When Misty Lown founded Misty's Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, Wisconsin, purchasing her space was not an option. “I was fresh out of college, and I didn't want to be tied to a permanent situation," she says. Instead, she decided to lease with an option to buy after five years. Nineteen years later, she not only owns her own location (a different, bigger space than her original rental), but she offers consulting services to studios through her company, More Than Just Great Dancing. Transitioning to ownership made sense for Lown, but it's not right for every studio owner. Here are factors to consider when weighing your options.
As a young competition dancer, Lauren Saglimbene struggled with spinal flexion, or the curving of the spine that contracts the front of the body and elongates the back. “My modern teachers were constantly correcting me because they thought I didn't understand what a contraction was supposed to look like," she says. “It took a long time for them to figure out my spine just didn't move that way."
It's no easy task to follow in the footsteps of a legend. It's harder still to not just follow but also take the lead. Nan Giordano, daughter of jazz-dance icon Gus Giordano, has done just that, and she's doing it with unwavering dynamism and a tenacity that has kept her father's company, Giordano Dance Chicago, not only alive but thriving after 55 years.
Gus Giordano, a venerable founding father of jazz dance, traveled the globe teaching his iconic technique, inspired generations of dancers at his school and founded a company that became a staple in the Chicago dance scene and known around the world. Nan has been part of this company for 40 years—as a dancer, a partner to her father and now as artistic director. Today, she has cultivated an eclectic repertoire for its dancers, who have a full performance and tour schedule; she is fostering a growing education-and-outreach program; and she is overseeing the planning of a new home. "We're not just perpetuating my dad's name," Nan says. "We're elevating his legacy and building on the foundation he created."
"I've told my students to keep their shoulders down countless times," says Shannon Crites, owner of Shannon Crites School of Dance in Ardmore, OK. “Then, a guest teacher will come in and say, 'You should really release those shoulders,' and they finally do it!" Guest teachers and choreographers offer a fresh perspective to your students' education, and they'll expose them to exciting new styles and create winning choreography for competitions. But balancing your budget and timing can be tricky. Here, four experienced studio owners share how they make the most of every guest who walks through their studio doors.
Ardell Stone School of Dancing
About three or four times a year, Ardell Stone invites a guest artist to her studio to teach a master class and choreograph a piece for students on the competition team. But one of her main goals is making sure that as many students as possible get to take advantage. She allows noncompeting students to sign up for classes with the master teacher, offering at least one extra class for about $20 per student. Stone often finds potential guest teachers or choreographers by networking at competitions or teacher workshops. She estimates that she spends upwards of $3,500 for a teacher she really likes, which includes plane tickets (often from California), rental cars and hotel fees. She charges each of about 20 performing students an extra $150 to $200 for a master-class-plus-choreography session. “I don't like my students' families to spend too much money on one choreographer, especially since all the competition kids are required to take part," she says. “But we are in a relatively high socioeconomic area. And, though they charge an arm and a leg, it's well worth every cent."
Shannon Crites School of Dance
“We are in a very small community, and doing the same thing all the time can become mundane," says Shannon Crites, who brings master class teachers to her studio two to three times per year. “Guest teachers make our students work at a different level. They keep them in check." To save on costs, Crites often chooses professors from local universities, like University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University, who have the added benefit of exposing her students to the importance of higher education.
While teachers on the master-class circuit charge up to $500 an hour for a minimum of four classes, those from universities sometimes consider it a promotional visit for their school, so they'll charge less. Crites estimates an average of $350 per class. And costs go down dramatically for local teachers, without the price of airfare or hotel rooms. Crites charges students approximately $150, for a weekend of master classes, usually in the fall, when company students aren't constantly traveling to conventions and competitions.
If she has a university teacher in mind, she'll contact them directly or call the dance department to ask who they would suggest. College teachers have tight schedules, she says, so it's best to check in as early as possible. Crites starts planning in the spring of the school year before.
When she called OCU last year, the school suggested sending a professor and a dean to talk to students and their parents about college. The event transformed into a weekend-long workshop. “I was thrilled," Crites says. “It was a perfect way to promote the importance of education." She plans to hold a similar workshop this year since she saw dramatic results—out of five senior company members who graduated in 2010, four are now dancing in college, she says. “They understand how important it is to have a degree."
Burns Dance Studio
When guest choreographers come to Burns Dance Studio, students need to be prepared for an entire weekend of intensive training. Usually in September, a guest artist will set three routines on the studio's performance company.
“This exposes kids to different styles or choreography that's a little bit more current," says owner Rhoda Burns. “They look forward to it, but they know that it's going to be hard work." And missing these all-important weekends is not an option. “If they're a company kid, they know that not only do they have to be here, they have to pay for it," says Burns. “And if they're not here, they have to pay for it anyway."
Burns charges students approximately $150 each (in addition to annual tuition) to cover a choreographer's fee for the weekend, usually about $4,000 for 10 to 15 rehearsal hours. And when enrollment isn't high enough to break even, each dancer pays a little extra. “Most choreographers we bring in are willing to stay with me at my house, and not be in a hotel," says Burns. “That's a big save."
To add some extra fun to choreography weekends, they end with a pool party. On the following Monday, the company performs the routines that they've learned for their parents. And these works will be danced about 8 to 10 times throughout the year in competitions, community shows and during halftime at local high school or college games.
Monona Academy of Dance
JoJean Retrum, director of Monona Academy of Dance, likes to hire former students as guest teachers, many of whom are currently dancing with nearby Milwaukee Ballet. “Young people can see that getting a job performing is not an unrealistic goal," she says. When alumni teach, Retrum pays them between $50 and $100 per class, and fees for guest teachers are included in students' tuition.
Convincing alumni to return is never difficult, says Retrum, “They enjoy helping the studio out." She stays in touch via Facebook, reaching out often.
She also invites alumni to perform with the school's nonprofit dance company, paying them between $500 and $1,000 per performance. But Retrum says budget is not a primary concern when hiring guests. “I decide what I want the kids to learn, and I do it," she says. “I don't make a lot of money, but I'm rewarded by the feeling I get when I see my current and former students' work."
When Joel Hall enters a studio, students fall silent and rise in respect. He can command a room from its corner with merely a facial expression, but more often, he takes charge by getting into the thick of the dance, letting the beat of the house music move him and pulling meaning and emotion from each dancer. A well-timed "yes!" can thrust a penché to 180 degrees. A snapped finger and a "work!" can bring out the inner diva in even the shyest student. And an ecstatic "oh!" can move hips like mountains.
"I instill in my dancers the discipline of proper training, but I also let them know they have a voice—a voice that shows where they came from—and I want to hear it," Hall says. "My class is tough, and I get fabulous people out of it."
Towering over his students, with unparalleled stature and grace, Hall may appear intimidating. But those lucky enough to have been part of his story know that he is much more than a fierce commander of the studio—he is made up almost entirely of heart.
If you offer jazz in your studio, the style is most likely rooted in theatrical jazz dance, influenced by the 1940s and '50s Broadway choreography of Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins and Matt Mattox, and later, by innovators like Gus Giordano, Bob Fosse, Luigi and Frank Hatchett. But what is the state of jazz today? Where does it fit amid the explosive popularity of the elusively defined, highly televised juggernaut known as contemporary? Is jazz dying out, or is it simply evolving?
Let's ask these professionals for some perspective and the role of dance educators in shaping its future.
Music to inspire creativity
Billy Bell’s dance career revolves around creation—crafting new opportunities for himself, inventing new movement and inspiring new dancers. After his remarkable technique and ethereal movement quality got him to the Top 5 on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7, he founded his own company, Lunge Dance Collective; performed for two and a half years with the recently disbanded Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet; and, in February, joined the cast of the interactive show Sleep No More in New York City. Despite his performance schedule, Bell still finds time to teach improvisation—the ultimate incubator for creation.
As a faculty member for several popular conventions, Bell is an expert at adjusting his class to challenge whoever’s in the room. “If I see that students have a gap in their knowledge, I’ll dive more heavily into that—so I guess I sort of improv my improv class,” says Bell, who carefully selects tracks for movement, but often leaves the order of the music to chance, as well. “Sometimes I’ll just click shuffle on my iPod. That way, my students never get to adapt, since they can’t predict what’s coming next. Something completely atmospheric could lead into something like Justin Timberlake.” DT
“I use this for deep inhales and exhales at the beginning of a warm-up. It’s short, and it just makes you want to breathe for a second. It’s the perfect song to start class with positive energy.”
Song: “Jazz Night”
“If I do a more structured warm-up, I’ll use this for abs, arms and upper-body strength conditioning. It’s great for increasing stamina and getting blood flowing.”
Album: The Drive
“This is an album of buzzing tones. I’ll use this kind of music when I choreograph, since working in a silent room feels stifling. Having an ambient buzz playing low in the background during a rehearsal opens up my headspace.”
“This song is also pretty much just buzzing. My improv classes are typically built into two sections—the ‘thought’ section, which is about making conscious choices, and the ‘drive’ section, which is about instinct. For the ‘thought’ section, I like using ambient tones like this.”
“I like this as a transitional song between sections of class. It’s somewhere between a song that’s ambient and one that pushes you. It gets students from that completely cerebral land to a more physical one.”
Song: “Chambermaid Swing”
“Parov Stelar is a really fun electro-swing artist who I like to use for the ‘drive’ section of class, which is more about impulses. I’ll give certain tasks, like ‘spoking,’ in which you’re not allowed to bend your elbows or knees as you travel across the floor. Limiting choices can help kids learn to improvise. This song pushes them across the floor, but it’s not so fast that they don’t have time to process.”
Photo (top) by Erin Baiano for Dance Spirit
Studio owners share social-media policies that work.
Keeping up with the constant changes in social media may seem impossible. Even if you could remember the differences between pinning, snapping, tweeting and vining, you can’t possibly monitor every single post studio employees, students and parents make.
So what’s a busy studio owner to do? As burdensome as it may seem, the key is to take the time to create a social-media policy that protects your students and teachers from the worst of social media while still allowing for all the good things it has to offer. To help you create up-to-date and legally sound guidelines that fit your studio’s needs, DT spoke to three studio owners who have implemented successful policies.
Friends Without Benefits
Rejecting a friend request on Facebook or a follow request on Twitter can seem like a digital slap in the face—but it’s also something that Michelle Dawson encourages her staff to make a regular habit. “Our policy says that no staff member should be contacting any student under age 18 via social media,” says Dawson, who co-directs The Academy of Dance by Lori in Pittsburgh. “We ask them to direct their students to the studio’s Facebook page that everyone can friend.”
Dawson sets an example by not friending students or their parents on her personal Facebook page, even those she’s friendly with outside of the studio. “As close as I feel to these kids, I still have to remind myself that this is a professional relationship,” she says.
Sue Sampson-Dalena, owner of The Dance Studio of Fresno in California, has a similar policy, and for teachers who are reluctant, she says it’s helpful to compare the situation to high school, where students would never expect to be Facebook friends with their teachers. “I know some of my younger faculty think I’m old-fashioned, but there just has to be a line there,” she says. “If they step back and remember that we are educators just like a math teacher or school principal, they’ll realize it’s the right thing to do.”
One of the inherent problems with social media, however, is that it’s nearly impossible to keep tabs on, so it’s easy for staff (especially those with private accounts) to bend the rules. Even if you wanted to, employers are not legally able to fire employees based on whom they contact on social media, regardless of in-studio policy.
Staff members are more likely to follow the policy when they truly understand why it’s in place, and when their employer is flexible and open. Dawson says keeping an open dialogue makes teachers more willing to come to her when they have an issue with the policy. “When teachers approach us about specific situations, we’ll think about it,” she says. “For example, I have staff members who are Facebook friends with their young kid’s friends to monitor their own child. And I also have a teacher who’s good friends with some studio families, so she’s made a separate ‘teacher’ page for those parents who want to friend her, which is separate from her personal page.”
To Post or Not to Post
As far as what employees post on personal pages, the law, enforced by the National Labor Relations Board, says you may ask employees to be courteous and reflect your business in a positive light, but breaking these rules may not necessarily be grounds for lawful termination. Focus on helping your staff realize that they’re representing both your studio and themselves. And, of course, it helps to hire a staff that you trust to keep an open dialogue.
Sampson-Dalena worries more about what her students are posting, so she has her teams sign a code of ethics at the start of their season. “It says they will not post anything inappropriate, demeaning or provocative online, especially if they’re wearing Dance Studio of Fresno swag,” she says. “I’ve only had to call in a dancer once to ask if she was prepared for me to show her parents what she’d posted. It became a teaching moment about how the outside world, including future employers, will see her.”
Perhaps the biggest downside of social media comes when posts from students (or even the occasional parent) involve nasty comments, unflattering images or brutal private messages. Studio owners agree—a no-tolerance policy for bullying is absolutely essential. David Ahmad of Port Perry Dance Academy in Ontario, Canada, recalls an incident of improper social media use: “That child lost her solo and membership in a group routine for one year,” he says. He’s had no incidents since.
For Ahmad, students or staff posting video of studio choreography is another big no-no. “We make it clear that’s material owned by the studio,” he says. Studio owners may also want to remind students—and their smartphone-wielding parents—to ask permission of those being photographed or recorded before posting online. While not technically illegal, posting without permission can cause unnecessary upset. Dawson sets a privacy-keeping example by leaving students’ last names off any posts by the studio. DT
Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Social-Media Cheat Sheet
You’re probably familiar with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but do you know the difference between a pin and a vine? Where can you find a subreddit or create a tumblelog? If all this social-media jargon has you confused, here are some of the hottest sites today—and what you should know about them.
1. Instagram This photo-sharing site allows users to create profiles and post images and videos that are either shared with approved followers or public and searchable. Hashtags (#), used to group similar content, are huge on Instagram—as are unfiltered and often inappropriate comments.
2. Snapchat: Users message, or snap, each other directly and put a time limit on how long their pictures or videos last after they’re opened. But even after the message disappears, know that the recipient may have a screen shot of it—so this is not a risk-free way of sending something private.
3. Vine: Users post six-second video clips, called vines. By default, these (and comments on others’ videos) are public but can be made private. Many of the public videos are inappropriate for young eyes.
5. Tumblr: It’s a cross between a blog and Twitter. On custom-designed pages, or tumblelogs, users post text, photos, videos or audio clips. Posts on Tumblr are often reblogged—copied and shared to other tumble-logs—so even private posts can become public.
6. WhatsApp: WhatsApp allows users to send text or audio messages, videos or photos to each other with no message limits or fees (making it a great way to stay in touch when out of the country). WhatsApp is restricted to users 16 and older, although many younger teens find loopholes to join.
7. Reddit: Users submit links or text, which are voted up or down by other users. Highly ranked content appears on the front page. All posts are organized into categories, or subreddits. Reddit can be a fun way to find the latest news in a specific interest area or have your voice heard by like-minded users.
8. Yik Yak: Posts only show within a 10-mile radius, and since there are no profiles or followers, messages are anonymous, making it a possible haven for cyber-bullying. (Some schools have banned it.) —RZ