For Cynthia King, the line between art and life isn’t so much blurred as it is nonexistent. As the artistic director of Cynthia King Dance Studio, King has spent the last 20 years offering the families of Flatbush—a vibrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York—progressive dance education, where activism and technique class, current events and choreography are all entwined.
It’s a bold take on operating a business, but it’s an approach that has served King well. In her two-decade tenure, King has amassed 250 students (a figure she refuses to go above, although the studio is not yet back to the full number post-shutdown), nine talented faculty members, international performance opportunities for her dancers, and a staggering amount of recognition, including from New York City Council members and the New York City Department of Education.
If you ask King, she owes much of her success at assembling a like-minded community to how she curates her enrollment. “New York is big—there’s a lot of studios,” she says with a shrug. “I’m always happy to send a student to a colleague. I don’t feel competitive about it.”
But it’s more than her intentional approach to enrollment: King is the rare owner who knows she’s training both good dancers and good citizens, and she isn’t afraid to let those two ideas inform each other.
“The students listen to the teacher.”
When King opened her studio doors in 2002, she was 44 years old, with not only a considerable performance career under her belt, including with Rod Rodgers Dance Company, but also experience teaching in the public school system and running an after-school dance program. She’d been surprised to discover that she loved teaching even more than performing: “The teaching part of my career has been far more satisfying than the performance part,” she says.
She knew going into owning her studio that her discipline-driven teaching philosophy—she credits her teaching style to two of her most influential teachers at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Emiko and Yasuko Tokunaga—might not suit some parents, so she instituted what she calls a “screening process.”
“I’ll meet with people before I even allow them to register, to make it clear before they come to class that the format is: ‘The students listen to the teacher,’” she says. “It doesn’t sound ground-breaking, but it is. Anything the teacher gives them, they have to try. I find that when you’re really clear about it, you attract the people you want—and it’s been like that from the beginning.”
Early on in CKDS’ existence, for example, a mother came to King saying that she wanted her child and her child’s friend to be in the same class. “But they weren’t remotely at the same level of maturity,” remembers King. “So I said no and turned them away—at a point when I was certainly desperate for money.” But King knew even then the importance of cultivating lasting relationships with families. “It’s a luxury to have a private school, where you can dictate who you want to come,” she says, “but this can be a 10-year relationship, so it makes sense to put in some time and effort for someone who’s a good fit.”
“You don’t get a prize for learning art—you get to learn art.”
An important part of making a student’s relationship last 10 (or more) years with her studio is educating parents alongside their kids. King leads orientations—pre-COVID, in her lobby; now, on Zoom—where she shares the philosophical and practical tenets of CKDS training. “I think it’s important to educate families about dance in general—how to be a good audience member, for example, or that we pay attention to a dancer’s muscles, movement and musicality, not their clothes and appearance,” she says.
That can be a bit of a culture shock to most families, King recognizes, who might otherwise send their children to class in princess dresses and tiaras and expect participation trophies. “I tell them, ‘Not only won’t you get a trophy, we don’t even give stickers,’” she says. “You don’t get a prize for learning art—you get to learn art. That’s your sticker! We laugh about it, but the kids and the parents hear that we value art and art education.”
Humor, as it turns out, is a useful way for King to make such bold statements and not drive families away. She has a wall of fame and a wall of shame in her studio, and parents are just as likely to wind up with their picture on either as their children are—for failing to respond to an important email (the wall of shame) or packing a healthy snack for their kids (fame). “Parents will come in rushing, saying, ‘I don’t want my kid to be late! I don’t want to be on the wall of shame!” King laughs. They recognize that King’s practices, if unorthodox, are rooted in offering holistic dance training, and the necessary accompanying level of rigor is usually well-received. “I don’t say things like, ‘Dance is for everyone.’ I don’t think that’s true. Dance training is for those who are willing to put in some work,” she says. “Most parents are happy to hear that someone is going to hold their children accountable.”
But King also knows how to raise her students up and celebrate their successes, says Octavia McCormick-Sharf, who has been the managing director of CKDS for 15 years. “She wants to instill discipline and healthy life decisions and goals, but she also wants there to be this fun, warm, creative environment,” says McCormick-Sharf. “When she sees something good, you could be in the lobby and you’ll hear it—she’ll be screaming, ‘Yes, that was amazing!’ The kids just light up.”
“How do you take kids to a protest? Do people complain?”
Perhaps King’s most striking asset as a studio owner is how she invites her students to engage with contemporary issues, both within and outside the studio. King, who is vegan, requires that students only consume vegan food on studio premises and wear the non-leather ballet slippers she created and now sells internationally. She’s not afraid to tackle difficult subjects in her choreography, either. In 2016, for instance, she created a piece called Hands Up, which dealt explicitly with police brutality against Black people. It remains in the studio’s current repertory, and dancers as young as 6 have been a part of it.
Some might question King’s decision to craft a studio culture with such a clearly delineated value system, but it’s in her most daring moments that King truly sets herself apart from other owners. “She’s willing to take risks,” says McCormick-Sharf. “Some may see that as unorthodox, but I see that as artistic. The way it all comes together is like a piece of art—it exudes creativity.”
Having spent most of her life in Brooklyn with a longtime interest in activism, King doesn’t shy away from including interested studio families in her community efforts. “I’ve always been politically involved, so it wouldn’t have made sense to not be that way as a studio owner,” she says. “I have gotten questions like, ‘How do you take kids to a protest? Do people complain?’ The answer is no—they’re with me. They like to learn about the things that we’re doing.”
King’s commitment to her community doesn’t go unnoticed: In 2008, then–City Council Member Bill de Blasio (the current mayor of New York) nominated King for a Neighborhood Achievement Award. And in 2011, New York City Council members honored her with an official proclamation for her leadership and services to her community.
“To be a good community member, you have to participate,” says King, who has regularly attended community board, parent–teacher association and precinct meetings in Flatbush. “We perform at every playground opening, school event, local arts festival and event for an elected official.”
“I’d like to give those who’ve been a vital part of the success a chance to lead.”
Like many studio owners who have successfully weathered COVID-19 over the last year and a half, King is beginning to let herself think long-term again about the future of CKDS. A top priority is reinitiating summer international travel with her company students, a group of about 60 dancers who follow an intensive track during the school year. In 2019, King and 12 dancers, with their families, traveled to Costa Rica to perform at several studios and schools. Trips to Puerto Rico and Belize are in the works now. “It’s a great experience for the kids,” she says.
She’d also like to restart and possibly expand her current partnership with the public school located next door to her studio, where third- and fourth-graders earn physical education credit for taking ballet, breaking and hip hop.
And though she’s not ready to hand over the reins just yet, she is thinking about how she can eventually empower those who have been alongside her, helping shape CKDS into the forward-thinking, community-minded studio it’s become.
“I’d like to give those who’ve been a vital part of the success of the school a chance to lead,” says King. “I think it’s important to facilitate succession in the same way that passing on knowledge as a teacher is important to me. It brings a sense of fulfillment—and keeps the focus on the greater good.”