Built To Last

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

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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