In 1992 while studying early childhood education at Texas A&M University, Lisa Shed decided to make the bold move of starting her own dance studio, Lisa's Dance Connection, 90 miles away in her hometown of Temple, Texas. Three days a week she would make the commute to teach her eight young students, then wake up the next morning at 6 am to make it to her 8 am class at school. Each year the studio would double or triple in size, and by the time she graduated college, she had more than 100 students. At that point she moved back to Temple and invested all of her time and energy into developing her studio. Since then, they've outgrown multiple building locations, and today she has an impressive 500 students and counting.
Kim Pelliccia has seen her share of costume-related emergencies during her time working for the recital costume company Dansco. “We've had studios flood, trains derail, Lucy's costume doesn't fit on Wednesday and the show is on Saturday," she says. As a studio owner, you're no stranger to the special set of potential problems that competitions and recitals bring. That's why we spoke to several savvy owners and costume companies for their surprisingly simple advice on handling five common costume complications.
Balagna (in black) teaches her students how to make the most out of the competition experience.
Seen and Heard at the Dance Teacher Summit
Steppin’ Out—The Studio
Lee’s Summit, Missouri
Phyllis Balagna has been taking her students to conventions and competitions for 25 years, as long as her studio has been open. She has the season down to a science: She and her staff select one or two conventions, three regional competitions and one National to attend each year. Here, she addresses some of the most frequently asked questions she hears about competition.
How do you get your students focused before they compete?
I am a coach at heart, and motivating kids is my forte. I am constantly searching for quotes to inspire the students. One of my favorites is, “The better you get, the nicer you become!” I believe in my program and the work I do with the students. The passion and energy transfers to them, and on “game day,” my dancers are on fire!
Do you allow your students to hear their critiques at competition?
Yes, because I expose my students to competitions that I know and trust. I send all soloists home with their critique sheet or tape, and I ask them to read or listen to it and jot down the comments. At their next private lesson, we sit down, oftentimes with a parent, and discuss what was said. By including the parent just a little, they feel such a part of the process. For small groups, large groups and lines, we’ll sometimes listen as a group, but I confess that because I produce more than 100 routines each year, I do not take the time out of every class to listen to every critique. After a competition, I’m usually ready to get back into the trenches and do what needs to be done to make each dancer and routine more solid.
How do you motivate your students?
By smiling, having fun and pushing them hard in class. I make it my number-one goal to always do things that will motivate each of my dancers to be the best they can be. I have found that the higher I set the bar, the harder they work. Students love to be challenged, so as a teacher I am constantly trying to find ways to shake it up.
How do you motivate yourself as a teacher?
I surround myself with great people. I also guest teach and serve as a competition judge, which are great motivational experiences. I read countless magazines and articles on coaching techniques, and I am constantly thinking up new ways to reinvent myself as a teacher. Each year I try to have a new approach to teaching and coaching.
Photo by John Beaudoin, courtesy of Steppin’ Out—The Studio
Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit
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
Photo courtesy of Break the Floor Productions
Royal Dance Works
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.
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
Photos by Dustin Curtis
Co-owner, Seven Star School of Performing Arts
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
Photos courtesy of Donna Aravena
Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit
Owner, Steppin’ Out—The Studio
Lee’s Summit, Missouri
After being a business owner for nearly 25 years, Phyllis Balagna was awarded 2011 Volunteer of the Year and Small Business of the Year by her local chamber of commerce. She spoke at the 2012 Dance Teacher Summit about studio branding and community involvement.
Dance Teacher: What do you see as the greatest challenge when it comes to promoting one’s business?
Phyllis Balagna: There’s a tendency for studio owners to get kind of stuck in their own zone. We go to the studio and then home to work on costumes, then turn around and go back to the studio. Visibility is a key part of advertising, and the only way to achieve it is to get out there. We can be our own worst enemies when it comes to word-of-mouth advertising because we’re not active in our communities. Some owners may heavily promote their studio when they first open, but the longer you’re in business, the harder you have to work to keep your name in people’s minds.
DT: What can business owners do to make their studio a household name?
PB: I’ve spent a lot of money advertising, but I’ve discovered that word of mouth can be just as effective—neighbors talking to neighbors, people talking in church or in schools. Remember, everybody knows somebody who has kids! You need to get out in the community and get involved in something. I am about as involved as a person can get, I think. I serve on the school board, I’ve been a board member for the chamber of commerce and I work with the Rotary club. I know I’m on the far end of the spectrum, but even if you just join one committee, like with your school district, a business roundtable or a citizen’s advisory committee, those are usually just one meeting a month. The time commitment is minimal but the kickback is enormous.
I think studio owners will find it makes a difference in their business and their lives to have connections beyond just their students, teachers and dance parents. Not only does it bring in customers, involving yourself in community activities outside the studio lets you feel more like a true business owner. I’m not as emotionally driven by which parent is upset with me over costumes anymore. —Andrea Marks
Photos from top: courtesy of Phyllis Balagna; courtesy of Dance Teacher Summit
Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit
Co-owner, Center Stage Performing Arts Studio
Currently in her 25th year of business, Utah’s Kim DelGrosso was featured in our April 2012 cover story, “Where Ballet Meets Ballroom.” Her successful crossover studio was honored as Studio of the Year at the 2012 Dance Awards. Last summer at the Dance Teacher Summit, DelGrosso spoke about how studio owners can generate alternative income for their business.
Dance Teacher: Studio owners often need to look beyond tuition and costume purchases to support their businesses. What are the most unique ways you’ve found to bring in additional revenue to your studio?
Kim DelGrosso: We’ve had a creative year! Of course we rent to different dance groups in the area, but there are so many more ways you can be making money. I have a performing arts preschool and kindergarten that rent from me and a bunch of boutiques that set up in our studios. We’ve rented to colleges, we’ve had fencing classes here—any type of meeting or class that needs a big room, we try to get them to come to us. I make sure everyone in town knows my studio’s available for auditions—Disney has held a few auditions here. We also bought some good-quality chairs that people can set up for meetings, and it’s proven to be a good investment.
DT: Sounds like you’re open to anything! How can a studio owner who’s never done anything like this get started?
KD: Yes, everything is game! And a large part of it is just doing the work to let people know you’re there. For example, when I opened my first studio, I literally went through the white pages and called every person in town, telling them I was starting a studio and I’d love for them to come. Because of that, we opened with 450 students. If you make yourself known, they will come to you. Call local businesses, go to your chamber of commerce, participate in charities, build good relationships with your town’s newspapers. And don’t forget to use your studio parents for their resources and connections. Networking is where it’s at!
Photo courtesy of Kim Delgrosso