Teacher Voices

How Donovan Gibbs Went From Living in A Dance Studio to Owning A Thriving Dance Business

courtesy Gibbs

Dance has taken Donovan Gibbs all over the world. He's danced with big names like Janet Jackson, Becky G, J Balvin and Rihanna, choreographed halftime shows for college bowl games in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, and taught at conventions and studios across Los Angeles.

So it's difficult to imagine that as a teenager, Gibbs was homeless for almost a year, living in his parents' dance studio. Not only did Gibbs overcome this hardship to become an acclaimed teacher, but he's now a LA-based business owner, bringing master teachers to studios across the country through his Bridge Training Program.

Dance Teacher spoke with Gibbs about his training program, his experience with homelessness and why he thinks hip-hop teachers need to focus on the basics.

The teachers that inspired his journey

"I took a class from Mia Michaels at The Pulse when I was 16. (It was also my very first dance convention.) During her class, she said 'When you're feeling the most uncomfortable is when you're growing the most,' and that has stuck with me ever since. She was the first person to light the flame."

During the same weekend, Brain Friedman taught a class, and as the dancers were headed to their lunch break, he caught up with Gibbs, asking his name and leaving him with a crucial piece of advice: "Keep going. Don't give up on this. I see something special in you." "That was the wind igniting the flame even more," says Gibbs, "and the earliest memory I have of what really sparked the interest of pursuing a career in dance."

Jalen Jet Turner, courtesy Gibbs

No sleep in the studio

A couple of months after attending his first convention, Gibbs' life took a sharp turn. Falling on hard times, his parents had to make the difficult decision to sell their home and car, and move into their studio—which was still in the process of being built.

"I graduated as a junior by doing extra classes in the morning and after school," he says. "I'd get back to the studio and help teach classes from about 5:30 to 10:00 at night, and then stay up until about 3 AM helping my dad with construction. That cycle repeated for about 10 months."

"It's a pro and a con because now I'm such a hard worker. I definitely feel like that stems from that pivotal moment in my life."

About his training program

Gibbs had always wanted to start a training program, but it wasn't until he met his now fiancé, former dancer Autumn Snow, that their dreams became a reality.

In 2017, they launched The Bridge Training Program, an in-studio dance intensive for studio owners that want to bring the industry feel directly to their studio.

Last year, they connected with studios in 4 different U.S. cities. "This year, we have 7 events, and for me, that speaks volumes because we're in the middle of a pandemic," says Gibbs.

How he structures class

"Repetitive. Instead of teaching you two 8-counts back to back, having you run through it a couple of times and then try it with music, I'll spend a whole 5 minutes on one certain groove, really drilling it into your head. That way you can get the movement, the way the body moves and the feeling instead of it just being about the counts," says Gibbs.

Gibbs teaches a variety of styles, but when it comes to hip-hop—which he's most well-known for—he believes "there's a lot of choreography being taught, but not a lot of breakdowns of the fundamentals. I feel like that's what a teacher's there for. To take you from the beginning, explain how it should feel, where it comes from. Then the students are better able to understand and translate that into their own movement."

Gibbs always makes sure to incorporate hip-hop technique during warm ups. "Whether we're using popping elements, locking elements, breakdancing or memphis jookin', I feel like it's important as a hip-hop instructor to throw in some of these styles."

Be More Media, courtesy Gibbs

Adapting to COVID-19

Within the first month of quarantine, Gibbs taught around 60 free online classes between Instagram Live and Zoom. The Bridge Training Program also held virtual classes for about 2 months. He still teaches classes and 1-on-1 private lessons online, including for his parents' studio.

"Recently, I started teaching weekly in-person classes to 6 to 8 year olds in a park. It's been really fun and I've enjoyed teaching kids on a regular basis like I did when I was back home," he adds.

For Gibbs, getting through COVID-19 has brought about a new "attitude of gratitude"—and a determination to continue facing any challenge head-on. "My whole life and life story in general has been nothing but perseverance," he says. "I'm up for the challenge."

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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."

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