Makeovers, renovations, and dream spaces
by Heather Turbeville
Dance requires an array of skills, such as balance, coordination, and great timing. These skills also come in handy when you’re managing a dance studio renovation.
Dance Images Dance & Music Center, located in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, has been serving students just under 3 years old and older for more than 30 years. The school offers a wide range of dance classes, including ballet, jazz, tap, pointe, hip-hop, musical theater, preschool dance, and acro, as well as private instrument and voice/singing lessons to 300 students weekly.
On December 28, 2015, Dance Images owner Debra Contarino-Steele purchased a 7,000-square-foot condo that was originally a doctor’s office and manufacturing space for prosthetics. Renovations to transform the space into a dance studio began on January 4, 2016. To say the build-out was on a tight timeline is an understatement. The studio’s classes ended at the old location on February 26. Classes began at the new studio February 28.
“Without a contractor who understood our strict budget and time constraints,” Contarino-Steele says, “it could have been a financial nightmare.”
“We had a phenomenal contractor who stuck to every deadline,” Contarino-Steele says. “We did all of our own painting and decorating, so we were there together, every day, working simultaneously. As the contractor finished something, we would paint it.
“The three smaller doctors’ offices were the perfect size for three private music rooms,” she says, and the two larger rooms became a staff lounge and a birthday party/afterschool room. According to Contarino-Steele, “the most convenient thing about them previously being doctors’ offices is that there are sinks in each of the five rooms.”
The lobby and the front desk remained a lobby and front desk. “All we had to do in these spaces was repaint, refinish the floors, and wash rugs,” Contarino-Steele says. The manufacturing space, on the other hand, had to be gutted to make three dance classrooms and a locker room for students.
“The renovations and the build-out were completed by February 27,” Contarino-Steele says. The studio was closed for vacation from February 13 through 20. Contarino-Steele and her staff moved everything but the stereos out of the old space, so they were able to hold classes there the week of February 21. “We resumed classes right on schedule,” she says and transitioned to the new space February 28.
The finished product
Each of the dance rooms has floor-to-ceiling windows that let the light in. Two of the rooms are approximately 1,000 square feet each and one is about 700 square feet. The dance rooms are all equipped with wireless Sonos speakers, which allow teachers to play music on their laptops, iPhones, or iPods.
Contarino-Steele spent a good deal of money soundproofing the dance and music rooms with ROXUL acoustic insulation and double sheetrock that was staggered to stop the sound from traveling. “We inserted rubber casings to hang the suspended ceiling so that the sound wouldn’t travel up the aluminum grid, and we used higher acoustic ceiling tiles, as we have condo neighbors above us,” Contarino-Steele says.
“We tried to keep all of the walls and trim—from the hallways to the lobby—consistent with our studio colors: burgundy and cream,” Contarino-Steele says. Luckily, she found 76 lockers in black and burgundy that fit right in. As well as continuing the color scheme, the lockers (a Craigslist find), provide much-needed space for students to store their things, which helps to keep the lobby clear of clutter.
Contarino-Steele had custom benches designed for the lobby and installed hooks along one wall where students can hang their coats. “We have closed-circuit cameras in the dance and music rooms and closed-circuit TVs in the lobby,” she says. A TV above the front desk continually scrolls through a list of all the studio’s upcoming events using a PowerPoint presentation format.
The hallways at Dance Images are lined with red carpet runners to help with wear and tear on the floors, stop the kids from sliding, and minimize the sound from tap shoes. Contarino-Steele says, “We just tell the kids to follow the red brick road to class.
“Our space is shaped like a horseshoe, with our lobby on one end and the dance rooms on the other,” Contarino-Steele says. The lobby is completely separate from the dance space. Teachers meet students in the lobby, walk them to the dance rooms, and then walk them back to the lobby after class. This separation offers an added layer of protection for the kids, keeping them out of the lobby until it’s time to leave. Kids also have to pass by the front desk to leave. And the double foyer allows the kids to wait in the building until their parents pull up to the door.
The condo also includes a 1,200-foot rental space, which Contarino-Steele originally used for a dancewear store and storage. She has recently moved the store to an empty room off the lobby and will rent out the space for additional income.
Before purchasing the property, Contarino-Steele had to go through the City of Methuen Zoning Board to get an ordinance to allow a dance studio at the new location, which was zoned as light industrial. Because town meetings are held only once a month, there were strict guidelines for each step of the process. “It’s not always easy to get the building department to rush on anything, so we worked really hard to develop a relationship with that department,” Contarino-Steele says, adding that “an Edible Arrangement really helped.” She also hired a lawyer who was familiar with the process to represent her at the town meetings. “That was money very well spent,” she says.
“We didn’t really run into obstacles on the build-out/renovation because we had the best contractor on the face of the earth,” Contarino-Steele says. The contractor had such a good relationship with the building inspector, in fact, that when the inspector fell ill and postponed the final walkthrough, the contractor persuaded him to meet onsite on Saturday and kept the project on track.
“Plan, research, schedule, and stay on top of everything,” Contarino-Steele says. She stresses the need to get references for potential contractors and to call their customers, “so that you don’t end up with a project that lasts forever.
“Sit down with your contractor before you hire him or her and set a calendar together that you both can live with and have [the contractor] sign it,” Contarino-Steele says. “Keep that calendar handy and every day, stay on top of what was supposed to be completed. Communicate, communicate, communicate!” Contarino-Steele and her contractor talked each day about what was completed that day and what was going to happen the next.
“As far as decorating, semi gloss paint is your best friend,” Contarino-Steele says, “because it can be washed over and over again.” She put each one of her paint colors in pint-sized paint cans and keeps them in the studio’s cleaning closet for easy access. “I pull them out for quick touch-ups,” she says. “The studio always looks freshly painted.”
DSL copy editor Heather Turbeville holds an MFA in creative writing and literature from Emerson College. She lives in San Francisco, where she writes fiction, studies belly dance, and performs with The Zakiyya Dancers.