Studio Business: 7 Business Lessons Learned in 2015

Focus on filling your classroom with educators who love kids and respect you as a business owner.

As 2016 swiftly approaches, why not focus your New Year’s resolutions on your business? If you need inspiration, read on: These studio owners took the wisdom they’d gained from the past year’s problems and channeled that into major change.

1 Don’t be afraid to meet with parents. Robin Dawn Ryan admits that she rarely met with competition parents at the Robin Dawn Dance Academy she runs in Cape Coral, Florida. “I found it a big stressor,” she says. But after hearing from other studio owners this summer at the Dance Teacher Summit, she realized she’d been missing an opportunity to let her comp parents know how important they are. “Our team is only as successful as our parents and how supportive they are,” she says. “You have to let them know that you want them to be a part of your decision-making.”

Despite her initial reservations, Ryan called a meeting with parents to explain the reasoning behind many of her decisions regarding the team (her selection process, for example) and nail down a competition schedule for the year. “They thanked me!” she says, in surprise. “No one argued with me, and all I got was positive feedback. You’ve got to keep the doors of communication open.”

2 Make the switch to an online payment system—and change the culture of collection at your studio. As executive director of Just For Kix, a dance studio (and dancewear) empire with more than 200 locations, Cindy Clough spent years trying to put an online payment system in place for tuition. “Our company has so many variables,” she explains. “Getting payments was time-consuming and expensive.”

To implement such a big change successfully, Clough encouraged regional directors to transform what she calls the “culture of collection” in their communities. She explained it as a three-pronged process: Do not accept cash or check payments—drive parents to pay online; require all dancers to be paid up for the month ahead, or the student cannot enter class; do not allow students with balances from the year before to come back.

3 Create a total bill of all studio fees for the year, and then divide it into equal monthly payments. Carole Royal made it mandatory that competition students at her Phoenix, Arizona, studio participate in this new payment plan. She and her staff used the previous year’s totals to figure out as many expenses for the upcoming year as possible—tuition, choreography, costumes, conventions—and divided the total by 11 (the number of months the comp kids received instruction) to arrive at a projected monthly bill. Late fees were applied if parents didn’t pay on time, and solo fees were not included. “It kept a huge bill from hitting a parent in, maybe, April,” she says. “Our parents liked this.”

4 Mobile optimize. Everything. Suzanne Blake Gerety, who co-owns Kathy Blake Dance Studios in New Hampshire with her mother, can’t stress enough the importance of optimizing for mobile. “Your e-mails, everything, must expand and contract according to what device people are on,” she explains, so people aren’t squinting or endlessly scrolling to read your message.

Gerety’s studio website, marketing e-mails (via MailChimp) and even her website’s absentee notification form (which parents fill out when their child will be absent from class) are all optimized for mobile devices, both cell phones and tablets. “Even if a studio doesn’t have a big budget, you can at least get a WordPress site,” she says. “Then you can create something that’s automatically mobile-responsive.”

5 Deal with social media and review sites in a proactive and professional way. “Even if you don’t love social media or feel you don’t have time for it, someone has to be listening for your brand,” says Gerety. “You have to take a proactive approach.” She recommends contacting a parent who has written a complimentary e-mail and asking if she or he would be willing to post that as a review. “You can’t go out and solicit reviews,” she says, “but if someone sends you an unsolicited e-mail, it’s OK to ask. This is the new word of mouth.”

When dealing with negative reviews, Gerety advises responding promptly, with a positive tone—acknowledge the issue, and then move on.

6 Remember that your staff are your employees first—and your friends second. It’s easy—and natural—to develop close relationships with your staff, particularly if they are longtime members of your team. But you’re running a business, and you can’t let personal feelings cloud your judgment.

“Employees are just that: employees. No matter how long they’ve been with you,” says Phyllis Balagna, who owns Steppin’ Out—The Studio in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “For several years, I tried to hang on to an employee who was a former student. She had so much potential—I tried to develop her into something she just couldn’t be. Bottom line, you can lead people to the water, but they have to drink it for themselves.” Focus on filling your classrooms with educators who love kids and respect you as a business owner.

7 Keep your studio’s focus balanced. At many competitive studios, it’s the so-called recreational dancers—the kids who take class only once or twice a week—who fall by the wayside. Don’t sacrifice one set of students for another. After Sue Sampson-Dalena’s competition team won Studio of the Year at The Dance Awards—“the decathlon of dance,” as Sampson-Dalena calls it, requiring intense preparation—she decided to spend the following year recommitting herself to her noncompetitive segment. “I’ve been working really hard this fall to give a lot of attention to my students who are not on teams—that they’re in the right classes, at the right level, that it’s a good fit for them,” says Sampson-Dalena, who owns The Dance Studio of Fresno in California. “I want them to feel like their two hours a week at my studio is as important as the kids who are there 9 or 10 hours a week.” DT


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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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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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