Studio Owners

Should You Purchase or Lease Your Studio Space?

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When Misty Lown founded Misty's Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, Wisconsin, purchasing her space was not an option. “I was fresh out of college, and I didn't want to be tied to a permanent situation," she says. Instead, she decided to lease with an option to buy after five years. Nineteen years later, she not only owns her own location (a different, bigger space than her original rental), but she offers consulting services to studios through her company, More Than Just Great Dancing. Transitioning to ownership made sense for Lown, but it's not right for every studio owner. Here are factors to consider when weighing your options.


When to Rent

As a first step. Buying space usually requires a substantial financial commitment, so renting offers a better first step for new studio owners. It lets them test the market and location, grow their clientele and start to make a profit (which usually takes a few years).

For flexible growth. Tiffany Henderson, who rents the eight locations of Tiffany's Dance Academy (seven studios in California, and one in Boise, Idaho), says renting gives her businesses the freedom to grow physically as they grow in popularity. “If you're buying, you have to predict exactly how big you'll get," she says. “But if you lease, you can always start small and then move to a bigger space—or downsize if necessary."

Having a landlord comes with trade-offs. While you cede some leeway in terms of changes you can make to the physical space, you also gain someone to turn to if something needs fixing or updating.

When to Buy

Buying guarantees more control over your space. “The biggest hurdle for me was coming up with that down payment," says Lown, who extended her lease a couple of years until she had earned enough money. “But over time, I knew I could own for close to the same monthly price as renting, so it became a matter of, 'Do I want my money to build somebody else's future or my own?'"

Tax advantages. Purchasing a building is generally done via a commercial mortgage with monthly payments similar to rent. The initial down payment will generally be about 20 percent of the total building price. Lown warns that taking out a loan can be an expensive process in itself. Expect attorney fees, inspection fees and title search fees and closing costs like bank fees, processing fees or appraisal fees, which can vary a good deal. “There were also new costs once I got inside, like building insurance and the water bill, that I hadn't accounted for," Lown says. But owning has financial pluses as well, like tax deductions for mortgage interest, property depreciation and maintenance costs.

Building equity. Once the initial loan fees are paid, monthly costs should be comparable to renting. And as owners pay their mortgages, they build equity in their property—the amount of the building you truly own. “We see so many school owners who get to the end of an amazing, productive and meaningful career as teachers, and they don't have an exit strategy," says Lown. “Having a real estate component to your service business mitigates some of the risk. When you get to the end of your teaching days, if you're not able to sell your business, at least you still have an asset with value."

4 Considerations When Negotiating Your Lease

If you rent, read your lease carefully before signing—and discuss with an attorney any terms that concern you. You will have the greatest leverage to negotiate when you first sign the lease.

Beware of hidden costs. “Some commercial lessors will come up with a lower cost per square foot, but they'll make you responsible for certain operating costs, like snowplowing," says small-business consultant Thomas Gray.

Check maintenance details. Be sure you know exactly what utilities are included, like heat and water. Plus, confirm that regular maintenance and improvements will not only be done, but will be done in a timely manner without extra cost. For example, Gray says he'll often stipulate that roof leaks need to be fixed quickly to avoid damage to studio floors.

Avoid competition. If you're in a strip mall or retail complex, you may also want to negotiate an exclusive-use clause, a provision that can prohibit your landlord from leasing to another tenant who offers dance classes.

Provide for an early release, just in case. Most landlords ask that you commit for several years, so review the sublease policy closely in case you want to move sooner, a lesson Henderson learned the hard way. When she opened her business, she signed on to rent a one-room studio for three years—and quickly outgrew the space. She decided to switch locations and sublet the original. “I thought, 'What's the worst that can happen?'" she says. “What happened was that for the next three years, my landlord said no to every person I brought to him, and we paid $3,500 a month for a space that just sat there. I wish I'd known to make sure the lease was written in a way that I could have more control."

Location, Location, Location

Renting or buying, location remains the most important decision when choosing a studio space. Parking availability and public transportation factor in, as does whether to pay more for space in a high-traffic area. A location off the beaten path may cost less but require a bigger investment in marketing. Small-business consultant Thomas Gray recommends scoping out neighboring businesses to judge whether the trade-off is worthwhile. “If you're in a strip center, you want the stores nearby to attract your target market. Toys “R" Us is a great neighbor if you're teaching kids."

Follow the crowd. Certain businesses, like grocery stores, dental offices or daycare centers, scout demographics systematically before moving in. “KinderCare, for example, is a national daycare franchise that has very specific criteria for where they'll put their centers—a certain population density, median income or distance from schools," says studio owner and consultant Misty Lown. “They've already done that research, and you can take advantage of that."

Make a tomorrow decision. Lown also advises studio owners to call their school districts and ask, “Where are you planning to build elementary schools in the next 10 years?" “Their answer might be counterintuitive, maybe on the outskirts of town where the next 500 homes are going to be built. But who's going to live there? Young families looking for a dance studio," she says. “You're not making a today decision; you're making a tomorrow decision. And finding that new blue sky takes some digging."

Music
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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