Five years ago, Chasta Hamilton appeared to have it all. Though she'd only opened her North Carolina–based studio, Stage Door Dance Productions, in 2009, Hamilton already had two locations in Raleigh and a total enrollment of 500-plus students, including a successful competition team of 55 members who participated in at least three competitions a year. But Hamilton couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.
"I was trying to offer a meaningful and empowering dance experience, and I wasn't sure that having a competition team was the best return on investment," she says. "If the kids were winning at competitions, then parents thought they were too good for our training. If they were losing, we weren't training them well enough. I wanted to stop placing so much emphasis on a third-party industry—one that I had no control over but could immediately impact the valuation of our studio."
Though the competition team was spending "a considerable amount," most of those dollars were being funneled out to third parties—competition and convention fees, higher-priced costumes, guest choreography fees—and weren't being invested back into her business. Plus, Hamilton says, "it's not sustainable to go from a 40-hour comp weekend and then try to bring your best self into a work week. You never see a CEO of a major corporation devoting so much time to a microbusiness."
So she told her staff that she was considering cutting the comp team and instead offering an intensive training program, with unique performance and bonding opportunities, for interested dancers. Their reaction was wary. "They said, 'I don't think we can walk away from this—this is what people know us for,'" remembers Hamilton.
Five years after her decision to dissolve her comp team, she's happy to report that her studio—and its intensive training program—is thriving. "Even now, in the midst of COVID, our training program is larger than our competition team ever was," she says. Hamilton recently released a book about her experience, Trash the Trophies, where she offers other studio owners advice on how to transform their competitive teams into intensive training programs like hers, with her own hindsight as a guide for pitfalls and successes.
How She Did It
Ahead of the 2015–16 school year, Hamilton and her staff met with every family on the competition team, one by one, to break the news about the dissolution of the team. "We told them that we completely understood if this change didn't work for them and they wanted to go somewhere else," she says. "And we had a lot of people leave, because they did want the competitive experience."
Of the 55 competition team students, only 13 opted to instead participate in Hamilton's new intensive training program. But Hamilton wasn't deterred. She focused on retaining the best parts of competition team life—the community and the collaboration—in her new program, and its requirements for participation reflect that. In addition to enrolling in regular dance classes, students must take at least three weeks' worth of the studio's summer intensive; fundraise for and perform in a philanthropic, studio-produced show; attend a retreat day; and take part in non-philanthropic studio performances, like the recital and the Raleigh Christmas parade. Dancers in the intensive training program pay a monthly membership fee and usually have the chance to travel for one bigger performance over the summer—in July 2021, for example, they're slated to dance at the Grand Ole Opry.
Hamilton experienced an immediate change after implementing the new program, though it wasn't one she'd necessarily expected: "While that program was rebuilding and finding its way, our overall studio enrollment increased by 25 percent," she says. "I think it's a huge testament to sticking with something—to having a vision. I really feel that if you take all of the resources that are going into that 10 percent of your studio and apply them to the overall brand and business, you can create something really amazing that everyone can buy into." Now, the intensive program accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Stage Door's total revenue.
Intensive program students at a film shoot this summer.
The COVID-19 Takeaway
Trash the Trophies also has advice pertinent to operating a small business during a pandemic, as it turns out. "I was reading a final copy of the book in April," says Hamilton, "and it has 12 steps to go through anytime you're weighing a change or a decision. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I just used all the steps when we flipped the studio to digital in 48 hours!'" Steps include "preparing for the storm"—emotionally and strategically preparing for the transition you're about to undertake—and "owning your narrative," or building up the buy-in for any studio change by identifying and owning the meaning and messaging behind what you're implementing.
Hamilton says that the pandemic is actually a good time, believe it or not, to enact major changes at your studio—even ones as potentially polarizing as getting rid of your comp team. "Right now, the world is poised for any change imaginable," she says. "It's an easy market to say, 'This didn't work last spring, and we don't know what's in store, so let's try this.'"
The worst approach to our current situation, Hamilton says, is to just sit and wait. "The pivots are nonstop right now," she says. "You have to make decisions. Sometimes those decisions may have to be updated, or corrected or modified. But people need leaders who are optimistic, calm and continuing to move. When we start standing still, it's almost like we're moving backwards."