By Kerry Ring
Auditions can be harrowing, whether dancers are trying to get into professional companies, pre-professional training programs, shows, or colleges. But my years of experience teaching in the University at Buffalo Theater and Dance Department—and conducting auditions for prospective students—have shown me that teachers can help prepare students to put their best selves forward when auditioning.
The key is understanding that what we teach an advanced student in technique class is the preparation they need for a successful audition. We simply want our students to feel secure in their technical skills and so rooted in their confidence that they can really shine in an audition. Learning combinations quickly, recovering from mistakes with grace, and maintaining performance quality in transitions are skills for both advanced dancing and auditioning.
It’s possible to prepare students for auditions during regular classroom time. One effective method in advanced technique classes is to replicate the audition scenario. Here’s one idea: have half the class perform a rond de jambe exercise at the barre. While the first half of the class does the exercise—on both sides, including transition—assigned partners observe. They switch places and then discuss what they saw. Both groups repeat the combination, keeping their partners’ comments about technique and performance quality in mind. The improvement is often dramatic.
Another way to introduce the kind of pressure that comes with auditioning is to teach a long center combination and have the students perform it one at a time. Have the students face away from the mirrors, place a table in front, and sit there, as an adjudicator would. Students enter the studio one at a time (the other students are not allowed to watch) and perform the combination. But instead of making an audition decision about the dancers, write helpful personal notes for each one. Afterward, you can have a conversation with each student about some of the strengths and weaknesses you observed.
I advise against telling students to constantly imagine being in an audition situation. That type of self-imposed pressure makes it difficult for students to explore new ideas and may rob them of the joy they experience in class. But the kinds of exercises I just described, employed once or twice a month, can help dancers begin to address the issues of dancing well at auditions and allow them to practice their auditioning skills.
It’s important to explain to students that auditions for college dance programs aren’t like those for a Nutcracker—the goal isn’t to fill certain roles (like 12 short dancers who will fit into the mouse costumes from the previous year). Nor are they like the 20 seconds of showy tricks everyone has seen in the auditions for So You Think You Can Dance. College dance faculties will be spending four intense years with a student, not 12 weeks. They need to see that a solid foundation is there.
More than the dancing
Teachers are also responsible for educating their students about proper audition etiquette, such as arriving early, dressing appropriately, and saying thank you at the end of the experience. At UB auditions the faculty scans the studio before the audition officially begins, because so much important information can be gained from how the dancers prepare in the moments leading up to the first plié.
Audition qualities such as punctuality, attention, effort, concentration, proper attire, and polite decorum are actually the expectations I have for my students in class every day.
Maintaining consistently high standards of presentation in all technique classes will prepare students for most audition situations. At UB we expect dancers to look the part. That means solid-color leotards and tights, proper shoes for ballet, and hair up. And a gentle reminder might be in order for students who are excited about a new leotard: no matter how good they look in it, it won’t hide the weaknesses in their technique. It’s worth stating the obvious: that makeup, leotard color, and hair accessories are not as important as the dancing and the smile on the face.
In preparing students for auditioning, I emphasize learning how to “sell” their dancing, starting at the first ballet barre exercise and continuing throughout the audition. By “sell” I mean clear, confident preparations and full, committed endings to each combination; eyes up and out, “inviting” the faculty or adjudicators to watch and learn about them; and transmitting a sense of enjoyment. Dancers who save their best dancing for the modern and jazz segments of the audition put themselves at a disadvantage. First impressions matter. Only rarely can prospective students turn the faculty around based only on a jazz combination. Dancers who demonstrate consistency in technique and confidence from the first plié through the final improvisation exercise are the ones who typically capture the adjudicators’ attention.
The barre and beyond
The ballet barre is a critical part of the audition process at UB, as it is in many auditions. Although not all auditions will include a ballet component, at UB we stress the importance of ballet as a means to better overall dancing. We believe that making real-life connections about how ballet enhances students’ jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, and modern dance is simply good teaching. You may well bring success to your students by reinforcing the concept of “selling” their dancing at the ballet barre, regardless of their strength in a different genre.
Opening an audition with a ballet barre offers faculty or other adjudicators a significant amount of time to observe dancers as they perform basic barre combinations that demonstrate their technique. Much is learned about the dancer during this part of the process: physical form, range of motion, technique, and musicality. Also, the time at the barre is an opportunity for the dancers to introduce their sense of confidence and individual style.
A traditional ballet barre sequence (combinations in pliés, tendus, degagés, rond de jambes, port de bras, and grands battements) also allows the students to be fully warm before going on to combinations in modern, jazz, or improvisation as well as in ballet. Many auditions are organized similarly to the way we run ours at UB, so we think it’s important for instructors to teach dancers the skills necessary to successfully “introduce” themselves through their ballet barre.
At UB, the dance department slogan is “Versatility Matters.” We seek undergraduate dancers with interest and training in jazz, modern, tap, and ballet. Most other college dance departments are also looking for students who have experience and training in a variety of styles.
For prospective incoming freshman at UB, we begin with a full ballet barre, followed by ballet combinations in center including adagio, pirouettes, and petit allegro. We sequence from ballet into a modern combination to assess the dancers’ ability to pick up a different movement style and their ease in floor work and simple inversions. Improvisation exercises highlight the dancers’ natural movement patterns and their ease in spontaneous creative problem solving.
We conclude the audition with a jazz combination that includes time for improvising so that the dancers can show off their strengths and reveal their personality. The entire auditioning process takes about two hours and no one gets cut. The faculty consistently reminds the students throughout the audition process that it is just a class, so they should do their best and enjoy it.
Planning for the day
Not all auditions follow the blueprint we use at UB, but dancers should be prepared to make both aesthetic and practical transitions from genre to genre. Students should wear convertible tights so that as the audition class progresses to modern dance, their feet can be bare. Jazz shoes should be quickly slipped on during the transition from modern. No major “costume changes” should occur. Students should feel comfortable dancing in a leotard and tights with no excess layers. Another practical note: having a water bottle nearby is always smart.
Dancers who plan to audition for undergraduate dance programs should consider calling ahead and touring schools during their junior year of high school, because programs can vary greatly. At UB, students can set up a pre-audition observation day during which they can watch regular classes and get a tour of the department facilities. This is when a student can “audition” the school, to get a sense of whether it’s the right fit for them.
Most college dance or performing-arts departments offer prospective students an opportunity to get to know the department better. After an audition at UB, students and parents meet in the performance space to gain more knowledge of the program by chatting with the department chair, director of dance, and current dance majors from various geographic areas. While the students are auditioning, parents can meet with the program’s academic advisor to answer questions regarding tuition, admissions, and academic requirements. There are many opportunities over the course of the day for prospective students to ask questions and get a sense of the department.
Teachers can also help their students prepare by guiding them to needed information. Most registration information for incoming freshman auditions is posted on the schools’ websites. In addition, portfolios are suggested. These may include a head shot, a full-body shot, and a brief resume.
The real work of dance teachers, whether at the collegiate level or at the local dance studio, is to instill confidence in their students and cultivate both individual style and technique that can be used in any situation—onstage, in class, or at an audition.
By Megan Donahue
When something goes wrong with your recital venue, it doesn’t just seem like a problem; it seems like a nightmare. In addition to the usual recital stress, you may find yourself with no access to the wings, no lights, or locked dressing rooms. Sometimes, because of scheduling snafus or disasters like floods, fires, or auto accidents, your venue suddenly isn’t available at all. Still, the show must go on.
A change of plan
Camille Parsons had booked the Cotton Auditorium in Fort Bragg, California, for Second Story Studios’ June 2002 dance concert the previous fall, just as she had for years. Everything progressed as usual until the auditorium was damaged when a car crashed into it in March. When a resulting inspection found significant dry rot, the building was closed for repairs. Parsons had to find somewhere else to have her recital.
“After majorly freaking out—all the costumes were already ordered and we were in rehearsals—I managed to get all my ducks in a row to hold it in the only other building here large enough to hold an audience and a stage: the local high school gymnasium,” says Parsons.
With the help of a local “theater wizard” with whom she’d worked on many shows, Parsons ended up constructing an entire stage inside the gymnasium, complete with a dance floor and proscenium. The gymnasium had to be rewired to accommodate the lighting system (something the school agreed to do since it owns the Cotton Auditorium and Parsons had proven she was trustworthy) and the audience sat on bleachers. The cafeteria served as a backstage area.
Because the repairs and remodeling of the Cotton Auditorium took four years, Second Story Studios held four recitals in the gymnasium space before returning to its original venue. In the interim, the auditorium was completely redone and now has up-to-date sound and lighting systems—a welcome change for Parsons, after having to build a stage four years in a row.
Nobody ran a car into Sarah Beth Byrum’s usual recital venue. She had a much more common problem—a school district booking issue that bumped her studio from its spot. Byrum, the artistic director of All That! Dance Company of Eugene, Oregon, found herself getting closer and closer to her recital date without a venue lined up. “I was stressed, panicked, nauseated. I desperately contacted every venue in town with no success,” she says.
So she started to think creatively. “On a whim, I connected with a local high school cheer coach and asked her if she had any pull at the school to get us a spot,” she says. “This particular high school did not have a facility manager and was not typically used for outside concerts.” Staffing changes at the school confused the process, and Byrum wasn’t positive she could use the space until the week of her recital.
Nobody ran a car into Sarah Beth Byrum’s usual recital venue. She had a much more common problem—a school district booking issue that bumped her studio from its spot.
Finally she got the go-ahead. “We were able to partner the event as a fund-raiser with the school’s cheer squad. The cheerleaders ran concessions, played with the young dancers backstage, helped the dancers do hair and makeup, and kept everything running smoothly,” Byrum says. The school’s staff was also supportive. “The drama/choir teacher volunteered to open the auditorium for us, let us use the choir room for quick changes, and connected us with a student tech.”
Byrum’s brother hung and focused the lights, most of which weren’t even directed at the stage. “[He] was up on what they call ‘the ladder of death’ until an hour before the show,” says Byrum.
While some high school auditoriums have state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, others leave a lot to be desired.
Deborah Mason of Deborah Mason School of Dance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has plenty of experience with inadequately equipped spaces. Over the years she’s held recitals in high school auditoriums and small theaters, a necessity after rising costs at her usual large, well-equipped theater space became prohibitive.
The first alternate venue she tried was a local high school, which did not have much in the way of sound or lighting. Mason rented equipment and hired technicians to operate it. In addition, for the first year “the school wasn’t really on board,” she says. The use of the space was strictly limited and did not include the dressing rooms. “The older kids changed backstage in the dark,” says Mason. Still, from the audience’s perspective, “that show went off without a hitch,” she says.
In following years, Mason held recitals in theaters with little to no wing space. To solve the backstage overcrowding problem, she split her recital into two one-hour shows.
Mason recommends using trusted technicians to operate rented equipment. “It’s good to make friends in the [theater and dance] community,” she says, noting that you’ll know who to call when you need that kind of help.
Linda Deitrich Wong of South Jersey DanceWorks in Pitman, New Jersey, has held her recital in the same high school auditorium for 20 years, and the experience hasn’t been without its challenges. Lighting is one of the big ones. For several years she has rented lights to supplement the equipment at the venue, not all of which is in service.
In 2011 a circuit blew during the first half of the recital. In order to have the ability to use dimmers, she had rented a lighting control board. When the circuit blew, “we went searching for the [theater] manager to tell him, only to find out that he did not know where the breaker box was,” says Wong. With the problem unresolved, none of the rented equipment could be used, and the second half of the show was performed in the sparse light of the auditorium.
This year no circuits were blown, but Wong had a new problem—the lighting technician left before the show was over. Wong’s niece was running sound, and she was left on her own for the recital’s last four numbers. Fortunately she had six years of experience and a take-charge attitude, because “she had to run lights and sound,” says Wong. Having a trusted person in the booth saved the show.
Wong ran into a completely different set of problems with her venue the following year. When she arrived at the high school auditorium on recital day, things were already not quite going according to plan. Due to a local ordinance about using the auditorium on Sundays, there were new time constraints that prevented the dance school from getting into the building until noon—and the recital was at 1pm, an hour earlier than usual, to accommodate some students who had a church function later in the day. Wong had learned about the change only two weeks before the recital. Usually she arrives three hours early; this time there was no time for that.
Wong was prepared to rush around for the one hour she had to get everything ready, but the only person there when she arrived was a substitute custodian. The auditorium manager was nowhere in sight. So not only was no one in charge, no one knew where things were, such as tables for the lobby vendors. The custodian found a single table, which the concession team and florist had to share.
Then, 20 minutes before curtain, Wong’s son, Jacob, informed her that he couldn’t get into his dressing room. All of his costumes were inside. Though the door had been unlocked when they arrived, it had locked automatically when shut. Without the auditorium manager there, only the custodian could help her get that door open, and he was nowhere to be found. She was trying to figure out how to outfit her son from pieces of other costumes when a parent managed to pick the lock, just in time. “We made it through,” Wong says.
Dance programs that reside in schools or parks and recreation facilities or studios on very tight budgets may not use traditional venues at all. Non-traditional performance spaces take all the potential problems of traditional spaces to the next level: no lighting, no backstage, and no clear lines between the audience and performers.
Design Dance is a community-based Chicago dance program that offers on-site arts partnerships with local schools and parks. Before 2012, the annual showcase was always held in the gym at a local park. The gymnasium is a giant space, especially compared to the tiny preschool dancers who comprise the majority of Design Dance’s students.
To define the space, executive director Debra Giunta used a freestanding rectangular frame provided by the park, covered in black, as an upstage “wall.” She clipped lights to the frame, and taped out a “stage” on the gym floor. It was a little rough-and-tumble, but Giunta sees a benefit to the stripped-down space: “The focus is on just the dancers,” she says.
This year, when she used an elementary school auditorium for the showcase, the fact that the wings were tiny and completely inaccessible on stage right didn’t seem like such a big problem. At least there were wings—and an actual stage.
Liane Fisher of Fisher Academy of Ballet and Dance in Westwood, Massachusetts, planned to present her first recital in the gym of a local sports facility. She was skeptical about using the gym at first since the show included a theatrical production of Peter Pan, which required wings and a crossover. But then she noticed several folded-up Ping-Pong tables. About five feet high, “they made great wings,” she says. She covered them with matching curtains, pinned up a backdrop to make a crossover space, borrowed a couple of hot lights from her photographer fiancé, and used shop lights as footlights—and voilà! A theater space was created.
When it comes to presenting live theater, even the best-laid plans can go awry. But as Parsons says, “Anytime you put up a show you have to be adaptable, because things happen.”
In Atlanta, Dance Truck brings dance anywhere it wants to go
By Eileen Glynn
For producer Malina Rodriguez, a stage needs at least four wheels and an engine. As the co-founder of Atlanta’s Dance Truck, Rodriguez uses flatbed trucks, shipping containers, trailers, pickup trucks, large vans, and virtually anything that moves in order to create a mobile performance space. Her motto is “Bringing dance to the people.”
Since 2009 Rodriguez has presented 24 shows featuring more than 80 artists, whom she refers to as “dance truckers.” She developed the idea after the organizers of a local visual-arts festival told her they didn’t have the space to present a dance performance. “I said, ‘Fine, then we’ll bring the dance to you. It’s going to be in a truck and it’s going to be really easy,’ ” Rodriguez says. “So what was originally a bounce-back from the presenters became an opportunity.”
While the type of truck Rodriguez uses varies from performance to performance, the concept remains the same—the Dance Truck parks in a given location and performances happen inside, on top of, or around the truck.
We create a space that inspires all kinds of artists. We celebrate the dance community, but we also create a bridge between dance and visual art and dance and music. —producer Malina Rodriguez
Dance Truck has been a welcome opportunity for contemporary dance choreographers in Atlanta, where, as Rodriguez notes, it can be difficult to fill a 200-seat theater for a three-night run. Choreographer Onur Topal-Sümer, a frequent Dance Truck participant, says, “We’ve struggled to find venues and then we’ve struggled financially to rent the theaters and organize the technical aspects. Malina is making that so much easier for us. Yes, it’s wonderful to perform in a theater, but it’s not the only way.”
By popping up all over town, Dance Truck aims to make contemporary dance more accessible to the general public. “Choreographers are making dances all the time, in studios, but people don’t get to see them,” Rodriguez says. “If a dancer is performing in the middle of Five Points [Atlanta’s downtown district], however, people are going to notice. They’ll stop and ask questions. Putting dance in public spaces makes it less mysterious.”
Rodriguez hopes that if people like what they see in a Dance Truck performance, they will be more inclined to purchase tickets for a conventionally produced show. In fact, Dance Truckers often present excerpts of works-in-progress that have a pending theater debut. “It’s a great promotional tool for choreographers who are working on a full-length show,” Rodriguez says. “If we take their piece and put it in a truck, then they can show people a free, eight-minute glimpse of the show and pass out postcards advertising the full-evening performance.”
A typical Dance Truck performance showcases 10 to 15 minutes of material from four to six choreographers, building community among independent choreographers and demonstrating the diversity of Atlanta’s dance offerings.
Choreographer Blake Beckham, one of Rodriguez’s main collaborators, says, “Dance Truck has been an amazing vehicle—no pun intended! It has exposed a whole new audience to dance and has gotten people excited about experiencing movement. Contemporary dance can often be its own universe; Dance Truck demystifies it. People seem drawn to its utilitarian nature.”
Dance Truck’s method of delivery might be utilitarian, but its performances are by no means unadorned. As Rodriguez says, “The choreographers are really inventive in terms of how they alter the space within the truck. They’ll use plush fabric, fill it with fog, or have a strobe light. Dance Truck is like a flash mob with production details.”
Although the performances have a flash-mob element of surprise, they differ in that they are advertised and require a good deal of advance preparation. “We don’t own a truck, so it’s rent, beg, borrow, or steal,” Beckham says with a laugh. “Then we have to clean the truck, prep it for dancers, and set up lights and sound with a generator.”
Choreographers often don’t know the type of truck that will be used, or its dimensions, until a few weeks before the performance. A technical rehearsal before the show is essential, since adapting choreography to the truck can be a challenge, especially if the dance involves more than one performer. But it’s often a welcome challenge.
“As choreographers, we are creative problem solvers by nature,” says Beckham. “It can be challenging to work in the physical space of the truck, but that’s what makes it so much fun. The concept is so simple. We pull up, roll up the back door, and everyone looks into a self-contained universe.”
Although a truck provides an interesting frame for the audience, choreographers don’t always stay inside of four walls. Topal-Sümer, for example, has danced on top of one truck and crawled down the side of another. She finds that altering her choreography for a Dance Truck performance means being open to all possibilities.
“In my work, even though I have an idea in mind, I’m very open to the fact that the idea can change,” she says. “The truck is an element in the dance. If it’s a solo work, then the truck becomes another performer. The truck becomes a partner and the dance becomes a duet.”
At the end of a typical performance, the truck also becomes the site of a party as the audience piles in for a dance jam. “People love to get into the truck and dance at the end of a show,” Beckham says. Rodriguez deejays and sells CDs by local musicians while the audience gets a chance to converse with the choreographers.
Conversation often leads to future collaborations. “We create a space that inspires all kinds of artists,” Rodriguez says. “We celebrate the dance community, but we also create a bridge between dance and visual art and dance and music. So a composer might say to a choreographer, ‘I want to make the next piece of music for you.’ ”
In a recent example of interdisciplinary collaboration, photographer Bobbi Jo Brooks set up a photo shoot within a Dance Truck. “She captured movement within a stagnant truck bed and presented the photos in a gallery show titled Portraits of Mystery,” Rodriguez says.
Other Dance Truck performances have featured poets and indie rock musicians. Invitations from Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and High Museum of Art have swung open the door to the visual-arts world—a door that Rodriguez first knocked on in 2009 when her proposal to bring a dance performance to a local visual-arts festival was denied.
Such forays have strengthened Dance Truck’s educational mission. It has presented flamenco and hip-hop lessons at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and created a Family Day workshop at High Museum of Art in which children were introduced to the work of artist Piet Mondrian through movement exercises. These opportunities, which don’t involve an actual truck, led Rodriguez to partner with Beckham in developing The Lucky Penny, a presenting organization. Launched in 2011, The Lucky Penny now houses Dance Truck under its not-for-profit umbrella.
Rodriguez plans to apply for additional funding for Dance Truck under the fiscal sponsorship of The Lucky Penny. To date, Dance Truck has survived on a shoestring budget with sponsorship from Zipcar, generous individual donations, and purchases made with Rodriguez’ own credit cards, and the venture is barely covering its costs. Additional funding would enable Rodriguez to pursue a dream she calls “Dance Truck: Double Wide,” with a truck parked on each side of a bandstand. Rodriguez would commission a musician to write a score that two choreographers would independently create new works to. The dual dance performances would happen simultaneously as the score was played live (the choreographers would have never seen each other’s work). Ideally, the production would spark conversations and questions about how individual choreographers respond to music.
Dance Truck’s success to date gives Rodriguez hope that additional sponsorship opportunities will come. “We’ve made a brand with Dance Truck,” she says. “People may not know what they are going to get when they come to a Dance Truck show, but they know they are going to get something interesting. It is a no-risk scenario for the audience. Atlanta’s dance community is strong. I’m lucky to have a moveable platform to show it off.”
By Holly Derville-Teer
We’ve all experienced it: feeling exhausted and overwhelmed to the point where we can hardly bring ourselves to care anymore. Burnout.
Difficult parents, staggering work loads, and long hours can put even the most enthusiastic studio owner at risk. And when it hits, this sense of weariness, unfulfillment, and apathy can be a temporary state or a flashing sign pointing toward change. “We need to listen to our truth and choose a way forward that will get us and keep us healthy and reconnected to ourselves and to life,” writes Dr. Dina Glouberman in The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning. Three studio owners share their stories of first-year, annual, and total burnout.
Claire Dye bought All Star Dance Academy after teaching there for a year. Although she had directed a smaller studio before moving to Portland, Oregon, her first year as owner of All Star almost made her want to turn her back on the whole enterprise.
Dye got off to a rocky start. Parents responded skeptically when she chose to keep her baby in a swing in the classroom while she was teaching. They met her overall relaxed approach with uncertainty. “I was a lot more easygoing than the previous owner and I think a lot of people liked the stricter version better,” she says.
Learning to administer a 250-student studio without training proved overwhelming. Teaching six hours a day, six days a week, Dye also tackled 12 to 14 hours of administrative work daily. The most exhausting part, though, was teaching every one of the 3- to 6-year-old classes.
Midway through the year, Dye began to lose her motivation. “I was 25 and I felt young and vibrant, but I was tired all the time. Everything seemed so hard. It almost didn’t seem worth it.”
Dye made two key changes before beginning her second year. Hiring an office manager enabled her to cut her administrative workload to three to five hours per week. She also hired an instructor to teach all the 3- to 6-year-old classes. And after the first year, parents became more accepting of the changes she had made. Everything began to fall into place and Dye’s enthusiasm returned. “I was able to wait it out. Since then, I definitely have said, ‘I can’t do that!’ multiple times, but eventually I come out the other side. It’s easier to get through those moments now.”
To new studio owners experiencing burnout, Dye suggests the following strategies.
• Wait it out and don’t make any rash decisions.
• Try yoga. “Yoga can teach you how to turn your mind off and relax when you need to,” she says.
• Pay attention to your school’s financial health. Although her studio’s eventual financial stability wasn’t a factor in Dye’s rally from burnout, she believes it helped keep further burnout at bay. “Being debt free, running a business where everything is paid for with cash, and turning a profit I can live on gives me peace. Understanding how the finances work and having a budget is a big part of it.”
• Read The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber. Dye says the book taught her to spend time growing and perfecting her studio as a whole rather than letting daily demands consume her. “The more time I spend teaching and dealing with the day-to-day stuff like answering phones, assisting customers at the front desk, filing, and cleaning, the less time I have to work on building the business with marketing, staff training, communications, policies/procedures, putting systems into place, and molding the business to need less of my personal input.”
• Take on outside ventures with caution. While outside projects can help stave off burnout, Dye recommends making only short-term commitments. In her fourth year of coaching a high school dance team, Dye says, “If I weren’t doing anything else, I’d feel stagnant.” But, she adds, “If I could do it over again, I’d be a choreographer rather than the coach.”
After surviving a difficult first year, Dye has learned to love the freedom that comes with creating her own work environment. “I’m always open to suggestions, but the power to do it my way is a great thing for me,” she says. “There’s no red tape other than my own.”
Annual creative burnout
Molly Kaleikilo opened Innovative Dance in Wilsonville, Oregon, in 1998. The studio has grown to include 200 dancers.
Every year as spring break approaches, Kaleikilo faces what seem like monumental creative demands. This is when she begins to plan the following year’s competition routines so she can incorporate those rehearsals into the school’s summer schedule. While she is trying to summon her creative powers, she is also taking her performing company to competitions, finishing recital routines, distributing costumes, and planning the June recital. “I start to feel like I just don’t have anything left in me, especially creatively.”
The ideas just start coming. . . . [E]very song makes me think of an artist or a genre or another song. The more I listen, the more excited I get. Suddenly I feel like I can do it all again. —Molly Kaleikilo
This is when she hits the gym. Kaleikilo stumbled onto this method during her 12th year as a studio owner. One day she went to the gym to clear her head and on a whim began listening to all the songs she had accumulated on her iPod. Soon, choreographic sparks began to fly. Now, when inspiration proves elusive, Kaleikilo gets on the treadmill and sets out to generate new material and ideas. “I start going through the 1,200 songs on my iPod. I go in alphabetical order and just listen. It’s like magic,” she says. “The ideas just start coming. I don’t have to use the exact song I hear, but every song makes me think of an artist or a genre or another song. The more I listen, the more excited I get. Suddenly I feel like I can do it all again.”
Kaleikilo credits dodging yearlong burnout to a good office manager, a file full of thank-you letters from former students, and a strong family/work balance.
To maintain this balance, Kaleikilo adheres to the following strict guidelines.
• She does not teach during spring break or on Sundays.
• She makes time to do things with her family. “It’s important to disconnect, even if it’s just a weekend at the beach.”
• Although she spends six days a week at the studio, she arranges her schedule so she can make dinner for her family two nights a week.
• She attends all of her daughter’s school events even if it means finding a substitute teacher.
• She puts her cell phone away when she arrives home from the studio and doesn’t look at it until the next morning.
Although she struggles annually against creative depletion, Kaleikilo loves directing her studio. “Second to my family, the studio means everything to me. It’s who I am,” she says. “There are people and situations that hurt me, but those things are small in the scheme of things. I have been a major influence on hundreds of young lives. The love and appreciation I feel far outweighs the negative.”
After a performing career that included playing the role of Mistoffelees in the first East Coast tour of Cats, in 1981 Danny Black opened The Dance Shop in Tigard, Oregon, with his wife, Gail. Black had always wanted to own a studio, and he and Gail looked forward to working together. For a long time they were happy, and they both treasured the family environment they had created. “I loved it,” Black says. “It felt more like a family than a business.”
Fifteen years in, the studio had grown to 250 students, with Black and his wife teaching most of the classes. “It was a 7-days-a-week, 18-hours-a-day venture,” he says. “I was teaching three to four classes in the morning and five classes at night. It wasn’t the kids. I just got tired. Really tired. I got tired of choreographing because I was doing so much of it.” In addition, Black was still dancing professionally, teaching at other studios, and choreographing for the first Portland Trailblazers dance team.
Black began to dread teaching his classes. Some evenings he felt like he would “give anything not to have to go to the studio. I’d never felt like that before. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to. I’d never been like that, so I knew I needed to do something about it.”
Shortly after that, Black was hospitalized with pneumonia. “That was a life check. After that I cut back my hours.” He began limiting his teaching hours to three and a half hours a day, a rule he still adheres to.
Although the change in hours helped, Black continued to notice a drastic shift in his overall attitude. “I didn’t want to talk to the parents and I felt depressed and trapped. I felt like there was no way out. I was very surprised because it was my whole life. I lost myself for awhile.” After tremendous soul searching, he and Gail decided to close the studio.
Black recommends that studio owners consider a career change if depression and negativity begin to set in. “If you feel really burned out, it’s time to sell your studio. Go back to the passion of wanting to teach your classes and being excited about it. If you don’t do something about it, you’ll end up hating what you do.”
To ward off burnout, Black recommends the following strategies.
• Find time to take class to keep connected to your own passion for dancing.
• Set boundaries limiting your work hours.
• Find teachers to take over for you when needed.
• Hire teachers you believe in and make changes when necessary.
• Don’t give anything away. After hearing many of his students’ stories, Black helped students purchase dance shoes in addition to giving them free classes. As a result, he often had to give up his own paycheck.
Since closing his studio, Black teaches at several studios in and around the Portland area and also manages Dance Togs, a local dance-apparel store. “I still love dance. It’s still my passion. It always will be, and I want to spend the rest of my days teaching people who feel the same way.”
By Gregg Russell
Nothing is more exciting than watching a large group dance. What’s onstage can be poetry in motion, both visually and in terms of energy, whether it’s Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs tearing up stages all over the world, the hip-hop moves of the Jabbawockeez in Las Vegas, or the stadium-sized spectacle of the opening number for the Olympic Games. Regardless of the kind of dancing, in creating a large-ensemble piece the choreographers have to consider movement, themes, transitions, the venue, and the audience.
As a frequent judge for Co. Dance conventions, I see big-ensemble dances that don’t make the most of their potential. Some have transition steps that are too complex and interfere with the flow of the routine. Others fizzle when a big jump or unison section, normally a great chance to add excitement, doesn’t fit perfectly with the music.
A good choreographer keeps large groups of dancers in motion so that there’s no room for dead space onstage. Using creative patterns and transitions surprises audiences and keeps them “on their toes” with anticipation. Varying the levels allows all dancers to be seen and maximizes excitement and energy.
In creating exciting and memorable large-group routines, the music, ideas, and staging are as important as the steps. Good choreography of this kind takes experience and attention to detail. Such elements as tricks (big jumps, unique turns, floor work, and gymnastics), smart formations like peel-offs and varied levels and angles, and sly transitions can help boost entertainment value. Remember, you’re not just a choreographer—you’re a director.
I am a big advocate of editing the music before beginning to choreograph. When choosing the music, consider a theme and find several songs that fit. Since most large-group routines are lengthy, using more than one song can keep them fresh and exciting.
In creating exciting and memorable large-group routines, the music, ideas, and staging are as important as the steps.
Be smart during your editing process by adding audio elements that make transitions and accents stand out. Voice-overs and audio quotes from movies are two of my favorites. Such elements illustrate the theme and help the audience connect to the meaning and emotions behind it. Because they help you create more of a story with the dance, they can also guide you and your dancers during the choreography sessions.
You can use software programs to edit your music, such as Sound Forge (only for PCs) and Audacity or Sound Studio (for both PC and Mac). These user-friendly programs are designed for simple editing and creating mixes. (Avoid GarageBand for Mac, which is for creating your own music.)
If time constraints or lack of familiarity with music editing make preparing the music a struggle, you can use existing mixes or hire someone to do the editing. The person you hire won’t grasp your vision the way you do, so the more exact you can be in communicating your wishes and intent, the better your routine will turn out.
Before heading into the studio, come up with an outline of transitions and performance ideas. I usually think about how I want the dancers to move around and plan individual moments for certain students during transitions or with accents/audio samples in the routine. Visualizing a structure that has, for example, a general sweeping movement from start to finish or solo crossovers makes it easier to create steps and decide which dancers to highlight.
I figure out the transitions beforehand using Xs and Os, like a football playbook, but unfortunately, what I have written down on paper doesn’t always work well in real life. Asking the dancers in these transitions to tell me what feels right or natural helps me create an organic sense of movement and staging. Doing this helps the dancers feel comfortable and do the transition choreography smoothly.
Build the choreography into the transitions and accents to enhance the excitement. For example, if you have a funny voice-over that a little girl will be lip-syncing, set up your transitions and choreography to enhance the moment and put the focus on her. If the choreography is too busy or distracting, her moment will be lost.
Take the overall look of the piece into account. For instance, if you are going with a costume design in which half the dancers are in blue and half are in red, lack of consistency in how you use those two color groups will detract from the overall visual presentation.
I recall one memorable competition piece in which each dancer was both a bride and a groom. The costumes were split in half—one part was a wedding gown and the other part a tuxedo. The ingenious choreographer had designed the movement so that the audience didn’t see both sides of the costume until the right moment. The movement was not extremely difficult, but the visual effect was outstanding.
And there’s one more reason to plan ahead. The more you consider the structure of a dance, the more easily the steps will come to you. Using the bride-and-groom dance as an example, it’s clear that the choreographer had the story and visuals in place ahead of time. It was probably easier to set steps that matched the scenarios because she was working with established choreographic guidelines—transitions such as the dancers walking down the aisle to the altar and dancing at the reception.
Most large groups include dancers of varying levels of ability. Consider their strengths and create moves that highlight each group.
Imagine if you had 21 dancers of various ages and levels. Instead of making everyone do the same sequence—double chaîné to the right, clap, and reverse it—you could have three different moves going on that complement each other. The more advanced dancers could do the double chaîné and clap downstage; the intermediate dancers could do one chaîné and clap midstage; and the beginners could do three jogs and clap traveling side to side upstage. You can change the level of the end clap to create variety and excitement.
For times when everyone will be onstage, choreograph for the median of the group so that everyone can perform confidently. (Unison movement can work well.) Don’t over-choreograph. As a judge I have seen many routines, especially ones involving young dancers, in which the performers struggle with the steps technically or have trouble remembering them. When students are not confident, their performances can become inconsistent and mishaps are more likely. Self-doubt and rattled nerves can turn what might have been only a minor glitch into a major one, or even a string of mistakes.
To avoid this, choose moments in the choreography that have relatively simple steps and experiment with levels and positioning. For instance, after a sequence in which everyone is facing front, don’t immediately move on to a new part of the choreography. Instead, repeat the same steps in different directions, sometimes with everyone facing a new direction and sometimes splitting up the group so that some dancers might face stage right and some stage left. Play with levels too, so that some of the dancers do the choreography on the floor. You will be amazed how visually stimulating these simple variations are.
With large ensembles, it’s important to make sure everyone understands the direction of the dance. At the first rehearsal I explain the story or concept to all the dancers involved and teach the sections that everyone dances together. This helps them see that every dancer is important and creates team unity.
Next, I split the dancers into groups according to ability level and teach them their own choreography. Once everyone is together again, we walk through the transitions. I emphasize the importance of each dancer knowing his or her section and steps because it affects the groups who come before and after them. It also helps me recognize and fix any “speed bumps” in the transitions.
Know your venue
Understanding the nature of the venue is very important. If it’s a family event, use familiar songs and moves audiences can relate to. If you are choreographing for different ages in one group, think age-appropriate. Nothing makes an audience more uncomfortable than seeing a 7-year-old gyrating her hips or doing other suggestive moves. Competitions and recitals are family events, so be smart and choreograph a dance that everyone can enjoy.
A smart choreographer knows how to use a performance space for maximum effect. Large groups on a small stage can look cramped and uncomfortable. Consider moving some of them into the aisles or in front of the stage, if feasible.
If that’s not possible, then simplify the transitions or take some dancers out of certain sections. Cutting dancers, even from parts of a dance, can be difficult, especially with young dancers (and their parents), but a fair system helps them not take it personally. Also, make sure everyone gets to perform the dance the same number of times throughout the season.
When performing in a large venue, such as a football stadium or basketball court, rehearse the dancers with this in mind by spreading out more. If your rehearsal space isn’t large enough, consider renting one that is (a high school, hotel ballroom, or YMCA). A cheaper alternative is rehearsing the routine in sections. For instance, if there are 45 kids in a group, split them into groups of 15 so that they learn to spread out more.
Know your audience
Think like your audience members in order to engage them. You want to draw them in, not alienate or bore them. Traps to be aware of include inappropriate steps, stagnant formations, and underdeveloped themes.
Also, if your choreography includes a story or joke, set it up so that it’s easy to understand (no inside jokes). If you’re including such an element, chances are it’s important. Don’t make it hard for the audience to grasp by obscuring it with too much dancing or unnecessary transitions. A good rule of thumb when emphasizing a part of a routine is “less is best.”
One way to make sure you’re on track is to get feedback. Invite parents to watch a rehearsal. Moms are usually very supportive, but I have gotten valuable feedback from dads. Most of them don’t think like dancers. They tend to notice when parts of the routine are boring or confusing. Usually their opinions make me realize that some of the formations need pumping up or the piece has ventured away from its theme.
By Karen White
Bundling is hot. The idea of lumping unrelated items together and selling the whole shebang for one price has always had its appeal. In times past, it was called a grab bag or a package deal. To today’s generation, it’s a bundle.
Some dance studios are jumping on this marketing bandwagon by bundling costs for their annual recital, competition team, or even the entire school year. These “grand totals” are then paid by parents in evenly divided monthly installments, spreading out the cost and eliminating multiple bills for costumes, recital T-shirts, show DVDs, and other paraphernalia.
It’s an idea that intrigued Amy Simkins, owner/director of Expressions Dance in Bountiful, Utah, when she heard another studio owner chat about its merits at a DanceLife Teacher Conference. “I hadn’t ever thought of doing it, but it was a really nice idea and refreshing to know that someone had done it and had success with it,” says Simkins, who designed a bundle last year for her recital, which she calls a concert. “We had complaints, but they were few compared to the many compliments and happy customers we had with the bundle. Parents thought it was better all around for them and felt they were getting so much more.”
Her concert bundle included costume(s), tights, accessories, concert DVD, class picture, concert T-shirt and shorts, participation trophy, five tickets, and security/chaperone fees.
Bundling fees means simplicity and convenience, all in one package.
Bundle payments for her 250 dancers started in February and ran through June. For those five months, each student owed tuition plus the bundle fee—for example, a student with a $40 monthly tuition charge plus a $29 bundle owed $69. Depending on how many costumes a child needed (and with the studio able to offer costume rentals to some classes for a lesser fee), total bundle fees ranged from about $125 to $175, she says.
The system saved time and minimized paperwork—for both parents and the studio. Parents weren’t stressed about hunting down certain colors or brands of tights. There were no individual DVD or T-shirt order forms to hand out and collect, or costume payments to keep track of. Simkins, who handles all videography and photography in-house, made a larger profit because she sold pictures and DVDs to her full student body.
Simkins’ bundles included a little extra to pay her teachers for their work during the concert and dress rehearsal and to hire a junior high school cheerleading squad as backstage chaperones, which allowed her usual parent volunteers to relax and watch the show.
To add excitement and value to the bundle, Simkins designed a pre-concert kickoff performance. She rented a local park with an amphitheater stage for $100 for one night early in her concert week. Family and friends were invited to bring lawn chairs and picnic baskets and watch as the students performed their concert numbers. Dancers, who wore the recital T-shirts and shorts that they received as part of the bundle, were able to work out their concert jitters in an informal, fun performance.
A first-time event for Expressions Dance, the performance was a huge hit, Simkins says. “This way we could say, ‘We know you paid us all this money, but look at how much you are getting in return. Because of this bundle, your child is going to get a bigger and better experience.’ ”
It was also a good marketing opportunity. “We had our banners out, and people playing on the playground watched. It was a fun community event and something fun for our families to do together,” Simkins says, adding that she would not have been able to provide this extra to her clients if she hadn’t implemented fee bundling.
Customers at Studio 56 Dance Center in Murray, Utah, received a different benefit. When studio owner Amy Moore decided to implement a bundle last year, she immediately called her videographer and photographer to negotiate better deals for her clients. Under the traditional system, she had no way of knowing how many concert DVDs or class pictures would sell. But with every student receiving both through the bundle, she was able to guarantee a sales figure based on her enrollment.
Not only did both vendors settle on a price of $20 each instead of $25, which saved her clients $10 ($5 each off the DVD and photo), but her videographer agreed to mail all the DVDs directly to the clients’ homes. (Photos are still handed out at dress rehearsal.) As always, Moore received a commission on any additional pictures that were sold.
“I was able to tell my parents, ‘I’m saving you money by doing this bundle,’ and I was still able to make money in the process,” Moore says.
Her concert bundle payments ran March through June, which allowed her to keep enrollment open through the end of February. For an average cost of $45 a month, recreational students received costume(s), a picture, a DVD, dress rehearsal snack, six tickets, and a concert T-shirt—plus, similar to Dance Expressions’ family event, a pre-concert kickoff movie night held in an outdoor park.
The concept of bundling wasn’t completely new to Moore, who had created a similar system for her competition team about five years ago. (As a mom, she was constantly being bombarded with bills for her own kids’ activities, and thought there must be a better way.) Team students pay eight installments on a bundle that covers their competition and convention fees, costumes, guest teacher days, choreography fees, shoes, and tights—which runs about $136 to $195 a month.
As soon as a student makes the team, Moore presents the monthly cost and an itemized breakdown of all charges to the parent. “I think my parents really appreciate the thought and the honesty, and that they’re never surprised with things,” she says. Bundling also forces her to plan the team’s year and then stay within the budget she created.
“One reason I hadn’t done it for recital was that I was afraid it would scare the rec parents,” says Moore, who changed her mind after hearing success stories at last summer’s DanceLife Teacher Conference. “I did an online survey, and the biggest question for me was how they liked the bundle. They liked being able to pay over time and not have to come up with all this money at the end. We got a lot of positive feedback, so I think we’ll stick with it.”
Amy Hlavaty Belcher, artistic director of Arabesque Academy of Dancing in Moscow, Pennsylvania, has taken the idea of bundling to a whole new level. She bundles all costs for the entire year—tuition, recital costume and tights, leotard and tights (for class), studio T-shirt, dance bag, and DVDs of the Christmas and spring shows—which are paid on a nine-month schedule. Show tickets are not included, because, Belcher says, “I haven’t figured out a good way that’s fair for everyone.”
Switching from a traditional system to bundling—which she did in 2008, three years after her business was founded—was “scary,” Belcher says. But because of landlord issues and some rookie financial mistakes, she had to declare bankruptcy and wanted to make some real changes in the way she ran her business. “It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and say ‘Yeah, I know everyone’s been doing it this way for 30 years, but I’m not going to do it like that anymore.’ It was a real leap of faith.”
When new customers inquire about price, she has to explain why another studio charges $30 a month while her cost for the same type of class is $55. “People have gotten comfortable with all-inclusive vacations,” she says. “Once they understand that this is all-inclusive and there isn’t going to be another bill, it makes them more comfortable.”
With the bundle, all 150 students are in the right tights for the recital. Greeting each child at the beginning of the dance year with a dance bag stuffed with a new leotard and tights sets a positive tone, and later, there’s no excuse for students not wearing the proper clothing to class. The hours Belcher used to spend handing out and collecting DVD order forms and chasing down payments have been eliminated.
The downside is that she could probably make a bit more profit by selling items such as costumes and T-shirts individually, but she’s adamant about keeping the monthly cost around twice what her competitors charge for tuition alone. (She does increase the bundle price each year.)
Belcher believes bundling makes her studio seem professional and organized, an image that has helped it to grow. The system also attracts clients who are willing to pay a little bit extra each month for their child’s dance education and are less likely to be complainers.
Realizing that going from à la carte to bundling is a huge change for a studio’s clientele, all three studio owners took great pains to announce and explain the new system. Simkins and Moore put the information into a handbook given to students each August, explained it in detail to new students, and featured it in newsletters.
Simkins was quick to squash any doubts. For parents who balked at having to buy a recital T-shirt and shorts, for example, she explained that the clothing would get plenty of use—not only in the concert finale and kickoff performance, but also for studio appearances in the Fourth of July and Pioneer Days parades. Other common complaints disappeared. She’d always heard gripes about her policy of requiring each student to buy a certain number of concert tickets. This year, with the ticket cost absorbed by the bundle, there were none.
“Just make sure you are upfront when making a big change and really communicate with parents so they know how the change is better for them. People don’t like change and they will get ornery if they think you’re just trying to make another buck off them,” Simkins says.
Moore’s clients signed a concert consent form stating that they understood the bundling procedure and approved of the payment amount. Some parents suggested she change the system to allow some bundle items, such as the DVD or T-shirt, to be optional. “That kind of defeats the purpose,” she says. “I think I’d rather leave it alone.” For Belcher and Simkins, as well, the bundle is an all-or-nothing deal.
Belcher believes bundles work just like the concept of a fast-food value meal—you can charge more, but only if you offer more.
“Honestly, we’ve never had anyone say, ‘How much is the tuition? How much is the T-shirt?’ ” she says. “The more value you add to the package, the more willing the customer will be to accept it. You want to put as much into it as you can reasonably afford.”
By Jennifer Kaplan
Studios use guest teachers for a dance bag’s worth of reasons.
Sometimes the director notices that her students have gotten far too comfortable with their classes and brings in a guest teacher to offer them new challenges and ways of thinking about movement, performance, and technique. Others use guest teachers to reach out to the greater dance community and bring in new students—and earned income. Some studios find that guest teachers are a cost-effective and efficient alternative to attending conventions. And others want to prepare their developing dancers for the reality of auditioning and company life where a style, technique, or approach might be foreign, but the dancers are still expected to finesse it. Finally, some studio owners, especially in less populous or more isolated areas, bring in guest teachers to emulate what big-city dancers already have: variety and choice.
A 40-year teaching veteran, Leslie Baumberger noticed over the past decade that her students were becoming far too comfortable in their home studio setting and hesitant in unfamiliar surroundings. “When we would go out of town to conventions or to L.A. to take classes at the big studios, my dancers weren’t as courageous” as she wanted them to be in a new situation, says Baumberger, co-director of CORE Dance Studio in San Luis Obispo, on California’s central coast. “They seemed to be holding back. I wanted to figure out a way to help them get out of that comfort zone of their own tiny studio box, where they’re used to the same teacher year after year.”
Baumberger turned to a guest teacher program to broaden the training she and her three co-directors offer the 100 dancers on their school roster, approximately 50 of whom participate in CORE Dance Company. “I want to constantly challenge our dancers,” she says. “They’ve got to learn to adapt to different styles, not only teaching styles but choreographic styles. I also wanted to broaden their dance horizons by bringing in different teachers.”
It’s one of the best things we do. It produces great results. It brings the best people together for the best reasons: working with young dancers who are our future. —Lorraine Spiegler
The studio is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco and, interestingly, rents space from a larger adjacent dance studio, The Academy of Dance. The schools differ in emphasis and clientele, so the proximity hasn’t been a problem. In fact, it’s a plus, according to Baumberger, who sometimes even invites guest teachers from next door.
Jeff Boss, who co-directs Dance Arts Centre in Suwanee, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, has found that inviting guest teachers to instruct his mini, junior, and senior student companies is better than bringing 50 to 100 children to a dance convention. There they might be in a class of up to 600 in a hotel conference center or ballroom, frequently dancing on carpet to muddy sound systems. With 350 students, 90 of them on the competition teams, and 11 teachers on staff, Boss says bringing in guest teachers gives his dancers more bang for their buck.
“I have nothing against the conventions,” Boss says, “but our students are such technicians and we’re so into training these kids that we felt that the money would be better spent inviting teachers to come into the studio.” And when they do, usually about six to eight times a year, he says, he or his partner, Jamie Wardrop, both former professional dancers, informs the guest that they’re interested in more than just the latest combinations. “We tell them, ‘Hey, we’re all about the latest style, but we definitely want a proper warm-up and an emphasis on technique with the kids.’ ”
At Cherry Creek Dance in the Denver suburbs, Stephanie Prosenjak says bringing in guest teachers provides a good break in routine for both students and teachers. “Our teachers and staff here are the best of the best,” she says, “[but] it’s a nice break for the teachers to be able to take a class or sit down and see how another teacher would teach. From a business standpoint, it’s also great to see how [another teacher] leads a class and get some new ideas.”
Prosenjak, whose school has 2,500 students and more than 25 teachers on staff, draws guest teachers from national touring companies that come through Denver, as well as from the professional connections she and her teachers have built up over the years. “For a kid to take class with someone on TV or on a national tour is huge,” she said. “It gets them reinspired and rejuvenated to take from different people.”
Lorraine Spiegler calls the guest teacher program at CityDance Center in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the cornerstones for creating a high-level conservatory. The 15-year-old nonprofit center just began to ramp up its conservatory training five years ago when Spiegler came on board. Now it has 1,000 children and adults on its roster, 500 of whom train in the pre-professional program.
“I wanted to build a cadre of dancers who could work at a high level and become our future [dance] leaders,” she says about her motivations for creating the three-tier program: recreational, pre-professional, and conservatory. It includes a weekly guest teacher for the Saturday conservatory master class, guest artist workshops by professionals visiting the Music Center at Strathmore or other performance venues in the Washington, DC, area, and longer-term guest residencies in which professionals spend a few weeks teaching and setting works on the highest-level dancers. Those students might perform the pieces at CityDance concerts, or sometimes with professional companies.
“The idea is that the best possible training is a mixture of tried-and-true good teaching, which great dance schools already offer through their dedicated faculty, and new experiences,” Spiegler says. “Their regular teachers give them their daily bread and the guest teachers bring different things to the table.” Students learn to quickly acclimate to a range of styles and genres, and with a different teacher coming in each week to teach new material, those in the studio’s select and conservatory programs become adept at what is basically equivalent to auditioning. “The demand to learn something new every week,” Spiegler says, “forces students to become fine tuned. It refines their focusing and learning new movement. It’s a learning and brain tool.”
At CityDance, students register in the fall for the weekly master class program and outsiders are not invited to the classes. Conversely, at CORE Dance, Baumberger tries to offer a guest ballet teacher for her intermediate and advanced students at least once a week, and she does open up the classes to those not registered at her studio. She sees the guest-teacher program not only as a way to market her studio, but, more important, as a way to promote collegiality among local dance studios and teachers.
Zheila Pouraghabagher, one of Baumberger’s partners and director of the adult program at CORE, echoes that sentiment. “We really want to establish a connection with other studios and dancers in the area,” says Pouraghabagher, who rarely teaches in the program herself because she has so many guests coming in to lead the adult contemporary, ballet, and hip-hop classes. “I want to provide the experience you might have in a more urban setting like Los Angeles or New York, where people can train with multiple teachers.” Most of her adult students pay per class or buy class cards; adult company members work with the guest teachers in their regularly scheduled classes.
At Boss’ Dance Arts Centre, the guest classes are offered in addition to the regular tuition-based classes, so students are charged on a per-class basis—$15 to $25, depending on the length of the class (the younger students’ classes are shorter) and the expense of the teacher. Boss neither markets nor accepts outsiders into these classes because he feels doing so would defeat the purpose of giving students in his competition program a unique experience.
Having a large studio, Prosenjak has the flexibility to offer guest teachers on the spur of the moment, and when an opportunity arises—for example, when a dancer or touring company arrives in town and is available on a Monday evening—she does. Sometimes she opens the classes to outsiders, sending out email blasts and Facebook messages; other times, especially last-minute classes, are only for her registered students, because “bringing guest teachers into our studio offers a controlled environment,” says Prosenjak. “Here you’re in a studio as opposed to going to a convention ballroom on carpet with no mirrors and not really the personal attention. These master classes allow our students to get the personal attention and really benefit.”
Cherry Creek Dance typically charges an additional per-class fee, ranging from $17 to $25 for students; outsiders pay a higher rate.
Like Boss, Prosenjak tries to use guest teachers who work well with students of all ages and levels. “I try to do a younger kids’ class, say beginning and intermediate level, ages 7 to 11, and then I do an intermediate and advanced level,” she explains. “And if it’s someone I want to work with our professional company, I have them come in during the day.”
That means her guest teachers are expected to teach at least two, sometimes three, classes for 25 to 30 students each. Her largest studio can hold about 50 dancers and she’s had that many in class for some guest hip-hop teachers and for a class when Tap Dogs came through town.
Arranging guest teachers takes concerted effort. With CityDance’s weekly program, Spiegler says she’s constantly on the lookout for master class teachers and relies on her contacts around the country and the world to expand her roster. She does use local professionals as well, those who work easily with children and teens and exhibit commitment and passion for their own artistic development.
Boss relies on his connections in New York and Los Angeles, but he says he uses his time attending and judging competitions as an opportunity to check out new guest teachers.
Prosenjak has built connections with local presenting organizations and professional dancers—she danced with the Denver Broncos and Nuggets cheer and dance teams—which help her in finding guest teachers. And Baumberger and Pouraghabagher use dancers in their community as well as inviting visitors from L.A. and San Francisco.
Baumberger, Boss, and Spiegler all say they’re often willing to try out developing dance artists as guest teachers and, if they have the right stuff, nurture them. Boss did that a few years ago with a contemporary dancer who had never taught anywhere, Cooper Zamorano. These days he is so busy, he has no time to return to Atlanta for guest classes.
Most studio owners who use guest and master teachers for single visits don’t work through the visiting artists’ agents, preferring to line them up personally with a telephone call and an email, for example. Boss won’t write contracts and deal with agents; he wants the personal touch. Spiegler says the same thing; however, for extended stays when a guest artist is setting a work on her student company, she’ll draw up a contractual letter of agreement that stipulates who controls casting, expectations for the finished work, how long the company will perform and retain rights to the work, and other items.
While some studios won’t divulge amounts they pay for guest teachers, Prosenjak says she caps her rates at about $150 an hour. Both she and Boss refuse to pay what they call “outrageous” fees of $500 to $600 an hour. Far from an urban center, Baumberger says her typical rate for a guest teacher is about $40 an hour, though it can vary with the teacher, the class, and other factors. Spiegler declined to discuss what CityDance pays because the rates vary so widely depending on the level of the teacher’s experience and demand.
Sometimes guest teachers require housing and food, and often that means the teacher stays overnight with a studio director or a dancer’s family and eats home-cooked meals, say Boss and Spiegler.
These school directors have seen improvements in their students as a result of their interactions with guest teachers. “We’ve noticed a big difference in our kids’ abilities to adapt to different styles and to pick up [steps] faster. It definitely helps them,” Boss says. “It’s also nice to watch them respond to someone else; seeing them show respect for another teacher is really nice. Once we had a bad teacher—the one bad apple in 18 years—but our kids still gave it 110 percent.”
Baumberger says the program gives her small-town students a world of experience: “You can see the kids becoming more confident in their ability and in themselves as they become successful learning from different people.”
While Prosenjak says her dancers work very hard throughout the year, she does see them step up their efforts when a guest teacher comes in. “They definitely want to prove that they’re really good. Then when [the teachers] leave, we say, ‘Remember when they said do this bigger,’ and they remember.”
A guest teacher program takes work and organization, but it reaps rewards. As Spiegler says, “It’s one of the best things we do. It produces great results. It brings the best people together for the best reasons: working with young dancers who are our future.”
By Misty Lown
One of the benefits of attending conferences is the opportunity to network—to make new professional contacts, share ideas, and develop new friendships. That’s what happened to me at the 2011 DanceLife Teacher Conference. It was my first time presenting a seminar at a major conference, and it was also when I met Melanie Gibbs, owner of Boca Dance Studio in Boca Raton, Florida. She and I have since formed a great mentoring relationship, and best of all, a friendship.
During my seminar I talked about employee benefits at my studio, Misty’s Dance Unlimited (MDU). As I outlined our policies on education allotments, maternity leave, and retirement contributions, a woman in the front row shouted, “Can I come work for you?” After a big laugh from the audience, I replied, “Sure! Let’s talk.”
The woman was Jo-D Meacham, co-owner of Boca Dance Studio and Melanie Gibbs’ business and life partner. She said Melanie was “the most amazing teacher and dancer” she knew, but that they were struggling with the business side of the studio. Jo-D told me she had taken the last year off from the studio to care for their young son, who was facing health challenges, and the task of keeping the studio going had fallen to an overwhelmed Melanie. Jo-D asked if I would be willing to meet with Melanie and offer her some perspective on how to move the business forward. I told her I would be happy to try to help.
Melanie and I began exchanging emails and looking for an opportunity to meet. The chance came five months later when I worked two side trips to Boca Raton into a family vacation to Florida. On my first visit, I met Melanie at Legacy Dance Championships and chatted with her about her studio while we watched her students compete. On my second visit, I went to Boca Dance Studio for a quick tour that turned into an all-day event. Melanie outlined her specific challenges regarding space, programming, and need for more staff. Her biggest question was “Can I make this all work?” I assured her she could.
The whole concept of creating an experience, rather than just teaching classes, was something I understood deep down, but I didn’t know how to put it into action. —Melanie Gibbs
Charged up by the interaction, we started looking for a time for Melanie to come to Wisconsin. She wanted to see our studio layout, front desk operations, and programs in action. We settled on my recital weekend as the kickoff for a three-day mentoring marathon. In addition to taking in our recital, Melanie toured my studio, checked out the curriculums and management tools, and met the teachers. She even made time to be a guest judge for Disco Frogs, one of my school’s newest performance companies. In the meantime, I reviewed Boca Dance Studio’s operating budget and hiring needs.
Six weeks later Melanie was back in Wisconsin for a 48-hour blitz of ideas, questions, and mutual encouragement. She had gone to Chicago to visit students of hers who were participating in the summer program at the Joffrey Academy of Dance. Although my school was a bit out of the way, as Melanie said, “When you fly all the way across the country to visit students, what’s another four hours in the car?”
Along with a LEGO set for my son Sam, who was having a birthday, Melanie brought a list of all the things she had accomplished since our last visit. She had taken at least one action step on each of the goals we had discussed, including setting up new books for accounting and hiring two new positions, an office manager and an event coordinator. When she went back to Florida, she had another to-do list in hand. I wasn’t surprised to receive a text the next day saying she had crossed two things off the list.
One was submitting a free half-page ad to the Boca Tribune, a business that had recently become a neighboring tenant; the other was initiating a goody-bag giveaway (of treats and promotions from nearby businesses) for registration day. More important than just a to-do list, however, Melanie went home with priorities to move her business forward.
Our next meeting is planned for Thanksgiving weekend, when she will be a guest judge at our seventh annual “Dancing With the La Crosse Stars” charity event. I am eager to see her next progress report.
A mentoring relationship involves give-and-take, so my perspective isn’t the only one. Here’s Melanie’s side of the experience.
What were you hoping to get out of the conference?
MG: I was attending strictly for the business sessions. I have attended hundreds of conventions and was not interested in taking more dance classes at that point, but I knew I was lacking in business training.
What inspired you about the business sessions?
MG: Your real-life solid examples, 10 strategies, and all your numbers. So many numbers! You made “scary business training” seem accessible. What a huge relief it was to hear that you were not coming from a business background! A big fear of mine was that I would never learn how to run my studio without committing a huge amount of time and money to returning to school, and you proved that wrong.
What motivated you to seek out mentorship?
MG: [Jo-D and I] felt like we had hit upon someone who could help us immediately—not giving us great ideas that we could possibly use down the line, but someone whose model would work for us now. I was in a very receptive mind-set and you were offering so much; there is no way we would have walked away without following through on that.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve gotten through mentorship?
MG: That I am selling a message, not a service. The whole concept of creating an experience, rather than just teaching classes, was something I understood deep down, but I didn’t know how to put it into action.
What is the best part about having a mentor in the studio business?
MG: Just feeling like there’s a safety net under me. It can be wonderful to “go where no man has gone before” sometimes, but it’s a lot easier to have a model to follow. I constantly ask myself, “What would Misty do?”
What have you enjoyed about our cross-studio visits?
MG: Other than the brats and cheese curds? I’ve loved seeing another studio in another region, as well as showing you around our region a little bit. It reminds me that I don’t want Boca Dance Studio to be MDU 2, but I do want it to be the best it can be.
Have there been any surprises along the way?
MG: Without a doubt, the connections I’ve made through you: a new relationship with Jenny Hiltbrand, the owner of Kehl School of Dance in Madison; your photographer, Theresa Smerud; your ballet master, Kennet Oberly, who might do a workshop for us; your mother-in-law, Karen, who lets me stay at her house; and your mom, five amazing kids, and husband. When we first approached you in Arizona I never dreamed we’d be making a friend, as well as other friends along the way.
What are you most looking forward to for your school?
MG: Expanding the focus as my studio grows and becomes more financially self-sustaining—branching out into more community work and national exposure. Expanding my own role as a secondary mentor and being able to pass down what I’ve learned to people who are in the place I was in the summer of 2011.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to connect with another studio owner?
MG: Just do it! Quit thinking of all the reasons why it’s a bad idea—you’re not ready, it’s out of your reach, it won’t work out, you have nothing to offer or they have nothing to offer. There is no such thing as a bad connection.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
MG: My path has turned sharply in a new direction since that conference. That’s the beauty—and terror—of information: once you know something, you can’t “un-know” it. There was no way I was leaving the DanceLife Teacher Conference and going back to the same-old same-old. The proverbial fire had been lit under me, but it would have been easy to go home pumped up about the studio and then get distracted, lose the notes, or just start painting the walls and making new name labels for the lockers. You kept me on track. You told me what to do and how to do it.
I have since made the hard decision many times and forced myself to focus on promotion and programs instead of buying paper towels or organizing the office supplies. I have done so many scary things since our visit in May. I’m an owner now, not just a teacher, and there is a vast difference in decisions made, word choices, and actions taken when you are the owner and not just one of the girls. I think a lot of studio owners aren’t ready to be that person yet, or just don’t know how, but with someone’s help they’ll learn. I sure did!
What goes around, comes around
Melanie isn’t the only one who has benefited from our relationship. She has inspired me with her motivation to improve her business, her heart for kids, and her desire to create opportunities for young women to experience success. She is always looking ahead and not behind.
She shared a quote with me that I now keep by my computer: “Forget failures. Forget past mistakes. Forget everything except what you’re going to do now, and do it.” I couldn’t agree more.
By Shannon O’Brien Marshall
Every spring since I opened my school, Shannon O’Brien School of Dance, 20 years ago in Seekonk, Massachusetts, I am asked the same question: “Are you getting ready for your annual recital?” The answer is no, because our recital was held months before, in October.
The outside world assumes that because I own a dance school, I must present a big annual performance in late spring like all the other schools. People are always surprised by my answer, although non-dance people seem to understand my reasoning: “May and June are just too hectic, so we have always had our shows in October.” And my local studio friends know how my season works and understand its benefits, although they are hesitant to embark on a complete overhaul of their season.
It is my colleagues from afar who are most intrigued by my school’s odd season. They need details; they have questions. Some teachers I have met in my travels remember me specifically as “the teacher who has her show in the fall.” Sometimes I forget that what has always been the norm for my school, staff, and dancers and their families is unfamiliar to others in the business. Even schools in other countries have their shows in the spring. Some people think a fall show is brilliant and some think it’s crazy, but either way it works for us.
An unconventional schedule
My decision to have a fall recital came long before I opened my school. The dance school I grew up in always had its recitals in June in a theater without air conditioning. I don’t recall the exact year, but I do remember vowing during one particularly hot weekend, as I desperately tried to pull up my sweaty tights, that I would never have my school’s shows in the hot, sticky weather. I have vivid memories of dancing my heart out while the audience used their recital programs as fans. I had not completely processed how I would manage a diversion from the normal dance school season, but I was determined not to have my shows in May or June.
The outside world assumes that because I own a dance school, I must present a big annual performance in late spring like all the other schools.
So at my school, the season opens the first week of November and classes run through June. The recreational dancers (the majority of the students) start learning new choreography in the spring.
How the season works
We begin recital routines for our recreational (non-competitive) dancers in May. Our teachers’ goal is to finish recreational routines by the end of June. The routines at this point are what we call “Sloppy Copies.” Every dance instructor knows that unrehearsed students will not retain new choreography over the summer months. So to be sure that all is not lost over the summer, we have what we call “Mandatory Weeks,” classes in which we rehearse and review routines for the recital.
Mandatory weeks are just that. Dancers who are not on vacation are expected to come to two full weeks of their regular dance classes, one in July and one in August, to review recital routines. The dates are given out in the beginning of the season, and often families will plan their vacations around them.
The studio closes for the first two weeks of July and then reopens for six weeks, starting with the July mandatory week. Then comes a four-week summer program of regular classes (no rehearsals, which is why new students can start then), followed by the August mandatory week. The school is then closed for one or two weeks depending on when Labor Day falls.
Classes resume in September after Labor Day. During September and October, we refine, revise, clean, and make those “Sloppy Copies” shine, and the season concludes with the show in mid-October.
The school is closed for the last two weeks in October and the new season begins in November with new and returning dancers.
I found that in our school’s early years the mandatory weeks paid the bills for the summer. Dancers pay 25 percent of their monthly tuition for each mandatory week.
The competitive dancers
Our Dance Company (competitive team) learns new choreography over the four- to six-week summer session.
All of the choreography (both recreational and competitive) is brand-new for the October performances. In addition to sparking choreographers’ creative fires and challenging the performers, it’s been my experience that the company dancers’ families sell more tickets to our show because no one has seen any of this new work. The dancers then perform those new pieces through to Nationals, which are usually held in early July. Senior dancers who are going to college “retire” from our school after Nationals.
The fall show gives the competition-team dancers some advantages. First, they’ve already performed their routines at the recitals, so competition performances are cleaner than they would have been if the first time they’d done their pieces onstage had been at a competition. And second, the dancers can devote more time to classes and rehearsals during the summer because they don’t have schoolwork.
Accommodating new students
We accept new students during the summer and have a big enrollment in the fall. New students often start with our four-week summer program (not the mandatory weeks)—a great introduction before they start their regular season classes in November. Experienced students usually take ballet classes in September and October (recital rehearsals are never held during those classes) and start their other classes in November.
Many parents like the idea that their kids have a chance to get into the school routine in September and October without having an added extracurricular activity. We also offer tickets to the show at a discounted rate and encourage all new students to come and see what they have to look forward to. Because they have already registered and are waiting to start, many of them are eager to come to the show.
Here are the reasons why doing a fall show is a win–win choice for everyone. Our staff counts on two full weeks of pay during the summer because of the mandatory weeks; they also get paid for the four-week program, although the schedule is not as busy.
• October is a much less hectic month than May or June in the lives of our dancers and their families.
• Dancers do not miss class or rehearsals due to end-of-the-school-year events such as band concerts, school trips, proms, and graduations.
• There tend to be fewer family conflicts such as weddings, confirmations, and first communions.
• We do not have to fight for theater space.
• Costume companies are more patient with us because it is their slow time. And although they don’t promise that we will get our costumes quicker than at other times, we often get them within a week or two.
• We are less likely to lose students over the summer because they are looking forward to their upcoming performance.
• We sell more tickets to the recital because October is a less busy time of year for our audiences as well as our clients.
• Since the dancers are not busy with so many family and school events, they are more focused on their performance.
• We are able to accept new students well into the spring because we start our choreography late in the season.
The only downside to this schedule is that it can be confusing for new parents.
Although my original reason for having a fall show is no longer valid (we have our shows in an air-conditioned theater), I wouldn’t change a thing. Every so often in June, when the waiting room is at its fullest and parents are looking especially worn, I say, “Imagine having our recital this weekend!” Parents invariably respond with relief and gratitude, thankful that they don’t need to add one more thing to their already full calendars.
From lighting to backdrops, professional-looking productions keep audiences—and students—coming back for more
By Brian McCormick
When you’re getting ready to put on a recital, technical production might not be the first thing on your mind. Dance is your primary focus, and rightly so. But production values can have a tremendous impact on how your studio is perceived, by parents and public alike, as the experiences of two very different types of schools prove. Both have expanded the technical aspects of their shows, and directors of both studios say the response from their audiences has been huge. And they offer plenty of ideas for anyone interested in producing exciting, memorable shows.
Large- and small-scale productions
Brian McGinness, a former dancer with Kansas City Ballet, 32-year teaching veteran, and now director at Miller Marley School of Dance and Voice in Overland Park, Kansas, recently took over designing the school’s three major productions.
The school, with more than 600 students, offers training in a variety of styles. Miller Marley, the school’s founder, is 78 and has been teaching for 60 years, McGinness says. “Her specialty is tap. The school is known for producing Broadway performers.” Recent alumni have appeared as swing, understudy, or cast members in recent national tours of Anything Goes, The Book of Mormon, Chicago, and Follies and in The Addams Family and Nice Work if You Can Get It on Broadway.
I am not shy about telling my customers they just saw a $30,000 production. We are giving them the best artistic experience their children could hope for.” —Brian McGinness, director, Miller Marley School of Dance and Voice
The school’s productions are large in scale. “Eight performing companies participate in the first act of the studio’s annual Christmas production,” McGinness says. “Clara’s Dream—a shortened version of The Nutcracker choreographed and conceived by Matthew Donnell—is performed as the second act by the Miller Marley Youth Ballet [MMYB] and MMYB2. On even years our studio presents ‘A Recital for Little Stars,’ for our students in sixth grade and under. Our eight performing companies perform in this show, so that way the parents of the little ones get to view what the more advanced students are doing.”
Although production values have always been important at Miller Marley, McGinness, who attributes his minor in art to helping him design the shows, has raised the bar even higher.
In Florida, Brenda Fernandez is the site supervisor for the City of Tampa’s Gymnastics and Dance program, run by Tampa Parks and Recreation. Out of 1,700 kids enrolled in its classes—jazz, tap, lyrical, hip-hop, show group, and gymnastics—nearly 800 perform annually in five different shows, including 100 students in the Show Stars performing group, who dance in competitions, local performances, and for Mardi Gras and other celebrations.
When it comes to scenic design, Fernandez says, the program didn’t always have the means to do much. “We started with humble beginnings,” she says. “Unlike a dance studio, we’re publicly run.” Resources are limited and spending is scrutinized. Still, since it began in 1979 with 50 students at one center, the program has grown. It now encompasses two large centers with 20 instructors at each location, plus one smaller community dance center.
“Recitals started in local high schools,” Fernandez says. “We used to go to Party City and get Mylar decorations.” Over the years, though, shows have become more elaborate, which she attributes to the growth of the program, better funding, and her attention to production values.
Backdrops figure prominently in both studios’ production arsenals. McGinness says he has rented from every scenery vendor at the DanceLife Teacher Conference. Now he tends to use a Kansas City vendor to save on shipping costs.
A recent production of Peter Pan used seven drops. “They fill the stage, so you don’t have to build set pieces,” McGinness says, “and they still create the magic.” Despite their apparent toughness, drops need to be handled with care and returned in good condition. “You have to be careful with the drops,” says McGinness. “I’ve heard horror stories, mostly from wedding and non-theater uses. Just respect their integrity. Everybody wants them folded differently, but as long as they go back not stapled and torn, you should be fine.”
He cautions users to make sure to have enough battens to hang the drops and lighting instruments. “And make sure you have enough piping to weigh them down—even in union theaters I have to bring my own pipe,” he says.
According to Fernandez, the Tampa program’s approach to design starts with a backdrop. “We always set our program around a theme. It’s easy, once you have that theme, to find a backdrop you can use, like an enchanted castle,” she says. She typically rents three or four per show, but for groups on a tight budget, she says renting even one backdrop makes a big difference. “The woods, a library, a castle—it all helps tell the story and makes it more believable with the little ones shuffling all around.”
Fernandez rents backdrops from two vendors and has “never had a bad experience,” she says. She does offer advice: “Make sure to secure your orders early,” she says. “Spend some time scanning the web to find something affordable and nice. Make sure it fits your stage, too. Not just length, but height.”
Once Fernandez ordered a backdrop without checking its dimensions first, and when it arrived, she says, “It was the size of a postage stamp.”
Lighting is an essential element in stage design, and it can be simple or elaborate. For Miller Marley’s productions McGinness uses a resident lighting designer, who facilitates everything. “I design all of the artistic elements of our productions,” McGinness says, “but I collaborate with Philip Leonard, our technical director, whom we contract out for each individual production.”
Miller Marley uses side lighting for all of its productions to add depth, and gobos to project patterns and shapes. “I’m known as the gobo king,” McGinness says. “We started using them just to project onto the cyc for ballets, like to create the forest for Snow White, and gradually used them more and more to create patterns to break up the floor and make things look less flat.” Eventually McGinness started using colored gels in the gobos for more varied effects.
After trying to achieve an even saturation on the cyc using all kinds of lighting combinations, including floor lights, McGinness switched to LED lights. Even though the LEDs haven’t given him the perfectly consistent surface look he seeks, the switch has been a huge success. “It’s the number-one thing that raised the production value of our show.”
Although he says LEDs give “more bang for your buck,” there’s a downside. “They cost more to rent than ordinary lights, and we can’t afford to buy them,” he says. “And we would have to upgrade to a more advanced lighting board if I want to use any of the additional special effects.” Still, he says, “I would recommend that people putting on recitals who do not have lots of money upgrade to LEDs. Using them, you can get 3-D effects and three or four different looks from one backdrop.”
The Tampa Parks and Recreation groups perform in the 1,042-seat Louise Lykes Ferguson Hall, one of the three largest performance spaces that make up the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Fernandez hires Teresa Gallar, associate production manager at the Straz Center, to design the lights. She has worked with Gallar for more than 10 years, and their collaboration is integral to the look of the shows.
“Her major is theater,” Fernandez says, “and she has brought a professional level to everything. She films rehearsals in the studio and onstage so she can refer to the video when designing the lights, reviews the backdrops, and presets most of the lighting cues in advance.” Gallar favors follow spots and, like Miller Marley’s lighting designer, makes generous use of gobos.
According to Fernandez, Gallar “probably spends 12 to 24 hours setting up before I get in the door, getting everything pre-cued. If we get there and need to reset or readjust for things like costumes, it’s relatively easy. A lot is done in advance now, which makes a real difference.”
McGinness has been experimenting with various lighting devices and techniques to make the most of backdrops and the scenic space. “We used to use fog machines,” he says, “but I gave up on trying to get them to work properly. They were very unreliable with uneven distribution.” Now he uses haze machines and moving lights, which together can conjure spectacular sculptures of light on and above the stage. “These worked well for accentuating those special lighting effects,” he says, “especially when you want the audience to see the entire light beam or create a rock concert style for a dance.”
“My favorite thing to do now is design the show,” says McGinness. “I am not shy about telling my customers they just saw a $30,000 production. We are giving them the best artistic experience their children could hope for. Our owner doesn’t live in a fancy home. Nobody is driving a BMW. The money that goes into the school goes back to our kids.
“Enrollment is up because of the quality of the shows,” he continues. “Many parents at Miller Marley acknowledge the high technical quality of our productions, especially when they have attended another dancing school or a friend’s recital.”
Echoing this sentiment is parent Laura Mack, whose two daughters, Kaitlin and Kara, have been enrolled at Miller Marley for four years. “The choreography is good, the costumes are age appropriate. At a lot of other studio recitals you see basic stuff: lights on, lights off. These productions make you feel like you’re going to a Broadway show.”
For Fernandez and her Tampa dancers, the heightened production values pay ample dividends—in money and praise. Ten-dollar tickets, plus donations generated by the program book, help offset the union labor costs that come with performing in a professional venue. But now, instead of budgets being scrutinized, the question Fernandez gets after each performance is, “How are you going to top this one?”
“People used to come here for the low cost,” Fernandez says. “Now, they also come for the quality of the instructors and shows. We know this from the information from applicants on our waiting list, some of whom wait up to two years to get in.”
Don’t be afraid to make full use of the money and effort you’ve put into your productions, McGinness advises. “We have a TV monitor in our lobby,” he says, “and the DVD of the show which plays on that TV is the best advertisement for the studio, in addition to happy customers and word of mouth.
“Don’t hold back if you can financially handle bringing up the level of your technical production,” he continues. “You want to produce the highest quality recital—it is your number-one product you have to show off.”
- Batten: a long metal pipe suspended above the stage or audience from which lighting fixtures, theatrical scenery, and stage curtains may be hung.
- LED: A light-emitting diode (LED) is a semiconductor light source. The lack of infrared or heat radiation makes LEDs ideal for stage lights. In energy conservation, lower heat output also means air-conditioning systems have less heat to dispose of, reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
- Gobo: derived from “Go Between,” “GO BlackOut,” or “Goes Before Optics.” Originally used on film sets, a gobo is a template that controls the shape of the light emitted from an instrument.
- Hazer: Haze machines, or haze generators (commonly referred to as hazers), are effects machines similar to fog machines, designed to produce unobtrusive clouds that make light beams visible or create a subtle diffusion.
- Cyclorama (“cyc” for short): a large curtain or wall, often curved, positioned at the back of the stage area. One effect is to create the illusion of a sky onstage.
- Moving or intelligent lights: stage lighting that has automated or mechanical abilities beyond those of traditional, stationary illumination. The most advanced intelligent lights can produce extraordinarily complex effects.
By Karen White
The five wild turkeys were in no rush, scratching their way methodically across the DanceLife Retreat Center lawn, looking up and loping into the woods when a car crunched across the gravel drive.
If they were seeking a spot in southeastern Massachusetts where they could reflect and relax in quiet seclusion, they found it. So did the 32 dance teachers, studio owners, and spouses seated inside the center. During this two-and-a-half-day weekend, friends were made, advice shared, and tears shed, all of it happening inside an oversized, rustic-style cabin so new that the freshly hewn woodwork seemed almost to glow. Everyone left sneakers and flip-flops at the door rather than risk scuffing the spotless floors.
This is a setting that Rhee Gold had dreamed about for years, and now this group of retreat participants—only the third of the summer—was living his dream firsthand. “This is all about building a community,” Gold said. “What’s going on with all this communicating and going back and forth is just what I wanted this to be. This is how the whole dance community needs to be, and we are starting it here in Norton, Massachusetts.”
Despite the new facilities, Gold hasn’t thrown out everything old. All the elements that have made his touring Project Motivate seminars a success—from the in-depth discussions on marketing and making a profit to the “I know what you’re going through” atmosphere—are still present. Former Boston Ballet dancer Kathy Kozul gave her always well-received floor barre class, and longtime DanceLife Teacher Conference lecturer Melissa Hoffman ran through her successful setup for teaching 2-year-olds.
Far overhead, hanging from the main hall’s cathedral ceilings, fans churned lazily. The wall of mirrors and gray marley floor gave it away as a dance studio, but during this weekend, round banquet tables were spread throughout the space. Teachers propped laptops on tables or stretched out on the floor, quickly becoming comfortable enough to leave a lecture for a little leg stretching or to help themselves to water and snacks.
At the DanceLife Retreat Center, common ground, creativity, and wisdom make for good times and lasting connections
As always, Gold was generous with advice. “I’m an advocate of short shows,” he said during a discussion on recitals, then proceeded to explain how to cut minutes off a show’s running time by saving solos and duos for a separate performance, organizing entrances and exits without blackouts, and combining numbers into mini-productions.
“What you don’t want to happen is for Daddy to be bored to death, then turn to Suzie on the car ride home and say, ‘Isn’t there anything else you’d like to do?’ ” Gold said, and chuckles rippled through the room.
But he also put his guests to work. Gold threw out theme titles—“Imagine That!” and “From Diapers to Diplomas”—and charged the eight guests sitting at each table to dream up an entire show. Each person was urged to contribute ideas about songs or fun visuals, such as a slide show, PowerPoint presentation, or skit, that would fit the theme.
As guests searched for songs online or debated ideas, the room buzzed with chatter. When Gold called time, one representative from each table detailed what just a few minutes of brainstorming had produced. One group wanted to decorate a scrim with images of what the dancers would be “when they grew up.” Another would dress up dancers as a mom and dad, and after they mimed rushing off to the hospital, the audience would hear the sound effect of a baby crying—introducing a preschool dance to “Isn’t She Lovely?” A third would use the Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory version of “Pure Imagination” with little dancers and segue into the Glee version for older kids.
Teachers at other tables nodded and scribbled down thoughts. One teacher jumped up and presented an entire preschool dance, complete with catchy lyrics and easy hand motions, generating loud applause and laughter.
Fun, perhaps, but the exercise provided a point: a fairly common theme can still lend itself to endless ideas—especially if creative minds are willing to work together.
“This is awesome,” Gold said. “You should be doing this at your studio. Make your staff a part of the process. Give your customers more than what they expect. Look at what you did last year, and give them something better. It doesn’t cost more money—all it takes is a little more time and creativity.”
As the work went on, the room’s oversized windows were thrown open. A rainstorm had passed through the night before and the fresh air flowed into the center’s open spaces. Inside, teachers scribbled down Gold’s suggestions for summer camps and Facebook advertising; outside, someone’s husband dove into the sparkling pool and paddled about, enjoying a solitary swim.
On the open-air porch, Bob Cibulskis settled down in a rocking chair with his iPhone. His wife, Kathleen Cirioli, had opened Kathleen Academy of Dance of Hillsborough, New Jersey, in 1971, just before they got married. He was enjoying the “interesting perspective” of the retreat, where his experienced wife could sit beside a rookie studio owner and both could learn from each other.
“This is a beautiful setting. People can come here and it’s like a vacation from their lives, and they can discuss things that maybe they can’t usually discuss,” he said. “She usually burns herself out at a teacher convention, dancing four or five days. This is different—she’s more relaxed and less tired. Plus she knows what Rhee has to offer her and her colleagues in this business.”
Between chats about how to be a better boss or whether intensive dancers are a financial drain, participants crowded cheerfully onto picnic table benches to munch on barbeque or veggie pizza as they talked shop. Aleisia Ashlaw, executive artistic director of Beaufort [SC] Academy of Dance, said she was purposely sitting at different tables for each meal so she could hear everyone’s ideas.
Ashlaw was thrilled to be there. She had mentioned to her office manager how much she wanted to attend a DanceLife Retreat Center weekend and so in lieu of giving her a traditional recital gift, her faculty and students raised the money to send her off on the retreat. “I want to see what I can do to improve my studio,” said Ashlaw, a school owner for 15 years. “The minute I heard Rhee speak I was inspired. I realized some of the things he was suggesting I had already implemented, but he has even more ideas to make it better.”
With 22 years under her belt, Carolyn Nelson-Kavajecz was describing how she runs her Sterling Silver Studio in Superior, Wisconsin, to two Illinois studio owners. Trish Rowley of Illinois Dance Academy in Joliet and Neala Dunn of Dance Alive! Dance Studio in Manteno asked Nelson-Kavajecz how she deals with rule breakers on her staff, how she balances a life and a business, and how she runs her 501(c)3 nonprofit scholarship foundation.
“I used to feel about my studio just how you guys feel—that I love it so much, I would do it for free,” Nelson-Kavajecz said. “Then I started treating it like a business, put together a business plan, and run it as any business would run.”
Studio owners sank into plush couches or sprawled on the Great Room’s rug for a session with certified life coach Sandi Duncan. “I’m actually going to let the role of dance teacher go and talk to you as normal people,” she said, lightening the mood before an hour of soul-searching generated by a host of thoughtful questions. “Are you moving forward?” she asked. “How do you celebrate you? What in life are you thankful for? What inspires you? Besides dance, what in life makes you happy? What would you do if you couldn’t fail?”
You can complain about things, she reminded her listeners, or you can change. “The choice is yours. You are CEO of your own life,” she said.
And what would a dance convention be without vendors? Costume Gallery president Ellen Ferreira showed up with a kitchen bowl full of colorful flash drives containing next season’s costume catalog and a touching video about how her company and others helped a young woman whose studio in Joplin, Missouri, had been destroyed by a tornado.
Joe Sclafani, vice president of sales for Discount Dance Supply, discussed the profit margins to be made from selling the company’s brand of dancewear, Theatricals, in a studio. As the owners examined the sample shoes and leotards he passed around, one expressed disappointment that he didn’t bring any tights. Without missing a beat, Sclafani offered to send some to her—and to everyone in the room.
Rather than making a presentation, International Dance Challenge vice president Joe Martin asked the teachers a question: “What are your needs and what are your wants?” That spurred a spirited back-and-forth about medals and scoring, age divisions, and generic critiques from uninspired or inadequate judges.
Martin said the honest discussion was just what he wanted to hear. He and IDC president Randy Coleman (who purchased the company in 2011 from founders Art and Nancy Stone) jumped on the retreat center’s sponsorship opportunities. “We looked at our budget, and as an organization under a new owner, we felt this personalized the process—to be right in front of these people,” said Martin. “From a business perspective, to get to meet owners, this is a very rewarding experience.”
On Saturday evening, Gold broke out the good china and served a formal, candlelit dinner with entertainment courtesy of 93-year-old studio owner Georgia Deane, a friend who had dropped by to sing a song. After dessert, all retired to the great room for an informal gabfest with Gold. One owner’s tirade about a breast-feeding situation in her school lobby elicited gasps (“The kid is 7!”) and laughs. Deane shared how she keeps from stressing (“I sing!”) and what she does when she gets tired (“I go to bed!”).
When 9 o’clock hit, new friends wished each other a pleasant night. “Bring your T-shirts tomorrow for a group photo!” Gold called after them.
The final day was short and sweet. The few owners who had to scoot out early to catch flights were ushered out with hugs and loud goodbyes. Most stayed to hear Gold’s final encouragements and best wishes for continued success.
“This dance thing—that’s your freedom. Get lost in the music; get lost in the movement. If you haven’t felt that in a long time, you need to get that back,” he said. “Say to yourself: ‘This is my chance to let go and share my passion.’ ”
Facing a long trip home to Kilmarnock, Scotland, was Margaret Bunten, who said she had thoroughly enjoyed the retreat—particularly for its intimate size and the personal attention showered on the participants. A one-woman show (she holds classes for 300 kids in various rented halls and community centers four days a week, doing all the teaching and paperwork herself, and even making the costumes), Bunten said she was leaving the center with renewed faith in her own abilities.
“It’s so good to hear that dance teachers all over have the same problems,” she said. “This gives me lots of confidence that I’m running my dance school, and I’m doing it right.”
By Mary Grimes
For many studio owners, the most hectic day of the year isn’t the day of the recital or the first day of classes—it’s the first day that families can purchase tickets to the end-of-the-year show. Owners arrive at the studio in the morning to find a line of parents wrapped around the building, tapping their feet as they wait to buy their tickets. The entire day is given over to ticket sales, crowd control, and the hope that clients will be satisfied.
After years of this, many studio owners have found a better method: online ticketing, a system that allows a business to post an event, oversee ticket sales, designate assigned seating, and monitor ticket exchanges.
With online ticketing, studio owners can reduce the time and energy spent on recital planning by eliminating the need to print, organize, sell, and exchange (by hand) hundreds, if not thousands, of physical tickets. Clients also benefit: they can purchase tickets at any time and can select their own seats through the reserved seating system from the comfort of their own homes.
Flexibility and increased sales
Paul Henderson, general manager of Tiffany’s Dance Academy, with studios throughout northern California, switched over to online ticketing eight years ago. “The easier it is for your customer to complete a transaction with you, the better,” he says. “If they are going to buy tickets one way or another, don’t mess around with making them come to the studio and wait in a frustrating line so that they can hand you their credit card.”
Online ticket sales are most often orchestrated using a ticketing service—a company that takes all the information for your event and posts it on its website. Clients can then purchase tickets through the ticketing service’s site.
Once posted, the person acting as administrator for the event—the studio owner, the office manager, another studio employee, or a volunteer—has complete access to all ticket sales and reserved seating. The administrator can designate areas for handicapped seating or reserve a row for the teachers’ families; set multiple price levels within the venue; offer discounted seats; or set time limits on a ticket price, allowing for a reduced price at an earlier date with a switch to full price as the performance draws closer.
Henderson used this feature when setting up online sales this past year. “To get our parents excited about ordering tickets online, we allow the [parent] volunteers to purchase their reserved seats one day before non-volunteers.”
Not only did this practice encourage parents to volunteer for the show, but online ticketing increased ticket sales. On the first day of sales, the studio sold almost 2,000 tickets to their end-of-year recitals in an hour and a half. As the administrator for the site, Henderson was able to track sales progress and record daily earnings from ticket sales, as well as monitor available seating.
Annemarie Fairhurst, owner of Annemarie’s Dance Centre in Ashland, Massachusetts, says she experienced a similar increase in take-home earnings from her studio’s end-of-the-year show. “Most clients were happy to pay the service fee to be able to pick out their own seats,” she says. “The time spent in planning was minimal compared to the last two years. All of this meant more kept revenue.”
How it works
With most agencies, creating and publicizing an event is free. Service fees are based on ticket sales. For example, Brown Paper Tickets, a well-known national ticketing service, takes $0.99 per ticket as a base fee, and then adds a percentage—currently 3.5 percent—of the overall ticket price. However, school owners have the option to add that amount into the price of the ticket, meaning that clients pay a small service charge when they purchase tickets online. In Fairhurst’s experience, “parents, for the most part, were delighted at how easy and convenient it was to order online,” she says.
Online ticketing gives clients the option of printing their tickets at home as well as the opportunity to choose their own seats.
Most people are used to conducting business online, including buying airline tickets, making hotel reservations, and purchasing tickets to shows. For those who aren’t comfortable using the Internet, most agencies have a box office number that allows clients to speak to an agent. Alternatively, studio owners can accommodate less tech-savvy customers by handling those ticket sales themselves.
Online ticketing gives clients the option of printing their tickets at home as well as the opportunity to choose their own seats. With reserved seating, it is no longer the responsibility of the studio staff to manage the crowd. Fairhurst thinks this was the biggest benefit for her school. “First come, first served,” she says. “I was no longer responsible for where they were seated.”
The print-from-home option also allows for additional advertisement space. With Tiffany’s Dance Academy tickets, the printouts include the ticket itself, with the essential information about the venue and the reserved seating. The surrounding space on the 8×10-inch paper is used to list upcoming summer and fall class schedules, contact information for purchasing a DVD of the performance, and discounts on summer camps.
Online ticketing can be successful for studios of all sizes. Studios that use venues with limited seating can set restrictions on how many tickets can be purchased by one person. However, setting this up may involve some time talking with your agent. It may be beneficial, in this case, to use a locally based agency as your ticketing service, rather than an agency that works nationally. Local companies will most likely be more knowledgeable about a particular space and its limitations and may be more accessible when questions and concerns arise.
Fairhurst, who used a small venue last year, found that with online ticketing she could limit the number of tickets sold to each family and also set a release date for all unsold tickets, which allowed clients to purchase more if they wanted to. The downside was that families needing more tickets could not always purchase seats in the same area of the theater. But when parents were reminded that the opportunity to chat during performances was minimal anyway and that there was plenty of time before and after the show to mingle with friends and family, they understood, and bought the extra seats.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember with the transition to online ticket sales is to research the various companies offering this service. There are many agencies, both local and national, all of which offer slightly different options and pricing. When deciding on one, be sure to consider the needs of your studio: venue size, number of performances, any restrictions on ticket sales, number of tickets to be sold, and whether the majority of your clientele is tech savvy enough to use an online system.
“My advice to anyone thinking of doing online ticketing for the first time is to do your homework,” Fairhurst says. “Find a service that will fit your needs. Fees can be deceptive. Ask lots of questions.”
The first year of selling tickets online will require more research and legwork than it will in subsequent years. Prepare to spend a few hours learning how to most effectively input information about the show, sell tickets, exchange tickets, and select the right ticket-sales options for your studio.
It is also important to make sure your clients know about the transition from manual ticket sales to online ticketing. Provide clear instructions on how to access the tickets. And as with any other change, you may have to remind clients that a new system is in place.
Saving time and money
Online ticket sales have the potential to be a great time saver. As Henderson explains it, “This investment [of time] pales in comparison to how much time you can spend manually selling, exchanging, and tracking tickets.” He adds, “There are two rules of business that we believe in with every fiber of our being. One, outsource everything that is not in our core area of expertise. And two, never make it hard for your customer to give you money.”
Making the Most of Class
Normally I don’t approve of “tricking” kids into something. But if it’s for their own good and they end up loving it, what’s the harm? When structuring a class, I like to give students the technique they need but also sprinkle in some of the juicy material that makes up the final combination. Here’s the scoop on how to structure a class that fits in technique and lets kids dance their hearts out at the end: sneak the final combo into the class bit by bit.
Depending on the style of class you are teaching, there are plenty of opportunities. In a modern or release class, if you have a floor section in your combination, fit it into your floor technique. As you progress to standing, sneak in another section, working on the technical aspects of that material. Perhaps between tendus, dégagés, or battements you can add a transitional piece of the final combination—something that breaks up the predictable flow of the class but will also turn up later. Another time to add in part of the combination is during exercises that travel across the floor.
Another hint: I find it easier to design a class that flows well by working backward. I start by creating the combination and then structure the technique sections around the portions of the combination I want to emphasize throughout the class. I find it is also helpful to sneak in the most difficult parts as well, so dancers’ muscle memory kicks in right when they need it.
By the time the combination arrives, the kids will be pleased and satisfied to find that so much of it comes so easily. Plus, class time is saved so that dancers can really dance—and isn’t that what we’re all in it for?
I use reflective journaling to help my students better understand how they are working in class. It helps them develop self-awareness and become more actively engaged in the class as a whole. My advanced-level teens keep notebooks in their dance bags. Every few weeks, I set aside time at the end of class to pose a question or comment to which the dancers respond in their journals. Here are some suggestions to get your students started with journaling.
• Comment on one correction you or someone else received in class today. How did you or they approach making the correction?
• Describe a challenge you had during the adagio. What can you do to address this?
• What did you learn by watching someone else during the across-the-floor combinations?
• Describe a combination in class in terms of its rhythmic patterns.
• List the adjectives that describe how you danced today. What movements were you doing during the time they applied?
• If your dancing had to be described using one color, what color would it be and why?
• Draw a map of the center floor combination depicting its movement patterns. Did you effectively make use of space while dancing this combination?
You can also introduce outside elements related to dance. Here are two examples:
• Play a song that is unlikely to be familiar to students and that has interesting changes in tempo and rhythm. Have students describe the movements they would use to interpret the music.
• Read a poem or quote and have the students comment on it. I sometimes use one from Martha Graham: “Nothing is more revealing than movement.”
After several entries, you might ask students to look back at past responses and answer this: “What have I discovered about my dancing through journaling?”
By Julie Holt Lucia
For many people, the word “marketing” drums up colorful images of advertising: print and television ads, brochures and flyers, websites and blogs. But that’s not all marketing can be. For dance teachers—and studio owners in particular—marketing must go above and beyond common, passive forms of advertising to showcase the value of our skills and services and build and sustain positive relationships.
Relationships are key in the small dance world. The relationships that create such connections as word-of-mouth recommendations or referrals for jobs or auditions are priceless. And one of the most effortless ways to maintain those relationships is networking.
Networking in person, with handshakes and smiles and business cards, can be refreshing and productive. But we dance people are so often bound to our work that we rarely get out to networking events. So instead of going out, we can go in—to LinkedIn, a professional networking website.
If Facebook could be considered the cocktail dress of social networking, then LinkedIn is the pantsuit.
Like Facebook, LinkedIn allows users to share personal information within a network of colleagues. But unlike Facebook, LinkedIn is strictly business. Once you are a registered user, your profile becomes your customized resume and professional portfolio—you won’t find any vacation photos or mind-numbing memes here.
LinkedIn’s main purpose is to “connect” professionals to other professionals, across industries. That means we can connect with (and market to) anyone: other small business owners, co-workers, customers, employees, friends—as long as we already know the other person in some capacity. (LinkedIn’s security features do not allow connections between random strangers.) Think of LinkedIn as your newfangled, online Rolodex: a collection of contacts with whom you may have done business in the past or may do business in the future.
Once you’ve registered, LinkedIn guides you through the first steps of becoming a user: you set up a profile and begin connecting to other users. Your profile includes your current and past work experience, education, special skills, a single photo, and any links you want to provide (such as to your choreography). You can offer as much or as little information on your profile as you like and can update your account settings to match your comfort level.
For dance teachers, your profile is your marketing tool, essentially becoming a central place where you can contain and control your professional identity online. For example, LinkedIn allows users to choose whether their profiles can show up on search engine results. (You may like this feature if you are job hunting and want your profile to display when you are Googled.) You can also use your profile to post status updates about any jobs you hold now or about the type of job you’re looking for. Other users can write recommendations on your profile, which serve as instant references.
In addition to connecting directly with other users, you can join alumni groups and industry-specific groups to find new contacts. Your network may include hundreds of users, any one of whom could potentially play a part in your next career move.
Studio owners who become LinkedIn users can create a company page in addition to a personal profile. A company page allows you to market your school with a customized business profile that any LinkedIn user can view. As a page administrator, you can post information about your school (such as an overview and link to your website), as well as a description of services and a list of LinkedIn users who are current or former employees. Prospective or current customers or employees can “follow” your page, which means that by posting company status updates and photos, you keep them engaged in your marketing efforts. (You can update the page as often as you want to.)
For a fee, LinkedIn also offers unique company page features, allowing administrators to post job openings, analyze page views by other users, and customize the page for specific LinkedIn audiences (such as users within a certain location, age range, or industry).
So give the word “marketing” new meaning. LinkedIn can cultivate your professional network, offering more opportunities to build and sustain the relationships that make your studio—and your dance life—tick.
Now in its 76th year, the dance family that is Dance Masters of Western New York Chapter 8 is still going strong.
“I really appreciate the family atmosphere in Chapter 8,” says Diane Reynolds of Diane’s Dance Center in Lindenhurst, New York. “I travel from downstate on Long Island to participate in DMA activities in Western New York each year.”
The key to Chapter 8’s success is respect, president Marlene Merritt says. “Every member is important, and like most families, we don’t always agree—but we can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Founded in 1936, Chapter 8’s original objective of “education” is still at the forefront. Members and their students meet to study and advance the art of dance and improve the practices of its teaching through workshops, syllabus reviews, exam preparations, informal Q&As, music exchanges, and periodic educational seminars.
Chapter 8 maintains a membership of about 80 members, according to Merritt, from longtime, well-established dance teachers and studio owners to new teacher-training–school graduates, along with dance teachers, choreographers, college-level instructors, and other industry professionals. Members hail from many areas of New York State and Canada.
One member is Tom Ralabate, professor, chair, and producing director of the Department of Theatre & Dance at University at Buffalo/SUNY. “Chapter 8 has provided me with a forum to share and exchange ideas about the field of dance with my member teacher friends,” he says. “It also gave me the opportunity to guest teach and to showcase my choreography through competitive events.”
Chapter 8 offers three all-day workshops annually (Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse), plus at least one educational seminar and a combined performing arts and pageant weekend. The pageant features a special liturgical routine to honor the memory of deceased members.
The organization aids young dancers by awarding more than $4,000 in educational scholarships to DMA workshops and conventions each year, with several memorial awards named in tribute of dance teachers such as Beverly Fletcher, Judy Pickhardt, and Carol Fix.
Members serve the parent organization, Dance Masters of America, by working as faculty members, judges, or committee members. Three members have also served as DMA president: J. Howard Ferguson, Lorraine F. Abert, and H. Monroe Barden.
Chapter officers are always available to support and assist members, and non-members and their students are welcome to attend workshops. “This is a very positive environment for teachers and students,” says Ramona Reuter of Elite Studio of Dance in Fairport, New York. “I love seeing other teachers from around western New York, catching up and seeing each other’s students grow. The teachers the chapter brings in for workshops are always great and inspire the students. We are happy to be a part of Chapter 8.”
The Congress on Research in Dance
Event: 2012 Annual Conference
When: November 8-11
Where: Embassy Suites Albuquerque Hotel & Spa, 1000 Woodward Place NE, and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
What: Discussions on the conference theme “Re-generations: Cultural Legacies in Contemporary Contexts.”
Dance Masters of New England
Event: November Scholarships
When: November 11
Where: Spotlight Dance Studio, 391 West Water St., Taunton, MA
What: Scholarship auditions for juniors (8am-noon) and seniors (1-5pm).
Dance Masters of Pennsylvania Chapter 10
Event: Title Weekend
When: November 2-4
Where: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh-Monroeville Convention Center, 101 Mall Blvd., Monroeville, PA
What: Weekend of title competitions featuring tuition scholarship auditions.
Dance Teachers’ Club of Boston
Event: Meeting and Student Workshop
When: November 18
Where: Hilton Boston/Woburn, 2 Forbes Rd., Woburn, MA
What: Open meeting with technique instruction in performing arts and ballroom, plus auditions for the Dean College Scholarship.
Florida Dance Masters Inc.
Event: November Dance Convention
When: November 23-25
Where: Renaissance Orlando at Sea World Hotel, 6677 Sea Harbor Dr., Orlando, FL
What: Convention open to members and non-members, plus students ages 6 through professional level. Solo title competitions open to member students include Twinkling Star (ages 6-8), Rising Star (ages 9-12), Jr. Miss/Mr. Dance (ages 13-15), and Miss/Mr. Dance (ages 16-20). Student groups of both members and non-member teachers can perform in the non-adjudicated Royal Dance Festival.
Owner and teacher, Thelma Showman School of Dance, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
NOMINATED BY: Paula Showman Bridges, daughter: “I would like to nominate Thelma Showman. An extraordinary woman and teacher, she has touched thousands of lives. She officially retired two years ago but, at 96, still teaches her Showman Showoffs class for adult ladies and classes in tap and ballet.”
YEARS TEACHING: I have been teaching for 62 years; my studio opened in October 1951. I also taught and owned a second studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for four years in the 1960s.
AGES TAUGHT: 4 to 65 years old
GENRES TAUGHT: Tap and ballet
WHY SHE CHOSE TEACHING AS A CAREER: Teaching was never a conscious thought with me. I came out of the womb dancing. It was instilled in my heart before birth, so a dancer and teacher I became. It was as natural to me as a river flowing to the sea.
HER GREATEST INSPIRATION: The Muse Terpsichore. She called and I followed. I have loved each class I’ve taken, and each instructor has been an inspiration to me.
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY: I instill in my students an appreciation for dance and a work ethic to last through life. I teach them to work hard to reach each goal, and I encourage them to try harder when their ambitions are unfulfilled. I teach them discipline, cooperation, focus, and to overcome their mistakes and grow from them. We must love the joy of movement, live the journey.
WHAT MAKES HER A GOOD TEACHER: My creative ability and my imagination. I have never stopped studying dance, and have attended seminars, workshops, and conventions throughout my career. I have traveled to 15 countries on dance-related trips and taken extended courses at six universities and colleges, passing my Cecchetti exams. Every week for 30 years, I drove 300 miles round trip to Oklahoma City to attend classes with Ballet Oklahoma.
HER FONDEST MEMORY: Opening Day. My husband had built a studio for me and I asked seven of my daughters’ little friends to come learn to dance. I also ran a small ad in our local paper in hopes of getting one or two more girls. When I opened the door at 9am, instead of seven there were 75 girls, lined up and ready for class. I taught straight through from 9am to 4pm that day. It was the happiest day of my life. And it continued to get better. My earlier training kept me in good stead. From that day forward I was always so happy to be referred to as “Miss Thelma” from the Thelma Showman School of Dance.
ADVICE TO DANCE STUDENTS: Don’t try to be anyone else; be your own unique self. When you find what you love, stay with it. Step over every bump. Continue your education. Learn something new every day. Find something fun every day. Persist, persist, persist—you will reach your goal and become the little masterpiece God intended.
IF SHE COULDN’T BE A DANCE TEACHER: I would be writing children’s books. I have a head full of delightful stories with good lessons to be learned woven through them—and I am good at make believe.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT MISS THELMA: In 1997, Dance Magazine and the National Restaurant Association chose her to testify before a congressional subcommittee hearing in Washington, DC. She represented 13,000 dance teachers who objected to unfair classroom license fees and poor treatment of small business owners by ASCAP and BMI. Her testimony helped lower music licensing fees and stop the poor treatment and threats.
In 2005 she was inducted into Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, 9th edition, Volume VI.
DO YOU KNOW A DANCE TEACHER WHO DESERVES TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT? Email your nominations to Arisa@rheegold.com or mail them to Arisa White, Dance Studio Life, P.O. Box 2150, Norton, MA 02766. Please include why you think this teacher should be featured, along with his or her contact information.
By Lisa Okuhn
Few are born with a model’s body, and trying to attain one is the source of widespread anguish, especially among young women. And for dancers, it’s worse.
Fourteen-year-old ballet dancer and blogger Julia Bluhm twisted some knickers in the fashion media world recently, mobilizing social-media forces to confront Seventeen magazine about its use of Photoshopped models. In a New York Times interview Bluhm explained that it all started because so many girls in her ballet class complained about being fat.
Last May, fed up with hearing her friends comparing themselves to improbably svelte, impossibly perfect models, Bluhm started an online petition at Change.org, requesting only that Seventeen run at least one photo spread every month in which none of the images were altered. In the August issue, editor in chief Ann Shoket announced the Body Peace Treaty, which promises that the magazine “will never change models’ bodies or face shapes” and will feature photos of “real girls and models who are healthy.”
This is a battlefield victory, but there’s much more ground to be gained. Few are born with a model’s body, and trying to attain one is the source of widespread anguish, especially among young women. And for dancers, it’s worse.
Dancers’ body-image problems stem in part from broad cultural standards. But they’re also attributable to the longstanding, generally held belief that dancers need to look a certain way to be successful, and that bodies onstage need to have a uniform and specific look for dance to be appealing to audiences.
More and more professional companies’ ranks are filled with dancers whose bodies don’t conform to the idealized norm. The notion of a “perfect dance body” has almost become an antiquated idea, or at least one that’s considered politically incorrect.
And yet, as a former dancer who enthusiastically drank the skinny-girl Kool-Aid—while consuming little else—I confess that I am still drawn to (though I never exactly possessed) the conformist ideal: thin, long-limbed, turned out, well-endowed in the arch department, not-so-well-endowed in the chest. But Bluhm’s campaign makes me ask myself why I—and other dance professionals—persist in thinking that particular body type is more appealing onstage.
Is it line? In part. Turnout is essential in composing classical ballet line, and beautifully arched feet add the finishing curve to the brushstroke of the leg. Shape tends to look cleaner without a lot of extra flesh. But there are plenty of dancers with great turnout, fabulous feet, gorgeous lines, and a little heft.
Does having a “perfect” body guarantee technical ability, or a less-than-perfect one diminish it? Yes and no. Turnout certainly makes a lot of steps easier—think multiple fouetté turns—and good arches make balancing and turning in relevé a much happier experience. But unless a dancer is extremely heavy—say, to the extent she can’t jump or becomes winded—technique is rarely a problem; good dancers know what their bodies, regardless of weight, need to do to execute a step.
Do larger dancers dance with less power or energy? Definitely not. Weight and momentum are inextricably linked. Bigger dancers, like bigger cars, can be incredibly powerful. Are those dancers less musical? Of course not. Is their stage presence less commanding? No one would make that argument.
So why do those prejudices remain? I think it’s fair to say that turnout and good feet are requirements for a professional ballet dancer. Other than that, though, I can’t think of a good reason (or excuse) for me to prefer to watch scrawny girls with long necks. There’s nothing about thinness or long limbs that makes for better dancing. And uniformity of body type onstage is really a construct that should have gone the way of Levittown-type architectural homogeneity; it’s simply not necessary for all the girls or all the houses to look alike just because they’re standing in a row.
In retrospect, for me, staying thin was a way to compensate for less-than-perfect turnout and bad feet. But being skinny isn’t interesting in and of itself; it’s just a quality, like the thinness or thickness of a tabletop. If I were offering advice to young dancers—including myself at 16—I’d say maximizing other assets is a much better bet. Musicality, dramatic amplitude, stage presence, dynamic range, and simple joy in movement are more compelling qualities, and ones you don’t have to harm yourself to achieve.
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
How do dance teachers stay sound and healthy enough to demonstrate safely after they stop dancing full time? It’s tricky business. We take for granted the flexibility and strength acquired throughout our performing and early teaching days. But all too often our bodies let us know that after all those years, they need more attention.
My rude awakening came when I stopped teaching about 20 classes per week in order to go to physical therapy school and subsequently, to begin the well-being program for Smuin Ballet here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since I’m short in stature and the company was short on funds for things like massage tables, I agreed to work on the dancers on the floor. My flexible ankles became so unstable (from sitting on my feet and overstretching them) that they hurt when I went down stairs. I resolved to use my newly gained education to figure out what was wrong and what I could do to remedy the situation.
After X-rays ruled out arthritis and serious injuries, I set out to figure out the best way to strengthen and stabilize my ankles and came upon the wobble board, a flat, circular platform resting on a semi-sphere. It has kept me dancing (and walking), and a regular workout regimen on this piece of fitness equipment might help you do the same.
Types of balance boards
There are a few different types of balance boards, including the wobble board. All are essentially platforms resting on top of a smaller, raised surface that functions as a fulcrum. The user tries to balance on the platform as it rocks or swivels on its fulcrum. This forces the ankle to react quickly and mobilizes the important stabilizing muscles of the ankle and foot. Some balance boards resemble seesaws—long flat platforms placed perpendicularly atop cylinders or rectangles.
Because our ankles move in a circular fashion, I like the circular type. The one I have works for me because it has a wider base on the bottom side. Some have very high balls beneath the platform, which might result in a sprained ankle for people who are quite flexible. My wobble board has a small dot on the center that helps my clients and me line up the axis where the foot points and flexes. (It’s called “The Rock,” and it’s available from optp.com.)
A strengthening routine
Try this sequence to keep your legs shipshape. Even though the wobble board is meant for the feet and ankles, done properly, you’ll feel this set of exercises up into the pelvis.
• Stand squarely in front of a ballet barre or a piece of furniture with a high back. I use my Pilates trapeze table and hold onto the upright poles for easy support.
• Start with both feet placed on the farthest side points of the standing plate. Then rock side to side, allowing one knee and then the other to bend to create the motion, like a stair-stepper at the gym. Next, swivel the plate by pressing the edges of the disc down into the floor. Do about 6 clockwise and 6 counterclockwise actions. Again, allow one knee and then the other to bend to make the motion. These simple exercises loosen the muscles and tendons and oil the joints. As I like to say, “Motion is lotion.”
• Next, move on to single-leg work. Use your strong leg first; it will help the weaker leg to do better. First, find the axis point on your foot where it flexes and points. Place the web of your hand over the top part of the foot with your thumb on the inside of the foot and your fourth finger wrapping over the outside. Slide the arch you’ve made with your hand up the foot until it rests against your tibia. This is your axis point.
• Place that axis point across the inner dot (or, if there is no dot, the center of the pivot point), bisecting the circle evenly. Make sure the pelvis is over the foot; do not allow the hips to fall back behind the axis point.
• With the free leg, take a parallel coupé position. In this sequence, keep the knee as straight as possible. Perform the whole sequence on one leg first and then repeat it on the other leg. Begin by tipping the standing plate front to back, concentrating on making an up/down motion. Be careful not to pull yourself with your arms if you are holding onto furniture. Do about 10 repetitions. If your feet feel OK, then do some “pseudo-jumps”: rock forward, lifting the heel a few inches and rock back to center. Repeat 10 times. Next, make very small circles with the ankle. I call them “drills” because the circle is very small. I aim for making a swivel around the circumference of the small yellow inner dot on my platform. Perform these very briskly, doing 2 sets of 10 clockwise, and 2 sets counterclockwise.
• Next, do a passé sequence. Turn out both legs and passé front with the free leg. Place the little toe underneath the knee, pressing the thigh backward and tensing the rotators to intensify the position. Then rotate to parallel with both legs, pressing the parallel passé (inside of the foot) against the support leg. Continue alternating the passé, outward and inward, for 10 sets and end with passé turned out.
• This is the best part. Engage the inner thigh on a turned-out support leg (adductor magnus use) as you extend your free leg to a straight-knee, small fourth position on the floor in back, behind the wobble board, as in a pirouette preparation. Then press off the back foot and spring up, using the inner thigh to lead to passé (turned out) in front—pirouette position on a flat foot. Repeat 6 times, 10 if you are buff. When you’ve finished your reps, hold and intensify the passé position for 10 seconds.
Strengthening your legs, or maintaining their strength, will reduce fatigue, make demonstrating pain free, and help prevent injuries. You worked hard for those legs. Now preserve them.
I have faith in you.
Retrain Your Brain
If you want to be successful, says Chade-Meng Tan, retrain your brain.
It’s as simple as this: if we let our emotions rule us, we are, Meng (as he’s called) says, letting the horse drag us instead of being in command. Meng, an engineer and the author of Search Inside Yourself, is now Google’s official “Jolly Good Fellow,” and the book is an evolution of a course he taught there. (Look for him on YouTube, giving talks at Google and TED on this topic.)
By developing self-awareness and confidence, learning to remain calm, and creating optimism and resilience, we will be more successful in any of life’s arenas, personal or professional. Meng equates these qualities with emotional intelligence, and getting there, he says, isn’t all that difficult. “What we do and what we think and what we pay attention to changes the function and structure of the brain,” he says. Those changes come about through mindfulness, which Meng defines as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.”
Of the three steps to achieving emotional intelligence—attention training, self-knowledge and self-mastery, and creating useful mental habits—let’s look at what step two can do. Here’s Meng, mostly quoted and sometimes paraphrased:
Mindfulness training makes your attention sharp and calm. You become able to see changes in the emotional process and to recognize an emotion as it’s arising. You begin to see yourself and your emotions objectively.
This creates two possibilities: one, being able to see an emotion the moment it arises gives you the power to turn it off (if you want to). You have a choice.
Two, emotional awareness translates into self-assessment. Once you know your deepest values and motivations, then you can recognize opportunities.
We like to think that our emotions are existential experiences, that the emotion is us (“I am happy; I am sad”). But as the power of your mind increases, you go from existential to experiential. This emotional experience is not you; it’s an experience in your body. This change in perceptions can change your life.
And now it’s back to me: it’s certainly something to think about. —Cheryl A. Ossola, Editor in Chief
Elephants Are Easier
There they were, tiny tykes in fluff and sequins, spread across the stage at awkward intervals and not sure what to do. Their teacher was gesturing discreetly, and a few of the tots, at least, seemed to understand her frantic sign language and tapped their toes or wiggled their rears appropriately. Others, lost in toddler-land, caught every third step or so. One just stood, immobile but adorable.
Oh, I thought along with the audience, aren’t they just the cutest? And when one refused to take her partner’s hand and caused a pileup of pink tutus, I laughed out loud and realized—this is entertainment!
It was a light-dawning, fog-lifting moment for me. For years I had been responsible for my own sets of babies, a responsibility I took very seriously. Every lesson was 45 minutes of eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head stress, sweating through frog hops with crossed fingers and burning thighs, relieved when we made it to stickers without tears or trauma.
And when it came to choreography, Balanchine with his circus elephants had it easier. Skip, turn, hop, wave your hands, blow a kiss. Forget about counts—can we get from entrance to bow without Sarah taking off her shoes? Will Hailey stop on the line or fall off the stage? A two-minute dance with 3-year-olds was a landmine-strewn nightmare, and I was the general responsible for seeing them safely home.
So at recital’s end, if some well-meaning grandma commented on how funny it was when all the bumblebees buzzed in the wrong direction, I would fume. Teaching babies is damned hard work, I thought, and it’s no laughing matter!
But it’s both. It is a lot of work, but it’s also OK that the audience enjoys the delightful unpredictability of a babies dance. More important, it’s fine for the teacher who cared about them and their educational growth all year long to let go and enjoy it as well. After all, they’re babies for such a short time. —Karen White, Associate Editor
By Rhee Gold
Words from the publisher
Henry Ford once said, “If there is one thing which I would banish from the earth it is fear.”
Some people believe that fear is experienced only in dramatic or scary situations, but in reality it can linger in the subconscious, creating a constant state of inhibition. Fear holds us back from achieving our lifelong dreams. Instead of stepping out of our comfort zone to get ourselves where we want to be, we talk ourselves out of taking action by focusing on the “what ifs,” which are more powerful than our desire to dance down that instinctual path.
The dancer who goes to every audition thinking she is not good enough will probably not be good enough at that moment. Her fear will show as a lack of confidence, obvious in her movement and demeanor. She’ll answer questions with her head down, in a voice that can hardly be heard. She might in fact be a good enough dancer to get the job, but someone who has total confidence (and maybe even less skill) will be offered the contract.
The school owner who would like to buy a building sees a perfect location but tells herself she could never afford it and doesn’t investigate further. Yet someone else does, and that person discovers that with some creative thinking she can afford that building.
The dance teacher who wants to expand her knowledge is afraid to take a class because she’s worried that her potential classmates will think she isn’t good enough to be a teacher. And so she never allows herself to improve.
Fear leads to frustration, which usually sabotages true happiness. Self-confidence is never gained because we continue to believe, and send the message to others, that there’s no way we can do what we dream of. Sometimes, when a dream does manage to squeeze past all our fears and inhibitions, we squelch it prematurely. Because we didn’t believe such happiness would come to us, we panic that it might end. And thus we sabotage ourselves.
Most of what we desire is attainable if we allow ourselves to leave the safety zone we’ve built in our own subconscious. Each time we fight off our fears, we nurture self-confidence. Over time we eventually will live life with more confidence, more self-respect, and more happiness. Our dreams may not evolve exactly as we’ve pictured them, but if we find the guts to go for them, we will land in a place that turns out to be the right fit.
If Henry Ford had chosen to live in fear instead of taking action, we all might be riding horses to our studios instead of driving cars. It is time for you to set fear aside and pursue your dreams. I believe you can do it.
By Geo Hubela
Homework! Understand the history and the styles. Studying old films is a great way to pick up moves and understand where they came from. Wild Style, a movie about hip-hop pioneers, is a must. Beat Street motivated me to breakdance and battle. Breakin’ is more of a commercial film but has some great popping—Turbo and Ozone rocked it out! The Freshest Kids, one of my favorites on hip-hop history, is an essential hip-hop tool.
I love gliding, the illusion of floating. Transferring the weight from leg to leg with a push-and-pull movement is essential in perfecting this move. Have students rise onto the right toes with a forced arch, then push off the right foot while the left leg slides away. Transfer the weight to the left foot and pull the right foot in to the left; raise the right heel and transfer the weight back to the right toes and repeat push-and-pull. Check out Usher; he loves this crowd-pleasing move.
By Bill Evans
Yield and Push. By studying developmental movement patterns, which take place in utero and during the early months of life, we have discovered the necessity of yielding to and bonding with gravity and then pushing through every point of contact to the earth. Yielding establishes an active give-and-take relationship with gravity and a readiness to move. Pushing sends energy from the earth along open pathways of flow through the joint centers to the body’s core.
Reach and Pull. When the energy of the push reaches the body’s core, it is reaching that sends that energy to the body’s edges to create an integrated gesture and/or shift of weight. We can then pull ourselves to a new body form and/or point in space. If we think “lift” rather than “reach,” we treat the body part as if it were an inanimate object, rather than as a constantly reorganizing component of the whole. Reaching and pulling allows the energy of the yield and push to travel from the body’s core to its edges, creating clarity of form while maintaining open pathways of resilient elasticity.
By Stacy Eastman
When dancers reach the advanced level, it is always helpful to introduce a “show and tell” exercise that gets them used to adding 8 counts of their own steps to small pieces of choreography. For example, one student might do flap flap cramproll, shuffle step heel stomp, shuffle step heel stomp; another might add riff back flap heel tap heel stamp, stomp back flap, stomp back flap stomp. Keep this going in a group with four or five kids and they will have made a dance in no time.
Student choreography can be such a positive experience for the kids. I have a student choreography program in my school, in which all of the students submit their choreography for a showcase and the top pieces are allowed to do competitions. They are in charge of choosing the music, casting, costumes, and rehearsals. The program started small and keeps growing.
The $32 million renovation project that transformed Union Station’s dilapidated former power plant into the stunning new home of the Kansas City Ballet has been honored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Kansas City Star reports that The National Trust awarded its preservation honor award for the “conscientious transformation” of the brick building that now houses the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity.
The 52,000-square-foot structure, which opened in 1914 as a coal-fired power plant, had been vacant since the 1970s. The renovated building opened in September 2011.
Jeffrey Bentley, executive director of the ballet, said the company was delighted with its new home. “When we first looked at the building, we knew it met all the requirements for a new home for us,” Bentley said in a statement. “But standing there looking at the decay of the abandoned Power House and trying to envision the building filled with dancers and children and creative beauty made it seem like an outlandish idea.
“We couldn’t be happier with the results.”
To read the full story, visit http://www.kansascity.com/2012/10/30/3893228/ballet-home-gets-historic-preservation.html#storylink=cpy.
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Not Just Dance in Clermont, Florida, will hold a “Let Your Heart Move Your Feet” dance party on November 2 to support the Andrėa Rizzo Foundation’s nationwide fund-raising effort, “Dance Across America.”
The party, featuring a DJ and refreshments, will run from 7 to 10pm at the studio, 735 West Montrose Street. All proceeds from the event and pledges collected by dancers will go to support the Dréa’s Dream pediatric dance therapy program.
“Dance Across America” is one of many fund-raising efforts created by the Andrea Rizzo Foundation, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization dedicated to bringing dance therapy to children with cancer and special needs in pediatric hospitals and public schools nationwide.
For more information on the Andrea Rizzo Foundation, call 401.952.2423 or email DreasDream@aol.com. For more information on the studio’s fund-raising efforts, visit http://notjustdancellc.com/.