How to Think Big as a Dance Studio Owner—Even Now
September 9, 2020

Gina Gibney is CEO and artistic director of Gibney, a $6 million organization that occupies two locations of prime New York City real estate, with 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces. But when Gibney first founded her company of five dancers in 1991, it operated out of one studio. The story of how everything went wrong that could go wrong, and yet the organization rose to became one of the liveliest dance hubs in the city, is a fascinating example of judicious risk taking. When faced with the choice in 2010 to cut back and play it safe or to take a risk and grow, Gibney took a leap. She did that again in 2013 when she had the opportunity to take over the lease of 280 Broadway in lower Manhattan, now the main location for the Gibney organization.

In August, Gibney joined Dance Teacher editor at large Karen Hildebrand at the Unity 2020 Virtual Leadership Conference to discuss what it takes as a business leader to succeed—particularly in a year like 2020. Here are six takeaways from that event:

1. With every big leap, there is a letting go.

When Gina Gibney committed to leasing her first studio space in 1991, her role immediately became more complex. Now, not only was she making work for her own company of five dancers, she was the one responsible for scheduling space rental and keeping the floor clean. It meant giving up a certain amount of artistic focus. “Over the last decade I have hung up my choreographic tool belt and I am now the artistic director of an organization and a business person,” she said. “I have some regrets about that but I think it’s been a worthwhile sacrifice.”

2. Sometimes it’s not what you want to do, but, rather, what you need to do.

When Gibney was approached by the City of New York to take over the lease at 280 Broadway after a beloved NYC dance studio, Dance New Amsterdam, went out of business, she almost said no. There were many challenges with the space and it required a major renovation. But Gibney knew that someone would take over the space. If it wasn’t her, it might be a commercial tenant, and she felt strongly about preserving the space for dance. “There was a need for someone to rescue the space, but it was not a risk that I sought,” she said. “It was probably the most difficult thing the organization has undertaken.”

Gina Gibney sits on the floor of a dance studio, staring down the camera, as blurry dancers swirl around her
Gibney has been called the dance community’s benevolent landlord.

Buck Ennis for Crain’s NY Business, courtesy of Gibney

3. As a business person, your role will sometimes be in conflict with your artistic self.

“As artistic director of an organization, I’m trying to create platforms to give people opportunities to connect, express meaning and to participate in an artistic community. I believe in using art for social change,” Gibney said. “Another part of my role is that I have to make difficult decisions. I have to try to make a lot of complex decisions understandable to a broad range of staff—budgets, staffing. I feel at times my heart and my head are just going at it.”

As an example, she cited a time when it became clear they needed to raise class fees by a dollar in order to meet a 10 percent increase in rent and rising operating expenses. “There was kind of a big uproar,” she said, “taking money from those who are most challenged, the dancers. Often in New York it’s a choice between taking class or having lunch.”

4. Being a transparent communicator doesn’t mean people will agree with you.

The Gibney organization didn’t take the rate-increase decision lightly. “Anybody who runs a training program will note that half the money that comes in goes right back out to the teachers. There’s a perception that we have a lot of money, but the reality is that we barely break even every year. We don’t have surpluses, so we do have to make careful decisions,” she explained.

“We tried to create opportunities where people could have support for class. But we had to be very transparent about those rent increases,” she said. “We also tried to drive home that even with the increase, our classes are among the most affordable in the city. You need to try to create a clear context for decision making.”

5. The ability we have in dance to reinvent ourselves will help us during difficult times.

When asked what it takes for a small business owner to survive in 2020, Gibney suggested we can rely on our ability as dancers to reinvent ourselves. She reminded us that dance is an art form in which we constantly do this. “The work that you created last year is on the shelf, already memorialized, and is no longer the measure of your current creativity.” She pointed out that it doesn’t matter what great plan you have for rehearsal because it depends on your dancers and their receptivity that day. You work with what you have available. “We are constantly remaking ourselves and meeting challenges.”

We can put this ability to work for us as business leaders. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to light a need for systemic change. “We’re being called on to be more equitable—maybe for [practices] that aren’t even conscious to us that are excluding people or hurting people unintentionally,” said Gibney. “The ability to try to change is really difficult, but I believe that we as a field have that. That’s our nature. We are constantly in motion and by being in motion we can change. We can have huge realizations that impact us because we’re not rigid and fixed. This agility we have to reinvent ourselves, that has to do with embracing our own shortcomings.”

6. It helps to keep the faith during times of great difficulty—what the dance field has to offer does make a difference.

When asked what she does personally to keep her passion going when best-laid plans go awry, Gibney responded, “We’ve all hit some impenetrable walls over the past months. The uncertainty is so unbelievable. Keeping a really strong sense of purpose of why we’re doing this in the first place” was one suggestion. She shared some of her personal stress-management philosophy: “Allow yourself to indulge in memories of moments that were deeply fulfilling, of milestones. I go back to my childhood and to my early career when I felt most whole as an artist. And then,” she said, “look forward with a lot of bravery. We’re not going to be the same when we come out of this. We have to be different.”

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