Start Your Own Dance Company, Part 4

Just as great dancers always strive to refine their technique, great artistic directors are always looking for ways to grow their company. By letting people know about your company, finding performance outlets, preserving your work and learning how to keep dancers happy, you can begin to boost your company to the next level.

Marketing and Advertising
Teachers who start a company after having run a school can be surprised at what’s involved in publicizing performances. “Most teachers have some experience with performances, because they’ve done recitals,” says Randy Swartz of Philadelphia-based presenting organization Dance Affiliates. “But recitals and performances are two very different kettles of fish. In a recital you are not dealing with public relations or advertising to the general public.”

Spreading the word can take numerous forms: advertising, editorial coverage, direct mail, posters, flyers, e-mail and your company’s website.

- Advertising: This is generally the most costly method. “It’s so sad to put money into a newspaper ad rather than give it to the dancers, but that’s part of the game,” says Kathleen Dyer, artistic director of KDNY Dance in New York City. Consistent advertising can keep your company in the public eye—and some of the cost will likely be made up by additional ticket sales.

Keep in mind that ads need to run just in advance of the show and should include the company name and title of the performance, theater name and address, dates and times of performances, a box office number, ticket prices and, if applicable, a website. Submission deadlines can range from two weeks in advance for weekly newspapers to several days ahead for dailies. The size and frequency of the ads will be determined by your advertising budget. Examining the publication in which you wish to place an ad can give a sense of the sizes available, and requesting a rate card from the publication will spell out the prices. If you have created a graphic design to represent the performance, a simplified version can be used in the ad, or the publication itself may be able to help typeset a simple ad.

- Editorial coverage: Most local publications have free listings of upcoming events. Getting your show listed requires sending a well-written press release with all of the relevant information to the appropriate editor before the publication’s deadline. Just be sure to budget more time for editorial deadlines than you would for advertising.

Snagging coverage beyond a free listing (such as a preview of a show or a review after the fact) is more complicated, which is why some companies hire publicists. For these companies, the cost of a publicist is justified because a good review can raise the potential for increased funding and performance bookings. A good dance publicist will be familiar with a wide range of media outlets and will be able to verbalize what your show is trying to accomplish.

- Direct mail: Distributing printed materials, such as flyers, postcards and posters, can be a relatively inexpensive way to raise awareness of your show and can be specifically targeted toward potential audience members. To build your mailing list, pass out questionnaires at performances asking audience members relevant questions about the show, their performing arts attendance habits and which publications they read (valuable for future advertising), as well as requesting contact information.

If the resulting list is still shorter than you’d like, consider renting a list from another small dance company, a theater that presents dance or a local arts organization. Some websites that collect e-mail addresses of those interested in dance, such as, will sell their list (with certain restrictions) to performing companies.

When printing up flyers and other material, don’t forget to factor in the cost of photography, graphic design, preproduction work and printing. More complicated designs using color and large print runs will inevitably be more costly, so get printing estimates in advance. Check postal regulations before you print to ensure that your materials conform. E-mails sent to a large mailing list should be as clear and compelling as your printed materials.

- The web: A company website can be an important step in getting established. Whether you choose to acquire the skills to create your own site or hire a web designer, developing and maintaining an effective site makes information about your troupe available around the clock. “It’s the public face of your company for those who don’t see your performances,” explains Jennifer Weber, artistic director of NYC-based Decadance Theatre. “And people who see your performances will then go to the website to check it out.” Dyer has even found that potential dancers often contact her through KDNY Dance’s website.

Getting an Agent
Catching the attention of an agent through positive press and word of mouth can create wonderful opportunities. An agent markets your company to presenting organizations, thereby removing the hard work of securing engagements on your own. “As a small company, you can’t book yourself in venues that can really pay you,” says Weber. “Those venues are not going to deal with individual artists—they’re used to dealing with agents. People aren’t likely to take a chance on an artist they’ve never heard of.” Being on a booking agency’s roster can be like having a seal of approval—many presenters trust the agents to deliver talent that will appeal to their subscribers.

Ideally, agents are in contact with the right people at presenting organizations and know which kinds of works they prefer, what they can afford and how to negotiate the highest fee. Agents also represent their clients at national presenting conferences, which can be daunting to negotiate for an individual choreographer. The flip side is that obtaining the services of an agent—difficult in itself, as agents will only accept your company if they think they can sell it to a wide range of presenters—requires signing a contract specifying fees and often a monthly retainer. Booking agencies vary greatly in size and scope, so expect fees to range just as much. The commission per booking may range from 10 to 30 percent.

Videotape and DVD recording is now an important means of communication for securing bookings, representation from agencies and backing from funding sources. Thus, hiring a videographer to record performances can be as much an investment in the future as a record of the past. It’s important to work with someone who understands the particular needs of dance and is willing to watch the work beforehand. “Every time we have a major production, we have a professional videographer do archival video,” says Dana Tai Soon Burgess of DC-based Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company. “Not only can we reproduce a work if we decide to shelve it in the repertory or set it on another company, but presenters can see the full work, not just a snippet.”

Companies that have representation often still work to create performance opportunities on their own. KDNY has organized exchanges with female-run companies in other regions, in which KDNY helps out-of-town troupes to put on performances in New York and then tours to perform alongside them in their hometowns. Dyer has also organized an artist exchange program called Women in Motion and a fiscal umbrella called Women in Management that offers nonprofit status to other small female-run dance companies for a very low fee. “Part of our goal is to support female choreographers,” she says. “Hopefully on the way up, I can help people out a little.”

What About the Dancers?
It’s an unfortunate reality of the field that even companies with established infrastructure can hardly afford to pay dancers enough to survive. You may find that you can’t afford to pay dancers at all. Getting to the point where dancers are offered a salary (and disability and unemployment insurance) is a big step for most companies and very few troupes can offer additional benefits such as health insurance.

How do you keep dancers coming back, despite the paucity (or complete lack) of monetary compensation? Support them in whatever way you can: “We look at dancers like our extended family,” says Burgess. “I respect all of them, because as a choreographer the only way to actualize your artistic vision is by having the best possible dancers who are keyed into what your aesthetic is performing your dances.” Dyer, who contracts five dancers for a one-year period, says it’s essential to treat the dancers as individual artists and value their input. “You have to be able to connect with them,” she says.

Some artistic directors who own schools offer free pointe shoes or classes, but, if the company is nonprofit and the school is for-profit, make sure that the dancers feel no obligation to pay for additional classes. Other small companies, such as Decadance, take on commercial work, such as industrials or performing at the company picnic of a large corporation, primarily in order to make money for the dancers.

“We love to see dancers getting paid for their efforts,” says Swartz. “The more you pay your dancers, the more likely they’ll stay and the more likely you’ll improve the quality of your company.” DT

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."

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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