A New Generation

Nine Studio Owners Under 40

Bethany Marc-Aurele corrects a student who is forcing her fifth position.

Bethany Marc-Aurele, 32

Hudson Dance & Movement

Hoboken, New Jersey

256 Students

Opened 2007

Hoboken is quite transient, so my enrollment fluctuates. Once children hit a certain age, families leave for the suburbs. It’s frustrating because we can never work with one child for an extended amount of time. On the other hand, new families are constantly coming into Hoboken, so we’re always getting new kids.

In 2010 I started a junior professional company for students ages 5 and older. They must (though usually they want to) come multiple days per week, which is expensive. But I refuse to turn children away, especially if they show potential, so I started to personally fund a scholarship program. Seeing that I could only do that for so many years, this year I started a nonprofit, which I’ve learned is a huge undertaking. There’s so much paperwork, and after you get the status and build the foundation, you have to find money and people to donate. It’s not an easy time right now; you have to find people who are really passionate about programs like this.

Space and rent are huge issues: We used to be in a basement down the street, but as we grew, the space didn’t hold everyone. Either I had to become a very exclusive school by auditioning kids and not accepting as many, or take the plunge and pay more rent for a bigger space. Now, we have three studios, but it’s still not as advantageous as being in the suburbs and finding a warehouse. My main goal is education, so I don’t want to throw a lot of students in a class just to make money. I only allow eight kids per class, with two teachers in each class.

I was young when I met my husband and now we have three girls: 8, 5 and 9 months old. People ask how I do it, and I just don’t think about it. Dance is as much of a passion of mine as raising my family. I hope it gives my girls a strong work ethic and teaches them that they can achieve anything they want, if they put the work into it. It’s challenging at times to find the balance between work and family, but it’s good for them to see that they will be able to do it, too, if they want.

 

Kate Jablonski, 26    

Foundations Performance Center

Lyons, Illinois

146 students

Opened 2011

When I first started off, I was 22, and people had a lot of questions for me. Not that they necessarily doubted me, but they recognized that I was young and asked me all the things they thought I didn’t think of. It was a challenge to be taken seriously. Like, “Oh, honey, we’ll get that fire code. OK, hon?” Well, no, I know what I’m doing, and please don’t talk to me like that.

I have a degree in business entrepreneurship from University of Illinois at Chicago. I think I’m innovative and have an entrepreneurial spirit, but I wasn’t so savvy in finance or accounting. So I knew that I needed an education, and I wanted it. It was really helpful when I was starting my company because I was able to work on my business plan in school.

One year ago I converted an old basketball gym into a rehearsal and performance space. Two rooms are separated by big ballroom doors with mirrors on one side. Both are studios for classes during the week, though the floor is about three feet higher in what we call the stage room. When it’s show time, we roll out carpets, chairs and risers into the lower “audience” studio, open the doors and cover the mirrors with black fabric. We also have a lighting booth. It’s been a huge undertaking financially, but I’m no longer thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m paying $200 an hour for this theater; let’s run in, set some lights and get out!” Our students perform all the time: We have improvisation showcases, student choreography showings, musical theater productions and more. If we did all that in rented space, we’d probably be spending between $40,000 and $50,000.

 

Lori Grooters, 37    

School of Classical Ballet and Dance

West Des Moines, Iowa

430 students

Acquired business in 2004

So many studios are opening up in Des Moines and I really have to keep up my game to inspire our students. My challenge is knowing when and how to advertise successfully. We need to start attracting more families when their kids are young so that those 3- and 4-year-olds can grow with us.

Seven years ago we started taking some students to Youth America Grand Prix, which was new for us because we’d never done competitions before. My husband is friends with Sascha Radetsky—they grew up together at Kirov Academy in Washington, DC—and they were chatting about YAGP. (My husband is really the one who likes to get out there and talk to everyone about what’s going on. We’re definitely a team.) I thought it sounded fun, but I had no idea what I was getting into. It’s a lot of extra time, but it’s a great opportunity to work one-on-one with students. It gives them extra performance opportunities, and for the studio and myself, it helps us keep up with new trends in dance.

It’s difficult to juggle my family and my business. I have a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old. Every now and then I’ll get a sub because my kids just need Mommy. The hardest part is that when I come home late at night, they want to spend time with me, even though they really should be headed to bed. But they are around the ballet studio quite a bit. My daughter takes dance classes a few days a week, and my son takes karate there. It’s fun to peek my head in and watch when I have a chance.

 

Tori Rogoski, 35 

Dance Education Center

Stevens Point, Wisconsin

290 students

Opened 2001

The vast majority of my students aren’t going to pursue a career in dance, so we really focus on holistic training and building life skills. Even with the 3-year-olds we talk about healthy food choices versus foods you should only have once in a while. In staff meetings I always say that our number-one job is to make these students become great people, and number two, let’s hope they learn some dance along the way.

I decided to open a studio because I needed to be in the driver’s seat where I could make decisions and do things the way I’d like them to be done. At some of the other places I taught, I didn’t approve of the way students were treated. One studio owner would say things like “that little porker” or “that girl’s no good.” I think whether a student is going to be a professional dancer or not, every single one who walks through the door is so important. I felt a desire and a responsibility to give them my best and to build them up with dance instead of tearing them down. I have a couple of students who are overweight or obese, and I’m so happy they’re here at my studio, where we work on positive affirmation. When we’re turning I tell everyone, “Spot your own beautiful eyes.”

I regularly attend conferences and I’m constantly educating myself. I also make sure I go out and see shows. I maintain a good connection with the University of Wisconsin–Madison, my alma mater. I stay involved with them to know what they’re looking for in dancers, so I know how to prepare my students.

 

Robert Contreras, 37  

Inspire Dance Company

Las Vegas, Nevada

50 students

Opened 2008

Because of time and space issues, I have only two levels: junior, ages 9 through 12, and senior, ages 13 and up. My junior students come in for 2 hours and 15 minutes, and then the seniors come in for the same amount of time. We have our main company rehearsal on Saturdays. Most studios have their students there for a lot of hours, and I think that’s when kids get burned out. Studios tend to forget that these kids are teenagers.

When I started, I wanted to make everything easier for the parents. Our billing is done online. The parents can go in and make payments, and everything’s set up on automatic bill pay. No one really pays tuition in cash or check anymore; we just deduct it from their bank accounts.

I like to watch European companies, to see what choices they’re making. I believe they are ahead of the times. And I’m such an anatomy person—I’m always taking Gyrotonic and Pilates, to learn more about anatomy and body awareness. I take classes from teachers who will teach me exercises to help my dancers be well-rounded.

 

Erin Babbs, 33 

Murrieta Dance Project

Murrieta, California

200 students

Opened 2006

When I opened the studio, I was 26. Because I was younger than some of the parents, I didn’t get the same respect right away that they would’ve given someone older. The positive side was that I had a lot of respect from the students. They thought I was cooler and more up-to-date.

This has been the first year that I’ve really figured out how to balance being in control with delegation. Starting out, I wanted to do everything myself. I didn’t want parents to help—I didn’t want any outside help. But when you’re starting a business, you have to have people in different roles to make it successful. And roles have to be defined.

I now have 13 teachers, a bookkeeper (my husband) who works full-time and a front desk administrative assistant. My front desk person is a parent—I’ve been teaching her kids for nine years. Many people warned me not to hire a parent, but it turned out to be the perfect choice. We now have 20 volunteers for each of our two recitals.

One thing that we spent a lot of money on is our stereo system. Rather than go to Walmart and buy a cheap one, we really invested and bought amplifiers, mixers and really good speakers. Everything was purchased separately, so that if one thing breaks, we can replace that one part. We spent about $1,200 on each stereo unit, and after seven years, they’re all in perfect condition.

 

Jill Lynch, 35  

Stage Door Studios

Sarasota, Florida

450 students

Opened 2007

I opened when the economy was not doing well. My first year I didn’t have anyone working my front desk. It was me. I waited tables to pay for my salary or the ballet teachers who came in. But I tried to be smart. I was single. I lived with my sister. And I never rented space that was beyond my means. I started with two rooms. Then two women opened a preschool next door, so we started teaching dance to those kids and eventually shared facilities. We outgrew that and opened a studio next door in a strip mall, and we’re now at a point when we should look for a bigger space again. A lot of people think big. I was thinking small with hope to grow.

My second year I hired a manager, paying her in trade for classes. Now she’s on salary. You need someone who deals with the little issues that really frustrate you—like someone’s complaint about a tutu—when you’re trying to see the big picture. I thought I was saving by not paying. The amount of money that I lost that first year by not having someone in charge of billing wasn’t worth it.

We go into four local schools and teach dance. The schools charge us rent and then we charge the students for the class. It allowed me to expand my studio reach without paying for electricity and all those other costs. And I’ve seen kids come to the studio for more classes afterward.

Our Mommy and Me classes are free, September to November. It’s to get all the 2-year-olds in the community into my studio first. Because it’s free, there’s less pressure. Parents aren’t worried if their kids aren’t getting their feet into first position. About 9 percent sign up and those who don’t tend to come back when their kids are 3.

 

Sabetha Mumm, 39    

Dance Vision and

The Ballet Academy

Johnston, Iowa

300 students

Opened 2003

Bad as the economy was two years ago, I opened up a second location. People said, “What are you doing? Your timing is horrible!” Everybody was downsizing: cutting teachers, cutting classes, doing extra choreography on the side. We didn’t end up losing any kids, but we didn’t experience any growth, either. But because my timing was so “bad,” I could get into a space really cheap, and I could get mirrors and floors cheap, too. I opened a ballet-only academy so my students could have ballet six days a week, if they wanted. Because I gave it a different name—it’s in a different building—I get students from other studios as well, so they can get additional ballet training.

One innovative thing we started is Refer a Friend. If our students bring a friend to the studio and the friend stays ’til recital, we’ll give the original student a free recital fee. And boy, that gets them to sign up their friends in droves! We tried Bring a Friend Week, but it was impossible to teach class. The kids end up bringing a friend who’s maybe never danced before, so you don’t even get to teach a technique class. It becomes more of a PE class.

I started out just wanting to offer the best quality dance education that I could. As we’ve grown, I also focus on helping students find their career paths. I like helping them find their way to what’s going to happen after dance studio life.

It’s important to me that we have a great children’s and recreational program. I love the kid who just comes once a week and loves to dance as much as I love the kid who dances 20 hours a week.

 

Samantha Scotto Gobeille, 31

Arizona Dance Artistry

Phoenix, Arizona

230 students

Opened 2008

There’s so much emphasis right now on the commercial aspect of dance. But I want to bring in master teachers for ballet classes or have someone from Alvin Ailey come in rather than reaching for celebrities. Our kids have quizzes and ballet vocabulary reviews. We have anatomy lessons. At first it was hard to get parents to fully trust that I have a strong arts background. They just had to learn. Are your kids getting a true learning experience in manners and dance education? They saw the value of that, and it only took a year for us to double in size.

We try to do everything online. We use the EchoSign system, so that when parents enroll online, they can sign a tuition agreement on their computer or even their cell phone. We use North Social to help personalize our Facebook page. We do online ticketing through shOvation and use CostumeManager for all our costume ordering.

This past year we stopped all print advertising. Instead we’ve used that money ($3,500–$5,000) to do internal marketing. We started our Create a Class program. I once had a class with only three students and I didn’t want to cancel it. So, I called all three and said, “If you can each find a friend, we can keep the class.” They did and as a thank-you, I gave them all $50 tuition credits. That opened my eyes. Now we put it out there that if you don’t see a time on the schedule that works for you, we can add things. Once people knew about the incentive, they brought me business.

What I Wish I’d Known When First Starting Out

Seasoned advice from veteran studio owners

“I wish I’d known how to be a boss.” —Tony Williams

TONY WILLIAMS DANCE CENTER Boston, Massachusetts

● The art of dance and running a small business are very separate things. You are the friend of your students and faculty and need to separate from that. I learned that the hard way.

● Treat every student as an individual and with respect. You also have to realize that parent and student are part of the same equation. I would also remind teachers that students know when they are not your favorites. I make a point of acknowledging, in front of the class, students who may work hard, but who may not have the talent or a perfect physique.

● Students have more homework these days. Have a quiet place, even with a computer and an internet connection, so they can get school work done before dance class. We even have tutors available for our students. —Nancy Wozny

“My people skills would be far more important than my dance skills.” —Kathy Blake

KATHY BLAKE DANCE STUDIOS Amherst, New Hampshire

● Most people open a dance studio to teach dance. I started because I wanted to run a business. I hired people who knew more than I did, learned tax laws and eventually got a master’s in psychology in my 40s. After all, you are dealing with people’s hopes and dreams.

● I should have done management leadership training right out of the gate. Of course, you want to offer good quality dance, but that is just one aspect of what you do in running a dance studio. You mentor, hire and fire, coach, manage issues all day long. It’s very personal.

● The thing that really matters is having outstanding customer service. Terrific dancers and teachers are plentiful, individuals with people skills are harder

to find. You have to be able to handle complaints with grace. There’s not a day when I don’t get a complaint. You need tremendous physical and emotional energy. —NW

“I try to keep my emotions out of the business end; they belong in the dance class.” —Jane Weiner

HOPE STONE STUDIO Houston, Texas

● Never underestimate the importance of a good receptionist. That’s the first person a student sees.

● I made the mistake of starting with only one studio, which is very limiting when it comes to making money. I should have chosen a freestanding building with at least two studios and more parking. —NW

“If you just focus on the dancing, the business will suffer.” —Carryl Slobotkin

JAZZ UNLIMITED STUDIO OF DANCE ARTS Marlton, New Jersey

● After my first recital, parents complained about the costs of the costumes, so the next time it was leotards and tights in a less fancy hall. They complained about that, too. Since then, I have always had elaborate recitals.

● When I would see talented students, I would let them take extra classes. Then one day I realized I had many students taking classes for free. You have to be able to meet your needs, too. —NW

Photos from top: by Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Foundations Performance Center; courtesy of School of Classical Ballet and Dance; courtesy of Dance Education Center; by Graciela Federico, courtesy of Inspire Dance Company; courtesy of Murrieta Dance Project; by Meghan Manahan Photography, courtesy of Stage Door Studios; by Sarah McConnell, courtesy of Dance Vision; courtesy of Arizona Dance Artistry

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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