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Pay-What-You-Can in Paradise

Left: Owner/director Danelle Watson believes the studio’s donation-based fee policy creates a sense of responsibility and community among families. Right: Alexander Academy is housed in a county-owned building on the grounds of a new municipal community center. All photos by Maurice Bajon

Left: Owner/director Danelle Watson believes the studio’s donation-based fee policy creates a sense of responsibility and community among families. Right: Alexander Academy is housed in a county-owned building on the grounds of a new municipal community center.
All photos by Maurice Bajon

 On the island of Maui, a donation-based school emphasizes community and opportunity
By Jennifer Kaplan

When Danelle Watson speaks about the dance academy she took over six years ago, it’s as if she’s talking about paradise. And it’s not only because Alexander Academy of Performing Arts is located in what very nearly could be called paradise: the non-touristy northwest section of the Hawaiian island Maui. Snow days? Not a chance. Ice storms? Unheard of. Near epidemic bouts of winter flu? Not so much.

Location aside, this isn’t a typical dance school. Watson grew up in Carmel, Indiana, where her mother was a studio owner, director, and teacher for 50 years—and now, as a school owner herself, she has opted out of the tuition-and-fees rat race. Instead of charging tuition on the usual system of set, scheduled payments, Alexander Academy implements a pay-what-you-can policy. Watson didn’t start the program, but she bought into it when she took over the studio from founder Cynthia Murphy.

The donation system allows me to be a little more casual—instead of spending my time going after people for money, I’m thanking everyone for the money and time they give. —Danelle Watson

The donation-based fee policy has been a lifesaver, Watson says—for the many students and their families who could not otherwise afford to participate in an expensive extracurricular activity, and for herself. Rather than chasing recalcitrant payees and tracking down fees for bounced checks and declined credit cards, Watson focuses on the students and their learning.

“It’s been a dream come true,” says Watson on an early January morning with temperatures hovering in the mid-60s. “The donation-based philosophy brings out a really positive side” of the dance studio business.

The school was started by Murphy, a ballet teacher, 23 years ago as a church-centric program. Over the years, the studio’s mission—to teach high-level ballet technique to anyone who desires it, regardless of ability to pay—has not changed, although the curriculum now includes jazz, modern, and contemporary dance.

Watson, who moved with her husband to Maui six years ago, has worked in a variety of dance environments, from performing in New York, London, San Francisco, and Seattle to teaching at her mother’s studio, the now-defunct Carmel Dance Center. In Maui, she wanted to continue to dance, and she found Murphy’s strict Vaganova teaching the perfect inspiration.

“She was very religious, very Christian,” says Watson about Murphy. “She was a strict Vaganova-style teacher—very small, about 4 foot 10, and very old-school. She had a warm heart but people were terrified of her; her expectations were high.”

When Watson took over, less than a year later, it was because Murphy trusted her; the deal was sealed with a handshake. “I thought this was an opportunity to grow,” Watson says. “I kept the donation base, and I was truly nervous.”

PayWhat1With only about 40 students, many of them adults, and only 10 classes a week, there was indeed plenty of room for growth. These days Alexander Academy rents space in an old but lovely county-owned building on the grounds of a brand-new municipal community center with a playground and other amenities. Watson recently received a grant to purchase and install professional-grade dance flooring.

Hawaii, including Maui, is an expensive place to live, and Watson sees that some families among her clientele, who represent a diversity of ethnicities, struggle from month to month. “When you go into the dance studio business,” she says, “you have to have a passion for dance and for interacting with the students. The donation system allows me to be a little more casual—instead of spending my time going after people for money, I’m thanking everyone for the money and time they give. That creates a positive atmosphere. You are trusting your community.”

Now with about 200 students, 50 classes a week on the schedule, and three teachers aside from Watson, the academy has grown fivefold since Watson took the helm. This year she instituted a registration fee of $35 per family, with a monthly rate for one class per week set at $47; $235 per month is the suggested donation for unlimited classes. She estimates that about 25 percent of her students pay the full rate throughout the year and about 20 percent don’t pay anything. The rest pay what they can.

To supplement tuition-generated revenue, Watson has developed a rigorous volunteer and fundraising program. Every family, whether or not it pays tuition, must volunteer at least twice during the school year. One of the studio’s major fundraising events is an annual car wash, which raises thousands of dollars.

Some families come weekly to help clean the studio or maintain the landscaping. Others take on specific tasks during the year: selling program ads, getting in-kind donations from local merchants for silent auctions during the performances, or participating in annual fundraisers like the car wash. The printing of the show programs is donated by a local business. Some parents are available on an on-call basis to fix plumbing and do general repairs. And some families choose to donate extra funds. In fact, for years one family has paid tuition anonymously for a few students who could not afford it.

Watson has started a separate nonprofit corporation for the school’s performing company. This has enabled Alexander Academy to solicit county, state, and private grants and contributions, but allows Watson to remain in control of the day-to-day running of the studio school.

For Watson, the pay-what-you-can system is ideal. “We don’t turn anyone away for not being able to afford class, and everyone is treated equally,” she says. “The value of money doesn’t come into it. And the politics of money doesn’t affect anything,” including who gets to do a solo in the show. It hasn’t led to friction, gossip, or hard feelings among students or parents; they know that a family that pays or donates more than the suggested tuition isn’t treated with favoritism. And with this system, talented students who might only be able to afford one class a week can take as many classes as suits their needs.

“There is a huge income range [among the clients], and I always say that’s one of the things that makes the studio special,” Watson says. “When you walk in, you don’t know who is rich or who is poor. We have some families who can barely pay for food, and we have some of the wealthiest families [in the community]. But when you put all the children in leotards and tights, you simply don’t know.”

Martin Claerbout has two daughters, Hannah, 15, and Hina, 12, who dance six days a week. His wife, Yasuko, takes adult ballet. A behavioral psychologist who has been hit hard by the economic downturn, Claerbout says he and his wife had to withdraw the girls from private school, and he couldn’t imagine what would have happened if they also had to give up their dance classes. Last summer Hannah studied on scholarship at the renowned Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC.

The donation-based system “helps a lot, especially for us,” Claerbout says. “We have three people who are committed to the studio, and all those classes add up. We try to always pay a fair amount because I think people should. When we can, we pay more and work it out.”

The family contributes to the school in other ways, too. Claerbout does minor repairs or landscaping when needed. Yasuko cleans the studio almost every day, and the girls volunteer for cleanup days, car washes, and other big events.

PayWhat2Asked if there are any feelings of resentment or jealousy from the full-paying families, Claerbout says, “There is some of that, but it’s certainly not a major component. I think in this economy almost everybody is struggling.” He points out that there are no bad feelings among students, and even the teachers, aside from Watson, don’t know who pays what.

One thing is certain: Claerbout’s daughters would not be dancing if the studio didn’t have a pay-what-you-can policy.

On the other end of the tuition spectrum is Angie Erdman, a 25-year Hawaii resident who has been affiliated with the Alexander Academy for a dozen years. Erdman’s husband is a rancher who owns about 2,000 head of cattle. Their two daughters have danced at the school, and Erdman takes adult ballet classes as often as she can. Fourteen-year-old Camille dances almost every day of the week, taking classes in ballet, contemporary, and musical theater.

“We’ve always paid the suggested tuition rate,” Erdman says, “and every now and again I offer more if more is needed. I like to support the ballet school as much as I can in order to give other kids an opportunity to go. For those of us who can, I think we should pay. By paying and donating, we’re helping the whole community.”

Though it works for Watson, a donation-based tuition policy might not be suitable for every school. “I would say that they need to be pretty sure that their overhead is low,” Watson says. “If they’re in a place where they’re paying top dollar for rent, it might work, but I would think twice.”

Watson’s studio has been able to generate enough revenue to grow, and the teachers receive bonuses and raises. “People want to support the activities their children do,” she says. A donation system “creates a much more giving atmosphere where you lose the pettiness.”

Money aside, Watson says, her school “is the happiest studio I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in a lot of studios. The parents are not complaining. I don’t see cattiness where the teenage girls are competing with each other.

“People complain when they think they’re not getting their dollar’s worth,” Watson says. “I remember meeting a studio owner who got tired and finally said, ‘You know, for $10 a week per student, I couldn’t handle the complaints of the parents.’ I don’t feel that way at all. If someone has a pet peeve and isn’t happy with our studio, they’ll donate differently, I imagine. But we get almost no complaints. That’s pretty exceptional.”

Ultimately, Watson is able to focus on what she loves most about running a dance studio: teaching and nurturing her students. “You go into this business to love it,” she says, “and I continue to love it.”

The environment at Alexander Academy reflects an important aspect of Hawaiian culture: ohana. Ohana means “family”—the extended family of aunts, uncles, even the entire community. “In the Hawaiian culture, people do embrace their neighbors and their community. You take care of them, you’re nice to them; it is a culture of respect,” Watson says.

“We call the studio our upcountry dancing ohana,” she continues, “because everyone contributes. Everyone helps out when things need to happen, everyone steps in and takes care of one another. Parents look out for each other’s children. It’s a very respectful, family-oriented place.

“This,” she says, “is my paradise. I found paradise.”




NY Knicks Dancers Love Their Jobs, But Keep Lips Sealed About Salaries

The Knicks City Dancers clinic; photo by Benjamin Norman for the New York Times

The Knicks City Dancers clinic; photo by Benjamin Norman for the New York Times

There were no rabble-rousers among the aspiring Knicks City Dancers who poured into a dance studio in Midtown New York City last week. But at the end of the practice and information session, some prospective dancers noticed that a key question remained unanswered: how much would they get paid if they made the team?

The New York Times said former pompom performers for the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone to court in recent months, accusing their teams of violating labor laws by failing to pay them minimum wage.

What about the NBA? When the Times posed the question to the Garden’s public relations shop and to former dancers, the non-answer answers came almost in unison: the pay is just fine, according to a captain of the dance team, two former dancers, and a spokesman for the Garden. But no, we won’t say how much it is. Besides, how can you put a price tag on such an incredible opportunity?

“Being able to live your dream,” said Criscia Richardson, a captain for the squad, “it’s an amazing experience.”

That’s all fine and good, says Sean E. Cooney, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit against the Buffalo Bills. But we still need to ensure that these women are compensated. Since when did our labor laws apply only to unfulfilled employees? “You don’t have to hate your job to get paid,” Cooney says.

Ryan Watson, a spokesman for the Garden, said the dancers work about 22 to 25 hours a week during the season and less during other times of the year. They do not receive health insurance. Many work full-time jobs.

“They are compensated for everything they do for the Knicks,” he said in an email, “including game performances, rehearsal times, and community events away from the court for the Knicks, but their salaries are not made public.”

To read the full story, visit



If You Play, You Pay


Everything you need to know about music rights

By Joshua Bartlett

OK, so you own a dance studio. For your classes you use recordings or have a pianist playing various musical scores. Some of those songwriters or composers might include, say, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, John Lennon, Beyoncé, Neil Diamond, or Gloria Estefan. And artists like these have written some of the millions of song titles and compositions from the last century, including such diverse genres as Broadway show tunes, R&B, rap, rock, hip-hop, classical, Latin, New Age, country, gospel, Christian, and pop. And during the school year, chances are you have recitals and performances that utilize these musical selections.

Do you have to pay royalties to anyone? How do you find out? Or do you just hide your head under the covers and hope that no one will notice?

First of all, let’s clarify the definition of music performance rights. Performance rights allow music to be legally performed in public. These rights are part of U.S. copyright law and demand payment to the music’s composer/lyricist and publisher.

Music performing rights organizations
There are three major music performing rights organizations in the United States: BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and SESAC, Inc. (originally the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, but now the acronym is solely used.) These organizations act as agents for the songwriters, composers, and music publishers, so that anyone who wants to use their copyrighted titles doesn’t have to negotiate with every artist, which would be a major headache. As a studio owner, a license gives you permission to use the titles covered by the performing rights organizations in your classes and performances.

What are you paying for?
“Under current copyright law, the only performing right that exists is that of the songwriter or the composer and music publisher,” says Jerry Bailey, senior director of media relations and business communications at BMI. “For dance classes, that is the only performing right.”

Why is that important? Because—apart from the videotaping and distribution of performance tapes (we’ll discuss that a little later)—a dance studio owner is not responsible for paying anything to the recording artists or recording companies—only to the creators of the title. “If you are dancing, say, to a Frank Sinatra performance and the song is written by a BMI songwriter, you don’t have to worry about the record company or the Frank Sinatra estate,” says Bailey. But you do have to pay a fee to BMI.

Keep in mind that we are speaking strictly about the United States in terms of copyright law. Outside our borders, each country has its own laws regarding performing rights, synchronization rights, and master use rights. (The latter two terms will be explained below.)

Bailey claims that BMI represents more than 6.5 million titles, while Vincent Candilora, ASCAP’s senior vice president of licensing, says his organization represents more than 8.5 million titles. SESAC represents a much smaller percentage of the music played in the United States, but the number is still, at minimum, in the hundreds of thousands, SESAC’s Bill Lee says.

“We see ourselves as the bridge between those who create music and those who use it. The money we collect is not going to record companies—it’s going to the creators.” —Jerry Bailey of BMI

So unless your studio’s classes are accompanied only by Chopin waltzes or improvisational drummers, the odds that you are utilizing some of these titles are extremely high. So what do you do about it?

Studio-related fees
These organizations offer annually renewable dance studio contracts that cover all the titles in their repertory. ASCAP, for example, determines the fee based on the types of classes offered and the number of students enrolled each week. For example, if your school is primarily ballroom oriented and you have 300 students per week, the annual fee is $490.98. If the studio offers a combination of classes—jazz, ballet, tap, modern, aerobic, and gymnastics—then the fee for the same number of students is $368. If you offer solely ballet lessons, the annual charge is $245.

BMI’s tiered contract structure is slightly different. It doesn’t matter which types of classes are offered—only the number of students. For fewer than 60 students per week, the annual fee is $144; for 250 to 374 students, it’s $566. But if you use recorded background music, say, in the reception area or in the dressing rooms, you pay more to BMI. For example, if your school is located on one level and enrolls 250 to 374 students and uses background music (other than the radio), then the fee jumps up to $910.

SESAC’s facility license is straightforward: $94 for a full-service license agreement that authorizes any number of instructors, students, or types of classes. SESAC also offers an individual instructor license, so that a freelance teacher who works in a recreation center one day, a YMCA on another day, or a dance school on still another day doesn’t have to worry about licensing coverage. (Generally, though, a venue that hires a teacher is responsible for any performance rights fees.)

Likewise, freelance choreographers are commissioned for their choreography and the venues—schools, dance companies, or shows—that commission the works are responsible for paying any performance fees.

Discounted rates
A number of teaching organizations like Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America have recently negotiated reduced fees for their members with all three performing rights organizations, so it behooves you to find out if you qualify.

For example, DMA’s agreement allows member studios with around 300 students weekly to pay an annual fee of $345 to BMI, $138.11 (combined classes) to ASCAP, and $56.08 to SESAC. The savings is significant. For details on DEA’s discount arrangement, contact the organization at 800.229.3868.

Performance fees
And what about recitals and other school performances? “The venue in which the public performance is occurring is responsible for the license,” says Candilora, speaking for ASCAP. Most performing venues, just as they need property and liability insurance coverage, own blanket licenses that cover all types of music.

As a studio owner, you technically need a competition/show license from BMI if you rent a performance space from an unlicensed venue—or even if you have an in-studio recital and already have the dance class license. The BMI competition/show license costs $209.10 for up to 15,000 in annual attendance. SESAC’s studio license covers a studio and its students no matter where they perform—in a recital, a parade, or a nursing home.

Public domain music
One of the biggest misconceptions about performing rights is that all classical music is in the public domain. (Public domain pertains to what is often legally called “intellectual property”—a range of abstract materials. If that property is in the public domain, it is not owned or controlled by anyone.) It is true that, for example, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is in the public domain. But, says Bailey, “the common assumption about classical composers is that they are all dead. Many classical compositions have been written in the last century.” (Think of all the minimalist composers like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, just to name one genre of classical music).

According to current copyright law, enacted by Congress in 1999, works created after January 1, 1978, are owned by the composer’s estate for the life of the composer plus 70 years. Older works are copyrighted for 95 years from the copyright date. But, as an example, if someone prepares a new guitar arrangement of a Mozart score, that piece could very well be copyrighted and, therefore, not placed in the public domain.

According to Bailey, 98 percent of the colleges and universities in the United States have blanket licenses that cover any group that teaches or performs in some way under the auspices of the institution. Performing rights organizations do not pursue licenses for grammar or secondary schools.

“There are exemptions for educational organizations that are nonprofit,” says Candilora. “Composers want students at the secondary and grammar school level to appreciate music. They hate it when budgets get cut, and the arts go first.”

Benefit concerts, such as a performance in which all the proceeds go to victims of Hurricane Katrina or to fighting breast cancer, are exempt from copyright law, as long as none of the organizers, promoters, or performers is getting paid.

Synchronization rights
So let’s tackle the thorny, complicated issue of videotaping a recital, class, or performance. Two terms need clarification: synchronization rights and master use rights.

Synchronization rights (often referred to as “synch rights”) refer to the right to synchronize a composition in timed relation with visual images on the film or tape. Master use rights pertain to obtaining permission to use previously recorded materials, a “master recording,” such as a particular orchestra’s recorded version of a symphony.

“If someone from Ms. Mary’s Studio is using a recording from a CD, and that is what is being blended in on the video, you need permission from the record company—that’s the master use rights,” says Bill Lee, senior vice president of licensing at SESAC. “If the video has a live performance, with Ms. Mary playing the piano, there are no master use rights. But in either scenario, you need to get synchronization rights, and those you get from a publisher.” And it doesn’t matter if you are simply videotaping a show for rehearsal purposes or selling DVDs from the show for a profit.

The problem is that not all publishers are easily contacted. “It’s a challenge to get the proper authorization [for synchronization rights]. It seems like most people in that scenario fly under the radar,” says Lee candidly.

With the rampant use of music in all types of commercial videos, dance schools are hardly the main concern of publishers and recording companies. But the law is the law, however cumbersome or difficult to enforce. Unfortunately, none of the performing rights organizations deals directly with synchronization or master use rights.

But back to the more pertinent issue of performance rights: Unless you are cherry-picking all the recordings you use in your studio (the published titles are available from the performing rights organizations’ websites), it makes sense to sign up with all three of them to make sure all your bases are covered. But what happens if you don’t do that? Do you get fined? Go to jail?

Performing rights organizations don’t fine anyone. It’s up to the federal courts to decide on infringement of copyright laws. “We don’t just drop in out of the sky and take you to court,” says Bailey. “We first try to educate [people] about copyright law, and if it appears that no progress is being made, BMI might file an infringement suit. But more than 95 percent of the cases don’t go to trial and are settled. It’s always cheaper to license than to go to court.”

“Keep in mind who our board is,” says Candilora, speaking for the 24 songwriters and music publishers on the board at ASCAP. “It’s our very last resort to file a copyright infringement. When we explain the copyright laws to 90 percent of the people who use our music, they comply. We’re not going to take some woman who is 60 years old with a dance studio [who is] trying to put her kids through school and wind up filing a suit against her because she is not paying her fees.”

Why should you pay?
Given the state of the economy and the struggle that many dance schools are encountering just to cover their overhead costs, why should they pay songwriters and publishers? “We are not trying to make a living off of dance studios,” says Candilora. “People have a hard time separating recording artists from composers.”

Performing rights organizations were originally created for the sake of and—in most cases—by artists. “We see ourselves as the bridge between those who create music and those who use it. The money we collect is not going to record companies—it’s going to the creators,” says Bailey. (Generally, overhead fees for performing rights organizations run around 11 or 12 percent, so the rest of the money goes directly to the artists and publishers.)

How do you sign up? The best way is to contact the organizations by phone to determine the type of contract that works best for your situation. In any case, information is a good thing.

For More Information
ASCAP: 800.505.4052;
BMI: 888.689.5264;
SESAC: 615.320.0055;

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