Studio openings are on the rise, and that’s good news for the dance economy overall. But when a new business enters a local market, studio owners often get defensive about their clientele and staff. Here are three businesses in Utah with a refreshingly different point of view.
There is no shortage of dance studios in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area. Yet three studio businesses thrive under competitive conditions that might cower a good many of their peers: Jana Monson of Creative Arts Academy to the north in Bountiful, and, in southerly Orem, Kim DelGrosso of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio and Sheryl Dowling of The Dance Club.
These women have carved out unique niches in the region’s incredibly crowded market. (“There is, honestly, I kid you not, a dance studio on every corner of where my studio is,” DelGrosso says.) They consistently turn out some of the state’s top talent while always focusing on helping kids develop self-esteem and maturity, as well as artistry—while also running profitable businesses.
Not only do these savvy businesswomen treat each other respectfully as colleagues and friends, at times sharing faculty and performance stages, they proactively collaborate with other studios in the area—without the crippling worry their students will leave and study elsewhere. Here they share the business perspectives and personal philosophies that contribute to their success.
DBW: How do you work cooperatively with other local studios?
Kim DelGrosso: Sheryl [Dowling] and I have shared students, because there wasn’t ballroom at her studio. We share the tap teacher who’s at my studio. We share teachers, choreographers, people who come in for workshops. Center Stage and CAA are like sister studios—my daughter Avery works for Jana [Monson].
Sheryl Dowling: Since 2003, we’ve staged “Art with Heart” along with Dance Impressions in Bountiful and The Winner School in Salt Lake City as an annual fundraiser for Shriners Hospitals for Children in Salt Lake City. The kids fundraise and make friends from the other studios. To date we’ve raised more than $600,000. So together we are the number-one fundraiser for Shriners Hospital in the state of Utah.
Jana Monson: We producethe Utah Dance Festival, in conjunction with Utah Dance Education Organization. It’s a noncompetitive event; we invite all the other studios around to come in and take classes from university professors and professional dancers. So much of dance is networking, so we want people to be friendly with each other, make friends with other studios. In the afternoon, they perform their pieces, and the professionals give feedback. We’ve done that for more than 10 years.
DBW: You’ve all developed expansive programs and invested in state-of-the-art studios. How do you know when an investment in growth is the right business choice?
DelGrosso: I think part of our success is that we took risks—we didn’t always know; we just did it. Opening different departments and trying different dance styles isn’t that hard because we have the space and we have the teachers.
Dowling: Some things have cost me a lot of money; I don’t care. We do things because we’re investing in something that would be really good for these kids, or that this teacher would benefit from.
Monson: I think you can go off of how you feel. It needs to grow over time, you have to nurture it, you have to love the people you work with, treat them well, love them like a family. Then they get excited and get onboard with your vision.
DBW: How do you distinguish your business in a crowded market?
DelGrosso: My partner’s daughter, Brandi, produces a musical twice a year. One is for children and one is for older kids. We hold a full-on audition for the community; it’s not just Center Stage people. The most exquisitely talented people come in and do these roles.
Dowling: We offer a workshop called Dance Attack in the summer and winter together with Dance Impressions and The Winner School. It’s like a convention, only it’s private for our kids. We’ve brought in Travis Wall, Mia Michaels—everybody. It’s a way to introduce them to the convention world in a way that isn’t so overwhelming.
Monson: We offer a program called University Prep; professional dancers and university professors come in and teach a modern dance class, and they give feedback on college auditions and the kids’ solos.
The Bottom Line
DelGrosso: “We are dealing with people’s most precious commodities: their children and their money. People in the business go off on these ‘crazy parents,’ but most of them are sacrificing so much. So I feel a very heavy load to make sure that the product I’m producing is worth the money they’re spending on us, and that the opportunity for their kids to have a career in this is a strong possibility.”
DelGrosso and co-owners Alex and Robin Murillo have shepherded Center Stage’s transformation from a tiny studio in 1989 into a state-of-the-art facility encompassing nine studios, offices, a black-box theater, a lounge, a snack bar and a dancewear shop, plus separate ballroom and acro studios. Private rentals keep the studios full and help cover costs.
Dowling: “Most dancers come to us because they know we are strict.” With a smaller student body she is able to keep classes to 10 to 16 students. “I like knowing the kids.” In fact, most of her faculty “grew up” at The Dance Club, including co-owner Allison Thornton. Though smaller-scale, its custom-built facility is big-time: six studios with marley or wood floors, a Pilates room, a lobby and patio, a dancewear shop, offices, a teachers’ lounge and a snack bar.
Monson: “It’s amazing how much stronger we are,” referring to the turning point Monson and her husband faced when their studio burned down in 2011. “We had to decide, ‘Do we close, or do we pick up?'” Ultimately, they pulled together funding with a $750,000 mortgage, savings and insurance payments for construction of a purpose-built 30,000-square-foot building with 11 studios, sprung marley floors, dressing rooms, waiting and homework areas, an office and a teachers’ lounge.
“We couldn’t have had the success without that trial, because we didn’t have the space for it.” As an added benefit, “all the kids in the community realized that you can overcome hard things.” Dance and life skills are inseparable at CAA.
Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.