Dance studios are often family operations, which can be equal parts convenient and tricky. DT asked three couples to talk about their partnerships—how exactly can a dance studio owner keep her head when her business and marriage are intertwined?

Sergio Neglia and Heidi Halt, Neglia Conservatory of Ballet

“Mutual respect for each other’s capabilities is essential,” says Halt. “We sometimes have different teaching styles, and that’s good. Dancers need many different approaches, and we really complement each other.” The couple enjoys changing it up and switching out classes from time to time as a way to stay on top of what the other is doing in class. “Seeing results in our students is so rewarding,” adds Halt.

The two try to make their lives at home not about ballet 24/7, although it’s hard if they’ve had a particularly busy studio day. “Just as we tell our students, ‘Don’t bring your issues into the studio,’ we try not to as well. And we never ever yell at each other in front of parents or students,” says Halt. She does notice that the dancers seem to work harder for Neglia. “As soon as he walks in the room, everyone pulls up, especially in the boys’ class.”

Barry Carroll and Joanne Chapman have been running Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Brampton, Ontario, together for 28 of its 42 years. Carroll, a plumber by trade, took over administrative duties after the bottom had fallen out of the construction market. Today, he is the studio’s ace front man and completely involved in the business aspects of the studio. Their two daughters are also full-time teachers, so it’s a full family affair.

“It works so well because we are not doing the same job,” says Chapman, who admits there’s been a learning curve. She says it helps to have someone at the front desk who is not a teacher, hence not judgmental in any way. “He deals directly with the parents and sometimes brings that perspective to me.”

“Barry is not a typical dance-world type. He’s more of a guy’s guy, which means dads love hanging out at the studio,” she says. “He loves ice hockey and golf. In fact, he organizes a popular yearly golf trip for the dads.” And because dance can be an all-consuming life, they work at keeping varied personal schedules. “It helps that we both have friends and interests outside of the dance world,” she says. “It keeps us grounded.”

Rebecca and Charlie Reese, Blair Dance Academy

When Charlie and Rebecca Reese married four years ago, Rebecca was already running Blair Dance Academy in Altoona, Pennsylvania. New husband Charlie looked around to find ways he could bring his skills as a financial analyst to the business. Today, although employed full-time outside the studio, he keeps the books in order, deals with the accountants, the studio budget and bank accounts, while Rebecca handles the artistic end and day-to-day operations. It’s a winning system. “We joke that she just married me for my money skills,” says Charlie.

When they were ready to take the next step to grow the studio, Charlie managed purchasing a new building. He is also a self-taught graphic artist and web designer, helping out with everything from recital posters to ticket design. “It’s been neat to learn new skills,” he says.

And some things are learned the hard way. “Once I tried to offer some advice on the artistic side—as in a song idea—and I learned quickly where our boundaries stand,” Charlie says, with a smile. “Really, she does listen to me, but it works best when we keep to our strengths.” It helps that he understood completely what he was getting into. “We are a successful couple because I knew right up front that I needed to buy into the dance world,” he says. “Her dreams are my dreams.” DT

Based in Houston, Nancy Wozny is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

Thinkstock; courtesy of Neglia Conservatory; Ray Kauffman Photography, courtesy of Blair Dance Academy

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Featured Articles

New Orleans Ballet Association has staged a remarkable comeback after Hurricane Katrina.

“The generosity of dance organizations was simply incredible.” —Jenny Hamilton, Noba’s executive director, on how companies and schools across the country pitched in after the storm

A glance at Google Maps told Jenny Hamilton most of what she needed to know about the state of the New Orleans Ballet Association after Katrina, the Category 5 hurricane that rendered the city 80 percent underwater on August 29, 2005. She wasn’t surprised to find that 12 out of 14 of NOBA’s teaching sites were damaged, along with the organization’s offices; presenting venue, the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts; and, of course, her apartment. “I never cried,” says Hamilton, NOBA’s executive director. “I couldn’t afford too much emotion.” With a staff scattered across five states after the storm, she returned to Louisiana to rebuild not only an organization but a city.

Rebuilding meant giving back to New Orleans something it desperately needed besides food, fresh water and housing—the free dance classes and inspirational performances NOBA was responsible for. Despite its compromised resources, NOBA’s leadership, staff and community all came together to create one of the most robust comeback stories in the dance field.

Getting Back on Their Feet

NOBA, which started in 1969 as a civic ballet company, eventually evolved into an education and presenting organization—one that’s accumulated many national awards and honors for best practices. Since the early 1990s, thanks in part to a partnership with the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC), NOBA has offered classes—recreational and pre-professional—through the school systems and community organizations.

Summer intensive students perform Limón’s Missa Brevis.

After the storm in 2005, Hamilton returned to Louisiana and had classes running again in two months—an extraordinary feat considering the extent of the damage. NOBA suffered $100,000 in losses—including dance equipment (barres, mirrors, A/V electronics, sprung floors, marley, music), office equipment (phones, computers, furniture) and the damage to the buildings. With the Mahalia Jackson Theater closed—it wouldn’t open again for another three and a half years—upcoming productions had to be canceled, and NOBA lost 75 percent of its projected earned revenue for the 2005–06 season. An emergency cash reserve went toward compensating the staff members. “We never missed a paycheck,” says Hamilton proudly.

Without 12 of their 14 classroom sites, Hamilton and her team arranged to teach in neighboring Jefferson Parish. They put up yard signs around the largest city, Metairie, announcing “Free Dance Classes,” along with Hamilton’s personal cell phone number. “It was the Wild West,” she says. More than 65 organizations from all over the U.S. came to the rescue with supplies worth more than $500,000, and some sent cash, like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which contributed $5,000.

Hamilton (right) with
a NOBA student

“The generosity of dance organizations was simply incredible,” says Hamilton. Her future husband’s home was soon filled floor-to-ceiling with donated materials such as tights, leotards, dance shoes, costumes, warm-ups, CDs, dance magazines and books. NOBA’s regular donors contributed, too. “Many called to see how they could help, and many of our subscribers generously donated the value of their subscriptions back to us,” she says.

In the meantime, Hamilton scrambled to reconfigure the performance season for the following spring at Tulane University, a venue less than half the size of the Mahalia Jackson Theater. David Parsons donated the Parsons Dance company artistic fee, and the Joffrey Ballet curated a repertory program that would fit the Tulane theater. Though NOBA sold fewer tickets because of the smaller venue, Hamilton considers the performances a triumph over adversity: “We filled the house when we didn’t know the location of more than 50 percent of our audience, and much of the city was still in ruins.”

The Show Must Go On

Now, 10 years later, things are better than ever, and NOBA continues to bring programming to communities as schools reopen. In January of this year, NOBA started an early childhood development program for students ages 3 to 5.

Student performance of Katrina Cranes, by teaching artist Monique Moss

The organization now offers free classes at 10 sites across three parishes, and tights, leotard and shoes are provided to every student in need. “When the first city recreation center reopened after Katrina,” says Hamilton, “NOBA began the tuition-free dance programs again. We’ve since raised the funds to bring tuition-free classes back to each neighborhood center as it reopens or is rebuilt. The demand for classes has increased with each year since the storm, with waiting lists at many of the centers.”

The pre-professional program has doubled its enrollment since the storm and is holding steady at 100. NOBA pre-professional students get the chance to learn from visiting artists like the Martha Graham Dance Company, Parsons Dance and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Graduates tend to head to Ailey II and institutions like SUNY Purchase, Houston Ballet Academy and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. “Our students are exposed to an extremely sophisticated and varied array of technical and choreographic styles—not only in the dance studio, but on local and national stages,” says Millette White, education coordinator.

NOBA has also expanded its partnership with NORDC to create a program for senior citizens. Initiated two years after Katrina, “this program now serves almost 300 seniors a year with a comprehensive fitness program,” says Hamilton. “We’re serving record numbers of participants ages 3 to 80-plus—1,750 each year.” In fact, NOBA’s current challenge is serving everyone who wants to take part in the programs offered, says Susan Bensinger, who manages the youth dance programs.

NOBA students in front of NYC’s Joyce Theater, where they performed with Complexions in 2014

The Silver Lining

If there is such a thing as a silver lining to an event as devastating as Hurricane Katrina, it’s the recognition NOBA has achieved as a great example of urban arts planning in action. The organization gained national attention for its impressive adaptability and how quickly it restored services.

Hamilton says it’s the dedicated faculty’s sustained engagement with the community that has enabled the organization to develop deep roots in the city. Over the years, not only have they introduced many dance artists to New Orleans audiences, but NOBA has also forged unique collaborations between choreographers and the musicians New Orleans is famous for. Under the Choreographer/NOLA Musician Commission Initiative for instance, NOBA was able to present the world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s Ma Maison (2008) set to the music of Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Financially, the organization is on solid ground. The operating budget has grown since Katrina by more than 40 percent, and Hamilton and her staff have managed the growth with a thoughtful eye.

Free classes offered at 10 sites across three parishes include a leotard, tights and dance shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Of course we survived the storm—we’re an arts organization,” says Hamilton. “We are trained as artists to deal with adversity and be creative. This is how we are built.” DT

Nancy Wozny covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ dance world for DanceMedia from Houston, Texas, where she lives and writes.

From top: Thinkstock; by Jeff Strout, courtesy of NOBA; courtesy of NOBA; (6) by Jeff Strout, courtesy of NOBA

Houston loses its dance hub.

Jane Weiner leads the final class at Hope Stone Studio.

The drums pounded while dancers scurried across the floor for the last time in Jane Weiner’s joyous final modern class at Hope Stone Studio, the Houston hub for adults and children and home of Hope Stone Dance Company.

On May 31, the decade-old studio closed its doors due to the two things that most affect midsize arts organizations: money and space. “We had our most successful year in terms of reaching kids, audience size, our recent gala and the quality of work, but it wasn’t enough to sustain us,” says Weiner, Hope Stone executive and artistic director. Despite the studio closing, its dance company will continue to perform.

Trouble surfaced when Hope Stone lost its lease in March 2013. After two extensions, Weiner was unable to secure a location that was workable with two studio spaces and parking. “We even considered buying a building, but you need an address to launch a capital campaign,” she says.

The fact that Weiner’s parents had just relocated to Houston complicated the situation. “I would be working from my mom’s hospital room, thinking I don’t know how much longer I can be doing this,” she says.

Weiner danced with Doug Elkins for a decade before moving to Houston to help her sister Susan Rafte through metastatic breast cancer. After co-founding the Pink Ribbons Project, Weiner set up shop on a tiny residential street near the popular River Oaks Shopping Center. With a morning technique class on most days, the studio quickly became the go-to place for the city’s professional dancers, the place for Houston Ballet dancers to earn their teaching chops and for children to experience dance for the first time. The studio was welcoming to regular people, too, with classes in Vbarre, yoga and Gyrokinesis.

But their kids’ program set the operation apart. Weiner’s evangelism for a full approach to arts education is well-known and part of her powerful solo dance Salt, where she states that the arts are necessary for human life. Some children were with her for their entire childhoods. “Whenever I feel like I have failed, I just look at these kids, one success story after another,” she says with pride.

Weiner will keep her nonprofit, Hope Stone, Inc., for another year, along with a few satellite classes that have been fully funded. “I want to work on a business plan for arts education, but not tomorrow,” she says. “It was a great 10 years. We had this wonderful thing, like a diamond. Now those diamonds are scattered all over Houston. I plan to do the three Rs: rest, rest and more rest. I am ready for my next chapter.” DT

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts from Houston, Texas.

 Photo by Simon Gentry, courtesy of Hope Stone, Inc.

Featured Articles

Tapping a valuable source of studio volunteers

Studio dads at In Motion Dance Project are known for extra-vagant sets like this 12-foot storybook.

Sure, it makes us all go warm and fuzzy when we see a papa dancing with his daughter. Yet, when we looked into the ways fathers are part of everyday life at bustling dance studios, we found that dads are doing a lot more than that. From schlepping their children across town to class or figuring out a complicated stage-set problem for an upcoming show, dads are making a difference and having a blast doing it. DT spoke to three studio owners who truly believe that dance is a family affair. Here, they share their experiences on ways to keep studio dads happy and involved with showing off their special skills.

 

In Motion Dance Project

Orlando, Florida

It’s not unusual to see a gaggle of dads wearing matching “Prop Dudes” T-shirts while hard at work designing and building the many set pieces that distinguish the theatrical nature of In Motion Dance Project’s competition numbers. Studio director Amanda Plesa and her husband and partner Api Photnetrakhom both come from the entertainment industry, and she says they’ve used large sets for recitals from the very beginning, when they had only 20 students.

“Our set pieces just keep getting bigger,” she says, and that’s where the dads come in. In particular, they built a giant hand-painted 12-foot storybook set piece for a Mother Goose number for their tween group, which cleaned up at Nationals in 2013.

Located in a business complex, the studio boasts a large parking lot that clears out for weekend building projects. “Dads bring their tools, but we have accumulated quite a few now, too,” says Plesa. “They socialize and have gotten to know each other. Dads like having something to do other than waiting around for the kids.”

As the years have gone by, the set pieces have become more complex and sophisticated in design and construction: Dancers emerging out of a six-foot disco ball made an impact. An eye-grabbing Tarzan number included custom-designed trees and an eight-foot elephant.

“We worked at Disney, so we are used to spectacle,” says Plesa. “Sometimes, rumors circulate at competitions that Disney builds our sets.” The pièce de résistance this season has been a Star Wars set, complete with a spaceship and an X-wing fighter. “I have never seen the dads so excited, and they are so knowledgeable about Star Wars trivia.” Other feats of workmanship include a giant moving bed with a 10-foot Pegasus for a slumber number, and two rock-climbing walls.

But every now and then, the dads get ahead of themselves. Once, they built a complex carousel that was very time-consuming to set up. Trouble occurred when there was no way to know which dancer was going to end up where. “I have never been so stressed watching a dance,” says Plesa. “The dads always bring their tools to the venues just for any contingency that might occur.”

Of course, the men are building not only sets but lifelong friendships, and Plesa understands that can only be good for the studio. Recently, they all did a “warrior run” together, complete with obstacles. “My husband is CEO of the Prop Dudes, but he enlists help from other unsuspecting dads for leadership positions along the way,” she says.

 

Fathers at Spezio’s Dance Dynamics earn Dance Dollars when they volunteer.

Spezio’s Dance Dynamics

Amherst, New York

While Michelle Spezio Ferm will be the first to admit that a dad has helped shovel snow, mostly she has her dancers’ fathers busy doing higher-level work, like helping with fundraising, computer issues, studio upgrades and set construction.

“Our dads are an integral part of our studio life,” she says. “We like to use our parents’ talents to be part of their children’s lives.” Fathers have negotiated leasing agreements, pitched in with marketing ideas, made cubbies for storage, painted the studio and even solved lobby wi-fi problems. At recitals they have been known to dress up in tuxedos to usher.

The helping-dad philosophy starts at home with Ferm’s husband, Mark, an accountant who does the studio’s taxes and more. “Our dads take a lot of pride in what they do for the studio,” she says. “And I really enjoy finding out how they want to get involved.”

An incentive program called Dance Dollars, a studio-based currency that can be applied to their children’s tuition, has helped. Fathers can earn Dance Dollars by helping out in various activities.

One of Ferm’s favorite events is an annual fundraising cookout that takes place during picture weekend. The fathers take over the sprawling parking lot, put up a tent, crank up the grills and turn what might have been a long, boring day into a bustling party that the whole studio community can enjoy. Over the course of one weekend, 1,500 photos are taken and many hotdogs and burgers sold. The dads don their “SDD Dad” shirts and have a blast grilling and chatting up the families.

Of course, Spezio dads are ace set-builders and over the years have turned out many distinctive pieces for competitions and recitals. On occasion, however, they forget the sets will likely be handled by women. “Some pieces are made so sturdy, they are difficult for us teachers to quickly place,” says Ferm. She’s learned it’s best to agree on specifications up front. “We always review the size and weight of the prop so it is sturdy yet easy to maneuver.”

 

Boni’s Dance & Performing Arts Studio Inc.

The Woodlands, Texas

When the 2- and 3-year-olds of Boni’s Dance finish their recital numbers, they are greeted onstage by their fathers bearing flowers. The dads then carry the tiny dancers off the stage, which always draws a collective “aww” from the audience. “Once, a dad came onstage with a baby in a Snugly,” says owner Bonnie Schuetz. It gets even more moving when these babies grow into seniors, and their fathers once again come to fetch their daughters from the stage during senior recital tributes. “Some jump on the backs of their dads,” she says. “It’s always fun to watch.”

Schuetz has witnessed a huge shift in the dad-involvement department from when she started 30 years ago. “We have dads who are the sole caretakers of their children, so we see them not only taking their kids to and from class but making ponytails and buns, coming to costume fittings and sewing costumes.” The guys perform an array of activities, and the only area where they cannot help out is the dressing rooms backstage.

Lifelong friendships have developed among the Prop Dudes of In Motion Dance Project.

Like Ferm and Plesa, Schuetz has dads on set-building duties. And they not only build the sets but cart them off to competition events, as well. You will find them tirelessly working backstage and then ready to load up and drive home—not an easy task considering the studio’s busy competition schedule.

Because being a dance dad is by its nature a temporary gig, Schuetz always makes sure there’s a new crop of leaders coming up the pike so that the tradition can continue. The dads learn the ropes from other dads, so there’s already a system in place to welcome the new dads into studio life. DT

Nancy Wozny’s dad took her to her first dance concert. She writes about the arts from Houston, Texas

 

Photos (from top) courtesy of In Motion Dance Project; courtesy of Boni’s Dance; courtesy of Spezio’s Dance Dynamics; courtesy of In Motion Dance Project

How to Survive Competition Catastrophes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students of The Dance Studio of Fresno will never be caught walking from the dressing room to the stage without their flip-flops, and for good reason. This year, one of them stepped on an open safety pin just three minutes before curtain. It penetrated her metatarsal. “Blood was everywhere,” says studio owner Sue Sampson-Dalena. Luckily, the dancer’s mom, an ER physician, managed to stop the bleeding and the routine went on as planned. “I don’t know how she managed to do it,” says Sampson-Dalena. That was the last time that any of her dancers walked barefoot backstage.

Whether your first competition trip or your 50th, it’s best to go into an event prepared to think on your feet. From unfamiliar backstage conditions and missing dancers to a problematic set, anything can happen—and has. In the face of disaster, how do you soldier on and make sure your dancers return home with their trophies and self-esteem intact? DT asked five studio directors who have decades of competition experience to share their harrowing tales of things gone wrong and how they righted them.

Sue Sampson-Dalena

The Dance Studio of Fresno

Fresno, CA

Just mention set pieces and you are bound to get a smile out of Sampson-Dalena. One year her winning number at Nationals involved a ninja temple. During the competition, her team carried the temple to the stage through the audience. They were thrilled when the number won and they were invited to perform in the gala—until they learned they would not be allowed to carry the temple through the audience. It did not fit through the stairs, so it was impossible to get the piece in place from backstage. The temple had to be completely dismantled and put together onstage in exactly one minute. The dancers pulled through, but not without some good lessons learned. After that, Sampson-Dalena needed a good long break from complicated set pieces. But while some studios have eliminated props completely, she hasn’t gone that far. “Good set pieces can really augment the choreography,” she says, “so I haven’t stopped using them, but I do pay more attention to dimensions.”

Be efficient and reasonable when designing props and sets.

Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee

KJ Dance Designs

Plano, TX

When Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee was still teaching for her mom’s studio, her team showed up at a competition only to discover they would need to lift their set three feet onto a raised stage in the hotel ballroom. “My dancers had heels on, and they could not lift a bar with three bar stools,” she says. She solved the problem by enlisting the aid of a couple of the dads. The dancers sailed through the number, yet the judges put down their papers halfway through. The team was disqualified because the rules clearly stated that parents cannot help. “It was a hard lesson to learn and an expensive mistake on my part,” she says. “If I’d had the paperwork with me at the time, I would have known it wasn’t allowed. Now, I always re-read the rules and regulations, even if I have been to the competition before.”

Today, Ulmer Blakeslee brings some 80 numbers to Nationals every year, including 30 solos and 50 group numbers. She tries to have the students as prepared as possible, setting call times two hours in advance of curtain. Four years ago, on a trip to New York City, a few dancers were nowhere to be found at call time. The missing students were discovered posting photos of themselves in Central Park on Facebook. “They got back in time, but did not perform up to their usual standards,” she says. “We know New York can be distracting, so now we schedule sightseeing time during our trip.”

Communicate the need for dancers and parents to honor call times.

Phyllis Balagna

Steppin’ Out—The Studio

Lee’s Summit, MO

Ever since a dancer forgot the white trunks that matched the flowing dress for her lyrical solo, Phyllis Balagna has lugged a crate full of extra costume pieces to Nationals. Luckily, that dancer was able to borrow a pair of trunks at the final moment, but Balagna won’t take that chance again. Her crate is stuffed with trunks of every color in size adult small, which fits anyone from a child to a teen, along with other items that tend to go missing. “Teens are the most likely to forget a piece of a costume, while parents pack for the little ones,” she adds.

After 23 years of competing, Balagna can offer some sage advice about attending Nationals that take place in vacation destinations. “I nipped that one in the rumpus a while back, after some parents kept their children at Disney World too long,” she says. “Communication is key. I tell my parents to think of Nationals as a business trip for the dancers; we are there to dance.” Three days before they leave, she hosts a banquet where she gives out studio achievement (and improvement) awards and distributes a detailed schedule of where dancers are to be and when.

Check references. Before you register, ask peers about their experiences.

Joanne Chapman

Joanne Chapman School of Dance

Brampton, ON

Some catastrophes are outside the control of even the most organized studio director, like when an ice storm caused a power outage at a regional competition. “We were supposed to get started at 8 am, and we ended up starting at 7 pm,” says Joanne Chapman about one fateful weekend. To make up the time, the daily schedule was changed to run through meal breaks and begin one hour earlier than planned, leaving the students and judges exhausted at the end of a very long day. “We had some dancing at 6 am and others at 11 pm.”

“We asked the directors to call in a relief team of judges to help with the exhaustion issue, and they refused,” she says. As a result, the judging seemed arbitrary and at times senseless. Now, she knows to pay close attention to the leadership of a competition company before signing up. “Poorly run competitions are a huge concern for me,” she says. “I put feelers out into the industry to hear directly about the experience.” Length of time in business is not a reliable indicator of a well-organized operation, she warns. “Gather firsthand information from your peers,” she says.

Kaydee Francis

The Dance Zone

Henderson, NV

There’s nothing like discovering that all the props you shipped to Nationals are tightly screwed into a crate, to teach you that it’s a good idea to have a cordless screwdriver on hand. Kaydee Francis’ special “MacGyver” bag includes everything from a box cutter to swatches of Lycra that match the costumes. Her students are expected to have their own bobby pins, safety pins and sewing kits.

Once, three of her students slid off the stage when the back panels of the stage collapsed. “They were there, and then they were gone, just like that,” Francis says. No one was injured, but the experience was a good warning to be aware of the surroundings before a performance. The show went on, just as it did the time when taps fell off the shoes of six 10-year-olds while they were dancing. “They flew off their feet like bullets, one at a time, with one loose tap landing near a judge’s head,” she recalls. “I still chuckle when I think about that.” It seems an eager parent had arranged to screw on the taps. These days, Francis personally orders all the shoes, and keeps parents out of the equation. “I insist students dance three times in any new shoes,” she says.

When preparing for a competition, Francis takes the time to check out the layout of the performance area, from the crossover to the edges of the stage. If the information is not in the registration materials, she calls to get the exact layout. She also reduces possible trouble by having frequent meetings with teachers, students and parents.

“We need to toe that line between excitement and expectations,” she says. Yet, no matter how prepared you are, a costume might end up hidden right when a dancer needs it. “My secret is to remember that this is a dance competition. We are not saving the world,” she says. “If a dancer has to go onstage with the wrong costume, tomorrow is still going to come.” DT

Based in Houston, Nancy Wozny is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher, Pointe and Dance Magazine.

Photos from top: ©iStockphoto.com; courtesy of Dance Studio of Fresno; courtesy of KJ Dance Designs; courtesy of Joanne Chapman School of Dance; courtesy of The Dance Zone

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