Seen and Heard at the Dance Teacher Summit: Donna Aravena

It's official: We're exactly one week away from the start of our Dance Teacher Summit! We spoke to Summit ambassador Donna Aravena about her favorite business seminars. Aravena and her daughter Nicole own and operate Seven Star School of Performing Arts in Brewster, New York.

Seven Star students in their production of Beauty and the Beast.

Donna Aravena

Seven Star School of Performing Arts

(600 students)

Brewster, NY

Dance Teacher: Your school offers curriculum in dancing, acting and singing for students as young as 3. Why do you think it’s important for young dancers to be skilled in all of these fields?

Donna Aravena: There used to be calls for “dancers who could sing” or “singers who could move.” But now, it’s the trained triple-threat performers that are getting all the jobs because there are so many of them out there. So it’s very important to us that we offer vocal and dance training at a very young level. We put on a big musical theater production every year. Last year it was Beauty and the Beast, and this year’s show is Aladdin. To be involved, children must take five hours of acting, singing and dance classes, plus rehearsal, every Saturday. If they’re able to perform onstage now, they will be able to interview or speak in public later; they will be able to do anything.

DT: Has your studio added any new programs this year?

DA: We’ve added a class for adults with Prader-Willi syndrome [a rare genetic disorder]. A nearby organization called and asked if we would be willing to offer movement for them. We had to do some research on the syndrome, but now these people are loving it. They’re all buying sweatshirts and other merchandise from the school. Plus, they offer so much love and warmth, and our other students give it right back to them. It’s something that’s good for the studio, and I like that we’re giving them something that they would never get otherwise.

DT: What do you find most useful about the Dance Teacher Summit?

DA: The classes that focus on the business end of the dance industry are very rewarding to me, because that’s what I do. My middle daughter Nicole and I run our school together. I’m the office manager, and she handles the arts end. I was thrilled that one session was for studio owners/directors only. We could toss ideas around and know that only other owners were sitting in that room.

DT: Do you plan on implementing anything you heard at the Summit in your studio?

DA: Most studios have a “Bring a Friend to Dance Week,” but one studio owner mentioned that she gives out T-shirts that say, “I brought a friend to dance today.” It’s so simple, but you can use these T-shirts year after year. And I’m also looking into requiring that each parent purchase a recital packet at the beginning of each year, which would include a T-shirt, DVD and six tickets. I think it might make parents more committed to the end of the year. —Rachel Zar

 

 

Photo by Jennifer McCann Photography, courtesy of Seven Star School of Performing Arts

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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