"I describe it as organized chaos," says Kimberly Rishi with a laugh, as she hunts for a quiet space inside her 12,000-square-foot studio in Ashburn, Virginia. In any given week, Studio Bleu Dance Center's 11 dance studios accommodate 800 enrolled students, 52 staff members, adults who take drop-in classes, plus kids in vocal and piano programs and an affiliated ballet conservatory. "It may look like there's always a party going on," Rishi says, "but that's not the case. There's a schedule, and everyone knows where they're headed."
When Rishi took the reins in 2003, there were only 80 students, 20 of whom were competitive. Today, 300 dancers are enrolled for the competition program. And just this winter, she launched a musical theater program, taking in triple-threat hopefuls in the area. While the Ashburn area (outside of Washington, DC) is burgeoning, faculty member Heidi Moe says Studio Bleu's growth is due to more than changing demographics. It's the direct result of Rishi's business experience and leadership ability.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm two different people."
Rishi grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania, and trained at a small local studio until her family moved to Virginia her freshman year of high school. Though she was involved "in everything from choir to drama to the music department," Rishi had a knack for dance and left high school early each day to jump into the professional world, performing in regional dinner-theater productions. When it was time for college, she enrolled in the modern-based dance program at George Mason University. But after graduation, her course shifted into the business world.
"I got into the human resources field," she says. Yet even after earning a master's degree at Marymount University in Virginia, she didn't completely give up dance. She loved the studio scene and took classes and taught for Academy of Dance & Movement under Aranetta Manley.
Studio Bleu faculty member Troy Brown. Photo by Rachel Papo
There was no real surprise when Manley, hoping to retire, tapped Rishi to be the next owner. "You have a dance and a business degree," Manley pointed out. "You're qualified." Rishi said she'd try it for a year. "I didn't know what I was doing," she says. "As I got into it, I saw it as an opportunity for me to implement all I had learned about HR into a dance studio." Rishi renamed the business Studio Bleu Dance Center, and 14 years later, she's still at it.
"I sometimes feel like I'm two different people," she says. "In my business life, I did a lot of recruiting, helped with acquisitions and mergers, and got a lot of experience in corporate development. Now I get to use all of it in a setting I'm passionate about. I see myself as a strategic partner to the dancers, singers and performers, helping them to increase their skill set. I talk a lot about goal-setting with the dancers. They are instructed to write down their goals, strategize how they'll accomplish them and tell the faculty what they need from us to do as such. I experience the best of both worlds."
"We believe in working hard and playing hard."
Rishi attributes her success to adherence to certain core values. "It's about setting in place terms that represent your business, and making sure the people hired will uphold them," she says. "At Studio Bleu, we believe in working hard and playing hard, staying committed to the team, maintaining a positive attitude and being flexible."
These rules play into every aspect of the business, from creating positive experiences for dancers outside of class (hosting dance-a-thons to raise money for cancer research through the studio's idance4acure organization, for example) to being OK with students missing the occasional competition for school activities or family functions. As her guide, Rishi refers to her own experience as a dancer.
"I was involved in as many high school activities as possible," she says. "I loved all of them, and they made me the person I am today. I would never stop anyone from doing the same. My teachers have to be flexible—as do the
dancers." So instead of turning students away who might have scheduling conflicts, Rishi keeps her doors open, and students continue to flock to her programs. "It's good for kids to learn how to keep calm and deal productively," she says, "whether it means figuring out how to adjust choreography or go on without a particular teammate."
Faculty in the classroom: Brittany Alness, Heidi Moe and Kristen Stanley. Photo by Rachel Papo
Similarly, Studio Bleu students are encouraged to experiment with new classes and to become more versatile dancers. While some Studio Bleu alumni work professionally, Rishi says that's not the ultimate goal. "I want to develop kindhearted, hardworking, ethical, creative people. I want them to use the skills they learn here—whether that means organization or conflict or stress management—in any field they may head into."
That said, Studio Bleu students have become Rockettes and appeared on "So You Think You Can Dance," and the competition team routinely places at regional and national competitions. Rishi brings in master teachers and guest choreographers as often as possible. Chloé and Maud Arnold (of Syncopated Ladies fame) lead a tap intensive each winter, and this month Hamilton cast members Thayne Jasperson and Sydnee Winters will stop in to teach.
For the last two years, Studio Bleu has been invited to perform during the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards in New York City. For their number, 40 students—from minis to senior teens—have taken center stage alongside professional members of the Broadway community. "The students are incredibly professional," says Jessica Zippin, who is an organizer of the event. "Even the youngest dancers are so willing and able to perform at a huge event outside of their comfort zones. More importantly, though, they've been very humble and appreciative of the opportunity, which isn't always the case with student performers."
"It's important that everyone feel included."
Though Rishi has a dance degree and professional performing experience, her artistic direction takes a back seat to running the organization. She's found most success when she delegates choreography, rehearsal direction and technique training to her faculty and guest teachers. Moe, a jazz and lyrical teacher and choreographer, grew up training at the studio and returned to teach in 1998 after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University. She points out that technique teachers get together monthly for leadership and teacher training programs. "It gives us a chance to all get on the same page in terms of student technical development," she says. "Some teachers have attended workshops, like the Dance Teacher Summit, and others can participate in workshops during conventions in the fall."
With a staff of 52, "it's important to make sure everyone feels included," Rishi says. "A teacher who's on the schedule only once a week should still be kept in the loop with what's happening, just as much as someone who is here every day." They meet weekly, and newsletters and e-mails help spread studio news and updates.
Studio Bleu faculty member Kate Kosinski Kane. Photo by Rachel Papo
"You wouldn't know I was the owner just by walking into Studio Bleu. I'm as likely to be spotted cleaning, scheduling or walking kids to classes just as much as anyone else." And when challenges inevitably occur, Rishi counts on her staff to be proactive. "No matter how much I may plan or have scheduling down to a T, life happens," she says. "Maybe a teacher has to tend to a student who has a bloody nose for an hour, or someone calls out sick. I need teachers who can just jump in and take initiative in any situation."
The most trying periods? "The month leading up to our first competition, when costumes and accessories all arrive, and every class is busy running their dances," Rishi says. "And another busy time is in August. We participate in the World Dance Pageant in New Jersey, there are training intensives at the studio and our competition teams are learning new choreography from guest artists. On top of that, school is starting up again—it all happens at once." It's at times like these when communication really counts. "My husband was looking at our cell phone bill recently and noticed I was doing about 300 to 400 texts per day," Rishi says, laughing.
"I want to do the best I possibly can."
Seven years ago, Rishi initiated a partnership with Troy Brown to bring his ballet program, The Art of Technique, in-house as a ballet conservatory. With training from School of American Ballet and a performance resumé that includes Chicago City Ballet, Baltimore and Washington opera companies and Pacific Northwest Ballet, Brown brings insight and specialized training to deepen the ballet experience at Studio Bleu. In addition to training 50 conservatory students, Brown coaches the studio's competition dancers and accompanies them to events.
Looking forward, Rishi would like to produce large-scale musical theater for the community, drawing students from all aspects of her school—theater kids, dancers and musicians. "I'll start small," she says, "maybe with something simple this summer."
Studio Bleu dancers with stars of Broadway at the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards in New York City. Photo by Stark Productions, courtesy of Studio Bleu
Clearly, Rishi has discovered an equation that works. But when asked if she's ever thought of duplicating her success, whether by opening a second location or franchising her model, she shakes her head. "The best restaurant in the area is called the Inn at Little Washington. The chef, Patrick O'Connell, opened it 30 years ago, and I'm always inspired by his balance of artistry and business and overall guest experience. He's one of the best chefs in the world, and yet he's still at the same location—and physically there every night," she says. "Likewise, I'm at Studio Bleu morning to night, Monday through Saturday and most Sundays. I just want to do the best I possibly can, and in one place that everyone can call home."
Jenny Ouellette is a former Dance Teacher staffer who now resides in South Carolina.