When Artistic Fusion Dance Academy's company won “Critics' Choice" at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals in 2010, it was an especially meaningful moment for co-owners—and sisters—Julie Jarnot and Jennifer Owens. Featuring an inventive male-driven storyline and unusual lighting, the piece, “Baggage," had been masterminded by the studio's star alumnus Tony Testa.
Owens remembers that “Baggage" sparked a lot of conversation at the event. “It was something no one had ever seen before, because it was done in darkness with headlamps," she says. “Not only was it a huge honor to win, but we were so gratified that the piece was choreographed by one of our own students."
Full-circle moments like these seem to be par for the course. Like the time Sonya Tayeh told Jarnot that she dreamt of joining “So You Think You Can Dance," then got hired for the show six weeks later. Or the time the sisters' first dance teacher and mentor, Diana Lynn Rielage, traveled from Ohio to Colorado to support the studio's first recital—a milestone Rielage had predicted years before. “At my graduation recital, I was a crying mess," recalls Jarnot. “I'll never forget [Rielage] grabbing my shoulders and telling me she would come to our first recital one day…and she did."
Now in its 13th year, Artistic Fusion has more than 300 students and annual revenues approaching the $1 million mark. Students from the suburban Denver location have gone on to perform with Michael and Janet Jackson, while others are on dance scholarships at colleges like Marymount Manhattan College, University of Michigan and California Institute of the Arts. Jarnot and Owens bring in as many as 15 visiting choreographers annually and have forged long-term relationships with notables like Tayeh and Travis Wall.
“We get amazing choreography for competition, and our dancers get connections with people they can use as resources after graduation," says Jarnot. “It shows the kids that a career is possible—same as our dance teacher did for us. There was no doubt that she believed we would make it."
Photo by Heather Gray
A Shoestring Start
Though Artistic Fusion is now one of Denver's top studios, it had a humble start. The two women had been teaching at a studio in another part of the city when one day they decided it was time to set out on their own. Putting the idea in motion was an exercise in resourcefulness and youthful optimism. Owens purchased studio mirrors using a credit card with a $5,000 limit, and the sisters scoured a scrap yard to find a front desk. They borrowed a marley floor and purchased barres from studios that were no longer in business. While the space they were set to rent was being built, they operated temporarily out of the Knights of Columbus before officially opening in late 2000. “We were so young—the idea of 'ignorance is bliss' was really on our side," says Jarnot. “We just kept putting one foot in front of the other until we did it."
That first year proved to be formative in more ways than one. With just five students in their fledgling company, Artistic Fusion won the “Critics' Choice" award at NYCDA in Denver. Two of the company's original members went on to find considerable success—Testa and Britt Stewart.
The buzz around the company helped kickstart the studio, and in year two, the company grew from 5 to 40. Today the studio boasts 109 company members and 200 recreational students. Along with Stewart and Testa, a number of alumni are thriving in the industry—Ross Lynch is on the Disney show “Austin & Ally," and Mason Cutler is currently touring with Taylor Swift.
Despite the commercial success, Owens and Jarnot are quick to point out that their mission is to cultivate a well-rounded studio environment where students follow diverse paths, including to college and conservatory. They also spearhead community outreach, from the studio's A-OK (Acts of Kindness) club to a yearly show that has benefited charities, such as Legos for Leukemia and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“I don't think they're a competition studio—they've evolved to something more complex than that," says Jason Parsons, who has been doing twice-yearly residencies at Artistic Fusion for more than a decade. “Their program is multidisciplinary; they are producing such great dancers, and it's really elevated dance in Denver. I've seen other studios in the area be so inspired and energized by them."
Photo by Heather Gray
Jarnot and Owens attribute much of their success to their airtight bond as sisters—one that was sealed tightly after losing their mother when they were young (Owens was 8 and Jarnot was 3). “We have a unique relationship where there is no question that we can count on each other," says Owens. Jarnot agrees, saying, “I don't know if I'd want to run a studio by myself. Even if there are periods where we don't agree or are fighting, we have to work it out. I'm not going to go down the street and open another studio. There isn't going to be drama like that, because we're sisters."
They employ what Jarnot calls a “yin and yang" approach, balancing areas of focus. She teaches hip hop, while Owens teaches tap. (Both also teach jazz and contemporary.) “Jen handles costume ordering and business matters—we call her 'Job Done Jenny,'" jokes Jarnot. “I tend to be more front-of-house in the classroom, at rehearsals and in parent meetings."
Being family also drives them to place more emphasis on work/life balance—but that hasn't always been the case. Five years ago, they hired a business/life coach to help them take a step back from the exhausting seven-day weeks they'd been putting in. The coach guided them toward working fewer hours, hiring a second office person, finding others to teach recreational classes and doing trades with studio families for cleaning and maintenance.
“A big challenge we had was wanting to do everything," says Owens, whose two daughters are currently enrolled. “Our coach showed us how to let go of some responsibility and trust that other people can take it on. It was a hard year of decision making—I highly recommend working with a coach to studio owners who feel stuck."
The new mindset led to tangible results. Currently, the biggest problem is having outgrown their space. “There are times when you can't walk down the hallways because it's packed," says Jarnot. “People do complain, but I see it as a good problem to have." Finding a new building is on the short-term to-do list, after which the pair hopes to double enrollment. “We're having good growing pains," she adds.
Visiting choreographer Billy Bell attributes the sisters' mounting success to their palpable passion and rapport with students. “Jen and Julie have a sense of honesty with their kids," says Bell. During his first visit to the studio in 2010, he was struck by the dedication they elicited from the dancers: “Everyone was super-committed to the process and the choreography. I've never been in a work environment like that where everyone wants to be there."
It all comes back to the sisters' shared philosophy: nurturing dancers that excel both on and off the stage. They present dancers with gratitude rocks and urge them to be thankful for their gifts. A studio “wish jar" is filled with secret hopes and dreams. “I look at us as more than a dance school—we're a life school," says Owens. “For us, it's about creating good, successful people."