Karisma Jay holds many titles—performer, producer, professor, playwright. She toured internationally with STOMP, teaches West African dance at The Juilliard School, and was honored at the 2021 Dance Teacher Awards. But her most influential role is founder and artistic director of her nonprofit organization, AbunDance Academy of the Arts, where she trains young dancers aspiring to attend performing arts schools and colleges.
AbunDance (pronounced “abundance”) is providing dance education to underserved students of color in Brooklyn, New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood. While AbunDance caters to students of all ages (preschool through adult), its primary focus is on preparing young dancers to enter pre-professional performing arts programs by the time they enter high school. To make dance accessible, a value inspired by her own experience growing up with a single mom, Jay offers sliding-scale rates for tuition. If parents need additional financial assistance, they have the option to volunteer behind the scenes doing administrative work or helping backstage or mending costumes in exchange for their children’s classes.
As a nonprofit, Jay’s organization relies heavily on grants and her community’s support. When she experienced rent hikes in 2016, people immediately chipped in. “We posted a GoFundMe and within minutes neighbors were donating who had never even stepped foot into our establishment,” she says. And when the financial strain of the coronavirus pandemic threatened to close her academy, parents paid for summer classes even when they weren’t being held.
“It’s always been about showing what’s possible,” says Jay, who founded the academy in the summer of 2013. Her AbunDance students hold a 100 percent acceptance and scholarship-offer rate when applying to pre-professional programs like The Ailey School and Dance Theatre of Harlem School. Others have graduated from Boston Conservatory and George Washington University, and some alumni have gone on to perform with Cardi B and the Brooklyn Nets dance team, the Brooklynettes.
Dance Teacher chatted with Jay to learn more about her impactful work and hear her tips for connecting with students.
Which aspects of your studio have been most successful and most challenging?
I’ll start with the challenge: being a nonprofit in a for-profit world. I was rooted in community and I still really do believe in community, but there is some benefit to being a little commercial.
In terms of what has worked, me investing in what my students are passionate about has actually benefited the studio and our social media presence. Also, learning how to detach is helpful as well. We know that when our students get to a certain level, they are going to leave. I actually walk them out. I give them my blessing and take them to the audition. I introduce them to what’s next, so that there’s always room for them to come back.
Do you have any tips for teachers that are looking to help their students be more confident when auditioning for performing arts schools or colleges?
I started to foster TikTok classes and learning challenges together. It helps them pick up choreography quickly. There’s something uniquely beneficial about us taping TikToks, because now we’re talking about dance on camera, and my students know how to play the camera. They’re developing that level of awareness that I was struggling with them to grasp before.
So I would say to studio owners: We should really lean into asking, “How can I reach this student in a way that would be meaningful and effective versus in a way I think it should be?”
What advice would you like to share with other dance studio directors for running a successful and thriving business?
I’m finding more and more that there are people who do want to help, but they don’t know how to offer their help. When parents come in with a complaint, that’s when I ask them for help. Because there are going to be those who go, “Why didn’t you do it this way?” Then I say, “Are you the new ambassador for that? Can I put you in charge of that next time?” One time I had a parent saying, “Why weren’t the mics good enough?” That let me know her expertise because that’s a specific complaint. She is now very much that person on our team.
What’s your vision for the future of AbunDance?
AbunDance on Film and AbunDance on Broadway, abundantly. I just co-wrote and directed a new short film called CROWN, premiering May 12 in Brooklyn. It’s about a young ballet dancer that has to tame her hair into submission for her audition. CROWN is based on one of my experiences growing up—there were no products that could tame my hair or get it to look like everyone else’s. We held auditions and one of our AbunDance students is the lead. She’s helping to tell this story of a young dancer who’s trying to find her place in the world and love her hair and herself. AbunDance on Broadway would be a show that I write; it could be a show that my students are in, or I’m in, or my teaching artists are in.