Associate editor Rachel Rizzuto is originally from Chalmette, Louisiana. She dances for MMDC and heads her own project-based company, touche pas. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with degrees in dance and English, she edits the Face to Face, Higher Ed, Technique, Theory & Practice and Business columns. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So you think you want to start a competition team, eh? It's a lot of work to take your studio into this arena, but, as many will attest, it can be well worth your while—both as a way to increase performance opportunities and exposure for your students and to grow your studio. Is there a way to avoid pitfalls and take the fast track to success? We talked with the directors of some of the most well-run teams we know about their strategies, from logistics like fees and schedules to navigating the emotions that are sure to come with this new territory.
Competition trophies, well-respected faculty and an end-of-year recital with Vegas-level production elements are all powerful attractions for potential students and their families. But what about recognition outside the studio sphere, in your community? Is there value in that?
To say Lisa Morgan wears more than one hat would be a gross understatement. For starters, she teaches a pedagogy course for dance majors at Colorado State University and heads the dance component of an arts-integration program (BRAINY) for local elementary students. She also runs a professional-development seminar for K–12 teachers who want to incorporate movement into their classrooms. And she teaches movement to music therapy students at CSU. Oh, and she was part of a weeklong summer institute last year to expose high-needs high schoolers to college via integrative dance activities.
It's tempting to say that Morgan, who has been an adjunct professor throughout her 20-year tenure at CSU, is just someone who goes above and beyond her job description. But she avows that it's more about feeling compelled to make her mark in dance education. If that sounds idealistic, it is. "When you're in arts education, you always see the bigger picture—a bigger list of things you want to do and get to," she says. Her bigger picture of late? Working on broadening CSU's dance-degree offerings (currently a BA) to include a BFA, eventually with a concentration in dance education—and teacher licensure. "It's what I'm most passionate about," she says. "It's what I can make the biggest difference in."
Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."
So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.
Be OK With Crazy
Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business
Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.
For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).
- Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
- Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
- Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
- Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
Gesel Mason has serious chutzpah. Eighteen years ago, fresh off a performance career with the Dance Exchange and eager to focus on her own work, she decided to ask some high-profile African-American choreographers—Bebe Miller, Andrea Woods Valdés, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Donald McKayle, David Roussève—if they'd set solos on her. "It was one of those moments where you don't realize what you're asking," she says. "Before I got too in my head, too 'Why-would-I-even-dare-to-ask-these-people?', I just...did." In looking back, she's surprised they all said yes.
That was the beginning of No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers, an evolving collection of solos meant to show the resilience and diversity of black contemporary performance. "The work very clearly shows that, actually, the boundary of the term 'blackness' doesn't really exist. It's wide and risk-taking and sophisticated," says MK Abadoo, a friend and colleague who has performed with Mason.
Since 2001, Mason—while also creating her own work, directing a company and holding teaching positions at many universities—has steadily amassed 11 solos, embedding herself in these choreographers' processes. Now, No Boundaries is evolving once more. Mason is archiving videos of the solos and extensive interviews with their respective choreographers via an online platform that will go live this spring, as part of her new (as of fall 2018) position at The University of Texas at Austin.
Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"
Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.
Slow, but consistent
Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."
When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."
"The fliers weren't working."
With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.
His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."
How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.
"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.
Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.
As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."
Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."
When Google came to town
Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."
Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."
There's no reason an audition video shot on your smartphone can't be sophisticated, says dance videographer Nel Shelby. Use her suggestions to give your video an air of professionalism.
Taught by Francesca Harper and demonstrated by Naya Lovell, this step borrows from William Forsythe's quest to take classical movement vocabulary and deconstruct the shapes created. "Let the momentum at the top of the développé carry you," says Harper, "and see how your body intuitively has its own response."