Houston Dance Scene’s Newest Entrepreneur Moves Forward With Caution
Leveraging her visibility as the former artistic director of Houston’s METdance, Marlana Doyle was perfectly poised to open her new school. Then came COVID-19.
When Houston’s beloved METdance lost its lease in 2019, artistic director Marlana Doyle struck out on her own to open the Institute of Contemporary Dance Houston. With a new building, school and performing company, Doyle had carefully set the stage for an April 2020 grand opening.
“I wanted to create a space for everyone, from professionals to those trying dance for the first time—a real home for the arts,” says Doyle.
In September, she signed a lease on 6,330-square-foot warehouse space, large enough for three spacious studios with high ceilings, natural light and ample parking. Tramonte Design Group was brought in to create a chic and welcoming look. Situated a mile and a half from the downtown Theater District, two miles from the trendy Heights residential neighborhood and dead center in the First Ward Arts District, the location is ideal: a changing neighborhood in a steady-growth mode, aligned with the arts.
“We are next to a gym, a yoga studio and a bar, of course. There is always a bar!” says Doyle, laughing—there had been parking-space conflicts that arose when METdance was located next to a popular cafe.
Doyle secured capital of $450,000 from a combination of a Small Business Administration 7(A) loan, one large private donation and $170K from her own savings. “The SBA process was incredibly thorough and one of the hardest things I have ever gone through,” she says.
With former METdancecompany member and teacher Genene Wallis-McGrath on board as studio/education manager, the goal is to offer 28 classes per week building to an enrollment of 250 within that first year, generating $300,000 in studio revenue. A faculty of 19 has been announced, including many who already have a steady following in Houston and with whom Doyle has worked in the past.
Her business plan includes a membership structure that allows discounts on classes and special free classes. She plans a full-spectrum curriculum including ballet, modern, jazz, world dance, tap and a children’s series in addition to the teen/adult program. In the meantime, classes for the student company have started up at various locations and in November, classes for the public began at the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH).
After getting all the permits in place, the build-out began in January. With visibility from classes, merchandise and an active social-media presence, the momentum roared ahead. Then came COVID-19. Even the most determined people in Houston pushed the pause button.
It Takes a Village
That Doyle has never run a studio didn’t stop her—she has considerable strengths to draw upon. The mother of two young girls and the wife of arts videographer Ben Doyle, Doyle is a prominent figure on the Houston arts scene. She relied on formative mentors of the Charlotte Klein Dance Centers in her hometown Worcester, MA, and from her time as a student at Point Park University. And she had also been involved in METdance’s educational mission.
It also helps that she’s built a broad network of support: not only in the dance community, but with such cultural pillars as Theatre Under the Stars, where she made her musical theater choreographer debut with Spring Awakening. And as a member of the Dance/USA board for three years, her national contact list is impressive: Camille A. Brown, Kyle Abraham, Larry Keigwin, Rosie Herrera and Sidra Bell were all represented in the METdance repertory during Doyle’s tenure.
Even so, it’s been truly astonishing to see the progress she’s made in less than a year. “I’m extremely organized and determined,” she says, radiating her characteristic positive authority.
A new professional company of six dancers has already established its presence, debuting in September 2019 during the annual Theater District Open House at the Society for the Performing Arts. Houston Contemporary Dance Company is now rehearsing in the new ICD space—while observing proper distancing guidelines of designated squares and no partnering.
Studio and company are separate legal entities—the studio is organized as an LLC, and the company is a nonprofit 501(c)(3), yet they are connected artistically. “Just like any professional company that has a school attached, it raises the bar to have a professional company in-house,” Doyle says. “Students get value from being around professional dancers.”
Waiting Out the Pandemic
Like the rest of us, Doyle is getting used to living with the big unknowns, while still trying to inch forward. She is in constant communication with her contractor and studio/education director on the next steps to move ahead.
Although there have been delays due to COVID-19, the build-out of the new space is now complete; the first rent payment was made on May 1. She applied for federal stimulus money and was approved for both PPP and EIDL loans. With eyes open for every available emergency funding source, she still finds herself nervous about the financials, considering the slow reopening of dance studios. A tenant allowance from her landlord that covers a portion of the studio build-out has served as a small cash cushion.
Meanwhile, she’s making good use of the time by joining the National Dance Education Organization and participating in webinars given by the NEA and Dance/USA. And like dance teachers everywhere, she’s been offering free classes on YouTube to keep the energy going.
As Texas begins its reopening, she’s banking on all of her careful planning coming to fruition, students’ pent up desire to get out and move, and that powerful aura of positivity that has defined her.
While most businesses worry about when and how they will reopen, Doyle realizes that starting a new enterprise is a whole different beast. She’s relying on the dedicated following she built as the public face of METdance to turn out.
“Staying focused on my work helps with anxiety,” she says. “I am also taking a lot of deep breaths, working out, cooking and of course playing with my two amazing daughters, Olivia and Evie.”
Zoom classes filmed in the new space began on May 5, and a virtual intensive is planned for June. As for bringing students inside the building, Doyle imagines a time when classes will be smaller, allowing for six feet of social distancing. She plans to start the children’s program when school returns. “I want to act in the best interests of my students, parents and company members.”
“I am learning to be patient,” she says. “We are going to slowly roll out. Now I have more time for the little things, like making sure the Wi-Fi is working well and that we have enough cleaning products on hand.”
“Nothing really stopped, there’s always something to be done. On my daily check-ins to the ICD, I find myself staring into the empty studios and hallways seeing a future that is filled with hopes, dreams, hard work, inspiration and joy. I’m looking to that future.”
Nancy Wozny is editor in chief of Arts and Culture Texas, the only print arts magazine in Texas. She is a frequent contributor to Pointe, Dance Teacher and Dance Magazine.