Studio Owners

When You Bring in a Guest Choreographer, Is It Ever OK to Change Their Work?

Photo courtesy of Break the Floor Productions

When Cassie Nordgren visits studios as a guest choreographer, she prides herself on bringing her high-energy, high-emotion brand of theater dance to the table. For her, the magic often lies in the intention behind the piece rather than its perceived difficulty. "Sometimes the piece is about telling a story, so you won't get those aerials or fouettés or whatever the new trick of the day is. That's not where I live as a choreographer," she says. "What you are going to get is that the students will have to rely on their storytelling skills to make the piece complete."

After returning to one particular studio to set a new piece, she was excited when the dancers wanted to perform one of her previous numbers for her, but quickly became upset when she saw how much her original work had been changed. In place of the intricate story she'd woven was a crescendo of tricks incorporated to make the piece more competition-friendly. "The piece used to have a beginning, middle and end, and instead of having an arc, it now just had one direction—and that was up," says Nordgren.

Luckily, she was able to use the situation to open a dialogue about best collaboration practices, and it became a valuable lesson for both choreographer and client. (She has since been back to that studio three times with great results.) But instances like these do raise important questions: When a studio hires a guest choreographer, who owns the resulting work and should the studio have carte blanche to make changes?


Studio owner Kim Delgrosso says the issue can be a gray area. After 29 years as co-owner of Orem, Utah–based Center Stage Performing Arts Studio, she's worked hard to define the transactional relationship between studio and guest choreographer. "When a studio pays for someone to come in and set a number, in our mind we assume ownership—at least in the competition world," says Delgrosso. "The choreographer retains the rights to it on a professional level."

Talia Favia choreographed Clouds for Delgrosso's Center Stage students. Photo courtesy of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio.

She goes on to clarify that her guest artists often use her students to workshop numbers they intend to use for other commercial projects or the concert stage—and she's 100 percent onboard with that approach. However, it's vital that the number remain exclusive to Center Stage for competition, and it is understood that Delgrosso and her team will maximize the life of a piece by repurposing it for different teams.

"We have everything filmed, and we save all of the choreography in our archives," she says. "We often recycle choreography down the road. This year, we recycled three junior numbers and set them on the minis, and we also passed several numbers down from our touring teams to our recreational teams. We really get the value out of our choreography, but it's also important for us to keep the integrity of the piece intact."

Castro Valley Performing Arts commissioned this work by Cassie Nordgren. Photo by Christopher Setter, courtesy of Castro Performing Arts.

This is a major point of focus for McDonald/Selznick Associates agent and director of education Shelli Margheritis when booking guest stints for her clients (who range from Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo to Tessandra Chavez to Brian Friedman). While Margheritis understands that dance teachers need discretion to make minor adjustments for staging and/or shifting rosters, she advises that any creative changes be routed through the choreographer to preserve goodwill and the piece's original essence.

"Having an open line of communication is essential," she says. "If there are creative adjustments, studios need to connect with the choreographer to verify their approval and whether they would still like to have their name attached. Choreographers want to be acknowledged for their work, but they also want the work to be presented in a way that is reflective of how they set it."

Nordgren agrees, acknowledging that her time at a studio is typically limited to a few days and that a piece may need more finessing beyond her in-person tenure. To that end, she does provide some possible modifications for choreography but seeks to stay involved in any further alterations. "There is a protocol that needs to be followed," she says. "Contact me and let's figure it out together, so that we can keep the intended direction of the piece."

To prevent any misunderstandings, Margheritis drafts a contract that lays out everything from payment terms to travel arrangements to exactly how and where the piece will be used—along with any expectations of exclusivity.

"The contract brings clarity for both the artist and the studio," she says. "The choreographer will always have the rights to claim their choreography; it's the reflection of who they are and what they've created. Studios are hiring them to set original work, which they can request exclusively, so it's important to have an agreement in writing that details the specifics."

Center Stage's Delgrosso doesn't typically use a contract, but she tends to hire from the same stable of guest choreographers each season, thus creating long-term relationships. "There have been times we've had to change choreography in a big way, and there have been times choreographers didn't want it changed at all, and we respect that completely," she says. "Many of my in-house staff are people who came through my studio and worked with these choreographers first as dancers and now directors. The trust level is very high."

Studios can do much to nurture the client-choreographer relationship by laying the groundwork for success before the choreographer ever sets foot in the studio. Nordgren encourages studio owners to send her advance footage so she can see what abilities she will be working with. Or, better yet, a studio can enlist the guest artist to work with dancers ahead of time, perhaps with an intensive or a master class.

"When I walk in to teach a routine for competition and have never met the students, I have no idea of their level," says Nordgren. "'Advanced' is different at every studio. But if I've already taught them for a day, or even three hours, I know what will fit well on their students and can be more prepared."

"What you're paying for is my time and thought process," she says. "But the intellectual property will always remain the choreographer's."

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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Studio Owners
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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