Where Ballet Meets Ballroom: Kim DelGrosso's Trailblazing Crossover Studio Model

Kim DelGrosso coaches Center Stage dancers. Photo by Naomi Masina, courtesy of Center Stage

There it is: that invisible line in the sand that typically divides ballroom studios from other types of dance studios. On the surface, it makes good business sense. After all, the two are distinctly different—one typically caters to adults, one to kids, one partner dancing, one mostly solo. But what happens when the lines get blurry? A lucrative crossover, according to Kim DelGrosso, co-owner of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Utah.

"At any given time, we have ballet, breakdancing and ballroom going on in our studio," says DelGrosso. "A child who might only be paying for one class ends up paying for three because they decide to do other dance styles; it grows your program. It brings in more income because you can sell more classes to parents. I probably have 25 teachers, and they're all working nonstop."


Her versatile approach also churns out well-rounded dancers ready to take on Hollywood, Juilliard or wherever their dance paths lead them. Among the long list of notable alums are "Dancing with the Stars" pros Chelsie Hightower, Julianne and Derek Hough and Ashly Costa (Kim's daughter), as well as "So You Think You Can Dance" stars Ashleigh and Ryan Di Lello.

"If you look at these dancers, all of them made it so far because they had mastered all the dance forms," says Louis van Amstel, also a "DWTS" star and close colleague of DelGrosso's. "Unfortunately, not that many studios do the crossover; they may dabble in ballroom, but not like Center Stage, where each department is equal."

Looking to change that and follow in Center Stage's trailblazing footsteps? Follow the story of DelGrosso's success.

Creating a Crossover

Some might call it serendipity, but DelGrosso thanks geographic proximity for Center Stage's venture into the ballroom world. Located in Orem, UT, the studio is situated 15 minutes away from Provo-based Brigham Young University, which she calls a "huge ballroom mecca." The studio had already been operating for about nine years when DelGrosso first bought into it in 1989 along with Derryl Yeager, but ballroom wasn't yet on the collective radar.

"Center Stage had always been a very well-known ballet, jazz, hip-hop and tap studio—until we hired Rick Robinson from BYU and he asked my daughter Ashly, who was 12, if she wanted to do ballroom," says DelGrosso, who now co-owns the studio with Alex and Robin Murillo. "I didn't know a thing about ballroom, but we decided to go ahead and find Ashly a partner."

DelGrosso's daughter became the first of several Center Stage students to start training and competing in ballroom, and with very few youth and junior American couples on the circuit at the time, DelGrosso says it was a fortuitous move. "It was basically us and some Russian couples in New York and San Francisco—we were on the ground level of getting kids dancing," she says. "In Europe, there were hundreds of young couples, but America didn't really have anything."

DelGrosso soon enlisted ballroom gurus and BYU guest teachers Corky and Shirley Ballas (parents of "DWTS" star Mark Ballas) to develop a curriculum for Center Stage. Around the same time, DelGrosso spotted a young Louis van Amstel at the world championships in Miami and immediately wanted to collaborate. "He looked like he had dance training, not just ballroom, and I said, 'I want you in my studio,'" she says. "We wanted our kids to be able to cross over, so we brought him in to train our young couples."

Trips to England for high-profile competitions like Blackpool Dance Festival followed, along with the formation of a competitive ballroom team. DelGrosso's other children (she has eight) also got in on the act, garnering awards at competitions, including Blackpool and the National Ten Dance Championships. But it wasn't until Ashly and van Amstel were recruited for "Dancing with the Stars" in 2005 that Center Stage's cachet—along with general American interest in ballroom dance—exploded, says DelGrosso.

"None of us were prepared—it brought the entire world into our backyard," she says. "Many of the pros have come out of the studio because we had the foresight; there were only a handful of us who understood how ballroom and dance should cross over. We didn't know what the boundaries were. We only knew it felt good."

Versatility Is Key

Today Center Stage is a large performing arts complex with nine studios, a black box theater and 600 students. The business is divided into six departments, each with its own director. Alongside its six ballroom companies for dancers from 5 years old to collegiate are 11 amateur jazz companies, 2 ballet companies, 4 vocal companies and 6 hip-hop companies. ("We work out the schedule so kids can be in two to three different companies," DelGrosso says.)

"Each individual genre is done at the highest level and quality, has its own director, and Kim oversees it all," says van Amstel. "It's kind of a formula."

DelGrosso's senior company performs in a wide variety of venues—from the competition floor to industrials to events and galas. "I started getting producers calling me and asking me to put together shows for them," says DelGrosso, who eventually formed a production company to field the requests. "By the time our dancers are 18, they have hundreds of shows under their belts."

The reason? Unparalleled versatility. "We're the only studio they can cast with 100 people that are stylized," DelGrosso says. "Our show consists of 10 dance numbers choreographed in different styles; these kids can partner like mad." For select shows, she'll call on working alumni or boldface names like Maksim Chmerkovskiy to join the mix. "Corporations are willing to pay big bucks for these people," she says.

That carries over to studio profits, of which ballroom is a significant portion. Of all classes taught at Center Stage, ballroom brings in 30 percent of the income and comprises 75 percent of all private lessons. (Alongside her staff, DelGrosso often brings in prestigious coaches and choreographers like van Amstel to work with couples.) The privates also lead to another major income stream: studio rentals. DelGrosso rents space for $10 an hour per couple, and as many as eight couples and coaches might share the same room at once. "The rental income once you get the ballroom thing going is just so huge," she says.

Add in other streams like ballroom retail sales and private consultations with DelGrosso, and the end result is impressive. "The ballroom end of our business has been very lucrative for us," she says. "There is three times the money to be made in ballroom than any other dance form, hands down."

Another boon for the studio has been the ability to attract boys. According to DelGrosso, some classes actually have more boys than girls, and the plethora of male dancers has the domino effect of helping to book more performances. "If I have an industrial, they're so impressed because we have boys who can put on a show with substance," she says. "We do scholarship quite a few of our boys, but we're able to because they are great advertising for us."

As far as DelGrosso is concerned, studios that opt to cross over are entering a relatively untapped market. "There are a gazillion amazing jazz/ballet/hip-hop dancers, but I can count on two hands the number of cross-trained dancers in the U.S. who can do any style—including ballroom—as well as anyone else," she says. "Do I think every studio needs to have ballroom? It depends on the town. Do I think every dancer who wants to work in this market needs to have exposure to ballroom? Yes."

Van Amstel agrees. "The biggest thing is keeping an open mind—that's where it all starts," he says. "If you're a studio owner who says, 'No, my studio is contemporary and we only want to excel there,' you don't live in 2012. It starts with the teachers."

Introducing...

Learning the intricacies of ballroom can be a challenge for even the most trained dancers. How can you help your students be successful? Louis van Amstel of "Dancing with the Stars" shares some advice.

Start them solo. For studios just venturing into ballroom, van Amstel suggests offering a class for individual dancers that focuses on footwork, timing and exercises that help develop ballroom skills across the spectrum. "Because there are often more girls than guys and we're dealing with a variety of levels, it's a better approach to start them solo," says van Amstel. "No one feels left out or has to worry about partnering." (Check out his LaBlast DVD set for ideas and inspiration, available at www.lablastfitness.com.)

Match the new style to an existing strength. Ballet dancers often have the hardest time mastering ballroom body position. "Their centers of gravity are usually way too high," says van Amstel, referring to the grounded, leg-centric nature of ballroom dance. "Hip-hop or tap dancers might actually have an advantage because the gravity happens below the legs in those genres." Van Amstel says that many trained dancers also struggle with the lightning-quick foot speed of many ballroom styles.

To help dancers transition more smoothly, he suggests starting with a style that complements their strengths. For instance, contemporary dancers might align well with the slower style of rumba, "so they can articulate their bodies more," whereas hip-hop dancers might enjoy the raw, strong energy of paso doble.

Taking the First Step at Your Studio

To test the waters for offering ballroom at your studio, both Kim DelGrosso and Louis van Amstel suggest offering a one-time master class with a seasoned professional (either a "name" like a well-known "SYTYCD" or "DWTS" alum or an accomplished ballroom dancer from your community). "A great way to make money is to start with workshops and see what the interest level is," says DelGrosso, who recommends making the workshop attendance mandatory to be sure you'll cover expenses.

As she sees it, it's not just a good idea, but almost an obligation to expose dancers to ballroom. "Even if it just stays on the workshop level, every competitive studio should introduce their dancers to ballroom to some degree," she says. "Ballroom isn't going away—vocabulary and basic understanding of the rhythms are valuable for any dancer who wants to work."

For those looking to take a bigger step, DelGrosso suggests bringing in a professional to develop a ballroom program. She cites her daughter Afton DelGrosso-Wilson's success with Arizona-based Dance Connection 2 as one example. DelGrosso says studio owners shouldn't be afraid to approach top talent: "Some of the teachers who may seem inaccessible—Maks, Chelsie, Derek—they all need to work and can come in and start a program for your studio."

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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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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