Denise Blackstone's studio supports her passion and her family.

"She's so open, spontaneous, with all the hugs. I think it makes the kids feel freer to express themselves, be creative." —Al Blackstone, about his mother, Denise

Denise Blackstone can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to teach. As you watch her tapping up a storm leading a class of recreational students at her studio one afternoon, you believe it. Blackstone, 60, elegantly slim with a passion for big hoop earrings and high heels, both exudes joy and inspires it in her students, gently correcting and encouraging the young girls. She’s done this 10 times a week for almost 40 years now. “I love teaching an 8-year-old and seeing them get dance hungry. I truly believe that dance is a way for anyone to feel beautiful and good about yourself.”

Owning a dance studio has allowed Blackstone to create a life of teaching and dance for herself and a livelihood for her family that “feels like I won the lottery,” she says. Yet it’s only in the last five years that she’s fully embraced the business role of entrepreneur and manager as well—and proved that she has the resourcefulness and imagination to keep Denise Daniele Dance Studio going through good times and, well, not so good. She’s succeeded by keeping her studio’s programming fresh—both for the students and with an eye to new revenue streams—and by being flexible enough to switch up family roles in the business as family members (and the needs of the business) grow and change. And, yes, she’s a charismatic yet warm teacher whose passion for dance is infectious.

A TEACHER AT HEART

After graduating from college with an education degree, Blackstone opened Denise Daniele Dance Studio in 1972. She hadn’t intended to start a business, but teaching jobs were scarce and her father (an immigrant from Naples who had built his own shoe business from scratch) suggested they build an addition onto the family home to house a studio. “He knew how to make money,” says Blackstone. She anticipated 20 to 30 students, but within the first year enrollment hit 100. “I needed help!” says Blackstone. Ballroom dancer Richard Blackstone began coming in from New York to teach a couple of adult jazz classes each week. In 1975, they married. Three years later, their daughter, Laureve, was born. Then came their son, Al, 28, now a choreographer/dancer who’s performed in Wicked and won the 2011 Capezio A.C.E. Award for choreography at the Dance Teacher Summit. “The kids grew up in the studio,” says Blackstone. “We didn’t need babysitters. I could just walk down the hall and I’d be home, in my kitchen. I loved cooking almost as much as I loved dance. It was a great, great life,” she says.  

Today, Denise Daniele Dance Studio has 330 students and revenues of $400,000. For the last 15 years, it has operated out of a 5,000-square-foot space, with four classrooms, in a quiet strip mall in Bricktown, New Jersey, a few miles from the original family home. Twelve faculty, many of them former students who grew up in the studio themselves, offer classes in tap, ballet, lyrical, jazz, hip hop and Zumba. Al Blackstone comes back to teach jazz technique once a week and has choreographed big production numbers for the school. “The studio is my creative home,” he says.

Bricktown’s proximity to New York City has made it easy to invite guest artists like tapper Germaine Salsberg and Celia Marino from The Ailey School and for Blackstone to take her students to see Broadway productions. For years she took weekly classes in NYC herself to keep her curriculum up-to-date. “Even though we’re in a small town, I want my students to get the best possible training, because that wasn’t available to me where I grew up,” she says.

The pre-professional and junior companies compete at JUMP, Tremaine and New York City Dance Alliance conventions. A new performing group, open to all, goes to one competition. Former student Beth Wood choreographed their first piece, and it’s been a big hit.

“The tendency in a studio is to focus on the companies,” says Blackstone. “But for the business, I have to make sure everyone gets attention and feels part of the studio.” These three groups bring in half the studio’s revenues. Recreational and adult classes are part of the mix, too. And the studio sells shoes and other dance supplies.

Each year the studio showcases its students—and its teaching—at a recital held in a beautifully restored 1922 theater on the Jersey Shore. “It’s spectacular,” says Blackstone. “It always brings in new students.” Blackstone herself was named Tremaine Teacher of the Year in 2005.

KEEPING THE BUSINESS STRONG

It was at about this time that Blackstone, passionate as she is about teaching, decided she had to take over management of the business. This had always been Richard’s domain, but he had been running the business out of envelopes, doing everything manually. “Payments weren’t made consistently,” she says. “We owed the government money. It was a mess. I didn’t even know how much money was coming in. To tell the truth, I’d never been interested—I was happy dancing and teaching and cooking.” Blackstone realized she had to pay attention. “You have to know your own business. It was my life; it had to be strong—it had to be my first priority.”

At the Tremaine Dance Convention in 2005 with Chita Rivera, son Al and daughter Laureve

Blackstone had weathered a business crisis before. In the mid-1990s, two of her teachers left to start their own studio just around the corner. The senior teacher, a close friend of Denise’s, took 40 preschool students with her. “It was out of the blue, and I was broken-hearted, but we landed on our feet,” says Blackstone. Richard took over the preschool classes, and before long business was back on an even keel.

This time around, Blackstone reached out beyond the family to help mend the business: Karen Schwartz Friedman, who’d been managing the competitions, became general office manager. Karen’s husband, a senior accountant at a big NYC museum, would also be available to consult with the studio. They computerized the business, using The Studio Director web-based software to track expenses, enrollment, payments, discounts, invoicing, costume ordering and more. Bills are now paid online; staff are on payroll, with direct deposit. “We instituted a budget, and I spend a lot of time planning now,” she says. She checks in with the accountant once a week. And for legal questions, she can always consult with her daughter, who’s now an attorney.

The biggest challenge is managing all the moving parts: the artistic end, the finances, the studio space, preparing classes, making sure the students and teachers are happy, the parents. “Then there’s always the unexpected—an air conditioner is stolen or a teacher calls in sick,” she says. “You can’t ever rest in the moment; you have to be looking ahead.”

The business is now out of debt and nets about $100,000, but to get there, says Blackstone, “I had to come up with ingenious ways to make money.” She started FOCUS, a four-day mini-convention with top teachers and choreographers that attracted people from all over the state who were coming to the shore each summer. She offered private lessons, coaching for auditions, master classes, an acting workshop with Lane Napper. Richard taught ballroom classes.

With $5,700 rent due each month—even the slower summer ones—it’s essential to even out cash flow. Early registration for fall, with first and last classes paid up front, happens right after the June recital, when everyone’s pumped and motivated to get first pick of classes. There’s a competition camp and mini dance camp at the end of June, then Nationals for a week in July. August brings a ballet intensive and fall registrations. With back-to-school, the regular weekly schedule of 45 classes ramps up. Fees for competitions are billed at the end of each month until the February and March convention dates.

AND NEXT?

The Blackstones are renting out their house and have moved into a condo near the studio. That means leaving a lot of memories—and the kitchen she loved—behind. It’s been wrenching. But there’s also the joy of a new grandchild, daughter Laureve’s baby. Richard, 65, loves to travel and in September 2010 the couple went on a two-month cruise (their 15th) as ballroom dance instructors, with plenty of time to explore ports from Australia to Hawaii. Denise isn’t ready to let go of the business yet, though. “It’s where I wanted it to get. You don’t want to let it go. But I have to say I love the process best, the challenge of fixing and doing.” Spoken like a true teacher. DT

Basia Hellwig is a NYC writer and editor who frequently covers small business.

Photos by Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Denise Blackstone

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