Cynthia King wanted to shape her studio around her own value systems, not what might make her customers happy. So she did.
Most studio owners attempt to steer their businesses with customer satisfaction at the front of their minds—after all, it’s considered key to profitability and long-term growth.
But Cynthia King, who owns Cynthia King Dance Studio in Brooklyn, New York, has never subscribed to that idea. For the last two decades, she’s operated her 250-student studio according to her own value system—prioritizing dance as art, a like-minded community, and veganism, among other things—and with little patience for those who deem her tuition rates too high or her rules too demanding.
What’s more, her studio is solidly profitable, and in 2001, she created her own line of vegan ballet slippers, which she now sells internationally and requires her students to wear. Some might consider King’s methods revolutionary, but to her, they just make sense. “The thing about having a studio is: You might as well have the one you want,” she says. “There’s no reason for me to do something seven days a week if it’s not the way I want it to be.”
“It costs this much to train here.”
King’s registration process is unique in that she asks interested families to meet with her before allowing them to sign up for classes. “It’s a screening process,” she admits. “I’m very clear that the format here is that the students listen to the teacher—they have to try everything the teacher asks them.”
If families seem reluctant to abide by King’s strict standards, or if King doesn’t feel that a particular family is a good fit, she’ll direct them to another nearby studio instead. Keeping such close tabs on how families gel with the studio’s culture allows King to maintain a clear community ethos, one where discipline and commitment are valued. “It’s a very structured program,” she says, “but I find that when you’re really clear about that, you attract people who want it.”
King is equally up front about her tuition rates: Her website clearly lists, for example, how much a single class per week will cost for her September-through-June season—$1,930, or a deposit of $490, with eight installment payments of $180—which she realizes is comparatively high. But she knows she offers the training and resources to justify those rates. “I’m probably one of the most expensive studios, and I don’t shy away from that,” she says. “We have a beautiful facility, we have highly trained teachers, we have many staff members—when you email, you’ll get an answer. And this costs money.” She’s unfazed by parents who might complain about the cost of training. “I’ve never been afraid of that,” says King. “Maybe people see it as ego, but I just say: ‘It costs this much to train here.’”
Her confident approach to setting tuition rates is informed by what King would term “common business sense”—as well as hard-won experience. “I don’t have a background in business, but to me, there’s a simplicity in how it works: You have to bring in more money than you spend,” says King. (Despite such a rudimentary guiding principle, King’s studio proved profitable immediately. “When you can pay your rent right away, that’s a tell-tale sign,” she says.) She’s aware, too, of the power of prestige pricing. “Years ago, I got a grant for $10,000, and I said, ‘OK, free classes until the money runs out!’ But nobody valued it—they didn’t come,” she says. “When something costs more, people think it means something is more worth it.”
“I don’t even advertise. People just Google ‘vegan ballet slippers.’”
King has never separated her own values from what she prizes as a business owner, and that’s perhaps most clear in the studio’s commitment to veganism—which includes King’s line of vegan ballet slippers. A longtime vegan herself, King originally created the slippers out of necessity. “People would ask, ‘What shoe do you recommend?’” remembers King. “Because I’m vegan, I couldn’t recommend an animal-skin shoe.” No one else was retailing a synthetic ballet shoe, so fashioning a prototype required some creative thinking. “I just hit the pavement and went to see a shoemaker I knew, an old man in the neighborhood. I brought him some material and asked, ‘Could you make a shoe?’ And he did,” she says. “It was very expensive, just me and him. Eventually I had to find a manufacturer.” King’s shoes are now manufactured in China, at a factory she maintains regular communication with to ensure quality control.
King boasts a steady revenue stream that requires little daily upkeep, something she credits to few returns and a simple packing-and-shipping system. “The slippers don’t take up a lot of space. The orders come in as an email,” she explains, “and the shipping labels get printed from ShipStation. Orders are picked up from us for delivery six days a week. The whole system just kind of has its own rhythm.”
The shoes’ popularity is on the rise, too. “I sell several hundred to my own students. There’s a school in Switzerland who uses my shoes exclusively. There’s a school in Florida, and my shoe is their required shoe,” she says. “And we wholesale to a few places, selling them online and shipping them from the studio. We ship shoes out every day—it takes about 15 minutes a day.”
One big benefit of operating such a niche business with no known competition is how much King saves on marketing. “I don’t even advertise,” she says. “People just Google ‘vegan ballet slippers.’” The revenue also allows King to financially support organizations that align with the studio’s mission and educate studio families on the rationale behind going vegan, something King is particularly proud of. CKDS serves as a corporate sponsor for the Coalition for Healthy School Food every year, for example. “We also give free literature to our students, including the public-school children next door, about food and healthy habits,” says King. “We give them an African-American vegan starter guide that includes recipes.”
Her studio’s longevity aside, King still fields occasional questions about her methods and business tactics. But she’s never been one to let a fear of what other people might think influence her. “People ask me sometimes, ‘Aren’t you afraid someone will be upset you said they have to wear vegan shoes?’” says King. “Read my lips: No.”
Rachel Rizzuto reports on studio business for Dance Teacher and holds an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.