Spotlight Studio: In Full Bloom

Since its inception in 2002, Compton Dance Theatre has inhabited various spaces, but one element has always persisted: flowers—and more importantly, their growth. From colorful orchids to carefully planted gardens, the sweet smell of success is never far for the kids who flock to CDT from all over southern Los Angeles. “My kids have come to know me as the teacher who always has fresh flowers in the studio,” says founder and Artistic Director Carol Bristol-Henry. “They are responsible for taking care of the garden—and they do.”

Such earnest dedication on the part of the dancers is surprising to some who view Compton, California, as a hotbed of violence, crime and corruption. From a dance standpoint, the city has typically been associated with hip hop, gangster rap and krumping (as spotlighted in the 2005 documentary Rize). Yet Bristol-Henry’s ballet-centric efforts are beginning to change the face of dance there.

“For more than a decade, I watched as urban cities like Compton became known for glorifying criminal acts, ultimately leading to the neglect of our youth,” says Bristol-Henry. “What has been most intriguing to me about this travesty is how young people in the area survived by dancing their way through those turbulent times. I did not intend to have ballet strike a chord with young street dancers; I simply wanted them to experience dance outside their zip code.”

But strike a chord it has. According to CDT Board Vice President Adrienne Malka, parents and students alike are devoted to keeping the studio’s efforts alive. “Carol has a huge following; the parents will do anything to get the girls to class and provide whatever Carol needs to continue with the program,” says Malka. “The idea of classical dance in the inner city sounds like trying to mix oil and water, but [CDT] has truly been a breath of fresh air.”

Planting the Seeds

If asked 10 years ago where her career would be now, Bristol-Henry never would have imagined she’d be teaching in an inner city. Raised in New York City, Bristol-Henry trained at such institutions as Dance Theatre of Harlem, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and later earned a master’s degree in dance education from New York University.

At the onset of her career, Bristol-Henry’s focus was performance, with credits such as “Bill Cosby’s Salute to Alvin Ailey” and Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.” She became a seasoned choreographer, earning nods from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts and the NAACP.

But it was while involved with numerous touring projects that Bristol-Henry discovered her true calling as a dance teacher. “Leaving New York City, I noticed how hungry people were for the opportunity to receive technical training,” she recalls. “They were eager to be in a professional studio environment and share what so many of us in New York take for granted. I realized it was my duty to help the arts survive and thrive.”

Her opportunity to do so came in 2000 when she moved to Los Angeles. Although initially hesitant, she accepted a position teaching dance at Compton High School. Prior to that, she had always opted to work with conservatory and college dance programs. “Knowing that most public schools contend with greater challenges than not having access to regularly scheduled dance classes, I refused to believe at that time that I could make any sort of difference,” she explains. She took the job as something to do until her next performance gig.

Once ensconced in her new position, she became disturbed by the violence she saw on the school grounds every day. So, in addition to her existing classes, the new teacher began offering after-school lessons to a small group of three students—which quickly blossomed into a much larger group of friends, relatives and young dancers from the surrounding communities of Watts and Carson.

“Several students confided in me about not having alternative activities to gangs and other risky behavior, and that dance was their only reason for showing up to school every day,” says Bristol-Henry, who incorporated the program in 2002 as the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Compton Dance Theatre Foundation to gain more funding.

Since then, the program’s rapid growth has necessitated several moves, from the high school auditorium to a tiny commercial space to a private charter school. Though larger in size, that space was still far from ideal, with a tile floor, a pillar square in the middle of the room and a long desk acting as the ballet barre. “Coming from The Ailey School, it was a humbling experience,” says Bristol-Henry. “Yet the kids had a commitment I hadn’t seen in a really long time; I learned later that it was because they didn’t know the difference. It was one of the purest moments I’ve experienced because it was just about dance.”

The Magical Garden

Several years later, CDT is in full bloom and thriving inside a brand-new dance studio gifted by the city of Compton, replete with maple floors, wall-to-wall mirrors, dressing rooms and lockers. “It’s amazing to see the pride the dancers feel when they walk in, especially those who have stuck it out from the shoebox to the charter school and now to this beautiful space,” says Bristol-Henry.

Ballet serves as the centerpiece of the program, although classes are also offered in tap, jazz, hip hop, modern, African and Latin dance. In 2006, the program staged its first original ballet, Ms. Bristol’s Magical Garden. “I didn’t think it was fair to ask them to perform one of the standards, so we made up a ballet,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to ask them to do something they couldn’t identify with.”

The 17-minute piece was a hit, with dancers dressed as flowers (representing promise and hope), butterflies (representing innocence) and ladybugs (representing good fortune). “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” says Bristol-Henry. “We wanted to use the garden as a dance metaphor that meant something [for the kids] other than the Bloods and Crips.”

Along with the after-school program and community dance classes, CDT now houses a professional company for dancers ages 19 and up. In 2004, Bristol-Henry hired additional teachers, some of whom now teach on behalf of CDT at various schools throughout the Los Angeles and Compton School Districts, which act as “feeders” for the after-school program. Bristol-Henry has also forged a relationship with the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, which now offers free and reduced tickets to performances for CDT participants. From that partnership, Bristol-Henry’s students had an opportunity to audition for American Ballet Theatre’s 2008 summer intensive in Los Angeles. The company hosted an on-site workshop and selected a CDT student to attend.

In March, Bristol-Henry’s efforts were rewarded when she received the Addie Patterson Award for Outstanding Service in Community Development from the city of Compton. At the ceremony, she and CDT were also bestowed with certificates of recognition from the U.S. House of Representatives and the California State Assembly. Though the tangible awards are well-deserved and appreciated, Bristol-Henry says the real reward lies in seeing her students accept dance as a means of self-discipline, direction and fulfillment.

“I can’t get enough of this; I’m driven by what I do,” she says. “Every day, I think about preparing the young people in my program to discover their personal genius and how it will factor into the world that awaits them.” Thanks to Bristol-Henry, their world now blooms with possibility. DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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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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