Double Duty

Carl Flink’s new company, Black Label Movement, held its inaugural season at Minneapolis’ Southern Theater this past August. The debut was no small achievement for Flink, who is also director of dance at the University of Minnesota–Minneapolis. During the school year, he juggles company rehearsals several times a week with a teaching schedule of two to three classes per semester.

Like Flink, many higher-ed dance professionals balance the dual roles of professor and artistic director, because presenting work beyond the university stage is essential to their endeavors as artists. And while it may require some scheduling feats, the rewards can be great: for the company director, free or low-cost rehearsal space and an ever-replenishing supply of student dancers on whom to work out new choreography; and for the students, the opportunity to work with a faculty member who is especially tuned in to the professional dance world. Here, three experienced dance professors talk about how to strike the right balance between campus and company.

 

All in the Timing

Take full advantage of summer and other school breaks, says Linda Lehovec, associate professor and BFA program director for the dance department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—they are prime times for choreographic work. “I almost always have to work in blocks of time [during the school year], rather than in a longer, ongoing rehearsal period,” explains Lehovec, who has run her pick-up company, Linda Lehovec & Dancers, on and off since 1999.

Recently named the head of the dance department at Connecticut College in New London, CT, David Dorfman has been the artistic director of the New York City-based company David Dorfman Dance since 1987. He has found success with the same approach when creating and rehearsing a new evening-length work. “Winter break in January is usually a two- to three-week rehearsal period in NYC, and spring break in March is good for two solid weeks of work,” Dorfman says. In between, he travels from New London to NYC for long weekends to continue the rehearsal process.

Quiet periods during the school year also are good times to schedule rehearsals and performances. “Look at the year ahead and pinpoint the crunch times in your department, and avoid doing outside work at that time,” says Lehovec. “Usually, [finding time for] the actual performance isn’t a big problem . . . it’s a matter of needing a few days free to tech and then perform.”

 

Classroom as Laboratory

Speak to your department chairperson about integrating your professional work as part of your research on staff. Successful dance instructors who also run companies allow their work in both spheres to inform and enrich each other, after all. “Since my work with [my company] is considered a large portion of my research as a professor, I can spend some of my time at the college researching material that will go into a new company dance,” says Dorfman. “Sometimes this takes the form of a dance that I will make on the students at the college, and other times it might be written work such as proposals for grants, or scholarly work such as published articles.”

Lehovec has taken a similar path. “I often start ideas for eventual works in my research at the university,” she says. “I do this when I make work on our students, and also when I’m teaching modern class.” Several years ago, Lehovec spent a semester creating a piece called [ital: Submerge] for eight of her students. She then drew on that dance to create an evening length work, [ital: Swim,] with professional dancers. Over the next summer, she continued to work with dancers and created new material, putting all the pieces together one week in the fall.

Sharing your company work with students is mutually beneficial: You have talent to mobilize your early ideas, while they become a part of your work on the ground level. “They seem to really enjoy [it] and flourish when they know they are actually working on material that may find its way into a dance,” says Flink.

 

Assembling Your Troupe

Recognize the collegiate milieu as the excellent networking hub that it is. As a faculty member, you instantly have a pool of graduates who know you and your style. In Flink’s company, for example, six of the nine company members are U of MN alumni. “Because I don’t work over long periods outside of school, it’s pretty hard to get to know a dancer that I haven’t had as a student,” says Lehovec. “I wouldn’t say that I limit my dancers to my [former] students, but often I’ll find that [if] I work with them several times, they fit my material well and we get along well, I’ll ask them to come do a project with me.”

Dorfman’s company members often come from Connecticut College in addition to festivals and other guest teaching gigs. “I am always looking for those who are curious about the issues with which I like to work, and who can excel with the physical vocabulary,” says Dorfman. “So far, the students at Connecticut have been immeasurably helpful in developing ideas for our company work, and in that way, I get to see them trying on the notions of our professional style."

 

Lessons Learned

As much as you may utilize the university as a resource for your outside work, be sure to bring the benefits of that work back to help your students grow. For example, Lehovec passes on the practical aspects of running a company to senior students interested in starting their own. “I’ve learned a lot about press kits, renting theaters, applying for grants . . . all of which I’ve passed on to students in our Senior Career Seminar class,” she says.

Similarly, what Flink learns as a director, he imparts to his students to help them become better working dancers. “I am able to directly observe and experience the kind of skills and attitude that I find constructive in a rehearsal process, and can communicate that to my students,” he says, adding that being entrenched in the professional world also keeps his outlook current. “By having a professional company, my finger is directly on the pulse of what is happening right now in the dance world.”

You can also leverage your dual status to help out your company members. “The reality is that when you start up, you won’t have much money to actually pay your dancers, but you should also have access to free or low-cost space with your [university] program. This gives you a huge advantage that other independent artists rarely have,” Flink says, and enables you to begin compensating your dancers earlier in the process.

Another option is to start a pick-up company rather than a year-round organization. “Start small,” says Lehovec. “Find one or two dancers who you know to work on a few pieces and then find places to present your duet or trio concert. Once you’ve learned the art of coordinating a few people’s schedules—and finding the resources to pay [them]— you can make larger works and use more dancers.”

 

Addressing Challenges

Despite the many benefits of working in both the classroom and company environments, it’s not always smooth sailing. Dorfman, for instance, has found himself in a stressful spot each year in June, when CC’s spring semester has wrapped up and his company is preparing for a major premiere. “I hope one day [I won’t have to] rush away from the college so quickly, so I can linger a bit more with my thoughts, graduating students, organizational needs for the department,” he says. “I want so badly to be everywhere at the same time, to have long conferences with students, to see every guest speaker at the college. I really, really like to be there for everyone.”

Since cloning isn’t yet an option, Dorfman's best tactic for reconciling the issue is to prioritize and delegate, “even when doing so is deeply against [my] nature,” he says. “That simple act of saying ‘no’ to certain activities—delegating to another faculty member or giving a student or company member new responsibility—can be a win-win situation for all involved.”

Lehovec looks to her colleagues for help when rest is simply what's needed. "I have very supportive colleagues who will kindly step in and teach for me," she says. "It's in the best interest of the department and the school to have us working professionally, so we usually help each other out."

Nowhere else will you find a group of professionals and students who are as familiar with your work as your institution, which makes the time ripe for creation, says Dorfman. "Starting a company is a leap of faith," he continues. "The initiation has to be one of love and dedication, and being at a college or university can provide support not found elsewhere- and that's a good thing!" DT

 

Lisa Arnett is the Midwest editor of Dance Spirit magazine and a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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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.

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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."

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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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