FROM DANCE STUDIO LIFE
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Make Room for Musical Theater
Let song and dance bring students to your door
By Heather Wisner, December 1, 2009
Triple threats—performers who can dance, sing, and act—may have a better shot at show-biz success than their specialist counterparts. So do dance studios offering the musical-theater classes to build those skills also have a competitive advantage? Some studio owners think so.
“Our program is very, very popular—it’s one of those things that sets our studio apart in our market and our demographic. It brings new students to us,” says Jaune Buisson, owner of Metropolitan Dance Theatre in New Orleans.
Emma England, director of Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy in Gilbert, Arizona, says musical theater has attracted boys who weren’t necessarily interested in dance to her studio, swayed in part by the popularity of films like High School Musical.
“Since its inception, it’s been one of our most popular classes,” says Kristin Foltz Petrou of the musical-theater instruction at her studio, Tap ’n Arts, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
And Megan Baade, the owner/director of Garri Dance Studio in Burbank, California, says, “Our students love the classes; [the program] helps boost self-esteem in our dancers, and I always have an abundance of teachers who would be glad to teach. It is a win–win for everyone!”
So how does one create a musical-theater program? Sometimes, it begins with one class that generates enough enthusiasm to justify adding more.
About five years ago, Baade created a musical-theater class for students ages 3 to 5. The teacher chose an age-appropriate story or musical, then taught lyrics and dance routines, incorporating various dance styles. “The children would also work to learn short lines and scenes—very simple ones for this age,” she says. “Once we put it all together, the kids themselves were telling a story. We called this class ‘Storybook Theatre.’ ”
The initial class, which involved theater games and an emphasis on conveying emotion through facial expressions and movement, was such a hit that Baade added a class called “Triple Threat” for students ages 6 and older. The staff works with students on vocals, choreography, and scenes. There are theater games and activities, and students get scripts to work on in class and memorize at home.
“Quickly, we went from having one Triple Threat class to three or four of them to accommodate the growing interest,” Baade says. Now there are three levels of Triple Threat; students are evaluated and placed into appropriate levels based on age and ability. Over the summer, the studio added Broadway Kids Camps, and this fall it began offering new acting and voice classes to supplement the Triple Threat classes. Baade hopes to gradually build students’ knowledge of theater while they continue training in ballet, tap, or jazz.
At Tap ’n Arts, the musical-theater program developed almost in reverse, beginning with the studio’s annual dance show, Steppin’ Out. “In preparation for the show, we would gather a group of students representing some of the various classes we offer to perform a musical theater production routine,” says Petrou. “With my background in both dance and theater, over the years we performed routines from such Broadway hits as Annie, Crazy for You, Mary Poppins, and Phantom of the Opera, just to name a few. They would feature students not only dancing but also singing and acting as well. They always seemed to be audience favorites and would receive rave reviews.” While the studio was wrapping up rehearsals for its 2007 show, there was talk of offering musical-theater instruction that summer, directly after the show. “We were able to use the routine as the advertisement for the class we were about to begin offering,” Petrou says. “Immediately after the show, we began receiving inquiries on how to enroll in the musical-theater class.” The class has become so popular that the studio now plans to offer a junior musical-theater class this fall.
Camp to class and back again
To attract students to musical theater, Metropolitan has taken a kind of cross-referencing approach, referring studio kids to its summer camps and summer campers back to its studio. There was just one musical-theater class when Buisson arrived. “Now we have three levels, we have camps, we have intensives, we have private lessons,” she says.
Metropolitan actually grew its curriculum after Hurricane Katrina flooded the building in which it had been housed for nearly 30 years. “I live in a very saturated market,” Buisson says. “In the old building, there were three dancing schools on my block.” After offering temporary classes in local beauty parlors and a hurricane-gutted former nail salon, Buisson and her staff found a new, more central location where the school could expand its musical-theater instruction.
Metropolitan now offers musical-theater programs for ages 7 to 10, 11 to 13, and 13 and up. Students take acting classes and voice lessons and learn choreography for musicals, supplemented by the school’s regular ballet, tap, and conditioning classes. Preteen classes work with scripts, while older students do audition preparation and monologue work.
Buisson has found that offering a varied curriculum, in varied formats, has helped build the program. “Summer camp is a great way to introduce kids to our program—it attracts performers,” she says. “We start each day with a dance warm-up, followed by a vocal warm-up. We have acting classes in the afternoon.” Each camp has room for 36 kids and runs for a week, culminating in a show that combines the skills students have worked on.
Summer intensives, in turn, evolved from camp—this year, 50 teenagers took class three hours a day for two weeks. “We explain to bunheads that to get a job, you have to be able to sing,” Buisson says.
“We’re going out in the community to find students,” she says. “We offer free classes but we never pressure people to sign up. People see us performing and say, ‘That was great—I want my daughter to do this.’ ” —Emma England, Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy
Camp and summer intensives also give students (and their parents) a better feel for the year-round program, which is important if they’re considering more intensive training or transitioning from another studio. “They can talk, they play, they feel out the school and the program, and when they come to school, they’ve already made a few friends,” Buisson says. Typically, 60 to 70 percent of campers are already enrolled at the studio, while others may be involved in sports or live in other neighborhoods; Buisson hopes that these students will commit more fully to her studio later.
Studio 3, which specializes in musical theater, also offers a mix of classes and camps. Director Emma England says the mix gives her students a strong performance foundation. “Some will dance, but not professionally; those who do will have a better chance to succeed in the arts if they have a well-rounded background,” she says. “If you want to go on Broadway or a cruise ship, it will help you to have that training.”
Studio 3 has two musical-theater levels: the introductory Applause program, for ages 3 through teen, and the Showstoppers audition-only program for ages 5 through teen. In the Applause program, 20 to 30 kids (some of whom have no experience) come once a week to learn basic music, dance, and acting skills, which are then parlayed into shows. If they’re interested, they can later pursue the more rigorous Showstoppers program, which includes ballet and jazz technique, voice, and production classes. Younger kids attend this program 3 hours per week; older kids average 6 to 9 hours, with some logging as many as 11 hours per week. Showstopper kids (their number averages around 50) do themed musical revue performances throughout the year, for community and holiday events, retirement homes, and theme parks outside the area.
“You may have brought someone into the studio who was interested in drama who discovers they love dance,” says England of her cross-referencing tactic. “It’s also a great way to get boys into the program. We have boys whose sisters come to dance—they try musical theater and say, ‘Hey, this is cool.’ ”
Along with these semester-based programs, the studio produces a traditional musical-theater camp and the two-week Pop Academy summer camp, in which kids ages 6 and up learn pop songs and some dance technique.
Pop Academy capitalizes on the popularity of teen hits like High School Musical and Hannah Montana. “A lot of kids don’t know what musical theater is, but if you present it in their language, they say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to do that,’ ” England says. “You have to have a good explanation of your program. In summer camp, we do a more contemporary pop style; then, when you throw an older musical like Annie and Oliver! at them, they’re more familiar with the idea.”
A Making Music Videos summer camp lets kids sing, dance, and act in their own music videos. England videotapes the kids doing scenes, then edits the footage into music videos. The camp ends in a video showcase for the parents.
If all that weren’t enough, England staged Grease last fall, opening participation to community members as well as students in an attempt to build studio enrollment.
Who will teach?
The people who help generate new musical-theater programs often teach them as well. Buisson, who holds drama and communications degrees from the University of New Orleans, teaches classes herself, aided by two longtime friends with whom she used to perform. She also hires former students, including one who just finished a tour of Cats and another who’s been working at Tokyo Disney. Their success in the industry seems to further motivate her current students, she says. Petrou has also hired former students over the years, as well as advertising for instructors on websites, including craigslist.com.
England, who grew up in community theater productions and studied music and dance in college, teaches many of the classes herself, aided by drama and vocal coaches and assistants from the community. Before she hires teachers, she starts by contacting colleagues she knows in the dance world, watching them teach class to see how they work with students and whether they click with the studio philosophy.
“I think my fellow studio owners would be surprised at how many of their dance instructors on staff have had theater experience and will be able to teach classes,” Baade says. “If not, you will have an inpouring of applicants if you put the word out on dance.net and craigslist.com. I brought in teachers who had musical-theater experience and a true passion for stage performance.”
If you build it, will they come?
No matter how great the musical-theater classes or programs may be, they need a steady stream of students to survive. As Baade indicated, one way to advertise new offerings is through existing offerings, like a studio’s annual show. Traditional print and broadcast advertising are another option, along with electronic mailers and word of mouth.
“Every year we place an advertisement in our local newspaper for the studio and all of the classes we offer,” Petrou says. “These ads would direct potential customers to visit our website or call the studio office for more information. We also obtain a lot of students through referrals and word of mouth.”
Buisson, too, enjoys word-of-mouth business. “A full-page ad will do nothing if you don’t have parents who are happy, and apparently I’m the talk of the ballpark,” she says. “We have our website updated regularly, and we send electronic newsletters to parents that they can then send to family.”
Like her colleagues, England has advertised through email and craigslist postings, as well as postcard mailings and appearances at community events, where she shows video clips of programs. “We’re going out in the community to find students,” she says. “We offer free classes but we never pressure people to sign up. People see us performing and say, ‘That was great—I want my daughter to do this.’ ” She has also attracted attention through news coverage of the studio’s auditions and camps. “It’s about getting your name out there as many places as possible,” she says.
Programs don’t develop overnight: “You have to be flexible and you have to be willing to compete,” says Buisson. But for studio owners who love musical theater and don’t mind multitasking, the rewards can be significant for participants and viewers alike.
“I like having the challenge of putting three parts together,” says England. “That’s why musical theater is so great—you’re putting everything together in a package that the audience can enjoy and take a message from.”