Small Business

Fans give dancing a whirl: Many studios report seeing a boost in enrollment, younger students

January 28, 2008

As millions of television viewers have been swept up in the twirl of the ABC reality series hit "Dancing with the Stars," local studios are cashing in on the craze as everyday folks try to learn to dance like fall winner Helio Castroneves.

Dance studio owners said they've seen a surge in business since the television program debuted in 2005, and the tempo has picked up with each new season.

Simply Ballroom owner Romaric Cansino said he surveys all new students to see why they're taking dance lessons, and more than 90 percent of respondents in the past year have said they're interested because of the reality show. "They say, 'I want to dance like those people on TV,'" he said. Others agreed that attendance is up, though the evidence is largely anecdotal. Few studios kept track of enrollment numbers over time, and most would not disclose revenue. Cansino said his annual revenue is about $250,000 and has been increasing since 2005. Still, studio owners say they've noticed an increase-and a different mix of students as more men and younger people sign up. Before "Dancing with the Stars," some men were concerned they might look a bit effeminate trying salsa and cha-cha moves, said Yang Xiao, co-owner of the IntoSalsa Latin Dance Studio. But the show has "changed their perception of dancing, especially Latin dancing," he said.

Likewise, dancers are getting younger. Pre-show, the studios' regular dance parties drew crowds that started at age 45, with the regulars mostly in the 60- to 70-year-old bracket. Now instructors say they're seeing more young people take lessons, join social dancing clubs and enter competitions.

"It was not as popular with young people five to six years ago," said Kristiina Ilo, coowner of Starlite Ballroom & Dance School. "Now every college has a ... dance club."

Other segments of the business are up as well. Xiao said he's set up more corporate parties around "Dancing with the Stars" themes, where dance instructors will pair off with and train company execs. A handful of employees get to be official judges and the crowd picks a winner.

Simply Ballroom has branched out to organize dance-offs at wedding receptions and house parties, especially Sweet 16 parties. And many not-for-profits are adopting a dancing theme for their fund-raisers.

Despite the apparent growth, studios may not be fully capitalizing on the trend, said Sharon O'Donoghue, interim executive director of Business Ownership Initiative of Indiana, a not-for-profit that helps entrepreneurs.

Small-business owners must benchmark growth by analyzing various revenue streams, she said-getting a handle on how much they see from lessons, accessory sales and facility rentals, for example. And they must understand who the new customers are.

"You have to stand back and know who bought your services last year," she said.

If the studios' revenue growth is from current clients who want to boost their skills so they can enter dance competitions, then business leaders could focus their marketing on regulars. If the enrollment boost comes from newcomers, then studios could work on ways to give them what they're looking for.

"Everything's a window of opportunity in small business," O'Donoghue said. "Are these single people looking for a non-threatening mingling alternative to the bar scene? People looking for a fun way to lose weight? If so, you know your marketing hook."

Several local studio owners said they plan to increase marketing to strike while the trend is hot. When the next season of "Dancing with the Stars" debuts this spring, Xiao said he plans to offer a package deal for couples tied to the television show.

But others are taking a different route. Ilo, for example, said the show has driven enough new enrollment in beginning classes that she has cut back on advertising.

Cansino said he's making sure the newcomers have a great experience that they'll mention to their friends.

"The best thing we can do is take the new clients and give them the best service we can," he said. "Once the interest from the show dies down a bit, we'll still have good word-of-mouth advertising."

Many who've been in the business for a while remember other, shorter-lived bumps. Ricky Martin spurred interest in Latin dancing while motion pictures, such as "Strictly Ballroom" in 1992 and "Shall We Dance?" in 2004 triggered interest in ballroom classes.

Industry insiders say the surge in interest has been larger and steadier with a regular television show like "Dancing with the Stars."

And while they're enjoying the boost in business, many of the instructors also make time to actually watch the show. And some have to temper the expectations it creates.

"It takes a lot of hard work to get to that level," Ilo said. "People ask: 'How long will it take me to dance like that? Five or six lessons?'"

The answer is usually much longer than that.
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