| 2015 Q2 | story by ANNE BROCKHOFF | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Visit the Dance Gallery in west Lawrence during the school day and you’ll find a serene, earth-toned space. The four dance studios will likely be dark, and the fitness center empty. Swing by a few hours later, though, and you’ll be greeted by well-choreographed chaos.
Girls of all ages flood the building between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday to take one of the 15 or so classes slated for each night. They stream into the studios, cluster in the kitchen and do homework in a quiet side room—all of which makes studio director Tim Flattery very, very happy.
“As soon as 4 o’clock hits, we’re pretty much booked in every studio,” Flattery says.
About 200 girls from Lawrence and surrounding communities took ballet, hip hop, jazz, lyrical, tap, tumbling and acrobatics classes during the 2014-15 dance season, and about 55 of those participated in the Dance Gallery’s competitive troupe. Those numbers are on the rise, the Dance Gallery’s owners say.
“We spent last year doing all the right things to continue to grow—remodeling the studio, bringing Tim on board and just adding a few of the accessories parents like to have,” Grant Ryan says, who with his wife, Kristen Ryan, bought the studio last year.
“Our enrollment is up,” Kristen Ryan agrees.
Their success underscores a national trend. Dance is big business these days, thanks in part to the popularity of television shows like Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance?” and “Dancing with the Stars” on ABC, according to research company IBISWorld.
The nation’s 8,264 dance studios were expected to generate $2.1 billion in revenue in 2013. Both numbers are on an upward trend as the economy improves and more people turn to dance for fitness and fun, according to IBISWorld.
Certainly Lawrence has plenty of choices for children and teens. Besides the Dance Gallery, local studios include Point A Dance Studio, which offers classes for kids ages six through 18, while its sister studio, Point B Dance, serves the 16+ crowd in its location near Bob Billings Parkway and Kasold. Dazzlers Christian Dance operates from a 6,000 square-foot studio in Hillcrest Shopping Center and has a range of options for girls age three through high school.
North Lawrence’s DancEHuges Studio’s schedule includes recreational, technical and competitive dance, while Lawrence Gymnastics & Athletics teaches parent-tot movement, ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop. The Lawrence Arts Center has the area’s largest dance program, with some 60 classes ranging from ballet to jazz, tap and modern. It has in recent years added a pre-professional dance company and boys-only classes. Budding enthusiasts can also experience dance through the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department.
“Dance has definitely gained momentum,” Kristen Ryan says. “In terms of Lawrence, we’re right there in providing opportunities.”
The Dance Gallery dates back to the early 1980s, making it one of the city’s longest-lived studios. Founder Karen Fender moved to several locations as it grew, finally settling in its current spot near the intersection of Legends Drive and Wakarusa Drive.
The Ryans came to Lawrence in 2007, and their daughter, Olivia, began taking classes at the Dance Gallery. She loved dancing, and her parents were equally impressed with Fender.
“The tradition, the excellence in training, the opportunity for kids—she really built a phenomenal program,” Kristen Ryan says, who is also the principal of Southwest Middle School in Lawrence. “She was a firm believer in proper technique, the importance of ballet, hard work and practice. That’s what made her successful.”
When the Ryans heard Fender was thinking of retirement, they approached her about buying the business. Fender announced the transition in December 2013 after about 10 months of discussions.
The studio then closed for two-week holiday break, and the Ryans set about renovating it. They painted the walls and replaced the flooring, upgraded the dance studios and sound system, installed a small kitchen and unveiled a new logo.
“We didn’t mention we were doing a whole new facelift ahead of time,” Flattery says. “When the girls came back, they were like ‘wow!’”
The Ryans officially took ownership of the studio in January 2014. They were confident in their ability to manage the business, but knew they needed a dance professional to oversee its programs. That’s where Flattery came in.
“We have seen a continued growth by bringing Tim on, with his professionalism and experience,” Grant Ryan says, who is also a senior vice president and commercial relationship manager at Sunflower Bank.
Flattery studied dance at the University of Kansas, where he also performed with the Rock Chalk Dancers. After completing his bachelor of fine arts degree, he interned with New York’s Broadway Dance Center and worked as a cast member and dancer for Holland America Cruise Line before returning to Lawrence to teach at the Dance Gallery and other area studios.
Now, Flattery oversees 13 instructors, including two professionals who’ve danced with the Tulsa Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet. He travels regularly to take master classes and workshops, and encourages instructors to do the same. He wants them to develop and experience new things, and then bring what they’ve learned back to the Dance Gallery, Flattery says. The idea is to balance creativity and new energy with the consistent teaching and solid dance foundation the studio is known for.
“That’s what helps set us apart,” Flattery says, who also volunteers as KU’s Rock Chalk Dance coach. “We have teachers who are willing to go and do that and keep broadening what we do.”
The Dance Gallery’s Facebook page is filled with grinning girls in sparkly costumes, often clutching gleaming trophies. While the dancers will cherish those highlights for years to come, the impact goes far beyond what you see in photos.
Dance benefits students physically, helping them build range of motion, coordination, strength and endurance, as well as in less visible ways, according to the National Dance Education Organization’s website. It helps students learn to express their emotions and so contributes to psychological health and emotional maturity. It also builds social awareness, teaches cooperation, develops communication skills and contributes to cognitive development.
“Movement provides the cognitive loop between the idea, problem or intent and the outcome or solution,” the NDEO’s website states. “This teaches an infant, child and, ultimately, adult to function in and understand the world.”
The Ryans and Flattery agree. Dance helps girls (and while boys are welcome, the Dance Gallery’s roster is currently all-female) develop countless skills necessary for success in all walks of life.
“It teaches all of the habits of any sport—courage, hard work, teamwork,” Kristen Ryan says. “I always tell my daughter: dance isn’t really about dance. It’s about how to live your life.”
Dance also benefits the community, partly by creating jobs, the Dance Gallery employees an office manager in addition to its director and instructors, and generating tax revenue. The Ryans partner with Eileen’s Colossal Cookies’ Lawrence store to provide birthday cookies for dancers and use other local vendors whenever possible.
“Everything we do here we try to do locally,” Grant Ryan says. “If we order letterhead or dancewear, or have work done on the building, we try to support local businesses.”
The Ryans also welcome private coaches and personal trainers into their fitness center, spurring a bit of growth in that sector of Lawrence’s economy.
“We’re providing new opportunities and jobs that help someone else’s career prosper,” Grant Ryan says, who recently added the 3,800 square-foot fitness center, bringing the Dance Gallery’s total square footage to about 14,000. “As business owner, if we’re helping them, that will eventually come back to us.”
Access to the fitness center helps improve students’ strength, conditioning and cardio, all with an eye toward making them stronger, healthier athletes. Parents who want to get in a workout while waiting for their kid’s class to end can use it too.
The Dance Gallery added another line of business this year as well—selling dance clothing, shoes and gear. Sales weren’t the main goal, though. Convenience was.
“The main line of business for the Dance Gallery is enrollment fees,” Grant Ryan says. “Those other lines of business are geared more toward enhancing the customer’s experience.”
Other “enhancements” include free Wi-Fi, a flat screen television, ample coffee in the kitchen and large observation windows in the studios. It all contributes to the experience, but quality dance education remains the priority.
“We’ve got a good, good range of kids, and we offer all different kinds of styles of dance,” Flattery says. “We’ve got a great ballet program here, too, which is the foundation of everything else.”
The dance season begins in August, and students rehearse their routines through the fall. For those in the troupe, competitions begin in January. The studio presents a final recital at the Lied Center each May, and this year’s season will conclude in June with the Stage One National Dance Competition in Branson, Mo. Classes continue through the summer, with the addition of a Cinderella-themed summer camp and a boot camp for advanced students.
Some students take private lessons throughout the year, and the studio hosts community-based Irish and folk dancing groups. Dance Gallery also rents rehearsal space to KU sororities and fraternities preparing for the Rock Chalk Review, an annual musical variety show that raises funds for charity.
Many students begin as preschoolers and continue through high school. Others come and go as it fits their schedules. Some want to dance on high school or college drill teams, or even continue professionally. Many simply enjoy dancing recreationally. All are welcome, Grant Ryan says.
“Our goal is we want to be flexible,” he says. “We want to provide the best customer experience for all the parents and students.”