The Fall and Rise of the Joffrey Ballet School

Turning a founder’s artistic vision into a sustainable business

JBS artistic team:
Jo Matos, Robert Ray, Davis Robertson and Michael Blake

Davis Robertson has a rotary telephone sitting on his desk. It originally belonged to Edith D’Addario, the one-woman band who ran New York City’s Joffrey Ballet School for the last half of the 20th century. According to Joffrey lore, D’Addario had happened upon her position almost accidentally: In the early 1960s, she was sitting in the lobby of the school as her daughter Gail took class, when the telephone began ringing incessantly. With no office person to pick up the call—co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino were busy teaching classes—D’Addario planted herself behind the desk and began answering the phone. She soon became the Joffrey Ballet School’s office manager and then in 1966 the executive director, working until just a few years before her death in 2007.

Robertson—who is artistic director of JBS’ performance troupe, the Joffrey Concert Group—keeps the phone as a reminder of how far the school has come since the Edith D’Addario days. Though D’Addario was a galvanizing force in the history of JBS, by the time her health began declining, the organization was a shambles. Attendance had been dwindling for years. Records weren’t being kept properly; the few that existed were on paper. The school had only one very outdated Apple computer, used strictly for e-mail. (D’Addario preferred her typewriter, which she kept bolted to her desk.) The school’s website was one static page, asking visitors to call the school for more information. The school had only one performance, at the end of the year. Advertising had fallen apart. It was all on the verge of going under.

Today, nearly a decade later, the Joffrey Ballet School is thriving, thanks to top-to-bottom professionalizing, a diverse training model and identifying—and expanding—revenue generators. With 89 teachers, artistic directors and administrators employed in NYC, seven summer programs scattered across the U.S. (Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and NYC) and two international intensives in Florence and Moscow, JBS has grown its enrollment exponentially and blossomed into a financially stable, profitable institution.

 

Former Joffrey Ballet dancer Davis Robertson leads an audition in NYC. 

Michael Blake brought new energy to the jazz and contemporary program.

Moving the Needle

Getting there, of course, was no picnic. When D’Addario’s health took a turn for the worse in 2005, her daughter Gail—the former JBS student—stepped in. But she’d never operated a business day-to-day and soon found herself in over her head. Enter Chris D’Addario and Lee Merwin, childhood best friends with matching MBAs. D’Addario, who is Edith’s grandson (and Gail’s son) and was at the time entrenched in his property investment business, sent Merwin in his stead to take control of the flailing organization and try to turn things around. Merwin began operating as managing director: He modernized the accounting, installed a proper phone system, got everyone on e-mail and slowly expanded JBS’ advertising presence. He even found permanent housing on a nearby block for full-time out-of-town students.

Working with the initially skeletal organization was a challenge. “When I got there, there was no way to see the actual state of the finances,” Merwin says. “I only knew what was in the bank account and a little payroll history. The first two years were a lot of me calling the landlord and telling him we’d be a month or two late on rent.”

Merwin dug in, often running the reception desk and taking people’s payments for the evening adult classes himself because he couldn’t afford to have someone else do it. “My first winter, I had to get everyone to agree to a 15 percent pay cut, which I made up to them over the following summer,” he says. But his thriftiness and business acumen paid off: He eventually hired a bookkeeper, followed by two more full-time office administrators. With a better understanding of the business’ divisions—the year-round JBS students, the audition tours, the summer intensives—Merwin was able to stabilize the finances. He and D’Addario realized the real cash cow of the organization was the summer intensives and quickly increased the number of auditions held around the country.

No More Robbing Peter

Five years later, at the point of near burnout, Merwin took a break from JBS and D’Addario stepped in. (Merwin would later be coaxed into returning, as director of operations, in 2011.) D’Addario set about changing the standards for his artistic staff—there are four program directors at JBS—to further incorporate a business perspective: Retention rates and performance budgets became an expected part of their vernacular.

When Jo Matos, artistic director of the children’s and young dancers’ programs, begins planning the annual spring performance, the show’s budget is front and center. “We must propose a budget to Chris that includes every single dollar that will be spent,” says Matos. “So I get proposed expenses from my musical director and the production director who does my lights, and then I see how I can fit those in my budget and where I need to make adjustments. It’s all based on: This is the size of the house; this is how much we’re going to charge; this is how much things cost.”

This fiscal responsibility is a new—and even refreshing—experience for the program directors. “We’ve had meetings about the bottom line we have to meet, cost ratios and things you wouldn’t normally have to embrace as an artistic director,” says Robertson, who feels the biggest impact of Merwin and D’Addario “has been the understanding on the artistic end of the business end and vice versa.” That wasn’t the prevailing attitude before: “We would often rob Peter to pay Paul, thinking everything would magically happen,” says Robertson. “Now there’s great care taken.” 

 

JBS’ broad student population includes
pre-professionals as well as the next
generation of audience members.

The Not-So-Hard Hard Sell

With an eye carefully trained on bringing in revenue, the JBS adopted a unique, threefold approach to its student training: First, it continued to expand programming to include a wide variety of disciplines; second, it now embraces a larger student population than just the upper echelon of pre-professionals; and third, the curriculum itself—now well-structured with tangible benchmarks and continuity from level to level—is designed to attract and retain high school–age students over four years.

“I wanted to fundamentally transform the ideology of the JBS to getting the kids jobs,” says D’Addario. “How could we make them the most well-rounded, versatile, professional dancers, and happy in their careers?” What really set Robert Joffrey apart, he says, was “his fundamental understanding of dance and dancers—training them not just in classical and contemporary ballet but in multiple forms of dance, and embracing talent and passion over body type. I wanted to incorporate that philosophy within JBS.”

Robert Ray, the director of the ballet trainee program and the overarching artistic director of JBS, was brought on board in 2011 specifically for his curriculum-writing abilities. Ray had been a professor at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in Australia, where he wrote the curriculum for the postgraduate diploma in classical ballet. “The brief from Christopher D’Addario was to structure it more in a collegiate way,” says Ray. “A course had to be much more identifiable in its components.” Before he arrived, the learning models were “a bit vague” and “wouldn’t have passed muster” in an academic setting. “Up until we made these changes, the Joffrey Ballet School was a place to hang about for a year or two,” says Ray. “But now when the trainees enter what they know is a four-year course, there’s much more a sense of completing it.”

When Michael Blake applied for his position as artistic director of the jazz and contemporary program, he immediately knew this would be a much more demanding job than any he’d had in the past, even as a college professor. “They made me jump through hoops to get the job,” he says. “I had to dream up a program and put it on paper—it was like a 10-page presentation about my goals.” Such careful attention paid to a division other ballet schools might view as secondary is a hallmark of JBS. Because the school is not affiliated with the Joffrey Ballet, its students need not be specifically trained to feed into the ballet company. (The Joffrey Ballet, which relocated to Chicago in 1995, opened its own Academy of Dance in 2009.) JBS exists as its own entity, albeit bearing the Joffrey name and focusing on Robert Joffrey’s original vision.

By exposing its students to a smorgasbord of disciplines, and by enrolling those who might not meet the ballerina ideal, JBS has earned a reputation as an institution steeped in the 21st century, preparing its trainees for diverse dance careers. Since Blake’s arrival three years ago, the jazz and contemporary program alone has grown to 80 students from 20. Ray thinks such varied training leads to longevity. “That’s how they’ll have a long career, if they can do lots of different things,” he says. “We’re not just training the body but also the mind—to have an open mind about dance and not be channeled in just one direction.”

Robertson feels freed by the school’s multifaceted training approach. “If I were only trying to funnel dancers into the Joffrey,” he says, “there’s no way that I could really develop them to have the best of careers.” Last year, 70 percent of the Joffrey Concert Group dancers found professional dance jobs. But Robertson and the rest of the JBS faculty are just as attentive to their students who will never become professionals. “Far too often, we dance instructors are looking at the top one percentile,” says Robertson. “But then we’re only training people we hope will be in the top end of performers. We’re not educating individuals who will be our next audience.”

 

D’Addario (right) leads from a distance with Lee Merwin (left) as director of operations.

Delivering the Goods

Along with the overhaul of JBS’ training model and general professionalization, the Chris D’Addario era has ushered in financial sustainability. His first step as executive director was sitting down with Merwin and creating a project management business cycle for the school, as well as a long-term strategy for growth over the next decade. “We had to transform how the business was run,” says D’Addario.

Concentrating on diverse training as a way to build enrollment has worked wonders. What was once an organization on the brink of folding has become one firmly in the black, with new revenue streams and expanded programming. The number of JBS year-round trainees has multiplied twelvefold, and more than 70 percent of the summer intensive students return for two, three or even four years. The summer intensive program itself has exploded, with 4,000 students in 2013 across seven domestic locations and two international ones, all directed by JBS staff. The number of dancers who audition for the summer intensive has hit 10,000, up from 800. Two hundred sixty trainees participate in the year-round ballet and jazz/contemporary programs combined, up from 30, with plans to reach 300 for the 2014–15 school year. Not including the adult drop-in classes, JBS enrolls 960 students across all of its programs.

A large part of this success can be attributed to D’Addario’s eagle eye for business—which scrutinizes all the way from Texas: Not wanting to raise a family in NYC, he lives in Dallas with his wife and three kids. D’Addario thinks the long-distance management strategy works because of his emphasis on communication. When he’s not e-mailing or calling or conferencing with his business associates or artistic staff, he’s encouraging them to share and cultivate their ideas on a daily basis. “Artistic directors don’t have their own fiefdoms,” he says. “You’re part of a larger organization that requires communication.” And he’s made a point of hiring businesspeople who know how to “manage artistic personalities and still maintain their sanity,” he says.

D’Addario is very hands-on himself, auditing every phone call and e-mail from parents each week. And he reviews the results of every summer intensive audition and the financial breakdown (so that he knows exactly how many scholarships the organization can afford to give out at the following audition). He has an eye for design and aesthetics, which lends itself to sleek advertising campaigns but also some nitpickiness. “We’ve done photo shoots where I’ve scrapped the entire thing, and I’m just chewing people out,” says D’Addario. “But I think the end product of what we put out is completely superb.” Indeed, JBS’ new in-house customer service program, in place since fall 2013, commissioned surveys—sent to more than 2,000 people—that have scored in the 98th percentile for satisfaction.

Now D’Addario is poised to take what he’s done for JBS to a broader audience. He’s developed a database operating system called Studio Pulse that he’s implemented at JBS and hopes to market to studios nationwide by the end of the year. The software takes attendance, organizes scheduling, keeps track of payroll and revenue, allows employees to sign into an online portal and can text and e-mail schedule updates in real time. “It’s all about communicating and sharing ideas, cultivating these ideas at an artistic level and deciding how to translate them for your business,” says D’Addario. “I want to empower other schools.” DT

 

By the Numbers

Total enrollment: 960 

  •Children’s and Young Dancers’ program: 700

  •Ballet program: 180

  •Jazz/Contemporary program: 80

Members of the Joffrey Concert Group: 30

Summer intensive enrollment: 4,000

Adult enrollment: 700+ (open classes)

 

Photo (top) by Christopher Duggan; all others, James Culp, courtesy of JBS

Photos (bottom) by Alex Maxwell, courtesy of JBS

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox