Saving Grace

Tighten your belt without choking your business.

Los Gatos Ballet director Marcie Ryken cuts recital expenses to fund outreach programs.

When Christopher Lynn, managing director of Ballet Conservatory of Asheville in Asheville, NC, opened the studio with his wife Angie three years ago, he learned fast that the costs involved with running a studio and doing a full-length ballet production pile up quickly.

“Between the backstage help, the sets, costumes and crew…it was more than we thought,” he says.

Like Lynn, other studio owners have found ways to make the most of their budgets—from modifying production spending to changing advertising strategies to be more effective. Here, Lynn and two other directors share how they’ve cut expenses and increased their bottom lines.

Christopher Lynn

Ballet Conservatory of Asheville

(400 students)

Asheville, NC

When the Ballet Conservatory of Asheville first opened its doors, owners Christopher and Angie Lynn wore many hats. In addition to running and scheduling dance classes, the two did the bookkeeping, cleaning and all the odds and ends necessary to keep up the studio.

“We tried to do everything ourselves, but it grew too quickly, and we didn’t have the energy to do it all and still take our children out for dinner,” Christopher Lynn says. “We needed to find a way to get the work done that didn’t hurt our bottom line.”

Their solution? Bartering.

“We ended up having a parent with a cleaning service take on that responsibility in exchange for classes,” he says. “We have another parent who is a painter, one who does renovations.”

Thanks to the trades, the studio has been painted inside and out, the roof has been fixed and the Lynns have had more time to concentrate on the artistic aspects of running a studio.

“In some ways, bartering has us all more involved and committed to each other,” Lynn says. “We get to know the parents well and that’s important to us.”

Sometimes the parents will seek the deals out, while other times the Lynns will learn of a skill and offer the deal themselves. “Through our student connections we have a videographer, a couple of professional photographers, even a parent who works for a local CD-pressing company,” Lynn says. “Last year a very good photographer shot each of our three productions, attending at least one rehearsal and several performances. He also photographed dancers for advertising shots, showcases and our annual recitals—all in trade for free classes for his 7-year-old daughter, which would have cost him $700.”

When bartering, the Ballet Conservatory estimates the value of the services they’ll receive to keep the per-hour equivalent for the trade fair for both parties involved. They are currently creating a list of projects so that parents can trade in times of need.

“For some services, we just agree to pay them like a vendor and let them pay for their classes. This allows us to easily write off the services as business expenses for tax purposes,” Lynn says. “We usually barter for tuition only, and ask families to still pay for tickets and other fees. I believe people value the service more when they pay at least something for it.”

Susan L. Smith

New England School of Dance

(100 students)

Manchester, NH

Having been in business since 1986, New England School of Dance owner Susan L. Smith knows the value of advertising. After all, a good ad can bring in students or attract a full house to an upcoming recital.

“The biggest thing that I have changed over the years is the money spent on advertising, but I didn’t stop. I just alternatively advertised through social media and by using Facebook ads,” Smith says.

Over the past two years, Smith has spent $1,200 on Facebook ads, and although she’s not exactly sure of the return, she does know that it brings a great deal of people to her website. “It creates awareness, which is just as important,” she says.

Smith also saves money by taking over work she had once contracted out. She estimates she saves nearly $10,000 a year by taking on certain cleaning and administrative duties herself. “When you own a studio, you really have to do a lot of the cleaning and office work yourself,” she says. “My time is very much taken up by my business, and as I get older I find I am doing less teaching and more administrative work.” She uses QuickBooks for accounting, and she enlists a little help from her daughter to ensure things run smoothly.

She has also saved by cutting down on the number of backdrops she rents for the end-of-year productions, dropping from four to two. The shows might not be as elaborate, she says, but it allows the money to be used for other expenses, including the rental cost of the theater.

Marcie Ryken

Los Gatos Ballet

(159 students)

Los Gatos, CA

“This is our 10th year in business, and we have managed to save by collaborating with other organizations for some of our bigger productions,” says Marcie Ryken, owner of Los Gatos Ballet in Los Gatos, CA. “It’s definitely helped us.”

Each year, Ryken’s studio joins forces with the nonprofit San Jose Dance Theatre for The Nutcracker, which she says has helped the studio grow while keeping costs down. Ryken directs, chooses a cast from open auditions and provides the artistic staff and some costumes, while SJDT provides the theater and takes care of production costs.

Ryken has also kept a sharp eye out for other arts programs in the area interested in trading or unloading old sets.

“Schools are a great resource because their theater departments often have great sets and props that they sometimes just get rid of,” she says. For instance, Los Gatos Ballet was going to have to spend a lot of money to build a carriage for a recent production of Cinderella, but Ryken learned of a nearby school that had one and was open to sharing.

“We probably would have spent about $500–$600 in materials, with an estimated 60–80 hours in labor,” she says. “We still spent about $100 in materials to paint and add lighting, but in the long run, it helped a great deal.”

Ryken allocates extra money like this toward the programs she feels need to expand, including her artist-in-residence programs, outreach and performance and educational opportunities for her students. DT

 

Keith Loria is a business writer based in Virginia.  Photo by George Sakkestad

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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