Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.
If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!
As a young ballet dancer, Peter LeBreton Merz would often get into trouble for taking his shoes off in school and picking up pencils with his toes. "I was born flat-footed," says the current director of the Ballet West Academy. "I wanted my feet to get strong enough so I could sustain a full pointe."
It takes time for dancers to develop clean, well-articulated footwork. Some people, like Merz, spend years working to overcome flat, stiff arches. Other dancers continuously overstretch and struggle with feet that are floppy and weak. The right balance of strength and flexibility can maximize facility and lend the necessary control for supple and expressive feet. Though the exercises offered here to combat inarticulate feet are ballet-focused, they can easily apply to other dance styles.
I am on summer break right now, and I am worried about losing some of the strength that I gained last year. Do you know of anything I can do during my time off to maintain my leg, back, core and arm strength? Is swimming good for strength training?
With some simple tweaks, you can follow in the footsteps of these savvy owners and save time, your sanity and, most importantly, money.
Keep master class fees low. Any savvy studio owner knows that bringing in guest artists is a good idea, whether for two-hour master classes or a weekend spent choreographing recital or competition routines. But it can be a challenge to bring in the guest you want while keeping your bottom line in the black. Take advantage of downtime and schedule master classes during off-peak times—when an artist might be home for the holidays, for example, or during the summer, when the convention circuit cools down—to cut you a break in their fee.
Counter credit card processing fees. Studio owner Misty Lown started noticing that the competitions she registered her students for had begun adding an extra fee if she paid with a credit card. After confirming that this trend existed in several other local businesses—her nail salon, for instance—Lown began adding a 3.5 percent fee to tuition payments if parents paid with a credit card, to cover the bank fees. Since implementing this fee at her Onalaska, Wisconsin, studio, Misty’s Dance Unlimited, Lown has seen very little push-back from parents. A bonus: Payment delinquency has virtually disappeared. Now parents like to pay before the due date with cash or a check to avoid the merchant processing fee that would be added if payment went through on their on-file credit card. (Check your state laws to see if adding a fee is legal where you’re located.)
Go green. Going green is more than a hip trend to latch onto. A dance studio that makes sustainability a priority can also save money, thanks to federal and state tax breaks or rebates from the government: For example, a federal tax deduction up to $1.80 per square foot is available for commercial buildings that save at least 50 percent of the heating and cooling energy of a building, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. (Check with your tax advisor and visit energystar.gov to learn more.) Converting your current lighting to LED bulbs and installing motion-sensor bathroom or dressing room light switches can cut down on energy usage and costs, letting you put the savings into your business. During heating and cooling seasons, clean or replace your filters monthly to save you money—and improve your air quality.
Go paperless with your recital programs. Cynthia King was sick of shelling out money to print programs that end up on the theater floor. So instead, she came up with a great idea. Now she projects a slide presentation of each piece’s title, choreographer and dancers for her eponymous Brooklyn studio’s recital. Not only does she save money and paper, she can stave off typical printing mistakes last-minute. “This past year, we had somebody from backstage run up to the sound booth and type in someone’s name that was missing during the piece before!” she says. She suggests approaching local businesses to place ads that you can project before the show.
Nancy Giles, fourth from left, with fellow DT Summit ambassadors
Irmo, South Carolina
During 32 years as a studio owner, Nancy Giles has learned a lot about running a business, including how to handle parent drama and make time for herself. She shares her wisdom each summer as an ambassador at the Dance Teacher Summit.
Dance Teacher: What has been the biggest change you’ve made to your studio practices since opening?
Nancy Giles: All my studios have observation windows, where I used to invite parents to watch the children. I wanted them to see the passion and how hard we were working. Over the years, however, it became a place to gossip and argue, so then we started limiting the windows to once a month. But still, it got so bad that teachers couldn’t walk out the door to go to the bathroom without parents jumping all over them about why their child wasn’t in the front row. Now I have closed the windows and parents are not allowed in the building at all. They are typically just allowed to drop off and pick up, and now, when I invite them in to watch, it’s a privilege.
Thirty years ago, parents would say, “Do what you can for my child. I trust and respect you.” But today’s parent-teacher-child relationship is different. Society makes people feel entitled, like everybody has to win and everybody has to be the best. Because the world has changed, our approach had to change.
DT: How did you present such a drastic policy change to parents?
NG: I have a parents’ meeting every year, and that’s what I addressed that year. I said I wanted to get back on track with parent trusting child trusting teacher. I told them we wanted to make the atmosphere more conducive to learning. I said, “We know how much concern you have for your child, but with all of you being there, it keeps us from being the best teachers we can be. We feel like we don’t have the freedom to correct your child. You’re paying us to teach them, and that requires corrections.”
I expected it to be a really hard change. I was so worried that I hired somebody to sit in my lobby. I didn’t call her a bouncer—I called her lobby patrol. A few parents tried to get in, but once they saw I was serious, they respected the rule. Once we made the change, it was a clean, healthy separation.
DT: How do you make sure you’re comfortable taking time away from the studio?
NG: I’m 58, and there comes a time when you realize there’s more to life. My whole career I’ve surrounded myself with good faculty, and I’m always looking to hire graduates who have grown up in the studio and know what we do. That’s why I’m able to trust and be more free to live the other part of my life at this age. My daughter also has been working with me for the last 10 years. I can leave knowing that everything will be as if I were here. —Andrea Marks
A studio owner for 33 years, Carole Royal has learned the hard way how to separate her passion for dance from her livelihood as a business owner. The four-time ambassador shares her experience and advice at the annual Dance Teacher Summit.
Dance Teacher:During the 2012 DT Summit, you gave a seminar called “Dance Is a Business.” Why do studio owners need to be reminded of that?
Carole Royal: If you’re working in a typical business, you expect to make a profit, but I think when it’s something you love, you feel guilty making money. When I first started teaching, I couldn’t stand to charge people. It made me feel terrible. I can’t tell you how much I gave away for free. I’d teach all my performance classes for free, choreograph for soloists and do extra routines for students without charging. I could only bring myself to charge for regular classes and wouldn’t add on for anything. As a result, I spent many years not doing well.
DT: What made you change how you approach your business?
CR: I started listening to books on tape about success, and I think that’s when it sunk in. I started realizing I work hard, and I deserve to make a good living. Some of the most helpful were Dare to Change: How to Program Yourself for Success, by Joel Alexander; The Success System That Never Fails, by William Clement Stone; and All You Can Do Is All You Can Do But All You Can Do Is Enough! by A.L. Williams.
DT: What should studio owners consider as they take their first steps toward becoming more business-minded?
CR: Anything you change, just make sure you do it gradually. If your performance kids have never paid a fee on top of their classes, you can’t jump in demand $350 extra. You can start with maybe $50 and then build from there.
At the Summit a couple years ago, someone talked about charging for recital costumes in the fall and I thought it was a great idea. I used to have parents pay a costume deposit up front with the rest of the money in May, but it was always this big hassle trying to collect. But when I made the change, a lot of people complained. And we didn’t say, “Too bad, too sad.” We explained that it was something a lot of other studios around the country had suggested and asked them to bear with us while we tried it out. Well, everybody was ecstatic when they didn’t have to pay a balance in May. Nobody says a word about the policy now. But you almost always have to go through a rough patch the first year. Just remember to be careful with your customers. Treat them the way you’d like to be treated. —Andrea Marks
Donna Aravena Seven Star students performing in The Nutcracker
Donna Aravena has run the Seven Star School of Performing Arts studio with her daughter Nicole since 2002, and she has learned some important lessons in delegating along the way. In her fourth year as an ambassador, Aravena spoke at the 2012 Dance Teacher Summit on hiring a studio’s front desk manager.
Dance Teacher: Does every dance studio need a front desk manager?
Donna Aravena: My immediate reaction is yes, because our building has five studios going all the time, seven days a week. I’m a bit of a control freak—I used to be the only one running the front desk, but I’ve realized I can’t do it seven days a week and still do the job effectively.
I chatted with a woman at the DT Summit, though, who doesn’t have a front desk person, and it turns out she is the only teacher at her one-classroom studio. So maybe she doesn’t need a front desk, but she needs to build in time between classes to deal with problems. And there’s still the concern of an emergency happening in the waiting room. I think when she starts growing and teaching more hours, she’s going to want to delegate some of this. It’s very difficult to do all by yourself.
DT: What are the responsibilities of your studio’s front desk manager?
DA: In addition to keeping the lobby clean and dealing with any issues that arise in the waiting area, the front desk manager is the go-to person for all studio information. That person needs to know what each class entails, the dress codes and the calendar of events. All of that info may be on your website, but when clients come up and ask, “Are you closed on Rosh Hashanah?” the answer can’t be, “Well, it’s on the website.” They need to hear, “No, we’re open that day,” from a person they consider to be knowledgeable.
As part of the training, we have our front desk manager do a lot of reading on the studio’s background. We also keep all studio info in a book we call “The Bible,” so the front desk person can access it even if the internet is down.
DT: What qualities do you look for in a front desk manager?
DA: You have to have a compassionate person, someone who can do seven things at one time, from dealing with a clogged toilet to entertaining a child whose parent gets stuck in traffic, all without letting people know you’re flustered. In that sense a mom is a good person, because she is used to multitasking. You want someone who’s going to be self-motivated. If she sees that a shelf needs to be reorganized, she does it and doesn’t need to be told.
Your front desk person is the first person who meets with your clients. You can’t have a grumpy person or someone who’s just putting in hours. You need someone with a passion for children and the arts. —Andrea Marks