Adding community outreach to your studio's repertoire
The Dance Institute of Washington teaches dance and life lessons to students in need.
Educational outreach programs have become standard for major dance companies and their affiliated nonprofit dance schools, and they are typically supported by grants from state and local arts councils. But a number of private studios do outreach as well, and, in many cases, studio owners dig into their own pockets to support these efforts. Here, studio owners talk about their outreach programs and why they’re worth it.
Marcia Sarosik Dance Studio, 300 students
South Lake Tahoe, CA
As a kid, Marcia Sarosik’s family went through hard times after her dad was laid off from his job, but she went on to attend a private high school and college on scholarship. Now, as a studio owner, Sarosik tries to return the favor, providing scholarships to about 40 students who want to dance, but whose families are having financial trouble.
While she has, on occasion, provided separate classes for groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs, much of her outreach is done behind the scenes with scholarship students coming to take class alongside paying students at the studio.
“I get calls from counselors, teachers, principals and people in the community. They say, ‘I know this student who wants to dance, but I don’t think their family can pay. Can you do something?’” Sarosik says. “I don’t get grants. I’m still doing it by the seat of my pants, but I just say, ‘Sure, we’ll find a way.’ I know the business models say, ‘Don’t give away classes for free,’ but we have a responsibility to give these kids a chance and to help raise good human beings, too.”
Dance Institute of Washington, 125 students
Educational outreach doesn’t just mean teaching dance for the Dance Institute of Washington. The Institute offers outreach programs that mix dance with what director Fabian Barnes calls “life skills.” It began in 1999, when the school received a grant to teach at three affordable housing projects. Now the school offers its Positive Direction Through Dance program—mixing dance and life skills classes—for students ages 4–18 at one housing complex in the Institute’s neighborhood.
“We teach anything from financial literacy to conflict resolution to nutrition,” Barnes says. “We saw that the kids in the communities we were working with needed more than just dance. These classes introduce students to things that they may not get at home.” Teachers for the classes include volunteers from an area bank and a nutritionist, as well as staff members from the institute.
Institute staff meet regularly with the housing complex’s parent and tenant associations, and resident services coordinators. And since teaching dance in the apartment building’s multipurpose room is difficult, outreach students also attend regular dance classes at the studio. The buildings are close enough that Barnes doesn’t have to worry about transporting students to his facility. Grants and donations are utilized to supply dance clothing and shoes for outreach students.
“You have to be flexible. Going into these communities assuming everything will be perfect doesn’t work,” Barnes says. What does work, he adds, is mixing outreach students into classes with paying students. “People from all socioeconomic backgrounds need to know how to interact with one another, and they all receive the same training. This gives an example of what they’ll encounter in the world.”
Children’s Center for Dance Education, 232 students
At the Children’s Center for Dance Education, educational outreach programs are a learning experience for the center’s students, as well as for audiences at schools and nursing homes where they perform. The dancers travel to other parts of Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky to present one-hour versions of classic ballets and fairy tales like Swan Lake and Hansel and Gretel. “This gives dancers a very important understanding that they are not the center of what is going on in the world, which is an essential lesson,” says director Deena Laska.
The center also runs several dance programs at local schools and rehabilitation centers. The studio’s nonprofit status allows it to apply for grants to pay for these programs, which are taught by Laska and other staff members. One, the Pirouette Project, provides weekly ballet classes, including dancewear and shoes, for students in the third through fifth grades at area schools. Older students can opt to continue their dance training on full scholarship at the center.
Kate Carol and Company Dance, 250 students
Iowa City, IA
Kate Carol and Company Dance invites specialized groups, such as mentally or physically challenged students, for free classes at the studio (paid for by grants and sometimes out of Carol’s pocket).
The studio’s five student companies also sometimes present lecture demonstrations and performances in the community. “Since we’re not a competition school, it’s a nice opportunity for our students to perform,” Carol says.
Another component of the studio’s outreach consists of Carol teaching in area schools through Artists in the Schools programs, which are funded by the Iowa Arts Council. “It’s a chance to change someone’s perspective about the mental, intellectual and physical challenges of dance,” she says. “And occasionally you come across someone who is an amazing dancer, and you can help provide an opportunity for them.” Carol says her participation has not only made the studio eligible for grants, but it has been a vehicle for networking with other artists. “It’s great for professional collaborations because you meet people who design sets or costumes or are musicians or writers,” she says. She met a theater company owner through the program and ended up choreographing some of his productions.
“Outreach gives you the chance to pay it forward,” she says. “You give back to your community and to the artform.” DT
Karyn D. Collins teaches at The King Centre for the Performing Arts in NJ.
Photo courtesy of the Dance Institute of Washington
At the New York City Ballet this fall, audiences marveled at the high-octane antics of the revelers in the “Fall” section of Jerome Robbins’ The Four Seasons. At the same time, audiences across town were enthralled watching the sinuous symmetry of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in Taylor’s 1988 tour de force Speaking in Tongues. And in New Orleans, dancers from Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company elicited double takes when they performed the visually arresting Alwin Nikolais works with surprising authenticity. And authenticity is what the rehearsal directors and ballet masters in charge of these and other productions are hoping for onstage.
In the dance world, rehearsal directors and ballet masters are the keepers of the flame, the people whose duty is not only to pass down the basic frameworks of a company’s repertoire to successive generations of dancers, but to retain the subtle intricacies and the spirit and energy with which a piece was originally made.
They come to the job in any number of ways. Bettie de Jong, the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s longtime rehearsal director, sort of morphed into the job; she’d always been known as a go-to person for remembering and rehearsing choreography. Sandra Brown began coaching the principal dancers of Colorado Ballet when her husband, Gil Boggs, took over as artistic director. (See “From a Dancer’s Perspective,” pg. 42.) Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Alberto Del Saz became noted experts on the work of Jerome Robbins and Alwin Nikolais, respectively, having worked closely as assistants to those master choreographers while they were still alive.
The repertoire, size and type of company and their role within that company play a part in determining what each rehearsal director or ballet master strives to do when they enter a studio. Ultimately, though, there is the hope that what happens in the studio will result in performances that transcend the most basic of expectations—a clean run-through.
“Sometimes, what I’m looking for is more of a feeling, what I felt the very first time I saw the work. I’m looking for the musicality or the humanity,” de Jong says. “Certain pieces, the dancey-dance ones, have to be as clean as a whistle, otherwise they’re just terrible. Other pieces, it’s the whole feeling, the emotions, the characters.”
De Jong’s role in the Taylor company is distinctive—and not only because of her long tenure. She became rehearsal director in 1975 while still performing with the company (she danced with the Taylor company for 24 years). Now, at 77, de Jong not only runs rehearsals (with the assistance of recently appointed company and rehearsal manager Andy LeBeau), she travels with the company, overseeing such details as ensuring that the sound and lights are satisfactory.
“I rarely try to tell the dancers what they should do emotionally,” she says. “If they ask me, I’ll say, ‘I think Paul had such and such in mind.’ But I remember clearly when I was dancing that Paul left us alone to discover the emotions. Part of the thrill of performing was that you could make it your own within the dance form that he had made. I want things to be right, but we don’t want machines.”
No matter the extent of the rehear-sal director’s role, their impact is highly visible. Whether a corps de ballet performs with extra zest or an entire work looks under-rehearsed, or whether a principal dancer reaches new depths of artistry or fails to make progress—the responsibility rests on the rehearsal director’s shoulders.
“We’re trying to continue a legacy. I’m a messenger for this new generation,” says New York City Ballet’s Frohlich, one of that company’s 11 ballet masters (including ballet mistress Rosemary Dunleavy). Sean Lavery, assistant to artistic director Peter Martins, is also known to work with dancers frequently. City Ballet also has two separate staffers in charge of rehearsing children for its various productions.
“I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Robbins, who was a genius, and I was fortunate enough to work with Mr. Balanchine, who was a genius. I was dancing at the same time these two were still creating, so I was there to hear what they had to say,” says Frohlich, who has been a ballet master for more than 20 years, ever since he stopped performing.
Frohlich’s role among the ballet masters is unique. He is the chief person responsible for the Robbins repertory at City Ballet, overseeing rehearsals for the Robbins works done each season (he divides rehearsals between himself and a few others), and doing the casting for those ballets. He also sets Robbins works on other companies as part of his role with the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust.
“It’s a much bigger challenge now setting these works. Most of the com-pany has never worked directly with Mr. Robbins, whereas before there were people who had. Even if they hadn’t been in that ballet, they knew what he liked, what he demanded,” Frohlich says.
This means that when Frohlich teaches a piece, as he was doing during one brisk rehearsal of the “Fall” section of Robbins’ The Four Seasons, he’s not only teaching steps and counts from a combination of memory and a folder of notes on a yellow legal pad, he’s sharing information about how Robbins felt about certain things.
“Mr. Robbins used to say, ‘Play the scene, baby,’” he told the young men and women at one point, showing the carefully relaxed positions Robbins wanted the dancers to effect in a certain part.
Later, having told the dancers several times that they were part of a bacchanal, he got more specific, pretending to take a swig of a drink before adding, “It’s an orgy, OK?”
Alberto Del Saz has a similar challenge in trying to pass on intricacies to a generation that never knew the choreographer. In his case, Del Saz is artistic director of the Nikolais Louis Foundation for Dance. As part of a special ongoing project with the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Del Saz has been setting Nikolais works on the Salt Lake City company and even travels with the company when it tours the Nikolais repertory.
“It’s not just about teaching them the steps. There is a whole philosophy behind it,” he says of his work with the Ririe-Woodbury dancers over the past seven years. “Now, they know the repertory a little bit better, so we can focus on the quality of movement. But the challenge is it’s a specific way of operating. I had to make sure that they can get more insight into the process.”
Del Saz danced for Nikolais during the last 10 years of his life (he died in 1993), learning then how best to share the choreographer’s creations. “Now I’m able to bring to these dancers the way Nikolais worked with his dancers, how we as dancers were able to interpret the work, how we were given a certain freedom to approach the work,” Del Saz says. “There are certain places in the works where a dancer is allowed to improvise to a certain degree, for example. I try to bring a new and hopefully refreshing and different approach to the movement as someone who performed the work.”
But Del Saz acknowledges there’s only so much time that can be spent sharing the intricacies of the process. The need for speed and efficiency is a constant concern for rehearsal directors and ballet masters.
“We have such a large rep going out this fall and I’m scared,” says de Jong. “Sixteen total. Usually we have five or six new ones going out, with eight already prepared. But now we have 16 of them and only six weeks to rehearse. And it’s not even really six. That’s just on paper. I just hope we make it.”
How well they do at accomplishing their goals with a particular work can be determined in various ways. First, they say, besides their own observations, there are the assessments of their bosses—the artistic directors. “In the end, it’s whatever Paul wants,” says de Jong. “And he’s actually a lot more liberal about where his dancers can take dances than I am. I’m a stickler. I go back to the source, how it was originally. Paul comes in and says, ‘Oh, it’s fine.’ He doesn’t mind if it’s not exactly like it was before.”
But listening to the criticisms of those outside the process can be annoying. “It can be really hard to hear from critics ‘I remember this and this’ or ‘They don’t do it the same way they used to,’” Frohlich says. “I was around in those days and it wasn’t so hunky-dory like all these critics say. Things do change. Balanchine did not want things to be exactly the same.”
He adds: “Granted, things could be better now sometimes, yes. But things could have been better then, too. There were many times back then when the corps de ballet was a mess. The only thing I will agree on is that sometimes the energy and passion of the dancers today could be better. But this is a different generation. It’s a part of the job that you’re always dealing with.” DT
Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based freelance writer.
Photo from top: by Jack Mitchell and by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company; by Rick Foster, courtesy of Alberto Del Saz; by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet; by Fred Hayes, courtesy of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company
Volunteers can be a big help around your busy studio, from lining up students backstage during recitals to leading fundraising efforts to even painting your building. These five studio owners share their tips for recruiting and effectively utilizing volunteer staff.
All That Dance
At All That Dance, parent volunteers are involved in almost every aspect of putting recitals together, including handing out costumes and hair and makeup information, passing out tickets and selling tights, says studio director Maygan Wurzer. As the show nears, volunteers work in shifts during class hours, Monday through Saturday. Wurzer recruits more than 150 helpers by mailing recital information packets that invite parents to serve on one of five committees: sewing/accessories, backstage, ushers, refreshment and costume handout/information. She handpicks veteran parents to lead each group and a (paid) studio performance director manages all helpers. “It’s great to be able to trust parents who have been in the studio for a long time and know what we’re about,” she says.
Becky Seamster Dance Studio
Becky Seamster recruits around 50 parent helpers during her studio’s annual recital. They are responsible for behind-the-scenes jobs, like supervising backstage and ushering attendees. The self-proclaimed “control freak” oversees the entire event, from meeting with volunteers and assigning jobs (based on strengths and weaknesses) to supervising the support team. To avoid recruiting parents who only want to gain favors for their children, Seamster tells them up front, “You’re not going to get anything out of it.” She equips every parent with a set of guidelines, and she will reassign a volunteer’s position if they aren’t being productive.
Star Dance Center
Santa Clarita, CA
When Erin and Joe Sanfelippo opened their studio five years ago, they were reluctant to ask for assistance. “We wanted clients to think that we had everything under control,” says Erin. But they later realized that the parents wanted to pitch in to feel like part of a studio family. Now parents assist students backstage during the studio’s holiday show and end-of-year recital, as well as relay information from teachers to each competition team member’s family. Sometimes too many parents sign up for certain jobs, like staying backstage with the younger students during shows, so staff members monitor who signs up for what and will move certain parents to other jobs if problems are anticipated.
Dance For Joy
Mohegan Lake, NY
Parents whose children are in Dance For Joy’s annual Nutcracker are expected to work behind the production’s scenes in some capacity. “The problem is finding enough people who are really able to handle the responsibility and take charge,” says studio director Roberta Humphrey. She selects about 70 to 80 people she knows will be good for the job. (One tip: Schoolteachers tend to be best for dressing room duty.) Those who prove less skilled for certain tasks are moved to other jobs, like handing out programs. And showing reliable parents full trust will encourage them to willingly take on more responsibilities. For instance, one studio mother volunteered to head Dance For Joy’s fundraising efforts to help send 32 company dancers to London to perform during the 2012 Olympics. “We have to raise about $1,600 per dancer, so that’s a big job, but I know this mom will get things done,” says Humphrey.
Broadway South Dance
In her five years running Broadway South Dance, director Michelle Adams-Meeker has established an incentive program, called Broadway Bucks, to entice volunteers to lend a helping hand. “They’re worth money off of everything from students’ tuition to dance apparel,” she says. “It’s how we say thank you and it seems to work very well.” The studio gets a third of its volunteers through e-mails sent to each student’s parents. Other helpers consist of alumni, relatives of current and former students and Adams-Meeker’s local contacts. Together, they assist with everything from working backstage during dance shows to painting her building and classrooms. DT
Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based writer and dance teacher at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, NJ.
Salisbury Studio of Dance
Betty Webster has followed the same routine for 50 years. Six days a week, she’s at her dance studio, the Salisbury Studio of Dance in Fruitland, Maryland, making sure everything is running smoothly. She also keeps an eye on the student company she founded 19 years ago, Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre.
“It’s my life. I love it dearly,” says Webster, now 84. “I always wanted to share my love of dance.” Though Elena Manakhova-Amy is now the upper-level teacher for the studio and
company, Webster still heads the school and teaches ballet class to the 6- to 8-year-olds, three days a week.
Webster grew up in West Virginia and studied with highly renowned teachers, including Caroline Littlefield, Leon Fokine (nephew of Michel), John Sergieff, Madame Nina Niketina and Marion Venable. Watching ballerina Vera Zorina in a film excerpt choreographed by George Balanchine ultimately inspired Webster to make dance her career. “I was just mesmerized. I knew at that moment that I wanted to somehow do that. I wanted to create dances and I wanted to train dancers,” Webster says.
After high school she performed with several regional companies, then married and started a family. (None of her five children are dancers, but over the years they’ve all assisted their mother in various aspects of the school or the company, from teaching to providing legal services.)
It wasn’t until the family moved to Salisbury, MD, that Webster decided to open a studio. “I wanted to get back to teaching,” she says. “I loved dance so much, I couldn’t be away from it.”
She started the school with 35 students and at its highest point had 360 enrolled. Today, 200 students take classes in ballet, tap and jazz. Her students have been accepted in major dance programs like the School of American Ballet, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC. Several have gone on to professional careers in television and with major companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem, Pacific Northwest Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre.
Yet Webster says that for a long time she felt something was missing. She wanted to give her more serious students crucial performing opportunities. Finally, in the fall of 1991 she formed Eastern Shore Ballet Theatre, with Tatiana Akinfieva-Smith as artistic director.
“We had no money when we started, but we had faith and determination,” Webster says. “I knew that we had to do this. Our students were ready to do more than just the recitals. And I felt there was a need in the community for the level of dancing I wanted to do.”
The company currently has 55 dancers, from ages 9 to 18. They present The Nutcracker and a spring production every year and perform for community benefits and festivals.
Today, Webster continues to instill in her students a respect for the solid foundation in ballet that she was brought up with. “I can’t jump as high as I used to, but I still jump. And I have one of the older girls come in to demonstrate grand pliés. Otherwise I’ll have cramps when I get home,” Webster says. “But I love what I do, even though I’m trying to slow down a little now.”
“I’m very strict,” she adds. “That hasn’t changed from when I started. I make sure my students know that the basics don’t change. They remain the most important thing in your training.”
Photo by Ginger Springer, courtesy of Salisbury School of Dance
Crooked Tree Arts Center Dance Department
When little Heather Raue saw Suzanne Farrell dance on television after an episode of “Sesame Street,” the toddler decided she too would be a ballerina. After just one class, 3-year-old Heather decided on a different goal: She wanted to be a teacher.
Fast-forward 28 years; Raue, 31, is co-founder and director of the dance department for the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, Michigan. In seven years, she has built a ballet-based program from two beginners to 180 students. The pre-professional division now sends dancers to some of the most prestigious summer dance programs in the country, including The School of American Ballet, the American Dance Festival, The Ailey School and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy.
Petoskey is a long way from Dallas, Texas, where Raue grew up and trained at the Etgen-Atkinson Ballet School and the affiliated Dallas Metropolitan Ballet. (She also studied at the Ben Stevenson Academy and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.) “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but if you had told me growing up that I’d be doing it in a little town in Northern Michigan, I would have said, ‘No way!’” Raue and her husband, Erik, happened upon the little (6,000 residents) town of Petoskey on their honeymoon and instantly fell in love.
At the time, Petoskey had a vibrant arts scene, including a newly renovated arts center that included a dance studio, but no one in town was teaching dance. It wasn’t long before Erik persuaded his wife to fill the void. Today, Raue teaches ballet, pointe and partnering six days a week as part of a three-member dance faculty. She also teaches one day a week each at two other locations near the Crooked Tree Arts Center.
But it’s the 18 students in Crooked Tree’s pre-professional dance program who have garnered attention from others in the dance world. The dancers take classes six days a week in ballet and modern.
Their parents rave about Raue’s dedication. “This woman is unbelievable with these kids. Her commitment to them and the way she communicates and works with them is just amazing,” says Ann Massey, whose 12-year-old son, Michael Menghini, has been studying with Raue for three years. Massey drives 90 miles roundtrip, six days a week, to get her son to class. “There are other places closer to us where we could go, but I wouldn’t want him to go anywhere else,” Massey says. “The level of training and the care and commitment to the kids is just amazing. Even if he doesn’t become a dancer, he’ll always remember Miss Heather and what she’s done for him.”
Raue provides her students with training that reflects her own experience in the dance world—a rock-solid foundation. For her pre-professional students, that foundation is heightened by exposure to an eclectic range of styles and influences. Only students planning to study after high school are allowed on pointe, and Raue says she often opts to start pointe training at age 12, when her students are “past being ready.”
Because she recognizes that her serious students need exposure to other teachers and the world outside Petoskey, Raue goes above and beyond to help them get into outside summer study programs. She personally prepares individualized packets for each student with information on auditions and helps them select a program that is well-suited for the their needs and abilities. Despite the area’s harsh winters, her students regularly carpool for the seven-hour drive to Chicago, the nearest location for auditions. “I’m vehement about making them into well-rounded dancers who can handle just about anything,” she says.
Diane Reynolds, whose daughter Kirsten, 15, has been with Raue for eight years, says, “Miss Heather gives so much more to our dancers than just dance lessons. With her encouragement they discover what their deepest desires and passions are. She helps them achieve their dreams.”
“The number one thing I want my dancers to have is passion about whatever they pursue in life,” Raue says. “I always want them to push the envelope—to explore past where they think their boundaries are.”
Photo courtesy of Heather Raue
Dealing with classroom conflicts
Mary and Betty,* dance students at Howell High School in Howell, New Jersey, had been good friends for as long as they could remember. They stood next to each other at the barre every day, and Mary even chose Betty to be in her piece for a student choreography class. But when Betty skipped some of Mary’s rehearsals, Mary replaced her with another girl. A furious Betty then announced that the two were no longer friends, starting a social war that eventually grew so severe the parents of the two girls demanded that the school’s director intervene.
Sound familiar? Every teacher knows that there’s a social aspect to dance training, whether students are choosing barre buddies or hanging out in the dressing room after rehearsal. But serious problems can occur when these friendships start to affect what’s happening in class.
“Friendship issues always happen. Every year. It makes me a little bit crazy sometimes,” says Lisa Twamley, the director of the dance program at Howell High who was in the middle of the Mary and Betty situation. “It’s usually among the younger students here at the high school. They’re at a vulnerable age, and there’s a lot of insecurity. A lot of the problems with cliques and people feeling left out stem from that.”
Dr. Jim Taylor, a California-based psychologist and lead author of The Psychology of Dance, says that dance classes also have an inherent competitiveness that can take cliques to another level. “Separating into groups is a normal part of forming identity, a part of feeling accepted,” says Taylor, who has worked with many dance organizations, including the Miami City Ballet, the Hartford Ballet and the DanceAspen Summer School. “In most teenage situations, groups are based on things like attractiveness. But in dance class, skill level and body type are often additional factors—and added pressures.”
DT takes a look at how teachers can avoid and address toxic classroom friendships.
While it’s almost impossible to eliminate cliques, dance teachers can lessen their negative impact by laying some class ground rules. “A teacher can build a culture in the studio of support and encouragement and establish that certain behavior is not acceptable,” Taylor says.
“We start with our 5- and 6-year-olds, letting them know that cliques will not be tolerated in the classroom,” says Pattie Beller, director of Beller Dance Studio in Overland Park, Kansas. “We tell the kids that we are all friends in dance class. They grow up with that philosophy and understand from an early age what is expected of them.” Teachers can reinforce these ideas by hanging posters encouraging friendship, teamwork and positive attitudes around the classroom.
As students get older, a few deceptively simple rules can go a long way toward preventing the most common problem scenarios. “We don’t let them pick who they go across the floor with—so basic, but so effective,” Beller says. “We tell them who’s in each across-the-floor group.” She finds that assigning spots at the barre is equally helpful.
Making a point of offering corrections and praise for every student also helps students feel that there is no “out” group. “I’ve learned that sometimes I unconsciously made my classes feel that certain students are slower than others by inadvertently devoting less attention to those students, and that can encourage exclusion,” says Donna Farinella, director of Dance World Academy in Clifton and Passaic Park, New Jersey. “Showing that you value everybody by consistently giving everyone equal attention sets an example for the students to follow.”
Incorporating team-building exercises into class is another way to help prevent clique problems. “One thing I do at the beginning of the year is have my students form a circle, with everyone sitting next to someone they don’t really know,” says Michele Larkin, co-owner of Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, Minnesota. “I give them 15 minutes to come up with 10 non-dance-related things about that person they didn’t know before.” Exercises of this kind foster an “everybody’s friends” mentality, which makes classes more resistant to clique issues.
But the biggest problems, Twamley says, usually have roots outside the studio. “We can control what they do in class, but what they do with their social time is beyond our control—and when we have problems, that’s often where it comes from,” Twamley says. “So-and-so didn’t get invited to a party. This group hangs out together all the time outside of class and this other group hangs out apart from the first group.”
The worst thing a teacher can do in this scenario is to look the other way. “You never want to appear to choose sides, but you can’t ignore social problems once they become severe,” Taylor says.
Larkin says she often asks other students to help if a student complains about feeling left out or if she sees a problem brewing. “I have captains for each of my performing groups, and whenever there are any friendship issues, I make sure the captains sit down with the group and discuss them. I may ask the captains to go out of their way to make that person feel better, too,” Larkin says. “I’ll say to a captain, ‘This girl is feeling left out. Can you help make her feel included?’” When the captain, a natural role model, leads the way, the rest of the group is likely to follow in her footsteps.
Diane Gudat, director of The Dance Company in Indianapolis, says she tries a different approach: She talks to the leader of the clique directly, but without casting blame. “I try the approach of saying, ‘I have a problem with so-and-so in class. She is feeling left-out and a little sad lately, and I know that you are very outgoing and that the kids all like you, so I would really appreciate it if you would help the others be nice to her and make her feel better,” Gudat says.
Twamley has had more success talking to students who are not involved in the conflict—students she knows are more accepting or mature. “Sometimes it’s best to go to the student who is a little more approachable and empathetic—maybe even someone a little bit older,” Twamley says. “A lot of times, those kids are your leaders anyway, and once everyone sees that person include the one who felt left out, they’ll follow along.”
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the ability to work effectively with a group is bigger than dance class—it’s a life skill. Remind your older students that in professional situations, dance-related or otherwise, they’ll need to be able to work with many different types of people to achieve success. Dance class is the perfect place to start practicing. DT
*Names have been changed.
Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based writer. She is on faculty at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, NJ.
Photo copyright iStockphoto.com/George Peters
Studio owners tame tardiness.
When you’re running a dance studio, anything off schedule creates a problem—especially delayed payments, students arriving to class after it’s already begun and parents picking up their children late. But how can studio owners remedy tardiness without punishing their students? To help you resolve these issues, when contract guidelines, handbook rules and personal messages go ignored, we asked five experts to share their solutions.
Vero Beach and Sebastian, FL
Dance Space owner Andrew Currie says a third of his 200 students pay late every month. This year, Currie implemented a computerized payment system that automatically charges parents’ credit cards each cycle. “It’s great. We know we’ll definitely have X amount of dollars in the bank and we’ve never had that before,” he says. For delayed payments, parents are sent a programmed e-mail notice informing them that a late fee has been added to their bill. “In the past, late charges were ignored, but now, when they get this notice, people respond, asking why they have a $10 charge on their bill,” says Currie.
Carol Ann’s Dance Studio
East Tawas, Pinconning and West Branch, MI
Carol Ann’s Dance Studio offers discounts to those who pay early to help curb payment problems among the 260 students attending one of the three locations. “If parents pay before the 15th of the month, we have one price; if they pay after the 15th, we have another price,” says co-owner Adrienne Gallagher. For example, those paying early for a basic 45-minute class would only pay $30 a month rather than $35. “We even offer discounts for parents who pay for the whole year up front,” she says. “A 3- to 4-year-old 45-minute combination tap/ballet class would be $256.50 instead of the usual $270.” And individual students who take three classes a week, or three siblings who take a class a week each are given an eight percent discount per month, which increases by two percent with each additional class.
Rockport Dance Conservatory
West Rockport, ME
The rule for class tardiness at Rockport Dance Conservatory: “If the student is more than 10 minutes late, they have to open the door and ask for permission to come in,” says studio director Kari Cameron. “If it gets to be chronic, I’ll talk to the parent and their child to make sure it’s a problem with rides rather than disrespect.” With an enrollment of 60 students, Cameron says her faculty is able to transport students who have issues getting to class on time because of a parent’s work schedule. “If it’s an issue of disrespect, we talk to the student about how dance is a discipline and compare it to going to a job to make them understand why it’s a problem. If you were chronically late to work, you’d lose pay or be fired,” says Cameron.
April Spisak Nelson
Spisak Dance Academy
April Nelson, director of Spisak Dance Academy, says that charging parents a “babysitting” fee when picking up their children late from class is the only thing she’s found to work for her 260 students. “Unfortunately, you have some people who take advantage of the fact that we’re here for other classes or rehearsals and know that we won’t leave until their child is picked up,” says Nelson. “I put a childcare fee on the student’s bill—$10 for every minute the parents are late. That usually takes care of the problem.” Nelson also uses adult peer pressure, insisting that the next to last parent picking up a late child wait for the last parent to arrive. “And I make sure they know I’m upset,” she says, adding that she speaks to late parents face to face to make the point clear.
Dancette Pratts, owner/director of Inspirational Dance, says she maintains a personal approach when dealing with late parents. “Usually, they come in and we sit down to talk it through,” she says. “It tends to be the same people who are late with everything—payments, getting their child to class, picking them up.” When a one-on-one talk doesn’t help, Pratts adds an extra charge to those students’ tuition bills. “The first time I let it go. But it’s a $5 charge after that for anyone who is late 10 minutes or more picking up their child. It’s $10 if they’re a half-hour or an hour late,” she says. Pratts has also worked out agreements with some families to work backstage at performances or hand out fliers to help pay off their tuition bills. DT
Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based writer and dance teacher at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, NJ.
Illustration by Emily Giacolone
When Nena Gilreath and Waverly Lucas moved their Ballethnic Dance Company and its affiliated dance academy into the organization’s first real home in Atlanta, the married couple shared an office. But the movers were given specific instructions.
“I told them, ‘Waverly’s desk goes on that end of the room and my desk goes on this end.’ We both had our own space,” Gilreath says. “Both of us have very strong, stubborn personalities and like things a certain way. We learned early on that we had different strengths and that we needed ways to separate ourselves a little, even though we were together all day. Now, in our current space, his office is downstairs and my office is upstairs and that works very well for us.”
For some couples, the thought of working day-in, day-out with a spouse would be something akin to dragging fingernails across a chalkboard. Pure torture. But in the dance world, many studios are a family affair with husbands and wives saying “I do” not just to each other, but to sharing responsibility for everything from teaching to balancing the books.
Those who take the plunge down the studio aisle say the key to success comes down to recognizing and respecting each partner’s strengths and weaknesses and divvying up duties accordingly.
Take the Ballethnic team. The duo began dating back in 1987 when both were dancers with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and they started their company in 1990 and school in 1991. They got married in 1992. All that time together, they said, means they’ve learned how to make their different strengths and styles an asset for their business.
“She’s much better at the organizing, paperwork type of things. I do more of the creative, choreography, rehearsing part of things,” Lucas says. “We balance each other out. We don’t always agree, but that’s a good thing, because I can honestly say if she agreed with me constantly, I would make so many mistakes.”
Gilreath and Lucas and their separate offices may be a bit unusual, but their method of separating duties according to strengths is something many dance studio couples say they do as a matter of course.
Kathy and Joe DeMaira are typical of a lot of studio-owner couples. Kathy is the one with the dance background, while Joe, who has a degree in business, left his job as a union painter apprentice last school year to help run the two-year-old studio. Now, Joe handles most of the business end of running the DeMaira Dance Studios, which has locations in Oak Park and Chicago. They often find themselves working at different locations each day, more by chance than design, they say. Married almost nine years, they say the key to success has been communication.
“One of the things we talked about before we even got married was communication. We just said, ‘Hey, neither of us has ESP. I can’t read your mind and you can’t read mine,’” Kathy says. For Joe, that has meant learning the hows and whys of the system Kathy had already set up for the studio.
“When I first started out, I had a hard time understanding how she came up with some things,” Joe says. “She would say, ‘I want you to feel that this is your business, too,’ but she had her own system and I had to learn it. But I’m very happy with what I’m doing now. This is what I always wanted, to run a business, to be in charge of a business.”
And working with a spouse on a project you both believe in is a powerful lure, says Melissa Morris. She left her own career as an administrator and visual merchandising designer in 2005 to help husband Chip run the Acton (MA) School of Ballet and its affiliated company, The Commonwealth Ballet. Chip, who had taught at the studio for 14 years, purchased the school in 2004, the same year the couple got married. Now Melissa serves as the school’s administrator, liaises with teachers, helps write the storylines to their original ballets, orders costumes and designs the company’s sets, while Chip handles the artistic side of things.
“We just take pleasure in things that I’m not sure I would have stopped to think about when I was younger,” says Melissa, who like Chip is in her 50s. “You feel like you’ve crafted something together that is very meaningful. And the truth of the matter is, for me, this is a total love match. I’m just happy to be with him all the time.”
Adds Chip, “Sometimes people don’t want to see their spouse at work. I’m just happy to see her all the time.”
Of course it’s not all hearts and flowers. Every business experiences challenges. In the case of studio owners, those challenges can range from declines in enrollment, scheduling snafus or issues with the staff to finding ways to take time off from the seemingly endless stream of e-mails and telephone calls. Added to that are the typical ups and downs of married life that every couple experiences.
Studio owner couples say remembering to maintain a sense of professionalism was the key to keeping the inevitable business and personal stresses and resulting squabbles away from the ever present eyes and ears of the studio staff, parents and students.
“It’s not a complete mystery when there’s tension. Of course I think it’s inappropriate to bring it into the office. But to say it isn’t here sometimes would be ridiculous. I’d be lying,” says Darlene Casanova, a former dancer who runs the dance and music studio, Imagination Place, in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband Paul Mulder. “It’s definitely a challenge sometimes because there’s no separation.”
Mulder adds there have been times when he’s thought that maybe he should get another job instead of helping to run the school they’ve had for 12 years. The two, who have been married for 18 years, have two children, another challenge requiring constant juggling that many studio owners also share.
“The day-to-day of operating a studio is tough to manage sometimes. But I can honestly say that after 11 years, you realize there are more benefits than not. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that,” says Mulder, an actor who divides his schedule between acting jobs and handling the studio’s administrative and customer service duties. “And one other benefit is that we both understand how much work the other is doing and how hard they’re working, so there’s an appreciation on that level.”
Dealing with day-to-day headaches is one thing. Dealing with a major tragedy while running a studio together is something else altogether. For Angela Amoroso and Drew Skinner, that nightmare scenario became a reality in 2004 when the couple’s daughter was born three months premature, suffered a series of complications and died after three months from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The couple said their studio family at the Scripps Performing Arts Academy in San Diego not only supported the couple as they grieved, but were instrumental in helping the couple to establish Isabella’s Giraffe, a nonprofit organization that provides emotional and educational support for parents with infants in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). So far, Isabella’s Giraffe has raised $470,000 for the NICU at the University of California–San Diego Infant Special Care Center.
“In getting through our grief, what really supported us was the tremendous love of all those parents. I was able to go to the studio and tell my story. I had all these mommies who embraced us and allowed us to tell our story over and over again,” says Amoroso, who opened Scripps in 1987 after eight years of running her own studio in the New York City area.
The couple, who have been married for seven years and have grown children from previous marriages, add that the school’s staff also jumped in to help the couple cope with the death of their baby daughter.
“There were times when Angela would go to teach a Mommy and Me class, and it would be too much for her to see this studio of little girls. She would just have to turn around and leave,” Skinner says. “But we had a great staff and they would fill in at a moment’s notice.”
Adds Amoroso, “In situations like ours, they talk about how you have to get your emotions out so you can resume your new normal. It’s that show-must-go-on mentality. You have all these children relying on you to go on. The circle of life continues. And that beautiful cycle created a healing in our hearts.”
They call him Mr. Herb.
Herb Flynn doesn’t teach dance. In fact, he doesn’t dance at all. He’s an electrical engineer for a solar company. But at Dance Dimensions in Brookfield, Connecticut, Mr. Herb is an essential part of the studio.
What exactly does he do? Plenty. And it goes far beyond just being married to the boss, studio director Dody Flynn. “I do a little bit of everything—from changing the light bulbs to actually building the studios, which I’m doing right now,” Herb Flynn says. “At recitals I do the tickets, work backstage, do lights. I follow the competitions. I get lunch and dinner. I pick up our kids every night.”
He even helps select and cut music for competitions and recitals, says Dody Flynn. “He supports me. I talk things over with him all the time. If there’s a dispute with a parent or something like that, he’s always on the same page with me. And he gives me the guidance to see the other side of things sometimes.”
Herb Flynn, who started dating his wife while they were teens and she was performing and competing, says he’s learned over the years that his wife doesn’t need his protection. “She’s pretty tough,” he says. But she does need his support. The couple, who have two children, got married 14 years ago just before purchasing the studio.
Such active and wholehearted support from a spouse isn’t always a given, studio owners report. Sometimes a spouse’s distance from the studio’s daily churn is arrived at by mutual agreement. And stories abound of marriages that have broken up because of a spouse’s complaints that their studio-owner mate was spending too much time immersed in studio issues.
“There are some marriages that have problems. I’m lucky. The only thing my husband gets perturbed about is Nationals during the summer. He thinks they’re too long. We don’t actually get to take a family vacation that’s relaxing,” says Cathy Nesbitt-Stein, director of Candy Apple’s Dance Center in Canton, Ohio. “But my husband has never said I should spend less time with the studio or complained that it was just a hobby.”
“She is running a business and she has her schedule,” says Mike Stein, who works full-time as an insurance adjuster and cares for the couple’s 5-year-old in the evenings while mom is at the studio. At Candy Apple’s, his unofficial jobs include handling assorted odds and ends like making sure the soda machine is filled. He’s also part of a group of dads that performs at recital. “You have to realize it’s a business and things are always going on.”
Of course there are some frustrations. E-mails and phone calls are a constant headache. Stein says when his home phone rings he knows it’s probably something about the studio. He tells people who need to reach him to call his cell phone instead.
Herb Flynn adds that he sometimes puts his foot down when he feels his wife has volunteered too much of her previously free time. “She can take on more than she’s able to do sometimes. She tries to stretch herself too thin,” Flynn says.
But both couples say they make an effort to set aside time to be together, whether to go out to dinner or to go on a long drive. “We go out to eat just the two of us, but we’ll talk about the studio half the time. I don’t try to fight it. It’s part of what we do. I consider myself a silent partner,” Flynn says. “My recommendation (to other spouses) would be to not fight it. Become a part of the business. The way we look at it, it’s our business, not just her business. It’s just that I can’t teach dance.”
Karyn Collins is a New Jersey–based writer and dance teacher.
Photos from top: courtesy of Scripps Performing Arts Academy; by Keiko Guest, courtesy Ballethnic; courtesy Acton School of Ballet