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

Family Bond

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."

Dance Teachers Trending
Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project

For Gianna Reisen, a classically trained ballet dancer who now performs with L.A. Dance Project, the process of finding music for her choreography is everything. "If I'm not 100 percent inspired by the music, the movement just doesn't come out," she says. Following this natural creative spirit, though, wasn't always the driving force behind her artistry.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

2019 has been rife with fantastic holiday songs that are simply BEGGING to be choreographed to. From Pentatonix to Kacey Musgraves, these bangers are the perfect match for your upcoming holiday-themed jazz class. Use each song for different elements of class (warm-up, across the floor, combo, etc.), or have your students get in groups and assign each one a different song from the list to choreograph to. The options are endless, but the general feeling of joy will be the same.

YOU'RE WELCOME! And happy holidays, everyone!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alvin Ailey surrounded by the Company, 1978. Photography by Jack Mitchell, © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, all rights reserved

From 1961 to 1994, legendary photographer Jack Mitchell captured thousands of moments with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Now, this treasure trove of dance history is available to the public for viewing via the online archives of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The collection includes both color and black-and-white images of Ailey's repertoire, as well as private photo sessions with company members and Ailey himself. Altogether, the archive tracks the career development of many beloved Ailey dancers, including Masazumi Chaya, Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters, Donna Wood and Dudley Williams—and even a young Desmond Richardson. And there's no shortage of photos of iconic pieces like Blues Suite (Ailey's first piece of choreography), Cry and Revelations.

We couldn't resist sharing a few of our favorites below. Search the collection for more gems here.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by CJ Harris, courtesy of PHILADANCO

Each anniversary celebration of a dance company might also be considered a lesson in dance history and a study of endurance and perseverance. Thus the 50th anniversary of PHILADANCO is an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable legacy of founder and artistic director Joan Myers Brown as a source of inspiration for students, dancers and colleagues nationwide.

PHILADANCO is a resident company at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and kicked off its 50th season on October 5. Brown and the company will participate in the International Association of Blacks in Dance's 32nd annual conference, January 14–19, in Philadelphia. And you can catch the company throughout the U.S. in 2020, including February performances in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

Q: My 13-year-old daughter has always been flexible, but last year she suffered an acute injury to her hip flexor from an overstretch position. Since then I have told her not to participate in over-splits or other extreme positions. Is that the right thing to do?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox