Seven questions to ask before moving forward with a licensing model
When Beto Perez founded Zumba Fitness as “Rumbacize” in the late 1990s, it’s unlikely that he could have predicted its massive success. Now a household name, Zumba is essentially the Kleenex of the dance fitness world, with more than 100,000 instructors globally.
The Zumba business model is relatively straightforward: Take a dance fitness concept, train and certify others to teach the format, and give ongoing access and support through a licensing model and instructor network. Throw merchandise, apparel, and other revenue streams into the mix, and a brand is born.
What’s in it for the licensee? Affiliation with an established brand, access to playlists and choreography, and a built-in structure for classes, as well as the chance to plug into a bona fide community of teachers. It’s a way for a dancer to open their own small dance education business without the expense of start-up development—a win-win for both licensor and customer, the licensee.
As dance fitness grows in popularity, other enterprising dance entrepreneurs are taking a page out of the Zumba playbook by launching their own thriving concepts and related licensing models. Hear from three founders on the insights they’ve gleaned as their businesses have taken flight—and the essential questions fledgling dance entrepreneurs need to ask when considering this approach.
Cost of certification: $229–$299 ($99 for students and veterans)
Monthly license fee: $18/month or $175/year for access to the WERQForce network
Cost of certification: $99 for virtual training (delivered in one-day or two-week programs)
License fee: $30/month for access to The D3CK network
Cost of certification: $397
License fee: $47/month
Question 1: Does your concept fill a need or niche?
Haley Stone first started teaching group fitness in 2004 and became a licensed Zumba instructor in 2009—but it quickly became apparent she was ready to play a bigger game.
“I never considered myself a choreographer, but when it came to the fitness realm, it was fun and got my creative juices flowing,” says Stone. “With Zumba trending at the time, I saw an opportunity to grow my audience by sharing my choreography.”
Stone started a YouTube channel featuring her own Zumba choreography as a resource for other instructors to access, and it grew in popularity, with one video garnering a million views (“Rude Boy,” by Rihanna). She also posted her routines inside the Zumba instructor forums. “It was a huge way to get visibility because so many people were teaching Zumba, but not all knew how to put routines together,” says Stone.
As Stone’s repertoire grew, her music choices felt like a departure from the world beats and Latin rhythms that personified Zumba—highlighting what she saw as a glaring gap in the market. “At the time, there was really no straightforward pop and hip-hop dance workout,” says Stone. “I wanted to take the leap to create more routines and put them all into one class.”
Stone says the popularity of her YouTube videos gave her the boost she needed to create WERQ, a high-energy cardio dance workout set to chart-topping hip-hop and pop music. From the start, Stone knew she wanted to reimagine Zumba’s business model of licensing instructors, and she held her first teacher training in 2011. “I got the training accredited by AFAA [Athletics and Fitness Association of America] and ACE [American Council of Exercise], and I invited some friends in the fitness industry to attend the training for free,” says Stone. “It grew organically from there.” (Indeed, as WERQ now has 2,000 instructors in 40 states.)
Question 2: Can the magic of your class be replicated by other instructors?
After nearly a decade as a professional dancer in L.A., Benjamin Allen had two words on repeat in his mind: “What next?”
The answer to that question came in the form of GROOV3, Allen’s original concept for a good-vibes dance class complete with a live DJ. Based on the three pillars of “Dance. Sweat. Live,” GROOV3 features “easy-to-follow choreography, feel-good music, and a strong sense of camaraderie and community,” shares Allen, who began teaching the class in 2010. “GROOV3 is designed for people who want to dance for the joy of it, the fun of it.”
Though Allen was already an in-demand instructor at EDGE Performing Arts Center, Gold’s Gym and other studios, he wanted to create a thriving business and community all his own. In 2012, he sought to further that goal by adopting a teacher training/licensing model, but Allen knew its success would hinge on harnessing the energy that he was known for creating in his classes—and sharing those secrets with others.
For Allen, developing an extensive training manual and vetting process was key to finding passionate ambassadors to properly represent the GROOV3 brand. Not only were prospective instructors asked to submit an audition tape, but they were also required to be AFAA- or ACE-certified in order to enroll in teacher trainings. Allen also spent a great deal of time making sure training materials reflected the GROOV3 culture.
“We decided to write our training manual internally because we had to step back and dissect all of the little things that set a GROOV3 class apart,” says Allen. “Our class has a dance-party element, so we wanted to understand and translate all the elements that make our program unique.”
WERQ’s Stone is also mindful of attracting the “right” instructors, and in service of that, she says she wishes she had crafted a mission statement sooner. “It wasn’t until 2015 that I sat down and wrote out our voice, values, and what we stand for,” shares Stone. “A lot of businesses miss the mark of answering the ‘Why’; they just say the ‘What.’ When you get really clear on your message, that’s when people gravitate toward you.”
Question 3: Can you simplify the movement and make it universal?
To Allen’s above point, converting a proven dance-class concept into a licensed model relies on the ability to make the movement universal and easy to learn.
When Annie Johnson founded TAPfit with her sisters, Fiona, Kat and Rach in 2015, they employed this mindset by developing follow-along choreography that incorporates basic tap steps (such as shuffles and heel drops), rhythms and percussive beats using patented “feet beats” (i.e., slip-on taps). Each routine features three steps repeated three times to make the choreography accessible, and they break each step down at the beginning of each class.
“Dance has always been such a big part of our lives, and we wanted to make tap accessible for anyone,” says Johnson, who, like her sisters, is a tap dancer and teacher who received “honours with distinction” from the Australian-based Les Griffith Tap Dance Academy. “We try to make it as stress-free as possible and help people feel like they belong.”
Allen suggests that potential licensors give this aspect careful consideration before deciding to move forward, and he breaks it down to one litmus test for whether your concept can successfully translate: “Is [the reason it resonates] about you as a teacher, or the actual concept itself? A lot of people see success with their own teaching method and build a huge following, but the question is: Can it be replicated? How much are you willing to sacrifice to make it accessible to anyone to teach?”
Question 4: Are you prepared to protect your intellectual property?
Allen of GROOV3 learned this one the hard way—having to change the original name of the business more than a year in after learning it had already been trademarked by someone else. “When we learned our original concept and name was taken, that was a huge setback,” admits Allen, “but it allowed us to dive deeper into who we really were and rebrand into something better.”
To avoid repeating this mistake, New York City–based attorney David Reischer says that dance entrepreneurs pursuing this route should be prepared to protect their concept up front not only by filing for a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), but also by copyrighting training materials. However, he does add one caveat: “The copyright will not protect the idea itself, but only the expression of an idea,” says Reischer, who is the founder of LegalAdvice.com.
Entertainment attorney Randy Friedberg of New York City–based firm White and Williams adds that it is also possible to copyright choreography in some instances (though not all categories of dance are protectable). According to Friedberg, filing fees can be as low as $35, and to obtain copyright, choreography must be “fixed in a tangible medium in such a way that shows the movements in sufficient detail to permit the work to be performed in a consistent and uniform manner,” says Friedberg, adding that these mediums can include dance notations, video recordings, photographs, drawings and more.
Question 5: How do you plan to provide ROI [return on investment] for your instructor network?
Establishing a licensing model for a dance class concept is far from purely transactional. When instructors affiliate with a brand as a licensor, they’re signing up for a long-term relationship—and opting into an established community.
Like Zumba, many businesses keep their network connected and informed by an instructor-wide network, accessible only to those who pay a monthly license fee. For GROOV3, that’s the D3CK ($30/month); for WERQ, it’s the WERQForce ($18/month or $175/year). “[Having a network] is fairly standard for most brands,” says Allen of GROOV3. “It’s the back end that we use to communicate with our instructors—where we drop our choreography, and also where we provide resources, marketing materials, one-sheets on how to find a studio and/or DJ.”
Stone strives to set WERQ apart by providing a steady stream of choreography to licensed instructors. She’s also enlisted a team of seven choreographers to showcase an array of “body types and perspectives.” To date, WERQForce has 800 routines in its library, and Stone says they’ve “been releasing four new routines per week for almost a decade. We choreograph anything slightly danceable on the hip-hop and pop charts.”
According to Johnson, TAPfit aims to empower its instructors through biweekly strategy calls and various revenue-sharing opportunities. Certified instructors can buy TAPfit floors and feet beats at wholesale cost and then on-sell the equipment, and there is an affiliate program offering 20 to 75 percent commissions for referring new teachers.
“We all know how difficult it can be running a studio and how lean margins can be, so our whole program is designed to provide multiple ways of creating new revenue,” says Johnson.
Question 6: How will your business diversify its revenue streams?
Though Zumba is famously tight-lipped about its revenue, Inc. magazine estimated in 2012 that its revenue clocked in around $135.6 million annually between its Zumba Instructor Network (ZIN) and merchandising. (Co-founder Alberto Perlman acknowledged in the magazine that its revenue had hit nine figures.)
At WERQ, teacher training comprises approximately 50 percent of the company’s annual revenue (with a goal of holding at least 65 trainings each year), according to Stone. The other half of revenue comes from ongoing licensing fees/subscriptions to WERQForce and gear and apparel.
GROOV3 relies on a number of income streams, including instructor training and licensing, merchandise, a monetized YouTube channel, virtual classes via WollenDance. Allen also runs The Beat Box Studio LA out of a soundstage in Culver City, where live GROOV3 classes, trainings and events are offered. “It’s become our home base for everything,” says Allen.
While merchandise can become a significant source of revenue (for Zumba, it has surpassed its instructor licensing by roughly three times, according to Inc.), WERQ’s Stone suggests starting small by using an on-demand print shop. “They do all the heavy lifting, and you can still make a few dollars on each sale,” says Stone. “It’s a good, safe way to dip a toe into new revenue streams, test demand and get over that hump.”
Question 7: What is your ideal growth trajectory?
With Zumba’s nine-figure numbers in the ether, it’s easy to set your sights high, but for Allen of GROOV3, his intention was always that growth would be incremental. “In the first few rounds, we worked with close friends and referrals—people who we knew would hold on to the integrity of what we were starting,” says Allen. “It was crazy for me to realize it was growing beyond me.”
And though GROOV3 now has 100 instructors in 20 states, Allen continues to emphasize quality over quantity. The company prides itself on not mass certifying instructors, and Allen keeps his own team intimate with just two full-time employees (including himself) and four part-time employees. “We’ve taken everything step by step, trying to navigate the road with caution and ease versus growing too big and not being able to manage it,” says Allen.
The delivery method for training can also play into growth. For the first four years, the Johnson sisters of TAPfit traveled throughout Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. holding eight-hour instructor training days to expand their reach. In 2019, they decided to host virtual trainings in tandem with the in-person offerings, eventually moving to online-only in 2020. “Going online allowed us to expand our geographic reach without incurring large travel costs,” says Johnson, adding that the TAPfit license is available in 42 countries.
Allen’s advice for dance entrepreneurs just starting out on this path is to think about their objectives and overarching goals. “How big do you want to be? Do you want to be a Zumba? You may end up with thousands teaching but not all of them representing your brand to the fullest,” says Allen. “Analyze how big you want to go and how much control you want to have.”
Jen Jones Donatelli is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, Dance Retailer News and she is the former managing editor of CheerProfessional magazine.