Branching Out

In an unpredictable economy, is it wise to expand your business? Opinions differ, but with the proper amount of preparation and field research, many dance entrepreneurs say the venture can be worth the risk. For those considering making the new-location leap, DT consulted three multi-studio owners about their experiences.

 

 

 

 

Sabrina Miller-Helma

Miller’s Dance Studio

(1,400 students)

Aurora and Parker, CO

 

In 1978, Sabrina Miller-Helma opened her first dance studio in south Aurora. Successive locations followed in Parker in 1994 and in southeast Aurora in 2007, all within about 15 minutes’ drive of each other. Miller-Helma takes advantage of the proximity by enlisting dancers from each location to take part in the studio’s competition company, Tour de Force. “The satellite studios are good feeders; we really pool the talent from different areas and can utilize many more advanced students than you’d normally get at just one location,” she says. The southernmost studio is composed of 70 percent children, while the Parker studio attracts high school students and cheerleaders.

 

The proximity also works well for students, who have the option to take classes at any location. “If students can’t do ballet on Monday and Wednesday, they can mix locations and take it Tuesday and Thursday,” she says. Busy parents appreciate the flexibility. Owning three businesses allows Miller-Helma to utilize her 30 instructors’ talents by having many of them teach the same class at all three locations. This also ensures teaching consistency and affords more staffers with full-time status. Miller-Helma visits her studios weekly, and she relies on each location’s full-time manager to keep an eye on things. These managers handle registration, accounts receivable, inventory processing and parent/

teacher relations.

 

Jody Phillips

Jody Phillips Dance Company

(380 students)

Overland Park, Pittsburg and Prairie Village, KS

 

For more than 20 years, Jody Phillips has owned dance studios in Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas. Currently she runs two full-time studios in Overland Park and Pittsburg, with a third space that she rents on an as-needed basis in Prairie Village. Because attendance isn’t enough to justify consistent class offerings in Prairie Village, she uses that location for seasonal events, including annual drill team and children’s workshops.

 

Phillips credits much of her success to smart staff selection and good communication. “I use the analogy that I’m a head football coach, but the sideline coaches are the ones who make all the action happen,” she says. It’s essential to tailor details like rate structure and class schedules to each studio’s surroundings, she says. Pittsburg is a smaller town, while Overland Park is an upscale urban area, so Phillips must compensate for higher rents and business expenses there. She also offers more classes in Overland Park to meet the higher demand of a larger population. Efficient systems are a must—from payroll services to bookkeeping (she uses Studio Director software). “When you have multiple locations, you can’t afford to do anything incorrectly,” she says.

For Phillips, multiplying locations means multiplying impact: “My whole philosophy is making a difference in a child’s life through the art of dance—and being able to do that on several levels is very rewarding.”

 

Alana Tillim

Dance Arts

(500 students)

Carpinteria and Santa Barbara, CA

 

Alana Tillim and partner Steven Lovelace had talked for years about expanding. When a nearby studio owner made them an offer to acquire her business, they jumped at the opportunity.

 

Though their new location in Carpinteria is just a few towns away from their original studio in Santa Barbara, Tillim felt it was key to get a firm grasp of the area before making the final decision. She researched the town’s economy and demographics, and she assembled an “advice team” of local families referred by the former owner to help her pinpoint optimal schedules and cater to local interests.

 

She learned that Carpinteria has a huge cheerleading interest; in Santa Barbara modern and ballet are more in demand. To that end, tumbling classes are now only offered in Carpinteria, and Santa Barbara offers aerial arts and Broadway classes. Other than that, the studio schedules mirror each other for the most part. There are 25 employees and contractors between the two locations, with five teaching at both to create a network.

 

Tillim stresses that it’s important to have a strong handle on finances when considering expansion. A good rule of thumb is to expect your primary location to pay for your second in its infancy. DT

 

A former hip-hop, dance fitness and cheerleading instructor, Jen Jones is based in Los Angeles.

 

Photo from top: istockphoto.com/appleuzr; courtesy of respective studio owners

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."

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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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