When six Ahwatukee Foothills fathers heard their daughters' dance studio was closing just after their close-knit group of girls had won nationals, they couldn't stand the thought of breaking the group up to go their separate ways.
"We were sitting there and facing this prospect of having a set of girls that love each other going to different studios," said Mike Farmer, one of the fathers present at the original meetings. "In your life it's not always the case that you find harmony. When you find it you work to keep that. We had harmony. All of a sudden without our control, we were faced with the prospect of these girls splitting up to go to different studios in the Ahwatukee area."
Not only was there harmony between the girls, but the instructors also played a large part in their lives. The instructors were known for not only spending time with their dancers in class but outside of class, too, whether it was shopping, birthday parties, going to haunted houses, the movies, or even bowling.
The relationships were too precious to lose and the fathers knew something had to be done.
"We thought, how can we pull something together that utilizes the strengths of the community, knowing none of our community members could do it full time," Farmer said. "Also, not one person possessed all the necessary skills. We had all these different duties and not one person who could handle it all. We thought, why not bring everyone together? We're not trying to make any money, we all have a common objective. We just found a system that worked that way."
The system was a cooperative. Parents would be divided into volunteer committees to run day-to-day operations and a board of directors would make large decisions together. They set it up as a nonprofit so all proceeds could go back into the studio and the instructors.
"My big concern was making sure I didn't lose any of our kids to anyone," said Antoine Olds, co-artistic director. "As teachers we invest so much time into them. I've taught at many studios, but this is the first where I've had such a connection with the kids. Like everyone else I didn't know what this model was, but it has kept us all together, it allowed the kids to dance and has allowed me to teach, so it works."
Once the instructors were on board, the group of dads took their idea to the parents and found overwhelming support.
"I was excited," said Holly Spencer, who has three daughters that danced at the studio. "They came in with a good plan and a thought-out structure. They were creating a strong relationship with the instructors that I had not seen at other studios. The whole process was very exciting, and gave us a future and direction."
In less than four weeks as Dance Depot closed its doors, the Phoenix Dance Cooperative took off. The father's backgrounds, engineers, accountants, lawyers, a pilot and marketing, brought a business perspective to the project. The instructors taught how a studio should be run.
"I feel like with a lot of the dad's knowledge on stuff and our knowledge on stuff we were able to come up with a better system than we had before," said Ambur Towns, co-artistic director. "I feel like it's homier now with everyone involved. It kind of makes it easier for people to relate to each other."
They found a location at 12020 S. Warner-Elliot Loop and 30 to 40 parents crowded into the building for hours on Saturdays and Sundays to help clean up and paint, all while the air conditioner wasn't even working yet. Some parents helped with licensing and permitting, and others handled the budget or designed the website. Together they did a job that wouldn't have been possible for one parent to do alone.
Now, two months later, the studio is in full swing and appears to be working well. Membership has grown to more than 100 dancers and Farmer says he recently received a call from a group in Houston hoping to follow their same model.
"One of the things I like about our model is, ideally, it allows the funds to go toward the quality of instruction," said Gary Clinton, another of the founding members. "In this case, that's the plan. The funds go back into the studio. We were able to get some great instructors from Arizona State University and Ballet Arizona. We're bringing home awards for the best choreography at a national level. When you can recruit the quality instructors we can you know you've got something."
Another benefit of the non-profit model is the fathers that started it won't always need to be involved.
"While we're very focused on this right now because our daughters are of that age, at some point they will move on," Farmer said. "Gary and I will probably meet for beers, but we will never discuss dance again. But there will be a new group. With our structure, the new seats on the board will be occupied by new people with new energy and zest. They will make it what it will be in the future."
In the future they hope to expand like any business. They want more dancers, more instructors, and a larger studio. Most of all, they just want their dancers to be able to continue doing what they love.
"I think the friendships come first for parents," Spencer said. "We don't necessarily plan to have professional dancers in the future, but we want them to have a good life experience, good friendships, and good mentors. We've seen the girls grow with Antoine and Ambur from second grade up to where they are now. I'm sure there are other fine studios, but this was special to us."
For more information on the Phoenix Dance Cooperative, visit phoenixdancecooperative.com or call (480) 382-9765.
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