Daycare center classes offer a business model with no studio required
By Kay Waters
Dance teacher Marisa Rotter’s weekly schedule reads like a tour of the Minneapolis suburbs. If it’s Monday it’s time to go to Farmington. If it’s Tuesday she’s shuttling between Burnsville, Apple Valley, and Northfield. On Thursday it’s back to Farmington.
Of course, many dance teachers travel between studios; what makes Rotter’s schedule different is that she teaches in daycare centers. Since 2009 she’s been the traveling dance teacher for Anna’s Bananas Daycare and Preschool, which offers optional dance, stretching, and tumbling classes to its students through a program it calls The Little Dance Studio.
“I love what I do. I feel lucky that I get to be a part of these kids’ lives every week and see them have such fun,” Rotter says. Her students range in age from 2 to 6; in addition to those who attend preschool at the centers, others come to the afterschool daycare program either by school bus or the center’s shuttle.
Rotter says her teaching schedule is exactly what she was looking for when she quit her full-time job as a graphic designer. After having her first child six years ago (she and her husband now have two children), she decided she wanted to change her schedule. She teaches three days a week and is always done by 6pm when the daycare centers close.
“Before I started working as a graphic designer I taught dance for 10 years, at the studio where I grew up. I always loved teaching dance, especially working with the little ones,” she says. “Now I have the best of both worlds. I’m working on a schedule that’s good for me and my family, and I’m working with these incredible little kids and sharing my love of dance with them.”
Anna M. Achtenberg, owner of Anna’s Bananas, says she got the idea to add dance classes to her daycare centers after noticing that a number of parents were rushing to pick up their children in order to get them to dance classes elsewhere.
“When I was putting together the plan to build my 15,000-square-foot facility in Farmington, I thought that would be the perfect time to incorporate a dance studio. Having a dance studio would allow parents to sign their children up to take dance classes during our business hours,” Achtenberg says. “Having dance at the daycare adds convenience for the parents, and it’s a great way for the children to exercise while having fun.”
Rotter is part of what seems to be a growing trend in the dance education world: dance teachers offering classes at daycare centers. Studio owners say these programs offer business-related benefits. “It’s free advertisement,” says Kelly Duggar Kane, owner of Kane & Co. Dance Productions in Evans, Georgia. She has been offering daycare classes since opening a studio in 2006. She says she got the idea from another studio in town that was teaching classes at a local daycare center. Kane first started teaching dance at a daycare facility owned by a friend, then marketed her services to other daycare centers in the area. “It’s a good business plan because if they’re interested and love it when they’re young, you hope that they’ll continue with you,” Kane says.
As part of Kane’s marketing strategy, the daycare classes perform in her studio’s annual recital, which allows children and their parents to see what else the studio offers. “They see what all the different age groups can do,” Kane says. “The little kids are like, ‘Hey, I want to do that.’ Seeing the older kids helps keep them interested in taking dance.”
Kane says some parents choose to register their children for classes at her studio rather than at the daycare centers. “Some of the parents would rather be able to come and watch their kids dance,” she says. “The daycare classes usually start at 3pm, so if you’re working during the day you may not be able to watch your kid take the class.”
Kane also says some parents prefer to have their children take class in a fully equipped dance studio with a dance floor, ballet barres, and mirrors on the walls. “When you take dance classes at the daycare center you’re in a regular room, not a dance studio, so the kids never see themselves in the mirror,” she says. “When I hold a rehearsal at my studio before they perform in the recital, the little kids get to see themselves in the mirror and it’s a big deal.”
Teachers who operate daycare-only programs say they see numerous advantages over working for or running a studio. Kathy Gentile has run her childcare-based dance program, Dance . . . Dance . . . Dance . . . , for 24 years in the Omaha, Nebraska, area. “This was the perfect solution for me. I didn’t want to work nights and weekends; I was a very busy mom,” she says. She says daycare families also appreciate a class schedule that doesn’t cut into family or recreation time in the evenings or on weekends.
This year Gentile heads a team of three teachers who offer weekly 30-minute dance classes in 45 childcare centers. Regular classes are offered September through May; the program also offers summer workshops at some of the centers.
“We have little programs—we don’t call them recitals—at Christmas and at the end of the year, in May, when the parents can see their children perform,” says Gentile. “The kids don’t get costumes, but we do T-shirts or have a theme. The performances are usually at the childcare center.” Sometimes the 20-minute performances are presented in conjunction with other events at the center; in other cases the performances are scheduled before pickup times or at a time determined by the center.
Teaching dance at a daycare center does present challenges. Teachers are expected to make do in whatever space the center provides. In most cases, the classes are held in an empty classroom or recreation room; two of five Anna’s Bananas Daycare and Preschool locations have dedicated dance studios.
Rotter, Kane, and Gentile do their own marketing for their classes, creating flyers and asking daycare staff to hand them out or mail them to parents. Tuition and payment arrangements vary by center, and the three teachers handle their own billing and payments. Gentile, for example, charges $30 per student per month (or $85 for three months), and uses an online system for both registration and payments; she does not pay any of the centers where she teaches. Rotter charges $37 per student per month, and parents drop off payments at the daycare center’s registration desk; she also does not pay the centers. Kane charges $40 per month, but pays the daycare centers $5 per child. None of the three has a contract with the daycare facilities.
“Extras” sometimes are included for free, depending on the teacher and the center. Rotter, for example, emails parents photos and video segments after each class. Her daycare center also sends daily email progress reports to parents, who can log into a web application to see new photos of the children throughout the day.
“I started sending the dance class emails because I know, as a parent, how much that’s appreciated,” Rotter says. “Parents really like to get those pictures and see what their children are doing. I usually take a group picture and some pictures or a video of them doing an across-the-floor exercise. It’s really cute.”
Curriculum is left up to the teacher. A ballet and tap combination class is most common, while Kane alternates ballet and tap on a weekly basis. These three teachers say that in some cases daycare staff help walk dance students to the designated room and assist them with changing their shoes. But usually, they say, the expectation is that dance teachers will handle everything, including changing shoes or clothes and dealing with misbehaving children.
The teachers say they generally do not require children to change into leotards and tights, opting instead to ask parents to dress their children in clothes that allow for physical activity (T-shirts and leggings or shorts). Rotter says that on dance days many parents of children who attend Anna’s Bananas send them to daycare already dressed in a leotard, tights, and a skirt or tutu.
Kane says the daycare centers where she teaches usually determine if students will wear dance apparel or simply change their shoes. At one location, Kane and her assistant change the children into dance apparel (Kane asks for leotard and tights) and back into street clothes; they also bring them back to their regular classroom after dance class. At another center, the staff gets the children dressed and ready for Kane and her assistant; after class, the dance teachers help the children change into street clothes.
At a center where the staff decided not to worry about changing clothes, Kane says, “we sent a notice to parents that the children should wear loose, comfortable clothing and bring their dance shoes and a pair of thin socks [to help in getting shoes on and off]. That works best. It keeps it simple and because everybody is on a tight time schedule, the kids still get to have their class and have fun.”
Gentile says daycare-center dance programs yield benefits for the teachers as well as the kids and their parents. “It’s dance on wheels,” she says. “We teach for a half hour and drive to the next daycare center, teach for a half hour and head to the next center. Then, when most teachers are headed to the studio to teach at night, I’m headed home.”
For the children, she says, “it’s been a very positive program—they’re in a familiar atmosphere with friends, so they thoroughly enjoy it. It’s a great way to introduce them to dance.”
Native Chicagoan Kay Waters is a New Jersey–based freelance writer and part-time dance teacher.