Costume Call

Costumes are so lovely, yet only studio owners realize the hard work, hassles and headaches that lie beneath those innocent sequins. While there is no way to satisfy every student or assure every costume will fit, staying organized, ordering early and choosing costume companies wisely can go a long way toward streamlining the process.


Step 1:


Get a Head Start

“Forty years ago, you could call up a costume company in March and tell them what you needed for April,” recalls Dawn Crafton, of the Dawn Crafton Dance Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “Now, every single year, it gets earlier and earlier.

A studio owner for 55 years, Crafton starts thinking about next year’s costumes before the year ends and orders by mid-December. Owner Nikki Calder, of Top Hat Talent Performing Arts Studio in Oklahoma City, plans even earlier. Last year, she ordered the costumes for her recreational students by the first week in December. Everything had arrived by the end of January, well in advance of April picture day and the May recital.

Studios that order before Christmas tend to get their costumes more quickly, giving them ample time to handle mistakes or wrong sizes. In addition, there are often incentives or discounts provided by manufacturers for those who order by a certain deadline. Watch those delivery dates, warn experts. Sometimes a delay of even a day or two in placing an order will push a delivery back by several weeks.


Step 2:

Reward Reliability

A company might have a super selection or quality, but only those that deliver on time and with good customer service get repeat business from Backstage Dance Studio in Bellevue, Washington. Office manager Melyssa Noren says she stopped doing business with one vendor for 15 years. “We loved the product, but they had manufacturing issues,” she explains. “With 600 kids, however, we finally decided we needed the variety they offered. Over time, they worked out those issues, so we invited them back.”

Two years ago, Patricia Pesca Santillo of Patricia’s School of Dance in Wallingford, Connecticut, lost $1,500 after an order of hip-hop costumes never arrived, and her phone calls to the company went unanswered. “You have to be careful,” she says.

Now, despite the hundreds of catalogs that arrive in the mail, Santillo limits her choices to six to eight reliable companies, while Noren uses five and Calder, three or four.


Step 3:

Keep Decision-Making Simple

When it comes to costume selection, studio owners say it’s important to limit the number of people involved in the decision. Crafton, for example, selects all costumes herself, based on the instructors’ color and style suggestions. Others allow teachers to choose for their individual classes, within a certain price range.

Costume books—and especially price lists—should be strictly off-limits to parents. At Backstage Dance, where parents once tried to find out the name of the costume company with the intention of calling to “get the costume for less themselves,” catalogs are not allowed out of the teachers’ room. Santillo, whose studio parents also demanded to see the costume books, makes ordering a staff-only decision as well. “The most important thing I have learned is to keep the parents out of it,” she says. “You never know what people will do.”

Once decisions are made, you can download pictures of the costumes from the internet or tear them out of catalogs and hang them in the lobby for the entire studio to view.


Step 4:

Measure Carefully

Crafton recalls ordering two sets of costumes for one class, and despite having the same measurements, nothing fit. To combat this, Santillo recommends adding two inches to hip, waist and bust measurements, and four inches to girth, to allow for growth. “I’ve never had a costume that was too big to wear,” she says.

Backstage Dance’s Noren hangs instructional posters in the studio and makes measuring the parents’ responsibility. “That way, we’re not to blame if the costume doesn’t fit,” she says.


Step 5:

Establish Personal Relationships


Top Hat works closely with one of its manufacturers to personalize costumes for the studio’s 100-member competition team. Calder initiated the close working relationship after several years of ordering from the catalog. Now, company reps drive three hours to the studio each July to discuss designs and fabric swatches.

Since many costume companies are small, the owner or designer is often easily accessible. Crafton advises finding out who to talk to, then directing all questions or problems to that person only. “Rather than pushing numbers forever, I like to push an extension and talk to Margie—it’s so much better,” she says.


Step 6:

Account for Time, Cost and Loss

After spending hours measuring, poring over catalogs, ordering, sorting through boxes and trouble-shooting, don’t be afraid to fairly compensate yourself for the time and effort. Crafton builds all of these duties, plus her expenses from traveling to conventions each year to feel fabrics and gauge quality, into the price of her “performance package,” which includes costume, accessories, a recital T-shirt, recital DVD, CD of practice music and class picture. All of her students pay the same price.

Other studios charge on a sliding scale based on size, as most costume companies charge $5 or $10 less for a small child’s costume than for a small adult’s. At Backstage, fees run between $45 and $60, and teachers must choose costumes that cost about $10 less. The leftover is used to offset staff hours spent on costumes, along with shipping costs and other related expenses. “We really don’t make anything on costumes,” Noren says.
At Top Hat, no matter the size, all recreational student costumes are $55, and teachers must select costumes that meet that cost. Sticking to the budget can be tough, Calder admits, but everyone is encouraged to customize costumes by using the sequined belts, boas, ribbons and rhinestones in the studio’s sizable accessories closet.

While payment methods vary (from one payment due early in the season to smaller deposits split over several months), all money is generally due in full before orders go in. But faced with struggling parents and the fear of disappointing a child, all studios say they have been left with unpaid costumes in hand after students quit, moved or just disappeared.

Rather than bemoaning the loss, Calder takes leftover costumes down the road to a children’s home. “We lose money,” she says, “but most our kids don’t want for anything, and those kids have so little.” DT

Karen White is a freelance journalist and longtime dance instructor in Taunton, MA.

Teachers Trending
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.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

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."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less
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."

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.