Kathryn Sullivan has found lots of fans for her Ballet Glider, which has been a sideline business during her years of teaching. Now she’s working on growing it. Two dance-business experts give advice about how to take it to the next level.
“Timely” is the word that springs to mind when you first see well-known ballet teacher Kathryn Sullivan’s invention, The Ballet Glider by KAS. Essentially, it’s a small, fuzzy, machine-washable cozy that wraps around a barre with Velcro to provide a personalized spot to rest an ankle or a hand—perfect to maintain hygiene on a shared barre.
But the obvious COVID-deterring benefit of the Glider is just a bonus; Sullivan actually created the product several years ago for entirely different reasons. She had noticed a shift in class attire at New York City’s legendary Steps on Broadway, where she’s been a longtime instructor. “I would see students run to their dance bags and pull out a sock or towel or sweater to put on the barre when it was time to stretch,” she recalls. “I realized that most didn’t wear tights anymore, or wore footless tights so that when they put their legs on the barre they would get stuck.”
That discovery led her to experiment with soft materials that would both slide on the barre and cushion students’ Achilles tendons. She had noticed some of her Japanese students using “cute little washcloths” as barre coverings and initially made her prototype out of terry cloth, but found that it didn’t slide easily enough. By 2014, when she first offered the Ballet Glider for sale, Sullivan had settled on polar fleece, with interior batting for softness. Its easy on-off quality also makes it handy for reserving a spot at the barre before a popular class.
Sullivan is confident the Ballet Glider is a needed product, and she’s hoping she can build momentum for it as she contemplates cutting back on teaching. Due to the pandemic, Steps is closed, as is Barnard College’s studio, where she also teaches. But even when the lockdown ends, Sullivan wants to reduce her hours after 30 years of teaching. “I’m using this time to gather my focus on the Glider,” she says. Up until now, Sullivan says, she has only invested about 10 hours a week in production, marketing and shipping.
Here’s what Sullivan has done recently to amp things up—and what two dance-business experts—Other Space Innovation consultants Maria Montanez and Susie Riefenhauser—have to say about possible next steps.
Sullivan still makes each Glider by hand at her home on an industrial sewing machine, from materials purchased retail at a chain fabric store. She had initially shopped New York City’s garment district for fabrics, but found the chain store was more consistent on stock availability of her signature leopard and floral print fleeces.
Fellow teacher and pointe-shoe expert Mary Carpenter, of the YouTube channel Dancewithmary NYC, remembers the first time her longtime friend and colleague shared her invention. “Kathryn showed it to me early on while she was still developing it,” says Carpenter. “I thought, ‘This is great!’ I’m shocked it hasn’t gone further.” On her channel, Carpenter has done an unboxing video for the Ballet Glider and also demonstrated its use in one of her free pandemic Kitchen Classes.
The Expert Take: Beyond A Side Gig
Montanez and Riefenhauser, who both worked for years at dancewear manufacturing companies before recently forming their own dance-business consultancy, Other Space Innovation, applaud Sullivan for enlisting a colleague to showcase the Glider. But they advise that, as an entrepreneur, she needs to focus on doing wider and more frequent outreach. “Keep tapping into your connections,” suggests Riefenhauser. “Follow other teachers, dancers and studios on social media. Start conversations there, just like in real life. You can build a really authentic community around your product.”
The consultants also suggest that Sullivan refine her modest website, especially since retail outlets have been closed and she has had to rely more on digital sales. Most important, says Montanez, “the ability to immediately put a product in the cart needs to be front and center.” And then, she notes, “you need to write for the customer. If you’re the creator, it’s very easy to write from your own point of view.” Montanez recommends thinking about what kind of internet search terms dancers are using and then making sure those words appear in website copy.
The website currently shows only four color options for the trademarked Glider, but Sullivan does do custom orders as well for the $14 item. In her first few years, she had priced it at $15 plus shipping, a decision she believes may have held back its popularity. Montanez disagrees: “I think she has room to play with pricing as long as she stays under $20.”
While some of the benefits of the Glider—hygiene and comfort—are obvious, the fitness aspect is less so and takes some explaining, which Sullivan does via a video on her website. She says that she has observed students develop greater core strength with regular use of the Glider because it encourages a lighter touch. “I see results from it: Students get stronger because they’re not hanging on the barre,” she says.
During the pandemic, Sullivan has had more time to explore publicity strategies. She says she’s gotten “great advice” from experts at SCORE, the free small-business mentoring service affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration. She’s invested in paid promotions to her dance audience, including with Dance Media, the parent company of Dance Business Weekly. And she’s been working on boosting her own efforts on Facebook and Instagram. A Facebook ad “didn’t work,” Sullivan says, but she’s been getting attention by posting more regularly on her own pages as well as in dance teacher group pages, like Ballet Teachers Unite! Riefenhauser thinks that Instagram’s newly launched Reels function may be an opportunity for her. “It’s very similar to TikTok in that it’s 15-second video clips,” she explains. “We’d suggest playing around with the new feature—getting creative, solving dancer’s problems. It could be fun, entertaining and accomplish getting great content.”
Looking to the Future
In the last few weeks, Sullivan has been encouraged to see more orders coming in from dance retailers. “Studios are slowly opening in the suburbs, and teachers and parents are concerned with barre hygiene and distancing at the barre,” she says. “If sales continue like this in the fall, I’ll be very busy. I already have another gal on board to help me if the load is too much.”
Montanez and Riefenhauser believe that Sullivan has a promising product in the Ballet Glider, whose potential hasn’t been fully realized. They suggest tactics like these could help:
- Build an email list to market directly to past customers and cultivate new ones.
- Create trendy, limited-time Ballet Gliders that will drive interest and new purchasing.
- Keep connecting with fellow teachers as potential customers and ask for their help in increasing the Ballet Glider’s visibility.
- Make the “Buy” function more visible in more locations on the website.
- Produce some fun, short Instagram Reels showing the Ballet Glider in use.
Anne M. Russell is the former editor in chief of Shape and VIVmag. Based in Los Angeles, she writes about small business, technology and health.