When Students Move On

What to do when your dancer wants to go to boarding school

NYCB principal Tiler Peck left California at 11 to dance in New York City.

One beauty of summer programs is they give students a chance to try something different. Tappers might trade in their shoes for a modern workshop, and jazz dancers could refine their technique with ballet. But sometimes, branching out leads to falling in love. What if a student returns this month and announces that she wants to study elsewhere?

Though it may hurt to learn that one of your stars wants to go to boarding school, it’s essential to help her through this transition. She’ll need your guidance on how to prepare, mentally and physically, to make the most of her new experience. And once she’s gone, you must recover from the loss and keep business thriving.

 

Is It the Right Decision?

It’s important to voice your opinion, even if you don’t agree with the dancer’s choice. “It’s a big decision, so I’m honest because I want them to know what they’re getting into,” says Ashley Canterna Hardy of Edna Lee Dance Studio in Maryland. Make sure they’re certain about moving by encouraging them to research the school; its year-round program may differ from the summer intensive in schedule, class offerings and even faculty. “Some kids come here wanting serious training and are shocked and realize it’s not for them,” says Martin Fredmann, artistic and executive director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC. Students may focus on one technique and find that they miss mixed training or realize that sacrificing a normal teenage lifestyle may not be for them.

Those who are serious enough to leave home probably want to dance professionally someday, so they should consider the school’s alumni, and whether the program feeds into a company. Canterna Hardy sits down with the student and parents to explain that they should expect a competitive atmosphere. “Everyone at these ballet schools is fighting for the same goal—to become a professional dancer,” she says.

Moving away from family, friends and teachers can be rough, especially for younger students. They should take location, distance from home, housing and academics into account; homesickness may become their biggest challenge. New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, who left California at 11, says that building relationships with friends is important. “I lived in the dorms where everyone’s away from home,” she says of her time at the School of American Ballet. “My friends became like family.”

Julie Jarnot, co-artistic director of Artistic Fusion Dance Academy in Colorado, puts dancers in contact with a trusted person in the same school or city, so there is always someone nearby in case of an emergency.

 

Preparing for Independence

Once you prepare your students mentally, it’s time to get their bodies in peak physical condition. For the ballet-bound, Canterna Hardy suggests taking technique class five to six days per week to continue building on principles learned that summer and to develop stamina and endurance. Jarnot sends students to Pilates to maximize strength and flexibility. She also talks about nutrition and sleep. Instilling healthy habits and responsible decision-making skills will help them succeed in the long run.

Still, students won’t understand the true intensity of the program until they arrive. “Some kids who are 16 and 17 years old enter school and realize they haven’t had the foundation or the right equipment—there’s a lot of catching up to do,” says Fredmann.

Find out if there are transitional training programs available to new students. For instance, when dancers arrive at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, they are screened to identify strengths and weaknesses and  given catered exercises. “Most of the time they need to take a step backward,” says Interlochen’s director of dance, Cameron Basden. “They can do some steps really well, but they don’t know how to put things together.” She acknowledges that competition dancers succeed because of their work ethic and enthusiasm. As great performers, they tend to channel that energy into their studies.

 

Fostering a Lasting Connection

It can be difficult to say good-bye to a dancer you’ve invested in. “Once you get the news,” says Jarnot, “it stings a little bit. But if they want to pursue a career in ballet, and you know that’s what they should be doing, it’s easy to let go.”

To manage the loss of a leading dancer, Jarnot turns her attention to younger students. It reminds her of the studio’s purpose: to support and encourage kids. As the dancers age, they will continue to feed the studio. “You have to build from the bottom. As much as that star will be missed, there’s always someone to fill those shoes,” she says.

Stay in touch and encourage your dancer to return often. Canterna Hardy still choreographs for her student at The Rock School and taught a master class there through the connection. Peck says that choreographing at her mom’s studio, the Bakersfield Dance Company, lets her take a ballet vacation and revisit her jazz roots.

The key to maintaining your students’ business is to nurture your connection. They’ll bring outside experience, inspire the little ones and even lead you to new business opportunities.  It’s a win-win for everyone. DT

 

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

 

Photo: NYCB principal Tiler Peck left California at 11 to dance in New York City; by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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