Listening to Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy riff together makes it crystal-clear why each has mastered the art of partnering in the ballroom—they've long been doing this dance in real life as brothers and business partners.
Along with their "Dancing with the Stars" pedigree (and a combined three mirror-ball trophies between them), Maks and Val (and their father, Sasha) also run Dance With Me, a dance company hosting six ProAm Dancesport competitions annually and running 14 brick-and-mortar studio locations across the U.S.
Last year, the pair launched an online component, Dance & Co. The online video platform offers beginner through advanced instruction in not only ballroom but an array of other styles, as well as dance fitness classes from HIIT to yoga to strength training. "DWTS" fans will recognize such familiar faces as Peta Murgatroyd, Jenna Johnson, Sharna Burgess and Emma Slater, along with Maks and Val themselves.
Sharna Burgess. Photo courtesy Dance With Me
Though the site was initially developed in response to COVID-19, Maks and Val are now leaning into the long-term possibilities of virtual instruction. Dance Teacher spoke with the dynamic duo to learn about Dance & Co. and what's next for the pair.
Your online platform, Dance & Co., just launched in 2020, but Dance With Me has been around since 2005. What first prompted you to go into business together?
Maks: People always think we started it as a result of being on "Dancing with the Stars," but our business actually pre-dated our time on the show.
Val: We opened our doors in August 2005, and my brother joined "DWTS" later that fall. It wasn't about capitalizing on newfound fame or popularity, and we're proud of that.
Maks: This felt like a natural progression as dancers in the ballroom world, to go on to open studios and run competitions.
Val Chmerkovskiy and Jenna Johnson teach samba. Photo courtesy Dance With Me.
Was Dance & Co. the next logical step in that progression?
Val: In terms of our core business, Dance With Me was something we established as a place where people can congregate, escape, replenish and learn to dance at the same time. A lot of the appeal is the human interaction. We invested in our studios to create a warm environment, and had done a lot of training with our staff on hospitality. So when it all shut down due to COVID-19, we had to pivot and think about how we could create that same environment through this new medium that we were all now forced to engage in. That was really the catalyst for Dance & Co.
So how do you re-create that feeling online?
Maks: We have a video series called Maksimum Vibes, in which Val and I vibe like we would in a group class, with mash-ups of different styles, like samba and paso, or cha-cha and disco. We offer different levels and variety so we can check all the boxes, whether for a professional looking to shake off some rust or someone who's just getting started.
Val: But, for the most part, we're not trying to replicate what an in-person group class would be like. What we are doing differently is offering not just dance education but a form of entertainment, as well. We spent the last 15 years on camera on one of the biggest shows in the world, which gave us knowledge on how to communicate with millions of humans through that lens.
Maks: Grab some popcorn—we're very entertaining.
Maks Chmerkovskiy and Peta Murgatroyd teach samba. Photo courtesy Dance With Me
What is the key to teaching an art form online that relies so heavily on human connection?
Maks: Our industry does rely heavily on partnership and touch, but we can still offer something that makes you a better dancer. Our content is geared at developing balance, strength and stability, and we also focus on footwork and mastering choreography.
Val: A big part of ballroom dance is your own personal self-growth, and over the last seven months that we've been implementing these virtual programs, the growth in our students has been incredible. Dance is our common interest, but the reality is that we're just trying to help people feel better and move better. In the absence of in-person classes, a lot of stagnation can happen, so the opportunity to keep moving was a huge sanity shift for a lot of folks.
Maks: It was interesting to see that our industry can do that—to see the world change and get to the point where we can figure out how to deliver ballroom dance to your living room.
Are there certain styles that are more challenging than others?
Maks: The Viennese waltz and foxtrot can be tough because they require a lot of space, and not everyone has that space in their living room.
Emma Slater teaches a Viennese waltz. Photo courtesy Dance With Me
What are your goals as we start to emerge from the pandemic?
Val: I think people will be hungrier than ever to get out of their house and experience a real human dance lesson. But I'm also appreciative of all of the opportunities that Dance & Co. has created, and I believe it will pay dividends moving forward. We want to continue to innovate on our end and explore VR technology.
Maks: Val and I want to bring holographic imaging into your living room and teach lessons that way. We want to figure out how technology can support this new world we're in, for however long we're in it.
In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.
"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."
As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.
Put a Label on It
If you want more lucrative and prestigious teaching gigs, you need to market yourself like someone who's qualified for them. Just like in any other kind of business, marketing your services is a key component of finding (and keeping!) teaching jobs. Erin Pride, an online business coach for dance professionals, recommends drilling down on what she calls your "spark." "Make a list of what you're naturally good at, what comes easily to you as a teacher," she suggests. Get specific about the most obvious value you offer to those looking to hire you. Did you train with one of the dance world's big names? Are you certified in a particular technique or methodology? Are you prepared to offer something unusual, like explicitly body-positive instruction or a rarer discipline (folklórico, Gyrotonic, etc.)?
Pride's next recommendation would be to get serious about social media. As she notes, "Everyone thinks they know how to do social media, until what they're doing doesn't work!" What does work, according to Pride? Consistently posting—whether that's one post a week or five—on a platform you genuinely enjoy (read: Don't worry about TikTok if you have zero interest in short-form video), with a laser focus on your spark. These days, a robust and professional social-media presence is even more important than a website, says Pride.
Figuring Out Financial Freedom
You alone will be the CEO, CFO and chief marketing officer of your freelance-teaching career. As certified financial planner (and former freelance opera singer) Ben Henry-Moreland puts it, "Your job is to make sure the business that is you doesn't go bankrupt. Having a business-owner mentality will not only help you remember all the things you need to do other than teaching; it'll help you accomplish your financial goals."
To that end, Henry-Moreland advises insuring yourself against potential lawsuits and registering with a state government (typically the state in which you do business) as a limited-liability company (LLC). These simple steps, which can be accomplished online in less time than you might think, will place some legal separation—and financial benefits—between you, the individual, and you, the business.
Once you're legally a business entity, you can open a business bank account (which usually isn't any more complicated than opening a personal bank account) and apply for a business credit card. This card should be strictly for work-related expenses, from the shoes you wear while teaching to teacher-training courses. Keeping your professional expenses separated from personal expenses will make it easier to deduct them when tax season rolls around.
Speaking of taxes, Henry-Moreland says that as a freelancer, you'll need to set aside money in advance to cover what you anticipate owing. He also strongly advises enlisting the help of a CPA: "The couple hundred bucks you spend will absolutely be worth it, in terms of maximizing deductions and saving time that you can and should spend on other aspects of your business."
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis
The Mental Shift
Freelancing demands a certain degree of hustle that can feel uncomfortable to dancers, considering how many of us grew up in studio cultures where, as Kerollis says, "we didn't speak much, and we were taught to be humble and respectful and grateful."
But as a freelance dance instructor, you simply cannot afford to wait until the lucrative gigs find you. Have your elevator pitch updated at all times, reconnect with teachers and directors from your past who are in your network, and reach out to potential gigs that you've researched thoroughly and think would be a good fit.
Possibly even more challenging is setting prices for classes, private lessons, coaching sessions and so on. It's true that you don't necessarily need to draw up formal contracts: Kerollis says that as long as all details are hammered out in writing (such as via email), you're in the clear should a dispute arise. But figuring out your value as a service provider and asking for it can get awkward, to say the least.
Kerollis warns that if you're used to a dance-company paycheck, there could be some initial sticker shock. But you shouldn't accept a fee that feels degrading: First, figure out a base hourly rate that you'd be comfortable with. Then factor in commute length and cost, preparation time required, that geographic area's general cost of living, and anticipated difficulty of the gig (level of student engagement, number of dancers, etc.). When asked, state a rate that's somewhat higher than your final calculated minimum. "If they accept it without negotiation, congratulations—that's your new rate!" says Kerollis.
Of course, financial constraints and imposter syndrome can make all these steps seem daunting or superfluous. But as Pride says, "A lot of times, we artists don't get education on the importance of a retirement fund or building generational wealth. If you want to stop living paycheck to paycheck, you need to embrace the mindset that your teaching is a business."
American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).
Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.
"I teach dance to kids who are 10 and under who only dance once per week," Oleson says. "It's so different from my highly intense competition upbringing in America. I'm not working with people who live, breathe and die for dance. I have to try different tactics."
Oleson shared the tools she's been using to keep casual dance students engaged, her recommended reading for dance educators and more.
On utilizing the Zoom camera:
"I like to play with virtual backgrounds, as well as going in and out of the camera frame. I've had the dancers come close to the screen, or hide from view. I also use games that play off the sides of the room and other silly illusions that the camera can make. The kids really like how it shakes things up from their regular, virtual school classes."
Her favorite teaching attire:
"I'm a walking poster for lululemon—I worked there on and off for five years. It looks professional, the fabrics are flexible for teaching/demonstrating, and are so comfortable. I love the Align leggings and dance-studio pants. I'm normally rocking one or the other when I teach. I also love to wear Allbirds sneakers. The wool-fabric sneaker is flexible for showing footwork, and spacious so they don't hurt my bunions or feel too tight on my foot. Allbirds also have great arch support and make all my other joints feel better after long hours."
How support for the arts differs in the UK:
"I've spoken with dance friends in the States as well as dance friends in Europe, and it seems like everyone in London is getting by, while those in the States are really struggling. Even with my visa, I have been fortunate enough to apply for scholarships and grants that aren't dance-related in order to maintain a base income. Those opportunities are just much less available back home."
"I tend to have a really anxious personality, so I've found Ashtanga yoga to be really helpful. I also love how it parallels barre in that you do the same poses each practice so it feels like something to go back to. Beyond that, I enjoy bouldering, cooking and anything that gets me outside."
Her go-to warm-up for teaching:
"I warm up mentally more than physically when teaching. I prefer to make sure I can step away from anything bothering me to be focused and available for my students. I try to take about 5 minutes alone, and that lets me focus my intentions for the classes. For more physical classes, I'll warm up with some dynamic movements that incorporate light stretching and get my heart moving."
"Peer-reviewed journals like Research in Dance Education, Dance Research Journal and Journal of Dance Education. These offer research-based information that can help build syllabi and offer new ideas for training."
On taking care of her dancers during this time:
"Zoom can feel so isolating for the kids right now. They're dealing with this pandemic too, and it's so scary for them. So I'm open to hearing how hard they want to work that day, and fitting class to their needs. I also allow small chat breaks with water so they can feel connected to the other students."