A Fresh Start

A class at Santa Clarita Ballet Academy.
Photo by Felicity Kiner

Studio owners find happiness the second time around

by Ryan P. Casey

As soon as Denise Johnson closed the door of Cedartown [GA] Academy of Performing Arts in 2000, she knew that leaving her beloved dance school—and surrendering her career as a dance teacher—was a mistake.

“I regretted it from the very day it happened,” she says. “There wasn’t a day that went by when my heart didn’t ache.”

Like many dance educators, Johnson had been living the dream of running her own studio. But life’s challenges and caprices had made running the business impossible, and she knew that she could not continue at the helm.

What she did not know was that 17 years later, Cedartown Academy of Performing Arts would reopen again under her direction.

“I’m doing what I love again and having the time of my life—it’s a dream come true for the second time.” —Denise Johnson

Although Johnson’s story has the happy ending one might expect from a novel or film, her narrative is not uncommon. Many studio owners who leave their businesses—for financial, personal, medical, or other reasons—eventually find their way back due to some combination of timing, perseverance, and good fortune. Often, hindsight helps them make better choices the second time around, and their “never say die” attitudes inspire other studio owners who may have considered abandoning their own dance studio dreams.

 

Leaving the burnout behind

When Johnson first closed CAPA after 17 years in business, she was certain she was done for good. A difficult divorce, a contentious custody battle, and emergency surgery had drained her artistic and administrative energy.

“I was just totally exhausted and mad at the world,” she says. “I felt mentally and physically unable to do the best that I normally do.”

Assisting Denise Johnson (center) with her Cedartown studio are (from left) Anna Lundy, Alyssa Bennefield, Sara Smith, and Tori Holder.
Photo by Claudia Henderson

For the next decade, Johnson worked in real estate. Eventually she earned a college degree in health care and secured a job as a phlebotomist in a pathology lab. “I love being in contact with people,” says Johnson, who still works her phlebotomist job.

But her passion for dance never disappeared. She had frequent dreams about her students performing onstage or herself teaching in the classroom, especially during recital season. She’d get emotional watching a friend’s child at a dance recital. Still, she felt opening another studio was unlikely.

“I didn’t have enough confidence in myself,” she says. “I was afraid to find out that I couldn’t, or that nobody would want me to.”

Her attitude changed when her daughters persuaded her to publish a poll on Facebook asking friends whether they would support the revival of CAPA. The response was overwhelming. “It was like a firestorm,” says Johnson. “I had people ready to sign up that day.”

The studio reopened in August 2017—almost 17 years to the day of its original closure. Approximately 200 dancers are currently enrolled, many of them the children of former students.

“I’m doing what I love again and having the time of my life—it’s a dream come true for the second time,” she says.

Although Johnson, 53, admits that she’s not teaching in the classroom as much as she would like, she sees this as an improvement. “I was the jack of all trades at my school before,” she says. “Now I’ve got help; I’ve got more quality, dependable staff. I’m like the principal now—I’m more an artistic director.”

When she was a young owner and many of her students’ mothers were older, she says, “I felt that I had to please everybody. Now I know that I’m the professional and I’m what is needed to make things happen, and I’ve got to accept that I can’t please everyone and will do what’s best for all of us.

“I’m concentrating more on enjoying the ride now, not being so tense about everything,” Johnson says.

 

Family-work-life balance

While Kelly Jordan Peabody was running Singular Sensation in Wales, Massachusetts, she got engaged. In addition to spending four nights each week at the studio, she had a full-time marketing job.

“To work all day, every day, and then be gone at night and on the weekends—that wasn’t going to work for us,” she says.

To ease the transition to married life, Peabody closed the studio in 1999 after seven seasons. Though she missed dance, she didn’t give it much thought until about five years later when a friend who ran a nearby studio asked if Peabody would cover her maternity leave. Peabody agreed.

“Being a mom made me adjust my perspective. My expectations were more realistic because I had that 24/7, hands-on experience with kids.” —Kelly Jordan Peabody

“I realized I was reconnecting with something I enjoyed and missed,” she says.

When the studio owner returned, she offered Peabody a two-day-a-week teaching position. Peabody agreed, and continued to teach even after her own maternity leave. But when she became pregnant with her second child, she cut back on her teaching hours.

“It was hard to tell my husband I was going to leave him at home just because I wanted to teach dance,” she says. “But he knew I was unhappy. He told me, ‘If it’s going to be part-time, just do it.’ ”

Peabody found that motherhood had significantly changed her as a teacher. “Being a mom made me adjust my perspective,” she says. “My expectations were more realistic because I had that 24/7, hands-on experience with kids. I realized that the ways I had been told to teach weren’t lining up with what kids were really capable of or interested in.”

After clashing with the studio owner over teaching philosophies, Peabody knew she had to strike out on her own once more. Pregnant with her third child, and with her husband’s support, she opened Gotta Dance in Palmer, Massachusetts, in 2006. Today approximately 100 students dance there each week—almost double the enrollment of her first studio.

Like Johnson, Peabody, 47, says she has learned a lot from her initial days as a young studio owner. In addition to making her expectations for students more realistic, she is also focusing on dance history to differentiate her studio. Lessons include discussion of themes that rotate monthly, such as “Jazz Choreographer of the Month,” “Modern Pioneer of the Month,” and “Ballet of the Month.”

“Many dance students graduate high school and never take another dance class, but the end product doesn’t have to stop when they stop taking classes with me,” she says. “I want my students to have some other knowledge that they can take beyond the studio.”

Perhaps the most important lesson she herself learned was the importance of her spouse’s commitment and support. “You both have to be on board, be invested, and know what the commitment is,” she says. “And you have to be able to turn around and offer the same kind of support to your spouse. Owning a dance studio is not always a good thing for a marriage.”

 

Patience pays off

Managing a family was not something Corinne Glover worried about while running English Ballet School in Los Angeles. Dance was in the family: for many years her mother, who had immigrated from the U.K., had taught the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus at a San Francisco Bay Area ballet school she also directed.

“I’ve been in the dance business all my life,” says Glover, 72. “I saw how my mother built her business, solved problems, and made financial decisions.”

After teaching and performing in northern California, Glover moved to L.A. in 1970. A few years later, she began teaching ballet again, and in 1976, she opened English Ballet School.

Kelly Jordan Peabody opened her second studio, Gotta Dance, with adjusted expectations based on her experience as mother to daughter Alice (here) and her other children.
Photo by Deanna Sloat

“I kept it small during that phase of my life because I was raising my two children and didn’t want the large-scale operation that I had grown up with in my mother’s business,” she says. “I knew I’d build again when my kids were a little older.”

Her prediction came true. She started planning an expansion in 1989, even briefly helping a friend run a studio that ultimately flopped financially. That failed studio was approximately 30 miles north of L.A. in Santa Clarita, at the time a much more affordable area. Glover realized she was meant to end up there, and opened Santa Clarita Ballet Academy in 1992 (closing English Ballet around the same time). Her new studio now serves about 300 students.

“The town at that point was still quite small, but it was obvious that it was going to become a viable, fast-growing middle-class community,” she says. “And there was nothing in the area offering the classical training I could.”

Glover says she wouldn’t have her current studio if she hadn’t owned English Ballet School first, recognizing that the two schools suited her in different phases of her life.

“What I have today is what I’ve always wanted, but it had to be built over time,” she says. To other studio owners who may be considering a move, Glover subscribes to the timeless mantra, “location, location, location.”

“It’s really important to know who is teaching around you,” she says. “How established is the competition? Can you compete with them? It’s always advantageous to be in a location where your service is needed.”

She also warns that finances can be the biggest hurdle to clear, noting that in many cities the process of obtaining permits and meeting requirements is exhausting and expensive.

“Start small and build slowly and carefully,” she advises. “Don’t take on more than you can financially or creatively handle. Make sure you have at least enough students to cover your rent.”

Still, Glover admits, she is lucky that she was in the right place at the right time—and that she has always had a very clear vision of what she wants to do. “As I always say to my students: just water the plant every day, and then it will bloom.”

 


Ryan P. Casey, an alum of YoungArts, The School at Jacob’s Pillow, Legacy Dance Company, and NYU, is a Boston-based teacher, performer, choreographer, and freelance journalist who directs a tap ensemble, Off Beat.