Studio Style | West Valley Dance Academy

West Valley Dance Academy

by Heather Turbeville

What’s the best way to approach a build-out for your brand-new dance studio? If you’re Lisa Tran—a dancer who has a civil engineering degree and a husband who works as an electrical engineer—you do most of it yourself.

“I think [having engineering degrees] definitely influenced our decision to do some of the work ourselves,” says Tran, owner of West Valley Dance Academy in Chatsworth, California. “We knew that we could probably find enough information online to take on the projects.” Tran and her husband had also done a lot of the work for their home renovation about a year before, which gave them confidence.


The renovation

“The space we rented was a blank slate, just one open space,” says Tran. “We spent about two months on the renovation.”

She hired a contractor to put up the walls, doors, and door frames. The company she ordered mirrors from did the installation. The rest was all DIY: “We put in the floors in the studio and lobby and [installed] the barres,” Tran says. “We also replaced all the bathroom fixtures—toilet, sink, mirror—to make it look a little nicer.”

I know exactly what’s under my floors, what’s behind the walls, and how strongly the barres are mounted.” —Lisa Tran

Tran moved in at the end of June 2015, and West Valley Dance Academy opened for classes in September 2015. The 1,600-square-foot space includes a lobby, a combination storage/dressing room, a hallway, a bathroom, and—of course—the nearly 700-square-foot classroom. The classroom has sprung floors with marley overlay, double wall-mounted ballet barres along one wall, full-length mirrors along the opposite wall, a CD and MP3 player, and wall-mounted speakers. The studio can accommodate 10 to 15 students per class, depending on the students’ ages and the class style.


Before the build-out, the space for West Valley Dance Academy was one large open space (above, left), a “blank slate,” according to studio owner Lisa Tran. Now the space has a classroom, a lobby, a combination storage/dressing room, and a hallway (above right; and below).
All photos courtesy Lisa Tran

Take a look

Tran explains that she went back and forth on whether or not to have observation windows into the classroom. “As a teacher,” she says, “I have never really liked them because I find it to be distracting for many students, but lots of parents, especially parents of little ones, like to see what is happening in the class.”

Instead she set up a camera inside the studio and wired it to a TV monitor in the lobby, which parents seem to enjoy. “I think this is becoming a more common practice around dance studios and I have to say I really like it,” Tran says.

The double doors leading from the lobby to the classroom are glass, which can serve as a sort of observation window, but Tran can cover the glass with curtains if observers become a distraction for the students.



For other studio owners contemplating a DIY build-out, Tran recommends doing a lot of research, whether it’s for materials, methods, or the cost of hiring someone else to do the work. “The more you get to know your options the more confident you can feel about what you choose to do,” she says. “But also know yourself; if you are a perfectionist, you might enjoy, or even prefer, DIY because otherwise you’d always be nit-picking someone else’s work.” Alternatively, “if you know you don’t have the patience to see a difficult, tedious project through to the end,” Tran says, “you probably don’t want to build your own raised floor.”

Tran also recommends keeping track of every receipt for tax time. Your accountant can help you find deductions if you keep decent records. These records can also make it easier to order items when it’s time to repaint or make repairs.


The nearly 700-square-foot classroom has one accent wall, which Tran repaints each summer.

Lessons learned

According to Tran, it is possible to do many studio build-out projects on a lower budget, although that usually means spending more of your own time and effort. “We saved money by doing a lot of work ourselves,” she says, “but because these projects are not things we do all the time it took us much longer than it probably would have taken a contractor to do. I’m sure our work is not quite as polished as that of a contractor who does this type of work day in and day out, but we are also our own worst critics.”

Tran considers her current space a “starter studio.” She says, “For this first go round, we knew this would be a temporary studio space. The plan has always been to eventually move to a larger space, and when that happens I would like more of the work to be done professionally so I can trust that it will last a long, long time.”

When she is ready to expand and move into a new space, there are many projects she will opt to have a contractor handle instead of going the DIY route. However, there is something to be said about DIY. “I know exactly what’s under my floors, what’s behind the walls, and how strongly the barres are mounted,” Tran says, “so I feel confident about doing maintenance on my own in a lot of areas because there’s no mystery surrounding it. We also have a sense of pride looking at what we created, especially when we get compliments from customers about the look and feel of the studio.”


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.