When your studio needs more room, should you rearrange, renovate, or relocate?
by Karen White
Perhaps the question “When do you know it’s time for a bigger studio?” isn’t difficult to answer when your studio space is a closet.
Elite Dance Academy co-owners Renee Deets and Andrea Fenwick-Trench can easily fit 500 students in their 4,800-square-foot facility in Homer Glen, Illinois. But back in 2006, when the two women decided to offer a summer dance camp to the kids they were teaching at a church-run preschool education program, the only space available to them was the church’s storage closet.
“We cleaned it out, converted it, put in mirrors and barres—even a marley floor,” says Fenwick-Trench of the cozy 14-by-16-foot space. After a local newspaper story featured the dance camp, more customers—including older dancers—showed up seeking lessons. That summer, the partners ran nine classes in a dance program that did not yet have an official name, in a space that could fit no more than six teenagers.
Finding the right space can mean reimagining the space you already have.
Fenwick-Trench says that the overwhelming response persuaded the two that they should open a dance school, and they quickly settled on what Deets describes as “a cute little empty space next to a coffeehouse.” Classes for students ages 3 to 18 started in 2006 at the newly christened Elite Dance Academy. “That was our first move,” Fenwick-Trench says. “We went right away—we didn’t waste any time. It was a whirlwind.”
Since then, Elite has moved once more and expanded twice. The partners found out, as so many studio owners do, that making the jump to a bigger space or expanding an existing facility can boost the bottom line by allowing room for more students and new classes and programs. But more space comes with costs—in time, money, and anxiety.
If you build it, will they come? Four studio owners who faced that question share their strategies for growth success.
Working with what you have
Finding the right space can mean reimagining the space you already have. Five years ago, a dance studio fell into Emily Marquez’s lap. She was studying dance at the University of New Mexico and teaching at her hometown studio in Edgewood, New Mexico, when the owner offered to sell her the business. In January 2012 Marquez took ownership of the school, which she renamed East Mountain Dance.
The school, which served 80 students in a 2,400-square-foot stand-alone facility, had one classroom, a lobby, an office, a costume closet, a dressing room, and two bathrooms. To increase enrollment, Marquez knew that she would need to make some physical changes. “I was balanced on that fine line—how can I spend a bit of money, but not grow too fast and not have a major loan?” she says.
Marquez and her husband, Tony, a former contractor, decided to do more with less. They secured the landlord’s approval to transform half of the lobby, plus the office, dressing room, and closet, into a second classroom. The renovation has made the studio more customer-friendly. Staff used to be hidden away in an office on the far side of the lobby; now, a staffer at a small front desk greets clients when they walk in.
With her husband handling construction, Marquez says that she took everything the studio was making and used that money to purchase materials. The pair finished renovations in the summer of 2013 and expanded that fall’s season to include more preschool and combo classes, more levels of ballet, and new offerings such as a toddler–parent dance class. Marquez adds to the schedule slowly, thinking carefully about which programs will lead to long-term financial growth. Adding classes slowly also means that Marquez doesn’t get stuck hiring or paying faculty for classes that might not be filled.
“It’s nice to be able to put something in our smaller room as a trial. I’m already paying the overhead for the full studio, so I can run a smaller class in there and not lose money while I see if it will work out,” Marquez says.
Making the jump to a bigger space or expanding an existing facility can boost the bottom line by allowing room for more students and new classes and programs.
With the scheduling flexibility two classrooms provide, Marquez has added a spring show (Peter Pan) to the studio’s performance schedule, which also includes an end-of-year recital and Christmas season Nutcracker. Marquez did not specifically advertise the changes, relying primarily on word of mouth from her existing customers to help increase enrollment. All of the new offerings, from classes to productions, have grown her student numbers to approximately 140, with many students taking more classes each week. She says that she quickly earned back all the funds spent on the renovation.
Still, as the operator of a dance studio in a small, rural community, Marquez knows there are no guarantees. She watched a new dance studio in a nearby town close after only two years, and she once worked for a successful restaurant that failed after moving to a larger location.
“The economics here are hard. We had to pick and choose what was important,” Marquez says of her studio’s growth. With the lobby reduced to half its former size, the Marquezes and some of the studio parents built a playground where families wait for classes to begin or end. Costumes are stored in an exterior trailer and Marquez says that no one misses what had been an underused dressing room area.
“The renovation we did was a perfect compromise that allowed us to have more classes but not be overwhelmed with a business loan or have to stop mid-project because we ran out of funding,” Marquez says. “It was manageable risk.”
Finding—and funding—space for excellence
At the Performing Arts School of Central Pennsylvania (PASCP) in State College, officials and board members worried that a lack of adequate classroom space could jeopardize educational quality for the nonprofit organization’s classical ballet school and performing company. With 120 students and three classrooms in a 3,500-square-foot studio space, says PASCP executive director Sarah Kopac, “we wanted to keep class sizes small enough—especially in beginner classes—to allow individual attention so the students could progress, but we were facing a situation where we either had to say no to new students or go with larger class sizes.”
The school tried the second option for one year, allowing larger class sizes than the former maximums. In some classes, a second teacher was added to deal with the overflow. Still, “we realized it wasn’t the best environment for the type of learning we want to provide for our students,” Kopac says.
PASCP officials decided that the studio needed to grow. After looking at potential spaces in State College, they found that the cost of converting a space large enough to fit their entire studio was out of reach. (Architect estimates ran as high as $500,000.) When the business upstairs from PASCP moved out, the school sought bids for the cost of turning 1,300 square feet of office space into a 24-by-18-foot classroom, two costume storage rooms, a bathroom, a locker room area, and a private office for Kopac and artistic director Rebecca Maciejczyk. (The space also had a kitchen, which would remain as is.)
“We thought long and hard: ‘Is this going to be the answer we need?’ ” Kopac says. “The biggest thing about a renovation on which Rebecca, myself, and the board all agreed was that we wouldn’t go into debt—we would not borrow to make renovations happen.”
A fundraising campaign starting in April 2016 raised $35,000 of its $40,000 goal by mid-January 2017 and encouraged interaction between the school and the community: rehearsals were opened up to donors, for example, and dancers appeared in costume at supportive businesses.
The seven-week renovation project was completed by the end of February—almost. “We’re still pushing for that last $5,000. That will get the mirrors on the walls,” Kopac says.
PASCP’s facility now encompasses 4,800 square feet. School officials are well aware of the long-term costs (utilities, rent, etc.) of managing such a large space. PASCP, which now leases space to a Chinese dance school and a theater troupe, is seeking more lease relationships. An enrollment push is on for this summer and fall, and more students will be able to take the number of classes the school requires to participate in stage performances, thereby increasing tuition.
“This all came out of recognizing that we had students who wanted to be here, but we couldn’t accept them if we couldn’t give them the best training we could provide,” Kopac says. “The driving force was always the quality of education. That’s who we are and what we are known for.”
Making a move
Sometimes, the best way to find more room is to move to a place that has it—or the potential for it. The first build-out at Elite Dance Academy—transforming a storage closet into a classroom—cost $3,000. Deets and Fenwick-Trench spent $8,000 on their second build-out—fixing up an 1,800-square-foot empty storefront space. Two tiny classrooms and a lobby “about the size of a desk and four chairs,” Deets says, served Elite for about two years, until many of their 39 classes had wait lists.
“I remember standing in our lobby, looking across the parking lot at an empty space in a large strip mall,” says Fenwick-Trench. “All our programs were taking off, and I knew we needed more space.” The co-owners spent the summer of 2008 on their biggest build-out yet—$55,000 to renovate that strip mall space.
By the fall of that year, Elite had a 3,600-square-foot space with two large classrooms, a lobby, an office, and dancers’ and teachers’ lounges. In 2011, when an abutting business closed, Elite expanded into that space; it did the same again in 2013 when the business on the other side vacated its space. The two new spaces, each encompassing 1,200 square feet, brought the total size of the Elite facility to 4,800 square feet, with four classrooms.
At Elite, plans to grow and plans to pay for growth go hand in hand. Fenwick-Trench always has a plan to add income: getting certified in acrobatic arts has allowed her to offer acro classes, growing the performance company from 16 dancers to 60 has added income, and Zumba and auxiliary offerings have brought in new customers. Perhaps most important, Fenwick-Trench created Elite’s DiscoverDance Early Childhood Program, a curriculum of creative movement–based instruction for walking toddlers to age 4, which serves more than 100 students.
“As artistic director I make successful programs so that Renee [as business director] can see the numbers of students taking more than one class [and] getting more involved in the studio,” Fenwick-Trench says. “Renee can breathe and trust that we are going in a positive direction.”
“It’s never easy,” Deets says, referring to Elite’s moves and expansions. “It’s always scary. This could be the one that’s a mistake.”
Elite accepted 30 new students in January 2017, and at 81 percent full the studio is at a comfortable size. “We think this is the perfect spot to hang tight and focus on what we have going on now,” Fenwick-Trench says. “But who knows? Maybe in a few years we’ll expand again.”
DSL associate editor Karen White, a former newspaper reporter and freelance writer, has taught dance in private studios and choreographed musicals since age 17 and has no plans to stop.