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Inside Keone and Mari Madrid’s New Dance Studio and Training Program

From left: Courtesy Madrids; Ryan Feng, courtesy Madrids

As highly sought-after dancers and choreographers, Keone and Mari Madrid had a full schedule at the beginning of 2020, including choreographing and directing the Broadway-bound Britney Spears musical Once Upon a One More Time and performing in the off-Broadway run of their Beyond Babel show.

Their resumé is packed with the kind of career highlights other dance artists only dream of: With over 2 billion views on their YouTube videos, thanks in part to the fame they've gotten for dancing in and choreographing Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself" music video, the couple have won numerous dance-competition championships, worked with brands like Nike, Beats by Dre, Nordstrom and Hyundai, and received nominations for best choreography at the MTV Video Music Awards.

But recently, the pair added a new undertaking—in the middle of a pandemic, no less. The Madrids are now owners of a dance-studio space, inside a gym, and an intensive online training curriculum.

The Madrids have long been in-demand teachers, but they've always found it challenging during master classes to provide personalized feedback due to the sheer numbers of students. That's what led them to first open an appointment-only studio space called Building Block in 2014, located on the first floor of their San Diego live-work loft complex. "We were traveling and teaching internationally, but we kept getting requests from dancers who wanted to train with us," Keone says. "We weren't teaching anywhere weekly, so we weren't really accessible. That's why we developed an intimate space."

But as demand grew, especially among pre-professional students, the Madrids started renting space from an existing studio in nearby Carlsbad. The space continued to operate even while the Madrids took a break from teaching while their attention was required on some high-profile creative projects.

By early 2020, several of those projects—including Beyond Babel—were open and receiving rave reviews. But then the pandemic halted everything, including the Madrids, who battled the virus themselves. "We were robbed of our Broadway ventures, but as soon as we got home to San Diego, two of the tenants that had been in Coach Nghia's building vacated and there was extra space," Keone says. "So we thought: Now is the time."

The Coach and the Space

Nghia Pham is the founder of Optimum Training and Performance in San Diego, and has been coaching the Madrids for five years, helping them with cross-training and plyometric training to aid their balance, stability and power. The Madrids knew they wanted their students to benefit from functional, performance-based workouts as well, so the trio had been talking about opening a dance space inside of a gym.

However, any potential sites they found always fell through—until the tenants occupying the space vacated in the middle of Pham's training center in early March. "When he called to tell us, I think our mindset was 'We're going to take the leap because the door is open and we're going to find a way to make it work," Mari says. "We love our connection to the dance community and to teaching, and this is our next chapter."

Since Pham's business specializes in customizing sport-specific training, it was a natural fit to combine forces with the Madrids, whose students will be able to utilize Pham's facilities once the pandemic ends. "When the opportunity to collaborate with Building Block and Keone and Mari came up, it made perfect sense since our vision is very much in alignment," Pham says. "Since the very beginning, Keone and Mari have understood that dancers are athletes, and the knowledge of the proper training, nutrition and lifestyle will only enhance and prolong their career."

The 1,100-square-foot space, which was previously used as a spin studio, initially had just four walls and no ceiling. It's inside a warehouse, nestled between Optimum Training and Performance and a volleyball facility. Conveniently, the Madrids' physical therapists are also located in the same building, so Building Block students will have the option of using therapists who are familiar with dancers' needs.

It took a solid two months to build out the space with flooring repurposed from a basketball court and the Carlsbad studio, white walls, and professional lighting rigged to a 25-foot, trussed ceiling so the space can double as a film studio. "It was a lot of money up front for Mari and me, but we were able to get a small business loan, which bought us some time to comfortably invest in the space, hire our teachers and have some immediate cushioning," Keone says. In the new space, they launched Building Block Academy, a program that provides eight-week sessions of dance development, education and mentorship for students ages 3 to 19.

The Online Curriculum

Since social distancing still requires reduced enrollment in the Academy program, the Madrids were laser focused on launching BB360, their new, on-demand video curriculum. It was something they had always wanted to do but just didn't have the time or the urgency, until the pandemic. "We were very conscious of being able to film as soon as we possibly could because we had to go online. It was the only way to survive," Keone says. "But if we are going to go online, it has to be something that's helpful and not for the sake of just going online."

The BB360 curriculum embraces their mission of providing mentorship while teaching dancers that they are both athletes and artists. Video lessons involve drills, workouts, stretching, choreography and courses (directing, creative process, mental health, purpose and history) from various choreographers, teachers and athletic trainers. Subscribers get unlimited access for $14.99 a month (or $69.99 if you sign up for a year); for those who want personalized feedback there is the BB360+ option: For $199 a month, subscribers can upload up to two videos a week of themselves dancing to a piece learned from the BB360 library for personalized feedback from one of the instructors.

The Building Block team—which consists of the Madrids and 14 part-time employees, including a BB360 product marketer, a BB360 customer-service head and a marketing team—filmed the first BB360 videos over Memorial Day weekend, and the program debuted August 18 with over 100 videos. One month later, the Madrids had recouped their initial investment in the space and rentals on video production equipment, and today, subscribers have access to more than 200 videos from over 40 instructors. "It makes me happy that people are interacting with our classes and are able to get education and connection at a time when it's really difficult to have that," Mari says.

The Future

Once the pandemic ends, the Madrids anticipate additional revenue will come from private lessons and Building Block Dance Space rentals—either for rehearsals, classes or video/photo shoots. "The studio feels good where it is at right now. If things pick up in a normal way, it will be like flipping a switch and inviting dancers into the space," Mari says.

The Madrids, in fact, are already thinking about their next ventures, so it's good that the team they've built to run Building Block can operate without them if need be. "If we had a traditional structure of a regular studio, we wouldn't have the freedom to do what we need to do," Keone says. "We feel we can trust the ship will stay its course when we're not physically there."

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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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