Adding another commitment to your already busy schedule may be the last thing you want to do as a college student. But assisting at dance conventions can offer valuable experiences you won't find in a classroom. Convention assistants help students pick up choreography and rub shoulders with industry influencers. For some, it's the perfect addition to their college experience—but balancing the demands of both isn't easy.


Why Should You Assist?

Through assisting, Alyssa Ness tried new styles she wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. Photo courtesy Evolve Photo & Video

Network. Dancing alongside world-renowned faculty gives you the chance to show off your talent and prove you're a reliable professional, and could help you make the connections you need to score your dream job after college.

Be well-rounded. New York City Dance Alliance assistant and Marymount Manhattan College alumna Alyssa Ness says assisting has exposed her to new styles and choreographers: While her college program focused on ballet and modern, at NYCDA she has assisted with everything from hip hop to musical theater.

Get real-world experience. For BellaMoxi faculty assistant and Institute for American Musical Theatre student Eliah Furlong, assisting prepared him for the realities of a professional dance career—from the late-night rehearsals to the early-morning warm-ups.

How to Become An Assistant

Lauren Settembrino assisted at Dancers Inc. while she was an NYU student. Courtesy EAP Photography and Video

The road to assisting is different for each convention. At NYCDA, positions are given to dancers who win a specific title, like National Outstanding Dancer. For others, you'll need to submit an application with your resumé, headshot and videos of dance solos.

What You Can Expect

Jordan Koch says it's normal for your first convention as an assistant to leave you drained. Photo by Mitch Button and Beau Austin, courtesy Koch

If you've attended a convention before, you know that it can be a whirlwind. As an assistant you should expect the weekend to be even more fast-paced, says BellaMoxi faculty assistant and Institute for American Musical Theatre student Jordan Koch. Responsibilities can range from demonstrating in class and rehearsing for performances to helping with administrative jobs like registration.

You may have to miss a college class or two for travel, so make sure you know your school's absence policy, and communicate with your professors to catch up on material you may have missed. While some schools have preexisting partnerships with conventions (like Marymount Manhattan College does with NYCDA), it's best to sit down with your program's director to see if taking on an assistant position is feasible.

The Do's & Don'ts

Don't try to go full-out for every class you're assisting for, says Lauren Settembrino. Courtesy EAP Photography and Video

Do: Put school first. Katie Langan, dance department chair at Marymount Manhattan College, says convention assistants should make college their priority. "Your goal is to get through four years of education, and if the other job becomes too cumbersome, know enough to step back," she says.

Don't: Try to go to every city. While some conventions may require you to go to a minimum number of cities, it's not in your best interest to assist at all of them. This kind of schedule isn't sustainable and could put dancers at risk for injury, Langan says.

Do: Plan ahead. "Don't forget that your midterms and finals and papers are important," says former Dancers Inc. assistant and New York University Tisch School of the Arts alumna Lauren Settembrino. When you're deciding which conventions to attend, take into account assignments and exams, not just performances.

Don't: Waste your energy. Settembrino says that giving 100 percent for every combination in every class can lead to burnout. Be strategic about when you need to go full-out.

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Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective

Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.

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According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, and there were an estimated 1.3 million suicide attempts. While it's a myth that suicide rates are higher in December than any other time of year, the holidays give us an opportunity to consider the health and happiness of those we love. As dance teachers, we spend more time with our students than even their parents do, which means we are in a particular position to notice the pain and distress they're experiencing.

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Photos courtesy of Google

Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

Dance Teacher Tips
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It's a dance teacher's job to prepare students for professional careers. As everyone knows, this means more than just giving them precise technique and exceptional performance capabilities. Perhaps more than ever, it's important that teachers prepare their students to know how to make smart and safe decisions when entering the workplace. It's important that we give them the skills to say "no" when a project doesn't fit with their personal values, puts them in a dangerous or toxic work environment, or is discriminatory to their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Teachers need to help their students advocate for themselves in order to create a career they can be proud of.

Here are four tips for helping your dancers make safe and smart professional decisions when they leave the warmth of your caring and supportive studio.

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