Angelina Ballerina finds a new home at North American dance schools
By Joshua Bartlett
Angelina Ballerina may be an 8-year-old British mouse at Camembert Academy, but she’s already an astute businesswoman and a worldwide celebrity. And now she’s branching out into the dance world. As of September 2012, 117 dance studios in the United States and Canada have signed on to the Angelina Ballerina Dance Academy program, targeted at children ages 3 to 6.
Inspired by the hugely popular Angelina Ballerina book series and the PBS television series, the program is licensed by AB Studio Licensing, a branch of HIT Entertainment, a leading children’s entertainment producer. In short, Angelina Ballerina, whose iPhone app is among the top 150 of all apps, is a superstar in the media—and perhaps ballet’s answer to Harry Potter.
Sam Beckford, marketing director for AB Studio Licensing and director of Guildford School of Music and Dance in Surrey, British Columbia, says talks began three years ago with producers in the United Kingdom (where the series originated) who wanted to expand the branding of Angelina Ballerina.
“Marketing studies show 66 percent of moms in North America know about Angelina Ballerina,” says Beckford. “That’s great brand recognition. There are around 15,000 dance studios in North America; the 117 studios with the Angelina Ballerina program represent 1 percent of studios that offer ballet in North America.” The goal, he says, is to reach 3 to 5 percent of them.
Angelina Ballerina is “the perfect character to bring into the studio. She embodies such a love and joy of dancing. That’s pretty much what little girls do.” —Nancy Solomon
Choosing to adopt the program for her school was a no-brainer for Angela Floyd, director of Angela Floyd Schools in Knoxville, Tennessee, since so many young girls know the Angelina Ballerina stories. “My decision to become a partner was instant when I found out how fabulous the curriculum was,” says Floyd, who was attracted by the “national, classically based curriculum with nutrition, etiquette, and reading. I was completely sold.”
Nancy Solomon, director of Studio B Dance Center in Eastchester, New York, appreciates the bridge between dancing and literacy. She signed on because she believes the title character is “the perfect character to bring into the studio. She embodies such a love and joy of dancing. That’s pretty much what little girls do. They love dance so much that they want to dress like a ballerina. Angelina Ballerina is so enthusiastic about dancing that every time she sees a chair she has to use it as a ballet barre.”
A coherent curriculum
Marketing aside, any curriculum has to be qualitatively coherent to be useful. AB Studio Licensing contracted Beverly Spell, who developed the Leap ’n Learn curriculum used in more than 1,000 studios worldwide. “Beverly was able to incorporate the child-developmental angle into the curriculum of a dance program,” says Beckford. “She understands how and why kids learn instead of just saying it’s all about movement.”
Spell, director of Ballet Studio in Lafayette, Louisiana, worked closely with HIT Entertainment in developing a curriculum that keeps the integrity and personality of the Angelina Ballerina character through the story lines. “I wanted a program that was developmentally sound, based on the processing of information—how a child develops cognitively, physically, emotionally, socially, all of those things,” says Spell.
Every class includes a short reading of one of the stories. “Angelina Ballerina is always learning lessons in her stories,” says Spell. “I incorporate something that is learned in that story through creative movement. It’s also a great way for kids to increase their reading comprehension. They’re not only listening to the story but acting it out through their bodies to create memory stores.”
In essence, the Angelina Ballerina pre-ballet curriculum (Level 1 for ages 3 to 4 and a half; Level 2 for ages 4 and a half to 6; with 34 weeks allocated for each level) is an extension of Leap ’n Learn, which Spell developed with her daughter-in-law, child psychologist Annie W. Spell. (There is also a curriculum for a one-week summer dance camp for both age levels.) Included are tools to help children learn, to inform teachers what to expect children to learn at various stages, and to help teachers recognize the various modalities, such as reading materials, CDs, listening exercises, props, vocabulary, and rhythmic instruction, that create a better learning environment.
Angelina Ballerina students discover that ballet is based on French terminology. “They learn that ‘plié’ means ‘to bend’ and ‘tendu’ means ‘to stretch,’ ” says Spell. “By the end of the nine months they know quite a bit. All of the information, my beliefs and theories I feel so strongly about, are built into Angelina Ballerina as well, because [the curriculum, based on Leap ’n Learn], works.”
Requirements and costs
To become an Angelina Ballerina partner studio, owners must apply and fulfill certain requirements. Eligible studios must have been in business for at least three years with qualified, experienced teachers. The owners must pass criminal record checks and be insured and licensed for recordings. Once accepted, they must teach the Angelina Ballerina curriculum and adhere to the program’s guidelines. “We didn’t want to just put the Angelina stamp on a crummy curriculum or devalue the brand,” says Beckford.
The initial licensing fee is $1,995, with a monthly fee of $299. For multiple physical locations of the same studio business, the initial licensing and monthly fees stay the same, but each additional location requires an initial fee of $995 plus $199 per month. All of the curriculum is included, as are the CDs, video curriculum, online videos, story books with lesson plans (one book for each of the nine months), and props such as dance mats, maracas, and scarves. The curriculum includes choreography for the year-end recital, which teachers are not required to use, and optional suggestions for recital costumes. Angelina Ballerina tutus and mouse ears are available for an extra fee.
The props are important, says Spell, to teach fluid, graceful movement. “Even for a 3-year-old to learn to change the scarf from the left hand to the right hand takes coordination,” she says. Placement mats come in various shapes—squares, rectangles, circles, and ovals; maracas are used for teaching musicality and counting. “These are great teaching tools,” says Spell. “We use them as scaffolding to teach them something, and then you eventually take that away.” The branding—the Angelina Ballerina character and stories—provides the context and a springboard for the classes.
Curriculum and levels
In one sample curriculum lesson, the children practice four passé walks around mats that represent unpacked boxes in Angelina Ballerina’s new house. They then hold a maraca in the right hand and plié in parallel position while circling the maraca overhead, and switch it to the left hand as they straighten their knees and circle the maraca again. After that, they gallop in lines sideways across the floor. (Angelina Ballerina loves to gallop.) The class transitions to creative movement with the students holding onto ends of a scarf in pairs.
When Angelina Ballerina practices her dance steps, she pronounces the words as she executes them. “There is a lot of listening to the rules of the games,” says Solomon, who has owned her studio for 17 years but no longer teaches. “There is memorization and the use of levels. When Angelina says go to a high level, we stand on our tiptoes and reach high. Mid-level is on the knees and low level is crawling. They also learn fast tempo and slow tempo.”
Level 2 presents more complicated movements than Level 1, with more combined steps. Both involve acting out scenarios and doing pantomime. Classes can be either 30 or 45 minutes long.
Studio owners, parents, and teachers are sometimes unclear about the program’s differences or advantages versus other pre-ballet classes. Apart from the focus on Angelina Ballerina, the primary difference is the format. “It’s a well-structured program, and I find that children respond to the structure,” says Solomon. “Their listening skills are developed very well. They learn to be partners with other children and take turns.” She tells parents who are trying to decide on a program that Angelina Ballerina Academy has a more definite structure than her regular pre-ballet classes.
Many studios that have adopted the Angelina Ballerina program have retained their regular pre-ballet classes to see which are more popular. Spell, who is about to move her school into a larger facility, has about 250 students. She decided to offer both Leap ’n Learn and Angelina Ballerina pre-ballet classes; enrollment for the debut season was split 50/50 between the two options.
Last year Beckford’s three schools had a total of 192 3- to 6-year-olds enrolled; this year the number rose to 241, with a 50/50 split between pre-ballet and Angelina Ballerina. In Solomon’s school, the enrollment numbers for fall 2012 stayed the same, but parents chose Angelina Ballerina more often; Solomon ended up with four pre-ballet and six Angelina Ballerina classes. She even added a Sunday class to accommodate the demand. (Some studios charge more for Angelina Ballerina classes than for other pre-ballet classes; at Beckford’s school the rate is $5 more per month, while Solomon’s studio has no price differential.)
Nonetheless, many teachers believe that the success of Angelina Ballerina is not a reason to stop their regular pre-ballet classes. “Kids develop differently, so some 3-year-olds are ready to focus,” says Solomon. “But then you have kids who love to move, and Angelina Ballerina is too structured for them. You want to have another option that has freer movement and allows them to grow to the next step.”
What about the reactions of teachers who have taught pre-ballet for years and are now instructed to switch to a new system? Beckford says some of his studios’ teachers wanted to switch all their pre-ballet classes to Angelina Ballerina Academy. But Solomon felt the need to ease her teachers into the program. “It’s a little intimidating for some teachers, especially if they’ve been teaching pre-ballet for years and then have a curriculum and lesson plan that are so specific,” she says. “On the other hand, it really makes your program run better because it puts the teachers on the same page.”
Solomon started with just two teachers learning the program and says that next year, if the program expands, she will send them to Angelina Ballerina boot camp, which she attended. (Yes, there is an Angelina Ballerina boot camp for teachers. The first intensive was held last August at The Ailey Studios in New York City.)
One might wonder if a very pink mouse with a British accent might be a turnoff to minority students or students of color. “The old series was pretty white,” admits Beckford. “You almost felt like you had to go to high tea in England after watching it.” The newer TV show, which started in 2009, has a tad more diversity and is set in an urban environment. Marco, a mouse from Costa Rica, loves soccer and drumming, while A.Z. is an American hip-hop mouse (albeit a comically stiff and oddly vertical one). But the main attraction is still Angelina Ballerina, and not every child will identify with her.
Beckford states outright that it’s not the best program for boys. “The way the curriculum is written, I don’t recommend this as something you should push the boys into,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of the Angelina Ballerina Academy, however, is the lucrative marketing angle. “You’re taking a known brand and piggybacking your marketing on it,” says Beckford. “McDonald’s is good at marketing and attracting kids. Their marketing strategy is based on branding with others, like a new Smurfs movie or Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
Schools have “the leverage of a brand that has spent millions of dollars establishing familiarity and likability,” adds Beckford. “You can get dance classes in a multitude of places. It’s almost like being a cell-phone dealer. You either sell the iPhone or you don’t.”
An official branding method might not be a fit for every studio, however. A corporate, McDonald’s-style approach to ballet branding might feel constricting or inauthentic to some teachers, or take away a sense of spontaneity and creativity that teachers feel makes their own style of training unique. Or they might feel that the emphasis is too commercial for their tastes.
Yet some studios are using those marketing advantages. Solomon has offered free Angelina Ballerina classes at local libraries to increase registration and says the boot camp for teachers provided a great networking opportunity for sharing marketing ideas. Floyd has held read-a-thons at local elementary schools and distributed bookmarks bearing both the Angelina Ballerina (used with permission) and Angela Floyd Studios logos to all Knox County libraries. She also plans to make a presentation at the Children’s Festival of Reading at the World’s Fair Park in Knoxville.
Beckford thinks perhaps the best marketing opportunity of all comes through the contractual partnership with PBS, which allows Angelina Ballerina schools to have customized local TV spots made. At the beginning and end of the show, Beckford explains, “it will say ‘Angelina Ballerina is brought to you by Debbie’s Dance Studio, an official Angelina Ballerina studio. For more information, visit this website.’ ” Costs vary depending on location, although Beckford says he bought a yearlong sponsorship spot for one of his studios for $2,500. (The studio licensing fee includes standard press releases that studios can use for publicity.)
AB Studio Licensing handles all live appearances by Angelina Ballerina, which cost extra. Studios within 100 miles of each other can split costs by booking an appearance on the same day.
The reason a mouse in a bubble-gum-pink tutu has created such a stir in the media and in early dance education? Spell says it’s about children’s affinity with the character.
“Angelina loves ballet, and everything relates back to ballet, but she goes through a lot of little things children can identify with,” Spell says. Above all, the Angelina Ballerina Academy provides a great marketing program that is supported by a solid, education-based curriculum: “The children will enjoy and love the classes, but at the end of the year, they’re going to know their terminology,” Spell says. “And they’re going to know how to dance.”