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."
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."