Despite spending time in the studio every day, maintaining a healthy weight is often difficult for studio owners and teachers. Whether running a business leaves little time for proper nutrition and exercise or an injury has left you sidelined, weight gain is a common occurrence as the years progress. Here, two teachers talk candidly about their body struggles and reveal what motivated them to lose—and keep off—the extra pounds.

Sandra Sears
Age 46
Studio owner

“I gained 10 to 12 pounds over 10 to 12 years,” says Sears, who has owned Atelier of Dance in Tampa, Florida, for the past two decades. As the demands of running her business increased, Sears’ activity level decreased. She was teaching more and dancing less—and gaining weight so slowly she hardly noticed the changes that were taking place.

Though she generally avoided scales, one day Sears stepped on one. It registered 180 pounds—a stinging number that further decreased her motivation to maintain a healthy weight. “It was so overwhelming. I almost gave up the idea of ever losing the weight,” she say. “I was like, ‘Why bother?’”

Then, four years ago, after a trip with her students to the Empire State Building, she saw a photo of herself. “I thought it was distorted,” she admits. “I was 274 pounds.”

Like many, Sears at first looked to quick-fix diets, including Slim-Fast and Atkins, to shed the weight rapidly. Then, realizing a lifestyle change was in order, she began working with a nutritionist and trainer to learn more about her body and eating habits. For example, Sears now knows she is more likely to eat healthy (and avoid ice cream) if she works out early. Six mornings a week, she wakes up before dawn and hits the treadmill and weights. In addition, she is teaching more, leading roughly 20 classes a week at the studio.

De-cluttering her life has also helped keep her weight down, as she discovered after cleaning up at home and at the studio, paying off her credit cards and getting her financial affairs in order. “The more stress you can take out of your life,” Sears says, “the easier it becomes to eat healthy and stay fit.”

KayCee Stroh
Age 24
Teacher and star of High School Musical

Stroh grew up a competition kid in Salt Lake City, Utah. As a child, she struggled with her compact, broad build, hearing from competition officials that while she was a good dancer, she didn’t “fit the image.” “I was shocked that they actually took me aside and told me that,” Stroh recalls. “But as I got older, I realized that this is what I’ve got, this is what God gave me.” She made herself a promise: “I’m never going to let my body hold me back.”

At age 18, while teaching dance, Stroh endured a knee injury that required surgery. The procedure was complicated by a blood clot in her calf, and she was placed on complete bed rest for two months. She gained 40 pounds, going from a size 10 to 18.

After losing her health insurance, Stroh was unable to continue physical rehabilitation and went back to teaching. At first, she called out instructions to students while seated. “Kids don’t respect you as much if you’re not doing [the steps] and looking amazing,” Stroh says. “I never wanted to be that dance teacher who taught from a chair.” She eventually got back on her feet and dropped 15 pounds. “If I hadn’t gone back to teaching,” Stroh says, “I probably wouldn’t have danced again.”

In the meantime, Stroh was working with a group of teens she lovingly deemed her “misfits”—much like her, they didn’t fit the dancer mold. One day, Stroh and her students headed to an open-call audition for the then-unknown Disney Channel movie High School Musical. Surrounded by a couple hundred waif-like dancers decked out in biker shorts and sports bras, Stroh said to her students, “I guess this one’s just for practice.”

Unexpectedly, the director, who happened to be looking for a heavyset hip-hop dancer, approached Stroh. “You’re different,” she recalls him saying. “You’re kicking these skinny girls’ butts.”

One month and one audition later, she got the part. One of her misfits, Andrew Winston, was also chosen as an extra. Today, Stroh is starring as pop-and-lock girl Martha Cox in the third installment of High School Musical. She was profiled in an issue of People magazine about her weight gain and currently models for Torrid, a plus-sized clothing line. And she’s back to embracing her figure. “It really is amazing that I found Martha and Martha found me,” Stroh says. “It seems very meant-to-be that I was led down this path.”  DT

Buffalo, NY–based writer Tim O’Shei is the author of 35 books.

Hello Matt! Good morning, Katie!” With studio lights blazing, cameras focused and your top students standing at the ready, wouldn’t you love to be saying those words? If you made it onto NBC’s “Today Show,” you could. When you step into Studio 1-A, or perhaps outside on the plaza, you answer a few questions from hosts Matt Lauer and Katie Couric. Then comes the real show: You stop talking, the music starts playing and your well-prepared students start dancing.

Reality check: Landing a spot on the “Today Show” or any other national program is difficult. But finding ways to promote your students—and therefore your business—through local television programming is much easier. The benefits are immeasurable: Even if a TV appearance doesn’t result in an immediate enrollment increase, it gives your school credibility, which may be even more valuable. “There’s an old saying in advertising that people need to see something six times before they realize it’s a good thing,” says Rhode Island Ballet Arts Academy Artistic Director Nancy McAuliffe, whose students have been featured on local television. “People don’t necessarily call because they saw us on television, but they remember the name.”

Here’s the truth: Television producers are always on the lookout for good story ideas, but they turn down many more than they accept. Use these guidelines to craft a story pitch (a summary of your idea) and maximize the chance of having your studio and students seen on screen.

1. Identify your motives. Why do you want to be on television? Are you seeking exposure for your students? For yourself? For your studio? Are you trying to promote a specific recital or event? Any mix of reasons is fine, but make sure that you have a specific goal in mind.

2. Make a list of local programs that might be a good fit for your purpose. A special fundraising recital, for example, might be best promoted on a magazine-style show. A superstar student who’s on the verge of a large-scale breakthrough might make a nice human-interest story on the evening news. A local cable program that produces stories about the community might be interested in doing a feature on your studio.

Opportunities vary by community. Most television stations have a reporter who specializes in quirky features—someone who might be willing to come take dance lessons from you and do a story on the experience. Many weather forecasts also include a quick visit with a group from the community, which can be a good way to promote a recital. Television stations often have “Star of the Week” programs for which you might be able to nominate a student.

3. Look at what’s making news. When there’s a buzz, make your studio part of it. If you teach a certain dance or style that becomes hot, that’s a ready-made story for television. This past summer, ballroom dancing was quickly made cool by ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. Many studios that specialize in ballroom became the subject of news stories as a result of the genre’s newfound popularity.

You can capitalize on popular movies, too. Dan Radler, a Massachusetts-based dancer who has held several ballroom titles with partner Suzanne Hamby, performed the salsa at the premiere of the movie Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. An opportunity like that would be tough to duplicate—the couple has had massive media exposure during more than two decades of professional dancing. After the premiere, however, they did something any studio can do. “We held ‘Dirty Dancing’ classes, which were hugely popular,” Radler says. Offering classes on what he calls “the latest hot dance” should be good for business in itself—and invite television cameras.

4. Highlight your students. Look for amazing, unusual or heartwarming accomplishments among your students, such as a talented young choreographer who has developed a unique style, or perhaps a dancer who has overcome a disability. If your students (and their parents) are willing to share their stories, reporters are often happy to relay them.

5. Pitch precisely. This is key. News directors, producers and reporters typically get dozens of pitches each day. You need to make yours stand out by being timely and interesting. Other things to consider:

-Local TV stations are competitive, so don’t pitch the same story to more than one at a time. If one station learns that another is doing the same story, chances are good that both will cancel and never consider your pitches again.
-TV stations are ratings-driven, so look for an opportunity to tie in with a popular dance show (preferably one that airs on the same station).
-Avoid pitches that duplicate a story that the station has recently done. Even if your studio can offer a better story, the TV folks are unlikely to be interested. They want something different, not more of the same.

6. Prepare your students. For many dancers, cameras can be unnerving. During RIBAA’s most recent TV stint, McAuliffe recalls that “the cameras were down on the floor, trying to film the dancers’ feet. The kids were trying to do a combination across the floor. [The camera crew] was making them very nervous.”

This is a good opportunity to teach your dancers to deal with pressure. But for the sake of the TV crew, which will have limited time to shoot footage, prep your students on the simple things: dance as you normally would, don’t look into the camera unless you’re asked to do so, and watch out for equipment. Ask the crew to point out their positions. Explain to them the spatial progression of the dance to make sure they capture the highlights, while students know where to watch out for cables.

7. Speak slowly, but answer promptly. Unless you’re a politician or celebrity, you may not have the special set of skills required for being interviewed on camera. Unlike interviews for newspapers or magazines, in which writers generally want detailed answers that add depth to their stories, TV producers want sound bites. Thus, your answers needn’t be long or detailed. Speak slowly (particularly if you’re nervous, since many people under stress tend to talk fast) and give succinct answers. “Hone in on a couple things, two or three sentences per question,” says Susan Bennett, a media coach based in the Washington, DC area. “You don’t want [to give] a yes or no answer, but you don’t want to be rambling on, either.”

8. Stay open to opportunities. While even well-crafted pitches may be turned down, they can still pay off. If a reporter is working on a dance-related story in the future, you could get a call.

9. Use your network. Hard as you might work to tailor a story idea for a specific show, nothing is more effective than knowing the reporters and executives at a station. As you get to know them, stay connected in occasional, nonintrusive ways: a handwritten thank-you note if they include you in a story, a quick e-mail if you particularly enjoyed a story you saw on TV or a greeting card during the holiday season.

Of course, if you have a personal link, use it. The mother of one of McAuliffe’s former students was a local newscaster. “She made a connection for me to have a little blurb about the school,” McAuliffe says. Whatever your way of getting your story on the news, the experience will be beneficial for you and your students. DT

Tim O’Shei, a former teacher, is the author of 25 nonfiction books.

After two decades of preparing young dancers for professional careers, Hannah Raiken-Schulman was ready to challenge herself with something new. She didn’t want to give up teaching dance. That, she loved. But after a long stint at Buffalo Academy for Visual & Performing Arts in Buffalo, New York, she was comfortable. Too comfortable.

“I felt it was time in my teaching career to make a move,” she says. “I needed to do more, so that when I looked back at my teaching career, I would have a sense that I really pushed myself to do more than one thing—to challenge myself professionally and artistically.” So five years ago, when Raiken-Schulman had the chance to join the founding team of Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, she took it. With her colleagues—specialists in early childhood and special education, an attorney and a parent activist—she spent a year developing a detailed vision for Tapestry, which would integrate academic subjects with the performing and visual arts, including dance.

“The reason I got involved is my passion for the arts,” Raiken-Schulman says. “In so many public schools, that’s what gets cut. To me, it’s one of the most important parts of a child’s education.”

For dance educators who dream big, starting a charter school is the ultimate way to expose a broad range of students to the performing arts. Much like running for elective office, writing a charter takes months or years of hard work—and there’s no guarantee that your school will become reality. But if it does, as it did for Raiken-Schulman, perhaps nothing is more rewarding than designing your own dance program in a school you built from scratch.

Understanding Charter Schools
For anyone who is even mildly interested in founding a charter school, the first thing to check is simple: Does your state allow the creation of charter schools? Ten states don’t have a charter-school law.

If your state does have a charter-school law, the next step is to get familiar with the details. The definition of a charter school is the same nationwide—it is an independent, publicly funded institution that must meet the academic goals stated in its charter or stand at risk of being shut down. Still, some important details vary from state to state. For example:
-Who approves charters in your state? It could be local school boards, state-level policy boards, universities or another entity.
-What is the length of charters in your state? Most states grant charters of three to five years, which must be renewed at the end of the term.
-What percentage of your school’s teaching staff must be licensed? Charter schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools, which only allow for a certain percentage of the faculty to work without a teaching license. In the case of a performing-arts charter school, that would allow you to hire professional dancers to work as instructors.

Navigating these details can be tricky, which is why it’s good to turn to one of the many national and state-level organizations that serve as consultants for people interested in starting charter schools. These organizations can also help you meet political challenges you may encounter from many groups, such as teachers unions, school administrators and, often, local school boards, who believe that charter schools drain money from the districts in which they are located. The experts from charter-school resource centers can also help you understand how long it will take to plan, write, submit and possibly revise your charter. The general answer is a year or longer.

Crafting a Vision
You’ve reviewed your state’s laws. You’ve consulted a charter-school resource center. You’ve gathered the materials you need. You’re willing to devote a year of long, arduous planning to make your visions of a school come true. You’ve decided that you have the stomach to handle any opposition that might come your way.

It’s time to start writing the charter. Well, almost time. First, you need to get a team in place—unless you’re an educator, accountant, real estate agent and lawyer all rolled up into one politically savvy person who operates without sleep.
The ideal founding team includes:
-An academic expert: Someone who is very well-versed in curricular standards for the core subjects of language arts, math, science and social studies, says Eric Premack, author of The Charter School Development Guide and co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, California.
-A businessperson: While flawed educational programs can be fixed, says education author Joanne Jacobs, bad business management can cause permanent damage. “If you have lousy financial planning,” she says, “you may not have a chance to recover from [weak educational ideas].”
-Community leaders: These are the people who help navigate the politics and also help raise money. Starting a charter isn’t cost-free. Conducting research, hiring consultants, buying materials and traveling for site visits all cost money. And if your charter school becomes a reality, you’ll want to raise money to expand your programs.
-A lawyer: You’ll need someone to explain charter-school legislation and answer other legal questions. Either you recruit a lawyer for your founding team, or you pay one. Simple choice, isn’t it?
-A real estate agent: One of the biggest challenges of forming a charter school is finding potential buildings that are affordable. Get someone who knows the local market.
-Parents: These are your potential customers. Jacobs, author of Our School, a book on charter schools, recommends getting their opinions: “Say, ‘Who are the parents who are going to send kids to our schools? Let’s bring them into the planning process.’”
-Local performers: For anyone starting a charter school with a focus on dance or performance, Jacobs suggests connecting with a local performing arts company. “Make them partners,” she says, pointing out that theater groups, for example, may have a facility that is available for the school’s use during the day. “Work with the existing arts community to make it happen.”

Making It Work
Among the sections to be included in a charter proposal are the school’s mission statement, proposed instructional program, assessment methods, financial structure, and staffing and facilities plans. That’s a lot of work, and it’s best divided among your founding team. In Tapestry’s case, each member of the team contributed to sections that pertained to their respective specialties. It took a long year of work. “There were times I was up until 2 or 3 in the morning,” Raiken-Schulman says, “but there was an end in sight. You had a deadline; you knew it was not going to last forever.”
Tapestry’s first charter application was turned down because the review panel, which was made up of The State University of New York’s Board of Trustees, wanted a clarification of the school’s academic plans. In response, the founding team sharpened its description of how the school would integrate arts programs, such as Raiken-Schulman’s dance classes, with rigorous academics. “You need to have a strong stomach and not give up,” she says of the process.

After a revision, the charter was approved. Four years later, Tapestry’s academic scores rank it among the most successful elementary schools in Buffalo. For Raiken-Schulman, however, positive feedback comes in less measurable ways, such as when parents tell her on Monday mornings, amazedly, that their son or daughter was leading the dance floor at a family function that weekend. “I feel like what I’m doing is planting the seeds of creativity,” she says, “and I love that. They can go through life feeling that everybody dances.” DT

Tim O’Shei is the author of 24 books. He is at work on a book for teens who want to break into the entertainment business.


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