A dance degree fit for a studio owner: Slippery Rock University.
After overhearing a dancer talking about getting her phone disconnected, Jane Baron decided to make sure she could earn a living with her dance degree. "I never wanted to worry about my next paycheck," says the owner of Jane Baron's Academy of Dance in western Pennsylvania.
Baron is one of several graduates of Slippery Rock University who've used their dance degrees to open successful studios. Nora Ambrosio, chairperson of the SRU dance department, has designed a curriculum that not only prepares dancers to teach, but also gives them the tools necessary to run a successful business.
"We strongly recommend that anyone interested in opening a studio minor in business," says Ambrosio. That's how Baron gathered the skills to run her studio, which now has four locations (two studios and two YMCA satellites) and a total enrollment of 500.
Ambrosio says that students often know that they want to open a studio the moment they show up on campus. Her program enables them to spend their four years to plan and prepare for that outcome. Before they leave campus, for instance, they will have studied Introduction to Creative Dance, Dancer Wellness, Dance Kinesiology and Teaching of Dance. But it's in her Senior Synthesis class that they research their plans for post-graduation. As she tells them, "Your parents have already turned your room into the exercise room. You need to think seriously about the future."
"We don't want to send anyone out without a plan," she says. "Many return to their hometowns where they have family support. These are the students who should be opening dance studios."
If studio ownership is in their future, she asks them to consider what kind of business they want. "Some plan to offer yoga and pilates, while others take a more traditional approach," she says. "We encourage our students to play to their strengths." Students speak with lawyers and accountants, they put together their schedule, policies, procedures, consider locations, brainstorm recital ideas, create a logo, learn how to apply for a loan, and select a name. No detail of studio ownership is left out. "They even figure out the nitty gritty of parent observation policies," says Ambrosio. If they have already worked out these details, they do a project based on some other missing piece. Baron's project, for example, was about mounting a performance, something she's since put to frequent use.
"More and more parents are looking for studios run by people with college degrees," says Ambrosio. Parents know about proper dance floors, solid teaching techniques and body science. "It's become common knowledge that people need a degree to succeed. Also, many parents danced themselves, so they are a more informed public."
Baron emerged from SRU prepared to meet the artistic demands of running her studio. "Many people don't realize how much artistry goes into studio ownership, from coming up with novel class combinations, to choreography, to shaping a recital," she says. "I get to express myself as an artist on a daily basis."
Pedagogy proved more of a hurdle than the business aspects of studio ownership for Sarah Defreisha, owner of Crossroads Dance Academy in Slippery Rock, PA. Defreisha harks from an entrepreneurial family that has opened several small businesses over the years. "I had plenty of support from my family on the details of business ownership," says Defreisha, who graduated in 2007 and opened her studio in 2009 with her husband, Allen, also an SRU grad. Defreisha attributes her career success to two SRU classes: Improvisation and Teaching Dance.
"I was terrified of improvisation, and put it off until my senior year," she says. "It changed the way I valued my own movement. Suddenly all of my movements were valid. So instead of second-guessing myself, I was building self-esteem."
She goes on to say, "Teaching is all about improvisation. You come in with a lesson plan that may need to be constantly altered depending on who's in front of you. Teaching is thinking on your feet."
Ambrosio's Teaching Dance class helped her learn how to give effective corrections. She had the opportunity to observe many teachers and analyze their methods, both effective and ineffective. "There are so many ways of correcting students, from tactile to verbal," she says. "Today, I feel equipped to walk into a room with no previous knowledge of the students' abilities and teach a quality class that they can take something away from."
Rebecca Conway-Langguth knew at age 12 that she wanted to open a dance studio. Having come from a family of school teachers, education was in her blood. "I helped out with the preschool classes when I was in middle school," says the 2002 SRU graduate. She now runs Blair Academy of Dance in Altoona, PA, her hometown. She selected SRU precisely because of its emphasis on dance education. "I was already paying attention to the inner workings of running a studio while a young dancer and how not to run one," she says.
Though Conway-Langguth did not minor in business, she did take some accounting classes. "I also took human development classes that I found useful to studio ownership. That's what's so great about SRU," she says, "I could pick and choose classes without needing to declare a minor." During her Senior Synthesis, Conway-Langguth wrote a guide to the ABCs of starting a dance studio. She researched practices of successful studios: what kind of floors, dressing rooms, and staffing they had, and how many dance rooms. "I called up local dance studios to gather a consensus about what works," she recalls. "You don't just put out a sign and, boom, people will come." Today, she owns her own building, rents an additional location and boasts an enrollment of 400 and faculty of five, most of whom have college degrees. She enjoys the artistic freedom of choreographing for her students and sees her role as larger than that of a studio owner or dance teacher. "I have so many opportunities to influence today's youth, I can teach life lessons as well. I am overwhelmed by the capacity I have to shape these kids. I teach proper dance and life practices."