By Kate Florian
When my husband and I opened our studio in 2009, we ran it like the studio where I trained as a student: nine months of one weekly class culminating in a year-end recital. We started with zero students in September. By January, we had 55 students and were preparing to announce all things recital-related. By mid-April, we’d heard it all: “Johnnie isn’t comfortable performing,” and “we can’t afford the additional expenses,” and “Judy is going to do swimming and baseball now.” By recital time, enrollment was down to 31 students.
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.
First I tackled the most common complaint: the length of time students had to invest before being able to perform. I split the year into two sessions, with recitals in December and May. The dancers now make a shorter-term commitment, and recreational dancers can work around other activities by switching classes midyear, without disrupting class dynamics.
Next, we separated the classes into two categories: technique-only and performance-only. Performance classes are devoted to choreography and performance quality; they have an enrollment cutoff date. Technique classes (prerequisites for performance classes) focus on technique and skills development; the students who take only these classes are not in the recital.
Immediately class enrollments doubled among existing students, and the studio enrollment (now more than 200 students) continues to grow. Dancers in technique classes have the freedom to “try before they buy” without guilt or pressure, and they can register at any time.
With separate classes in technique and recital choreography, we see quicker improvement in the dancers’ technique and performance quality. Now students who need an extra session or two to feel confident in their abilities have more opportunities to practice technique, while those who seek the limelight can perform more often.
Figuring out costume costs and recital structure were the hardest problems to solve, but our solutions have eliminated nearly all of the common recital dramas. We rent costumes rather than have our clients buy them, a practice that keeps costs down for families. A bonus is that parents aren’t as concerned about their kids loving the color or style, as long as the costumes fit the character and are flattering.
Each performance class is cast as a character type in a story (pirates, scarecrows, snowflakes, etc.), and graduating seniors dance leads or solos. Basing our recitals on familiar stories (such as Frozen, Peter Pan, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) allows us to be creative with a variety of characters, keeps the pace flowing and audiences engaged, and encourages the classes to work together.
The performers sign a contract that’s specific to the recital, committing them to all required dates, class attendance, and costs, and laying out all expectations and consequences. If they can’t commit, they can save the dates for the next session’s recital and make the commitment then—and take technique classes in the meantime.
Our numbers continue to grow. Students enjoy having options: to perform or not, to switch or add classes halfway through the year, and how much time to commit. Ultimately, disregarding “but it’s always been done that way” has been the best solution for our studio’s culture and bank account.
Kate Florian is the founder and studio director of Dance Around, on Colorado’s Western Slope, where she enjoys instructing and choreographing for dancers of all ages and abilities.