Face to Face: Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee is doing a victory dance—his beginner hip-hop class at STEPS on Broadway recently got upgraded to one of the largest studios. And while he’s ecstatic to be doing so well in this economy, he isn’t gloating. Brooklyn born and raised, Lee has been paying his dues in New York City for some time. After training with hip-hop masters Mr. Wiggles, Robin Dunn and Crazy Legs, he went on to study ballet and modern at Alvin Ailey, Joffrey Ballet School, STEPS and Broadway Dance Center. Lee officially made the switch to teaching five years ago, and now packs his classes full at STEPS, Dance New Amsterdam and The Ailey Extension. At just 22, his career already includes such impressive accomplishments as commercial gigs, theater credits and working with major names like Britney Spears and Madonna. Read on to discover this young talent’s recipe for success.

Dance Teacher: Is there a teacher who influenced your career the most?
Jonathan Lee: Robin Dunn [who taught the first hip-hop class in NYC]—she’s my “mom,” aka mentor. Robin didn’t want me to just be a better dancer. She wanted me to be a better person. She stressed that it’s not just about booking jobs and being in the commercial scene. It’s about inspiring people. And that’s why I teach—I want to inspire young people.

DT: What else led you to teaching?
JL: I was part of a youth organization called City Kids. They always talked about youth leadership; they gave me the tools to be a leader. One of their mottos was “Each one, reach one.” That really molded who I am today. I also started assisting some of my teachers, and that helped develop my skills.

DT: What’s your teaching philosophy?
JL: Some people treat classes as auditions. I teach so that people can learn. I want my students to walk away with something. I get a wide range of students, from professional dancers to people with 9–5 jobs who just want to stay in shape. My class accommodates each individual, so that everyone can have a good experience.

DT: Do you still take dance lessons? Do you think it’s important for dance teachers to take class?
JL: I still do, and I definitely think it’s important for teachers to take class. You have to open up your vocabulary, especially once you figure out who you are as a choreographer, because you’re going to gravitate toward what you like. But you have to think outside the box and find challenges. Each teacher has something different to offer.

DT: A main focus during your class is drilling the steps. How do you think that helps your students?
JL: It’s a beginner class, so I feel that repetition really helps people pick up choreography. Especially if someone has never taken hip hop, the reiteration builds muscle memory. Even if my students don’t get all of the steps, they can get most of them and still enjoy it.

DT: You are known to end every class with a circle talk, as does Robin Dunn. Why do you think that’s important?
JL: I teach drop-in classes, so I want my students to know that I acknowledge them and thank them for being in the room. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be there. I also do the circle to illustrate that there’s no head or end—just one open circle and everyone is on the same plane. DT

Lauren Levinson is an associate editor/fashion at Dance Spirit.

Photo by Arthur Coopchick, courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

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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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