Kelly Dailey is breaking beats—and boundaries—with a new studio business model in Dayton, Ohio.
Hip-hop classes have long been a viable means of attracting boys to dance studios, but what happens when the entire studio is devoted to hip hop? Forty percent male enrollment may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s a fact for Kelly Dailey’s Dayton, Ohio–based Funk Lab—and her numbers are going up. Funk Lab is one of a handful of pioneering studios around the country that specialize in hip hop. And with the successful wave of hip hop–centric competitions such as Monsters of Hip Hop, VIBE Dance Competition and World of Dance, more studios seem destined to follow.
“I would say it’s not a growing trend—it’s a growing culture,” says Shaun Evaristo, who founded the touring urban dance convention, Movement Lifestyle, in 2009. “The form of hip hop has been around for a long time, but it’s starting to flourish and grow more than ever before. People want it, so there are more companies looking to fill that demand.”
Dailey can certainly attest to the demand. Since she first opened Funk Lab in 2011, enrollment has more than tripled, growing from 80 to 260 students. Though jazz funk and contemporary are offered, the focus is almost exclusively on hip hop. Styles like breaking, popping, locking and krump are the name of the game, and the syllabus includes viral street moves like the “Nae Nae” and education on hip-hop history. “Right now, hip-hop studios are few and far between, but there are enough styles of hip hop where you can operate a hip hop–only studio and succeed,” says Dailey.
She opened the studio because she herself had experienced limited resources as a street dancer growing up in Dayton. She moved to Chicago after college to train at Lou Conte Dance Studio, then returned to Dayton to teach at Howard School of Dance, where she created an advanced hip-hop program. “The program at Howard became very successful, and Funk Lab grew out of that,” she says. “I told the owner shortly after my last recital that I wanted to open my own space and just do hip hop, and that I didn’t consider myself a competitor.” The two reached an understanding that Dailey was free to solicit students from her competitive program at Howard as long as she did not reach out to the recreational hip-hop students.
Starting from scratch, Dailey worked closely with her husband (and studio co-owner) Andrew to develop a science-centric branding theme. “My husband suggested we call it a lab, since that’s where you make and invent things,” she says. That concept is incorporated throughout the studio—from the wall graffiti art (mad scientists stirring up musical notes) to the competitive crew names (like Electronz and Lab Werk). “I try to make sure the marketing is gender-neutral and that the studio space is inviting for everyone,” she adds.
Performance opportunities are a big part of the draw. Funk Lab competitive crews attend Monsters of Hip Hop, Star Systems and Legacy Dance Championships. The annual May recital has featured themes ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Super Mario Brothers. The studio also stages flash mobs for everything from a marriage proposal to arts festivals in Dayton.
One of the most popular classes is Advanced Urban Choreography, taught by crew co-director Toni Denee. “We learn music video–style choreography, clean and perfect it, and then record a video at the end of every month; the kids seem to really enjoy that structure,” says Denee, adding that one of her favorite routines was a Super Bowl–themed homage to Missy Elliott (for which all of the dancers wore football jerseys). Many of the videos are posted to the studio’s YouTube channel, “FunkLabDCAC.”
Like all studio owners, Dailey faces certain challenges—for instance, there is what she calls “revolving door syndrome.” “People come in expecting to look like tWitch [from ‘So You Think You Can Dance’] in one class, and then they realize that it takes a lot of work,” she says. To reduce turnover, she implemented a costume fee for the spring recital that’s paid in the fall; that strategy has helped to lower turnover from 40 to 8 percent. “People stick around since they’ve invested,” she says.
Part of Dailey’s charge is to change certain perceptions about hip hop. “I’m constantly defending myself that we play clean music and that our moves are appropriate,” she says. “We’re a more modest studio—we don’t wear anything that shows midriffs—but it’s sometimes hard for people to get past that initial stereotype.”
Both passionate and protective over the unique environment at Funk Lab, Dailey says, “I feel like we’re inventing something here.” For that reason, she tends to hire former students or trusted colleagues she’s known for years. That’s how Denee came onboard as co-director: The two met nine years ago when they were both members of a street dance group. “In terms of the syllabus, I want my teachers doing what I created rather than what they learned from someone else,” Dailey says. “It keeps us true to the Funk Lab form.” DT
Jen Jones Donatelli is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit and Dance Magazine.
Photos by Bill Franz, courtesy of Funk Lab