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Taking Big Leaps in the Community

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Like fresh air and sunshine, dance should be for everyone! The reality, though, is that access to dance education differs greatly from country to country and region to region. Various barriers can make it difficult—or impossible—for some to participate. So, how can studio owners and teachers bring more dance to more people?

That’s where well-designed community programming comes in. Community dance education initiatives that do their job well have far-reaching and long-lasting benefits. Thoughtful, tailored community programs help dance studios give back, reach community members who don’t regularly interact with the studio, and sell the value of dance to a broader population. 

Let’s meet three MTJGD™ studio owners who go above and beyond to reach families who might not otherwise enjoy access to dance.

Scholarships and wiggles

Tara Pickford, owner of Ambition Performing Arts (APA) in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada, believes community dance programming should be characterized by two distinct patterns of movement: bringing people from the local community to the studio, and bringing dance from the studio out to community spaces. 

At APA, that first goal is accomplished with an ongoing scholarship program, a massive undertaking of which Tara is justifiably proud. “We reach out to each and every school in our community—from preschool or kindergarten to grade 12—offering one full ride scholarship to a student” who they think would benefit from arts enrichment study, she says. 

A full ride doesn’t just mean free tuition. Recognizing that finances don’t represent the only barrier to dance training, the studio also covers each awardee’s class attire, recital costume, and one pair of tickets to the year-end showcase. Tara says, “All we’re asking them to do is find a way to get to class and we’ll take care of the rest.” (Note that the main criterion for receiving one of these scholarships isn’t talent, per se. Tara’s program instead aims to reach young dancers who school officials believe would be uplifted by the exercise, socialization, arts literacy, and structure that dance training provides.) Every fall season, more than 30 schools take up the offer, with 10 or so scholarship awardees eventually enrolling for a second season at the studio.

As for bringing dance into the community, APA holds free monthly afternoon movement workshops for children ages 2 to 5 at a local library. Now in its seventh year, Wiggle Wednesday’s curriculum is shaped by the library’s own early childhood literacy programming. “Our most experienced studio teachers go to the library, teach a themed 45-minute class, and at the end we encourage families to check out books on that topic,” Tara says. 

On hold since COVID—but soon to restart—is an additional program at the library called Movement Monday, also held once a month but aimed at ages 9 and up. It’s a similar idea as Wiggle Wednesday, says Tara, “where we’re trying to create an opportunity for kids to have quality programming” in a community location. This program for older children incorporates popular styles like jazz and hip hop.

Acting as a “white knight” in the community is integral to APA’s mission and business model. As Tara says, “To me, being a white knight means that you are showing up for the community and giving back more than you are taking. It is with a very purposeful intent that we, as a studio, show up to do meaningful, impactful work.” When people see the APA name, says Tara, they see a positive equation: great programs plus great kids equals great impact in the community.

Serving the underserved

Community education in dance has always been a priority for Emma McGurrell, owner of Buzz Dance Company in Birtley, England, U.K. “Alongside running the studio for over 20 years, I’ve always traveled the northeast of England to practically every school to work with children and adults who have disabilities,” she says. Then came the massive logistical shifts brought on by COVID. Emma wanted to make sure community dance education would still be a top priority in the studio’s future.

“We changed the full structure of our business to what’s called a community interest company,” Emma says. (The United States counterpart is a nonprofit organization, or social enterprise.) That organizational affirmation of her personal and professional mission felt like perfect timing when, shortly thereafter, the Royal Opera House invited Emma to join their Chance to Dance national outreach program as an associate artist. 

Originally launched in response to the underrepresentation of Black dancers within the Royal Ballet’s ranks, Chance to Dance introduces ballet to elementary school children from diverse communities throughout England. Chance to Dance’s administrators and teaching artists hope that some of those children will one day grow up to be professional ballet dancers themselves. 

Emma points to the program’s commitment to each cohort of students as a sign of Chance to Dance’s care and thoughtfulness in serving its target populations. Because every partner school signs on for four years at a time, “there’s a massive legacy aspect to it” that extends to long-term scholarships offered to talented dancers who want to continue training at nearby studios. 

As an associate artist, Emma regularly engages in professional development from Chance to Dance. She then applies those insights and strategies to, as she says, “teaching ballet in a creative way” to third-graders at local public elementary school Kibblesworth Academy.

Chance to Dance’s mission strongly resonates with Emma: “A lot of opportunities in the UK are London-centric. This means that if a young person wants to go to college and things like that, they’ve got to ‘move down,’ away from where we live in the northeast. So I’ve always had a passion for trying to bring the best to our area.”

Doing good, feeling good

For Nancy Rothenberg, serving her local community started with networking. “Just talking to somebody who owns another business will make me think, ‘I want my kids to have that experience or opportunity,” says Nancy, owner of Studio B Dance Center in Eastchester, New York. During Studio B’s inaugural season 27 years ago, a conversation with a studio parent (who happened to be a nurse) led Nancy to launch her first community initiative: performances in local nursing homes. 

“After a few years of scaling things up, we turned the nursing home tour into a full-day event,” she says. “We rented a bus so parents wouldn’t have to drive all over the place, ordered food to feed the dancers, and reached five nursing homes in one day. At one point, we had about 80 kids involved.”

Arts outreach to the elderly is a cause that’s close to Nancy’s heart: “My grandmother was in a nursing home in Florida, and I always hoped that another studio down there was paying it forward just like us. In a way, we’re dancing for somebody else’s grandparents, so that some other studio is making sure our grandparents get to see dance, too.” The nursing home tour pays it forward to Nancy’s teenaged dancers as well, many of whom have community service requirements to fulfill for school or extracurricular programs.

 While the nursing home program is currently on pause due to COVID precautions, Studio B hasn’t stopped finding ways to give back and get involved on a local basis. The studio’s competition team regularly raises money for charities focused on animal welfare, a cause which deeply resonates with many young dancers. After running a food drive at a nearby community center, Studio B’s National Honor Society for Dance Arts chapter was invited by the center to design and implement a six-week summer dance program for tweens. According to Nancy, the program’s success last summer was twofold: participants felt the joy and accomplishment of performing dances created just for them, while the Studio B’s student volunteers gained experience choreographing and producing a performance under a tight timeline. 

Nancy considers these beyond-the-studio commitments to be an essential component of an education in dance. “My students have a lot of privileges,” she explains. “A lot of them go to private school; things like that. I think it’s great for them to take a step back and stop thinking about their competition dances or their solos for a minute. When they do, they feel so good, so happy, so fortunate that they had that opportunity—and the parents really appreciate it, too.”

And it’s not just front desk and administrative staff who have a role in selling, either. Though we may think of teachers as artists and educators, they play a key role in sales—both in selling a studio’s culture and values in an abstract sense, and selling classes and programs in a more literal one. 

Since sales isn’t an obvious part of a dance teacher’s job description, studio leaders should explain to their artistically-minded staff members how they fit into the studio’s big-picture sales strategy—and give them the tools and training to sell from the classroom with confidence.  

Why teachers are also salespeople

It may seem more natural for sales pitches to come from a studio’s administrative staff. But since teachers spend the most time with students—and have hopefully earned their respect as well as that of their parents—their opinions and suggestions are going to have more weight than that of any other staff member, says Lisa Pevateaux, owner of Elite Dance Academy in Boulder and Broomfield, Colorado. “They believe in what the teacher says. Sometimes when it’s the front desk, it seems like, ‘you’re just trying to sell me something,’” Lisa says. 

Teachers also know their students best, and can offer the kind of strategically personalized recommendations most likely to result in a sale. Many studios, for instance, practice some version of a “plus one” sales pitch, where teachers recommend an additional class that would benefit a student. Who else but a teacher would know that the student who is always wiggling at the barre might enjoy hip hop, or that the highly musical dancer would likely excel in tap? Teachers have the best sense of where students will thrive personality-wise, too, Lisa says, which is an important factor when attempting to increase enrollment of a competition team, or in a program that requires an audition or serious commitment. 

 Pam Simpson, owner of Forté Arts Center in Morris, Illinois, says that, in a way, teachers are always selling—after all, there’s no better sales pitch than an engaging, entertaining class. “We want them to sell the culture and the family vibe in their classrooms,” she says. 

Getting teacher buy-in

For teachers to excel in their role as salespeople, they need to understand—and get excited about—this part of the job. One straightforward way to foster this excitement: reward teachers for their role in a sale. At Tonawanda (NY) Dance Arts, for instance, owner Melanie Boniszewski and director Kelsey Griffin focus teachers on selling by making clear that raises are tied to hitting studio-wide goals, such as increased student retention or enrollment growth.

At Forté Arts Center, if a teacher converts a sale (meaning a student signs up after a trial class or class recommendation) or earns back a dropped student with a personalized “we miss you” card, they may receive a bonus. Teachers also receive their own report cards with metrics such as student retention, drops, and trial conversions, and those with the best metrics are rewarded and celebrated at an annual event.

Lisa’s annual staff performance reviews also use sales metrics such as trial conversions and class growth. She finds that making these numbers accessible to teachers helps them understand that “they are responsible for the front lines of our business,” she says. 

Practice makes progress

Most teachers—especially those coming from a studio without a strong emphasis on sales—won’t come to you as expert salespeople. That’s okay, says Kelsey: sales can be taught, she says, though it may take time for teachers to get comfortable with this part of their role. 

Give them some sales 101 instruction to help them succeed, whether this looks like signing up for staff-wide sales training through MTJGD™ or incorporating a brief sales training session in your onboarding for new teachers. At Tonawanda Dance Arts, teachers keep their selling skills sharp throughout the year by roleplaying sales conversations at staff meetings. Kelsey and Melanie also created a sales script, which teachers can use as a guide when they’re feeling unsure of what to say when, or how to make a pitch feel natural. 

Teachers’ roles in selling will look different depending on your studio’s programs, culture, and staffing, so make sure your training is specific to what you’re asking teachers to do. Some studios may have teachers focused on in-person conversations, for instance, while others may have teachers spending more time on the phone or emailing. Think about whether you want your teachers to focus on getting students excited about additional classes and programming, or selling the benefits of those opportunities to their parents—or both.

But remember, teachers can’t put general sales skills to work unless they are informed about your studio and programs. At Elite Dance Academy, Lisa holds weekly staff education sessions about what’s going on at the studio. This keeps teachers in-the-know about upcoming programs and opportunities, as well as which are appropriate for which students. She also makes sure teachers have helpful talking points or statistics on hand, like the fact that 95 percent of successful level one students (meaning students who eventually move up to level two) at Elite Dance Academy take two classes per week. When a parent asks if their once-a-week student should add a class, the teacher can confidently say yes, and cite that statistic. “That’s easy to say, and it’s not salesy,” says Lisa. Make sure teachers have ready responses to frequent concerns, too, she suggests, by educating them about costume pricing or recital fees. 

Creating easy systems

Though you want your teachers to have a hand in sales, the primary focus of their role should always be teaching. And while some teachers might be highly invested in your studio, Pam says, others may be less involved because they only teach two classes a week. The key to making selling easy and seamless for all—and not a distraction from teachers’ main job—is having foolproof, efficient sales systems. 

One such system could involve having administrative staff doing the heavy lifting of prep work for a sales campaign, with teachers brought in strategically at a key moment. For instance, when selling participation in a recent production of Peter Pan at Elite Dance Academy, administrative staff put together trinkets and small cards for students with the message that their teacher wants them to be a part of the show. All the teacher needed to do was hand it to the student, but “it felt magical coming from them,” says Brandy Kapustensky, Elite business operations manager. “It’s easy for the teaching staff, but valuable from a customer perspective.” Similarly, Elite Dance Academy staff place easy-to-read posters about upcoming classes, camps, or programs adjacent to classroom doors, allowing teachers to give short pitches at the end of class without having to refer to email or remember lots of information. 

Trial classes should also be systematized for optimal results, while making it easy for the teacher. Pam says her trial class conversion rate increased when Forté Arts Center implemented an easy-to-follow system for teachers. Before class, the teacher prepares a notecard, to be given to the prospective student at the end of class, with space for a quick written note specifying something the child did well. After class, personalized note in hand, teachers walk the prospect to the front desk to talk to the parent. (The trial student is also assigned a designated “buddy” at the start of class, which adds to the students’ comfort level.)

At Elite Dance Academy, where Lisa expects a minimum 75 percent trial class conversion rate, teachers take a moment the evening of a trial class to call the parent using Slydial, which ensures the call goes straight to their voicemail (that way no one gets tied up on the phone at the end of the night). The teacher leaves a friendly message, thanking the family for participating and talking about the child’s experience in class that day. After this personal touch, administrative staff follow up via email with more information and a more direct sales pitch. “Your customer wants to be the hero,” says Lisa. “And we are meant to be the guide. So what better guide than the teacher who teaches the child dance?”

Best Practices for Sharing Dance with Your Community

  • For her studio’s library program, Tara needed to explain to her participating teachers both the mission—it was important to deliver a high-quality program—and the practical—teachers would be paid for their skill set and time as they normally would. For her scholarship program, withholding information on which students were participating would assure that they wouldn’t be treated any differently by peers or staff.
  • “When picking charities for outreach, consider what your kids are interested in, and what they can relate to,” says Nancy Rothenberg of Studio B Dance Center. Ask dancers open-ended questions like, “What can we do to make things better?” or “Where can we put our time and effort?” This gives the dancers agency, which personally links them to its successful outcome.
  • “Structure your lessons, but also don’t be frightened of going off-plan,” says Emma McGurrell of Buzz Dance Company. Keep in mind that the dance space available to you might look very different from your typical studio environment. Also consider how—or if—you want other adults in the room (caregivers, paraprofessionals, classroom teachers, etc.) to support your instructional design. Having a Plan B prepared will go a long way toward ensuring your material is safe, engaging, and appropriate for all participants. As Emma says, “Read the situation, go with the flow, and always be ready to learn more yourself.”

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