Dance Business Weekly

What It Takes: 7 Tips for New Leaders from BalletX’s Christine Cox

Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan with BalletX dancers at Jacob's Pillow. Photo via Instagram

It takes an excellent leader to run a dance company. But Christine Cox, executive and artistic director of Philadelphia's BalletX, knows that it's not only hard work that distinguishes a leader.

Cox started BalletX with Matthew Neenan in 2005, using fellow Pennsylvania Ballet dancers during their summer layoff to populate a startup contemporary ballet troupe. Fast forward 12 years, and BalletX is opening a new $1 million building next month: The Center for World Premiere Choreography. It will not only serve as a home base for BalletX classes and rehearsals, but will also play host to choreographic residencies and community outreach.

Now the sole director of the company, Cox has learned invaluable lessons along the way. Here are seven tips she shares for new and aspiring directors-to-be.


1. Follow before you lead.

Cox in her performing days. Photo via Instagram

Cox's journey to BalletX was no cake walk—but it made her the leader she is today. As a teenager, she set her sights on joining Pennsylvania Ballet, but it took several auditions and several years dancing for other companies like BalletMet, Ballet Hispanico and American Repertory Ballet before she was ultimately accepted into her dream company.

Cox is thankful for those experiences because they taught her how to be the fearless leader she is today. "I would do nothing differently," she says. Cox attributes a great deal of what she knows as a leader to watching the great directors of the companies she danced for.

2. Be willing to take risks.

BalletX rehearsing Matthew Neenan's Let mortal tongues awake

Cox left Pennsylvania Ballet in 2006 to give BalletX its own identity separate from Pennsylvania Ballet. It was a risk, but she knew that to grow her own troupe, she had to leave the company she'd grown up idolizing.

3. Don't be afraid to diversify.

Dance eXchange students. Photo via BalletX.org

Initially, BalletX's business model focused solely on performances. But Cox felt the need to give back to the community in which the company had flourished. In 2014 she founded the Dance eXchange: an in-school dance program for 200 third and fourth graders at three public schools in Philadelphia. Based on the award-winning methodology of the National Dance Institute in New York City, Dance eXchange takes BalletX teaching artists and live musicians into the classroom to teach students the basics of dance with a focus on achieving personal standards of excellence.

4. Know that you will make mistakes.

Chloe Perkes, Zachary Kapeluck in Beautiful Once by Jodie Gates. Photo by Bill Hebert.

Cox says that making mistakes is part of learning what it takes to be a successful leader. "If you are afraid to make mistakes, you are afraid to try," she says. When starting the company, some early slipups included missing grant deadlines because they weren't written on the calendar, or being late to important meetings with stakeholders. Small mistakes add up, and Cox realized that she had to be as serious about the business aspects of BalletX as she was the artistic ones.

5. Surround yourself with people who have the skills you don't.

BalletX rehearsing a new Trey McIntyre piece, The Boogeyman

Cox attributes her successes to the great relationships she has with her board and staff members, particularly associate artistic director Tara Keating. However, she admits that she's made the mistake of hiring both dancers and administrators who weren't, at first, the right fit for BalletX. In those instances, she says, "I try to make it a better fit and work with what I have."

6. Learn when to hold back.

Cox is very much aware that people judge men and women in business differently. She naturally wears a lot of feelings on her sleeve, but she knows that each day she has to calculate how much of that side of herself she shares with the dancers and her team.

7. Believe in the work.

Having a great deal of integrity about the work she does has not only given Cox immense pride in her company, but it has brought the organization national exposure. By showcasing BalletX to groups of theaters and presenters, having a strong Philadelphia base of support and touring regularly, the company has gotten 11 write-ups in the New York Times in the last four years, and kept eyes on BalletX across the country.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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