Studio Owners

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Studio Owner)?

Photo courtesy of Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance

It wasn't the most glamorous vision of a successful business owner's life: For five years, Sean Boutilier lived above a dry cleaner in Toronto, splitting the rent with his girlfriend at the time. He had sold his home and was living minimally to give himself the cushion he needed to move his studio, Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance, from a rental space into a building of his own.

Today, Boutilier owns two Toronto studios with a combined footprint of 23,000 square feet. Not only has he seen a growth in space and enrollment (to nearly 1,900 dancers), he's also seen an increase in revenue—well into seven figures. "We are making millions in revenue. More than one, more than two, more than three…" he says, adding that the value of his business (his net assets) reaches eight figures.

But his stats aren't something he exactly advertises to his customers.

"I don't want someone to say they pay too much for classes," he says. "I don't want my teachers to say they don't get paid enough to teach."

Dance studio owners start studios because they love to teach. But there's a stigma in the dance education world that suggests these business owners shouldn't be making a profit.

"We think we're not supposed to be successful," says Boutilier. "In dance, dancers are paid less than musicians and choreographers. And a lot of those dancers become teachers. And a lot of those teachers open studios. There's a chain of mentality that tells us we're not supposed to be rich."

But make no mistake. The kind of success that translates to revenue in the millions is within your reach. DT asked Boutilier and other owners to talk about their growth strategies and what working at this level really requires.

1. See yourself as a business owner first.

Tiffany Henderson of Tiffany's Dance Academy, with seven locations across the San Francisco Bay Area, says a key part is becoming comfortable with the mentality that you are indeed a business owner. You must see yourself in that light before you can excel.

"There's some sort of idea that money and passion can't exist simultaneously in the dance studio business," she says. "But I'm here to say that you have to focus on both. Be confident in the product you're offering to your kids—that's part of your business."

That means learning a formal thing or two about running a company if you don't already have a business background. Boutilier started taking business courses at nearby Drake University when he opened his studio in 1983. (And he still drops in on regular classes to brush up on his skills.) At times, that meant stepping back from teaching a bit.

Henderson adds that your business mind-set can't just be internal. It's something you must also project to your customers. One significant way to do this is to remove yourself as owner from direct financial conversations with your customers. "Only a trusted customer service or administrator should have financial or policy conversations with customers," she says. "When I started, the customer service was most shocking. When you're close to the kids, anything that goes wrong feels more personal. I still teach 15 hours a week, but I also find boundaries that let me put on my business hat."

2. To buy or lease? There isn't one correct answer.

Whether to lease or buy is one of the most important decisions a studio owner can make. Boutilier, for instance, says owning his buildings saves him $250,000 to $300,000 a year. Henderson, on the other hand, decided that for her, owning wasn't a smart option. Her studios are set across the notoriously real-estate–pricey San Francisco Bay Area, where a building purchase would require an excessively large down payment.

Molly Larkin, who runs Larkin Dance Studio with her sister Michele in Minnesota, regrets not buying sooner. Their mother, who started the family business in 1950, had insisted on renting and the lease had climbed to $17,000 a month.

After their mother died, "We crunched the numbers and said we can't keep doing this," says Larkin. Both sisters refinanced the mortgages on their houses to pay for the space. They expect to be able to pay the debt in full in 20 years. Though it took some sacrifice, they're proud to be investing in something tangible. The move allowed them to increase their space from six studios to nine and increase their revenue.

3. Spend where it counts.

"Everyone wants that Mercedes-Benz treatment," says Boutilier, to explain why he sometimes spends money on things that don't have a direct return, yet enhance the quality of his product. For instance, because his studio is known for ballet, all the ballet classes have live piano accompaniment, something many commercial studios don't offer.

Henderson tends to spend generously when it comes to her employees. Most of her administrative staff and many of her teachers are salaried, with full benefits including paid time off, health insurance and 401(k) contributions. Between seven locations, her faculty is guaranteed a full-time schedule. Lower turnover helps teachers build relationships with dancers and shows her customers that business is stable.

Time is also money, and Larkin cautions to never underestimate the value of face time—direct interaction between you as business owner and your clients. And, as she points out, the customers aren't the dancers, but their parents. "There's no magic answer, but being a good listener goes a long way," she says. "You can never keep all your customers happy, especially now that parents are more involved than ever. But listen to their concerns and always try to suggest a solution."

4. Build your population of once-a-week dancers.

It may be tempting to concentrate on the needs of your most enthusiastic students—the ones who take multiple classes every week and join your competition team. Their families spend a lot of money at your studio. But Henderson notes that the competitive students usually end up being the smallest percentage of her studio's population (300 out of 2,000 total students).

"The biggest pool is the ones who haven't tried dance yet," she says. On a pro-rata basis, these students pay higher rates. "They don't have multiple-class discounts, and they don't require the studio's highest-paid teachers." In fact, her young dancer program is such a success that she licenses her Twinkle Star Dance curriculum and business structure to 250 studios in the U.S.

"The biggest market is the 2 to 6 age group, then 6 to 11," she says. "After that, your money is going to decrease."

As Boutilier puts it, these young students pay the "full retail price
per hour."

5. Make mistakes and learn from them.

Just because these owners have achieved an enviable level of financial success doesn't mean they never made decisions they don't regret. Many mistakes come down to what may seem like a smart idea when you're trying to save a buck—the DIY method.

After the Larkin sisters purchased their building, they tried to save money by installing their own floors. They crafted the wooden sprung supports themselves and learned after installation that the wood wasn't good. "Huge, huge mistake," Larkin says with a sigh. "We had to redo three of our floors. That cost us $60,000."

For Boutilier, the mistake was in not hiring the right employees—as in having a parent sit at the front desk instead of a dedicated staff member. "The person at the desk is representing the company when someone walks in or calls. They're part of your product," he says. "I probably lost 50 to 70 students in my first year because I didn't know a lot about the business."

Bottom line? It takes a little trial and error and a lot of guts to risk time and money to grow to seven-figure-level success. "Growing a business takes full dedication," says Boutilier. "There are days I wish I didn't grow as big as I am." Rarely does a day go by without a phone call or an important e-mail about something that needs his attention at the studio. And vacations are never true vacations, he says.

"Some people aren't prepared to make those sacrifices," he says. "If you're not, then maybe you're someone who should work for someone else."

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Adequate dorsiflexion mobility is needed to find a supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely. Getty Images

Dancers are trained to think often about the range of motion, stability and power of their extended lines: the point of the foot, the reach of the penché, the explosion of the sauté in the air. But finding that same mix of flexibility and strength in the flexed foot is just as integral to technique and injury prevention. Without adequate dorsiflexion mobility, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by The Fleet, courtesy of Lion's Jaw Festival

Growing up in New Jersey, Lisa Race trained with a memorable dance teacher: Fred Kelly, the younger brother of famous tapper Gene. "Fred would introduce our recitals," she says. "He would always cartwheel down the stairs." It wasn't until years later, when Race was pursuing her master's degree and chose to write a research paper on Kelly, that she realized there was a clear connection between her own movement style—improvisational and floor-based—and his. "In this television clip I watched, Fred jumps up to the piano, then jumps off it—he's going up and down and around," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, all this time, I've thought of my dancing as my own, but that's where it started!' Moving upside-down and into the floor. There's a thread there. I rerouted it in different ways, but there's a connection."

Now, as a professor at Connecticut College, she concentrates on how to introduce her students to that love and freedom of upside-down work—and how to best prepare them for life after graduation, no matter what dance path they take.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

It's summertime, which means we're all starting to feel HOT! HOT! HOT!

While a warm room is certainly better than a cold room when it comes to dancing, you don't want your students to get heat stroke at your studio. To help you survive this sweaty time of year, here are tips and tricks that will keep your classrooms comfortable for an excellent class.


Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!


Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox