Even Balanchine had a few false starts before he launched New York City Ballet. Advance planning and a thoughtful approach can give you the necessary boost to help survive the difficult first years. In this first part of a series, DT explores the complex process of getting a dance company off the ground, from conceptualizing goals to raising seed money. 

Starting a dance company is a little like having a child: It takes a lot of energy, involves sleepless nights and is definitely a labor of love. In both endeavors, there are inevitably critics who will hint that you don’t know what you’re doing. And it always ends up being both a lot more work and a lot more fun that you ever imagined.

Defining Yourself
Having the motivation to create a company is the easy part, as dancers and choreographers are often looking for a way to perform and create new works. But when the time comes to put on a concert, the level of complexity skyrockets. “You can decide you have a company and get your friends to dance for you,” attests Kathleen Dyer, artistic director of New York City–based modern dance troupe KDNY. “But when you actually have to have a season, you need more information.”


There are several key questions to ask in the early stages, although it’s never too late to revisit these topics. The goal is to define your company’s mission; the more specific you can be in expressing your objectives, the better. Maintaining flexibility, however, is an important part of artistic growth.

Consider such subjects as:
-Why am I starting a company?
-What do I hope to achieve?
-What will set this company apart from existing companies?
-Why does the community need this kind of company?



When you are narrowing down the concepts that will be your company’s raison d’être, keep in mind a distinctive approach can bring a wider range of opportunities. “Companies run into a problem of becoming cookie-cutter,” says F. Randolph Swartz, president of Stagestep and artistic director of Dance Affiliates, a presenting organization in Philadelphia. “Presenters simply say, ‘I’m just going to take the best company I can.’ That means that the second and third tier companies, the smaller companies, never get any work.” Take a look at the programs being presented at local venues and make sure you will be offering something unique to the general public.

Help your company stand out by, for example, creating repertory that draws upon the unique history or culture of the area where you will be based (such as a Louisiana-based company incorporating Cajun music), or upon your own cultural or ethnic heritage. Or focus on making the movement itself unique. NYC-based Decadance Theatre takes the latter approach: The company is an all-female troupe that performs hip-hop ballets in a concert dance setting. “We’re trying to show that hip hop can tell all different kinds of stories,” explains Artistic Director Jennifer Weber. “Hip hop is a language that can go beyond what most people use it for.”

Developing a troupe with a distinctive style requires a period of intense creativity that cannot be forced into a compressed time frame. Bringing a work to the stage also involves many artistic decisions that indelibly frame the movement: costumes, venue, music, sets and lighting. As theaters are often booked months if not a year in advance, many new companies spend a year gearing up for the first concert season.
 
Looking at Financial Realities
Once you have a working idea of your company’s overarching goals, it’s time to take an unflinching look at whether or not it is a viable financial enterprise. This requires another set of questions:


-How will your company be funded?
-Are there suitable and affordable venues in your area for rehearsing and performing?
-Are there local dancers and administrators who will be able to realize your company’s vision?
-Is there an audience that will be interested in and attend the company’s performances?


These are the kinds of nuts-and-bolts issues that seem straightforward but often raise more questions than they answer. Developing a three- to five-year plan—a blueprint for action—can help keep plans and dreams grounded in reality.

A budget, mapping out your company’s expenses and income, is an important component of the plan. There are generally many more types of expenses than income. It’s impossible to predict every expense, but in thinking through an average day of rehearsals and an average performance weekend, hour by hour, and noting all the different expenses likely to be incurred by everyone involved with your company, you can anticipate much of what you’ll need to spend. You can then come up with an estimated budget for the company.

Income is generally divided into earned and contributed income. Earned income can include revenues from ticket, concession and program advertisement sales, as well as performance and workshop fees. Contributed income consists of donations or grants. Included in the expense portion may be personnel costs for dancers and administrators (as well as taxes and insurance, if they are considered employees); fees to designers, musicians, stage crew, sound engineers, videographers, photographers, graphic designers, lawyers, accountants and publicists; theater, rehearsal space and office rental fees; production costs for costumes and sets; publicity and marketing costs; website creation and maintenance costs; travel costs; and miscellaneous items such as the printing of programs or telephone expenses.

Raising Start-up Funds
How do you begin to raise the funds necessary for all these expenses? And how much should you have in the bank before you even step into the studio? “In an ideal situation, you should raise sufficient money to run your dance company for a year without any box office [proceeds],” says Swartz. “You should have that money in your pocket. Cash flow is an important part of putting together your dance company. Many companies go out of business because they’ve got performances coming up soon, but they’ve got to buy costumes now, they’ve got to put a theater deposit down now and they don’t have the money. So the event doesn’t take place and they crash and burn. They would have sold the tickets if they could have held the event.”


Raising money before you have established a reputation can seem like a catch-22, but it’s not impossible. Begin building community interest in your company and fundraise at the same time by presenting a studio showing or a small concert in a donated space. Charge an admission fee and solicit donations by, say, holding a silent auction. This is the path many now-established companies took in their fledgling days. “Hubbard Street started out as a school that did performances for nursing homes,” recalls Swartz. “I remember the beginning of the Pennsylvania Ballet; its first performance was a showing on someone’s estate.”

To be able to apply for corporation and government grants, your company needs nonprofit status. (The decision of whether or not to become nonprofit and how to go about it will be explored in an upcoming issue, as will the basics of fundraising for a small company.) For-profit companies can accept gifts of cash or in-kind donations, but donors are not able to write off the gifts as a tax deduction, and the company may have to report the gifts as income.

Hiring the Dancers
With funds secured, you can start to shape your actual company. The process of finding dancers differs greatly from troupe to troupe, with some relying on word of mouth, others holding formal auditions and yet others actively recruiting dancers from local studios. Weber doesn’t like auditions, because she finds it difficult to determine how the dancers will mesh with the company in a formal setting. Dyer, a graduate of Florida State University, has relied upon an extensive network of alumni to fill her company.


A contract specifying dancers’ commitment to the company during a specific time period (even if the dancers are not being paid) can help lessen dancer turnover, which can be a big problem in small companies, especially as most performers have to hold down other jobs to make ends meet. Although a contract does not have to be in writing to be legally binding, a written contract can help formalize the relationship between dancer and artistic director. “A lot of my dancers were also my friends,” says Dyer, who contracts dancers for one-year periods. “There can be a lot of backtalk when you are working with your peers. You really have to negotiate how you direct them.”

Take this dancer-director relationship into consideration when deciding whether you, as the director or choreographer, will also perform. Although choreographers understand their own motivation better than anyone else and thus can bring a unique quality to the stage, it can be difficult to juggle the roles of director and performer in works with multiple dancers. While the choreographer/dancer knows the steps intimately and can easily make decisions on the fine points of movement, maintaining a clear view of the overall work is more of a challenge due to the split focus.

Building the Repertory
Equally important as finding the right dancers is developing the right repertory; the two, in fact, are inextricably linked. A troupe of 10 might look insignificant trying to stage a classical Sleeping Beauty, but could make a bold statement with a high-energy, contemporary program. From the presenters’ perspective, says Swartz, a “hook” is what they’re always looking for: “The work that you know is a slam dunk. The audience is going to walk out of the theater buzzing, no matter what happened the other 85 minutes. Every successful company has one of them—or more. All you have to say is Revelations or Caught and you know the company that dances it.”


Successful hooks are not limited to companies with the stature of Ailey or Parsons Dance Company. Decadance Theatre had just such a piece in its Firebird. Changing the setting to modern times, Weber sampled Stravinsky over hip-hop music and used hip-hop and breakdancing moves to tell the tale. “That piece brought us whole new audiences, because we have people who are interested in hip hop, people who are interested in ballet and people who are interested in different kinds of crossover art,” says Weber.

If all goes according to plan, a dance company can bring people together in the same way that a new baby brings a family closer. From audience members and supporters to the dancers and administrators, each dance company creates a small community with a shared passion. “My husband does a lot, my friends do a lot, my family does a lot,” says Dyer. “I am a major do-it-yourself person, but you can’t be that way with a dance company. You’re not going to do this by yourself.” DT


Caitlin Sims is the Editor at Large of
Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. 

The Conversation
Dancer Health
Getty Image

Here are a few ways to keep this major muscle group in check.

Keep reading... Show less

Showstopper sees all types of different dancers from across the world at their dance competitions. Sometimes it can be hard to know how to stand out among the 100s of dancers that perform on their stages.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun

Here's "The Twelve Days of Christmas" dance teacher style! Try your hand at writing your own lyrics to the song, and share it over on our Facebook page.

You may even want to sing this at your studio's holiday party this year—it's a smash, if we do say so ourselves 💁.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
via Youtube

Finding music is arguably the most challenging aspect of choreography. Songs that speak to you in a deep and genuine way are seriously hard to come by! To help, here are five music artists who provide choreography inspiration magic to all who listen to them. They're all the rage this year, and if you follow their music down the rabbit hole of streaming services long enough, you'll find exactly what you're looking for, for your next group number or solo.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

Every year we love to see Dance Magazine's coveted list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing in the field of dance. This year's picks are nothing short of exceptional.

Congratulations to these 25 up-and-coming artists!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by TutuTix
Photo by Gez Xavier Mansfield on Unsplash

The start of a new calendar year—smack dab in the middle of the studio year—often brings its own challenges, issues and focuses. Here are two big questions on the minds of studio-business leaders as they head into 2019.

Are we giving our students what they really need? After taking some senior dancers to college dance auditions, Dale Lam noticed how they struggled with the modern portion. "They did fine in ballet," she says, "but then when it came to the modern part, they were fish out of water."
Her approach Lam hired a modern teacher for Horton and Graham techniques at her South Carolina–based studio, Columbia City Jazz Dance School & Company. She could see the difference in her dancers after only a few months. "I feel like I'm actually getting them more of what they're going to need—providing them the education they'll need after competitions."

What to do about the demand for instant gratification? Suzanne Blake Gerety and Kathy Blake have noticed a disturbing trend with parents new to dance at their Amherst, New Hampshire, studio. Gerety calls it push-button mentality: "They think, 'If I can get Amazon to ship my package overnight, why can't I get my kid to take class just once a week and get them on pointe?'"
Their approach "It's communicating to parents how it works at our studio, how you progress here and what the benefits of dance are," she says. They hold informational sessions at parent nights, including details of intensive and competition track options. They also invite alumni to help run recitals and assist with summer intensives as a way to demonstrate what studio graduates look like.

Studio Owners who try TutuTix for their Spring 2019 Recitals can get a $222 Visa Gift Card. Click here to learn more.

Dancer Health
Performing Dance Arts dancers at The Dance Awards in Florida 2018 (via @performingdancearts Instagram)

Needing some inspiration for how to celebrate the holidays with your dancers? We've got you covered. Check out how Performing Dance Arts (The Dance Awards Orlando 2018 Studio of the Year), of Toronto, Canada, brings dancers together and strengthens studio bonds throughout the Christmas season.

Let us know over on our Facebook page what you like to do with your dancers to celebrate this time of year.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

Q: Some teach that a tendu à la seconde should align across from the toes on the supporting side, whereas others teach that it should be directly across from the heel. I feel aligning with the heel is ultimately correct, but I prefer to teach dancers to align with the toes because it's safer. What do you think?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
"We think as dancers, 'Oh my gosh, if this thing isn't working hard enough, I have to work it harder.' In order for these muscles to work, they have to have a chance to relax, too." –Kathryn Maykish

As deeply familiar as dancers are with their bodies, there's one muscle group that can remain mysterious. You can't see it, and it can be tough to access, but the pelvic floor serves a major role in your posture and body function. Dancers and other athletes are more prone than the general population to dysfunction of the pelvic floor, and this can have major ramifications in dance and life.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty

The holidays are here, and as everyone knows, the real best way to spread Christmas cheer is serving your community and helping those in need. Luckily for dance teachers, dance studios are the perfect backdrop for the start of some seriously awesome service projects. Your dancers will learn the value of helping others, and you will all feel warm and fuzzy inside!

Check out these three service-project ideas, and try implementing them at your studio this season. Let us know over on our Facebook page, or in the comments below, what other projects you do at your studio that make a difference in your community!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective

Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by TutuTix
Photo by Allef Vinicius via Unsplash

The holidays can make this time of year fly by. But successful studio directors know that December is not the time to rest on their laurels. Here are four projects to consider this month to give your business a year-end boost.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored