Ten years ago, Finis Jhung, the legendary ballet master extraordinaire, who danced soloist and principal roles with the San Francisco, Joffrey and Harkness Ballet companies in the 1960s, began experiencing excruciating pain and instability in his right leg. Severe arthritis, diagnosed his doctor. The risk and recovery time of hip replacement convinced Jhung to seek alternative solutions—cortisone treatments, chiropractic therapy, acupuncture. Nothing helped. A weekly deep-tissue massage, to relax his abductors and inner-thigh muscles, and his own self-designed stretching regimen worked for a while.

And then it didn't. Teaching five ballet classes a week demanded increased recovery time, while his ability to demonstrate simple ballet steps was decreasing. Last summer, soon after Jhung turned 80, he decided to reconsider surgery.


Jhung's internist referred him to Dr. Roy Davidovitch, director of the Hip Center at New York University Langone Medical Center. He's the first surgeon in New York City to perform the minimally invasive (MIS) Anterior Approach Total Hip Replacement. Unlike the traditional posterior (back) or lateral (side), the anterior (front) approach allows access to the hip joint without cutting through major muscles or tendons, enabling a quicker return to normal activity. Jhung could expect to return home the day of the surgery and begin teaching again in four to six weeks. He was sold!

Pre-surgery with Dr. Roy Davidovitch. Photo by Jason Jhung

Three weeks after Jhung's hip replacement surgery on September 6, we caught up over e-mail.

Giannella M. Garrett: Congratulations! How are you feeling?

Finish Jhung: Last night was a breakthrough night. The swelling has almost completely disappeared. Only slight discoloration in the right foot and inner ankle. I could even sleep on my side in two-hour increments. I'm feeling very good this morning. Sitting at the computer is much more comfortable because my knee bends. So, 19 days after surgery, almost no swelling. No pain. No discomfort. I can walk unaided with a cane in the house. I'm going to start outpatient physical therapy today.

Here's where the incision happened. Photo by Jason Jhung

GG: What has been the most difficult or challenging aspect of the surgery? What (if anything) has been easier than you expected?

FJ: My biggest challenge has been getting a good night's sleep. The first two weeks I slept with calf pumps, which constantly pressed and released in order to prevent blood clots, and I had long cables stemming from the calf sleeves to the powering device. This made getting in and out of beds and chairs a very complicated process. I would often get up from sitting, forget I was connected to the device-wire connected to the outlet and suddenly be jerked back.

What's easier than expected: walking without pain or limping. This past weekend I left the apartment for the first time and ate at a neighborhood restaurant, and only because it is good and walkable from my apartment.

GG: When are you planning to begin teaching again?

FJ: I return to teaching my full-time schedule on Sunday, October 1. I am not allowed to turn out or stand a lot, so my Team Finis demonstrators, Mayumi Omagari and Ari Miyagawa, will assist me these first few weeks. I must spend most of the class sitting with my right foot elevated. But I'll be perfectly capable of demonstrating with my hands and pointing out details. Hmm. I probably could use a pointing stick!

Post-surgery with his song Jason. Photo by Jason Jhung

GG: What propels you?

FJ: My mission in life as a Buddhist is to help others. When I see people in trouble in ballet class, I want to help them solve their technical and artistic problems. I can't see any point in letting students continue working incorrectly, when they would look so much better if they followed my instructions. What else is there to do in life but help others? And, solving these problems in class leads me to create instructional videos, which can be used by people all over the world. I try to instill in my students what we call in Buddhism "a seeking spirit." To learn the truth so that you can apply it and better yourself. You know, ballet is the "bitchy" art, where it is common among dancers to wish others the worst so they lag behind. And this kind of attitude shows onstage—people who give, and those who don't. People who are generous and have ample room in their lives to help others. We all need to be giving in the sense of helping when we can.

GG: Your childhood dream was simply to become a ballet dancer. Could you have imagined who you are today? What would your child-self say to your present-self?

FJ: No, I could never have imagined when I was 9 years old starting ballet in Honolulu that I would, at age 80, be looking back at all the things I've done and see that indeed, all my childhood dreams have been fulfilled: dancing in New York and Hollywood; performing in distant lands like Egypt, Russia, India, Afghanistan, Iran; performing classical roles in white tights; becoming a prominent teacher in New York; teaching thousands all over the world with my videos; and most of all being a father to my wonderful son Jason. In a sense, I had a guiding star leading the way. I was never unemployed, and setbacks were momentary instead of permanent—especially after becoming a Buddhist—and I was able to build up my life force and make my life large enough to encompass all the problems that came to me. As long as I held on to my dream, each step I took brought me closer to fulfillment. This is what I was taught as a child: Always do your best. And because I did my best, one thing led to another. I've been very fortunate, beyond my wildest dreams.

GG: You have said your biggest dream now is to become a 100-year-old ballet teacher. What are your plans? What are your dreams? How might the two be different?

FJ: I only say this because these days there are many people over 100 who are living vital energetic lives. So, why not me? My plans are to continue teaching, giving workshops and creating more videos. Right now I am finishing up my pictorial-memoir. I have been gathering notes for a second book, which will be somewhat like "chicken soup for ballet teachers and students"—opening your eyes to reality: YOU ARE WHAT YOU ARE. (Title subject to change.)

Day two post-surgery, at home working on his memoir. Photo by Jason Jhung

GG: In addition to the freedom from pain and the ease of movement that the hip replacement will give you, how do you hope your life will change as a result of your surgery?

FJ: For one thing, I won't have to constantly be applying various massage tools to relieve hip-muscle tension. That will give me tons of free time. I will continue seeing my massage therapist once a week for 60 minutes because that is a very special treat I greatly deserve. And, I'm looking forward to being able to execute pirouettes outside and inside, relevé in arabesque and waltz across the floor in class. No jumps for probably two years, after which, ANYTHING can happen!

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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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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."

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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.

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