Studio Owners

4 Ways to Boost Your Studio Enrollment

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Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.


FREEBIE MARKETING

It's just what it sounds like: Promote free giveaways or sell your products or services at lower-than-normal rates (often called a "loss leader") to boost the sales of other, related products or services.

Bring-a-friend week As the new co-owner of his Orlando, Florida–based studio, Will Tijerina improved on the classic bring-a-friend-week enrollment-boosting strategy. "We had dancers bring a friend for a free trial class at Dance 360," he says. "If the friend signed up, the family already signed up with us received a $35 credit toward their tuition." Tijerina reports that he added 25 kids to his studio that week.

But he didn't stop there. Knowing that many of his students had siblings who might also be interested in taking dance, Tijerina tried a bring-a-parent week to entice sibling sign-up. "We invited our parents to participate in class with their dancers. It was a great turnout for us—parents with multiple children signed up their other children," he says. By week's end, he'd added another 30 dancers to the studio roster. "Between the two events, we went from 280 kids to 335 in two weeks," he says.

COMMUNITY MARKETING

Engage existing customers in an active dialogue, speaking to the needs and wants of this particular group. You'll promote greater loyalty and higher levels of engagement within an existing community—which can lead not only to steady, repeat business but also to word-of-mouth marketing, one of the most effective marketing strategies.

Movie and karaoke nights At her studio in Winnsboro, Louisiana, Lindsey Williamson Butler offers parents a valuable extra service: time to themselves without kids. At the same time, she makes a tidy sum of extra revenue and gives her enrollment a jumpstart with themed studio nights, open to dancers and any of their nonstudio friends.

Movie nights last two hours, and Butler uses the back of her step-and-repeat banner as a screen for her projector. "The $10 price covers drinks and popcorn," she says. "The kids bring blankets, bean bag chairs, whatever they want."

For her youngest dancers, she holds hour-and-a-half glow parties where, for a $10 entry fee, participants receive glow necklaces and bracelets and blacklight-reactive face paint. "I put a blacklight strip above my mirrors for the length of the room," she says. "I make a playlist of fun songs and put it on shuffle. We dance around and sing and have a blast."

For her older dancers, she holds karaoke nights. "I have a Fender sound system that will accommodate three microphones," says Butler. "I plug my phone into my projector and sound system, and we pull up karaoke versions of songs on YouTube—so the words are projected huge on the wall."

Butler routinely makes $1,000 in one evening, but best of all, many of her dancers bring friends who leave wanting to sign up for classes at the studio. "Even if movie night happens too late in the year for them to sign up, they'll keep asking their moms about it until registration opens again," she says. "It's the best form of advertising without really advertising—it's just kids telling kids, 'Oh, my god, we have so much fun! You should come with me.'"

RELATIONSHIP MARKETING

Rather than always trying to sell your existing customers something else, why not focus on building a relationship with them? This type of marketing emphasizes customer retention and satisfaction.

Referral contest Jen Philipp Shebetka's Iowa studio, Extensions Dance Academy, is in its fifth year, and she's found that a referral contest works best for boosting enrollment. "Each person who refers someone who joins gets a $10 gift certificate to our dancewear shop and an entry into a drawing for a month of free tuition," she says. "We got 15 new students the first year and 21 last year, just from referrals in the months of August and September." That also means 36 existing families walked away with gift certificates, and one lucky dance student received free tuition for a month. Shebetka let existing parents know about the contest during August registration and also included it in a "welcome back" letter that went home with students during the first week of class.

TARGETED MARKETING

With this strategy, you identify potential customers and promote products and services via channels that are likely to reach that customer base.

Preschool partnership Colleen Mathis Overfield has been teaching in local preschools for 20 years, and it's been a great feeder program into her Jacksonville and Oxford, Alabama–based studios, Alabama Christian Dance Theatre Studio. "We allow those preschool students to perform in our recitals," she says. "It adds revenue, and then when they turn kindergarten age, they feed into the studio in the primary levels."

Make sure you lay the groundwork first for your partnership with a preschool. Overfield recommends offering preschool administrators references and a marketing portfolio that describes your studio's past successes, plus research-based articles from an education journal that prove the arts enhance learning. Ask if you can conduct a parent survey to initiate and promote interest in dance classes. She also suggests giving the preschool a commission and first offering a trial class for students.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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