Your Mama Don’t Dance—Or Does She?

Starting an adult program to grow your studio

Brenda Bufalino’s adult tap class at ATDF is always a hit.

"Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” dish up plenty of reality-television drama that viewers love, but for the millions who watch, there’s another takeaway: proof that dance can be performed by anyone—even the most clumsy or untrained celebrity. Savvy studio owners are tapping into this booming adult interest in dance by adding adult classes to their schedules. Have you considered this route to create a new revenue stream for your business?

Moms and dads of your students and other adults in your area may have taken a class or two in their youth, or they could be eager to foster a new hobby. This demographic can help you grow your business, but it can be tricky to navigate. An adult clientele will have different needs from adolescents: Scheduling will have to fit around work and family; beginners may be initially intimidated; and adult students assimilate dance knowledge differently. Kat Wildish, who teaches an adult ballet class on Friday nights at The Ailey Extension in New York City, says that adult dancers want more than just dance basics: “They need an insight into the history. They need anatomy! They’ll wonder why they can’t get their legs up like the young people.” Read on for guidance on how to launch a successful adult program.

Step One: Hunt and Gather

• Do your market research. Poll the parents at your studio and adults in your community to get a feel for what type of classes would best succeed. Are couples looking for ballroom lessons as a way to spend time together and learn a new skill? Do parents want to give ballet a try late in the game? Maybe your client pool is just looking for a more exciting or joyful form of exercise. Whatever the case, make sure your class offerings reflect people’s interests so you can maximize enrollment.

Look at the other studios in your area to see who offers what for adults and at what times, suggests Tony Waag, artistic and executive director of New York’s American Tap Dance Foundation (ATDF). “We try to look at the city and see who else is offering these classes, and at what level. It’s smart to try not to conflict or compete with the same level and time slot,” he says.

• Costs. Be realistic about what the new venture will cost you, so that there are no financial surprises down the road. Make a spreadsheet of one-time startup costs and ongoing expenses, and calculate fees and student numbers you’ll need to offset those. You’ll need to either pay existing faculty members more to take on another class or hire new ones for the dance genres you plan to offer. If there is space, a separate dressing area or locker room gives adults the necessary sense of privacy from giggly teens. Keep marketing costs in mind, too—for the campaign to reach this new group of potential clients. How will you execute that campaign? Will social media work, or will more traditional routes, like mailings or ads, best reach these older potential students?

Step Two: Plan and Launch

• The art of scheduling. An adult’s schedule leaves much less wiggle room for extracurricular dance than a child’s does. Although you probably require your child and adolescent students to enroll for regular sessions, it might be more feasible to offer adult classes as drop-ins. ATDF, which sees about 100 adults a week, offers a no-expiry class card for its adult students. “Adults need flexibility. They can’t always commit to showing up every week,” Waag says.

In Waag’s experience, 6:15 pm is the golden hour for adult classes. “Most of our adult students are people with careers, and they get stuck at the office,” he explains. “We’ve found that the extra 15 minutes gives people just the right amount of time to make it to class.” Unfortunately, evenings—and weekends, which are also doable for adults—are primetime slots for kids’ classes, too, so scheduling studio space becomes a carefully orchestrated dance of its own.

• Low-risk beta test. To test the adult-dance-class waters before making a big commitment, try offering beginner workshops in specific dance forms. At ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco, adults can sign up (and pay in advance) to take part in absolute beginning workshops, committing to 6-, 10- or 12-week sessions with a permanent class time each week. “It’s been very successful for us,” says school director Kimi Okada. “Being in class with other people who don’t know that form of dance gives the adult beginner a chance not to feel intimidated.” By the end of the workshop, most adults feel confident and interested enough to either choose another beginner workshop or to start attending class as drop-ins. ODC has offered the absolute beginning workshops for seven years, with the ballet version being the most popular. Enrollment usually reaches 30 adults, with waiting lists in place, and the workshop is offered to two groups three times a year.

Step Three: Track It

Whenever you’re trying to create a new revenue stream, decide beforehand what investment you can afford to make. Remember that the “breakeven point” is when revenue equals all business costs—both fixed and variable. Whether you decide it’s OK to lose money for the first six months or to just break even for the first year, you need to keep careful tabs on your business’ profit and revenue. Regularly doing a breakeven analysis of how much an adult program is costing you versus how much you’re making from it will help you decide if it’s worth keeping. (Your accountant or bookkeeper can help you set this up.)

Certainly, there’s a lot to consider when starting an adult program from the ground up. But with careful planning and attention to the population you’re catering to, you can create an original offering at your studio that will set it apart and generate a brand-new source of income. DT

Photo by Tony Waag, courtesy of American Tap Dance Foundation

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"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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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
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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