Quit Apologizing for Making Money

A studio owner talks about how she grew the confidence to be business-minded.

I first taught dance at the high school where I worked as an English teacher. I’d danced my entire life and had a degree in theater. I used to take some of the kids to Roland Dupree’s professional dance center in California, and he kept urging me to open up my own studio. When my son was born, I thought being a studio owner might make for an easier time raising a child. (Little did I know!) I opened my studio in Phoenix, Arizona, 34 years ago with 75 students, and I’ve built it up slowly to about 500 students.

I had to learn that running a business required much more than being passionate about teaching dance. At first, I couldn’t stand collecting money from people. Maybe this was because I’d been teaching dance in a public school, where you don’t charge for classes. I kept equating running my studio with volunteering as a Girl Scout leader or coaching a peewee softball team. Having a business working with children where you charge a price was a rough concept for me. In hindsight, I wish I’d thought about pediatricians. They work with children, and they don’t volunteer—they make money! But I didn’t think that way then. I hired someone to collect the money, so that I didn’t have to face it.

Learning Not to Work for Free

My initial business plan was slim. I had tuition revenue, but I did everything extra for free. For instance, I choreographed everyone’s solos for competition at no charge. Then I began listening to other dance teachers. I learned that to run a successful business you need to get your income from several different sources, not just tuition. You need to understand that your time—or a staff member’s—is money. To choreograph a solo, you charge a fee. And when you stop choreographing and have another teacher create the solos, you still need to make sure that you’re getting a fee.

I never used to charge anything extra for conventions, either. But then I’d kill myself getting everything ready. When I began to tack on administrative fees, I was nervous—all the convention fees were published, and the parents would know I’d charged extra.

But it’s important to be aware of the standard practices in your market. I learned that other studio owners were already doing that, and I knew I could go back and tell that to parents. Even the phrase “tack on” is misleading, since it sounds like I’m doing something underhanded. What I’m actually doing is adding on fees to cover the services my studio provides. I’m transparent with parents that I add fees for something like fitting and ordering costumes. But I’m not specific about how much—I give a range.

Being up-front and unapologetic about charges doesn’t mean you have to divulge every single financial detail to parents. I’m not at all transparent about my personal finances, and I don’t share information about my studio’s profits and losses.

My New Guilt-Free Philosophy

A turning point for me was when I started listening to success books on tape. I’ve probably read or listened to hundreds of them: books on good customer service or how to build your business, and best-sellers like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One thing I learned is that you need to make sure the people who work for you want you to be successful. You have to surround yourself with people who are on your side.

I also realized that I should stop trying to prove parents wrong when they accused me of being wealthy. They seemed to think that their tuition was paying for my car, and it bothered me that they didn’t get the difference between my studio’s revenues and my salary. I felt like taking my W-2 and waving it in their faces just so they knew I wasn’t ripping them off.

Now, I’ve totally changed my philosophy. I decided that instead of trying to prove to parents that I don’t make what they think I do, I’m just going to go ahead and try to make as much as they think I’m making. I don’t feel guilty for driving a Lexus. My clients wouldn’t want me to drive up in an old jalopy—they wouldn’t be able to trust that I was good enough at this job, if all I could afford to drive was a jalopy. You need to communicate the idea that you are successful, and then you gain the confidence. And that instills confidence in your clientele.

The Right Price Lets You Deliver Quality

Setting prices at the right level is important if you want to build a sustainable business. Set them too low, and you’ll never be able to grow and offer new opportunities to your dancers, attract the best teachers, or even last for long. To decide on my prices, I first called other studios in the area. Our current tuition might be on the more expensive side, but I feel OK with that, because it reflects that my studio has top-notch teachers. If parents are dissatisfied with their child’s performance placement, I tell them, “You can trust us, we’re a national championship studio.” It’s possible that by changing studios their kid could be at the top of the totem pole, but that studio might not be able to push the child to their full potential.

I bend over backward when it comes to customer service, but I remain confident in the way I’ve chosen to run my business. People at the studio definitely think of me as the successful business owner now. Studio fathers, especially, tend to think of owning a dance studio as a hobby, but I think the fathers at my studio really respect what I do. Only a couple of my students will go on to be professional dancers. Mostly, I’m trying to shape them for success in whatever they do. I’m teaching them commitment, dedication and discipline, plus the ability to learn quickly, get along with all kinds of kids and listen to authority.

I’ve had students tell me that they want to grow up and be a successful business owner just like me. When you love doing something as much as studio owners love teaching dance, you don’t think you should be charging people. But the bottom line is: You can really love it and still make money and grow a business that will last. DT

Carole Royal is the owner/director of Royal Dance Works in Phoenix, Arizona.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CREATISTA/Thinkstock

 Photo (bottom) courtesy of Carole Royal

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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