Growing enrollment in a remote or small-town studio
by Bonner Odell
Ask most professional dancers where they got their start, and they’re likely to name a dance school you’ve never heard of. That’s because, like most of us in the field, they were introduced to the world of dance through their hometown studios. These small independently owned businesses are the backbone of the dance industry. They offer children their first vision of themselves as dancers, their first taste of across-the-floor euphoria, their first memory-making moments on the stage. They ignite the dance spark and nurture the flame through the most crucial years of a dancer’s development.
Many of these studios are located in remote regions or small towns far from metropolitan areas. In addition to being able to communicate the difference between a sauté and a sissonne, these studio owners must cultivate business practices suited to their locales.
“When you look out for other organizations and businesses in your community, they look out for you.” —Alicia Washburn
Luckily, geography doesn’t have to pose the obstacle it once did. In an increasingly interconnected dance field, schools on the outskirts now have access to professional associations, online forums, trade publications, studio-specific conferences, and a growing body of information on best dance-education practices that they can bring to their communities.
These schools do face common challenges, however, that can make or break them from a business standpoint. At the top of the list are building and retaining student enrollment and recruiting qualified dance teachers. Dance Studio Life spoke to the owners of three established studios in outlying areas to find out how they have tackled these challenges over the years.
Dance It Out Studios, La Crosse, Virginia
The small town of La Crosse, Virginia, with a population around 700, lies about 15 miles north of the North Carolina border; the nearest large cities are Petersburg, Virginia, about 60 miles to the northeast, and Durham, North Carolina, about 70 miles to the southwest. Unsurprisingly, La Crosse has a very small downtown area, but thanks at least in part to the owners of Dance It Out Studios, its few blocks are seeing more activity than they have in years. Natives of the area, Michelle Harris and Alicia Washburn opened their studio in the downtown strip in 2014. The school offers classes in ballet, tap, lyrical, contemporary, hip-hop, jazz, acro, and Irish step, as well as acting and voice.
When Dance It Out moved in, the downtown consisted of a post office, the town hall, a factory, and two stores open just a few hours a week. Since the school opened, an insurance company has moved in and a food truck sits across the street several days a week. “People come up to us on the street and tell us how much they love seeing the students running up to the studio,” says Harris. “The other day a woman stopped me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing our town back to life.’ It feels good to know we’re making a contribution to a place that we love.”
Harris and Washburn started with 34 students. Three years later, the school’s enrollment is at 160. The partner gymnastics school down the street, Flip It Out, which the two women also own, serves 150 students. Together, the two businesses enroll 269 students. (Some students take classes at both locations.)
The studio draws many of its clients, some of whom travel up to an hour, from the surrounding unincorporated area as well as the neighboring town of South Hill, which has a population of about 4,600. Dance It Out does have competition from a dance studio in South Hill, but Washburn says it has not significantly affected business. “We take advantage of every opportunity to make ourselves visible in the community,” she says. “Festivals, parades, the local community theater, volunteer projects, Chamber of Commerce lunches, you name it. We are so present now that people actually call us when they are having an event instead of the other way around: ‘Hey, we’re planning our annual Farmer’s Day; can your dancers perform?’ It’s great for our students, because it keeps them performing and giving back to the community.”
Washburn’s response touches on a basic truth of small-town life: relationships are highly interdependent. “When you look out for other organizations and businesses in your community,” she says, “they look out for you.” She cites Dance It Out’s partnership with the Junior Woman’s Club in South Hill as an example. When the Club holds its annual pageant, Harris and Washburn choreograph the opening number and provide stage management. The Club in turn provides a scholarship for select Dance It Out students in need of tuition assistance, a significant gift in an area where the median household income is about half of the national average.
Perhaps the most fertile connection Dance It Out has forged is with The Colonial Center for the Performing Arts in South Hill. Harris and Washburn choreograph dance numbers for the theater’s musicals and hold Dance It Out’s annual end-of-year show in the Center’s historic Colonial Theatre. Rather than a traditional recital, they produce a storyline-based production complete with characters, songs, and elaborate scenery painted by parents. These productions have helped boost their school’s visibility and enrollment.
“We’ve gotten some great dance students through the theater,” says Washburn. “We met a high-school-age actor there who had real dance talent, and Alicia convinced him to dance in our Nutcracker. He ended up taking dance classes with us for a few years before he graduated.”
In the future, Harris and Washburn hope to broaden their student base by increasing their offerings in acting and voice. “We think we can pull more people who may be intimidated by dance, but may be open to it from a performing arts perspective,” Washburn says.
Dance Arts Studio Academy of the Performing Arts, Morehead City and Beaufort, North Carolina
Like Harris and Washburn, Julie McBarron decided to expand her business in a performing arts direction. Originally, McBarron’s school, Dance Arts Studio, had a single location in Morehead City, North Carolina, a coastal town with an estimated 2015 population of 9,300 and at least an hour’s drive from any larger city. After offering dance exclusively for seven years, McBarron fell into an opportunity to purchase a second school in the neighboring town of Beaufort (population about 4,000) that offered a piano program in addition to dance. She added guitar, voice, acting, and musical theater, all of which have helped boost her enrollment. She also added “Academy of Performing Arts” to the name of both locations.
The additional offerings have helped McBarron stay competitive in an area with a small population but no shortage of dance schools. “In Morehead City there are three studios within three miles of each other,” McBarron says. “At one point there were five. This has definitely made keeping my enrollment up a challenge: I don’t think I have ever reached 200.” She says it helps that each dance school in town has its own niche. “One is primarily competitive, whereas mine is more artistic with a greater focus on ballet.”
McBarron has found that factoring in the seasonal schedules of other activities her students are likely to be involved in, like soccer, cheerleading, and school band, helps with retention. “I may offer classes on different days or a little later in the evening depending on when those practices let out,” she says. “I can’t accommodate everyone, but I try to avoid putting students in a position where they have to choose between dance and another afterschool activity.”
McBarron has learned to compensate for the limits that location and competition place on enrollment by streamlining her studio’s finances. Over time, she has incrementally increased some of her fees and decreased her discounts. While she has not had any complaints, she says that being in a small town makes her more sensitive about these necessary financial adjustments. “I run into clients at the grocery store and at restaurants and I feel like they will judge me if I get a new car or if they hear I went on a nice vacation,” she says. “You have to do what it takes to stay in business. But I think that if clients know the person they are paying money to every month, they sometimes judge that person more.”
Generation Dance Studio, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada
With a 2015 municipal census population of 78,000, Fort McMurray, in the heart of Alberta, Canada, has been growing steadily over the past decade and a half. Though it hardly qualifies as a small town, it is extremely remote. The next closest city is Edmonton, which is a four-and-a-half-hour drive, even longer during snow season. Fort McMurray plays a key role in Canada’s oil industry and plentiful petroleum has translated to a high standard of living (and high real estate prices) for Fort McMurray families, who are generally easily able to afford dance classes.
After 17 years in Fort McMurray, Generation Dance Studio has built a solid reputation, thanks in part to owner Kim Hurley’s efforts to expose her students to the larger dance world. The competition she started, Northern Dance Off, draws hundreds of dancers from Alberta and beyond. (See “Do-It-Yourself Competitions,” September 2016.) And despite the costs and long distances, Hurley makes it a point to take her students to conventions and master classes in other cities.
These investments have contributed to excellent technique among Generation Dance students, and created buzz about the studio in Fort McMurray. These days word of mouth, social media, and the occasional print ad are enough to keep Generation’s classes full. (At the time of writing, there were waiting lists for all of them.)
“It’s not like when I started out,” says Hurley, “My strategy then was just to get the kids I did have out in the community as much as possible. Birthday parties, Heritage Day at the park, parades, we were there.” What her school’s first generation of dancers lacked in technique, Hurley compensated for with innovative choreography, eye-catching costumes, and a little candy thrown in. “At parades we would toss out lollipops and pens with our logo on them,” says Hurley. “I tried to imagine: if I were a 6-year-old standing on the sidelines, what would make me want to dance? Probably not a polished performance by a super accomplished dancer. But another 6-year-old doing a Shirley Temple dance and throwing me a lollipop? Yes!”
While Hurley no longer struggles to attract clientele, she says the current cost of real estate is too prohibitive to expand her facility or open a new location. She does not seem discouraged by this, however. Ultimately, she says, her investment in Generation Dance is about more than its business potential.
“I try not to get fixated on enrollment, because it’s not always predictable,” she says. “At the end of the day, I feel I’m destined to do this job. Even if I go down to half the enrollment I have now, I am not going anywhere.” Sometimes, that kind of resolve can prove more fruitful for business than all the enrollment strategies in the world.
Bonner Odell has served as editor of In Dance, a lecturer at California State University–East Bay, and a teaching artist for Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MA in dance from Mills College.