Geo Hubela puts his brand on hip-hop for kids
By Eileen Glynn
“Be ICONic!” is hip-hop artist Geo Hubela’s motto. It’s both a positive message for his students and a catchy marketing brand.
Whether performing in front of an audience of millions on TV or teaching hip-hop to tots in his own New Jersey studio, Hubela attracts fans both large and small. Drawing on 15 years of experience touring with artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Pink and teaching at conventions, in 2006 Hubela launched ICON Dance Complex in Englishtown, New Jersey. After only five years, the 5,000-square-foot complex has an enrollment of 700 students, of which 120 to 150 are boys. Along with hip-hop, the school offers ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, lyrical, break dance, and cheer/funk.
Hubela began dancing in the ’80s. “Break dance is what got me started,” he says. “It was the Michael Jackson era, jazz-based but commercial choreography. What he was doing then would be called hip-hop now. That’s what got me interested.” Hubela took classes with Frank Hatchett, drawn by what he describes as Hatchett’s “funky style of street jazz”; lyrical with Michèle Assaf; lyrical and jazz with Joe Lanteri; and AC Ciulla’s grungy street style jazz at Broadway Dance Center.
While taking class at Horizons in Dance in Brooklyn, Hubela started teaching his own class, which he called hip-hop. He booked his first job at Disney World in Orlando, “and that was the start. I taught at Star Power in New York City, and Allison [Ellner] from Broadway Dance Center stopped in and asked if I’d be interested in teaching there. It was a dream come true.” And he hit the convention circuit with Tremaine, Monsters of Hip Hop, and Darrin Henson’s Dance Grooves, “I love teaching huge ballrooms full of kids,” he says. “Teaching helped support me. I taught at the Edge, close to 100 studios around the country, wherever there was an opportunity.” Now on the Showstoppers faculty, he tours on the weekends and runs his studio the rest of the time, teaching 20 hours per week.
Hubela came up with the name for his school when he was staying at Hotel Icon in Houston and saw the name on the hotel stationery. “It was like ‘Boom!’—a light turned on, and I knew that I had found the name for my studio,” he says. “Now, when people hear [the word] ‘icon,’ they think of our dance complex. And when they hear ‘iconic,’ they think of our ICONic Boyz and ICONic Girlz crews.” As for his motto, he calls it “inspiring,” a catchphrase that “pushes kids to do their best.”
Performing with his own ICONic dance crew on the first season of America’s Best Dance Crew helped put Hubela’s brand on the map. “The school opened with 300 or 400 students, and then we went on the show,” says Hubela. “I used my credits with people in the industry like J-Lo and Will Smith in my marketing, and that was a big draw.” This year his ICONic Boyz crew performed on the show’s sixth season. Ranging in age from 10 to 14, the seven boys are the youngest crew to have performed on the show to date. “Season 6 was the first time they let kids on the show,” Hubela says. “The Boyz were the only kids who made it. The Girlz went all the way to contracts. They didn’t make the show, but they did very well.”
Hubela’s crews are required to take at least four classes per week: two in hip-hop (which include strength and core work) and one each in jazz and break dance. Rather than holding auditions, Hubela handpicks his elite crews, basing his choices on “talent, attitude, looks, style, and ability to pick up choreography quickly and execute it well. They have to work hard.” There’s no age minimum; some crew members have been as young as 9.
National TV exposure has given the ICONic Boyz a large following and has led to numerous performance opportunities at conventions, competitions, and charity events. “They are like pop stars,” Hubela says. “Wherever we go, there are hundreds of girls showing up to see them dance. They are like the first boy band of dance—and they don’t even sing!”
But Hubela cautions them to remain humble. “I tell the dancers, ‘No one job and no one experience can make you better as a person than anyone else.’ I don’t want to create an uncomfortable dynamic with the other students in the studio,” he says. “Instead, I hope that the ICONic Boyz crew inspires even more kids, especially boys, to take dance classes.”
Indeed, the heart of Hubela’s business is his dance studio. Hubela and his sister Beth, a former professional cheerleader, co-founded the dance complex and direct its curriculum. Their mother, Karen, handles the accounting, while their father, George, signs students in at the front desk. Another sister, Jeanine Sottile, and her husband, Chris, were two of the studio’s main investors, while Hubela’s brother Michael manages day-to-day studio operations.
“For a while we all lived together under one roof in order to get the business up and running. We knew that we had to make sacrifices in order to get where we wanted to get,” Hubela says. “Even now, whenever we get together, 90 percent of the conversation at the dinner table is about the dancing school, and then you go to bed thinking about it. It becomes your life. These kids become so important. You are giving them your passion.”
Founding a family studio was always in the back of his mind, says Hubela, who grew up—and took dance lessons with his siblings—in Brooklyn. Later, as he traveled the country teaching master classes in hip-hop, he paid close attention to the studio environments he encountered. “Every time I walked into another studio, I’d say, ‘Hmm, I like this,’ or ‘I’d never do that,’ ” he says. “As a working professional, I had to be an entrepreneur from a young age, doing things like negotiating my own salaries, for example. For me, being at work was like being in school. I paid attention to everything around me. I knew I wanted to open my own studio someday and I didn’t want to have to worry about how to do it.”
“I wanted a name that was going to stand out. Now, when people hear [the word] ‘icon,’ they think of our dance complex. And when they hear ‘iconic,’ they think of our ICONic Boyz and ICONic Girlz crews.” —Geo Hubela
Hubela sharpened his entrepreneurial skills by working as an assistant for Henson, who won an MTV Award for Best Choreography for *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” (Hubela performed in it on American Music Awards.) “Darrin would show up at conventions with T-shirts and videos for sale. He told me, ‘You have to brand yourself. You are an inspirational role model for kids. Make a T-shirt; it gives you something to sign for them,’ ” Hubela recalls. “So I started with ‘Geo’ merchandise and now I have ‘ICON’ merchandise. I owe that advice to Darrin.”
Selling merchandise is just one of a number of marketing ideas that Hubela swears by. “A great website is a busy studio owner’s first tool, followed by a great use of social media—Facebook and maybe Twitter,” he says. “This gives people somewhere to go in order to find out more about you.”
Hubela also recommends becoming involved in the community by performing at charity events and festivals. Just before launching his studio, Hubela, his sister Beth, and several friends performed at the local Manalapan Day festival. “We had our logo, T-shirts, and signs, and put on a 15-minute show with just seven dancers,” Hubela says. By the following year the studio had enrolled 200 students, and Hubela brought them all back to the festival. “We wore a common color and put up a huge tent to continue our branding,” he says. “By the year after that, we had doubled our enrollment again to 400 dancers. This year, thousands OF people came to see the ICONic Boyz perform at the festival.”
Community performances that feature Hubela’s polished male dancers are a tremendous boost to ICON Dance Complex’s enrollment, as was being on national TV, of course. But according to Hubela, word of mouth is his biggest marketing tool. “We have a good, young, trained staff. We stay fresh and new, with new music,” he says. “The kids are walking out smiling and that’s what you want.”
He is careful to make male dancers feel welcome by keeping the decor in a gender-neutral color scheme. “I stayed away from pink and purple because those colors are isolating to boys,” he says. “I chose silver and a deep blue—we call it ‘ICON blue’—to make it very hip to all kids. I want anyone and everyone to feel welcome in the studio.” These days he’s teaching three boys’ classes—that’s about 100 boys—back-to-back.
Widespread public interest in hip-hop classes has also increased the school’s enrollment. “There has been a surge in hip-hop since the ’90s and early 2000s, when it started appearing in conventions and then on reality shows,” Hubela says. “Hip-hop is vital to a studio’s curriculum, especially if you are branching out from ballet, tap, and jazz. You need hip-hop too, in order to survive. Many people think hip-hop music is negative. But there are plenty of positive commercial songs that are remixed, clean, and kid friendly. The majority of the music we teach to is pop.”
Although ICON Dance Complex offers a wide variety of classes, Hubela’s hip-hop classes pull in the largest numbers for both professional-track and recreational dancers. He and Beth have also begun a “Hip-Hop for Tots” program that introduces the basics to 3- and 4-year-olds. “Like ballet, hip-hop is an art form that has its own technique and terminology that can be introduced at an early age,” Hubela says. “We teach popping, cutting, gliding—all of the basics—to the little ones. It’s not just moving to Britney Spears music.”
While many studios don’t offer hip-hop to students under age 7, Hubela recommends introducing it to younger kids—and potentially retaining those students for the next 15 years. Chances are the young hip-hop dancers will find other dance forms that interest them too, and gradually increase the number of classes they take per week.
In Hubela’s experience, many young children also enjoy freestyling, an important part of hip-hop culture in which kids “step into the circle, dance the way they want to dance, and express themselves through the music,” he says. He saves the last five minutes of class for freestyling. “It can be easier to dance in front of a huge group, where you can block out the audience, than in front of a small group of your peers. I don’t push kids who don’t want to enter the circle on their own. I tell them it’s an expression of who they are. There’s no wrong step. It’s the music telling them what to do.” He gives them a few weeks to feel it out. “And once they go in,” he says, “I really praise them for trying.”
Positive reinforcement is a great motivator at ICON Dance Complex, and Hubela models that behavior through his own actions: “I strive to work harder and sweat more than the kids in class. Also, I learned from other people that it’s easy to be negative.” But, he says, focusing on the students who are doing something correctly motivates those who aren’t. “The kid who’s doing it wrong wants the attention,” he says.
Also motivating are the numerous photos of Hubela’s performance career that line the walls. “Every time I took a photo with a star, I had the thought that I would hang it in my studio someday—not to show off, but to inspire my students,” Hubela says. “I have a passion for teaching and I’ve always wanted to do it in a place that I can call home.”
The ICONic Boyz will perform at New York’s Apollo Theater on December 10. Plans are in the works for a possible 12-city tour in 2012 with a dance convention, open to the public.