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

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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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."

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!"

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