As a child in Minneapolis, Shira Greenberg liked to choreograph dances to perform in her garage. “Lots of kids do this,” she says, “but I also liked to sell tickets to the shows, and then I would sell concessions—lemonade and little caterpillar magnets I made. My whole family is entrepreneurial, and I’ve always had that business side to me.”
Greenberg went on to study dance and theater and become a choreographer, but her curiosity about and passion for business has never dulled. This may help explain how the Keshet Dance Company she founded 17 years ago has been able to extend its reach deep into the Albuquerque community where she settled, bringing the experience of dance not just to her small troupe of professional dancers and their audiences, but to homeless kids, incarcerated youth, people with disabilities. The company mission: “to open unlimited possibilities through the experience of dance,” and she’s made it happen not just with an unwavering vision but by building a financially sound and sustainable arts organization.
Now, Greenberg, 40, has purchased the 30,000-square-foot former Duke City Studios in Albuquerque to create Keshet Center for the Arts, where, with the help of a $1 million U.S. Department of Commerce economic development grant, a business incubator will nurture other arts organizations as well. “There are so many talented artists in New Mexico,” she says, “but without a marketing plan, only 25 people will see your amazing performance, instead of 250. Without the supporting business structure, your art won’t have sustainability.”
Greenberg started her contemporary dance company in 1996 in a 1,600-square-foot warehouse. “It was in a fascinating row of artist-occupied warehouses—my neighbors were a metalsmith, a printmaker, a woodworker,” she says. She put a sprung floor up front and set up a bed in the back, “behind a wooden wall, if you could call it that,” where she lived. Four years later, Keshet moved to the 8,700-square-foot space it’s occupied until now, with two studios and room for offices—space it outgrew “years ago,” says Greenberg. Keshet now has 1,000 students enrolled annually, including 24, ages 9 to 17, in a pre-professional program, which offers not just rigorous training in modern dance, ballet and other techniques, but also kinesiology, nutrition, resumé writing, auditioning, choreography and improv.
From the beginning, Greenberg imagined being more than just a professional repertoire company. “Yes, we love dance for dance’s sake, but I was looking at how we, as professional dancers, could use movement to engage with the community. How could it change people’s lives—especially in populations that didn’t have access to movement for various reasons—and make that community stronger?” That very first year, Keshet dancers began teaching youth at New Mexico’s juvenile detention facility (see sidebar); other outreach programs followed. And so did the awards, including recognition from the White House.
Greenberg created Keshet as a nonprofit because it allowed the company to supplement earned revenues with fundraising for its social service programs. Greenberg emphasizes that being a nonprofit doesn’t mean you don’t want to make a profit. “That’s a common misconception. There are times when you’ll do anything for your art, of course. But you don’t have to be a starving artist forever,” she says. “Let’s make it a profitable business so you can hire the strongest staff, grow more programs, expand your reach to have the biggest impact.” Keshet offers its six full-time dancers employment with salary and benefits. “Business is business, no matter what your tax structure,” she says.
That’s the mindset and know-how Greenberg wants to share now with other fledgling nonprofit and for-profit arts organizations through the Keshet Ideas and Innovation Center (KIIC)—“everything I wish someone had told me.” For a year before moving to Albuquerque, Greenberg took every single course she could find at a Minnesota business-for-the-arts program, as she prepared her business plan and filed as a nonprofit. She dug into financial projections and spreadsheets; she signed up as a board member for the Minnesota Shakespeare Company to learn how a board worked.
While she mostly “learned by doing, from my mistakes,” the incubator program will systematize the kind of training she had to seek out, offering seven businesses in the arts (or in health and wellness) ongoing mentoring and below-market-rate rent. The training—tailored for the arts—will be provided in partnership with organizations like the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, and experts in finance, law and PR. “We’ll cover the fundamentals for any arts business and set benchmarks they need to meet, but the program won’t be cookie-cutter. We’ll customize it with each participant.” Informal collaborations and learning happen in shared spaces, too. “You need a cellist, so you go next door,” says Greenberg. “My dancers need theater training; I trade some workshops.”
The first three tenants will be New Mexico Ballet Company, Mother Road Theatre Company and a TV production business. Each year another two will be added, so there will be staggered flow of businesses at different stages through the three- to five-year program. For businesses that don’t need space, KIIC will also have a membership track. “There’s a huge community of independent filmmakers here,” says Greenberg. “They have similar problems to an independent choreographer. If I’m new, how do I shoot on location, when that requires a $1 million liability policy?” Members would have access to Keshet’s umbrella liability insurance policy, as well as training sessions and other resources. Greenberg expects to take on 40 to 60 members, at annual fees of less than $100.
The arts center/incubator will have ample performance, rehearsal and education space, including five studios, an 8,100-square-foot sound stage with green screen and a 400-seat black-box theater, plus enough space to tuck in offices and services for Keshet’s staff of 23 and the incubator tenants. “When you’re working with an existing space, you always seem to end up with pillars in the middle of rooms,” says Greenberg, whose husband, Richard Letscher, a carpenter and general contractor, is managing the renovation. “But we have high ceilings with no obstructions, just huge, open, beautiful space.” Keshet expects to move in by the end of the year.
Creating a dance center had been a dream of Greenberg’s forever, she says, but three years ago, Keshet began a $4 million capital campaign to make it happen. So far, with the $1 million federal Economic Development Administration grant, plus funding from city, county, state, private donors and foundations, it’s more than halfway there. The year or two spent navigating the federal grant application has been hugely educational, Greenberg says—figuring out how to track success, reaching out to local and county officials to convey the economic impact of the project. The center is projected to create 100 jobs over the next 10 years, with a multiplier effect, thanks to tourism dollars spent with other local businesses and taxable revenues. Keshet itself expects to extend its annual reach from 8,000 students and audience members to 100,000. The way Greenberg envisions it, you create a critical mass of successful artists in the district, who then bring in audiences. People come to see the arts, maybe get dinner nearby, go to a gallery, stay overnight, go to another show. When you have bigger audiences, then they support more artists, which supports more audience. As one local commissioner said to her, “It could be the SoHo of Albuquerque.”
Keshet’s overall budget will grow significantly, but what’s exciting, says Greenberg, is that instead of the 50/50 split between earned revenues and fund-raising Keshet has typically achieved, going forward, 75 percent of the budget will come from earned revenues—from more classes (with the expansion to five studios), studio and theater rentals and bigger ticket revenues from more productions—and just 25 percent from fundraising. Being less vulnerable to the changing winds of fundraising will put Keshet on an even stronger footing and help Greenberg keep the right creative balance between her CEO and artistic director roles. This fall, Keshet is preparing four productions for next season: Greenberg will create two new works and remount Ani Ma’amin (“I believe,” in Hebrew), a piece she choreographed about the impact of the Holocaust on American Jews. And then there’s Nutcracker on the Rocks, her rock-and-roll rendition of the classic that has become a hugely popular annual tradition. DT
|A Second Chance for Youth Offenders
Keshet Dance Company has run an outreach program at New Mexico’s Youth Diagnostic Development Center (YDDC) almost as long as it has been a professional dance company. The juvenile detention facility is home to kids 12 to 21 who haven’t been helped by other programs—the top 6 percent of violent offenders who have ended up in the prison system with sentences from a few months to several years. Because they’re kids, there’s a high school on site. But these are kids who haven’t been successful learning sitting at a desk—for many reasons. “They’re in and out of school or incarceration, for one,” says Shira Greenberg. “Then it becomes this terrible pattern. We use movement to break up that pattern.”
Keshet teaches a five-day-a-week, semester-long movement curriculum in math, literacy and conflict resolution. “It’s really powerful to watch them realize, ‘I’m dancing the noun, you’re the verb and we’re choreographing a sentence together,’” says Greenberg. They choreograph from a poem or do a warm-up with geometric shapes: You’re the acute angle, you’re the obtuse. “Kids sit down to the test and say, ‘Hey, I’m the acute angle. I know what I’m talking about,’” she says. Test scores, sometimes as low as the 40s go to the 90s very quickly.
Soon Keshet added a weekend fitness program. With the girls, many of them abuse victims, this meant focusing on positive body images. “We thought the boys would be harder, but the girls weren’t even ready to move their bodies,” says Greenberg. “So we began simply: How do you build strength in your body, how do you use your body in a positive way?” One of the nine teachers working on the program is a clinical therapist with a dance background.
Keshet soon found, though, that kids were being released and six months later would be right back in the program. “It was sad, so we dug in to see what was happening,” says Greenberg. By law, kids who were released had to break off all contact with their connections at the facility. For many kids, this meant losing the only people they trusted—social workers, parole officers, teachers—the whole support system they had built up since they were 14.
That’s when the program became M3: Movement + Mentorship = Metamorphosis. Working with the parole board, Keshet developed pre- and post-release programs that keep the kids connected right through reintegration. Those who love dance might work as assistants in the physically integrated dance program at Keshet. Working with physically disabled kids and adults, “they have a sense of importance of what they bring to the table,” says Greenberg. Keshet helps others study for their GED or get computer experience and learn office skills. “This is very powerful and intense for the entire faculty,” says Greenberg. Recidivism has gone down to 0 percent for students in the program, instead of the standard statewide 50 percent.
The program has been recognized as a model for other states, and in 2009 it won a Coming Up Taller Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. As First Lady Michelle Obama said at the award ceremony at the White House: “Your program uses achievement in the arts as a bridge to achievement in life. You help [students] see beyond the circumstances of their lives to the world of possibility that awaits them. And for that, we honor you.”
Basia Hellwig is editorial consultant to Dance Teacher.
Top two photos by Paulo Tavares; by Pat Berrett, courtesy of Keshet Dance; Michelle Obama photo courtesy of Keshet Dance
Denise Blackstone's studio supports her passion and her family.
Denise Blackstone can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to teach. As you watch her tapping up a storm leading a class of recreational students at her studio one afternoon, you believe it. Blackstone, 60, elegantly slim with a passion for big hoop earrings and high heels, both exudes joy and inspires it in her students, gently correcting and encouraging the young girls. She’s done this 10 times a week for almost 40 years now. “I love teaching an 8-year-old and seeing them get dance hungry. I truly believe that dance is a way for anyone to feel beautiful and good about yourself.”
Owning a dance studio has allowed Blackstone to create a life of teaching and dance for herself and a livelihood for her family that “feels like I won the lottery,” she says. Yet it’s only in the last five years that she’s fully embraced the business role of entrepreneur and manager as well—and proved that she has the resourcefulness and imagination to keep Denise Daniele Dance Studio going through good times and, well, not so good. She’s succeeded by keeping her studio’s programming fresh—both for the students and with an eye to new revenue streams—and by being flexible enough to switch up family roles in the business as family members (and the needs of the business) grow and change. And, yes, she’s a charismatic yet warm teacher whose passion for dance is infectious.
A TEACHER AT HEART
After graduating from college with an education degree, Blackstone opened Denise Daniele Dance Studio in 1972. She hadn’t intended to start a business, but teaching jobs were scarce and her father (an immigrant from Naples who had built his own shoe business from scratch) suggested they build an addition onto the family home to house a studio. “He knew how to make money,” says Blackstone. She anticipated 20 to 30 students, but within the first year enrollment hit 100. “I needed help!” says Blackstone. Ballroom dancer Richard Blackstone began coming in from New York to teach a couple of adult jazz classes each week. In 1975, they married. Three years later, their daughter, Laureve, was born. Then came their son, Al, 28, now a choreographer/dancer who’s performed in Wicked and won the 2011 Capezio A.C.E. Award for choreography at the Dance Teacher Summit. “The kids grew up in the studio,” says Blackstone. “We didn’t need babysitters. I could just walk down the hall and I’d be home, in my kitchen. I loved cooking almost as much as I loved dance. It was a great, great life,” she says.
Today, Denise Daniele Dance Studio has 330 students and revenues of $400,000. For the last 15 years, it has operated out of a 5,000-square-foot space, with four classrooms, in a quiet strip mall in Bricktown, New Jersey, a few miles from the original family home. Twelve faculty, many of them former students who grew up in the studio themselves, offer classes in tap, ballet, lyrical, jazz, hip hop and Zumba. Al Blackstone comes back to teach jazz technique once a week and has choreographed big production numbers for the school. “The studio is my creative home,” he says.
Bricktown’s proximity to New York City has made it easy to invite guest artists like tapper Germaine Salsberg and Celia Marino from The Ailey School and for Blackstone to take her students to see Broadway productions. For years she took weekly classes in NYC herself to keep her curriculum up-to-date. “Even though we’re in a small town, I want my students to get the best possible training, because that wasn’t available to me where I grew up,” she says.
The pre-professional and junior companies compete at JUMP, Tremaine and New York City Dance Alliance conventions. A new performing group, open to all, goes to one competition. Former student Beth Wood choreographed their first piece, and it’s been a big hit.
“The tendency in a studio is to focus on the companies,” says Blackstone. “But for the business, I have to make sure everyone gets attention and feels part of the studio.” These three groups bring in half the studio’s revenues. Recreational and adult classes are part of the mix, too. And the studio sells shoes and other dance supplies.
Each year the studio showcases its students—and its teaching—at a recital held in a beautifully restored 1922 theater on the Jersey Shore. “It’s spectacular,” says Blackstone. “It always brings in new students.” Blackstone herself was named Tremaine Teacher of the Year in 2005.
KEEPING THE BUSINESS STRONG
It was at about this time that Blackstone, passionate as she is about teaching, decided she had to take over management of the business. This had always been Richard’s domain, but he had been running the business out of envelopes, doing everything manually. “Payments weren’t made consistently,” she says. “We owed the government money. It was a mess. I didn’t even know how much money was coming in. To tell the truth, I’d never been interested—I was happy dancing and teaching and cooking.” Blackstone realized she had to pay attention. “You have to know your own business. It was my life; it had to be strong—it had to be my first priority.”
Blackstone had weathered a business crisis before. In the mid-1990s, two of her teachers left to start their own studio just around the corner. The senior teacher, a close friend of Denise’s, took 40 preschool students with her. “It was out of the blue, and I was broken-hearted, but we landed on our feet,” says Blackstone. Richard took over the preschool classes, and before long business was back on an even keel.
This time around, Blackstone reached out beyond the family to help mend the business: Karen Schwartz Friedman, who’d been managing the competitions, became general office manager. Karen’s husband, a senior accountant at a big NYC museum, would also be available to consult with the studio. They computerized the business, using The Studio Director web-based software to track expenses, enrollment, payments, discounts, invoicing, costume ordering and more. Bills are now paid online; staff are on payroll, with direct deposit. “We instituted a budget, and I spend a lot of time planning now,” she says. She checks in with the accountant once a week. And for legal questions, she can always consult with her daughter, who’s now an attorney.
The biggest challenge is managing all the moving parts: the artistic end, the finances, the studio space, preparing classes, making sure the students and teachers are happy, the parents. “Then there’s always the unexpected—an air conditioner is stolen or a teacher calls in sick,” she says. “You can’t ever rest in the moment; you have to be looking ahead.”
The business is now out of debt and nets about $100,000, but to get there, says Blackstone, “I had to come up with ingenious ways to make money.” She started FOCUS, a four-day mini-convention with top teachers and choreographers that attracted people from all over the state who were coming to the shore each summer. She offered private lessons, coaching for auditions, master classes, an acting workshop with Lane Napper. Richard taught ballroom classes.
With $5,700 rent due each month—even the slower summer ones—it’s essential to even out cash flow. Early registration for fall, with first and last classes paid up front, happens right after the June recital, when everyone’s pumped and motivated to get first pick of classes. There’s a competition camp and mini dance camp at the end of June, then Nationals for a week in July. August brings a ballet intensive and fall registrations. With back-to-school, the regular weekly schedule of 45 classes ramps up. Fees for competitions are billed at the end of each month until the February and March convention dates.
The Blackstones are renting out their house and have moved into a condo near the studio. That means leaving a lot of memories—and the kitchen she loved—behind. It’s been wrenching. But there’s also the joy of a new grandchild, daughter Laureve’s baby. Richard, 65, loves to travel and in September 2010 the couple went on a two-month cruise (their 15th) as ballroom dance instructors, with plenty of time to explore ports from Australia to Hawaii. Denise isn’t ready to let go of the business yet, though. “It’s where I wanted it to get. You don’t want to let it go. But I have to say I love the process best, the challenge of fixing and doing.” Spoken like a true teacher. DT
Basia Hellwig is a NYC writer and editor who frequently covers small business.
Photos by Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Denise Blackstone