In-studio conventions, one of the latest trends on the circuit, offer an alternative to the traditional forum. Held at one studio’s home base, in-house conventions are presented over a period of several days with a tailor-made schedule of classes. While they provide access to high-profile faculty members in an intimate and familiar setting, they don’t always have the impact and energy created when multiple studios convene.
Community vs. Competition
The main difference between in-house conventions and traditional options is the absence of opportunities to test your skills against dancers from other studios. Eliminating competitive elements, though, was part of the point for Muse Dance Company founder Jessica Starr (see Shooting for the Stars, DS October 2005). “Growing up, I competed for many years, and as a dance teacher, I had my students involved in competition,” says Starr, who spearheaded Muse’s first workshop last June. “Just because you don’t get a gold or platinum on your solo doesn’t mean you can’t be a professional dancer.” However, Tracie Marciniak, vice-president of Oklahoma-based Co. Dance, says that the competitive element of more traditional conventions doesn’t detract from, but rather enhances, career goals and professional opportunities for participants. “Competition in an outside setting is good because it challenges dancers to be the best they can be and reach their full potential,” says Marciniak. “The opportunity to see other teams with different skill levels helps kids grow as dancers.” Famed convention leader Joe Tremaine, whose competition and convention company is in its 25th year of operation, says that in the absence of [natural] competition, improvement is impaired. “Without competition, there is not a whole lot of progress for any dancer,” says Tremaine. “[With an in-house workshop,] all you’re getting is basic master classes from an outside teacher, whereas at a convention, a standard is set to rise up to.”
In lieu of competition against other teams, many in-house conventions provide the chance for dancers to see how they measure up professionally. Flow 40 Dance Workshops offers an elaborate mock audition that mimics an industry audition process, from eliminating dancers based on physical casting requirements to teaching actual combinations performed in music videos. L.A.-based company Artists in Training also holds simulated auditions during its in-house convention weekends, with those who make the “cut” awarded airfare and scholarships to study at Hollywood studios. TAMJAMS! Dance, which, at 9 years old, is one of the oldest in-studio conventions, also holds a mock audition with a concrete objective—to fill the lead roles in a pretend dance video.
While many in-studio workshops pride themselves on focusing on learning rather than competition, the approach has its drawbacks. Larger conventions give dancers and studio owners the opportunity to gauge skills against other teams and the chance to perform in front of peers. Although many in-studio workshops allow studios to invite other local teams to participate as a means of whittling down costs, the competitive vibe is missing. “The one downfall of our workshop is that you don’t get exposed to such a wide variety of students and styles,” Starr admits.
Up Close and Personal vs. Big-Name Cachet
Small, personalized classes vs. classes of hundreds. In the classic conundrum, students are divided between tiny colleges and big state universities. The same debate applies in the decision between in-studio and large conventions. With an in-house workshop, studio owners can control the number of participants, whereas at a crowded convention, the number of students can sometimes swell into the thousands. Rob Schultz of Artists in Training says that dancers who take part in in-studio conventions feel more confident learning on familiar ground, as classes are held within their studio’s own confines. “There is also an added safety element, since you’re not dancing on carpet and you can [often] do more than in a convention room,” says Schultz.
Although the smaller, more intimate classes are a draw, some question whether in-house conventions offer dancers the same access to major choreographers and industry players as traditional conventions like Co. Dance. Marciniak says that the top-shelf talent is one of the biggest draws for dancers who attend Co. Dance: “We offer approachability coupled with quality in instructors who are the best of the best, like Marguerite Derricks and Brian Friedman.”
The faculties of in-studio convention companies are indeed considerably smaller, but Muse boasts popular instructors like Blake McGrath (“So You Think You Can Dance”), while the three Flow 40 instructors are all working industry dancers who’ve shared the stage with stars like Paul McCartney and Jem.
As far as exposure to industry agents and decision makers, scouting isn’t necessarily prevalent at in-studio workshops. However, Artists in Training enlists an agent from Clear Talent Agency to give students a look into the world of representation, while Flow 40 offers a panel discussion, titled “The Business of Dance,” geared at teaching up-and-comers how to find work and market themselves.
The Nuts and Bolts
Wondering how an in-house convention works? Generally, a studio owner contacts the company and a custom package is designed to fit the studio’s needs and budget. Some companies charge a flat fee that frees the studio owner to determine cost and number of students, whereas others charge a per-student rate. (Fees can vary depending on the number of days and classes selected.) Studios are also usually asked to cover travel and materials expenses for convention faculty, though some companies offer incentives in the form of kickbacks for studio owners who book a certain number of students.
Once the arrangements are in place, representatives of the company work with the studio owners to create an agenda for personalized instruction. Studios can use specialty offerings to supplement classes not offered at their own location (i.e. a mostly ballet-oriented school might choose instruction in tumbling or breakdancing). Many companies also offer extras like discussions with instructors, parent question-and-answer sessions and competition choreography and prep. At the workshop’s conclusion, a showcase is usually held to celebrate and show off newly learned skills. After the workshop finishes up, it’s common for in-studio workshop instructors to offer their contact information to students for further advice and networking correspondence.
Although a heavy emphasis is placed on technique, most in-studio conventions are based on cultivating a love for dance in students. “Rather than a trophy, we give out certificates at the end of the weekend to dancers who showed the most heart or improved the most,” says Grant Chenok of Flow 40. “We want to provide a high-caliber, character-building learning experience.”
Lest studio owners think they have to choose between the old and the new, Schultz says that in-studio conventions aren’t necessarily competition, but rather can work in tandem with larger conventions. “Traditional conventions are a great tool for getting exposed to teams from all over the country,” says Schultz. “In-studio conventions act as a wonderful supplement and give you up-close technique, choreography and correction.” Indeed, TAMJAMS! even offers an optional add-on session called “Critique Competition,” during which routines are performed for staff who judge the performance.