KT Niehoff wanted to dance in Seattle, but first she had to make a dance space.

It’s 7:45 on a Monday evening at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center. Beginning ballet class is over, and as the students swap dance slippers for street shoes, the doors to the studio swing open. The next class—intermediate modern—is eager to warm up. The ballet students head out into the foyer, lingering to chat or leaf through the handbills strewn on a wooden table. The flyers advertise everything from upcoming shows to used bicycles for sale.

This kind of dance hub is relatively new in Seattle. In the early 1990s, grunge drew aspiring musicians to the city, but dance? Not so much. Pacific Northwest Ballet had a respected school, but there were few resources for contemporary dancers. When KT Niehoff and her friend Michele Miller arrived from New York in 1992 to join the Pat Graney Company, they discovered if they wanted a dance scene, they’d have to help grow it.

The result, Velocity Dance Center, now serves as a de facto clubhouse for Seattle’s contemporary dance community. Fresh graduates from Cornish College of the Arts (Merce Cunningham’s alma mater) and other schools across the country mop floors and work administratively in exchange for class fees. They rub shoulders with new arrivals to Seattle, who’ve come to audition for the many choreographers who call this studio home. And hundreds of people with no professional dance aspirations come to Velocity every month, simply to experience the joy of movement.

Not only did Niehoff and Miller not plan to run a dance studio, Niehoff— now an accomplished choreographer, teacher and artistic director of Lingo Productions—didn’t set out to be a dancer. Her degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is in theater. One day she dropped in at Dance Space (now Dance New Amsterdam) in New York’s NoHo district, and, on a whim, decided to take a class. “I couldn’t even touch my shins,” she says, but she threw herself into dance, studying for hours each day.

Dance touched her emotionally in a way that acting did not. And the more she studied, the more confident she felt. It was only two years after that first dance class that she moved to Seattle. She remembers sitting in a parking lot, after touring the city’s few dance spaces, wondering if she and Miller had made a huge mistake leaving New York.

The two decided to offer a daily professional class, based on what Niehoff had learned from her mentor, Joy Kellman. Kellman, now on the NYU faculty, had danced with Bella Lewitzky, Daniel Nagrin and Arthur Aviles, among others. But teaching Kellman’s technique, Niehoff admits, was crazy. “I was barely a dancer, let alone a dance teacher.” Nevertheless, the class attracted a loyal following.

By 1996, they were ready for the next step: opening a dance center. The early Velocity Dance Center was strictly a DIY operation, with no major donors, no board of directors. The women approached the owners of Seattle’s Oddfellows Hall. A theater company had set up shop there, and the owners were interested in bringing in other arts groups. Niehoff and Miller asked to rent the building’s West Hall, a huge room with high ceilings and a worn linoleum floor. They scraped together $3,600 for first and last month’s rent and signed a lease.

They invited a cadre of colleagues to teach at their new center. Before they could offer the first class, though, the women marshalled Seattle’s dance community to rip up the linoleum that was firmly stapled to the maple floor. They finished the project just hours before Velocity Dance Center opened for business.

They decided that each teacher would pay a set fee to rent the room. The teacher would keep the money he or she charged the students. If, at the end of every month, Niehoff and Miller brought in more than the rent, the two split the profits. If they took in less, they’d pay the difference from their own pockets. “It’s a good model,” Niehoff says, because it’s entrepreneurial for the teachers. “Sometimes you have to pay to teach, but it’s great if you develop a following because the majority of income comes back to you.”

But by 2000, it was clear the Dance Center wasn’t making money for the founders. Niehoff and Miller recruited a small board of directors, and Velocity reincorporated as a 501(c)(3), with an expanded annual budget. Between 1997 and 2002, the organization grew to offer classes ranging from beginning ballet to hip hop, a summer intensive workshop, a guest artist series and a touring collaboration with like-minded organizations in San Francisco and Minneapolis to co-produce emerging choreographers. In 2001, Velocity got a $150,000 grant to buy the equipment needed to convert the big hall into a theater space. Niehoff hung the lights herself. Velocity didn’t have much money, but it did have a national identity.

From the beginning, Niehoff and Miller co-directed the center. But in 2005, Miller moved to Asia. Though Niehoff was committed to Velocity, she was torn between being an administrator and pursuing her choreographic career. She left in 2006. “Velocity needed a full-time leader,” she says with a sigh. “It was painful for all of us.”

Despite the lingering recession, Velocity Dance Center has thrived. The building was sold and the new owner raised the rent. So Velocity launched  an emergency capital campaign and in 2010 set up shop in a renovated garage. Executive director Tonya Lockyer took over the organization a year after the move. Her first order of business was to finish the $520,000 capital campaign. She sees her job to be creating a “dance portal,” with an expanded range of classes for beginners as well as dance professionals. “This isn’t KT and Michele’s Velocity anymore,” she says. “We believe everybody with a desire to dance should have the opportunity.” She’s also partnered with nearby arts groups to present dance films, panels and roundtable discussions, to expand the organization’s community visibility.

Meanwhile, after six years of touring and teaching,  Niehoff has opened another Seattle studio, 10 degrees, tucked into the corner of an old commercial bakery that she and her husband, Kirby Kallas-Lewis, recently leased. Niehoff’s studio is adjacent to Kallas-Lewis’ craft distillery. They sublease out the other half of the building to two restaurants, covering most of the $9,000/month rent. The relationship is more than landlord-tenant, though. One of the restaurants would only move into the building if it could lease Niehoff’s studio for private dinner parties. Initially, the idea scared her. “I’m chopping off my arm here, giving up a piece of my space,” she says.

But the arrangment makes sense. Niehoff’s dance company received $50,000 in grants this year. Potentially it will earn at least that much from restaurant rentals, which will not only fund her choreography but also subsidize dancers who want to rent 10 degrees for temporary projects. With a steady stream of restaurant rental income, Niehoff can charge dancers very low rates. “I say to people, ‘What can you afford? Give the space half of that.’ I leave it up to the artist,” she says.

Niehoff isn’t looking to re-create Velocity at 10 degrees. She wants a personal artistic home, something she says Velocity could never be for her. But she still has a foothold at Velocity Dance Center. Once a week, you’ll find her leading the same class she and Miller started teaching almost 20 years ago. She says with a laugh, “It’s my Wednesday morning church.” DT

Marcie Sillman is an award-winning arts reporter based in Seattle. Her radio stories have been featured on NPR, Voice of America and other networks.

 

Velocity Dance Center by the Numbers

- Founded in 1996

- Annual budget: $458,000, three full-time staff plus one grant-funded position

- 25 percent of income is from classes and workshops. The balance comes from studio rentals and public events, grant money and private philanthropy.

- 38 classes/week, 2,000 per year, serving 5,300 individuals. Faculty roster of 29 professional artists. Classes are offered seven days a week, morning through evening.

- Three dance studios, one of which can be transformed into an intimate theater. Two renovated restrooms with mirrors serve as changing rooms. The building lease is shared with a sushi restaurant. The two businesses split utilities.

 

KT’s Creations

KT Niehoff feels uncomfortable calling herself exclusively a choreographer—and rightly so. The term doesn’t even begin to describe work she creates under Lingo Productions, where her diverse training has informed raw dance theater. “I’m an event maker, party planner, mess maker. I make immersive experiences,” she says.

Lingo’s dancers don’t just move. They study, sing, improvise and act. It’s Niehoff’s fascination with the audience-performer relationship that makes her multidisciplinary approach effective. Sometimes, accessibility and experiment drive a project. In The Lift (2007), company members pushed passersby up one of Seattle’s steepest hills to test the concept of anonymous trust. Often, she’s focused on creating a new world. Her fictional short film, Parts Don’t Work (2011), which was shown at American Dance Festival in July, follows a go-go-booted gang of caricature-like women through Seattle’s eerie Fun Forest Amusement Park. Click here to see an excerpt of Niehoff's Parts Don't Work.

Niehoff’s newest project, Collision Theory, is funded by the MAP Fund, which is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellow Foundation. She’ll release portions over 16 months, with a full premier in October 2013. The mix of film, fashion, music, visual art and dance at Seattle’s ACT Theatre will allow audiences to venture through hallways and back rooms for a truly site-specific experience. “I got so tired of doing work on the stage,” she explains. “You perform and then it’s over and you go out to dinner. I wanted a connection.” —Kristin Schwab

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Show Comments ()
Dance Teachers Trending

In February 2017, 88-year-old master ballet teacher Sheila Rozann became an internet sensation when a short video about her, made by family members, went viral.

There have now been nearly 3 million views of the under-three-minute video that captures Miss Rozann's raison d'être: teaching ballet. She's been a teacher for 67 years, and her reason for being has never changed. At almost 90, she says, "For dance, I have energy."

Keep reading... Show less

So you've achieved your dream of owning a studio. Congratulations! Once that initial excitement wears off, we're betting that you'll discover just how overwhelming the day-to-day operation of such an endeavor really is. When you choose to run your own business, you're bound to encounter challenges, but with a unique business model at the center of it all, studio management certainly comes with its own hurdles, creating a perpetual learning curve that keeps both new studio owners and veterans on their toes.

Although a certain amount of this difficulty is to be expected for any studio, there's no longer any reason for you to suffer needlessly through each step of the way. All you have to do is reach out for a tool you can use to take your studio to the next level, namely studio management software.

Tools like our very own acclaimed Studio Director software can make a world of difference in virtually every aspect of your business. Let's run through some key ways in which this tool can revolutionize your studio.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Thinkstock

Summertime is notoriously slow for dance studio owners, but bills don't take a holiday. Learn from three studio owners who figured out how to keep the buzz and cash flowing without breaking a sweat. Their secret formula? Creative summer programming too good for parents to pass up—coupled with quick and easy camps as bonus business builders. Not only do these owners keep their revenue rolling in summer, they use the season to boost enrollment come fall.

Keep reading... Show less

A popular and highly sought-after dancer and choreographer, Geo Hubela has worked with stars and productions all over the world from French pop star "Lorie" to the MTV show BeComing. Geo isn't just a choreography sensation. He has also danced on film, onstage, and on TV. He was worked with everyone from *NSYNC to JLo. On top of his incredible professional career, Geo owns a dance studio called Icon Dance Complex.

Owning and running a successful dance studio is not an easy task. Showstopper got together with Geo for his advice on going from a professional dancer to studio owner.

Keep reading... Show less
Jay Sullivan Photography, courtesy Julie Granger

Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Via Mia Michaels' Instagram

Beloved three-time Emmy Award–winning choreographer Mia Michaels returned to teach at Broadway Dance Center for the first time in a decade and brought the house down with her emotive and inspirational choreography. Set to the Harry Styles hit "Sign of the Times," her combination challenged dancers to fight their inner demons and recognize the legends that they truly are.

For the first two verses of music, Michaels asked the dancers to spell the words "I am," along with their own descriptor of choice (i.e. enough, resilient, whole), with their bodies, reminding them of their worth and potential for improvement. From there the choreography dove into swirling movement that pushed dancers off balance and out of their comfort zones. Shifting between fluid release and violent shakes she created a physical depiction of a common human experience—overcoming hardship.

Just as the group round of class was beginning, Michaels requested that the dancers be open and pour their whole selves into the choreography, citing her own history of doing so. "I've been completely open with you all. I've told my life's story through bodies around the world. That's why I'm Mama Mia."

When class finished, Michaels sat down with students for a Q&A; and book signing to promote her new book, A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys: A Guide to Life for All the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There.

Check out some key takeaways from her discussion!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Kyle Froman

The back is an essential focus of Cynthia Harvey's ballet classes, especially as a part of port de bras. Here, she offers "plain," en face port de bras, followed by the same position with épaulement, to show the difference the back (and head and neck) can add to any position. Aspirational imagery helps students find their best épaulement: "Feel as if you have a tiara on," says Harvey. "Don't look like a student—look like a ballerina."

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun

The World Cup captivates soccer fans this time of year. But if football (as most outside of the U.S. refer to it) isn't your jam, this hybrid of disco dancing, ballet and soccer just might be more intriguing.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored