Studio Owners

Brush Up On the ABCs of Costume Care

After taking the time to choose and order the perfect costumes for your dancers, it's smart to put just as much thought into their cleaning and storage. Disaster can strike even the most experienced dance companies, as Patti Fitzpatrick, San Francisco Ballet's veteran costume supervisor, can attest. Recently, a gorgeous crystal-encrusted tutu for the “Diamonds" portion of George Balanchine's Jewels, on loan from another ballet company, was inadvertently dry-cleaned on high heat. “When we got it back from the cleaners," says Fitzpatrick, “all the 'diamonds' had cracked and we had to replace them."

It's not “one-size-fits-all" when it comes to taking care of dance costumes and accessories, and a little know-how is all you need to preserve them. With some extra TLC, you can be sure that your costumes stay as fresh and vibrant as possible.


Cleaning

Fitzpatrick dry-cleans costumes as little as possible, as the chemicals are tough on fabrics. (It also can be quite expensive.) Instead, she and her staff spot-clean items where they touch the dancers' bodies: for example, by spraying a mixture of alcohol and water on the armpit area. There are also a number of commercially available soaps and sprays that can be used to clean and revive delicate fabrics. Fresh Again Uniform & Costume Deodorant Spray is good for neutralizing odors, while Fels-Naptha laundry soap works well for removing stains like makeup. Prevention is key: Encourage students to use clear deodorants and avoid perfumes to prolong the life of your costumes.

Before dry-cleaning any garment, check the care label and, when in doubt, call the manufacturer. However, it's usually safe to dry-clean fabrics such as velvet, chiffon, georgette and big, heavily constructed items like military jackets. Be sure to find a dry cleaner that specializes in handling delicate items and understands the extra care required for dance costumes. It's not recommended to dry-clean pieces with sequins or rhinestones, as the heat can cause significant damage.

Machine-washing is fine for synthetics, as well as sturdy cottons and permanent-press fabrics. “Large lingerie bags come in handy in the washing machine," says Fitzpatrick. “For the Snowflake and Flower costumes for The Nutcracker, I turn the costumes inside-out and wash them on a really fast, cold-water setting."

Lycra, spandex, tulle, wool, silk and anything with sequins or other delicate embellishments should be cleaned by hand. Wash silk in cold water with a little vinegar, and wash other fabrics for no longer than two minutes in cold water with a detergent specifically for hand-washing. For tutus, hand-wash just the panty part. Fitzpatrick recommends using Dr. Bronner's peppermint liquid soap for spot-cleaning before hand-washing.

As for frequency of cleaning, leotards and tights should be washed after every wearing. If dancers are performing a series of recitals over a weekend or two, spot-clean costumes and spray Fresh Again after each performance. Wait to hand-wash, machine-wash or dry-clean costumes until the end of the run.

Drying and Removing Wrinkles

As with cleaning, different fabrics require different methods of drying and wrinkle removal. You can tumble-dry sturdier materials like cotton or polyester, but don't blast them with high heat—use a gentle setting and don't overload the dryer. Delicate fabrics can be roll-dried by placing the item on a color-fast towel and rolling down the length of the towel, squeezing gently as you do so. Then, lay the costume flat on a fresh towel to dry. Once tutus are clean, dry them upside-down on a hanger, using the loops attached at the basque.

If you need to press an item, check the label first and then place a towel between the costume and the iron before using low heat. You might want to consider investing in a steamer to remove wrinkles and freshen up costumes, particularly after storage. If the costume has any kind of glass beads or crystals, steam carefully from the underside.

Storage

The key to storing costumes so that they come out looking as good as the day they were put away is to make sure the fabric is completely dry. Any kind of wetness, whether from perspiration or an inadequate drying process, will result in mold and mildew—and a ruined, smelly outfit. For long-term storage, find a room or closet that is dark and dry—both sunlight and dampness can have a deleterious effect on costumes. Plastic rubber bins work best for items that can't be hung, and are conveniently stackable for efficient storage.

Wardrobe racks on wheels make accessing your inventory easy. If you hang items, use either plastic, wooden or padded hangers and cover the costumes with muslin or plastic. “Storing costumes in muslin is ideal," says Holly Hynes, costume designer and former director of costumes for New York City Ballet. “If it's just on a hanger on a rack, you always get dust." Costumes can stretch over time on hangers, so if the piece is weighty, place it in a bin with as few folds as possible. Be sure to fasten snaps, zippers and buttons, as well as hooks and eyes, before storing.

As for tutus, everybody has their own theory on how best to store them, says Hynes. “At New York City Ballet, each one is hung individually, upside-down," she says. “At Houston Ballet, they have a tutu tree—a pole that comes out of a base, and the tutus plop down one on top of the other." According to Erin Schumaker, the office manager at Green Hills School of Dance in Nashville, Tennessee, pancake tutus are put into tutu bags, and if a tutu has an attached bodice, it's hung on a wardrobe rack. All of the costumes are dry-cleaned after a weekend of performances and easy-to-fold items are placed in air-tight containers.

Organizing with Ease

As you are getting ready to store everything neatly away, you'll want to be sure that items are easy to retrieve. Matt Gasper, master teacher at Gasper's School of Dance and Performing Arts in Fargo, North Dakota, and artistic director of Fargo Moorhead Ballet, tackles two recitals a year for the school as well as four more for the ballet company, so organization is key. “We take a Polaroid of each costume and put a hard copy in a three-ring folder with a note indicating where the costume is located. For example, 'Polka-dotted Leotard: Bin #17,'" says Gasper. “So instead of standing in a closet filled with bins when you're looking for that polka-dotted leotard, you just go through your three-ring binder. It's an organized and easy way to keep track of costumes for smaller companies or studios."

Follow these guidelines, and come recital season, you'll be delighted to be able to locate and pull out fresh, ready-to-go costumes.

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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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