July 2012 | What They Do for Love

Young studio owners on the challenges and rewards of business

By Elizabeth Zimmer

In suburbs and college towns, from Michigan to Texas and New Jersey to California, women in their 20s and early 30s are taking on the many-pronged task of owning and running dance studios. These women have a lot in common, notably a passion for teaching young children and watching them learn and grow. They also have differences, mostly regional, but even the differences lead to similar problems. Several went into teaching when their dance ambitions were shattered by injury. Despite heavy schedules and some serious debt, they see their work as a true calling.

Ashley Barnes, owner of the Dance Element, leads 2011 Summer Dance Camp students in a “Silly Circle.” (Photo by Susan Turner)

Most are sole owners of their businesses, but many draw on the assistance of spouses, friends, and relatives. And they find that the rewards of being in charge outweigh the challenges.

Ashley Barnes
Ashley Barnes, of The Dance Element in Wilmington, North Carolina, speaks for many owners in saying, “I love what I do. I work very hard, but my hours are wonderful moments with talented kids, not sitting in an office or working in a restaurant.” At 29, she’s now in her third year of running the school, which she bought with settlement money from a car accident. “When the owner of the studio where I was teaching confided in me that she was planning to sell the business, it occurred to me that maybe she could sell it to me. I’d never even thought about owning a studio before then, but it seemed like it was meant to be.”

Barnes has a BFA in visual arts and dance performance, with a minor in psychology. “Being young in this line of work, I often have to prove my ability not only as a teacher but a business owner. People can be quick to decide that my age must indicate a lack of knowledge or experience. Some even assume that I am a receptionist or an employee and ask to speak with the manager. Once the ice has been broken, these same people often realize just how capable I am. I have an amazingly wonderful job, where my energy and passion lead me to excel.”

Her boyfriend, a graphic designer, does her posters and got her started with the school’s website; she’s learned to update it and work with Facebook. She teaches 25 to 30 hours a week and hopes to have an office manager someday.

“The hardest part is that I’m doing everything myself, all the books, and chasing down people about tuition payments,” says Barnes. “I’ve made the mistake of taking it personally when a kid wants to do something else, like play soccer. It’s hard not to be heartbroken once you get to know a child and they decide to take a break from dancing.”

“People can be quick to decide that my age must indicate a lack of knowledge or experience. . . . Once the ice has been broken, these same people often realize just how capable I am.” —Ashley Barnes

Barnes doesn’t watch the dance shows that obsess teens, but she thinks the programs have “made dance a little more tangible to a mainstream population, especially for guys; it’s a little less taboo now. It’s probably been good for my line of work.”

Danielle Cocanour
Seven years ago Danielle Cocanour, 28, bought Reinita’s Baton and Dance in Newark, Ohio, where she’d studied from the age of 8. Her studio has high ceilings, ideal for the baton classes she offers in addition to ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, cheerleading, clogging, hip-hop, and creative movement.

Cocanour has a business degree and is confident of her commercial skills, especially marketing. “I wrote a business plan to help guide me, and a marketing plan to maximize the number of potential students we reach with our budget. I also do all of the books, payroll, and taxes for my business. The accounting classes I took in school have made me confident in that.” She’s already paid off the five-year loan she took out to buy the studio.

At first, she had a challenging time with the parents “who were here from when Reinita owned the business. They weren’t sure about my abilities because I was younger than them. Now that my confidence has grown, they don’t intimidate me as much. I get parents who say that I don’t have children so I don’t understand them. I also had a hard time with the older kids; there were a few I’d been in class with. They expected me to be their friend and didn’t respect me as a teacher. I solved this by bringing in other staff to take over the classes.”

Now she loves “having the freedom to make all the decisions, and see the kids get so excited about what they accomplish.”

Catherine Gray
“I’m a little bit of a control freak,” says Catherine Gray, 28, who runs Impact Dance Center in Los Alamitos, California, not far from Los Angeles. She grew up dancing at Impact and took it over when she was 21. “I just followed my gut. [My mom and I] went over the business side of things: is this something I could make a career out of?”

She owns the studio with her mother, who fronted the money (Gray has since paid her back) and supported her for the first couple of years. For a long time her police officer husband supported her; she started taking home a paycheck last year. Her mother was a “dance mom,” hanging out at Impact with her. “We went into it knowing that we had a unique perspective, having been previous customers.”

Gray took over the studio just as all her friends were graduating from college. “The studio needs constant attention. It’s like having a child.”

Impact serves 550 students ages 2 to 75 and offers 120 pre-registered classes. Gray loves “being in the classroom with kids and watching them have their light-bulb moments, and being the puppeteer behind everything.” She offers several scholarships, allows one family to clean the studio in exchange for tuition, and has an assistant-teacher training program.

Working 80 to 90 hours a week, Gray finds that her friends “are extremely understanding. We hang out on Sundays. My peer group grew up doing this with me, so they understand the time it takes. One of my best friends is our studio photographer. My friends come and take classes. I’ve given up the majority of my social life. My husband has a similar insane schedule. When all my friends are out at happy hour, I’m working until 10 or 11 at night, but I can take a Monday off when they’re working. Monday’s my admin day.

“The more confident I become,” she continues, “the less weird it is. I’m employing my friends, people I’ve grown up with, and my own bosses and teachers, but it gets easier as people trust me to make the best decisions. They know I have their back.”

Gray and her husband (“he moves all the props and stuff”) have been together for eight years. “All the money was going back into the studio. We had to wait to get married, and there are obviously a lot of things I couldn’t do without a paycheck. I had to trust my gut that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Tara Eccles
Tara Eccles, 26, started teaching at 15 when she developed plantar fasciitis, but continued working in community theater. She returned to her home base in Middletown, New Jersey, after a year studying musical theater at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She relies on a network of family members to keep things going at Emotion in Motion Dance Center, which she’s been running for two years.

Helped by a friend who had a friend at a bank, she took out a loan to establish the business when she was 24, with her parents as co-signers. “I’ll be paying it for the rest of my life. My boyfriend’s father built the studio from scratch; my uncle’s flooring company did the hardwood floors, and my father’s an electrician,” Eccles says. “Mom and my sis work the front desk; Grandpa’s the maintenance man.” Her dad also participates in Dancing Divas and Dudes, a program she runs for adults.

The student body runs to about 225, studying acting and voice as well as ballet, lyrical, Graham modern technique, jazz, tap, hip-hop, tumbling for boys, and theater dance. The eight teachers Eccles employs are older than she is, but she doesn’t perceive this as a problem. “A lot have performing experience and are settling down to teach.”

Her social life, she says, was always in community theater, and most of her personal life and friends are in the business. She went to middle school with her “right-hand teacher”; the two have danced together since they were 10.

Eccles is at ease with website and social media technology. Her biggest challenge, she says, “was the transition from being an artist and teacher to being a business owner.” Everybody thinks their kid’s the best, and I have to stick to my guns and keep kids in the level where they belong.” It’s not so much her youth but the fact that she is childless that provokes criticism from parents. “When you have kids you’ll understand,” they tell her. Her response: “I have about 230 kids, so I do understand. I deal with children all day long, and they become mine.”

She’s taken Project Motivate and other workshops and says she learned a lot teaching at different studios. “I decide what’s best for each kid, and it’s coming to fruition, which is great. It’s gratifying when [parents] see that what you’re doing is working, even if they don’t like what you’re doing.”

That said, Eccles has been teaching in the community since she was 16, and her choreography was in demand at local studios even before she went off to college. The parents were glad to have her back.

Katie Miller
Katie Miller’s mom owned a dance school in Michigan; she grew up in the studio, traveling to Chicago in the summers to study ballet and jazz. While enrolled at Columbia College there she discovered that she had uncorrectable scoliosis and had to stop dancing; she completed her BA in television production. She taught at local studios all through college and seven years ago, when she was 25, she and her mom moved to Plano, Texas, and opened Plano Dance Theatre with another teacher, Sharon Godsave, who handles the school’s drama division.

“The industry is saturated down here, but the one thing they didn’t have was a school that had everything: vocal, theater, dance,” says Miller. “We don’t do recitals: we incorporate our dancers into the musicals. We try to twist them up a little bit, so they’re familiar but slightly different—we did a version of Annie in which Miss Hannigan was all nice and sweet.”

Miller is too busy to pay much attention to TV dance, but “students recommend YouTube videos. The Dance Moms thing has benefited us: our moms are so glad we’re not like that. Our clientele tends to be the castaways from other schools, the kids who get picked on; that’s a big reason our school is so peaceful. I love doing choreography and teaching. I never have a day when I don’t want to go to work.”

Miller has two young sons and an ex-husband who, she says, became increasingly jealous of the time and work she put into the school, especially when she didn’t get a paycheck. Her ex picks up the kids after he finishes work; Miller stays at the studio until 9:15pm.

What keeps her going are “the kids you’d never expect to love dance so much,” she says. “One has an anxiety disorder; when she first started she’d stand in the hallway and argue with herself, she was so scared. Two years later she’s performing her first solo; you could tell that she loved doing it. As far as the business goes, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.”

Kristin Frak
Kristin Frak, 29, opened Superior Dance Academy, in Marquette, Michigan, in 2006, the same month she graduated with a BA in dance from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. She was 24.

“I’ve just always had that leadership gene. I spent the last semester of college planning. It was my dream, and my mother and a couple of other people were like, ‘Yes you can; let’s go to the bank and get a loan.’ My parents co-signed a $30,000 loan in 2006.” In hindsight, she thinks she should have taken some business courses, but she’s handling everything well so far.

Her students are more technologically sophisticated than she is, she confesses. When she has trouble synching her iPhone with the studio speakers, the kids help solve the problem. She has no website and won’t “friend” her students on Facebook until they’re 18. Parents post questions on her Facebook page.

Her solo operation has grown from 70 students to just under 200. She works, she estimates, 60 to 70 hours a week, taking Sundays off. “I get frustrated sometimes; there’ll be a dance concert in town and I can’t go because I’m teaching.”

She figures she’s making minimum wage, but feels “blessed to be able to do what I love. I have free range on my creativity. I never say I’m going to work; I say I’m going to the studio. I love working with kids—like when a little kid has been trying to do something all year and finally can do it, and the relationship with the older ones who are there eight or nine times a week. They call me their second mom.”

One of her biggest challenges was teaching adult classes. “When I started, I found it really difficult to teach people who were older than me; I felt like they’d been dancing so much longer than me. But the ladies really encouraged me; they assured me that I knew things they didn’t.”

Brii Tyson
Ballet-centric Brii Tyson, 25, took over Vidalia Ballet in Vidalia, Georgia, two years ago, after teaching there. Her carefully planned baby was born after her first year’s recital.

Tyson trained at Richmond Ballet until she was 11, when her parents moved to Georgia. She studied at Atlanta Ballet, North Carolina School of the Arts, and Salem College, earning bachelor’s degrees in English literature and in writing and linguistics. She’s still paying off upward of $16,000 in student loans.

A natural teacher, she ‘s been assisting since she was 12 and taught her first solo ballet class at 13. “You have to develop a sense of authority. I’ve had excellent role models, instructors I’ve trained under and worked for, who provided a great business model and demonstrated how to conduct oneself professionally.

“I didn’t have a lot of ‘party time’ in college; I constructed that experience around my dream job of running a studio. I elected to take classes that fit into my dance schedule, so there was sacrifice there.”

Tyson teaches four days a week, two at Vidalia and two at another school in Statesboro, closer to her home. She has Friday through Sunday off for “family time, time with friends, local moms’ groups. It can be a real challenge in the spring around recital,” she says, what with costume chores and picture days.

She uses some business software and relies on a longtime mentor, Shay Morgan, for business advice. Her challenges have been “learning to deal delicately but firmly with the parents; having to remind people that tuition is late. It’s a passion but it’s also a business for me. As much as I would love to let them dance for free, I have to pay my bills.”

Because she looks so young, she’s often overlooked at registration. “People walk right up to another instructor, a good bit older, expecting her to be the director. I haven’t had any terrible run-ins; most people can see we have a good little studio at the local level and that our instruction is sound and our classes controlled.”

Tyson supplements her studio income by running a dance camp and produces a “praise concert,” ballet choreographed to praise and worship music—bluegrass played live. The concert is a benefit for charity “and the local theater that’s the backbone of the arts in a small town.”

Valerie Gunnels
Valerie Gunnels, 29, had back surgery as she was graduating from California State University–Fullerton and had to stop dancing. When the head of a studio where she taught got sick, Gunnels was thrown into the job. While mentored only by phone, she did fine, so she knew she could manage alone. She’s been running Live Love Dance Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, in Broomfield, Colorado, for two years.

Gunnels serves about 100 students ages 3 to 16 in her 2,500-square-foot space, but tends to lose her teens to Poms, “a cheerleading, hip-hop-ish type of dance where you hold little pompoms.” She makes the best of the situation by offering Pom prep classes so her students can ace their auditions.

She has no business training and only a one-day-a-week helper in her office. “I started teaching through the community center, built up clients, and then took over this studio, which already had clients. I was just hoping I could pull it off.” This year she started using Studio Director, a web-based dance studio software program, and says it’s been “a lifesaver.”

She and one part-time teacher handle the standard curriculum, six days a week, and the occasional Sunday birthday party.

Gunnels also serves as a Court Appointed Special Advocate representing abused children. “It’s a great opportunity to get some of those kids into dance, so we started offering a scholarship. That’s really been wonderful.”

“I don’t have much of a life right now,” Gunnels says. But she has no regrets. Many of her peers are also dancers. “Sometimes I feel like more of a grownup, and sometimes less: all my friends own houses and have children, and I don’t have any of that yet. I’m on a slower path, because many studio owners have told me that the only way to have a successful studio is to not have a family while you’re building it.”

Ashley Morga
Ashley Morga, a 2006 graduate of the dance program at the University of Wisconsin, opened Xpressions Dance in 2007, when she was 23. The main studio is in Prairie du Chien, in southwestern Wisconsin; a new auxiliary location is in Gays Mills, about 40 miles northeast.

Morga and her husband live about 40 miles from the main studio but hope to move closer. Her husband’s new job, she says, will “allow me to continue working only a part-time job—writing grants for a local nonprofit—outside of the studio.” Currently that takes 16 to 25 hours a week. She has a home office, which feeds her workaholic tendencies. She’s literally poured “blood, sweat, and tears” into the business. “Try installing your own studio flooring!”

Morga says she tries “very hard to have a life outside the studio, but family and friends have learned that if they want to spend time with me, they need to schedule it around the studio schedule. Even then I end up sneaking studio work into shopping trips. I always bring along a list of things I need, like props, costume pieces, etc.”

This year she chose not to schedule classes on Saturdays so that she could have time with her husband. She takes a week-long vacation shortly after each recital, usually out of the country, she says, “because that’s the only way I won’t be able to check my voicemail, website, email, Facebook page.”

Morga says her studio “is very much a part of me; I can’t imagine life without it and my dancers. When parents and dancers ask if I plan on having children, I say, ‘Right now I have 146, and I care for each and every one of them!’ ” She hates missing family and friends’ events “all the time,” but even harder is the fact that she rarely has a totally free day. She’s running a “one-woman circus when it comes to daily business.”

Family is the backbone of Morga’s school. Her husband works backstage and handles sound for shows, “in addition to countless other things, from transporting props and costumes to video recording outreach performances and even helping to paint and lay floor at our new studio. He isn’t involved in the everyday business, but it was largely his encouragement that led me to open my studio. He has been 100 percent supportive, though not always thrilled with how much time I spend working.” Even during movie nights on the couch with him, she finds herself working on studio stuff. And they’re still trying to figure out “how having children will fit into the schedule.”

Morga’s youngest sister is her recital backstage runner, and an aunt helps with costuming, ticketing, and picture day and runs the audio at the shows. Her mom and another sister help with props and other show activities. “Even my nieces and mother-in-law have helped out, selling tickets or acting as room monitors,” Morga says. “The pay they receive is terrible—usually a dinner and an acknowledgement in the recital program—but each year my family asks for first access to the latest logo merchandise so they can wear it proudly, even though they all live 200-plus miles away. I really couldn’t have made it to this point without them.”