Advice for dance teachers
Twinkling lights and scarecrows, candy hearts and pumpkin pies—we love to celebrate the holidays. In many cultures, dancing is part of the celebration, so why not bring the merriment into the studio?
Forget the stereotypes of backstabbing and rudeness among studio owners—competitiveness doesn’t have to be the norm. Nor do studio owners have to feel alone in facing challenges, from fundraising to coping with difficult clients. Those who team up in sister-studio relationships often find unexpected benefits.
Some studio owners share resources such as costumes, teachers, and even students. They collaborate on shows to reduce the burden of production costs as well as expose their students to new ideas and ways of thinking. Perhaps most significant, they lean on each other for moral support and answers to questions that only another studio owner can understand.
My school, Perna Dance Center, does many holiday-related performance events and participates in community and charitable activities throughout the year. For each holiday, a troupe of volunteer dancers is assigned to perform at events. All these occasions are good marketing opportunities for the school, but they require some marketing of their own.
Where can you find a studio that offers hip-hop, ballet, Memphis jookin, tap, jazz, flamenco, African dance, Chinese dance, and modern dance classes—and that prioritizes heavily underserved students to boot? That rare distinction goes to Memphis, Tennessee, home of New Ballet Ensemble & School (NBE).
Dance is a spare art. It can be practiced with few accoutrements—at minimum, only the body. Dance studios can be similarly low-tech affairs: any empty room will do. But when it comes to the virtual realm, careful attention must be paid—not only to what is used, but how. The world is watching, which means presentation is critical. It’s not enough for school owners simply to have an online presence; they need to portray themselves and their schools in a positive, professional way.
Here to tell us how to do that are Teri Mangiaratti, owner and director of In Sync Center of the Arts in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Patty Polanski Neal, founder and CEO of Dance Spectrum in Depew, New York. They share their tips on managing websites and using social media to build community.
Software and online resources for studio and stage
NOMINATED BY: Demetra Chastang, office manager/instructor: “I have worked for Pamela for three years. She has not only been an incredible boss but an amazing mentor, teaching me and guiding me through the art of dance. Throughout the 20 years she’s owned her studio, hundreds of dancers have benefited from her passion and life lessons, and she has shown her dance family how to give back through dance.”
“Season of Change”: Happy New Year! The flip of the calendar from December to January is one of my favorite times of the year, because it brings a sense of renewal and rejuvenation, the potential for growth, and the anticipation of the unknown. We at Dance Studio Life hope 2016 holds much goodness for you, both personally and professionally. With so much cruelty and so little compassion in the headlines in recent months, it’s our wish that everyone enters this new year with a goal of human kindness. All of us have the power to do good, whether in the form of personal interactions or via the soul-touching qualities of dance.
“Studio Havens”: At our current studio, the teachers are good and the atmosphere is easy. In the lobby, parents talk quietly on the couches and teenagers do homework or flurry past like March winds. Postcards and event notices emphasize that this space functions as a community’s hub; a bookshelf gives my little son and me something to do while my daughter takes class. Through gauzy curtains, I watch my girl skip, leap, and laugh in class. That’s why we’re here—that’s why we come back. As a mom, dancer, and human being, I appreciate being welcomed.
It’s a new year, and I’ll bet you have some sort of self-improvement goals for 2016. If one of them is to become a better teacher, try this: imagine that each time you enter your school you are walking in the stage door, prepared to give the best performance possible.
NOMINATED BY: Dana Farber, a student’s mother: “Brynn has endless energy for her students. She spends weekends working on choreography, rhinestoning costumes, hand-making accessories, and helping her solo students. She wants the best for her students and encourages them with positive and kind words. What I value most as a dance parent is that Brynn takes class, attends conventions, and looks for performing opportunities to further her own dance experience.”
Patti Rutland was done. After 20 years, the Dothan, Alabama, resident had sold her dance studio and was set to retire. Then a dancer she had mentored and befriended, Vincent Johnson, posed a question: “Is there anything you wanted to do but didn’t?”
Does your heart beat faster when taps start clacking a rapid staccato cadence on 42nd Street? Do you dream of waving a flag as leader of the student protests in the Paris Uprising of 1832? Do you hold your breath for the moment when Macavity the Mystery Cat makes (or doesn’t make) his appearance? If so, you’ve been bitten by the musical theater bug—just like students at Front & Center for Performing Arts. This school in Springfield, New Jersey, has catered to musical theater lovers ages 3 to adult for 14 years.
We all have opinions. And sometimes, when they’re on topics that have the potential to affect large groups of people, our perspective can be controversial. When I know that’s the case, I try to convey mine in a non-judgmental way, hoping to stir up thoughtful debate rather than offend people who disagree with me. Recently I stood strong on an issue, and I made some enemies.
NOMINATED BY: Kiana Foster-Mauro, student: “Miss Maggie’s studio is a place where we can be ourselves, have fun, learn dance technique, and create lifelong friendships and memories. Most important, she is an inspirational role model. From time management, to the importance of community service and teamwork, to the true meaning of friendship and family, Miss Maggie leads by example.”
Dance school owners often start out as jacks-of-all-trades, doing everything from answering the phone to cleaning the mirrors. As the fledgling school grows, however, it becomes impossible for one person to handle all the tasks, especially the administrative ones, and owners who try to do so will limit their businesses’ growth. Adding staff helps to relieve the owner’s workload, of course, but it’s not the whole answer. To maximize efficiency and profit, you’ll need to adopt technology that makes certain tasks easier and takes a smaller bite out of your budget.
I’m noticing a lack of creativity in choreography lately—or maybe it’s people’s inability to think for themselves. At a respected ballet company’s performance, on the competition stage, and on TV, choreographers are creating contemporary work that’s strikingly similar. Yes, the level of technical mastery among dancers is diverse, but there’s a disturbing sameness to the mood, expression, and movement—which typically convey ideas about suffering and tragedy. This dark subject matter combined with moody lighting and zero humor add up to a sad observation: today’s dance productions may be depressing audiences instead of entertaining them.
This year’s DanceLife Teacher Conference began with producer Rhee Gold making a request of the 800 dance teachers and studio owners in attendance: “Make this week about you,” he said. “Take the time to rejuvenate.” He recalled his mother telling him, when he was a child, to go outside and get lost—in a good way, of course. It was time for the attendees to “get lost” themselves; for these few days at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, he said, let others handle the school, the house, the kids.
They did, if the smiles, laughter, and conversation witnessed at every turn were any indication. And they did it together. Everywhere, collegiality trumped competition. At breakfast and lunch, teachers welcomed strangers to their tables and swapped stories and ideas.
After years of pink sequins and fairy princesses, you’ve finally snagged a boy for your competition team or teenage ballet class—great! Whether only one boy is enrolled at your studio, or there are several boys who fall singly into various technical levels, having an available male creates new possibilities for choreography, themes, and music choices.
One evening before a rehearsal one of my students said to me, “It must be great to be a dance teacher. You can sleep all day and then show up for a few hours of work at night.” This happened during preparations for a rather large-scale show. Like many studio owners, I was responsible for handling all aspects of the production; I’d started planning months beforehand.
This dancer’s comment made me realize how little students understand about what goes into producing a show. In response, I created Production 101, a class that introduces students to the process of theater and dance production, from concept to performance. I also wanted them to see how they could be involved in dance aside from performing.
The two-hour class, open to advanced students, meets weekly for 16 weeks. I also offer the class as an enrichment course at a private high school for international students—a month-long intensive that meets four days a week for three hours each day. On the fifth day, I take the students offsite for field trips. We have toured theaters, observed rehearsals, attended performances, and spoken with production professionals. I also invite guest speakers to the studio for Q&A sessions. Each program ends with a performance at the studio that is open to our dance families.
I’m writing this two days after the 2015 DanceLife Teacher Conference, our biggest and best yet. Each time we produce this event I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work that goes into it—and each time, as it concludes, I forget about the work because I’m overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, spirit, and generosity of the hundreds of dance teachers and studio owners who spend those four or five days with us, immersed in dance.
When I vented my frustration to my non-dancer husband, he asked why we did it this way. Stunned, I stared at him and said, “But it’s always been done that way.” Wrong answer. Clearly everyone else’s old ways of doing “it” weren’t working. We needed to change “it.”
The first thing I did was eliminate the words but and always from my vocabulary. Then I began finding solutions.
It was the King family’s version of “home, sweet home”: a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Wanaque, New Jersey. Upstairs was the four-bedroom abode of Nancy and Brendan “Skip” King and their children: Natalie, Brendan, Michael, and Chris. Downstairs was The King Centre for the Performing Arts, a five-studio dance school with two music rooms, a lounge, and an office: a “home away from home” for 600 to 700 students.
Studio owners often search for ways to make their businesses more efficient and profitable. You can scrutinize your operations, policies, and processes for potential cost-saving improvements, certainly, but don’t forget to look at your physical surroundings. From water and electrical use to stocking the bathroom and overhauling communications, there are ways to both cut costs and do some planetary good.
Attracting teen beginning dancers is a wonderful way to grow your studio. Here’s how to market beginning programs in ways that will capture the attention of teens and get them talking, posting, and texting about your school.
While many dance schools may set out folding chairs in a studio for informal student showings, some school owners have transformed their educational spaces into performance-ready theaters. While an in-studio performance space may sound like an ideal alternative to expensive theater rentals and seems to offer the flexibility of holding shows whenever the recital bug bites, building and maintaining a studio theater come with a variety of challenges and rewards. The owners and directors of five dance studios with convertible studio theaters provided a broad range of perspectives on the costs and benefits of an in-house performance space.
In this issue’s “Ask Rhee Gold” column, I advise a school owner on how to approach a delicate situation. You’ve all encountered complex issues among your students’ families—divorces, deaths, substance abuse, and so on. But as our world changes, so do its complexities. The question this woman asked isn’t one that any of us would have heard even five years ago, but it’s likely to become more common.
The advice sought was about how to respond to—and how to explain to other students and their parents—a young transgender student’s request to be recognized as Jessica rather than as Josh.
In less than nine months, I have had to notify my studio’s staff that two students’ mothers had died. A second-grader lost her mother to cervical cancer, and a seventh-grader lost hers to leukemia. I was saddened to think how much these two young girls were suffering—but their losses also made me reflect on my own behavior. How many times, as the owner of a studio that is dominated by girls and their mothers, would I use language like “Moms Only” or “Mom Volunteer” without realizing how thoughtless it might seem?
Next in our business series on opening a dance school, we cover the search for a location and facility. The questions that follow will guide prospective studio owners in the process of picking a location that works for their students and a facility that’s right for their business goals. We’ll hear from several studio owners about how they found their facilities and ways they saved money on start-up costs.
Last year, for our 10th anniversary, we established a new annual tradition: the Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Awards. The people and organizations selected by publisher Rhee Gold and the editorial staff do important, innovative work in dance education and provide much-needed services to the dance community.
The criteria that define these Generous Hearts are simple: they are risk takers, community-minded, and devoted to a cause, a practice, a belief. They use dance in a way that contributes to the greater good. They are sources of inspiration to the dance world, and to the staff here at Dance Studio Life, and they prove that dance, when used to its full potential, can be a vital and transformative force.
We are delighted to honor this year’s recipients of the annual Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Awards, and we thank them for the good work they do.
Words from our readers.
Honest. Trustworthy. We all label ourselves with those words, and that’s a good start. Next up: having the integrity to prove them true.
When Urbanity Dance opened in Boston’s South End in 2008, the contemporary troupe consisted of only six dancers. The company’s studio space of less than 1,000 square feet initially served it well, but the growth of its school to more than 350 students made the space unworkably cramped. Urbanity found a 2,000-square-foot rental space, but it required $100,000 for construction and renovation—money the owners didn’t have. One solution: Kickstarter.
Logowear—it’s everywhere you look in the dance world and it’s an important part of a dance studio’s business model and marketing plan. It can be as minimal as a simple T-shirt with the school’s name on it or as extensive as a designed line of clothing and other products. Here’s how to plan, implement, and troubleshoot so that your school’s logowear does its double-duty best as a publicity tool and moneymaker.
For a school to be successful, its staff needs to be motivated, committed, and on board with the studio owner’s goals. Retaining staff helps your studio thrive; achieving that means communicating clearly about your studio’s culture and helping your staff feel invested in it.
Instagram is a fun (and free) way to engage your students and increase your school’s visibility. This photo-based social media app is very popular with tweens, teens, and young adults, and it’s easy to use—you simply upload photos you take with your camera or smartphone to your account. With a studio Instagram account, you can post pictures of classes, publicize studio announcements and student achievements, promote your registration days, and so on.