Lots of dance schools grant full merit scholarships to underrepresented students who show promise. Very few extend full merit scholarships to their entire population of students. Even fewer focus solely on educating the dance world’s coming generations of young artists of color. It’s this singular mission that sets apart The VIVA School, co-founded in Washington, DC, in 2017 by artistic director Chandini Darby and executive director Kelli Quinn. The VIVA School offers a comprehensive pre-professional education to 52 dancers ages 6 to 18.
Darby and Quinn’s aim? “Ultimately, we want to prepare students for professional careers in the arts—recognizing that the arts is such a diverse and broad field is a broad statement in and of itself,” Darby says. “We want to expose our students to all the possibilities: providing them with information as well as connecting them with professionals in the field who look like them.”
Dance Teacher caught up with Darby to learn more about this innovative studio, which centers dancers of color throughout their entire training experience.
What do you wish you’d known before you opened your dance studio?
How important time is. We live in such a fast-paced world, where everyone is wanting results super-fast—not just in terms of wanting to physically progress in a dance environment, but also as an organization. But that takes time, it takes effort, it takes lots of commitment and dedication. Not that we didn’t know that, but some of that waiting process feels very uncomfortable. You have this big future vision, but you need time and patience. Just a little bit more attention to that reality would have been nice.
Which aspects of your studio business have been most successful and most challenging?
Creating a strong community, hands down. The VIVA School has a very strong community of support, from students to parents to community members to our board of directors to people who support the school. We could not do this work without them. We bring the philosophy “I am because you are” into everything that we do.
In terms of difficult times, I would say our transition to becoming an independent organization after existing inside of a very large organization [CityDance in Washington, DC] for many years. That was wonderful for all those years, but then we grew to a place where we should be an independent organization. That was a huge growth moment, but also a huge amount of transition. With transition comes discomfort—not anything that we cannot overcome or cannot handle. But there’s a whole new learning to new structures, new processes, a new team…
What’s the most important quality you look for when hiring dance teachers?
Alignment with our values as a school—i.e., those who are willing to work with others, are able to embrace change and who welcome new ideas and innovation. Also, those who have accountability and transparency in their work. Those who have passion: passion for dance, young people, for equity in the arts, and for change.
What’s the best business advice you’ve been given?
When we were trying to dig into our messaging and language—and how we want to present ourselves to the external world—we worked with a communications specialist. One of the things that Kelli and I really grabbed onto during that experience was finding our unique lane and staying in it. There are always opportunities for something else, right? We’ve had adult classes in the past, but right now is not the season for that for us. Opportunities that aren’t consistent or aligned with your lane are not opportunities.