The Best-Laid Plans

Practical planning for your studio’s financial success—it’s not just for start-ups.

If you hear the words “business plan” and feel a chill of fear ripple down your spine, chances are you’re like the majority of studio owners. Business plans are lengthy, exhaustively researched documents reserved for high-tech start-ups pitching their ventures to wealthy investors—right? Think again. A business plan is a roadmap for your studio’s success, outlining your goals as an owner and detailing how you’ll achieve them. If you want to create a sustainable, successful business, you need to develop a plan and keep reviewing and updating it; you can’t just wing it.

When Tracy Schwend decided to apply for a $55,000 small-business loan to open up her Warrendale, Pennsylvania–based Premier Dance Academy, she wanted to be well-prepared. With the help of a business counselor from SCORE, a free business consulting service, Schwend drew up a business plan that convinced her bank to approve a loan in just four days. “My banker said he could actually see how my business would progress,” she says.

There’s no need to get caught up in formatting and unnecessary details—instead, focus on what business planning expert Tim Berry refers to as the “lean business plan.” We’ve outlined Berry’s four crucial sections below, including what kind of information should go into each. For business plan templates, visit the U.S. Small Business Administration at sba.gov/writing-business-plan.

Strategy 

“This isn’t an academic text,” says Berry, author of The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan. “It’s a few bullet points—key reminders of why you’re doing this in the first place.”

Who are you? When Schwend was compiling her business plan, she gave a brief bio of her dance history, mentioning that she’d been dancing for 32 years and teaching for 13.

What are you planning to do? “I wanted to create a comfortable, stimulating environment for students of all ages and abilities within my studio,” says Schwend. She provided such details as: when her school year would run (September through June), when the studio would be open (Monday through Friday, 4 to 8 pm), the approximate square footage of the studio and the number of bathrooms.

What need will this business fulfill? Schwend highlighted her commitment to education and physical activity. After asking around, she found that people were most willing to spend money on their kids—that is, her target market.

How will this business be different from the competition? It’s important to educate yourself about your competition and separate your studio from the pack. Schwend originally planned to offer a unique combination class: While a babies’ tumbling class took place, moms could take a Pilates class in the studio next door.

Tactics

“Strategy without tactics is meaningless,” says Berry. “In this context, this means what sort of classes you’ll offer and for what prices, and how you’ll advertise.”

How will you implement your strategy? Schwend described every class she planned to offer, noting the age group, how long it would last and what genre of dance would be taught. “I included how many nights a week I’d offer these classes and got a mock schedule going,” she says. She detailed her plans for private lessons—$20 per half hour—and explained the difference between her future recreational students and competition students, noting that her competition kids would need to take at least seven classes a week.

How will you advertise? Schwend’s business plan mentioned advertising via the newspaper, word of mouth, bulletin boards and bulk mailings.

Concrete Specifics

“This section is more fleshing out the tactics. These specifics give you things that you can track, allowing you to focus on management,” says Berry.

Who is your management team? When creating her plan, Schwend identified herself and another teacher—the only faculty at the time. But Berry recommends using this section to also divvy up who’s in charge of what: “Who’s responsible for social media? What about advertising?”

What are your dates and deadlines? “What are the dates for the next session?” says Berry. When will your recital be? When will you open your studio? “There’s a huge value in saying, ‘I’m going to have this done by September,’” he says. “If you give it a date, you double the chances that it will happen.”

Forecasts

“People think you need an MBA to forecast sales and expenses, and that’s not true,” Berry says. “You just need to estimate sales and expenses. You can do it all with a simple spreadsheet.” Budget how much money you need to get started—and get going.

Sales Estimate how many students per class, how many classes and how these numbers will increase over the course of three years. For the first year, project your sales month by month; for the second and third years, a quarterly basis is fine. The spreadsheet you create should have a column for unit sales (the number of students); one for pricing (the cost of a class); one to multiply units by price (to determine sales); one for unit costs (like sound equipment or the instructor’s salary); and one to multiply units by unit costs (to figure out cost of sales, or your direct costs). Duplicate this spreadsheet for each new revenue stream—if you plan to sell merchandise at your studio or if you’ll offer a summer intensive.

Expenses “Who are you paying to do the instruction and marketing?” asks Berry. “What about overhead costs?” Remember that you’ll have fixed costs each month that don’t change—like rent and payroll—as well as variable costs, like advertising.

Projected income With the prices you plan to charge, and the sales and expenses you project over the next three years, will you eventually be able to make money—i.e. a profit—that you can invest back in the business? An estimated profit and loss statement will help you determine your gross margin (sales minus cost of sales) and net profit (gross margin minus expenses).

Cash flow Making a profit can still leave a business with an empty bank account. How much money will be coming in and going out—and when? Chart your projected cash flow month by month for at least a year.

Don’t expect to compile all these numbers chronologically. You’ll constantly be doubling back as you make your projections, revising as you go.

Review and Revise

Berry advises setting aside an hour or two every month to review and revise your business plan. “Look at the difference between what you planned and what happened,” he says. “The shelf life of your business plan is only a few weeks.” Schwend ended up scrapping or altering a lot of her plans: Her babies’ tumbling/Mommy Pilates class combo never took off—instead, her moms were more interested in starting an adult tap class. She didn’t see much success with bulk-mailing advertising, either. “Now we do an in-house thing. If you recommend a friend, you get $15 off a month’s tuition and so do they,” she says. The flexibility of Berry’s “lean” business plan easily lends itself to frequent revision—ensuring that your business will stay alive and thrive. DT

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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."

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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