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

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