Creating the Dream Studio

Decisions behind four recent renovations

This large studio can be divided into two smaller space. Clough (at right) of Just For Kix added a coffee bar and heat for hot yoga with the upgrade.

As anyone who has opened a dance studio knows, there’s more to think about than just location and class offerings. A plethora of decisions need to be made, from designing the floor plan, selecting materials and evaluating acoustics to purchasing and installing equipment. And once the studio is up and running, the desire to renovate or relocate eventually brings many of these same issues to the forefront.

When Cindy Clough was designing a new building space for her Just For Kix studio in Brainerd, Minnesota, she realized quickly that there was more to it than meets the eye. “You need to consider everything, such as coat racks, benches, message boards, things you don’t necessarily think of when renovating,” she says. “We totally built a new studio from scratch.”

With 17,000 square feet, the new space is now more than twice its former size. Total cost of construction? $2,250,000. “With our budget, we did everything on our wish list, but I do wish we would have researched a bit more,” Clough says. “In retrospect, there are things we would have done, but did not think of at the time.”

One of those things was storage, and as a result she was forced to give up two dressing rooms for storage space. She also uses space in a warehouse across town to keep seasonal items.

Clough also had a challenge with acoustics. “It’s a very warehouse look, all brick outside with arched windows round at the top. Inside, our ceilings are really high to keep that warehouse look, but that’s the one thing I had a hard time with when we switched,” she says. “I felt like acoustics were a problem, and in retrospect, I would have done that differently.”

To fix the problem, she added acoustic panels and drapes, but that added even more expense to the project.

Of course, there was plenty to be excited about. She installed mirrors on three sides of the studios, 12 inches from the floor, allowing her to see dancers from every angle.

“Our bifold door has proved to be a godsend; we are able to go from three to four studios,” she says.

The budget also allowed for some great additions and upgrades from her last studio. There’s a coffee bar with a state-of-the-art latte/espresso machine, and the studio has an additional heat source for hot yoga. There’s also great use of color.

“I feel our color palette is beautiful. We went with a violet, ballet pink and black with silver accents. All our doors are silver, and we used a metallic silver paint in accent areas,” she says. “It’s all very trendy and chic. It has a warm atmosphere. I love the outside brick and dentil molding, and the curved windows are beautiful.”

 

Gut Renovation

Consider the challenges facing Loni Lane, owner of the Noretta Dunworth School of Dance in Dearborn, Michigan, when she decided to upgrade.“My mother started the studio, and we had been in the same location for 25 years, but we were limited by the space,” Lane says. “We were at 2,500 square feet and we found a place that was 10,000 square feet. It was a dream I always had and I went for it.”

With a budget surpassing $1 million, the project began in January 2011, and thanks to a contractor friend, the massive renovation of a former Boys & Girls Club of America building they purchased was completed in time to hold classes less than 10 months later.

“The place was a disaster. We needed new plumbing and electric, windows were busted out; it was in bad shape, but the structure was great and the configuration of the rooms was wonderful,” Lane says. “We took the ceilings out, added a parking lot, changed the AC unit and made a beautiful girls’ dressing room in a 75' x 50' room.”

When it was time to choose the flooring for the studio, Lane chose to go with a Stagestep Springstep IV subflooring, being drawn to its durability and the fact that you can just simply clip the 2' x 2' panels together without screws. “We had the whole 10,000 square feet installed in four days,” Lane says. “And if we need to pull it up, we can, since it’s not permanent.” (Note: Lane chose vinyl top-flooring and was also required to put a vapor barrier in between the concrete and Springstep subfloors to control moisture.)

When Lane began teaching at her mother’s studio, the barres were already in place, so she had a tough time choosing what to use for her new studio. “I never had to deal with that before, since ours were cemented in and were metal,” she says. She also wasn’t certain how much space to allow when mounting the barres on the wall.

“My contractor installed the ballet barres and used stock handrails and stock brackets. I only checked on the diameter of the wood unfortunately, not on the distance from the wall,” she says. “When classes started, it was difficult to place feet on the barre and hands were also too close, so I had them come back and extend them so we got six more inches.

Another mistake was a paint decision. “I went with an eggshell finish, which looks really classy. But you can’t really wipe it off, so we get lots of fingerprints and footprints,” Lane says. “I wish I had put it at least five feet up on the walls and maybe carpeting or a Formica surface on the wall, so kids leaning against it or putting their feet up wouldn’t damage it.”

Throughout the process, Lane was faced with many decisions that concerned things she had never previously thought of. For instance, she chose crank paper dryers in the bathroom to help limit puddles on the floor; she went against soap dispensers, which were harder to maintain than bottles of pump hand soap; and she chose carpet squares over tile in the nondance space, because it was easier to replace each square if something got dirty.

“One of the things that people warned me against was adding a viewing window,” Lane says. “They said, ‘Kids are always looking up and don’t pay attention,’ so we have no viewing window here.”

 

Starting With a Blank Slate

Taking the opposite approach to the observation window was Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, who recently moved and renovated a new building for her Los Angeles Ballet Academy in Encino, California. “One of the things I love about the new studio is that when younger children walk in, they can look through the observation windows at the older children,” Paris-Gutierrez says. “It’s really important for students to connect—even visually—and I think this is a great way to do that.”

Paris-Gutierrez had not been eager to move, because her space at the time was only six years old. But the city had purchased her building and forced them out. “We had just gone through a big move not too long ago, so I left my old place kicking and screaming,” she says. “But since it was partly the city’s responsibility to find us a new space and give financial assistance, we found a great space.”

 

She says, “The new building was a completely blank palette and even had dirt on the floor.” At 8,045 square feet, the school gained 2,000 square feet and the project took nine months to complete.

 

“One interesting thing we did was we built a second level off to one side and put in a movable wall and soundproofed the downstairs, so we have two main studios,” she says.

 

Project architect Robert Elbogen explains that the wall does not rest on the floor at all. “The weight of the partitions is fully hanging from the massive steel beams we installed above the ceiling,” he says. “The wall panels are constructed of steel mini beams (studs) supporting the wall sheeting. The sound-reducing panels are on rollers and can be moved and stacked into a small receptacle (almost like a closet) on one side of the room for when we open the room up for master classes or events. When the panels are in (so that we have the two-room setup), each panel locks down to the floor for maximum sound filtering.”

For the downstairs dance floors, Paris-Gutierrez installed beige Harlequin Studio flooring—a vinyl surface composed of four layers to offer dancers extra cushioning—on top of a Bolo-brand, basket-weave floor. One of the earliest forms of sprung flooring, a basket-weave floor consists of several layers of overlapping wood, with foam rubber overlapping underneath.

In the upstairs studio, they use a multipurpose flooring that is very durable and appropriate for a variety of dance styles. Paris-Gutierrez insulated the floors with R-13 across the entire space. “This drastically mutes sound from transferring below (for the upstairs studio) and will give a crisp, not hollow, sound when tap dancing is done on it,” she says.

Paris-Gutierrez chose a gray marble finish, which helps with camouflaging scuff marks. “I love it and I think it’s very consistent,” she says. “The ballet dancers don’t like it as much because they think it’s too slippery. However, with the many surfaces ballet dancers often have to deal with at performances, auditions and competitions, having some variety is good for them to be adaptable.”

 

Photo: courtesy of Just For Kix

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.

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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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