Studio Owners

When It's Time to Leave: 3 Former Owners on How to Find the Right Successor for Your Studio

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If you run a dance studio, you know it's a 24/7 commitment. It's a tough and rewarding job, but like everything in life, there comes time for a change, a chance to slow down or move on to the next life venture. If you're like Danie Beck, who owned Dance Unlimited for 40 years, a former student may want to take over your business—and need your advice. Or, if you're like Deborah Riley, who co-directed a nonprofit dance school, you'll want your school to have a long life beyond your tenure.

Whatever your retirement scenario, your legacy and financial security may well be affected by the successor you choose and how smooth a transition it is for your staff and students. Three studio directors who have recently gone through the succession process offer their stories and advice.


1. If at First You Don't Succeed When Danie Beck decided to sell her Miami-based studio in 2005, her daughter—then a teacher and assistant director at Dance Unlimited—offered to buy it. Three years later, though, she'd changed her mind, after the studio became too much to juggle with her family responsibilities. Because the recession had just hit, Beck worried her daughter would have a hard time finding another buyer. "People are lucky if they can buy bread and milk," she remembers saying. "There's not going to be a line outside the door to buy the studio." When her daughter confessed that she'd have to close the studio without a buyer, Beck bought the studio back.

Shortly thereafter, she approached a student-turned-instructor who had earlier expressed interest in owning her own studio. They struck a deal, and Beck mentored her for two years, working her up the ranks so it would be an easy transition. "It was a training period," says Beck.

Word of Advice Definitely have a written agreement, Beck says, and spell out everything. "Even with my daughter, we went through lawyers," she says. "Whether you sell to your family or a stranger out of state, it's still a business deal. You must have legal guidance."

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2. From Hands-On to Hands-Off After 30 years of being a studio owner, Susan Mendoza Friedman wanted to focus more on her charity organization, Dancing for a Cure. She put up a few ads to sell her studio in Hyannis, Massachusetts, but nothing really came of it. "It was 2008 or 2009—the economy was not great," Friedman says. "Even though I had a really good reputation as the biggest, most successful dance studio on the Cape, it was hard to find the right person."

Then a faculty member who had worked with Friedman for eight years expressed interest in taking over. "She was very knowledgeable of the studio, and we had a great relationship," Friedman says. They talked, and eventually agreed on a price. They structured it as a three-year gradual buyout, with the new owner paying a portion each year toward the sale price while remaining a salaried faculty member. (Friedman consulted with SCORE, which offers free advice to small businesses, and spoke with attorneys before the purchase-of-sale agreement.)

Over the buyout period, she trained the new owner by giving her more tasks and increased accountability—and, consequently, higher pay. "It was very clear what would happen each year in terms of her responsibilities and how much more she would make in salary," Friedman says.

Word of Advice Don't stay on as a teacher after you sell, says Friedman. Despite being advised not to, she included a clause in her agreement stating she could remain an instructor. But that lasted only for two years—she found the urge to get involved in the business side too difficult to resist. "You have to be able to have no say or input in the running of the studio," she says.

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3. Slow and Steady Wins the Race Dance Place, a nonprofit community arts center in Washington, DC, that serves as both a school and performance space, was founded in 1980 by Carla Perlo. In 2003, Deborah Riley, who has held various roles at Dance Place for 30 years, came onboard as co-director with Perlo. The two shared both artistic and executive management and vision of the organization.

When Perlo and Riley began considering retirement, they gave Dance Place's board of directors two years' notice, per their contracts. "It's a huge transition when a founder steps away from that directorship role," says Riley. Six months into their two-year notice, Perlo and Riley helped the board create and set in motion a three-year leadership-succession strategy. Using grant funding, they hired a consultant to lead the strategic planning process. This upcoming season marks the final year of the three-year transition plan—and the first without Perlo and Riley, who retire at the start of September.

If that sounds like a long time to stick around and help out, that's because Dance Place is Riley and Perlo's baby. "We wanted plenty of time to engage in the search process, because we knew it was going to be difficult to find exactly the right person to take the organization into the future," says Riley. "We needed the time to fully absorb making such a drastic change for the organization."

Dance Place worked with an outside consultant to write a job description, receive applications, vet all applicants and help prepare for the interview process. Once the pool of applicants had been narrowed down, Perlo, Riley and staff had opportunities to interact with the candidates. Last spring, Dance Place announced its next director: Christopher K. Morgan, who starts this month, after a month of mentorship by Perlo and Riley. Both Riley and Perlo will receive a modest severance pay, disbursed over two years.

Word of Advice Time is crucial to the transition process, Riley says. Having a lengthy plan helped Dance Place choose and begin to transition to a new director efficiently. "Because we're a very dynamic, densely programmed organization, and we're working as hard as we can to keep up, we knew it would take time to fit in another challenging process," she says.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

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