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Take the Plunge

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Setting up a performance company can pay off—but do your homework first

By Melissa Hoffman

Performing—it’s what dancers do. And if your students need more than an annual recital and maybe a holiday show, it’s time to think about starting a performance or competition company. The benefits are numerous, from providing your dancers with more opportunities for artistic growth (and fun) to your own joy and pride as you watch your students show off their technical skill and love of dance.

A performance team gives these junior-level dancers at MHDC many opportunities to learn and grow as artists. (Photo courtesy Melissa Hoffman Dance Center)

Forming a performance team or troupe is not a step to be taken lightly. Be prepared to face a flurry of decisions: what kind of team, how many students to include and which ages, and where they will perform. And then there’s the extra work: selecting music and costumes, choreographing and rehearsing, booking performance venues, filling out competition entry forms, and making travel arrangements.

Still, if handled properly, starting a company offers many rewards (not necessarily awards!), not only for yourself and your business but also for your students, teachers, and dance families.

Be realistic
Step one is assessing your own motivation. Is the chance to perform more often something you really want to offer your students, or are you reacting to something happening at the studio down the street? I started with two companies—a younger and an older group—and over the past 18 years, that number has grown to where I now have enough interested students for eight competition and performing companies.

Recently, I was shocked to discover that they use about 70 percent of my studio space, yet bring in only about 45 percent of my monthly income, an inequity I plan to address by combining groups for technique classes. (I also want to make sure my recreational students don’t feel they are being shortchanged because company dancers are hogging the studio space.)

But you can’t gauge the importance of companies by looking at numbers alone. A studio can benefit from the good press and good feelings generated for its performance at a community fund-raiser, for example. If your performing companies are exciting and fun, both students and parents will want to be a part of them, helping you not only retain students who might otherwise leave but bring in new students as well. Those sorts of intangible benefits might add more to your bottom line than a look at the month’s receipts would suggest.

Once you’ve decided to go ahead, you should settle several key questions first:

  • How will the company be chosen?
  • What will the class and rehearsal requirements be?
  • Should the company consist of one or more groups? Should they be split by age, dance level, or dance genre?
  • What expenses will participating dancers face?
  • What are the guidelines and rules for company members?
  • What kinds of performance or competition opportunities will you offer?

Fielding the company
You can select company members by audition or invite students to sign up. Signups are effective if your company will include dancers of mixed ability or will be split based on ability, and perhaps if your focus is on performing rather than competing. This is a wonderful way to give recreational dancers additional opportunities to perform.

If you hold auditions, decide who will serve as judges—yourself, your staff, or outside teachers? Jennifer Rienert of New Hampshire School of Ballet in Hooksett brings in dance experts from outside her studio to judge her dancers based on a numerical score. This score also determines who will receive solos or be featured in other choreography.

You can always create your own performance opportunities. Get out in the community; plan a benefit. Doing so is a great way for your dancers to perform plus help their community at the same time.

Rienert’s process offers the advantage of objectivity; however, be aware that it might exclude dancers who are strong but have a bad audition, or include dancers who have behavior issues or a poor work ethic.

There is a third method: teacher recommendation. At our studio, teachers can recommend that dancers in our youngest ballet classes (ages 6 to 9) attend an “Intro to Company” four-week summer course. During the course, we note how quickly the dancers pick up choreography and consider their technique, performance quality, and overall attitude. Dancers who excel may be invited to join a similar session in the fall. Eventually, new competition and performance members are selected from students who have gone through this process and received a positive recommendation. I only hold auditions for our dance ensemble, a team of older dancers (13 and up) focusing on dance as a career.

Explaining expectations
It is essential that dancers and their parents understand what is expected of company members. Holding a meeting prior to the beginning of the dance year will help everyone get off on the right foot (though you will still encounter some who don’t quite grasp your expectations). Topics to cover include the following.

  • Required classes for each group.
  • Dress code.
  • Expected classroom behavior.
  • Rules of behavior for parents. Yes, you read that correctly. More and more, I have found that adults need to be reminded that they are not at a sporting event when attending a performance or competition.
  • Financial commitment. This is big. Include any anticipated costs beyond tuition such as costumes, choreography, entry fees if competing, and any team apparel. Be very clear about payment policies. For company members, I charge an annual assessment fee of $50 per family to defray costs related to performances, such as teacher compensation and the time I spend filling out entry forms.
  • Anticipated travel and travel expenses.

It is a good idea to list all rules in a handbook. Go through the policies during the meeting and send a handbook home with each family, so that when questions arise you can refer them to it. Insist that parents and students consider all expectations before choosing to participate.

Time commitment
Fielding a company means that the dancers, the studio owner, and the staff all make a commitment to the additional time and effort needed to make this new endeavor a success.

For our team members, our technique requirements ask that younger dancers spend six to eight hours a week in class, with older dancers studying about eight hours a week. In addition, dancers must attend three two-hour rehearsals to learn choreography. Because so much class time gives the dancers strong technique, the choreography can be taught quickly—which helps prepare dancers for auditions or professional careers—and less cleaning time is necessary. After that, rehearsals are held once or twice a month, generally on a Friday night or Saturday.

This can be a lot, especially for older dancers preparing for college, so our company class requirements provide some flexibility. Dancers who want to compete only in tap or hip-hop, for example, can take fewer technique classes, and we encourage all company members to limit their weekly schedule to required classes only. I also make sure older teens have at least one or two days a week when they do not have to be at the studio, to allow time for school activities and studies.

While I do much of the planning and organization for both the competition and performance teams, my teachers run rehearsals and handle choreography. They are compensated through “choreography fees” charged to team members.

Filling out competition entry forms is another time-consuming job. In the past, an office person did the work and then I double-checked it. But since not all competitions have the same requirements for levels and dance styles, I have decided that it’s more efficient for a teacher (paid at the office rate) to handle the entry forms.

Performance opportunities
My school’s company dancers attend competitions and dance in a minimum of three benefit performances each year. We also hold an annual benefit for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which the recreational dancers may participate in. Any recreational dancers who sign up are required to attend three rehearsals and the show. Including non-company dancers helps with ticket sales and allows students who love to dance (or are passionate about helping others) an additional chance to do so.

Every four years my students perform at Walt Disney World—a favorite of even dancers who have extensive performing experience. While it’s an additional expense, families have told me how amazing it was to see their children perform at Disney, or how much they enjoyed the family vacation aspect. (While it’s not mandatory, generally about 95 percent of company members attend.) Planning for a trip of this scope should be done well in advance.

Many prestigious performance opportunities exist, such as participating in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or dancing in halftime shows at college football bowl games. Look around. You may find other performing opportunities closer to home, such as at local amusement parks or during events of area Triple-A baseball teams or professional basketball teams. Companies have sprung up that arrange performing tours of Europe. In any case, do your homework. Some events require an audition process or ask you to sell a certain amount of tickets in exchange.

If all that seems too extreme, you can always create your own performance opportunities. Get out in the community; plan a benefit. Doing so is a great way for your dancers to perform plus help their community at the same time.

Competition awareness
It’s also a good idea to be selective when choosing competitions. Viewing an event in advance (by yourself or with your dancers) is always a good idea, as is asking fellow dance teachers for recommendations.

Be clear with parents about cost and time before committing. Explain that since competitions don’t always provide schedule details in advance (such as when solos will run), they will have to set aside the entire weekend until the information arrives (generally less than one week prior to the event). Compile a schedule for the coming year, including a schedule of payments due (costumes, rehearsal time, entry fees) for parents.

The payoff
Until you start, you may not realize how much of a time commitment it is to field a competition or performance company. Though the extra work can be taxing at times, I couldn’t put a price on the enjoyment I derive from watching my dancers onstage and the satisfaction of knowing that I give them many opportunities to learn and grow as performing artists.

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