Studio Owners

The Talent Factory in RI: Built to Grow, Built to Change

Talent Factory dancers performed The Clarity of Being Alive by Tara Iacobucci for NYCDA Foundation. Photo by Chris Coates-Mitchell, courtesy of NYCDA

Talk about being close: Dana and Hugo Adames have been together 18 years and have two kids who love to dance—and the couple owns The Talent Factory Performing Arts Centre, with two locations, 550 students and a third site in the works. Dana, artistic director, and Hugo, general manager, have a method for how they handle everything from parenting to business decisions: "We work as partners. We look at the pros and cons together before making any decisions," Dana says. "We have a mutual respect for each other and really talk about everything, all the time."

General manager, Hugo, and artistic director, Dana, handle everything in their family operation as partners—from parenting to business decisions. Photo by Marilyn Demers, courtesy of The Talent Factory

Studio parents notice and appreciate the constant communication and united front. "As a couple and in business, it's clear Dana and Hugo complement each other and bring out the best in each other and their team," says Joy Weisbord, mom to dancer Liana, 14. "They are fun to be around and are always bouncing ideas off of each other, always thinking about how to improve and grow their studio. They embrace change and innovation and constantly seek it out."

Setting a goal to outgrow the space

The couple's earliest business endeavor was starting a dance retail store, an experience that would come in handy several years later. Then, in 2004, they opened The Talent Factory in North Kingstown, Rhode Island—two studios in 1,400 square feet—with a goal of outgrowing the space. Four years later, they moved a mile up the road into 2,500 square feet, and in 2012, they moved yet another mile to their current location: 8,000 square feet with five studios and a retail area.

"Our goal is to always sign a three- to five-year lease on a new venture, depending on the demographics and the square footage of the space," Hugo says, explaining that, during the first lease term, his plan is to cover rent, overhead and investment. It's in term two that he plans to show a profit. "Negotiating a solid second term is extremely important, since that is when you will start to see a return on your investment."

In 2015, the Adameses expanded to open their second location in Wakefield—located about 30 minutes from the North Kingstown location—in a 2,500-square-foot leased space with two studios. "In our main location, 400 students and a little over 100 classes offered weekly seems to be the magic number. It's simply what the demographics allow," Hugo says. "At our second location, we are currently offering roughly 30 classes a week to about 150 students," he says. "Here we clearly have room to grow, and we believe this space can reach 250 students with the possibility of 60-plus classes on the weekly schedule. Once we get there, we will start discussing our options to expand or not."

And speaking of expansion, until recently the Adameses had been actively discussing the possibility of purchasing a building for their third location. The fact that a potential deal fell through didn't deter them. "We believe everything happens for a reason," Hugo says. "We started discussions with a new space, which potentially could be the first of its kind in the state."

However, that was before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, which threw every dance studio in the United States into a lurch, scrambling to figure out how to provide online curriculum for students quarantined at home.

"This pandemic has affected every part of our business," Dana said in March. "Our office jobs have transitioned to a tech support team for staff and students, and our teachers have had to come up with new curriculums to keep kids engaged in their living rooms and kitchens with siblings and pets running around."

During the studio's weeklong spring break, the Adameses sprang into action and signed up their 20 teachers with individual Zoom accounts and trained them so they could seamlessly continue their regular classes online. "I don't know how they put all of it together in such a short time, but my daughter is still dancing and has that structure where she can see her teachers," says Cristina Feden, mom to 12-year-old dancer Aubrey. "These kids need that in these uncertain times, and Dana and Hugo just wrapped their arms around it. It just goes back to their sense of community and family. They are both always there and available to help."

Because of the pandemic's impact on the economy, the Adameses are bracing for an enrollment decrease in the fall, which could affect their plans for a third location. "Although we are remaining optimistic," Hugo says, "we will have to run the pros and cons before making a final decision."

Putting service first

When the north location moved to a larger space in 2012, it included space for a small, authorized Capezio dancewear retail space. "Incorporating retail was out of convenience for our families, our customers," Hugo says, adding that they knew from previous experience that residents weren't willing to drive very far to find brand-name dancewear—they wanted the ease of whatever they could find closest to home. "We strongly believe if we spent time and money to acquire new customers, it's only right we give them the best experience possible in every avenue they explore within our program."

The retail division provides about 5 percent of the studio's overall revenue. Hugo notes that it's a large investment for a slow return: For instance, it can take a year to sell $20,000 worth of inventory, not including labor—the studio's full-time receptionist handles the transactions. Still, it provides some revenue, and every bit helps when it comes to a small business, Dana says. "At the end of the day, we believe it's worth the extra work to make sure our families have what they need," she says, "and a well-rounded, positive experience."

Helping dancers achieve dreams

Solid business leadership allows artistry to shine, and The Talent Factory's dancers are getting noticed outside their community. In January, nine dancers earned a coveted spot performing at The Joyce Theater in NYC for the annual New York City Dance Alliance Foundation gala, in recognition for raising $15,000 (in just four months) toward college dance scholarships.

"It's an exciting opportunity for a local dance studio to have their teenage students share the stage with accomplished professionals at one of the most recognized dance venues in the world," says NYCDAF founder and director Joe Lanteri. "I am grateful for Dana and Hugo, as well as the studio's parents, for spearheading the fundraising efforts and recognizing the uniqueness of the performance opportunity offered to their children. We were proud to include them on the program."

To raise funds, The Talent Factory organized a series of events, including a Black Friday babysitting event where parents could drop off their kids at the studio for $10 an hour. They also sold $20 raffle calendars for a chance to win donated gift cards from local businesses. "It has been a goal of ours for quite some time to perform at a NYCDAF event," Dana says. "Our families donate each weekend at the regional conferences we attend, and every penny goes toward dancers pursuing their dreams. This is one foundation very close to our hearts."

Whether The Talent Factory alumni pursue dance or other careers, they are always welcome to take open advanced classes when they are home on break. "Dana and Hugo have created a family business that feels like an extension of home for their students," Weisbord says. "The kids have real, meaningful relationships with Dana, Hugo and the staff that last long after their students graduate."

Photo courtesy of The Talent Factory

Studio life in times before the pandemic that affected every part of the Adameses' business

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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