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On My Mind

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Words from the publisher

I recently ran into a dancer for whom I had choreographed solos when she was a teenager. I had followed her successful performing career in New York and Los Angeles, and by anyone’s standards she would be considered a hardworking professional. Now in her mid-30s, she told me she’s ready to shift into the next phase of her career, which is to open a dance school. Her plan of action is to open a studio in a town that doesn’t already have any dance schools. She has saved an impressive chunk of money that will get her new small business off the ground.

I was impressed—until she told me that she planned to teach only the best kids, while the teachers she hired would work with the everyday students. “After all my professional experience, I can’t see myself wasting time with kids who don’t have talent,” she said.

If you read this column regularly, you know that at this point my blood was beginning to boil, but I just listened. Finally I said, “If you are just starting out, where will the strong dancers come from?”

Without a moment’s hesitation she told me that last spring she had gone to the dance recitals presented by the schools in the towns near her proposed studio space. At each show she grabbed the programs and noted the names of the strongest dancers. Via Facebook and internet searches, she found contact information for more than 40 of those students.

It is her plan to send them an audition notice and accept 25 of them on full scholarship so that she can launch her new company. She also contacted several teachers at those schools to try to persuade them to teach her everyday students.

She seemed so proud of herself, while I was completely disgusted with her lack of ethics and respect. Apparently she had never considered that those school owners had spent years molding their strong dancers, putting the right faculty in place, and building reputable businesses. In her mind it was all hers for the taking.

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I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. The situation will be a live-and-learn one for her—the hard way. She will be one of those school owners who can’t figure out why all the dance teachers in her area can’t stand her. She will be the school owner who won’t make much money because the dancers on scholarship will expect everything for free, and so will those who come after them. She will be the school owner who will lose her everyday students because she doesn’t respect them and the advanced kids as equals. The controversy she will create will distract her, leaching time and energy from her efforts to make her school successful, and she will be alone in her dance community.

As dance teachers you are role models, and with that responsibility comes the obligation to teach young people about ethics. Teach your students that people in the dance world need to respect each other. One way to do that is by showing generosity to your fellow studio owners and teachers. Another is by treating all students as equally worthy of your attention.

Why? Because dance is for everyone.

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Bright Biz Ideas | Ticket to Sales Success

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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.

Getting started

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.”

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On My Mind | Rhee Gold

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On My Mind Rhee GoldBy 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.

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September 2012 Dance Studio Life

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Dance Studio Life, a magazine with a back-to-basics approach, is a division of the Rhee Gold Company, whose mission is to be at the forefront of dance and education by promoting the highest possible standards in teaching. Dance Studio Life understands the soul of the teaching field.

Dance Studio Life cover September 2012
COLUMNS

Ask Rhee Gold
Advice for Dance Teachers

2 Tips for Ballet Teachers by Mignon Furman
2Tips for Hip Hop Teachers by Geo Hubela
2Tips for Modern Teachers by Bill Evans
2 Tips for Tap Teachers by Stacy Eastman
A Better You | Fighting Fatigue by Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
How to cope when you’re toast
EditorSpeak by Cheryl Ossola and Karen White
On My Mind | Rhee Gold
Words from the publisher

DEPARTMENTS
Thinking Out Loud by April Spisak Nelson
The lost art of theater etiquette
Teacher in the Spotlight | Cosmin MarculetiuTeachers who make a difference
Schools With Staying Power | Alzine’s Vision by Roger Lee
Love, caring, and respect add up to 50 years at Cuppett Performing Arts Center
Bright Biz Idea
To Fee or Not to Fee
Mindful Marketing by Julia Holt Lucia
Create interest with Pinterest.
Classroom Connection by Jeanne Fornarola and Mary Beth Marino
Ideas to incorporate into your curriculum
Strength in Numbers
Dance teacher organizations

Dance Studio Life subscriptionFEATURES
Ballet Scene | Classical in Connecticut by Karen White
Ballet competition puts classics, and classes, front and center
A Dancer’s Mind by James Careless
Using psychology to improve physical performance.
No-Touch Zone by Kay Waters
How to cope when using a guiding hand in the classroom.
Making Magic With Music By Brenda Bufalino
In Tap and beyond, variety, volume, and interpretation make music meaningful.
An Excellent Option by Gina McGalliard
For dance convention seekers, an international event in L.A. might be just the ticket
Fast-Track to the Past by Maureen Jenson
Dance “webinars” give online listeners a weekly dose of dance history.
Handle With Care by Karen White
Put props to work for fun and impact

SPECIAL COMPETITION AND CONVENTION EDITION FEATURES
Competition Directors Tell All
What they think about solos, video streaming, scoring, and more
Give It a Gold by Julia Holt Lucia
Parents talk about the realities and rewards of the competition experience
From Ho-Hum to Knock ’Em Dead by Diane Gudat
How to turn good-enough dancers into performers with power
From Studio to Shining Sea by Karen White
Onboard with Celebrity Dance Competitions
Playing by the Rules by Eliza Randolph
Conflicts, no-shows, and too-frequent illnesses? Make commitment a competition team mandate.
 

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Bright Biz Ideas | To Fee or Not to Fee?

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Bright Biz IdeaCompetitions take time and effort—here’s how to cover costs
By Jennifer Rienert

It’s true that dance studio owners work in an industry that is close to their hearts. But owning a dance studio is also a business, and in order for it to thrive, a fee structure must be in place that allows it to turn a profit. For studios that compete, that means covering all kinds of extra costs: staff time to go to competitions, preparing and sending the entry fees, and even the time spent inputting students’ names and dates of birth along with competition entries. Then there are the hours spent choosing, buying, and editing music and preparing to choreograph.

When I started my competition team 15 years ago, I discovered that it was like starting another business, with huge demands on my time and energy. But I empathize with parents about the expense of having a child who competes; especially in this tough economy, it can put a big strain on the average family’s pocketbook. That’s why, although I did charge an hourly rate for rehearsal time and choreography, I never included all the extra time and work I put in leading up to competitions. That practice made sense to me since I was the studio owner and it was my name that was getting word-of-mouth advertising for the competition entries.

But when my school’s competition entries rose from 60 a few years ago to 85 this year, I had to enlist the help of several teachers on my faculty. As much as they love what they’re doing, they are working and need to be paid. So this year I decided to charge an additional $5 per student for music editing and CDs for the year and a per-student fee of $5 per competition to cover the costs of my staff.

Terrie Legein, owner of Legein Dance Academy in Coventry, Rhode Island, charges her competition students $300 per solo or group routine (for groups, the students share the $300 cost). This includes the choreography, six weeks of training, and cleaning with the choreographer. If additional classes are needed, an hourly rate is charged. Any entry, costume, or other fees, are charged separately. Because these competition students already have the highest bills at her studio and understand how expensive competing is, she doesn’t feel the need to add anything further.

Regardless of your fee policy, make sure to communicate with parents about the costs and what they are for rather than simply charging them without an explanation. Marissa Salemi, director of Breaking Ground Dance Center in Pleasantville, New York, includes the details on entry fees and surcharges for competitions and conventions in her school’s parent handbook.

“We charge each student a $5 surcharge fee per entry for competitions and $10 per convention/workshop,” Salemi says. “Since we inform the parents of this [policy] at the beginning of the year, we have never had a problem. However, some parents still don’t understand why there is a need for the fee. Once I explain the amount of time that goes into entering each dance and dancer in the competitions, they understand. Most say that it is a very reasonable charge considering the time that is put in.”

Kerri McLaren, an instructor and the treasurer on the competition committee for Lanigan Dance Dynamics in Lanigan, Saskatchewan, Canada, runs things differently. A parent-run nonprofit, the school tries to keep costs to a minimum, so it charges the students only what the actual costs of competing are.

Regardless of how you handle competition fees, communication is key to avoiding conflict with parents. The goal is to have your students and their parents feel that you’re giving them the best education and choreography you can, and for the best price.

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On My Mind

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On My Mind Rhee GoldBy Rhee Gold
Words from the publisher

As I’m writing this, I’m heading into my fifth week of seminars at the DanceLife Retreat Center. And what I’ve discovered is that not only can dreams come true, but they can exceed our expectations.

Here’s what I’m talking about. At one seminar, a dance teacher from Scotland became close friends with a teacher from Pittsburgh. Through the seminar process they were inspired to continue sharing ideas about music and business after they went home—and of course they’ve had plenty of trials and tribulations to talk about too. They have so much in common that they’ve decided they really need this friendship.

And here’s another example: some of the teachers have brought their non-dancing husbands with them to the seminar, and they’ve headed home with a renewed sense of support for each other. The seminar helps the husbands better understand that “this dance thing” really does make a difference and that their significant others are changing lives for the better through their dedication.

Then there are the teachers who are on the brink of giving up everything related to dance because they’re burned out. Some are tired of teaching in isolation, surrounded by those who mean well but don’t understand their passion; some are worn down by difficult parents or the challenges of business competition. But something happens to them over the weekend. I’ve seen some of them become confident enough to make the changes that will bring them happiness, and I’ve seen others leave with a renewed fervor to begin anew.

Balancing out those burned-out teachers are the enthusiastic ones who come to the seminar to gain new ideas for their classroom or business. Their gusto seems to rub off on everyone around them as they send the message that teaching dance can be an utter joy.

I’ve watched teachers work together to develop ideas and concepts for future recitals. They laugh and pat each other on the back for their good ideas, overflowing with creativity and energy. They’re sharing ideas, creating together, and realizing how much they have in common.

When I saw registrations coming in from across the United States and Canada but also from Mexico, Australia, Italy, and Scotland, I wondered whether such far-flung people would have anything in common. But as it turns out, all dance teachers have similar needs and desires. School owners in Scotland have to deal with parent issues and teachers in Italy struggle with self-confidence, just as those in Connecticut or California do. No matter where we come from, we all need to communicate with other dance people. Those who come to the DanceLife Retreat Center go home with a sense that they are not alone.

For me, witnessing these life-changing moments is a special gift that I cherish. It reaffirms my belief that those who teach dance are some of the best people in the world and that the key to success and happiness is sharing what we love with those who understand it.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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Schools With Staying Power | Cameron School of Dance

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73 years of giving to the community

By Maureen Keleher

In this age of Facebook, Yelp, and constant communication through texting, tweets, and Internet chats, 73-year-old Cameron School of Dance credits its success to something less tech-y: its close-knit town of Greenfield Park, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec, and loyal reviews from its generations of families.

Lorna Wallace (second from right) in 1944 with her Legs n’ Airs dance troupe, which she founded to entertain troops during World War II. (Photo courtesy Cameron School of Dance)

“The Cameron School of Dance does advertise, but quite seriously, we don’t have to,” says director and owner Cheri Cameron, daughter of the late Lorna Wallace Cameron, the school’s founder. “We’re now teaching the grandchildren of the women my mum taught. Word of mouth keeps people coming back.”

Cheri and her daughter, Shena Cameron-Prihoda, describe Lorna as a cheerful and personable woman who was honored to work with Greenfield Park’s children. Shena, the school’s assistant director, credits her grandmother with never forgetting the names of her students, even after she had retired from teaching at age 75.

“She just had a knack, and it always impressed me,” says Shena. “It would take her some time if it was someone she hadn’t seen in many years. She would talk to them and within two or three minutes she would say, ‘How is Susie?’ It would just click all of a sudden.”

Lorna, described by Cheri as an “old hoofer—her feet were always tapping,” had a celebrity-like status in her small town. And she constantly found time to stop for a conversation.

“When I was young, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Nana remembers everybody,’ ” says Shena. “It was so frustrating going shopping with her. She would tell my grandfather we were just going out for milk and we would come back three hours later because people wanted to talk to her.”

The individual connections Lorna created with her community seem to have paid off. The Cameron School’s enrollment is at its capacity with a roster of 260 students in a town with a population of 17,084. Dancers range in age from 3 to 50, and the school boasts quality instruction in ballet, jazz, tap, and Highland dance, plus three competition teams and a teacher-training program. Six advanced dancers have been with the school for more than 20 years, either still dancing or teaching, and another 15 have been there for more than 15 years.

The third-generation family business remains true to its founder’s philosophy of encouraging a love of dance in its students, coupled with quality instruction. Cheri and Shena have embraced the new directions in the dance world and in their growing community with the additions of hip-hop, musical theater, contemporary, Irish dance, Zumba, and yoga. All 12 of the teachers are professional dance instructors who are certified through the British Association of Teachers of Dancing.

Old traditions continue to go hand-in-hand with newer ones. The school’s beloved “Lollipop Train,” a playful end-of-class ritual begun by Lorna, in which young students form a human “choo-choo train” with a lollipop reward for their good work, keeps Lorna’s spirit alive. Cheri and Shena have taken Lorna’s advice to “listen to the young” by allowing the older students to make suggestions on how to improve the school. For example, they have adapted to changing times by making the school relevant to today’s dance scene (through classes offered and ways of communicating with families) and given those outside of the Cameron family the chance to teach.

Interested students have the opportunity to choreograph for the school’s holiday demonstration show, an in-house, internal choreography competition and class demonstration that uses no costumes or stage lighting. Those who want to explore teaching can do so once they’re 13. These students, who have typically been at the school for more than eight years and train in multiple dance disciplines, start as teaching interns and work their way up to becoming assistants and student teachers.

 “I always thought of the studio as a safe place to be yourself,” says Amy Blackmore, a faculty member who danced at the school for more than 25 years. “It’s not just a dance school; it’s a community that you’re welcomed to.”

Outside of the school, dancers and their families celebrate together. Karen Pilkington, a former student whose daughter now dances at the school, has many memories with the Cameron family. “Cheri and Shena have been there for every major milestone in my life, including my wedding, and they were shoulders to lean on when my grandfather passed away.”

“I think parents keep bringing their children back because they’re not just a number,” says Shena. “Everybody knows us so well, and we know them so well. It’s definitely that personal aspect that keeps them coming back.”

Lorna’s parents, John and Helen Wallace, immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1906, eventually settling in the “green fields” of Quebec that came to be known as Greenfield Park. In 1908, John Wallace built the fifth house in the newly settled area.

“I always thought of the studio as a safe place to be yourself. It’s not just a dance school; it’s a community that you’re welcomed to.” —teacher Amy Blackmore

Lorna Wallace was born in 1913 and started dancing when she was 11, taking private lessons from a retired professional dancer. She later studied tap and other styles of dance. The local children knew Lorna could dance and eventually asked her if she could give them dance lessons. Cheri says Lorna had never considered teaching but decided to give it a try.

In 1933, at the age of 20, Lorna held her first class, for five children, in her living room. She didn’t charge for these early ballet and tap classes until a suggestion was made that she charge a nickel. According to Cheri, Lorna wasn’t interested in teaching for profit and the children were encouraged to attend her classes regardless of finances.

Lorna taught more of Greenfield Park’s children by helping choreograph dances for variety shows at local churches. Within a few years, her classes had outgrown her living room. In 1938 she moved her classes to a church hall and officially created Lorna Wallace School of Dance. Classes were held in local church halls and gyms for about 60 years, until the school started renting studio space in 1999.

In addition to the school, Lorna started her own troupe, called “Legs n’ Airs,” in 1942, when a few of Lorna’s students, plus some dancers in Montreal, wanted to support the war effort. Lorna sought out a pianist from Montreal to practice with them and invited other local dancers to join the troupe. According to Cheri, Legs n’ Airs traveled to all the air force bases in Quebec during World War II, entertaining the soldiers with rumbas, can-cans, Broadway-style tap, and line dances.

When Lorna married Lindsay Cameron in 1946, he asked her to stop performing for the troops because he was going overseas with the Canadian Air Force. The newly wedded dance teacher changed the name of her school to Lorna Wallace Cameron School of Dance, and it later became simply Cameron School of Dance.

Community service was important to Lorna, who volunteered her time to teach dance classes each week at a foster home for children with special needs. Her goal was to prove that children with physical and developmental disabilities could learn skills such as dance. Lorna eventually invited many of those children to take classes at her school, offering to help pay for their tuition and costumes for the spring performance.

The money raised from this show has always been donated to needy organizations, including the foster home. “We still think children helping children is the best thing to do with show money,” says Cheri. The school has donated more than $850,000 to Shriners Hospitals for Children–Montreal to offset the costs of surgery and other care for children and families in need. The school has also donated to Meals on Wheels, the SPCA, and other local organizations.

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Cheri and Shena are proud to continue Lorna’s tradition of providing dance classes to children regardless of their families’ finances. Working in jobs outside of the school has made this possible. A former certified athletic therapist and certified strength and conditioning coach, Shena now works full-time as a manager of health management consultants on top of spending evenings and weekends at the studio. Cheri is now retired, but also used to work full-time outside of the studio.

 “We believe that every child should have the opportunity to dance, so we just jump in and help them,” says Cheri.

“Shena and Cheri are very generous people,” says teacher Amy Blackmore. “The school’s and the Cameron family’s impact on the community is huge. I think they’ve nurtured generations and generations of dancers who aren’t just dancers. They’re good people who are taught to care for others and each other.”

 

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Schools With Staying Power | Tradition at Heart

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61 years of by-the-book training at Margo Dean School of Ballet

By Laura Di Orio

Margo Dean School of Ballet is a house of tradition. This school in Fort Worth, Texas, instills in its students discipline and serious classical training that remains true to ballet’s ancient form. With Margo Dean at the helm and her son, Webster, as its assistant director, MDSB has been in one family since its inception in 1950.

Dean has always had a fondness for flamenco, and she still includes the dance style in her school’s curriculum today. (Photo courtesy Margo Dean School of Ballet)

Now Fort Worth’s oldest ballet institution, MDSB has had more than 10,000 students come through its doors. Some of those dancers have gone on to dance professionally all over the world—at Ballet West, Ballet National de Marseille, San Diego Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet, on Broadway, and more. While the training the Deans offer focuses heavily on passing down classical ballet knowledge from one generation to the next, they also strive to pass on a love for dance.

Margo’s own training background has roots in Texas, where she attended dance studios in Fort Worth and Breckenridge from the age of 3. She studied dance at Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee, and received a degree in fine arts after two years. She attended summer programs at the Royal Danish Ballet School in Copenhagen, and also in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, London, New York, and at the National Ballet of Cuba. She trained with some of ballet’s greats, including Adolph Bolm, famed principal dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in Los Angeles; Olga Preobrajenska for six weeks in Paris in 1959; and Rosella Hightower in Cannes during a summer in the 1960s.

Margo danced professionally in musicals for Dallas Summer Musicals and in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition, she danced with Dallas Civic Ballet and Fort Worth Opera and also choreographed for the latter.

Her training comes from a variety of schools of teaching, but to this day Margo says that in her own teaching she stays true to the nuances in ballet that she believes often get lost but make a difference in a performance. For her, these details—épaulement especially—were most memorably emphasized by Preobrajenska, who came from a Russian background but was influenced by her training with Cecchetti. Preobrajenska focused on purity and elegance of movement, says Margo, who continues to teach with these principles in mind.

Teaching ballet seemed to come naturally to Margo, although she never had formal teacher training. “I never said to myself, ‘I want to be a teacher’; it just happened,” she says. “It seemed only logical that I would start teaching to try to impart what I had learned to young students.”

And she started early, during high school, when she taught ballet to a few students in her family’s living room in their small west Texas town. “I was excited that in one year I made $100,” she says. “I think I charged 50 cents a lesson.” Later she taught at Dorothy Edwards’ studio in Fort Worth. Still, Margo craved having a space of her own where she could teach, practice, and eventually invite guest teachers.

In 1948 she married a young lawyer, Beale Dean, to whom she’s still married today, and she opened MDSB a year later. The young couple settled down in Fort Worth, familiar territory and home to her husband’s law firm. At the time, there were no major ballet studios in the area. “As newlyweds, we had a house but no furniture, so the living room became the studio,” Margo says. “[In 1981] my husband bought for me the building I now own.”

Since that time Margo’s student body has grown from 10 to more than 200 dancers ages 3 to 70. Under the Deans’ leadership, the staff now includes 10 teachers and an office manager.

With ballet already in his blood, Webster began his training at his mother’s school. He continued his studies at Harkness House for Ballet Arts in New York City and received a BFA in ballet from the University of Utah. He joined Ballet West in 1976 and danced there for 12 years, attaining the rank of soloist. He was also a soloist with Milwaukee Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet for one year each, danced with Colorado Ballet for a season, and appeared in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

“Dance has always been a part of my life,” he says. “I didn’t decide, however, until I was 18, as a freshman in college, that I wanted to pursue it as a career.” He began teaching at MDSB in 1991 as his performing career began to wind down.

“I never said to myself, ‘I want to be a teacher’; it just happened.” —Margo Dean

Margo demands that all of her teachers come from a good dance training background, have performance experience, and can relate well to young students. Over the past 50 years she has had guest instructors from Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, among other notable companies.

 All of the teachers at MDSB focus their instruction on attention to individual students and staying true to ballet’s classicism. “Teachers need not only be proficient in their knowledge of their craft,” Margo says, “but must also know how to maintain discipline and instill the love of ballet in class.”

Although an aspect of the school’s mission is to create a pleasant environment for learning dance, MDSB maintains a serious focus on the art form’s regimen, inspired by ballet’s early traditions. Margo cites Napoleon’s rules about attire at the Paris Opera Ballet as the reason her school has a strict dress code: black leotards and pink tights for the girls; white T-shirts, black tights, and black shoes for the boys; and full-footed ballet slippers for all.

Webster says ballet offers young people “discipline, commitment, brain and mind development, quality and dedication, all that are applicable to whatever else they do in life. Without discipline and commitment you have only mediocrity, and there is no joy in this.”

Margo agrees. “Students must realize that there is no shortcut to ballet,” she says, “and that their accomplishment is the result of training, hard work, and discipline.” She believes that MDSB’s emphasis on quality training, as well as her involvement in every class (when she’s not teaching, she takes class with her students) are what make her school distinctive.

While MDSB’s mainstay is ballet, the school does offer classes in other styles—jazz for its most advanced levels, Pilates during the summer, and flamenco, an art form very dear to Margo. “I do think it is important for ballet dancers to be versatile,” says Margo, who has hired two resident flamenco teachers.

Margo took her first flamenco class when she was 19. She says that although the school’s director told her to wait for a beginner class, the teacher, Rita Hayworth’s uncle Angel Cansino, said, “She got a good rhythm, she stay!” Margo subsequently studied Spanish dance and flamenco with Aida Alvarez, principal Spanish dancer at the Metropolitan Opera, and with Lutys de Luz, a former dancer with Marquis de Cuevas, over the past 50 years. Each summer she brings in New York teacher Luis Montero, whom she has studied with for 25 years, to choreograph for MDSB.

Affiliated with MDSB is Ballet Concerto, a small professional company that Margo founded in 1969. Under her direction the company focuses on outreach in Fort Worth’s school district, offering ballet classes and lecture-demonstrations. In addition, the troupe presents an annual holiday performance and a free summertime outdoor performance that brings in dancers and choreographers from throughout the United States. For the past five summers, Margo has invited Bruce Marks to teach, choreograph on, and coach the company.

Margo believes that performing is an important part of developing young dancers. So aside from their year-end performance in May, MDSB students have the chance to perform in Ballet Concerto company performances when there’s a need for dancers of their age or skill level. Often advanced MDSB students dance in a piece as a prelude to a company performance in June and sometimes perform with the company in other ballets. Many young students are involved in Ballet Concerto’s December holiday performances.

In 1994 Margo received the Mary McLarry Bywaters Award for a life of contribution to dance, an honor given by the Dance Council of North Texas. “I am driven to be a teacher because I want to help young dancers excel in the profession that is so dear to me,” she says, “to help them experience the glory of dance, the satisfaction of training with the best teachers, and the thrill of performing.”

The best thing about being a teacher, she says, “is seeing my students enjoy the process of being a dancer, watching them have those special moments as they progress and they ‘get’ something or grasp a movement. Being a teacher is just a fulfillment of my life.”

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Mindful Marketing | Welcoming Websites

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By Rhee Gold

Do you want to become savvy at marketing your school? Welcome to our new department, which will present various marketing concepts and how to implement them.

Today’s marketing options are plentiful. Whether your budget is small or large (or nonexistent), you can get the word out about your school. In particular, the Internet offers many ways to use your creativity to successfully market your school to the world via websites, social networking pages, and discounted online printing resources. In this issue, we’ll talk about websites.

Most potential students (or their parents) who visit your website know little about dance education, so it’s important that your site doesn’t send the message that people have to be “in the know” to comprehend what’s presented. An example of a website that might discourage dance novices from contacting you would be one that focuses only on the advanced or competitive dancers, barely mentioning classes for beginner or recreational students.

Parents are typically in the market for classes for their 4- to 12-year-olds. Other visitors might be teens and adults who are seeking everything from adult tap classes to Zumba to hip-hop. When they arrive at your home page, they should be able to easily find the options available to them, whether they’re looking for recreational or combo classes, preschool programs, or beginner classes for adults and teens.

That means you need to put links to those classes (or to general categories that include them) on your home page. I suggest the following: preschool (age 6 and under), recreational and combination classes (age 7 to adult), teen classes, adult classes, and intensive options. If you offer such classes as Zumba or Mommy and Me, include direct links to them on your home page too.

It is important to make all curriculum descriptions equally thorough. I have seen many studio websites that feature several pages of information for their competitive programs but offer only one- or two-line descriptions of all other programs. If you go overboard on featuring your competitive dancers or trophies, visitors may think that your school focuses on only the most talented dancers. You want to convey that 4- to 12-year-olds, novice dancers, and people looking for Zumba classes are equally valued at your school.

When choosing videos and photos for your site, include the school’s general population. A video snippet of preschoolers looking like they are having the time of their lives in class will be far more attractive to potential clients than a video of last year’s competition winners would be.

Think business, not ego. Some school owners believe that marketing should tout that they produce the finest, most professional dancers, while others brag about awards and accolades in an attempt to pull students from other schools. The reality is that such boasting can intimidate many of your website’s visitors. Instead, show that your school is a place where everyone dances and has a blast. Show that you believe that dance is for everyone, from the 3-year-old fantasizing about being a fairy princess, to the teenager trying his first hip-hop class, to those dedicated adult tappers.

And finally, include the following information or pages on your website (as applicable): About us; school history; class schedules; contact info, including your mailing and email addresses and phone number (don’t make them fill out an online form to reach you; supply a one-click email link); faculty photos and bios; pictures; benefits of dance training; info on former students who own schools or are now teaching or performing; offerings for boys; birthday parties; testimonials; summer programs or camps; and a Facebook link or “like” button.

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The Lessons of Kwanzaa

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Dance plays a central role in annual celebration of African heritage

By Kay Waters

At dance schools across the United States, the winter holidays offer varied performance opportunities, with Christmas, Chanukah, and winter themes abounding. But for some schools and students, another holiday takes center stage: Kwanzaa, a winter holiday that focuses on African American culture and values.

As many as 150 students at Lula Washington Dance Theatre take part in the annual Kwanzaa show. (Photo by Ian Foxx)

Lula Washington Dance Theatre School in Los Angeles is one such school. Students there often get their first real introduction to Kwanzaa in an annual production that celebrates this after-Christmas social holiday.

For teacher Roshada Baldwin, 31, who trained at the school from age 3 through adulthood, “it was so nice to learn the songs and dances and be a part of a traditional cultural holiday event. To see Lula take a group of children from the community and work with them, see the professional adult company work, and be a part of a production that talked about culture and values was really exciting.” Baldwin is now one of the teachers who help prepare the students to perform each year.

Baldwin watched as her 6-year-old son, Jelani English, enjoyed his first experience in the Kwanzaa production last year. “My son was so excited,” she says. “He was telling his friends, ‘I’m performing in this Kwanzaa show.’ And they were all excited about seeing him perform even though they have no idea what Kwanzaa is.”

But little Jelani learned a lot, his mom says. “He was a little warrior; he held the unity cup; and he danced in the African celebration piece. He was really excited to do that. He was telling his friends all about Kwanzaa and singing the songs. To me, that’s part of what makes this so special, to see how the kids get into it.”

Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration that takes place from December 26 through January 1, was established in 1966 to build awareness and appreciation of African culture in the U.S. black community. The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza (an extra “a” was added in developing the Kwanzaa celebration), which means “first fruits of the harvest.”

 Each day of Kwanzaa is devoted to a different core principle: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

Like the Washington school’s show, many Kwanzaa productions feature live drummers accompanying dancers in African-inspired outfits and combine readings, tributes to community elders and ancestors who have died, and performances of African songs and dances often learned through workshops and sometimes actual trips by staff members to West African countries like Guinea, Senegal, and Ivory Coast. In some cases, like the Washington school’s production, performers come from African dance classes.

 “We’ve been doing our Kwanzaa production for about 25 years now,” says Lula Washington, founder and artistic director of the Lula Washington school and company. “It’s a special event for everyone here, with students from the school and the company. And then we get a lot of alumni who ask to be a part of it because it’s such a special tradition.”

Washington founded her school—the official school of modern dance company Lula Washington Dance Theatre, founded in 1980—in 1983 to provide affordable dance training to children from low-income neighborhoods. She says she started presenting her Kwanzaa production in 1986 with several missions in mind.

“We saw this as an opportunity to deepen our cultural enrichment programs for students,” Washington says. “Initiating an annual celebration enabled us to build community and engage new audiences. This is something the entire family can participate in, bringing multiple generations together. We found that our community began to look forward to it and students began to plot how to make it into specific dances.”

The Washington school’s show features 50 to 150 students each year, Washington says. Typically the production—which also includes some of the professional company’s repertory pieces—is performed on a couple of days during the week of Kwanzaa.

“We audition groups of youths to participate in October. We have different groups for different sections of the show, and then we have some parts that they do together,” she says. Children in the show include members of the school’s Youth Ensemble and its professional development program as well as from a few select classes. “We try to build a tradition so that different children [in the school] look forward to auditioning for those parts,” Washington adds.

Across the country in Washington, DC, Coyaba Dance Theater produces a Kwanzaa show before Christmas each year. Founded in 1997, the company started presenting a Kwanzaa show eight years ago. Produced by Coyaba director Sylvia Soumah, it includes an even bigger age range than the Lula Washington school’s production. The Coyaba production’s cast of 90 includes students as young as age 3 performing along with people in their 80s and even 90s from a senior citizen group in the community—Sylvia Soumah’s Seniors at THEARC—that Soumah works with throughout the year. Last year’s production featured 47 children.

“I already had my own dance company and my own dance academy on the weekend. The kids danced in some of the company productions we put on during the year,” Soumah says. “People were asking me why wasn’t I doing something for Kwanzaa, too. And, of course, I love the principles.

“I decided I wanted to branch out more and I felt Kwanzaa would be a good time to do that and showcase the children at the same time.”

Soumah says that rich mix of generations not only entertains audiences but educates the show’s younger performers. “What the production really shows is that when we talk about community dance, this is what we mean. Our Kwanzaa production shows the spectrum of the community. It’s from the cradle to the grave. Not many people fully understand that,” says Soumah, who utilizes students from the different places where she and Coyaba members teach around the Washington, DC, area. “I love it when I see the kids’ eyes widen when they watch these seniors onstage getting down. I’m teaching these kids about respect for their elders.

“I make sure everyone respects where everyone is at,” she continues. “We really stress that. And it’s wonderful to see what goes on backstage with the kids interacting with the seniors, making sure they have water and seeing the nurturing that the seniors provide. It’s really special.”

Soumah says the children are grouped by age and by the classes they take through Coyaba. Even the youngest children are taught elements of authentic dances from the African countries where Soumah has studied. Since 1985 she has worked with visiting master teachers from Guinea and Senegal. She spent a month in Guinea studying in 1994 and has traveled regularly since then to Guinea and Senegal to learn dances.

Soumah says she sees to it that authenticity is reflected in the productions she presents. “There is a definite technique with these dances and I make sure everyone knows that,” she says. “My 3-year-olds aren’t just out there to look cute. They’re there to dance. They’re doing [African dance] choreography, not some made-up stuff. It’s not creative movement to drums.”

Like the Washington school’s production, the Coyaba production uses a mixture of drumming, songs, and dance in a program that celebrates the principles of Kwanzaa. Rehearsals, held for three hours on Saturdays and Sundays, begin in September, Soumah says.

The Coyaba production is unique in its multigenerational approach, but both the Coyaba and Washington school’s productions feature multicultural casts and perform for multicultural audiences.

The Washington school’s production puts a special emphasis on multiculturalism, Washington says. “When I first put our Kwanzaa celebration together, I was looking at having a cultural production that would bring various communities together. We have all different groups of people participating in our production, not just African Americans. We have people from the Jewish community. We have people who are Latinos. I wanted to do that because the things that Kwanzaa celebrates aren’t exclusive to the black community. Yes, Kwanzaa was created for the black community, but in my mind, everyone can participate. It’s not just a black thing.”

Washington school student Ann Castillo performed in her first Kwanzaa production there last December. The 16-year-old, who is Asian American, started studying at the Washington school this school year after dancing there for three summers.

“It was a nice experience and a lot of fun,” Castillo says. “I got to learn a lot about African culture, so that was cool. I had heard about Kwanzaa in school, but this was my first time hearing about it in dance and really being a part of it. It was cool.”

African American students like Johnson Anderson, who trains in ballet and jazz, also say they’ve learned a lot from being in the Kwanzaa productions. “You learn so much—different songs, dances, different types of movement,” says Anderson, a 15-year-old who has been in the Washington school’s show twice since he started studying there three years ago. “I was aware of some things about Kwanzaa before, but when you’re in the show you learn so much. It was a whole new experience.”

Donna Kearney, a Coyaba company member who started studying with Soumah 11 years ago when she was 15, said the Coyaba Kwanzaa production was her first real introduction to the holiday.

“It really pushed me. This production is what helped me to understand what Kwanzaa was about,” says Kearney, adding that she notices more awareness of the holiday now among some of the younger students before they start dancing in the Coyaba production. “Some of the kids celebrate it already and some get into it because of our productions, so it goes both ways.”

Putting together a production like this, especially with a large number of children involved, means that organization and the assistance of a legion of staff members, teachers, and parent volunteers are crucial. Washington points out that this was particularly the case for her 2010 production since her company was on tour during a large part of the rehearsal period. “Start early and plan it all out as much as possible,” she says.

Soumah echoes Washington, saying education is crucial for everyone involved.

“You have to know your information and make sure everyone involved knows the correct information [about Kwanzaa and African cultures]. You have a responsibility to be accurate and thorough,” she says. “Everyone needs to understand that it’s not just running out there and moving around to drums.

“Some of the parents of my kids don’t realize things like [the fact that] Africa isn’t a country, it’s a continent; that everyone doesn’t wear kente cloth; and that there are so many ethnic groups and languages. People don’t do their research, but you have to. That’s your responsibility if you’re going to do this the right way.”

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Short and Sweet

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Getting creative means fun for kids—and teachers

By Roxanne Claire

For many dance studios, summer is a time when families take time off for vacations, trips to the pool, and other summer-only activities. Attendance drops off dramatically—and so does your income. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Since 1998 my studio, Claire School of Dance in Houston, Texas, has kept its doors open during the summer with a series of camps for kids of all kinds.

Activities at an anime camp touched on many Japanese traditions, from calligraphy to martial arts. (Photo by Roxanne Claire)

Many parents look for daytime activities for their children during the summer. “Full-day” camps that run from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. are popular. Since these camps replicate school hours, they give children something to do while allowing the academic-year rhythm of family life to relax but not be disrupted. To accommodate working parents, some camps offer expanded hours. Others offer optional early drop-off and late pickup times for an additional fee. Camps for young children often run only in the mornings.

So think of summer as a time of adventure. Short summer camps, one or two weeks in length, allow you to give free rein to your creativity and bring in both income and new students. Short camps let you accommodate more students, since families are working around their vacation schedules, and their lower cost might attract parents who couldn’t afford a longer camp.

Targeting your audience
The focus of a summer camp depends on the age group served. Programs for elementary school students often fall into the “something fun to do” category, while programs for middle and high school students frequently target specific interests or skills.

The best programs blend fun with education, even for the smallest campers. Your target audience will determine both the theme and the structure of the camp. Young children, for example, will be attracted to fantasy themes and may also benefit from built-in free play. Older children will enjoy time to work on assignments that allow for self-expression, such as choreography or art projects, in addition to formal instruction.

Summer camps need not be limited to dance-related themes. Depending on your community and personal interests, you can offer a wide range of activities. Camp themes can be broadly interpreted, drawing in related subjects and developing activities suitable to each age group. This freedom to get creative with content tends to broaden your camps’ appeal, potentially bringing in more children, including boys. And it’s fun!

Whether you are inspired by your own children, a comment made by a parent, or by an online search, you can make a summer camp an act of creative genius, something uniquely yours. And when you have fun creating the camps, children will have fun attending them.

For young campers
Some of the themes I have used over the years include arts and nature, music history, anime, fencing, and fairies. To make them appealing to a broad population, I don’t include dance classes in all of my camps.

Arts and nature
Our arts and nature camp was developed for children ages 4 to 6. Since the name of our camp was “Dormouse,” our themes included not only famous artists and nature study but “Alice in Wonderland.” We developed activities such as collage making using items mentioned in the story, such as keys, playing cards, and chess pieces.

As part of our art theme, every day we read a children’s book on the life and work of a different artist and did an art project that either replicated that artist’s technique —“dribble” painting for Jackson Pollack, for example—or that artist’s subject, like lily pads for Monet.

For the nature side of the camp, we studied butterflies, ladybugs, seeds, and the sun. We made a small booklet on the life cycle of the butterfly, maintained an earthworm bin, sprouted seeds, and released ladybugs.

The emphasis on art projects and the creative exploration of nature kept this camp closely tied to the mission of our school (we specialize in stimulating a child’s imagination and encouraging individual creativity), yet broadened the school’s appeal.

Stories from ballet
An obvious choice for a summer dance program is a camp about famous ballets. In addition to favorites such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, think about other child-friendly choices such as The Firebird, Peter and the Wolf, The Sleeping Beauty, and Coppélia.

A Child’s Introduction to Ballet: The Stories, Music, and Magic of Classical Dance (a book and CD combination) familiarizes children with the stories and music of well-loved ballets. The realistic movements in the Barbie movies (which use computer-generated images based on actual New York City Ballet dancers) introduce ballet to children young enough to be more captivated by animation than by real people. Round out the program with Dover coloring books (available through Amazon) such as The Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book or Favorite Ballets Coloring Book, plus theme-related crafts.

Stories from opera
Opera offers a wealth of beautiful music and fun or interesting stories for children. Hansel and Gretel, Carmen, The Magic Flute, Aida, and The Barber of Seville are full of recognizable musical themes.

Operavox is a DVD of 30-minute animated versions of six operas, including The Magic Flute and The Barber of Seville. Another DVD version of The Magic Flute was directed by Julie Taymor, the director/designer of Lion King fame. The vintage (1954) version of Hansel and Gretel is a delightful “claymation” fantasy.

There are many opera storybooks and CDs aimed at children. The World’s Very Best Opera for Kids . . . in English makes opera easy for children to understand. World-famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti made the selections for another CD, My Favorite Opera for Children.

Activities can include acting out roles, decorating gingerbread houses, or making “magic” flutes out of the cardboard tubes from dry cleaning coathangers.

Ballet
Ballet camps can use many children’s books as a spine. Ballerina: A Step by Step Guide to Ballet (by Jane Hackett), A Young Dancer (by Jill Krementz), We Love Ballet (by Jane Feldman), My First Ballet Book (by Kate Castle), and The Ballet Book (by Darcy Bussell) describe classroom etiquette, ballet steps, and the art of performance. Several of these books come with DVDs. Dance class, crafts, and, for older children, an end-of-camp performance round out the week’s activities.

Music appreciation
A similar approach can be taken with music appreciation. Camps can be built around famous composers or a well-known piece of music. When broadly interpreted, this camp can provide hours of fun for even very young campers. My school’s Vivaciously Vivaldi! ©, designed for 4- to 6-year-olds, explores Venice, the Silk Road, and art based on—what else?—The Four Seasons. To give the camp wider appeal, we do not include dance classes; instead, the children play musical games that involve movement.

For older campers
The longer attention span, maturing taste, and greater dexterity of older children allow for a more sophisticated program and a wider range of subject material and craft ideas.

Camps for middle and high school students can go into a subject in depth. Performance camps are always a big hit. Whether your theme focuses on a classical work or a Broadway show, parents and students alike love the end-of-camp show.

Choreographers
Choreographers also make a good theme. Take George Balanchine: excerpts from films such as Dancing for Mr. B, Choreography by Balanchine, and Bringing Balanchine Back: New York City Ballet can provide background on his life and work, while learning some of his actual choreography gives students the physical experience of his genius.

The work of Twyla Tharp can be seen in Amadeus, Hair, and White Nights. Baryshnikov by Tharp: The Little Ballet/Sinatra Suite/Push Comes to Shove and Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra and More are double treats.

Other choreographers whose biographies and works are available on DVD include Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse. Contemporary choices include Merce Cunningham, Jirí Kylián, La La La Human Steps, and Pina Bausch.

Along with the videos, we offer appropriate styles of dance classes for each choreographer.

Combo classes for boys
Some subjects are of particular interest to boys, bringing students to your school who otherwise might not have been part of your demographic. Hip-hop classes can be part of a performance camp or can be combined with stencil or graffiti art lessons. Approaches that use physical theater or rhythm (think STOMP) can be especially attractive to boys.

Physical movement doesn’t have to be about dance. Two of our camps for older children were specifically aimed at boys. Both our fencing camp and our anime camp incorporated physical movement but neither was dance-related.

Anime
Our camp in anime, or Japanese animation, was the result of my older son’s fascination with Inuyasha and other anime cartoon shows. Our one-week camp for children ages 10 to 16 focused on both anime and all things Japanese. It included anime screenings and classes in Japanese language, calligraphy, and traditional art forms. We also provided martial arts classes, putting the emphasis not so much on fighting as on respect and self-discipline. (Something all the parents appreciated, no doubt!)

Fencing
Our fencing camp came about because one of our parents was looking for a convenient fencing program. The instructor I found had years of experience working with young students and delivered a stimulating, rigorous, yet fun program that alternated between training and games. Most of the students were boys who continued afternoon fencing classes once the school year began. We even started an evening adult fencing class based on the interest of our students’ fathers.

Finding non-dance teachers
I do a lot of legwork before finalizing my camp plans. I have found language teachers through the local Japan American Society, on Craigslist, and through Internet searches and personal contacts. I found three excellent manga (Japanese cartoon) teachers by advertising on Craigslist and at the local art supply store. I called a local pottery supply company to ask who might teach raku and the Print Museum to see who could teach Japanese silk screening.

Many artists are available during the day, but availability can be an issue. One teacher who worked for an anime production company was given leave by his company to teach for an hour a day. At times I have scheduled the camp in the afternoon to make it easier for working people to teach for me. Working teachers can be scheduled for the 1:00 or 5:00 p.m. time slots. By taking a late lunch or leaving work a little early, the teachers are able to do their jobs and still teach my campers.

Getting the word out
Part of the fun of organizing a summer camp is the marketing. Once you have decided on your theme(s), the next step is to find a name for each camp. The name will facilitate choosing a recognizable logo and creating memorable promotional brochures and advertising. Think “Ballet ’n’ Broadway” rather than the ho-hum “Summer Dance Camp.”

Brochures, whether printed from a template off your computer or professionally done, are an excellent means of getting out the word. Postcards are an inexpensive way to blanket your school’s neighborhood. Numerous online printing companies can print several thousand cards inexpensively.

Mailing lists can be purchased from a local mailing house according to the demographics you request. These mailing houses can also address and add postage to ease your workload. Since people get a lot of mail, most of which is tossed into the trash, your goal is to create something that parents will want to keep on their refrigerators.

There are other ways of promoting your camp. Donating a slot in one or more camps to a local school’s fund-raiser (think silent auction) can help establish your presence in the community. And it’s a worthy cause!

Planning
Once you’ve gotten the word out, you can turn your attention to the camp itself. Designing a set of lesson plans will help keep you on track and help you write your shopping list. Posting your schedule will let parents know which activities you have planned (especially important since they won’t see what the children are doing). They’ll appreciate knowing what they’re paying for.

The always-important teacher/student ratio becomes even more important when the students are present all day. Helpers—perhaps some of your older students—are essential, especially in camps for children who are too young to go to the bathroom by themselves. Helpers can also assist with crafts and snacks. Daycare guidelines are helpful here in anticipating your staffing needs. I recommend one staff person, either an adult or a helper, for every six or seven students.

Making the camp memorable is an important part of building your brand—making your school known for the quality of its programs. Keepsake craft projects are one way to remind both children and parents of the fun to be had at your camps. At many of our camps, we personalize T-shirts with each child’s photograph or a piece of her artwork.

We frequently post camp photographs in our waiting room. You can post photographs of all the fun your students are having in camp on your school’s Facebook page. (You do have one, right?) And by linking the Facebook page to your school’s website splash page, even visitors to your website will have the opportunity to see your camps in action.

The best kind of marketing is word of mouth. Creating summer buzz can add to both your reputation and your bottom line. Now that sizzles!

 

Essential Q&As

How big? Space often dictates the size of enrollment. For reasons of safety and program quality, camps that take place at my studio are capped at 12 to 15 campers. This is a comfortable size for both my available rooms and for one teacher to handle with an assistant. For three years I rented classroom space in a neighborhood elementary school for my arts and nature camp. Enrollment jumped from eight students the first year to 40 the third year.

Do I need a license? Licensing requirements will differ from community to community and are frequently available online. Although I am not required to obtain a childcare license for my camps, I do follow licensing requirements.

What about medical concerns? Our enrollment form asks about food allergies and we take those into consideration when planning snacks. We do not give children medication.

How do you schedule teachers? Our teachers are responsible for either a 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. or 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. schedule. For our anime camp, which had specialized classes, teachers were responsible only for their own subject. I supervised the overall camp or hired one of the teachers to be the “gap” leader, an adult presence between visiting teachers.

What should I charge? Prices are determined by two factors. First, I multiply the price of a single class by the number of camp hours and add in costs of snacks and art supplies. Second, I look at what other local camps charge. Because I hire highly trained or specialized teachers and because my camps often require a lot of art supplies, my prices are sometimes in the “high middle” range. You do need to be sensitive to your market. I consider my school to be a “boutique,” offering services that cannot be found elsewhere. Other schools may have different price considerations.

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Bright Biz Ideas | School of a Different Stripe

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A corporate model with career-oriented employees lets one school thrive

By Julie Holt Lucia

Like most studio owners, when I first started planning to open a school, it was because I felt passionate about dance and teaching. And because I couldn’t find an opportunity working for someone else that fit just right, I decided to create one for myself. I began to plan how my school would be different from others I had known as a dancer and as a teacher.

Though I was sure the dance world was where I belonged, I knew I needed to learn about the business world in order to make my vision happen. I wanted to establish my business as a corporation so that it would be a legally separate entity from me, and I wanted my school to have an organized and well-tended office—something I’d noticed was missing in some of the other schools I’ve encountered.

Studio Dance Centre’s four-cylinder powerhouse: From left, Arrica Hackney, Jamie Williams, owner Julie Holt Lucia, and Michele Monaghan. (Photo courtesy Studio Dance Centre)

For a year, while I held an office job and taught dance part-time, I worked on a business plan, found a tenant representative, researched properties, took accounting classes online, and secured financing. Surprisingly, the business side of things drew me in. I found that I enjoyed learning how to create and run a business.

The plan
I had some grand ideas, I was also young, with virtually no reputation, a moderate amount of experience, and a brand-new school with a tight budget. Since I was starting from scratch, I initially hired all part-time staff, including four promising teachers and one office manager. Studio Dance Centre opened its doors in Frisco, Texas, in 2006, with two classrooms and an enrollment of 175.

During that first year, the office manager turned out to be fantastic and two of the teachers were great. The other two teachers—well, let’s just say they taught me a lesson in human resources. One “forgot” to show up for her classes and wore her blasé attitude on her sleeve. (She lasted only a few months.) The other repeatedly put on an act to cover up troubles in her personal life—and then, after a confrontation with me, she stood up her classes on recital day. I was wracked with anxiety and felt like a failure for letting those things happen.

Those problems were the early wake-up call that I needed, though, and proof that I had to change not only whom I hired, but how and for what kind of position. I had happy customers for other reasons (thank goodness) but I knew that settling for the status quo wasn’t a good business strategy. I wanted employees who would care about the studio as if it were their own and who were motivated to succeed—and while some part-time teachers are this way to begin with, I felt that as a new studio owner, I needed to do something more.

The only way I could think of to find that kind of dedication was to create a new kind of position, one that would be like a mini-me. Not only would that person be well equipped to teach dance, but he or she would also learn the basic skills and customer service needed in our small office. What I was thinking of, I realized, was a career-oriented position for someone willing to have it as a primary or only job. Though an entry-level position with hourly pay, it would offer someone a modest living. And though it would be more expensive for me as a business owner, I knew that it was a surefire way to find someone reliable.

Getting started
For that position, an assistant manager/dance instructor, I hired Michele Monaghan (who has since moved up to even more responsibility). After a three-step interview process, including a teaching audition, plus a background check, Michele started learning the studio’s office procedures as well as teaching classes. A big part of her position was customer service, both in person and over the phone, and she also dove right into assisting with computer work, such as processing registrations and payments and organizing spreadsheets for the recital.

Although Michele’s hours varied from week to week (usually 30 to 40), she worked a full-time schedule, teaching a little less than half of that time and working a five-day week (Monday through Thursday, plus Saturday). Her hourly pay rate varied with her different roles; I divided her timesheet into separate office hours and teaching hours. Because I use a payroll service, this was a fairly easy task each pay period.

Almost immediately I could tell that hiring Michele had been the right decision and that it was a turning point for my then year-old business. She was new to teaching but good at it, and she adapted easily to learning the office work. She was passionate about dance and about doing her job well, and she was a lot like me in personality.

At this point, some readers might be saying, “How did you know she wouldn’t run off with your customer list and open a school a block away?” I didn’t know. But I spent a great deal of time interviewing and getting to know her, and my instinct told me that she would be a great employee and did not have any ulterior motives. Also, in my area it isn’t so easy to open a new business—it’s expensive and time-consuming. Regardless, all of my employees sign non-compete agreements. Would that stop her or anyone else? No. But I did my homework thoroughly when hiring and ultimately trusted my gut.

At that point, Michele and I were the only ones working full-time (with a couple of trusty part-timers), but my goal was to promote her and bring in others like her. In that first year, Michele proved how capable she was, and I continued to offer her more responsibilities, little by little. I became invested in her success (since she represented me and my studio so well), and she in mine (presumably because she enjoyed her job and wanted to keep it).

The next step
Michele’s success in her position meant that I could consider hiring someone else in the same type of role the following year. One of my part-time instructors, Jamie Williams, was the ideal candidate, since she was graduating from college and on the job hunt. She had already proven herself as a dedicated teacher, and I believed she would make an excellent addition to the office staff as well. (By this point, I had lost my previous part-time office manager to a long-distance move and had only one other part-time teacher.)

Jamie turned out to be a natural fit, and after some training, she took on a twin role to Michele’s. Although Michele had become salaried and gained some responsibilities, the two positions were similar and held the same title.

Soon we had a highly efficient three-ring circus (and I mean that in a good way) on our hands. On any given day, two of us would be teaching while the other handled customer service and office tasks. We would rotate in the classrooms and office as dictated by the schedule, but we all had a full-time week of around 40 hours, a combination of office work and teaching. (At this point the studio offered 50-plus classes weekly, divided fairly evenly among the three of us.)

Although I had some grand ideas, I was also young, with virtually no reputation, a moderate amount of experience, and a brand-new school with a tight budget.

Because each of us had a hand in the daily operations and management of the studio, most of our 300-plus customers got to know us well. Through customer feedback, I learned that they trusted that we would be organized, professional, and consistent. In addition, they felt confident that they would always get the same high quality of service from each of us, whether in the classroom with their children or in the office handling their questions, paperwork, or payments. This set an important precedent that I never wanted to lose, because their feedback told me that I was gaining their loyalty.

Here and now
Over the past year, the studio became a highly efficient four-ring circus, adding a third classroom and a fourth career-oriented employee, Arrica Hackney. I have shifted around some responsibilities to better distinguish each person’s role and experience level.

Michele is now my communications manager/dance instructor, meaning that in addition to the 16 to 18 classes she teaches each week, she oversees basic customer communications (email blasts, announcements, and reminders). Jamie is now my accounts manager/dance instructor, and while she also teaches 16 to 18 classes each week, she oversees much of the customer invoicing and accounts receivable. Arrica is our assistant manager/dance instructor, filling the previous shoes of both Michele and Jamie, as well as teaching 14 to 16 classes each week. Michele and Jamie are now both salaried, based on their previous years’ work, and Arrica is paid hourly.

I am still the sole owner and director, and I also teach 14 to 16 classes each week. I handle the business accounts, budgeting, property management, payroll, and taxes. Although my employees share a great deal of office and classroom responsibilities, I still step in as needed for major customer issues and business decisions. For example, my employees are free to use their judgment on minor issues like waiving a late fee, but I prefer to be consulted if someone requests a refund.

All four of us spend a great deal of our office time doing simple customer service and computer work: assisting parents while their kids are in class, answering potential customers’ questions, processing registrations and payments, creating recital lists and documents, and researching class music and choreography ideas. The office is always open during the studio’s regular business hours, closing only in emergency situations, such as when one of us is sick. In that case, whoever is in the office covers the absent teacher’s classes.

I still have one part-time teacher, Ronni Young, who teaches four classes each week. She does not work in the studio office, but it’s easy to keep her updated on the latest news. I’ve known Ronni since I opened the studio, and she fits in seamlessly despite her minimal hours.

A “corporate” culture
Although my studio is traditional in its class offerings and annual recital, it is at heart a small corporate business. Everyone who works for my studio (including me) is an employee; only guest teachers are contractors. I revise returning employees’ offer letters each school year to reflect any contractual changes, such as a raise or a change in responsibilities. Essentially, each person signs a one-year contract that specifies that year’s start/renewal date, job title, wages or salary, and time off.

I am as transparent as I can be with my employees so that they know why I make business decisions the way I do. Once or twice a year I show them a watered-down profit-and-loss statement to explain why I have certain goals for the studio. I think they appreciate the insight, and they say they value the behind-the-scenes glance at the complexities of the business. I feel that they support and respect me more as their director because I am honest with them (never condescending) and welcome their ideas.

But the setup has its drawbacks. The school has been open for less than five years, and though it’s been increasingly profitable during the last three, I’ve had challenges financially—particularly with the lightweight summer months. In addition to always having a summer session, we also build in summer planning time, to rev up and get ready for the next school year. It helps us reorganize and get on the same page with curriculum and classroom management.

Having salaried employees is more expensive than hiring contractors, and it can take some creative budgeting. I offer a health-care stipend and four weeks of scheduled time off (paid for the salaried employees but not for the hourly ones). But it is well worth it for their job security and my peace of mind. Like a lot of small businesses, the biggest expenses are rent and payroll, and since those are stabilizing, I feel like things will continue to improve from here.

Although we don’t struggle with Ronni being the only part-time teacher among full-timers, a previous part-time teacher left because she felt insecure within our tight-knit group. The compatibility problem was mutual, but I never wanted her to feel deliberately left out.

It almost goes without saying that my school is like my second home. The people I’ve chosen to work with are my employees, yes, but they are also my co-workers, my friends, and my extended family. I would be sad to see any of them leave, but I would take solace in the fact that I have helped them gain new knowledge and skills, and that they in return have taught me a great deal about working as a team and building solid relationships.

Together we have shaped a unique and successful working environment, and the studio is thriving because of it.

Sample Job Description for Assistant Manager/Dance Instructor
School owner Julie Holt Lucia posted this job description with a few local university career services offices and dance departments, as well as on Craigslist.

This is a unique small-business position with the opportunity to grow. Responsibilities include both dance instruction and studio management. Position is based on the academic school year and summer sessions. Immediate availability a plus.

Dance and/or teaching experience needed. Candidates must be self-motivated and flexible, with some business, accounting, and/or customer service experience required. A positive attitude and outgoing personality are musts! Candidates must be interested in working with children and willing to learn and grow within a small business environment. Two- or four-year college degree required.

Position is hourly, up to 35 hours per week to start. Hours will include some evenings and Saturdays. Prior to hiring, candidates are subject to a background screen and reference check. If you are interested in this position, please forward your resume/CV and letter of introduction by email to be contacted for an interview.

Negotiable hourly rate commensurate with experience and education.

Sample Interview Questions
Tell me about yourself. What interested you in this type of position?

(Someone who is working toward a teaching certificate, for example, wouldn’t be the right fit for a full-time, long-term position.)

What are your goals in dance? Where do you see yourself in five years?

(Someone who is auditioning for professional companies or wants to own a studio one day might not be the right match.)

Describe a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer. What happened, and how did you handle the situation?

(This answer doesn’t have to be dance related, just a good example of working under pressure with a challenge, and preferably with a good outcome.)

Describe a time when you had to deal with a difficult child. What happened, and how did you handle the situation?

(Again, this doesn’t have to be dance related, but it shows how the candidate relates to kids and uses problem-solving skills.)

Let’s say you are working in the office and you hear parents gossiping in the lobby about the studio’s policies. What would you do?

(You want to know that the candidate would be forthright but not abrasive with studio families. It’s also important to note how the candidate answers this question; for example, uncomfortable and shy or confident and clear-headed?)

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As the Dance Teacher Turns | Part 8

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Part 8 of our serialized saga of dance-school drama and intrigue

By Julie Holt Lucia

After a crazy-yet-memorable recital season, studio owner Dolly Drummersing is not basking in the glow of post-production bliss like she normally would. Instead she’s found herself in a tricky spot yet again—this time torn between her suave former boyfriend and dance partner, Jackson St. James, and her caring dance-dad-slash-night-janitor, Sal Aquilino. With her dance studio’s future in the balance, Dolly is up against a near-impossible choice—with no easy answers.

“Jackson is going to teach a guest class! Isn’t that fantastic?” Dolly practically shouted the words during the post-recital staff meeting.

Nikki squealed and clapped a hand over her mouth while Kim beamed. April threw her hand into the air with such excitement that she nearly wrenched her shoulder.

Dolly suppressed a laugh. “Yes, April?”

“Is it just for the kids?” April asked, rubbing her shoulder. “The guest class?”

Illustration by Jodi O’Rourke

“Yes, sorry, and only for the 12-and-up crowd. Jackson’s more experienced with teens. We’ll open it to the public too.” She looked at their disappointed faces. “But instructors can observe and take notes.”

The last guest teacher at Dolly’s Dance Academy had been a former prima ballerina named Mrs. Dombravanich, who had managed to both frighten and fascinate DDA’s ballet dancers with her curt corrections and thumping walking stick. She looked like a sweet-tempered grandmother but had a voice like a bullhorn and eyes as sharp as someone one-third her age. Nothing got by her during the two-hour class.

Jackson St. James, however, would be different in almost every way: he was a modern dancer, not to mention tall, dark, and handsome. And easygoing. And, of course, he had that just-famous-enough aura about him—perfect for everyone to drool over.

Dolly was still glowing after her dinner with him, right after he surprised her by showing up at DDA’s recital. She had spent three hours getting ready for their date at Le Beau Jardin, a French restaurant so upscale that she had been in a frenzy about what to wear. She settled on a sleek black cocktail dress and wore her hair in elegant waves to accent her blue topaz teardrop earrings. Jackson had called her gorgeous when he picked her up, looking dashing in a charcoal-gray sport coat and tie.

Their evening together had been lovely and magical. Dolly felt like she had stepped through a time machine that whirled her back 10-plus years, to when they were a couple. As she had discovered over dinner, Jackson still charmed her. She had been worried that their decade-long gap would make them feel uncomfortable, but they couldn’t stop laughing and talking. He told her stories about Contemporary Dance Paris and living in France. She told him about her teaching career and being a business owner, along with some of the crazy things that had happened since she opened the school. Then, over dessert, Jackson again brought up the subject of Dolly moving to France with him at the end of the summer. Dolly held her breath as Jackson laced his fingers into hers and described his vision—finding a great apartment in the city, teaching at the company school, getting cast in new roles.

“What about me?” Dolly had said, playing along. She leaned in closer and tilted her head. “What will I be doing?”

“Well,” Jackson began, a sly smile making him look more charming than ever. “You could always audition for the company. You were—and still are, I’m sure—a beautiful dancer.” Dolly blushed and Jackson went on, his voice casual. “Or you know, you could start another wonderful dance school—avec moi.”

Dolly’s mind had gone a bit fuzzy at this point (possibly from the extra glass of pinot), but Jackson’s suggestions made her giddy. During college the two of them had daydreamed about auditioning and building a life together abroad. The plan had seemed so real then, so attainable—until Jackson had left without her, without even a goodbye. Could this be their second chance? This might be just what I need, Dolly thought as they sipped their coffee. I could sell the studio on a high note, leave before Winifred has the chance to swipe my customers and permanently damage my reputation. Dolly let herself fall into Jackson’s fantasy, just a tiny bit. Already part of her itched to say yes.

Jackson didn’t push for an answer, and they said goodbye that night without coming to a decision. But they did agree that Jackson would teach a few classes at DDA. Dolly was thrilled at the idea of introducing him to her staff and students, but she kept mum about the Paris plan, managing (most of the time) to push the thought out of her mind. With so much to consider and plan, there was no way she was ready to tell anyone her thoughts.

After all, DDA was her whole life, and giving it up would mean more than just figuring out a few logistics. Then there was Sal. He and Dolly had seemed to be on the verge of a real relationship before Jackson appeared. Dolly felt a tug of uncertainty about Jackson every time she saw Sal—which wasn’t often, because he seemed to be avoiding her these days. She wanted to talk to him—patch things up a bit—but every time she approached him, he would make an excuse to leave. She would have to find a way to corner him.

***

A nervous twitter cascaded down the barre as Dolly asked her Ballet Class of Misfit Tweens to have a seat. “OK, ladies, listen up,” Dolly said, pacing in front of them. “That means you too, Mira.” She gave Mira Garland a stern look. The girl’s cheeks flushed as she mouthed “Sorry,” and quieted down. Dolly thought she saw some eye rolling but dismissed it in light of her exciting news. There would be no eye rolling once the girls knew what was happening.

“I have an important announcement about our next guest teacher,” Dolly began. A loud groan arose from the far end of the barre. “Sam, do you have something to say, or may I continue?”

Samantha Martinez blushed and looked at the floor. “Sorry, Ms. Dolly. It’s just that the last guest teacher we had was pretty scary.” Looking at Dolly, she narrowed her eyes and frowned. “‘Stop, stop, stop! Very wrong. Start again!’ ” she said with a throaty Russian accent.

The class laughed and Dolly pursed her lips in an attempt not to laugh with them. The impression of Mrs. Dombravanich was dead-on, but she didn’t want to encourage any more acting out.

“Thank you, Sam, but you’ll be happy to know that our next guest teacher isn’t even for ballet. He’ll be teaching modern, and his name is Jackson St. James. He is a company member with Contemporary Dance Paris.”

“Oh! I know him!” said Pepper Ruby. Dolly stared at the usually quiet girl in surprise.

“I mean, I’ve seen his picture, and I’ve read about him. He is beautiful.” Pepper smiled dreamily and closed her eyes.

“Oh, come on,” Mira said with a smirk. “Boys aren’t beautiful, Pepper.”

Pepper opened her eyes and shrugged. “Well, Jackson St. James is.”

You bet he is, thought Dolly. And he’s mine, if I want him. She swallowed. Do I want him? Even if it means leaving what I’ve worked so hard to build? She clapped her hands to break up the chatter, not to mention her own reverie. “Well, beautiful or not, Mr. St. James will be here for a guest modern class next Saturday, and I expect you all to be here.” She paced again and grinned at the dancers. “He’ll only teach a few classes, so you should be happy to take advantage of the opportunity. Now let’s dance, please!”

The girls grumbled and pulled themselves to their feet. The class passed in a jumbled haze, and it wasn’t just Dolly who had trouble concentrating. She had to shush Mira and Sam at least a dozen more times, particularly during glissade assemblés. Mira had somehow interpreted the step to be more like a hitch kick, and she and Sam were in fits of giggles about it. And poor Pepper—in her exuberance (presumably because of the Jackson news) she managed to smack Sam’s arm twice during pirouettes and crash into the portable barre after a promenade. To make things worse, she caused a four-person pileup in a simple chassé exercise. Dolly wanted to beat her head against the wall but settled for ushering the girls out of the classroom with a sigh of relief.

Dolly retreated to the office, where Kim confirmed that Jackson’s guest class announcement had been sent to all the local dance schools and the local arts newsletter.

 Nikki was practically swooning at the idea of seeing Jackson up close. “You’ve been going out with him, right?” she asked as they packed up for the evening.

Nikki tried to look innocent, but Dolly knew she was dying to know what was going on. She shrugged. “Yeah, we’ve been out. But mostly to talk about business stuff.” It wasn’t actually a lie, she reasoned. They were talking business, after all. Serious business.

That night, after settling down at the computer with a cup of Earl Grey tea, ready to research business brokers and European work visas, Dolly’s words to the Ballet Class of Misfit Tweens rang in her ears: You should be happy to take advantage of the opportunity. Maybe it was time to take her own advice.

***

Dolly crafted a simple plan: she would show up at DDA one night just after Sal began cleaning and make him talk to her. She couldn’t stand the way he was ignoring her any longer. She missed their joking around and their after-hours chats while he was cleaning. It was like he was pretending there had never been a spark between them—that he hadn’t almost asked her out after the recital. The idea of not having Sal in her life made Dolly feel sad—and guilty. If she moved to Paris without mending fences with him, she would never forgive herself.

The following Thursday night, Dolly slipped her key in the studio’s lock, ready to put her plan into action. At the sound of footsteps behind her, she turned to see Jackson St. James hurrying up the sidewalk. He managed to look sexy even in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.

“Hello, beautiful Dolly.” Jackson kissed her on both cheeks.

“Jackson, what in the world are you doing here at this hour?”

He shrugged. “I was bored, so I went for pizza and noticed the lights were on here. I thought I would surprise you.”

Dolly flushed at the thought of being alone at the studio with him. “Well, that was very sweet. But I’m only here to talk to Sal.” She hesitated. “He cleans for me a few nights a week.”

Jackson nodded and bit his lip. He looked a little sad and lonely, Dolly thought. And who wouldn’t be, after trekking halfway across the world? She had a gut feeling that inviting Jackson in was a bad idea, but she couldn’t just ask him to leave. Her conversation with Sal would probably be short anyway.

“Come on in; I won’t be long.”

A shaft of light fell into the hallway from one of the classrooms, and Dolly thought she heard faint sounds of movement. “Hey, Sal!” She tossed her keys and purse in the office and motioned for Jackson to wait there.

“Saaaaaal!” Dolly called out. No answer. She peered into the studio. Sal was mopping, his back to the door. “Hey! Sal!” Dolly stomped her foot. Still nothing. Irritation rippled through her and she gritted her teeth. Did he think he could just ignore her? She approached Sal, and for a split-second she thought she caught his eye in the mirror. She reached out to grab his elbow and at the same time, Sal swung around, his mop cutting through the air.

A body thudded to the floor behind her, and Dolly screamed. Jackson was rocking on the floor, clutching his left knee and swearing. Sal dropped the mop and pulled a pair of earbuds out of his ears.

“Jackson!” Dolly crouched next to him. “Are you OK?” She lowered her voice. “I told you to wait in the office.” Glaring at Sal, she said, “Look what you’ve done! What were you thinking?”

 “Dolly! Sorry, but you scared me. I thought I saw a shadow behind me so I reacted instinctively.” Sal turned to Jackson. “Sorry about that, Jack.” Sal’s voice sounded cool and not sorry at all.

“It’s Jackson,” Jackson muttered, wincing as Dolly helped him stand.

“Since when did you get an MP3 player?” Dolly glared at Sal. “I’ve been shouting for you since I walked in the door.”

“I didn’t think anyone would be here. That’s usually how it is at night, so the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to music while I clean. Isabella got me into it.” He crossed his arms and looked at Jackson with narrowed eyes. “But the real question is, what is he doing here?”

“Oh, here we go,” Jackson rolled his eyes. “Pardon me if I want to spend time with my old friend. Dolly and I have a lot more in common than you could possibly understand.” He gestured to the mop and sneered.

Sal held up his hands in mock indignation. “Just asking, Jack. Seems a little odd that you showed up here out of the blue, that’s all. And not just tonight.”

Dolly stared at them with her mouth open. She’d never heard either man speak so bitingly. “Stop it, both of you!” She grabbed Jackson’s arm and propelled him toward the door. “Please wait for me in the office. I need to talk to Sal alone.”

“Fine.” Jackson’s nostrils flared as he turned back to Sal. “It’s Jackson!” He yanked the door shut.

Dolly turned to Sal, who was leaning against the mirror, frowning and glancing at his watch. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to remember why she was here in the first place.

“Look, Sal, I know things have been weird between us since Jackson came into the picture.” Sal grunted in what Dolly assumed was agreement. “He and I go way back, and I was caught off guard when he showed up. I couldn’t just ignore him.”

He let out a big sigh. “I know, Dolly. Is that it? Because I really didn’t need you to come here tonight and tell me this. I’d like to finish cleaning before midnight, actually.” He reached for the mop and bucket but Dolly grabbed his hand, the touch sending a pleasant shock through her body. She ignored it, determined to keep her emotions in check. Sal stared at her. Dolly thought she saw his jaw twitch.

“I want to apologize for cutting you off on recital night.” Dolly shook her head at the memory. “And I’m sorry that I got so involved with Jackson and made you think I forgot about you. I still want to be your friend, Sal.” Dolly stumbled through the words, trying not to get upset. “Despite whatever nonsense happened tonight, I do like you. And I miss you.”

Sal dropped her hand and squinted as if he had the world’s biggest headache. “Thank you for saying all those nice things. But I think it might be better for us not to talk so much while Jackson’s here. I know you know him better than I do, but something’s just not right—the way he showed up so suddenly and seems to know so much about you. I can’t put my finger on it, but if I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” He grabbed the mop and bucket and walked across the studio. At the door, he turned around. “I like you too,” he muttered.

Dolly’s eyes stung as she watched Sal walk out. This sure wasn’t how she thought this night would go. Sal sounded so defeated, and it was her fault. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and went to retrieve Jackson. Maybe she would take him out for a late cup of coffee and shake off this terrible evening and the mess with Sal. She had so many questions about France anyway. It was time to get serious. It was, after all, possibly the biggest choice she would ever make.

Next month, the drama continues as Dolly juggles her emotions and ponders Jackson’s invitation. And you’ll never believe which familiar—and unexpected—face will show up at his master class . . .

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Dance Teachers: Who We Are

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Check out info on the 2011 DanceLife Teacher Conference

DanceLife Teacher Conference 2011
Rhee Gold Dance Teachers: Who We Are
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Think of It As Embarrassment Insurance

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You’d like to think that any mother would see to it that her daughter was prepared for the onset of menstruation. But some don’t. Some are neglectful, others are embarrassed, and some don’t know that puberty now comes as early as age 7 for some girls.

If you’re a dance school owner—or just a concerned parent—there’s a product from Dot Girl Products to help girls caught unawares by their first period.

The Dot Girl First Period Kit includes The Dot Girl Period Answer Book, packed with frequently asked questions and answers; five feminine pads; five disposal bags; one reusable heating pad, and two hand wipes, all packaged in a discreet carrying case.

It’s available from http://www.dotgirlproducts.com for $22.99 each, with discounts for those who buy seven or more kits. Schools and non-profit organizations enjoy preferred pricing upon proof of non-profit status.

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Under New Management

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Same school, new owners—the realities of purchasing an existing business

By Maureen Keleher

As a dance teacher, you feel that you’ve paid your dues—teaching classes day in and day out, coming up with recital and competition routines, and following the protocol of the studio you work for. You’re ready to be your own boss, and you think you understand the business enough to be a successful studio owner. But is it smart or realistic to start a studio from scratch? Or should you consider buying an existing business?

It has taken Michelle Reis a few years to transition from teacher to studio owner, but she now feels that Dance Art Dance Studio is finally her own. (Photo Courtesy Dance Art Dance Studio)

If you’re ready to go down the ownership path, taking on an established school—and its students and parents—might be challenging and rewarding enough. And doing so allows new school owners to learn about managing a business without having to build a clientele or leave their community. Read on for two stories about women who have purchased established studios and are loving their new lives as business owners. 

The duet
In August 2006, Donna Lee Studio of Dance in Homestead, Florida, opened for business with two new owners, both experienced teachers: Alicia Norwood and Vicky Gonzalez. Before her retirement, owner Donna Lee Roach offered the studio to both women to run as a team. Gonzalez and Norwood had grown up training at the studio and understood Roach’s founding ideals. Along with the three-room studio that serves 400 families, the new business partners also inherited Expressions Dance Company, a nonprofit troupe that provides performing opportunities for the studio’s serious students.

For Norwood, 45, being handed the keys to the studio was like a passing of the torch. She had been assisting Roach with advanced classes since she was 18, while continuing her dance education at conventions such as Florida Dance Masters. ”I had helped build this studio and its clientele,” says Norwood. “I didn’t want to throw out all the time and energy I spent here- I wanted this studio.” 

Thirty-one-year-old Gonzalez, who had danced with American Repertory Ballet and Roxey Ballet, had been teaching at Donna Lee Studio since 2000 but didn’t have any business experience. “I think [Roach] chose me to be with Alicia because I would help to bring the studio into the next generation while maintaining the integrity of what she built over the course of almost 30 years,” Gonzalez says.

The school is known for its high-caliber training in ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, lyrical, and hip-hop. ”The original owner started on a small scale. We were stepping into a huge responsibility,” says Norwood. Despite the change in ownership, student enrollment has remained steady. Students take fewer classes because of the tough financial times, but overall enrollment has not changed dramatically in the past few years.

While Norwood and Gonzalez immediately felt respected by the teaching staff, parents, and students because of their prior teaching experience, both had to adjust to the responsibility of being “the boss,” from discussing student level placement with parents to making appropriate business decisions. “To parents with concerns, we used to be able to say, ‘You can go to Donna,’ ” says Norwood. “Now we’re the complaint department.

“I was unprepared for the business aspect,” adds Norwood. She says she had no experience with clerical projects like mailing registration packets or developing studio literature; Roach had handled all the administrative work. “I feel like when I do a task on my own, I have to have two or three people look over what I’m doing to make sure it makes sense,” Norwood says.

“It was important to gain the trust of parents in my new role before changing the way classes were offered.” —owner Michelle Reis

Attending dance business seminars and keeping in contact with Roach have helped both women play catch-up with their business training, learning such business strategies as how to search for potential clients within their community and then target them via direct mail. A new, glossy, tri-fold summer dance camp brochure about themed dance camps yielded the studio’s most successful summer in terms of revenue and dancing. “Who knew the paper you print on would make such a difference?” says Norwood.

In the past three years, Gonzalez and Norwood have struck a balance, utilizing each other’s specialties as teachers and business owners to keep the studio running smoothly. Norwood primarily teaches tap, jazz, and the “babies” classes; she also handles the payroll and accounting. Gonzalez runs the ballet program and uses her computer skills to work on the email, advertising, and rehearsal schedules. Both contribute about 40 hours a week to the studio and share equal responsibility for teaching and developing choreography for Expressions. After almost four years of ownership, Gonzalez says that she has settled into her role as co-owner.

Although the studio’s curriculum hasn’t changed, the shift in leadership, according to 12-year office manager Melissa Reimeres, brought changes in communication with the administrative staff. “It’s very satisfying to see them succeed,” says Reimeres, who handles the studio’s billing. “They allow me to offer suggestions and they keep me updated on financial information. It’s a privilege to work for them.”

The duo’s advice for a stellar studio? “Back your standards and make sure they are in the best interest of your studio and students,” says Norwood.

Gonzalez concurs. “Our families were at this studio because it was a good fit for them. If we had made changes, they would’ve gone elsewhere. You have to know your clientele and give them what they want.”

A family affair
When Michelle Reis decided to purchase Dance Art Dance Studio, she knew she couldn’t do it alone. The 41-year-old mother of three, who continues to hold down a full-time job as an administrative assistant at Washington University in St. Louis, was willing to take every helping hand.

“One of the hardest parts of becoming a studio owner is managing your time,” says Reis, who works almost 80 hours per week between her university job and running the studio. “I have a wonderful staff of instructors and receptionists who keep the studio running on a daily basis. I am fortunate not to be in this alone.” And she found that purchasing a studio that was established in the community offered the advantage of a following of nearly 300 students.

In 2006, Reis and her husband, Mike Reis, purchased the studio and its two locations: a 1,500-square-foot studio in Fenton, and a 2,000-square-foot studio in Eureka, Missouri. Reis, who holds a degree in arts administration from Butler University and danced with Butler Ballet and Ballet Des Moines, was thrilled to become the owner of the studio where she had taught since 1996.

The whole family jumped in to help: Michelle’s mother, Sheryl Hansen, handles the books; Mike Reis runs errands and takes care of maintenance issues; Michelle’s father, Jim Hansen, creates scenery and props; and Michelle’s oldest daughter, Ashley, 17, assists with tasks such as filling in for a teacher or cleaning the studio.

To ease the transition, former owner Susan Scharnhorst continued to teach at the studio for three years after the sale. Still, with ownership Reis faced the responsibility of balancing teaching duties with administrative work and handling conflict. She admits that in the beginning she wasn’t mentally prepared for all her responsibilities as a school owner. “I can no longer just come in, teach, and leave,” she says. “There is always something to do, prepare, or fix.”

Reis took several steps to make sure she wouldn’t have regrets later. She hired an attorney to get everything in writing regarding the purchase to avoid any potential “he said, she said” mishaps. And even though she had new ideas for the studio, she chose to get to know the parents, students, and staff better before making any executive decisions. “It was important to gain the trust of parents in my new role before changing the way classes were offered,” she says.

Over the course of four years, Reis revamped the school’s curriculum to make classes more age and developmentally appropriate; previously all classes had lasted one hour, regardless of student age or level. Now the youngest dancers take 45-minute classes, while the older dancers’ classes last an hour and a half. Reis bases tuition on how much time each student spends in the studio rather than on the number of classes taken.

Teacher Judy Bergin says that working under Reis has been a positive experience, and she credits the changes in the studio to Reis’ fresh perspective. “Michelle touches base with everyone,” she says. “I feel like I can go to her with any questions or issues.” For example, after a medical leave, Bergin wanted to schedule all her classes on one day instead of spreading them out over the course of the week, and Reis accommodated her request.

While it has taken Reis a few years to transition from teacher to studio owner, she feels that, in 2010, the studio is finally her own. Her own dance experience has given her a positive outlook on the adventures of running a business. “Everything is running smoothly; enrollment is getting up there [after] the downturn in the economy,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a few ‘rehearsals’ to get it right.”

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Schools With Staying Power | Bernice’s Starrstep Dance Studio

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80 years of making dancers feel special

By Sophia Emigh

Eleven-year-old Bernice Miller stood on a chair to teach her first ballet class to neighborhood kids with as much authority as she could muster. It was the fall of 1929, and her “studio” was her parents’ two-level garage in Pensacola, Florida. Eighty years later, Bernice’s daughter, Starr Burlingame, carries on her legacy as director of Bernice’s Starrstep Dance Studio. Starr chalks up the longevity of the school to her mother’s zeal for her work and treatment of her students with respect and acceptance.

Bernice Miller Burlingame, at the wheel beside her sister Jeannine (who remains in charge backstage at recitals to this day), spreads the word about her Pensacola, Florida dance studio in the 1950's. (Photo courtesy Starr Burlingame)

When Bernice fell ill with typhoid in 1925, her doctor prescribed ballet to heal her legs, which had borne the brunt of the disease. She took dance classes in Pensacola and, starting at age 11, spent her summers in Chicago, where she lived with family friends and took advantage of the city’s broader range of dance classes.

 Back home, meanwhile, Bernice had launched what she dubbed “Bernice’s Dance Studio.” Says Starr, “She never thought about going out and performing at all. It was her passion—a word she used quite a lot. She really wanted to teach.”

The studio blossomed as word of mouth drew neighborhood kids. Expanding her repertoire beyond ballet and tap (her favorite discipline) during World War II, Bernice, then in her early 20s, started teaching ballroom classes, primarily to military personnel from Pensacola’s naval base. Her mother would make home-cooked meals for the military men who came in for classes, many of whom kept in touch with the family until they died, even corresponding with Starr after Bernice’s death.

During the war, Bernice met Jim Burlingame, a drummer who had left his home in Ohio at 17 to travel with big bands and play for the Marine Corps. Traveling through Pensacola, he played for a USO show Bernice was dancing in. After corresponding with Bernice during the war (years after her mother’s death, Starr found a stack of letters Jim had written to Bernice), Jim returned to Pensacola to marry her. They named their daughter Starr after Jim’s favorite song, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” which also happened to be the tune Bernice had been dancing to when Jim met her.

Starr says that Bernice taught at several iterations of her studio “until she absolutely couldn’t anymore,” finally succumbing to the last in a series of cancers in 1989. Starr speaks with reverence about her mother’s strength and gifts as a teacher. “She absolutely loved what she did. She had a real knack with the younger children; teaching the little tiny ones, you’ve got to have the right person. She always made it fun. She treated both parents and students with total respect.”

Carrying on her mother’s vision was a natural progression for Starr, who had essentially grown up in the studio. She started teaching there at 13 and was on the books by 16; her mother wanted her to learn the business of running a school, not just how to teach. Starr decided not to tour as a performer because of her mother’s failing health, instead earning a BFA in dance at Florida State University. She taught at Pensacola Junior College (PJC) for 21 years and served as artistic director of PJC Dance Theater for seven years, where many students from her studio ended up dancing.

Starr assumed leadership of what became Bernice’s Starrstep Dance Studio, now Pensacola’s oldest school for dance, in 1989 upon her mother’s death. She teaches classes daily and runs the show in a studio she built nine years ago. Although she has kept up with the times in terms of class offerings, she has made no radical changes to her mother’s mission or philosophy. Whenever someone had a hardship, Bernice would say, “C’mon, let them take dance.”

“The core of the business is the same,” Starr says. “It’s not about making money, especially in the past few years; the important thing is to make it possible for students to keep dancing in these hard times. We do as much as we can [to help]. I think people respect that.” She is humble about her role in continuing her mother’s legacy and creating her own: “It’s just what I was meant to do.”

“[My mother] never thought about going out and performing at all. It was her passion—a word she used quite a lot. She really wanted to teach.” —Starr Burlingame

Yet it’s Starr’s dedication to forging lifelong relationships with her students that carries the studio forward into its ninth decade. “We truly care about our families,” says the school owner. “There’s no partiality. If some child is extremely talented and another has two left feet, they’re both treated equally.” The school’s 200-odd devoted students are a testament to its warm and unconditional welcome. “With third- and fourth-generation students in the studio, every day I have someone tell me what a wonderful person my mother was and how respected she was,” Starr says. Even outside the studio, she constantly runs into people who say, “Oh, I took dancing from your mother!”

Juanita Glass is one such person. “I am now in my 70s, but I took dance from Bernice from the first grade on for some years,” recalls Glass, now of Lexington, South Carolina. “Also, my granddaughter took dance from Bernice when she was in grade school. Bernice was my idol and the person whose standards I always tried to meet.”

Even as her illnesses took their toll, Bernice returned to the studio as a source of strength to help her keep going, teaching as often as her poor health allowed. Starr is grateful for the people who supported the family through those difficult times and attributes their presence to her mother’s investment in the sense of community fostered there. “She had a lot to do with [the kind of people at the studio]. Good people draw good people.”

Starr emphasizes this sense of valued community throughout the year, sponsoring parades, parties, and other gatherings for students and families outside of the classroom. She cherishes the resulting bond between dancers that she hasn’t found anywhere else and feels like she’s been part of raising many of the school’s students. When they leave the studio, she describes feeling like she’s “losing a child,” a blow that is softened when children of previous students begin their own cycle of dance education.

Like Starr, her teachers count themselves lucky to be part of molding the lives of young people. And like the school, all of them have proved to have longevity, studying there before coming on board as teachers. One of them, Dee Dee Dunn, has danced at the studio for 38 years and taught there for 20.

“When I talk about the studio I am telling about my family,” says Dunn. “I have taught my niece, my dad, my brother, my great-nephew, my daughter, my son, a few cousins, and many friends’ children. The students I have taught over the years are all my ‘kids.’ ”

The Burlingame commitment to nurturing each child has continued into the new millennium. The school’s longstanding reputation for teaching excellent technique in a family atmosphere has obliterated the need for advertising. With students ranging from toddlers to octogenarians and classes that run the gamut from hip-hop to ballet, Bernice’s Starrstep Dance Studio is a well-rounded, family-oriented school, not a specialty competition-focused studio.

The studio’s online mission statement emphasizes that making learning as enjoyable as possible is equal in importance as high-quality dance training. A Starrstep education is less about learning technical tricks than “dancing from the soul,” says Starr. “That’s what it’s really supposed to be about, the joy of it. It’s not just about how flashy you can be.” Beyond classes for kids, the school also boasts a popular seniors program with a focus on tap. “They don’t just get out there and look cute, they really do tap,” says the school owner. “We have three 82-year-olds in the program, and two of them are men. They dance in the recital every year, and they steal the show!”

Ultimately, Starr wants students to leave her school feeling that they’ve received high-quality dance training, had a good time in the process, and felt supported the whole way through. “[Bernice] started that, and that’s what we’ve continued. You can make people feel special when they come in the door.”

With the 80th-anniversary recital coming up in June, Starr is planning a dance production involving several generations of dancers, a photographic tribute to her mother, and a solo performance for herself—not just as Bernice’s protégé but as her loving daughter. “She was truly a one-of-a-kind person, one of the strongest women I’ve ever met,” says Starr. “I only hope I can be half as strong as she was. She was a phenomenal woman.”

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Rhee’s Blog | Recital Thoughts

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Recital Thoughts
By Rhee Gold

Originally published in Dance Studio Life magazine

“Your fall registration will only be as good as your last recital!” These words were often repeated by my mother, who believed that the quality of a recital had much to do with a school’s success. I think of those words every time the topic of recitals comes up at my seminars.

Think about it—when else in a dance season do you have all your students and their families and friends gathered in one place, at one time? The recital is the final impression your school makes on your current clients, and it’s the first impression it makes on an audience full of potential new ones. Since it comes right before summer, when many recreational students take time off from dancing and have a couple of months to decide whether they want to return in the fall, the recital is your chance to ensure that your students re-enroll. And if you do it right, a crop of new students will sign on because your show impressed them.

If you consider the recital as a marketing tool, more valuable than any ad, brochure, or awards, you’ll understand why it’s so important. Make it a priority in your school-year planning. Step one is what I like to refer to as extreme organization. Parents and students should walk into your school at the start of the season knowing all the rehearsal and performance dates and commitments related to the recital. Along with a calendar, give them a list of expenses and policies. Think of it as giving them more information than they need—too much is better than too little. Another great organizational tool is a recital handbook that you distribute to each family.

Start developing your production concepts at the start of the season. Whether or not you go for a themed recital, come up with a title, share it with your teachers and staff, and brainstorm about related ideas and music. Make notes on your brainstorming session and post them on the office bulletin board where everyone involved can add ideas as they come to mind. When it comes to music, variety is crucial; include selections that Nana or Grandpa will appreciate, tunes that teens will think are cool, and something for everyone in between. A recital that moves from hip-hop to Broadway to classical ballet to a funky tap number is the ultimate audience pleaser.

Costume planning should also begin early. Although you’ll base your final choices on several factors, give priority to being sure that every child who will wear the costumes will feel comfortable and confident. I believe many students drop out of dance because they feel inhibited about their appearance onstage.

Start collecting costume deposits in October. All costumes should be paid in full at the time you place your orders so that you do not have to allocate your personal funds to pay for them. Set up a payment plan for your clients to make it easy on them. For example, if a costume costs $65, consider requiring a $25 deposit on October 1, with a second payment of $25 due November 1 and the balance of $15 due on December 1.

As you put the music and the costuming together, estimate the length of your show, taking into account music, intermission, award presentations, or other activities. A good length is two hours or less. Recitals that last three hours or longer become uncomfortable for the audience; if you need that much time, consider adding a second show. If parents have to sit in an auditorium for three or four hours, they may get in the car afterwards and ask their children whether there’s another activity they would like to do next year!

In terms of choreography, you should regard every class as equal. Some teachers spend hours creating a masterpiece for their intensive dancers and then drag out some timeworn pieces for the recreational students. A good choreographer can create works that make even the less skilled dancers look and feel good. Make your audience struggle to determine which students are recreational and which are advanced by giving each class a fresh, tailor-made, age and skill-appropriate dance.

Finally, give your audiences more than they expect. It doesn’t matter if it’s scenery, backdrops, special lighting, or some sort of PowerPoint presentation—go the extra step to make your show special for your students and their families and friends. It’s the best way to make your recital work for you and the future of your school.

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Rhee’s Blog | Motivated To Be Different

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By Rhee Gold

“You’re an artistic genius! How do you come up with an idea like that?” “Motivated to be different” is the motto of the teacher who choreographed the piece that everyone is raving about. She’s the one who doesn’t want to be like anyone else or follow the current trends in choreography. Tricks like grabbing a leg and yanking it behind the head (often, unfortunately, with a turned-in supporting leg) are nowhere to be found in her art. The even bigger feats like fouetté turns or multiple jumps are not in her choreographic vocabulary. Yet she continues to awe audiences, judges, and even the choreographers who pepper their dance numbers with tricks.

So how does she do it? It’s this teacher’s personal rule not to use music she has heard before or a concept that she has seen onstage. Throughout the creative process she often stops herself because her mind flashes a “too typical” sign; her reaction is to go to a new artistic place. She just can’t stop herself.

This dance teacher is the same one who invents new curriculum ideas to continually attract fresh faces to her classrooms. Her goal is to constantly place herself in the category of “unique” in the pool of dance schools in her area. She knows that being different is her way of staying on top, and her enrollment numbers reflect her philosophy.

Each time she creates a new program concept, the majority of dance schools in her area follow suit by imitating her offerings. Yet those concepts usually don’t work for the other schools because they don’t have the same philosophy, personality, or clientele that this creative dance teacher does. Simply put, the competition thinks that they can re-create someone else’s success by doing what they do. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, they need to think creatively and establish programs that are unique to the characteristics of their school. That’s how to become a leader rather than a follower.

The simple message here is to do what you do best and forget about what anyone else is up to. But keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to what you see around you—take all that sensory and mental input and craft from it something distinctive. The world is your inspiration, and the diversity of that world is what we bring to you with this issue. Our focus on dance of various cultures is proof positive that there is more than one way to see the miraculous accomplishments that make up human life—and many ways to interpret them.

I believe that each of us follows a life path that is a personal journey, with the route embedded in our instinct. Having the ability to tap into that instinct can be the difference between success and failure. Know that you are a unique individual with something special to offer this world, both in dance and in life.

Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment box (below)–Rhee

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Cinderella Ball for Children April 3

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Maple Conservatory of Dance in Irvine, California, will host a Cinderella Ball Spectacular on April 3 preceding the matinee performance of Cinderella by the Maple Youth Ballet at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

Children ages 5 to 11 and their families will enjoy a light lunch, craft activities, storytime, and a special dance workshop. The ball will be held at the Student Conference Center of the University of California at Irvine, adjacent to the Barclay Theatre.

For ball tickets, call 949-660-9930. The price—$35 for children 11 and younger and seniors and $40 for adults—includes a ticket to the Cinderella matinee. (An evening performance is scheduled the same day.) Performance-only tickets are $28 for adults and $22 for children and seniors.

Also, tuition deposits are due April 1 for the conservatory’s “Mini-Intensive” Summer Sessions, with instruction in ballet technique, jazz, and conditioning for children ages 7-12. Students may sign up for sessions of five, six, seven, or eight weeks, to be offered from July 6 to April 27. No audition is required. For details, visit http://mapleconservatory.com or email info@mapleconservatory.com.

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Danspirations: The Greatest Profession in the World with Rhee Gold

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See Rhee Gold share his passion for teaching dance in this special keynote address at the 2009 DanceLife Teacher Conference presented to more 600 dance teachers and school owners from across the world. His words are thought-provoking, humorous, and refreshing as he reinforces all the reasons we have chosen to become dance educators in the first place. Viewers will feel rejuvenated as they listen to Gold explain why we’ve chosen the “greatest profession in the world!”

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Rhee’s Blog | Advice: Husband Shares Dream

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Dear Rhee,
I am one of the lucky dance teachers with a husband who supports what I do. He has dinner waiting on the table when I come home and he takes on as much responsibility with our three children as I do. For years he has been encouraging me to buy a building for my school because he calls the rent that I pay “highway robbery.” Together we have been saving for three years to come up with a down payment for a piece of land that we know is a fantastic location for the dance school of our dreams. We are ready with a down payment, building plans, and the financing to make it a reality.

The problem is that I am not sure that I want to continue teaching dance. After having my school for 11 years, I feel burned out. I’m scared that if I build this building, I may never be able to get out. This doesn’t mean that I would stop teaching now, but paying rent makes me feel that I have an out when I’m ready. I really don’t see myself doing this for another 10 years. Probably I would teach for someone else, and then later I would like to go back to school.

The problem is that my husband is so obsessed with this building that I am nervous about telling him that I don’t think this is what I want to do. I am confused because this is what I wanted when I married my husband, but my priorities have changed. I’m afraid my husband is going to be disappointed or not support my wish to continue paying rent. What would you do? —Elaine
 
Hello Elaine,
Right about now, we have many readers who are thinking, “I will take her husband and the chance to build my own building any day!” But the reality is that you can’t move forward on building this school if you are feeling burned out before you ever lay the foundation.

I am a big one for going with your instinct, especially when you have to make a life decision like this. I’m sensing that yours is telling you that this is not the right move at this point in your life. If your husband has dinner waiting on the table and is so supportive of what you do, then I have a feeling that he will also support your decision not to move forward on this project.

Maybe it’s time for the two of you to decide whether there might be another business that you could go into together. Or maybe your burnout will not last and five years from now you’ll decide that building your school is something you want to do. Whatever the next chapter is, it sounds like you are very levelheaded and that you are extremely lucky to have the husband that you do. Go with your instinct and don’t be afraid to share your feelings with your husband. All the best to you. —Rhee

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Rhee’s Blog | Advice on Burnout

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Dear Rhee
I am pooped and feel like quitting this business. I first started 17 years ago because my two girls needed a ballet studio to go to and there were none in the area. My youngest daughter graduated four years ago and now is graduating college. She shows no interest in taking over the studio and I guess I have lost my love for it because I think she wants to move on and get a job out in the world for the first time.I have been through a lot this past year: a lawsuit with a studio neighbor (which we won); starting a company for the dedicated students; taking a trip to Jamaica with 125 people; presenting the May show in a theater instead of in a high school; and hiring two grads and offering benefits for the first time. I am still teaching 36 classes a week and putting in around 75 hours a week.

It seems the studio is growing faster than I can keep up with, and I am exhausted with trying to keep it organized like my customers are used to. I am seriously considering selling it all and walking away. I am 52 and have been in business for 17 years, and not one year has been calm. This is a really tough job and I am growing weary of it all. Am I getting too old or what? I feel so overwhelmed and down. Help, please, Rhee.—Bonnie

 Hi Bonnie,
I’m sorry you feel the way you do. You mentioned that you started the school because you wanted your daughters to have classical ballet training. It sounds like you expected one or both of your daughters to take over the school or become part of the business someday; perhaps part of your frustration is due to the fact that they don’t want to do that. It’s not unusual. I’ve seen many dance teachers lose their steam when their children grow up and move on to find their own niche in the world. I think my mom was frustrated with the same thing at times. My brother, Rennie, and I had our own aspirations, and my mother found herself running a large school alone. I think she always expected that we would take over or become her partners. What’s funny is that Rennie did end up with the school many years later, but first he needed to do what he wanted to with his life.

If you think that this is part of your frustration, then it may be time for a change. You need to do what’s going to make you happy. With all the changes you’ve made and the hours you work, you have a right to be exhausted, frustrated, and insecure about how you’re going to continue to manage it all. You have no choice but to get through this season. Then it may be time to reevaluate. Could it be time to take in a business partner to take on some of the responsibility? Could it be time to cut out some of the activities or put a halt to any new projects? Or, as you said, could it be time to sell the business? You need a clear head to make the right decision. Although I don’t regret selling my business and changing my life, I do wish that I hadn’t been so emotional and I regret that I wasn’t more business minded in my decision. Think it out, and then think it out again before you do anything drastic.

You are not too old—you’re overwhelmed! But the good thing is that your business is growing, which is a sign of a successful leader. Obviously you’ve been doing something right. Now you have to look for the good things in your school and your life while you figure out how to use your success to make your future more enjoyable. Make a list of all the school-related things you love to do, and then make a list of what you don’t like or want to do. Once you know what those things are, you may have a better idea of how to head into the future. Remember, change is a part of life. Sometimes it feels hard (to say the least), but once it happens we often find ourselves wondering why we didn’t do it long ago.

I hope this helps, and I wish you all the best.

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Rhee’s Blog | An opinion-dance competition

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Rhee BlogSome dance people on Facebook post that they are going to kick butt at a competition. I wonder if they are missing the point? Are they passing the “kick butt” mentality on to their students and parents who will be disappointed if they don’t end up kicking butt? Instead should we express how excited we are to see other dancers do their thing? We need to understand that dance is a gift, not a tool to beat others? ~Rhee Gold

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Cinderella Comes to San Francisco

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DSL Dance WireRobert Moses’ Kin presents The Cinderella Principle: Try these on, see if they fit, a multimedia work that explores identity and love in non-traditional families, February 25 to 27 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California.

The Cinderella Principle features text (based on family interviews) by documentary playwright Anne Galjour, video projections by Bill Morrison, and a score by violinist Todd Reynolds, who will be performing live with beat-boxer Kid Beyond. Two works from the troupe’s repertoire, Hush and Toward September, are also on the bill.

To order tickets (at $20 to $35), visit www.ybca.org or call 415.978.2787.

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Dancers’ Menu: Pork and Onions

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DSL Dance Wire for PagesWhat’s on the mind of Arts Ballet Theatre of Florida? These days, it’s dancing pigs and mischievous onions.mail-8

Dancers from the Fort Lauderdale-based troupe will be on hand at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Aventura, Florida, at noon February 27 to act out the story of Gwendolyn, the Graceful Pig as a storyteller reads the children’s book aloud. The book by David Ira Rottenburg, who will be on hand to answer questions and sign books, tells the story of a pig who longs to dance but lacks a ballerina’s grace.

The dancers also will perform a brief show, highlighting dances from Chipollino, an all-ages ballet choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Vladimir Issaev, that will get four Florida performances in March. Chipollino’s title character is a naughty green onion whose misadventures are popular in Russia; Issaev has adapted the story for an American audience.

The troupe will perform Chipollino on March 13 and 14 at  the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale and March 20 and 21 at the Julius Littman North Miami Beach Theater in North Miami Beach.  For details and ticket information, visit wwww.balletartstheatre.org.

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Who Owns the Choreography?

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Rhee BlogHi Rhee,
I have an interesting question for you. I am a former studio owner, now teaching again for others. Just yesterday the studio owner of one of the studios I teach at called and informed me that, due to financial reasons, she can no longer keep me on. I’m not an employee (she 1099′s me) but also I do not have a formal contract. Believe it or not, that’s not my question! I am the person who has taught all the comp pieces – I taught the classes and did the choreography. She intends on still bringing these dances to competition, has said she will give me full credit. But, I feel the choreography is mine and I don’t wish it used anymore. I am not there to see to it that the choreography is done correctly, etc., and don’t feel she should profit from this. Besides the obvious lesson learned for the future (!), do you know who is right in this? Can she use this choreography because she paid me to teach the classes? Or does the choreography belong to me?
~ Anonymous

Hello Anonymous,
Sorry you have to deal with this circumstance, but this is a good topic for discussion. My opinion is that a teacher is hired by the hour. If in that hour it is verbally or contractually agreed that part of the job description includes choreography for a performance, recital or competition, then the school owns the right to utilize the choreography . . . unless otherwise specified in an initial agreement or contract.

With that said, the choreographer (teacher) should always receive credit for her work . . . if she wants it :-) .

Contracts which include a job description, choreography rights, etc. should be on the top of your priority list when you agree to teach somewhere else. Let this one go as a learning experience . . . a new door will open quickly and it will be a better one. Good luck—Rhee

Let’s see what our readers think? Feel free to comment.

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Alternative Marketing

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Rhee BlogBy Rhee Gold Rhee Gold on alternative marketing for the dance school

Community ties lead to a wealth of low-cost marketing options
Marketing—it’s a dreaded part of running a business for many dance school owners. It takes time and money and can drain even the most enthusiastic entrepreneur of creativity. But it doesn’t have to be that way. How can you build enthusiasm for your classes and your product without feeling that pressure? One great way to get the word out is by having new faces continually flowing through your school. Sometimes the joy the students show in their dancing is a better marketing tool than a brochure or website—the trick is to get people into your school to experience their enthusiasm, and that means tapping into the community. So if you’re looking for ways to bring in new faces but don’t have a huge marketing budget, these innovative, alternative marketing methods are for you.

Referral coupons
Give each current student five coupons for a free class to distribute to five of their friends or relatives. During the first month of classes, coupon holders can try a class of their choice. Some will decide to register and some will not, but even the ones who don’t are excellent prospects; get everyone’s mailing and email addresses and add them to your lists. Send them newsletters, brochures, performance notices, and registration forms. Also, if you know you will have a lot of empty seats at your recital, send these prospects a couple of comp tickets. They’ll fill the auditorium, and if they’re on the fence about taking dance lessons, an impressive recital or performance can entice them to enroll.

Free classes
Pick a class or group of students and offer them a bonus class. Make it a Friday night open hip-hop class for the students and one guest each. Why hip-hop? It’s beginner friendly, cool for everyone to do (even the boys), and it seems to help kids lose their inhibitions. That doesn’t rule out a jazz class or other forms of dance, however (though a ballet class might be too intimidating). The students will appreciate the free class, and they’ll introduce potential new students to the school. Be sure the teacher understands that the class should be fun and appropriate for beginner students.

Next, take the idea one step further and offer the same class for the parents. Ask them to bring a friend who has children who might be interested in dance. When the class is over, thank everyone for coming and hand out the school brochure, along with a coupon for a free class for their child.

An audience of future students
The next time you hold an in-studio run-through for a competition or a performance, let the dancers invite their friends to act as an audience and experience the excitement of preparing for a show. Again, hand out brochures and build your client lists.

Business to business
Identify the businesses in your community that offer a product or service for children: karate, piano lessons, gymnastics, preschools, daycare centers, and so on. Offer to do cross-marketing with them. You will stock their literature at your school and share your mailing list with them, and they agree to do the same for you. Offering links to each other’s website is an excellent way to cross-market, and it won’t cost you a penny. Also approach students’ parents who own businesses with the same cross-marketing idea. Good things can happen for both of you!

Another business-to-business concept is a performance exchange. For example, your students could do a dance demonstration at the karate school and the karate students could show off their skills at your school.

Introductory programs
Consider offering six-week programs that can start at any time of year. Courses might include creative movement or preschool, mommy and me, hip-hop, ballroom, or any kind of class you think would work in your market. Charge a flat fee without any strings attached—no costumes, no recitals, no extra expenses. Simply give them your best product: dance lessons. These short sessions often bring in those who are afraid to make a longer commitment or who aren’t sure whether their child is ready for dance classes. They might be just what the adult who always wished she had danced as a child needs in order to fulfill her dream—without jumping in full swing. Six-week programs also work well during periods when taking in new students isn’t practical—perhaps because you’re in the middle of recital choreography or the potential student doesn’t fit into the normal cycle. January is an excellent time to offer these programs.

These marketing ideas take some thought and energy, but what they don’t take is a lot of cash. Try a few of them—or come up with your own— and you may find that building ties with the community is a great way to boost enrollment.

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Rhee Gold on Recreational Dancers

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Rhee BlogThey’re not second-class citizens they’re your school’s future! 

By Rhee Gold Rhee Gold on recreational students

Why are you such an advocate for the recreational dancer?
First off, I believe that dance is an art form and that every person, whether child or adult, can experience that unique feeling that dancing gives us, whether they can do 10 pirouettes or only 1. To me it’s that inner-gut thing we should be passing on, regardless of the skill level of the student. If we as teachers lose sight of the value of the recreational dancer and focus only on our best or most promising students, then I wonder if we’ve also lost sight of why we became dance educators in the first place.

Tell me more about that inner-gut thing.
It’s that feeling that takes over when we feel the music in our dancing or the sweat is pouring off us in class. It could happen when we see a piece of our own choreography or someone else’s. It’s like a light switch that turns on the passion. And yes, I believe everyone has it, even the 11- year-old with the size 13 feet! Unfortunately, some teachers think that switch flips on only with the advanced dancers.

What do you say to teachers or school owners who tell you, “I’ve paid my dues; I don’t want to teach the recreational kids anymore?”
Believe it or not, I respond with “Not a problem!” Then I ask them, “Who will you get into your school to give those recreational dancers what they need?” Be sure you have the best people in place; then feel free to teach whom you like. But if you have the less-talented or least ambitious teachers working with your recreational dancers, that’s what you’ll get back from those students.

What are the benefits of a recreational program, to the teacher and the students?
The recreational programs are often a school’s financial backbone. A solid base of once- or twice-a-week students who are not training at a discounted tuition (like many advanced dancers do) can make or break a school.

Advanced dancers must start somewhere, and a recreational class is the place. Some will improve or develop a passion and want to take on more classes; eventually they become your advanced dancers. If you have a weak recreational program and rely on getting your stronger students from other schools, you’ll often inherit the other schools’ headaches, too. Better to build your own dancers who’ve grown up in your school and understand your philosophy.

Watching those recreational dancers grow and become more accomplished is sometimes more rewarding than working with advanced dancers, because they truly feel a sense of joy when they accomplish something. Often the advanced dancers take what they have for granted.

How do you make sure you give your recreational students the same amount of attention as your advanced or competition students?
For me it’s a quality thing. Give them good teachers who can choreograph for them, people who know how to instill a solid foundation and how to make the kids look and feel good about themselves by the end-of-the-year performance.

I don’t like to let teenagers teach the recreational kids—often younger teachers want to create great dancers and they skip the basics, going right to the big stuff without realizing that their students can’t do the material. Then the teacher and the students become frustrated, which is not good for them or the business.

How can a teacher regain her love of teaching recreational dancers?
Sit in on your recreational and preschool classes and notice the joy on the kids’ faces when they learn a basic shuffle or a simple pas de bourrée. Know that the recreational student feels great just learning the basics, which is the same thing your advanced dancers feel when they accomplish the big stuff. One doesn’t have a better feeling than the other, so why should we not be as excited for the recreational dancer as we are for the advanced one? Each of us was a recreational or preschool student once. It’s a good thing our teachers saw our potential—otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are today. Go look for students like yourself in those recreational classes!

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The Gold School on DLTV

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Rhee BlogOur family school started by my mom, Sherry Gold in the basement of our family home in 1964. Today it is located in a 10,000 square foot facility, directed by my twin brother Rennie. It is a place where the passion for the art is #1. Enjoy–Rhee

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Singling Out Soloists

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Rhee BlogBy Rhee Gold

If you’re a dancer who hits the competition circuit, you’ve noticed a trend: each year there are more and more solos at dance competitions. These soloists are dancers who have the guts to get onstage by themselves, are confident about their abilities, and aren’t afraid to accept the judges’ criticism. Most important, they are the dancers who are technically and emotionally ready for the experience. Or are they?

Twenty years ago, only a few deserving students from each studio danced solos. Today, though, just about everyone who wants to do one, does. So what’s wrong with that, you’re wondering?

Dancing a solo can be wonderful and motivational experience, but it can also be devastating. We all have seen dancers who lack confidence attempt their first solo, only to end up running offstage. Humiliation and embarrassment – two pretty nasty feelings to have as a result of doing something we’re supposed to love – take the place of the expected exhilaration and pride. In some cases, the disappointed dancer questions whether she wants to continue to dance. All this for a solo?

I’m Ready! (I Think)
You’re absolutely determined not to be embarrassed onstage, but how do you know when you’re ready to take on the challenge of a solo – and succeed?

Take a close, honest look at yourself and your dancing. You’re ready to solo when:

  • you have made a serious commitment to yourself and to dance;
  • you’re willing to go into the studio or your basement, on your own, to focus extra time on your solo;
  • you are willing to take your solo apart count by count and make sure you know what’s up technically (where your arms are on every count, what the best angles are, and so on);
  • you are willing to rehearse your solo full-out all the time in order to build stamina;
  • you are technically ready.

OK, I Know I’m Ready—Now What?
When you finally get the opportunity to have that stage all to yourself, make sure that the audience and judges can see how much you love to dance. Focusing on the floor is a sign that you’re scared or lack confidence—look right at your audience and make them feel like they know you by the time your performance is over. If you are a true dancer, the satisfaction of an excellent performance will be all the motivation you need to work harder to get better and better. Don’t judge how you feel about your performance by the size of the trophy or the color of the medal.

Music Does Matter
Put that CD down! You are not going to use the most popular song of the year for your solo, no matter how much you love it and are dying to dance to it! Everyone will be using that song, and you don’t want to be the ninth dancer performing to it. Find something different, something you’ve never heard at a competition before. Go to your favorite music store or any other place that lets you listen to music, and spend time selecting the right piece of music for your personality.

If you’re always happy and have an outgoing personality, a somber song might not be the right choice for you. But a tune from a Broadway show might be perfect. Maybe you’re experiencing love for the first time; if so, you might want to choose a beautiful lyric song that expresses how you’re feeling. If you’re a little rebellious, something totally “off the wall” might be appropriate. Whatever you choose should reflect you. Feeling strongly connected to the music gives you the extra confidence you need for a great performance.

Less Is More
I always tell dancers to leave their audience (or judges) wanting more. I think one or two good solos is enough; dancers who do four or five solos start to score lower by the time they get to the third or fourth one. Why? Because if you’re overexposed, the judges will start to focus on your flaws. Better to give one or two excellent performances than to spread yourself out to the point where none of the solos are as strong as they could be.

Walk, Don’t Run
It’s hard to be patient when you see dancers who are less talented than you performing solos at every competition. But readiness is all, so put aside your ego, take a close look at your goals and motivations, and talk to your teachers. They can offer an objective assessment of whether you’re ready to solo. Trust their judgment, do what you know you can do, and get ready for a positive performing experience!

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There’s Only One You

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Defining your studio’s unique identity

By Nancy Wozny

No two people are alike, so it follows that no two businesses are alike either. There might be a dozen dance studios in the country with identical names, all of which offer jazz, tap, and lyrical, but if you look beyond the surface, each is distinct. What makes them so? You, the school owners, that’s who. You are unique and your one-of-a-kind personality infuses your business. If there’s one idea I came away with after spending four days with roughly 500 dance teachers at the DanceLife Teacher Conference last summer, it’s that each dance studio is different.

There’s an idea going around that A-list studios have a certain look. They’re big, with several dance rooms, huge enrollments, dozens of faculty members, and snazzy competition teams. This is simply not true. Teachers aspire to their own definition of success. Here are just a few of the ways teachers I’ve spoken to describe what they do:

  • “I am a one-person dance studio.”
  • “I don’t do competitions.”
  • “We are all about performing for our local community.”
  • “I specialize in adults.”
  • “We do alternative recitals.”
  • “I want to grow my enrollment to 100.”
  • “I am hoping to reach 700 students this fall.”
  • “I work out of a community center.”
  • “I have a dance studio and a company under one roof.”

Honestly, if each school owner you ever met described her studio to you, I doubt you would hear two stories that were the same. For each of these descriptions, there are parents out there looking for exactly what those schools do.

But sometimes you hear otherwise. Books, articles, and workshops abound for dance studio owners, all telling you how best to run and market your business. Have a dress code, keep parents at a distance, emphasize classes for ages 3 to 13, get a flashy website, charge this or that fee. Dance teachers are inundated with well-meaning advice. What if you looked at these ideas as suggestions and not a set of operating instructions? How can those suggestions be adapted to fit you? You know your school and yourself better than anyone else, so pick and choose according to what best fits your unique niche in the dance world.

Define yourself
Most dance studio owners have a mission statement. Usually it says something about aspiring to the highest standards of dance education and providing a nurturing environment for learning. All of that is fine, and important—but it’s too generic. Your business has more flavor than that. What if you took it a step further and truly defined your studio’s personality? If you took over an existing studio when you opened your business, then it’s especially important to do this work.

What’s the vibe at your studio? What feeling does the school evoke? How is it different from other studios? If a stranger walked in the door and had to describe the environment in just one sentence, what would she say? How do people talk about your studio? How do you talk about your studio?

Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an “elevator speech.” Afterward, have the listeners write down three ideas that popped into their minds. How well do these ideas match with your concept of your school? Try the exercise a few times and select three sound ideas that describe you perfectly. Add them to your mission statement.

Why define myself?
Your goal is to have clarity in all that you do and portray, from the person who answers the phone to the sign on the building. When you define yourself you attract the students who could benefit most from your unique service. Sometimes studio owners think that they need to be everything to everybody. Students sometimes leave and they wonder why. There are many reasons why students leave (see “Wish They’d Stay, Wish They’d Go,” DSL, October 2008), but one is that your service was not a match for that particular student or family. And students who leave open up spaces in class for someone who is a good match. It’s an entirely different way to look at losing business: as an opportunity. The good news is that there are enough dance students out there for everyone.

OK, I have defined myself. Now what?
Ideally people discover whether there is a match between student and teacher in an actual dance class, but a lot happens before that relationship begins. Opinions are formed long before anybody steps in the door. That’s why it’s best to make sure that your entire environment, both physical and virtual, as well as your print materials, reflect your special message. Think of your entire marketing package as having a cumulative effect. It’s impossible to import your entire personality into your website or your lobby. But if you take a good look at what’s already in place, chances are you will be delighted to find that you are naturally doing this all by yourself. Now how can you do it more consciously and consistently through your entire business?

Website and print media
A website is often a potential customer’s first stop in considering your school. Take a good look at yours and rate it from 1 to 10 on how well it conveys your message. How could you get that number up? Do the photos send an accurate visual message? Do they look like the kids that you actually see at your studio? Lovely photos are wonderful, but if they send the wrong message they will attract the wrong students, and if those students are not a good fit they might eventually leave. Even a simple font change can make a difference in the online image of your school. However, a website doesn’t have to do it all, so try not to stress out about having the perfect site.

When it comes to print media the same principles apply. Images, fonts, and overall design lend specific messages about what goes on at your studio. Take out some old ads, postcards, or brochures. Are they generic? Could they fit just about any dance studio? If so, it’s time for an update. If you are working with a professional graphic designer, describe what’s unique about your business so that he or she can transfer that information into a visual image. That’s the designer’s job, not yours.

Putting more you in your studio environment
Start with your front door and signage. What does it say about you? If someone were to walk by and peek in the door, would what he saw be an accurate reflection of what you stand for? What can you change easily without spending a bundle? Signs are expensive, and you might have been limited in your choices, especially if you are located in a strip mall. Ask yourself what is changeable in a way that would be more suited to you—color, size, overall design? Or perhaps adding lights to an existing sign is an option.

Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an ‘elevator speech.’

Next move to your lobby. How is your personality present in your interior choices, color scheme, furniture, photos on the wall? All of it counts. Now take a tour to the nucleus of your business, the actual dance rooms. Are the walls blank and white? If that feels perfect for you, great; you are there. If they feel a little pale, it’s time to jazz them up with your style. Or perhaps they are still painted that ’80s mauve from two owners ago. If so, it’s time for a trip to the paint store. And maybe add some photos on the wall or update a window treatment. Never underestimate the power of small changes; think of them as putting a touch of you in your dance rooms.

You at the front desk
Many people claim that word of mouth is their best selling tool. That’s great, but what about the mouth that is doing the talking for you? Do the people answering the phone at your school reflect your values? What’s on your answering machine? Consider recording the message or writing the script yourself. The front desk staff should be familiar with your mission statement and able to convey a consistent message. From time to time it’s good to have a meeting with your faculty and staff to go through this important information.

You in your recital
Recitals are widely considered to be good selling tools, so why not have yours also connect to your mission? There are so many options for recitals these days; in fact, it’s possible to buy an entire recital in a box. Backdrops and themes, complete with music, can be ordered from a catalog, making it easier for you to put on a big show. But is it your studio’s show? Take a look at the DVD of last year’s recital. What could you change easily? It could be the venue, length, presentation style, program, costumes, choice of music, or style of dance. Here’s a good indicator of how well your recital matches you: When you sit in the audience, are you having the time of your life?

Don’t break the bank
Defining your business is an ongoing process and does not need to be done in one day or even a year. In fact, small changes work best. Start with what needs the most work. Take your time. Say you change the art in your studio. How does it feel? Was it a good move? If you are on a tight budget, hold off on buying that snazzy new couch for your lobby and do something simpler, like adding new photos to your website or changing an old ad. Think of this as a fun and creative project. Talk to your faculty about your ideas and ask them for theirs. Get feedback from friends, and notice how parents and students respond to any changes you make.

Which advice to use?
By all means, keep reading articles and attending workshops on business and marketing strategies. We can’t come up with ideas all by ourselves, and it makes sense to listen to experts. It’s what you do with the information that counts. When you reach for the pen at the bottom of your very large dance bag because you can’t wait to write down an idea and try it, that’s a good indication that it’s a good fit. When your first impression is “I would never do that,” that’s a good indication that it’s not for you—or at least not yet. Always ask yourself how an idea can be modified to fit your goals.

Defined for success
A well-defined business acts as a lighthouse, shining your bright light in the direction of just the kind of students you will love teaching. You have created a beacon of your strengths and individuality. Dance is a huge world, large enough for myriad dance studios, all offering quality dance education. There is no one perfect model for an ideal dance studio and there will never be. Celebrate your diversity and give yourself permission to teach dance to your own beat.

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Ask Rhee Gold | October 2008

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Dear Rhee,
I am writing to you because I would like to open a dance school, but I want to do it the right way. I have read your book, The Complete Guide to Teaching Dance, and it is such an inspiration to me. It makes me very excited to teach! I want to open a school because I truly feel it is my calling, but I want my fellow dance colleagues to understand that I like to work with people and that I can be their friend too.

In your opinion, what is the proper etiquette and procedure for opening a dance school in terms of respect for fellow dance colleagues? How do you go about it in way that is not offensive to established school owners in the area? Do you ask for permission to open? I want to build strong relationships between my fellow dance colleagues and myself. How can I do this? Thank you for your help. —Cheryl

Hello Cheryl,
First, thanks for your kind words concerning the book; I’m so glad you were inspired. You’ve put forth a good question that has no black-and-white answer. The fact that you ask, however, indicates that you are pursuing your dream of opening a school with an ethical foundation, and that’s a good thing.

My advice for you is to find a location within a community that doesn’t currently have a dance school. If that’s not possible, search for a place that isn’t very close to another school, especially any at which you trained or worked.

Many new school owners believe that they need to pull students from other schools to launch their businesses. But if you do that, you are launching a business with clients who will arrive at your doorstep with all their baggage from their previous school. It’s like starting with a dirty slate instead of a clean one. There will most certainly be gossip and animosity—and people who leave one school for another can be predisposed to expect more in return—after all, they helped to launch the new business.

New school owners who start from scratch have the opportunity to create policies, standards, and a philosophy through which they can see their dreams be fulfilled, as opposed to starting off feeling intimidated by clients who have become accustomed to the way their previous school did things. There is also a huge sense of satisfaction when you reach a point where you’ve trained your own dancers from the start, and you did it your way.

As for getting to know other teachers, go for it! No one understands dance teachers better than those who live the same crazy life. Build bridges right from the beginning. All the best to you. —Rhee


Dear Rhee,
I have a parent who has been with me for about eight years, and for the past four years she has been very hard to deal with. She complains, gossips, and travels from car to car in the parking lot talking to other parents about issues. We finished off the year without speaking to each other, and all the teachers are hiding from her.

Normally, if I do not want someone to return to the school, I do not send them a fall registration packet. I did not send her one, but I received an email from her asking for one. I had heard that she was going to a new studio, but we ended up with a great year at nationals and I think that enticed her to return. I know I am going to have to call her and tell her I think it would be best for her to go to a different studio. Am I wrong to ask her to go somewhere else? If not, how do I ask nicely? For the past couple of years I have tried to make her happy, but I can’t; I have had several conversations with her that ended badly. If she does not leave, one of my teachers will. Help! —Confused & Frustrated

Dear Confused & Frustrated,
Ask this mom to go to another school! You have described a toxic situation that is not good for you, your business, and the teacher who doesn’t want to continue teaching for you if this mom returns. Simply explain to this parent that you have already had several unsuccessful conversations with her and that you would prefer not to go that route again. Explain that both of you need to start this year fresh, and in her case, that means finding a dance school that will satisfy her needs. Don’t back down and you will feel a sense of relief when you start your new season without the negativity. Good luck! —Rhee


Dear Rhee,
I came to Project Motivate in November of 1998 and thoroughly enjoyed your seminar. I learned a lot about myself and found new ways to handle my business. However, during this past year the building I rented studio space in was sold, which forced me to move in the middle of the year. I had to find a place quickly and it really wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I told myself it was temporary. Then, after I moved, the business next door decided to close and a much bigger place became available.

Ten years ago I would have been happy to move to a much bigger location, run two studios, teach lots more classes, and hire more teachers. But in my heart I knew I didn’t want the added stress. So I offered to sell the business to one of my teachers, who has taught for me for the past 16 years. She was shocked by my decision to close and upset with me for retiring. I gave her all my reasons for wanting her to buy the business, but she chose to separate from me entirely and open her own school. I thought the business meant something to her, and I was sad that she didn’t want to at least carry on the name.

Since notifying my “dance family” of my decision to close, I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and concern. I am planning to have a tea at my house to say goodbye and thank them for their support. I’m not sure how to handle all the emotions and tears from the little ones, but I pray it will give me an opportunity to tell them my reasons for closing.

I’m 54 and obviously not going to sit at home and do nothing; since my studio didn’t sell I will be looking for other employment. Have you ever counseled dance teachers about how to transition from owner to employee? Teaching has been such a huge part of my life for so many years, but I guess running the studio was getting to be too much. I would appreciate your advice or suggestions. —Elaine

Dear Elaine,
It sounds to me like you did the right thing. To continue operating a school when you are feeling stressed or burned out is not good for you or your clientele. At your tea you will have the opportunity to explain your decision to the students and parents who matter most. Don’t be surprised by how many understand and respect your decision, because many of them would like to do the same thing in their own lives. Appreciate their support and then take a bit of time for yourself before moving on to the endless possibilities that await you.

As for the former teacher who opened her own school, you have to let that one go. No, maybe she didn’t do the right thing in your eyes, but if you hang on to those negative feelings, you’re not moving on from that place of stress. Who knows—maybe someday she will be your employer and she’ll have all the stress of operating a school and you’ll go home at night with nothing to think about but how good your class was that day!

There are many school owners who would be interested in hiring a teacher with your experience; or you could consult other dance school owners on how to avoid feeling stressed or burned out. Other options include choreographing for community projects or working for a company that sells dancewear or costumes. The opportunities are endless for former school owners, and I know many who say they have never been happier once they made the change.

A word of caution—don’t move too quickly. It is a good thing to stop, evaluate, and offer yourself the time to restore your passion for dance or anything else you’ve always dreamed of doing but couldn’t because of your commitment to your school. In time, you will see this period as a time to appreciate, because your future will be filled with nothing but opportunity. Good luck! —Rhee

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Hip to the Movement

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From street to studio: What the rise of hip-hop means to North American dance schools

By Michael Wade Simpson

Ever wonder why the kids of America are rushing to the nearest dance school to sign up for classes? The answer is hip-hop, and it’s a genre that poses a particular set of challenges for school owners and teachers. It can make older teachers feel out of touch and uncomfortable. Sometimes the students are undisciplined. Sometimes the lyrics are dirty—profanities aside, the words can be a minefield of innuendo. Much of the content is sexual, and some of it is demeaning to women. The lyrics can be hard to decipher, and it doesn’t help that the slang and the catchphrases change at a dizzying rate. It can make you doubt yourself: Am I being prudish here?

(Photo by Theresa Smerud)

But handled properly, hip-hop classes can be a smart addition to your curriculum. As well as boosting your enrollment, the sheer fun of the movement might lure your ballet, tap, and lyrical students to try a new class, and the cross-training will broaden them as dancers.

How can you approach hip-hop without fear? Go to YouTube.com and type in “Kids Hip-Hop Team” and check out the entry posted by “justbry.” More than a million viewers have already watched this minute-long video of four preteens getting their groove on to Missy Elliot’s “Lose Control.” This is not MTV—this is a shaky, homemade rehearsal video shot at someone’s dance studio. And typical among the thousand-plus posted comments include many voices using the special language of the young: text talk. “i think that they wer gd!!” “hey justbry, can u teach me?” “u did a gd job, well dun.” In their baggy sweats and mismatched leotards, the four girls show exactly why hip-hop has taken over the dance world. They’re not doing pole-dance–inspired, late-night street moves to some slang-laden rap anthem; they’re moving with precision, lightness, and energy. The music is pop, catchy and rhythmic, and the dance offers striking amounts of variety. What they’re doing isn’t terribly technical—these are talented 11-year-olds having fun. Dancing hip-hop.

From the streets
With its origins in New York’s predominantly African American–populated Bronx district in the 1970s, hip-hop brought us rapping, graffiti, b-boying, DJing, and beatboxing, not to mention a new way of dressing, carriage, and even talking (“dis,” “homie,” “what the dilly, yo”). The movement is now a nearly middle-aged phenomenon. And it’s homegrown. Orlando Patterson, a sociology professor at Harvard University wrote, “Like jazz, and all music created by African Americans, hip-hop is one of the few musical genres seen as thoroughly, entirely American” (see “Global Culture and the American Cosmos,” World Policy Journal, Vol. 11, 1994).

What began as folk culture, however, has been transformed by the entertainment industry. Mass communication has created a global cultural hip-hop scene, and today there are professional hip-hop artists in every country, from Senegal to Poland to China to New Zealand. Among the events slated for 2008 are the World Hip-Hop Championship, Battle of the Year, and B-Boy Championships. Will hip-hop become an Olympic event? Nothing seems to be able to stop the global excitement about this merging of dance, music, lifestyle, and image.

To the studio
“Hip-hop is always evolving,” says Tracé Francis, owner of the 7-year-old Spirit of Soul Dance Studio in Wyandanch, a working-class, African American neighborhood on Long Island, NY. “It’s not just dancing; it’s a culture. My background is in ballet and modern, but so many students were asking for hip-hop, I had to go out and find a teacher.” She reports that since starting her program four years ago, all of her classes have increased in size by 300 percent.

“If I didn’t have hip-hop [in my school] it would hurt me,” says Rocky Duvall, who runs Dance Arts Conservatory with his wife, Dorie, near West Palm Beach, FL. “It’s super-popular, a big moneymaker.” At the beginning of a summer session in June he reported, “We’re having hip-hop camp. We had 16 kids last week and 15 this week. If it had been a jazz-ballet class, we would have gotten zero.”

“Hip-hop classes are growing by leaps and bounds,” says another young studio owner, Mia Spicuzza, a professional dancer who has performed with Jessica Simpson, Taylor Hicks, and LeeAnn Rimes and has now settled in Semmes, AL, a community between Mobile and Pensacola. She opened Southern Edge Dance Center a year ago. “In four months we tripled the attendance at the studio.” She was lucky enough to find a great teacher who had recently moved into the area from New York, and even introduced an all-male hip-hop class. “Hip-hop is so high-energy, ” she says. “You can feel the movement in a freer way.”

Trying to manage all this enthusiasm has its downside, however, says Diane Horvath, who owns Strongsville Dance Company, in a suburb of Cleveland. While the hip-hop classes bring in lots of new dancers—enough for her to be able to offer sections for grades 3 to 6, 7 to 8, and 9 to 12—there were challenges at recital time. “The new students had some problems with the studio policies. They didn’t want to wear the capri pants and tights everyone was wearing, and a few of them wouldn’t stay backstage for the entire performance.

 “It’s a great boon for the studio,” she continues, “but I feel like some of the girls are not as dedicated. They have poor attendance. When you’re working on a routine, it’s hard to count on everyone being there. Last year we had 17 girls in the hip-hop class and some quit the day of dress rehearsal.” Horvath attributes the girls’ lack of dedication to the fact that they didn’t grow up at the studio. “They’re there because it’s cool, because their friends are there. They watch it on TV and then sign up for class, but then they don’t want to spend the least amount of effort. They find out it’s a lot harder than they thought.”

Horvath admits she feels somewhat behind the times with the hip-hop phenomenon. Early last summer she sighed in relief when she began to describe the Princess Camp she was running that week, in which the little ones get to be a different princess each day. “Tomorrow is our Cinderella day,” she said.

Keeping up with the times takes a diligence that requires new resources, especially when it comes to the sexual content that is often related to hip-hop music. Horvath laughs when she tells the story of a popular song she had heard, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by rapper Soulja Boy, which she was envisioning as a number in the spring routine. “Some of the little kids knew the dance from TV,” she says. “I was going to do a boys’ number.”

But the youngsters warned her that the innuendo in the lyrics might not go over well with their parents. “I use lyrics.com, where you type in the name of the song and print out all the lyrics. I study every song, or make sure that my teachers do,” says Horvath. In this case, however, it was all about the hidden meaning. “So I found another website, an urban dictionary,” she says. That’s where she discovered, to her great embarrassment, how inappropriate the song really was.

“You have to keep it appropriate,” says Duvall, “but in the case of almost any hip-hop or R&B music, there is going to be a sexual connotation. Britney Spears is on the news every day. The kids see it; they see the videos; they listen to the music. But as a parent and an educator, I have to keep things appropriate.”

Duvall took a group of dancers to a recent event, The Pulse, a mini-convention where judges from So You Think You Can Dance critiqued student performances in the same manner as on the TV show. “There was one group of little girls who came out bumping and grinding, and the judges called them on it, slapped their hands. ‘How could you allow 10- to 14-year-old girls to move like that?’ they said. I was so happy. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

“I’ve seen hip-hop numbers to the theme from Star Wars and [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Ease on Down the Road,’ ” says Francis, who shares Horvath’s and Duvall’s concern about the age-appropriateness of both music and movement. She offers several solutions to the problem of inappropriate music. “I try to filter all the music at the studio. There are hip-hop and contemporary R&B artists who have songs with non-suggestive lyrics, such as Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Common, and many of the ‘old skool’ artists like Will Smith, Heavy D and the Boyz, Hammer, and De La Soul.” In addition, she points out that gospel artists like Kirk Franklin, Tonéx, and Tye Tribbett have songs that are considered “gospel hip-hop” and have more of an inspirational message. Plus, she says, “with technology advancing the way it has, it is easy to change the tempo of many of the older songs, which often tend to have a slower beat than today’s music. Hip-hop dance is not all about booty shaking, which unfortunately we see a lot of at some dance competitions and in the media.”

Francis sets limits on classes as well as music. “We don’t offer hip-hop until age 11,” she says. “In my opinion, children younger than that are not mature enough to handle all that comes with it.” For the younger students she offers alternatives like jazz and a stepping class she calls “Stomp the Yard.”

Gearing the dancing to the age group is key, according to Francis. “Our hip-hop choreographers always have a story behind every dance. It may be along the lines of ‘I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll accept you the way you are,’ or ‘Things that happen in life are only going to make you stronger when you get older,’ or ‘When you get older, you are going to take over the world.’ ” You have to be ready to tell that story in your hip-hop, she says. “It’s different when you’re 8 versus 11 or 12, or a teen. You’ve been through more in life.”

What’s ahead?
With all the kids walking in off the streets in their baggy clothes, will anyone want to wear tights and leotards anymore? Will they only want to stomp in their sneakers and street shoes and refuse to put on a pair of tap shoes or ballet slippers or dance in bare feet? Will there still be room for technique? According to Duvall, yes, no, and yes. “Look at So You Think You Can Dance,” he says. “You have to be able to do ballroom. I can’t see a hip-hop dancer winning, but the other night they told a ballet dancer he was too stiff, had to loosen up a little and get down into the floor.” That’s how hip-hop helps, he says.

“Hip-hop definitely helps with [the kids’] overall stage performance,” agrees Horvath. “You have to hit everything hard and sharp. That’s not easy for a ballet dancer.”

“I tell the girls who want to get better that everything comes from ballet,” says Spicuzza.

Duvall, who performed for years in regional theater and met his wife during his “gypsy” period of dancing on cruise liners, says, “These days you have to be a triple threat plus—you have to be able to act, sing, and dance—and within dances, you have to know a lot of styles.”

Francis, who just sent a dancer off to join the cast of The Lion King, says the goal, ultimately, is not becoming a professional for most of her students, technique aside. “They want to be teachers or doctors, but they are good at dance as well. Dancing contributes to their well-roundedness.” At her studio, she has shown how hip-hop can be inspirational. On occasion, she will offer hip-hop class with gospel music. “There are ways to provide a class,” she says, “without sacrificing what you believe in or losing your integrity.”

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On My Mind | August 2008

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by Rhee Gold

Ahhh! A new season is in the works—and so are all those ridiculous phone and email inquiries from the parents of “exceptional” children. Here’s one of my favorites: “My 3-year-old does all the dances with the contestants on So You Think You Can Dance—it’s like she has already been dancing for 10 years! Do you have an advanced class for 3-year-olds?” And here’s another one I’ll never forget: “We just put a jungle gym in the backyard, where my daughter, who is 6, has been swinging and flipping herself all day, every day for the last couple of weeks. I know that she has the potential to be an Olympic gymnast. Can she take class with the 12-year-olds because she already has all the basics she needs?”

Those kinds of calls make many school owners wonder if parents are nuts; yet most of them aren’t. They are just extremely proud of their children and lack any knowledge of dance training.

Another interesting thing I have come to learn is that dance teachers are not immune from behaving just like those crazy parents who leave them dumbfounded. At one of my seminars a dance school owner proclaimed that her 4-year-old was better than all the kids at her school. She said she didn’t know what to do because even the teenagers’ classes weren’t challenging enough for her daughter! It’s not often that I am left speechless, but I was at that moment. All I could wonder is what those teenagers (and their parents) thought about having a 4-year-old in their class. Could it be that they interpreted this school owner’s actions as favoritism for her daughter? You bet!

As maddening as those crazy inquiries are, I advise you to welcome them. Why? Because you understand that it’s natural for some parents, especially those who have preschoolers, to think that their children have abilities way beyond their years. Most simply want you to listen to their story as if you’ve never heard one like it before. Once they have had the chance to say what they need to about their child, then it’s your opportunity to begin educating them about dance training.

If you handle these parents’ proud declarations and inquiries with patience, you just might have the honor of having those “exceptional” children at your school from their preschool years all the way through high school. By that time you’ll have educated both the parents and the children about the joys and demands of dance training. And you just might have created some lifelong dance lovers in that family, which you never could have done if you hadn’t had patience with that proud parent (whom you might be just like, given the opportunity!).

There’s a lot more to the start of the season than answering parents’ questions and starting new client relationships, and our Season Opener issue is packed with information to help you. Do you want to get more organized and improve your school’s image? Ever wondered what improvisation could do for your students or how you can juggle being a mom and a studio owner? Do you need tips on how to encourage boys to keep coming to your classes? Are you considering bartering with a client or community member, interested in hiring a front-desk person, or wondering if a dance degree is really worth it?

We’ve got all that covered, plus more! This month you’ll learn about the pleasures of teaching adults—especially those whose hair is tinged with gray—and gain some practical advice about that oh-so-important art, the pas de deux. We’ve got a fun dance quiz to share with your students and staff, plus a grab bag of “Collective Wisdom,” terrific ideas from your fellow dance teachers.

This issue is a meaty one, so kick off your shoes and settle down for a good read. Then get ready to kick off one terrific new dance season!

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Front-Runners and Guardian Angels

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Desk staffers are a necessity, not a luxury, in any dance school

By Debbie Werbrouck

You’ve invested the morning planning lessons and creating choreography. You’ve spent the afternoon searching for the perfect sequins to accent a set of costumes. Now you’re headed into class, ready to give your students your all—but the phone is ringing and a parent wants to schedule a makeup class. While you’re grabbing the phone, pulling out your planner, and glancing anxiously toward your waiting class, another parent brings in an overdue payment and a student dashes in saying that her baby sister put her doll down the toilet. You drop everything and head to the bathroom, where water is flowing across the restroom floor.

Does this sound like a typical day in your life? If the answer is yes, then you need help. Whether you supervise a faculty of dozens or are a one-person operation, having front desk staff is a necessity, not a luxury.

The benefits
A receptionist gives your school a professional look and feel. More important, having one frees you to focus on teaching and the big-picture aspects of running a school. Even if you handle all your own bookwork, having someone else take payments, answer the phone, and register students allows you to concentrate on your classes. Plus, that person provides a buffer between you and your clients. You can work on Susie’s glissades while your staff person explains why students are required to be at rehearsals or goes over payment records with a mother who is sure she paid for last month’s classes.

Think about it: You won’t be the “bad guy” by saying no to a request for an extension on tuition payments—that’s your desk staff’s responsibility. Instead, you will be the lovable teacher who gives wonderful benefits to your students. You will no longer have to deal with an irate parent immediately before you have to be at your best for a class of 12 preschoolers; instead, your buffer person will explain that you are in class—but she would love to help, or perhaps she could take a message? And if the issue at hand is something that you do have to handle personally, at least you’ll have fair warning and enough time to gather your facts and thoughts.

Hiring hints
Where do you find these guardian angels? Right in your own backyard, because you will hire and train them yourself. But don’t fall into the common trap of hiring mothers of current students for these positions. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, hiring someone who has no vested interest in or connection to the school is best.

So how do you find suitable prospects? Running a classified ad and posting flyers at local colleges and business schools are good options. And don’t forget networking. Maybe you’re acquainted with someone at a bank, office, or store whose attitude and work ethic impress you. You could lay the groundwork for a possible future working relationship by talking shop together. Then, when you’re ready to hire someone, let that person know that the job is open and hand over your business card. If he or she is interested, you’ll get a call, at which point you can issue an invitation to visit your school to learn more about it.

Once potential applicants have responded to your job posting, the next step is to filter through them. The best way is to have them fill out an application. Carefully review the applications to choose the most qualified candidates and then follow up with interviews with your top choices. Another method is to ask applicants for a resume in lieu of filling out a job application; however, not everyone has a resume, and it’s best not to limit the pool of qualified applicants by requiring one.

A receptionist gives your school a professional look and feel. More important, having one frees you to focus on teaching and the big-picture aspects of running a school.

Do follow through on checking information and references. It’s not uncommon for people to “enhance” their job histories. Ask current or former employers if they would hire the person again and whether they observed the personal and professional qualities and skills you’re looking for.

The interview
Bookstore shelves are filled with ideas for techniques that can be used in the interview process. The front desk position at your school probably requires fewer technical skills than are needed in some businesses, but do think about which kinds of experience you need. Handling money? Phone skills? Working with adults and children? Technical skills such as computer use, typing speed and accuracy, or spreadsheet experience? (Make sure to verify these skills with the candidate’s references.)

The interview should include a detailed job description. Don’t surprise employees with duties they didn’t expect, such as emptying wastepaper baskets or wiping fingerprints off windows and doors.

Several personality traits are essential in a school environment. Good candidates will be friendly and outgoing, neat in appearance, and well spoken, with a warm yet professional tone and good grammar. This employee will represent you and your business and deal with your customers on a daily basis, so choose the image that you want him or her to project. Of course you want the impression to be a positive one.

The main objective of your front desk staff is to handle business in a manner that makes your customers happy. Of paramount importance is the ability to handle stressful situations calmly and with assurance. Of course, confidence increases with experience, but someone in this position needs to be in control right out of the box. That is why it is so important that your staff knows your policies and understands the reasoning behind them, as well as when exceptions can be made.

If a candidate lacks prior experience in the dance business, that can be good; that way, you can train your new employee in your own methods. And train her you must. Your school has many procedures that she will need to learn. Give her samples of all of your printed materials so that she can become acquainted with your school. You should also have a reference manual that contains procedures for your school’s operations. If you’re a techie, you may want to make a training video or DVD for new employees.

Training
One effective way to train a new employee is to have her shadow you or a seasoned staff person. This can be an invaluable aid in helping her understand the “personality” of your school and adopt the proper tone in interacting with clients. How do you want customers treated? How do you deal with problems? How much authority does the front desk staff have?

Role play is a great way to introduce a myriad of situations and work through them with no risk of damage if they are not handled as you would like. Remember not to correct too quickly. Let new employees work through each situation to the end; then offer comments and corrections.

Your front-desk staffers need to know what to do and how much latitude is allowed, in everything from how you want the phones answered to which decisions they are authorized to make (for example, waiving late fees). As their experience increases, so should their level of authority in making decisions. If every question or transaction continues to require your input, then you are not freeing yourself as you intended.

If you hire someone who has no background in dance, take the time to explain the different styles that you offer and the progression that you use. Explain which levels require age or ability minimums and how students are placed in classes or promoted from level to level. Explain your philosophy on dance as well as your teaching style. Having the new person observe or even participate in some classes will increase understanding of the process. After some exposure to your classes, those who are new to dance will gain an understanding of dance education in general and the workings of your school in particular.

Plan to spend considerable time on the training process. Of course you could do what the new person is doing faster yourself. Yes, it will take an investment of your time to train a new person—but think of it as building a clone of yourself. That investment will pay off eventually, in more available time for you to spend on the activities that are important to you.

Presentation
Be clear about your expectations regarding attire. Do you expect your desk person to wear a suit, or are jeans acceptable? How much jewelry and makeup is OK? How do you feel about piercings and tattoos? What level of neatness do you expect? Is their style of clothing acceptable, but it looks like they pulled it out of a laundry basket just before coming to work? Speak up right away, and be specific so that you won’t have an issue when someone shows up sporting a new look that makes you cringe.

Talk about the importance of maintaining professional decorum and point out how easily casual conversations can drift into unacceptable territory. Make it clear that you do not allow staff members to discuss any student’s, parent’s, or other employee’s personal information with anyone.

Part of being professional is being on the job at all times; don’t forget to specify what is allowed as far as accepting personal phone calls or visitors during working hours.

On the job
How will your new employee be paid—hourly or by salary? How and when will you evaluate performance? Can you offer any benefits, such as insurance or a retirement plan? Before you say that benefits are beyond your financial ability, check into supplemental insurance programs, which you can offer but are paid for by the employee (or whatever arrangement works for you). In addition, there are retirement plans that are quite reasonable for yourself that you can also offer to your employees. Another type of benefit is allowing employees or their families to take classes without charge.

Maintain a system for monitoring the work of your office staff. Work hard to make communication clear. Expect mistakes along the way, but also expect that they won’t be repeated.

Hire slowly; fire fast
If you are careful in the hiring and training processes, you should soon be enjoying a happy working relationship. But if not,
make a change. The saying “Hire slowly but fire fast” is good advice. If an employee is not working out, it is in everyone’s best interest to end the employment as soon as possible. But most hiring that is done with care will produce good results and you, your business, and your new employee will enjoy success.

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Common Ground: for teachers and students | Beating the Back-to-School Blues

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The start of the dance season is tough on everyone—here’s how to make it smooth sailing

By Misty Lown

The dance season is full of hectic activity and trying situations all year long, but back-to-school time has its unique challenges. Every fall, school owners, teachers, and students suffer from the back-to-dance blues—even if they do think that studying or teaching dance is the greatest occupation in the world.

In September, nobody knows where to go or when to be there. New teachers botch policy, parents are frazzled, and kids are confused by new schedules. Shoes that were purchased big “for growth” at recital time no longer fit. Leotards are lost and summer haircuts try the patience of even the best bun-makers. Parents discover that their child’s favorite teacher has left and that the class their child “had to have” is now at the same time as volleyball practice. Young children who are not yet used to a full day of school struggle to find the energy for classes. High school students feel the absence of last year’s seniors and notice who didn’t come out for the performance company. And every student thinks he or she should be in a higher level.

After years of telling myself, “This September will be better,” I realized that the only way that was going to happen was to get some new systems in place. Who has time for a nervous breakdown during the third week of classes? Here are some actions school owners can take that will help everyone beat the September blues.

Getting in the groove again
Don’t start your season on empty! Make sure to take time to recharge your creative juices and revisit the reasons why you became a teacher in the first place. (And encourage your staff to do the same.) Summer is a great time to get out of the studio, take a class, take in a show, or attend a convention. Don’t underestimate the power of mutual encouragement and time spent planning for a new season. Attitudes are contagious. Getting fueled up before classes start will ensure that yours is worth catching.

Gearing up
Every teacher wants to start the season off with a standard of excellence, and that means enforcing the dress code. If your school has an in-studio boutique, that’s difficult to do when you run out of stock after the first day of classes. To combat that problem we hold a “Back to Dance” open house during the third week of August. Its primary purpose is to get students outfitted with shoes, leotards, tights, and warm-ups for the season. We transform the entire studio into a dancewear warehouse. All of the staff members and even some senior students assist with fitting shoes and dancewear. After the open house we restock the boutique back to standard levels, which is usually enough to handle the traffic for opening week.

Hosting the open house has offered some unexpected benefits. First, current students can make any needed schedule changes before the first day of classes, which cuts down on the traffic at the front desk during opening week. Second, I can give new students (especially preschoolers) a personal tour of the studio, which I might not have time for on the first day of classes. This extra time and attention helps new students and their parents feel like part of the “studio family” from day one and gives me a jumpstart on learning new students’ names. (Another great benefit is the free advertising and student leads the open house provides.)

Slaying the promotion dragon
I once heard someone say that the problem with dance lessons is that there is no belt system, like in martial arts, that measures a student’s progress. Martial arts students are continually promoted, progressing at the speed of a gazelle. As teachers—but often, not parents or students—know, dance education doesn’t work that way. Progress in dance is measured in minutiae—a little more turnout, better arms, improved balance or flexibility—which are hard for students and parents to see.

I notify my students of their placement for the next season in the registration packet, which they receive shortly after recital. I can always tell when the packets have arrived because the studio phone starts ringing off the hook with questions, mostly about level placement. I used to try to justify my decisions (based on testing records, attendance records, age, and attitude), but often I felt pushed into promoting a student who promised to take private lessons during the summer. Usually those lessons never happened, and in the fall I would be disappointed that I hadn’t trusted my gut when the students couldn’t keep up with the higher level.

Two years ago I instituted a “wait and see” policy with all requests for level adjustments. That means that if Suzy was not promoted from Ballet II to Ballet III, she needs to register for Ballet II even though she believes she is ready for Ballet III. I visit every class during September and consult with teachers to see if anyone is out of place. Nine out of 10 times I was right to keep the students in the same level, and most of them don’t ask to be moved up again because they see that they weren’t the “only one” (as they had feared) who wasn’t promoted.

The ultimate organizational tool
My number-one tool for getting through September is simple: a notebook. I carry it with me at all times during the first few weeks of classes, jotting down questions, suggestions, concerns, schedule conflicts, and ideas to make next season’s first week run smoother. There is no organization to it; it’s just a running of list of everything I need to remember. If I can’t be at the studio, I leave the notebook at the front desk and anything I need to know about is logged in there by the front desk staff or teachers. Then later I go through the list to organize, prioritize, and delegate. It’s not fancy, but it sure beats trying to remember every parent’s questions, tracking message slips, or running to the front desk to write myself a note that I’d probably lose anyway.

Communicating
Many employers assume that their staff members, especially longtime teachers, understand how things are done. But every year I am reminded by our new teachers that much of what we do is part of our studio culture and is not documented in policy.

One way to increase understanding and communication is to have a staff meeting in August. I schedule ours for two days, during which we cover curriculum, classroom management, and general studio policies. There are special sessions for younger teachers and one for everyone to make sure we all take the same approach to common technique issues, such as pirouette preparation. Spending the time and money to get the teachers together at the beginning of the season builds consistency and community for the entire season.

Introducing new teachers
Students and parents are often shocked to see a new face at the front of the classroom. Even though I include bios for new teachers in the registration materials, placing a “New Faces” display in the lobby helps families get to know the new teachers—and it makes the teachers feel welcome. The baseball-card–style display includes a picture and stats for each teacher, including her hometown, home studio, number of years teaching, favorite style of dance, embarrassing dance moment, favorite quote, and a goal for this year’s classes. The transition to a new teacher is eased when parents and their children look at the display and talk about how fun it will be to experience someone different. Without this internal PR tool, I would be spending a lot of time in the hallways reassuring parents and relaying credentials.

Easing first-week jitters
Students often don’t know where to go for their classes on the first day, so during the first week of classes I use a system called “Signs & Sisters.” In the lobby is a huge whiteboard that lists the class information for the day, including room assignments. A crew of senior-level students in studio T-shirts (the “sisters”) walk the young students to their classes, assist with shoe fittings for those who haven’t purchased the basics, and keep things picked up. The “sisters” help new students feel welcome, with the fringe benefit of making me feel like I’m on top of things instead of running in all directions at once.

Optimizing the start of classes
One year I lost 15 students in the first week of classes because they said they were too tired to dance. The problem, I discovered, was that I had started dance classes the same week that school began. I have never made that mistake again. Now the students have a full week back at school before starting dance classes. That period of adjustment has made all the difference in complaints about fatigue. Last year only one student questioned her stamina during the first week, and she happened to be 5. The next week, a nap before class took care of the problem.

Providing continuity
The beginning of the year can bring a sense of loss for students. That’s when they fully realize that the seniors are gone or so-and-so has joined the school drama group instead of taking dance. Acknowledging their absence eases the transition. Keeping tabs on alumni who are dancing in college or in companies shows that you haven’t forgotten them. Often they are role models for your current dancers, so provide updates on their activities and invite them to visit the studio or take class when they’re in town.

There’s only one you
Even with the best planning and preparation, September will be filled with long hours and dozens of questions. So take care of your physical and mental health. Eat well, get enough sleep, and most important, get out of the studio! Take a walk, go shopping, develop a hobby, or have coffee with a friend (preferably someone who doesn’t like dance). And if you still need a break, there’s always curling up on the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and watching TV for a couple of hours. If you’re wired like most dance studio owners, you’ll be itching for the action again before you know it!

Just for Students

How to help yourself get off to a good start in September
Dance classes are often the last activity to get squeezed into a busy fall schedule. So be realistic about what you can handle and still maintain your grades, health, and sanity. Start out with ballet, tap, and jazz classes; then, if you are managing your schoolwork, school activities, and dance classes well by the end of September, go for adding lyrical, pointe, hip-hop, or whatever else you’re inclined to study. You’ll be better served in the long run by building a foundation of the basics rather than attending classes in every style of dance in a hit-or-miss fashion.

About three weeks into every school year students start calling in sick. In addition to setting a realistic schedule, you can avoid getting sick by following some old-fashioned advice:

  • Get to sleep at a reasonable, regular time (ideally before 11 p.m.).
  • Eat a good breakfast.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Wash your hands often. (Do you have any idea how germy ballet barres are?)

But here’s some modern advice too: Turn off your cell phone at night, and don’t spend more time on Facebook than on your schoolbooks. Developing healthy habits not only helps beat back colds and the flu, it helps prevent injury as well. When you’re overtired or dehydrated, you increase your risk of injury, which could sideline you for weeks or months at a time. Don’t let that happen to you!

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High Tech Meets Home on the Range

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Traditional dance training, a family atmosphere, and computer wizardry on a California ranch

By David Favrot

There’s not much, from the looks of things, to tell you that a 20-acre horse ranch near Sacramento in Northern California may be spawning a big step forward in dance stage production. Baseline Road in Placer County is flat, pre-tornado Wizard of Oz territory: golden-brown fields, barbed-wire fences, hand-painted signs touting “Fresh Strawbaries [sic] 4 Sale,” and the blue outline of the Sierra Nevada far off to the east. But there are clues in addition to the easy-to-miss sign for the ranch that’s home to Dance Gallery 2. Check out the license plates in the driveway: “THE DG2” on the red Chevy Trail Blazer, and on the black Ford pickup, “EFX CTRL,” as in “effects control.” That’s Doug McLemore’s specialty. Dance Gallery 2 is run by its founder, Doug’s wife, Lucy, while Doug handles the technical end of its staged performances.

Though the school's sign announces its presence, you'd never guess there would be a dance school in this open ranchland. (Photo courtesy Dance Gallery 2)

The school gets a lot of use out of its single 35-foot-by-25-foot suspended-wood studio floor—“I’m old- school,” Lucy says of the floor. Last year it took a pounding from about 580 students from age 3 to adult, she says, taking ballet, tap, jazz, break-dancing, and hip-hop under a staff of 5 choreographers, 6 paid teachers, 21 student teachers, and 12 junior student teachers. One of her former students, 21-year-old Dominic Sandoval, has his own break dancing crew and was one of eight finalists on Fox television’s So You Think You Can Dance in the 2007 season. This fall he is touring the country with the stage show based on the series. Lucy admits she still cringes when she sees him spinning on his head or shoulders, with a concern that’s both professional and motherly: Dominic, she says, sometimes stays in a room downstairs from the studio, where he studied jazz, tap, and ballet and also taught for three years.

While Dominic obviously can hold his own with top-level talent, Dance Gallery 2 doesn’t enter into competitions with other schools or encourage rivalry among its own students. They get trophies and plaques—even a dozen roses for students with 15 years’ attendance—but not for besting other students. “Once you enter through our studio door, everybody is a star,” Lucy says.

That policy stems from her experience with her son, Brandon, now a 21-year-old college student. When Brandon, who is autistic, was a boy, “I opened the ranch so I could be home with [him],” Lucy explains. “He had an incredible passion for dance. He never missed a rehearsal,” she recalls. But he was so focused on his own performance that his sense of ensemble was undependable. “If the other kids in class all turned to the right and he turned to the left, he was right and they were wrong.” She ended up expanding her nonjudgmental classroom treatment of Brandon to her other students, with the mantra “It’s OK to make a mistake. You just try it differently the next time.” Her students’ parents don’t seem to have a problem with the policy, she says.

Instead of competitions, Dance Gallery 2 gives students two yearly opportunities to perform: a recital in December and a staged production in June. The shows are where Doug McLemore snags a starring role, though when the lights go down, he’s in the back of the auditorium with his laptop. In his non-dance hours, Doug works part-time doing information technology support for a California state agency, drawing on more than three decades of computer expertise.

The path to that expertise was no straight line. It began with stints in a succession of Sacramento-area junior colleges, followed by two years in the military. Doug flew Chinook cargo helicopters in Vietnam during the war years of 1970 and 1971. On one mission his copter, almost entirely without armor, came under fire as he delivered a load of water to fight a fire on a U.S. base south of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) that had come under Vietcong mortar attack. That day of combat earned Doug the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest combat award for bravery awarded by the U.S. military.

His postwar years found him working in his father’s air-filter manufacturing plant in Roseville, north of Sacramento, where Doug got fed up with the factory’s sluggish output. So he automated the factory—robotics was “something I just picked up” as he worked, he says. When he had finished, a plant that used to take 10 to 15 minutes to cut 12 filter frames could produce a frame in about 15 seconds.

So when Doug met Lucy through one of his grade-school buddies in 1993, he recalls, she saw a man with technical expertise. “She asked me what she asked everybody: ‘Can you help me with my show?’ ” He ended up calling the cues for her dance school’s stage production. He’d never done it before; his biggest previous show-biz experience was playing drums in a local rock group called The Average Garage Band. That first dance-school show was decidedly low-tech. “We had a guy out in the audience with a cassette player and a headset” supplying the music, Doug says. But he liked  his role and got good at it.

These days, Doug also shoots live video of the performances and builds the sets on the ranch in a big metal shed, home during the off-season to a fog machine, sets and props from previous shows (including, on a recent visit, a fake upright piano in blond wood with painted keys), and the occasional black widow spider.

Doug builds the sets in a big metal shed, home during the off-season to a fog machine, sets, and the occasional black widow spider.

“Spiders” of a different kind are a big part of Doug’s contribution to stage technique. These wireless, remote-control gizmos are his response to the growing complexity of school dance productions. Audiences may be there mostly to watch little Suzie’s three minutes in the spotlight, but they’ve also seen Beyonce’s videos and Justin Timberlake’s shows and Cirque du Soleil, so the challenge of staging a jaw-dropping show without a Vegas showroom budget—so that “when Grandma and Grandpa come, Grandpa won’t be grumpy and complaining,” as Doug puts it—grows and grows. That means ever-more-elaborate sets (and more of them), with costumes, lighting, and stage effects to match. And that, in turn, means hundreds more cues on split-second timing for the backstage crew, with the accompanying risk of mishaps.

Not that you would have noticed these challenges in Dance Gallery 2’s most recent show, The Headlines. It’s drenched in film-noir atmosphere, reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal video, and set to an eclectic score that zooms from Rhapsody in Blue to “Ain’t No Other Man.” A five-minute opening video—shot in color in abandoned offices in Sacramento and then converted to black-and-white for that doom-laden 1940s look—sets the scene: A gangster’s moll is phoning a tip to a reporter and setting up her two-timing lover for arrest at a nightclub. The video ends, and on the dimly lit stage we see dancers huddled for warmth around a barrel that bursts into flames . . . and it’s dance time, with principal choreography by Nick Willrich assisted by, among others, Dominic Sandoval and Lucy’s daughter, 23-year-old Summer Cedarleaf.

Long after the show, in his gadget-crammed den downstairs from the dance studio, Doug sits at his laptop with a CD player, a tape deck, and other audio gear in a 3-foot-high stack at his elbow and puts the onstage barrel through its paces. His stage cue system runs on software that combines the features of an audio mixing board and a multitrack recording and editing setup, so he can control the recorded stage music as well. His laptop screen displays a series of horizontal lines, each one tracking a dance, lighting, or stage-effect cue (indicated by a small, vertical hash-mark). As the program runs, the lines track steadily from right to left and Doug can broadcast his cues to the backstage crew, wearing wireless headsets, or to stage monitors.

Doug’s innovation is this: Some stage effects, including the barrel, are fully automated, though that feature can be overridden in an emergency. Fastened under the barrel is a battery-powered radio receiver that’s connected to an air compressor. When its programmed cue comes up, the receiver gets an automated radio command and activates the compressor. As it blows air up through the open top of the barrel, a cluster of suspended fabric strips flutters in the breeze while a simultaneous lighting cue bathes the strips in a red glow, and you have a “burning” barrel.

Doug calls his radio receivers “spiders” because they have eight outputs, just as spiders have eight legs, to operate up to eight stage devices simultaneously. The automated cueing system, Doug says, can control up to 2,048 such devices, which run on batteries or household current. Its radio signal has a half-mile range. Radio interference—from, say, someone punching a garage-door opener down the street—isn’t a problem because commands are transmitted in computer code. With a 45-minute show involving up to 500 stage cues, the spiders let him concentrate on the tricky parts and give him what he calls “ ‘dream freedom.’ We can make this look like a professional show.”

All this doesn’t come cheap. The software comes in three versions that range in price from $300 to $2,500. Though Doug works with the equivalent of the top-of-the line model, he says he could call a show with the cheapest version in a pinch. In addition, he figures the spiders and control modules cost between $1,500 and $2,000, with another $10,000 for computer gear. As for putting it all together, he’s thinking about ways he can market his system or be a consultant for dance studios that want to duplicate it. In any case, his setup is definitely a “Kids, don’t try this at home” project unless you happen to be a software engineer.

Or, unless you’re married to one. Lucy McLemore got an early start in the business end of dance: She opened her first studio at age 14, teaching neighborhood children in her hometown of White Bear Lake, MN (north of Minneapolis). Lucy, the child of a Japanese mother and French father, caught stage fever at age 10 as one of the students in a production of The King and I. She opened a second studio at 18 and a third when she was 21.

Her dance training began at age 4 at the Larkin School of Dance in Maplewood, MN, and the Andahazy Russian dance school in Minneapolis. Her subsequent tutors included Gus Giordano and Frank Hatchett. If you were watching TV’s disco-dancing contest show Dance Fever back in 1979, you’ve seen Lucy—she and her partner were first-place finishers that year. In addition to a wardrobe—and let’s throw a veil of charity over the tight-pants-and-polyester fashions of the day—they won an eight-track tape machine rigged up with lights that blinked in time to the music.

After a stint as a dance instructor and entertainer with Princess Cruise Lines (then called Sitmar Cruise Lines) in the early 1980s, Lucy worked as a choreographer and teacher before opening Dance Gallery 2 in 1991. In addition, she has worked with Showcase Productions in preparing parades, performances, and workshops at Disneyland and Walt Disney World with her husband as the official videographer.

In keeping with what Lucy calls the “family feeling” she seeks in dance education, her studio’s adjoining lounge is equipped with sofas, a television, a pool table, and a dartboard for the comfort of parents waiting while their children take class—in farm country, it’s a long drive to the nearest Starbucks. Parents sometimes bring picnics and hang out all day, Lucy says. But she also puts them to work: The moll, mobster, reporter, and other players in the short video that opens The Headlines were all volunteer non-actors. At the end of the workday, Doug typically leaves his high-tech hideaway, comes upstairs, and cooks dinner for the teaching staff. Now that’s family.

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Positive Parent Relations

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Are parents your pet peeve? Here’s how to make them a pleasure.

By Debbie Werbrouck

My sister has a plaque in her kitchen that reads: “If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy.” It might be a good sign to post in every dance school office and faculty room.

Julie Bodle (second from left), assistant director of Debbie Werbrouck’s School of Dance, and receptionist Cyndee Bergstrand (right) review an information packet with parents and answer questions. (Photo by Debbie Werbrouck)

No matter how wonderful the faculty and classes are, no matter how much fun the students have, for a school to work well the parents must also be happy. Building positive parent relationships makes everyone happy and makes your job as a dance educator or school owner much easier. Every teacher and parent interviewed for this article named communication as the key factor in this endeavor.

Communication
School owners should make sure that the parents of the students that they accept into their school match the type of school they have. Trying to turn recreational dancers into ballerinas or giving students who have serious aspirations classes that don’t challenge them will set everyone up for frustration.

Parents should be given the information they need to determine whether your school is compatible with their values. Do you have policies for attendance and dress codes, or is it acceptable for students to miss class for a few weeks and wear what they want to? Can parents observe classes at any time, or do you have specific observation days? What you may consider as standard practice may be perceived as rigidity by some parents, especially those without a dance background.

Registration time is always busy, but it is also your first encounter with prospective parents. Take the time to communicate information about your school. Cyndee Bergstrand, a receptionist at my school whose daughters each trained here for 14 years, suggests many points to convey to parents who may not be familiar with your school or with dance in general. All of this information can be provided in written form in your brochure or information packet and on the school’s website.

  • The kinds of classes offered and the age or ability requirements for each
  • The faculty’s credentials
  • The school’s philosophy about dance education
  • Opportunities other than regular dance classes, including performing groups, special performance opportunities, travel, and guest faculty classes
  • A calendar of classes, including information on session length and important events
  • Details about parent involvement, including observation dates and performance or recital dates and requirements
  • Tuition and payment schedules
  • Dress codes

During the initial encounter with parents, it is important that all faculty and staff members offer consistent information. Don’t skimp on details, expecting to fill parents in later. As Tonya Ebner of Academy of the Arts in Shawnee, KS, says, “The quickest way to destroy positive relationships between parents and a studio is to surprise them with extra fees or time commitments. Parents like to know what is expected so they can plan.”

Good communication should continue throughout the year. This can be done with newsletters, flyers, emails, website bulletins, and classroom announcements. When parents know that current information is available to them and where they can access it, communication problems become less frequent and traumatic. Ongoing communication can be as up-to-date as a monthly school email or as simple as knowing where to check a bulletin board.

Expanding the information provided to reach beyond your school is a bonus for parents and students. Letting them know about upcoming performances of touring dance companies and organizing a group ticket offer to such events are great ways to show parents that you provide extra opportunities for students.

Targeted information meetings can be helpful for matters that are not of interest to everyone at your school. Spending 15 or 20 minutes explaining procedures and answering questions with parents not only saves confusion; it builds appreciation among them. Small-group subjects could include preparing to go on pointe, how to join or audition for a special production or performance or competition group, and recital information for new students and parents.

Letting parents know who the “go-to” person for specific information is builds confidence in your organization. One of my longtime faculty members, Karen Stump, handles all of the fund-raising opportunities, assisting students with special events. Invitations are given to all students who are eligible, and those who are interested attend a short meeting that includes the parents, so that they know their children have this option.

Let parents see examples
We have found that holding an open house with free, short, sample classes makes parents feel comfortable. They like getting an idea of what the classes will be like prior to enrolling their children. We usually include a short parent orientation that gives them an overview of our school and allows them to ask questions.

Deb Collier of Debra Collier’s School of Dance in Warsaw, IN, invites parents into the classroom for the last 5 or 10 minutes of class once a month, to keep them up-to-date with what their children are learning. She also keeps extra copies of the school’s newsletter at the desk for anyone who can’t find theirs or whose children lost theirs in the abyss of their dance bags.

Get parents’ input
We distribute surveys to our students that help us get to know them and their needs better. Not only does this help us with marketing, it helps us learn how we can improve our attempts to provide high-quality dance education for busy families. Through these surveys we learned that we were assuming that parents understood all about our recitals. After all, we had printed information available, and they certainly could ask questions. The problem was that they didn’t ask questions.

To remedy this communication impasse, along with handing out printed information we hold a recital orientation during our parent updates. These are held during the last few minutes of classes about a month before the show. We also made a video that explains in detail the procedures we use, which we run in our waiting rooms several weeks before the show. With these new communication methods, we’ve found that parents have a better understanding of what to expect. And now they do ask questions if they have them.

A major step in building positive relationships is to thank parents. Thank them for choosing your school; thank them for their participation and cooperation.

Explaining the reasons why you do things a certain way is also important. Taking the time to explain that having all female ballet dancers wear pink tights and black leotards allows teachers to see the proper use of muscles and alignment will enlighten a parent who doesn’t understand why her daughter can’t wear shorts and a T-shirt. And when it comes to pointe readiness, parents might not think about the safety issues that you take into consideration for each student.

Train your staff
Since you can’t be everywhere, you need a competent staff to assist you. Having properly trained and informed teachers and office workers is imperative. Make sure they understand and follow all of the school’s policies and know about upcoming events and other important information. Parents want their questions or requests to be handled quickly and helpfully, without being shunted from one staff member to another to get the information they need. If they have to check with several different people to get an answer or get conflicting answers from various staff members, parent relations suffer.

While training your staff, insist that they be friendly, helpful, and professional to everyone who walks in the door. This should be a nonnegotiable standard. Make sure that your faculty as well as your office staff treat parents with respect for who they are: customers and partners in the students’ education, not adversaries waiting to cause problems. The staff should be proactive about providing help and information. Your goal is to avoid any possibility that parents can say, “I didn’t know anything about this,” when a challenge arises.

Parent involvement
Parents’ involvement in their children’s education can take many forms. Some schools have a parent group or club for their performing company or competition team. Allowing parents to contribute their time and effort not only enhances the student events, it gives them opportunities to bond with other parents and gain a better understanding of what’s needed to produce the event.

Suzanne Perdue of Dancers Edge in Marlborough, MA, involves her parents by giving the mothers the option of participating in a production number in her annual show. Rather than presenting the number as a spoof as many schools do, she treats the women with the same respect she gives to her students. Participation is open to everyone, thus eliminating any studio politics. She does not charge for the class, which runs for about six weeks prior to the show. Perdue feels that this is a great way for moms to meet other parents as well as gain an appreciation for what she does. Sometimes she includes the women’s children in the number, creating a special moment that can be a lifetime memory for them.

Robin Starr, one of Perdue’s adult participants, describes the many benefits the mothers enjoy. Besides the fun of the class and the performance, she says, they gain a better understanding of their children’s efforts. They soon learn that work and focus go into each accomplishment. Participating parents of teens can discuss this shared activity with their children, while parents of younger students learn techniques and movements that they can use to help their children with home practice.

Although participation is a good way for parents to understand what goes into both classes and performances, there are many other ways to do so. It’s almost impossible to produce a performance without an army of volunteers, and most parents are willing to contribute. Parent jobs can include working with costumes, sets, and props or helping out backstage. Seeing what goes on backstage is a great opportunity for parents to understand the care and work that goes into a production. Many parents gain a new appreciation for the effort and expertise of the teachers.

Say thank you
A major step in building positive relationships is to thank parents. Thank them for choosing your school or class; thank them for their participation and cooperation. And if they volunteered to help at a performance or other event, thank them profusely.

Consider going beyond spoken words in saying thank-you. Some school owners have parties for their volunteers; some reward them with tickets, discount coupons, or photos or DVDs; others send handwritten notes. The method is less important than the acknowledgment. Whenever parents volunteer, they are providing support for your work as well as for their children’s benefit.

As a fun way to thank parents for their support during the summer season, my school had a parent participation day, in which parents of our student performing group experienced a variety of dance styles. Not only did they have fun and learn more about dance, they left with a good feeling about the experience at our school.

Value “golden” parents
According to Julie Bodle, assistant director at my school, it’s easy to build positive relationships with the “golden” parents, the ones who are the least smothering and are not concerned with their child being the star of the school. These are the ones who understand what you do for their children and trust your judgment. These parents help set the tone for others and are an important factor in continuing to build positive parent relations throughout your school. Bodle says, “We live in a society that, in general, has a lack of trust. Parents need to see that you’re not just in it for the money, that you really care about the students and their well-being.”

If you treat each of your parents as though they were golden, your positive efforts will spread by word of mouth. And you may find that when other school owners complain about parents, you just listen and smile.

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Dropout Dancers

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How to solve the case of the disappearing students

By Rhee Gold

Through my research with dance school owners, I’ve discovered that it is not uncommon for their businesses to have up to a 30 percent turnover of students from year to year. Looking deeper, I discovered that a large number of that 30 percent are recreational and preschool-age students—which means that not only are school owners losing students; they’re losing the very children who are the financial lifeblood of the school. When those numbers dwindle, the future looks a bit gloomy.

There are many factors that lead students to discontinue dance classes. In about one-third of the cases, they drop out of class because they are “just not into dance,” or because another activity seems more inviting. Most people would tell you that there isn’t much you can do to keep this group coming to dance class. However, I don’t give up that easily! I think it’s possible to win over some of these kids with a classroom that is exciting and with teachers who have the passion to work with recreational or preschool levels. If students were to tell me that they wanted to drop from my class, I might suggest that they try a different teacher or take a different kind of dance.

Another possible issue with kids who claim they don’t like dance is a lack of confidence; lots of them don’t believe they’re good enough (even the ones who are). For some of them, their home environments create or contribute to this problem. For example, if a girl hears “Susie, you’re clumsy and uncoordinated” day in and day out from her parents, she has no reason not to believe them. It doesn’t cross her mind that her parents might have no idea what they’re talking about. So she shows up for class with ballet shoes in hand—and zero confidence, because she believes her parents’ criticism is true. Our ability to recognize and take action to encourage these children is not only the key to hanging on to them, it’s essential in making a difference in their lives.

Among the remaining two-thirds of students who quit taking dance lessons, the reasons vary. The following are some of the most common ones.

Boredom
This is a huge issue for students who drop. They sign up for dance thinking that they’re going to have fun—and they usually think it is fun until it comes time to learn choreography for the recital or year-end performance. Their enthusiasm wanes when they are expected to work on the same piece of choreography and listen to the same music for weeks or months at a time. Many will make it through the year because they are excited about being onstage, but often they have made a mental note that after the recital they will be done with dancing.

Spending less time on the same choreography and music will make a big difference to this group. Another approach to consider is getting that choreography done early, so that in the last six to eight weeks of class you can go back to the fun stuff that the kids registered for in the first place.

Unenthusiastic teachers
A lack of enthusiasm from a teacher will produce a similar response in the students, and it’s a tried-and-true recipe for losing your recreational and preschool kids. Teachers set the atmosphere of their classrooms; if they aren’t excited about the class, then neither will their students be. This occurs with teachers who would rather be somewhere else—and often that somewhere else is with the most advanced dancers. They have the attitude that the recreational students are beneath them, and the students know it.

Same ol’, same ol’
When students learn the same material each year, often as a result of new beginner students being added to an already established class, they fail to see any progression. Instead, they feel that they are being held back, learning the same material each season. Then, when it comes to choreography for the recital, some teachers cop out by using the same music and choreography that they’ve used in the past. The choreography is lame and the kids can feel it. They know that they’re second-class citizens.

Parental influence
If parents aren’t happy with the customer service or organization of the school, they tend to encourage their children to find another activity. This is especially a problem when a parent expects that a class will start and end at a certain time, yet that isn’t the way it goes. Another problem that makes them want to pull their children out of the school is unexpected expenses. These parents were told they would pay a certain amount for classes and the recital; then suddenly, to their surprise, they are hit with more fees that were never mentioned. Unhappy parents, in many cases, means unhappy students—and even when it doesn’t, many parents won’t continue to pay for a product they’re not satisfied with.

Enthusiasm wanes when students are expected to work on the same piece of choreography and listen to the same music for months at a time.

Intimidation
Students who are constantly compared to their more advanced peers—and who know they will never be able to accomplish that level of skill—will not feel good about dancing. Who wants to remain in a place that makes them feel inferior? Though some students may never develop technical expertise, a good teacher will find other positive aspects of their behavior or training to praise them for, like commitment, perseverance, a can-do attitude, achieving a personal best, expressiveness, creativity, or a sense of humor.

Not getting what they expected
Some school owners seem to think that they can tell kids one thing and do another. Disappoint them once too often, though, and you may find your roster shrinking. For example, if students register for a hip-hop class but find that it is taught by someone who has no hip-hop credentials, they will know it. They may quit dancing altogether or look for a real hip-hop class somewhere else.

I find that most school owners understand and try to avoid these problems, but for some reason they don’t communicate their beliefs to their faculty and staff. If you’re worried about your school’s dropout rate, bring these concerns to your next faculty and staff meeting. Once everyone in your school shares the same philosophy and behaviors, you should see that dropout rate start to decrease.

Sample Discontinuing Class Survey

We at ABC School of Dance value all of our students and parents and their opinions. We are sorry that you’ve decided to discontinue classes at our school. Please take a moment to let us know why you made the decision to leave. Your input will help us accomplish our goal to always improve our service and standards.

I/We discontinued taking class at ABC School of Dance for the following reason(s): (please check as many as apply)

Relocation      _____________________________________________________

Quality of instruction _______________________________________________

Quality of service        _______________________________________________

Curriculum requirements ____________________________________________

My/our preferred class isn’t offered ____________________________________ 

Tuition costs     ____________________________________________________

Schedule conflict        ________________________________________________

Mishandled complaint            ___________________________________________ 

Class did not address my/our needs (details please): ________________________

_________________________________________________________________

Other reasons or comments:

_________________________________________________________________

I would recommend ABC School of Dance to a friend. ___Yes  ___No

If no, why not? _____________________________________________________

Would you consider continuing with your classes at ABC School of Dance if we could meet your
needs more satisfactorily?    ___Yes  ___No

If yes, how could we improve our service? ________________________________

Name _____________________________ Phone _________________________

Thank you very much!

ABC School of Dance

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