Equitable Dance Studios: Making Dance Accessible and Safe for All Socio-Economic Groups

Equitable Dance Studios: Making Dance Accessible and Safe for All Socio-Economic Groups

We are talking to a non profit studio owner from Florida about how we can make dance and performing arts in general safe and accessible for every socio economic group

Welcome to beyond the StEPS.

We're excited to welcome Sarah Balda** 

I hope that as a dance community, we can provide some clarity to people regarding dance accessibility and how we can achieve it. Additionally, I aim to shed light on the distinction between non-profit and for-profit work. There may be certain connotations and biases associated with the term "non-profit," and I am eager to address and clarify them for everyone today. Could you please share why you chose to pursue a career in non-profit administration and the reasons behind your decision? I'm interested to hear your story.

Sarah: Our community had limitations in providing accessible dance to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. Making dance accessible to all has always been a passion of mine, but I encountered obstacles with the for-profit structure. Therefore, we transitioned to a non-profit structure to open up doors to different funding sources and receive support from our community in new ways. This was the driving force behind the transition. As for pursuing a Master's degree in non-profits, I conducted extensive research on my own, engaged in self-teaching, and had several excellent mentors who inspired me to gain a deeper understanding of the non-profit sector. I believed that this knowledge would enable me to improve my work with Dance Arts Center.

Did you have any prior experience working with non-profits before pursuing your Master's degree?

Sarah: I have had a significant amount of experience with non-profits. This includes serving on multiple non-profit boards and actively participating in my community, even during my collegiate years, by assisting in organizing community events and similar activities. It has always been a part of my identity, and pursuing a Master's degree in non-profits was the next logical step in my personal progression. In my experience, individuals who have engaged in non-profit work are typically more inclined and capable of assuming non-profit roles because they are less apprehensive about it. On the other hand, people who are unfamiliar with the non-profit sector may be intimidated by it, and as a result, hesitant to get involved. This attitude can be seen even in clubs and other organizations, where non-profit work can seem like an entirely different world. It's crucial to have someone who is not afraid of the non-profit sector and can tackle it head-on.

Apolla: Could you discuss the distinction between non-profit and for-profit organizations and whether opting for a non-profit structure means sacrificing program quality? Often, the assumption is that non-profits have limited funds and thus lower quality programs. However, based on your experience, this is not necessarily true. Could you elaborate on this topic?

Sarah: There are many misconceptions surrounding non-profit organizations and how they compare to for-profit organizations. Specifically, in the context of dance, people often wonder if choosing the non-profit route means sacrificing program quality.

Firstly, I would like to clarify the difference between for-profit and non-profit organizations. For-profit companies are typically structured as LLCs or S Corps, and their primary focus is on maximizing profitability by selling products or services. Non-profit organizations, on the other hand, are mission-driven, with a focus on serving their community, which can range from local to global. Non-profit organizations can also generate revenue from program services as well as through grants and other avenues.

In terms of program quality, there is absolutely no need to sacrifice anything as a non-profit organization. The focus is on serving the community and providing high-quality services to fulfill the organization's mission. Non-profit organizations have a board of directors that helps guide and facilitate the organization's long-term goals and strategies, whereas for-profit companies are typically responsible to shareholders. So, in essence, it's all about the mission and focus of the organization, and there is no inherent quality difference between for-profit and non-profit organizations.

Apolla: Another misconception about non-profits is that people don't get paid, but is that true?

Sarah: Non-profit organizations usually have a combination of paid staff members and volunteers. While volunteers play a crucial role in our organization, we also believe in compensating our staff members appropriately based on their education and work output. It's important to acknowledge that paying staff members in a non-profit is not only acceptable, but necessary to maintain a quality level of service.

Apolla: I believe what you're saying about the involvement of volunteers is applicable to both for-profit and non-profit dance studios. Volunteers are commonly involved in various aspects such as recitals, studio operations, and fundraisers regardless of the profit status of the organization. It's a common practice in the dance industry.

Sarah: While there are overlaps between for-profit and non-profit organizations, there is a wider reach for volunteerism within the nonprofit sector. In the dance world, we heavily rely on volunteers for events and fundraising regardless of whether the organization is for-profit or non-profit. However, in the nonprofit sector, volunteerism is more deeply ingrained in the culture.

Apolla: One important aspect of non-profits is that they are driven by a community cause, and this is a significant responsibility to keep in mind. It's not just something to pursue on a whim, but rather requires a genuine passion for the specific community cause that the non-profit serves. It's important to remember that non-profit organizations are not just for anyone who has a fleeting thought, but for those who are truly dedicated to making a positive impact in their community.

Sarah: Throughout my career, I have encountered many people who express interest in starting a non-profit, not just in the Dance World but in various fields. It's crucial to understand that choosing the non-profit route requires genuine passion and alignment with your organization's mission and culture. It should not be pursued solely for potential financial gain. Being a non-profit comes with significant responsibilities, including complete transparency in financial matters. Our financial documents are fully exposed, and we are accountable not only to our community but also to our board, ensuring that we maintain our non-profit status and uphold our commitments to the community.

Apolla: What is something you love and find most challenging about working in this structure?

Sarah: In this structure, the most challenging aspect, which I believe is a common sentiment among non-profits, is funding. Providing services at a discounted rate or on a larger scale with limited resources can be taxing, and securing funding through grants or private donors requires significant effort and skill in grant writing. Especially in recent years, with economic challenges affecting both for-profit and non-profit organizations, finding additional funding has been particularly difficult. However, despite the challenges, I believe that addressing funding concerns is an essential part of our work to ensure the sustainability of our non-profit organization. On a positive note, I love the opportunity to make a meaningful impact in our community and see the positive changes that our organization brings to those we serve. The joy and satisfaction of seeing the difference we can make is truly rewarding and fuels our passion for the work we do. The most challenging aspect of my work in this non-profit structure is definitely funding. As a non-profit, we often try to provide services at a discounted rate or reach a larger scale with limited resources, which can be taxing. Securing funding through grants or private donors requires a lot of effort and skill, as grant writing is not something that comes naturally to most people. The past few years have been particularly challenging with uncertainties in funding sources due to the overall economic climate. However, the part of my work that I love the most is seeing the impact on the students. When I witness a student who may not have had the opportunity otherwise, thriving in a scholarship or outreach class, it brings me immense joy. It's not always verbal feedback, but the physical changes in their posture, eye contact, and radiant smiles are incredibly rewarding. It's these moments that remind me why I'm passionate about what I do and motivate me to keep moving forward, even during the difficult days.

Apolla:  I want to discuss how you achieve all of this. Your focus on scholarship programs, bringing dance to lower income communities, and creating an inclusive studio experience is evident. Can you share what drives you to prioritize accessibility and provide some examples of the positive impact it has made on your students?

Sarah:  Well, it's been a lifelong journey for me personally. I come from loving parents who did their best to provide for me, but growing up, it was challenging to afford dance classes. I remember bartering with the studio owner to clean or teach in exchange for more classes. Over the years, I've noticed that the cost of dance has continued to rise, making it less accessible for many people. This passion for accessibility comes from my own experiences and the belief that anyone who wants to dance should have the opportunity. Dance has been a significant part of my life, shaping me into the person I am today, and I know the value it brings beyond just skills and talent. If I can contribute to making dance more accessible for others, I feel like we are making a positive impact. That's why we have prioritized dance accessibility in our programs and initiatives.

Apolla: It's truly beautiful how you understand the essence of dance in a world that has become commercialized and focused on social media, competitions, and trophies. Your emphasis on dance accessibility and the impact it has on people's lives beyond just the skills and talents is a powerful reminder of the true purpose of dance. It's important for everyone, whether in a non-profit or not, to remember why we're in this and how dance can positively impact people's lives for years to come.

Sarah: Absolutely, and that's not limited to for-profit or non-profit intentions. It's something we can all do, and we all have the power to do that as dance educators. We need to be mindful of the fact that we're not just creating amazing dancers, but also shaping future adults. We should strive to help them grow as individuals, not just as dancers. 

Apolla: I'd like to discuss the shift to Studio culture at your studio, where you have chosen not to compete and instead heavily focus on training in your recreational program. Your studio caters to students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Could you talk about the decision to not compete and how you address the needs of students who want more? As someone who has built competitive programs in the past, you understand the desire for more training and opportunities for certain students. How do you balance the need for quality training with the desire for more performance opportunities, considering that the recreational program is the foundation of any studio? Some studios use their recreational program to feed their competitive groups, so how do you manage this balance at your studio?

Sarah: At our dance studio, we have a diverse group of students with different levels of commitment. Some students want to come just once a week for a 45-minute class, while others want more than just recreational dance but may not be interested in the competitive circuit for various reasons, such as style preference or financial constraints. We have found that there are many students who fall in the middle and want more than recreational classes but don't want to compete.

To cater to these students, we have a dance company at Dance Arts Center. This is an invitation-only group for students who have been with us for a while and have demonstrated not only talent but also positive behavior, such as showing up on time and being respectful to their educators and peers. Our dance company students have the opportunity to perform at various events, such as charity benefits and children's shelters, as well as local performances in Orlando and surrounding areas.

We have noticed that for these students, it's not necessarily about the competitive aspect, but rather about having an audience to perform for. Our approach has allowed us to provide performance opportunities and exposure without the pressure of competition, which has been well-received by our dance families. It has also opened the door for students who may have financial barriers to compete, as our dance company is a more accessible option. However, we also acknowledge and support students who are passionate about competing and encourage them to explore other avenues in our local area. Overall, our non-competitive approach has worked well for our studio and our dance families are happy with the opportunities we provide.

Apolla: I absolutely love that because you're really clear and confident about what you're offering at your studio and what your mission is. You're staying true to your vision, and if it's not the right fit for someone, you're acknowledging that and directing them elsewhere, which is fantastic from a business perspective. Additionally, I'm curious if you're noticing the same trend that many dance teachers are talking about in online networks and social media, which is burnout and kids quitting dance at a young age due to the pressures of school and peer groups. It seems like you may have a solution here, and it's definitely something we should all be paying attention to. Are you observing similar trends at your studio?

Sarah:  We do not see students experiencing burnout as a whole, although some students may choose to pursue other talents more intensely. We understand the importance of safety and the limitations of the students' physical bodies, as they are growing and developing. We encourage them to find a balance between dancing and other activities such as school plays or soccer, as we believe that hyper-focusing on one area can lead to imbalance. It's important to us that students receive a quality education, have the opportunity to perform, and pursue their interests within our framework, which prioritizes community performances over competition. 

Apolla: I would like to discuss accessibility now and explore how you make dance available to everyone, including those in your three-year Studio programs. This may include scholarships and tuition considerations. Could you share some information on how you handle pricing and the costs of costumes, without revealing all your trade secrets, to make dance more accessible to a wider range of people?

Sarah: At Dance Arts Center, we make dance accessible through various means. We offer scholarships to a portion of our students, and our tuition rates are typically set at or below the market rate for our area, especially when considering tiered class systems. By offering competitive pricing, we aim to encourage students to take multiple classes and make dance more accessible to them. We also manage costs through our scholarship program and other fees, including costume fees. While we had to slightly increase our costume fees this year due to rising market prices, we didn't raise them by the same amount, as we needed to create a buffer. Additionally, we have a program called "State Left," where we collect Dancewear twice a year, organize it, and offer it for free or at a low cost of $5 per item. This program has been well-received by our families, as it helps break down barriers to accessing dancewear. We also identify families in need, whether on scholarship or facing financial challenges, and provide them with dancewear as needed.

Furthermore, we have a program called "Brevard Dances" that is currently being revamped. This program focuses on bringing dance into youth-based programs in our community, as we realized that transportation was a significant hurdle for many families. By taking dance to these programs, we have found greater success in making dance accessible to more children. Accessibility is a multi-layered focus for us, as we strive to make dance opportunities available to everyone in our community.

Apolla: Could you elaborate on how you prioritize safety at your studio while also maintaining a sustainable revenue structure and promoting accessibility and equity? Additionally, how does your dress code policy play into this, and does your exchange program help in addressing dress code challenges?

Sarah: We strongly encourage our students to participate in our dress code exchange program, where they can support each other by sharing dancewear that no longer fits them. This culture of support within our organization helps to break down barriers. Our dress code promotes modesty and professionalism, as we prioritize avoiding any sexualization of children. We require full leotards and tights, traditional dancewear that is age-appropriate. This also helps to instill responsibility and structure in our students, preparing them for success in their future lives as responsible citizens. As part of our dress code, we also promote the use of Apolla shocks, as we believe that traditional dance shoes may not provide adequate support and shock absorption for the feet, arches, and ankles. We have been using Apolla shocks for our dress code for the past four years, and both our students and teachers have had great success with them. Personally, as a teacher, I find them indispensable, especially for longer teaching sessions of over 30 minutes. They are truly a game-changer.

Apolla: Now let's talk about how your facilities are structured, including your buildings, flooring, and other elements. How do you ensure that your dance studio is set up in a way that supports accessibility and inclusivity for all students? 

Sarah: Marley flooring can be expensive, but it's something I've been passionate about since the beginning. I grew up dancing on a well-sprung floor and understood the value of it. Over the years, I've danced on different surfaces and realized that the type of flooring makes a huge difference in how my body feels after dancing. Some studio owners may cut corners on flooring due to financial reasons, but I believe it's a short-sighted decision that doesn't prioritize the long-term health of dancers. At Dance Arts Center, we have invested heavily in our flooring, with professionally laid wood floors that are sprung and layered with cork and plywood. It has proven to be a worthwhile investment in preventing injuries and protecting our dancers.

In addition to flooring, we also prioritize safety within the studio. We have security systems in place throughout both our locations, both inside and outside, for the safety of our dancers. It allows us to quickly identify and manage any questionable situations. It also serves as a form of accountability for our families, as video evidence can provide clarity in case of any incidents. I highly recommend all studio owners to invest in a quality video system that runs throughout their schools.

Regarding facilities and safety, we have made a somewhat controversial decision not to have an observation window in our studios. While some may disagree, I believe it's important to give children their time away from being observed by unknown individuals in the lobby. It can decrease drama and unnecessary conversations about what's happening inside the studio. It's one of the ways we prioritize the safety and privacy of our dancers. So, we have taken various measures to ensure safety and accessibility within our facilities, from flooring to security systems and observation policies. We prioritize the well-being of our dancers and strive to create a positive and safe environment for all.

Apolla: Have parents left your studio because of the absence of an observation window, and how do you address this concern? It's a hot topic for some parents.

Sarah: So in the past, we have encountered issues where families have noticed that we don't have an observation window, and for some, it's a deal breaker. I approach this by explaining our concerns about safety, drama, and the healthy separation between students and parents. I also share my personal experience of not having an observation window in the dance school I grew up in. Additionally, we have students who come from challenging backgrounds, such as living in shelters, and they don't need to be exposed. It's about what works for everyone, and we respect other dance schools that do have observation windows. I appreciate that you embody who you are confidently in every aspect of your studio culture. So, if you require an observation window, we may not be the right fit for you, and I can provide a list of other dance schools in the area that have them. No hard feelings. We are committed to our studio culture and confidently offer what we believe is best for our students.

Apolla:As a parent, I appreciate the safe and nurturing environment where kids can find independence. It's like dance therapy, leaving problems outside and enjoying the moment.What is one actionable step they can take before the next show to make dance more accessible and safer for all socio-economic groups? A small step towards progress in this area.

Sarah: I believe one initial step towards making dance more accessible is to identify the biggest hurdles that families face within your dance culture and come up with one idea to make it slightly easier. It's important to acknowledge that we won't solve all the problems overnight, but by building blocks of accessibility, one step at a time, we can eventually flourish and find joy in making dance accessible to all. So, everyone's homework is to think of that one idea that can make dance more accessible for families in your studio space, and take that first step towards achieving it. Let's work together towards a more inclusive dance community. You can contact me through Facebook, Instagram, or email at my name, Sarahdanceac.org. That's the best way to reach me if you have any questions or want to discuss media or chat. I'm also available by phone. If you're in the Florida area, be sure to check out Dance Arts Center, as they're making great strides in creating dance accessibility.

**Sarah received a BFA with a minor in Business Administration and received her Masters in Non Profit Administration from the University of Notre Dame. 

She is now the Chairwoman of the Board/Artistic Director/Dance Educator of Dance Arts Centre which she converted from an LLC to a non profit in 2006 and went on to open a 2nd location in 2007…both of which are thriving. 

She works to offer dance through the Boys and Girls Clubs throughout Florida. She is also the proud mom of 3 boys and one of the owners of Apolla!  

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