Get That Life: How I Started My Own Dance Company
Lisa Mara didn't plan to make a career in dance, but when it stopped being a part of her life, she realized how much it meant to her.
Lisa Mara never wanted to be a professional dancer. From her first dance class at age 7, everyone knew she had a gift for it. Dance instructors would encourage her parents to enroll her in private classes. But she wanted to stay with her friends. Her parents offered to send her to elite schools, but she declined. Even after she was cast as a backup dancer in a Britney Spears MTV special at age 13, she knew dance wasn't going to be her career. But once it fell out of her life in the years immediately after college, she realized she couldn't live without it. She quit her PR job in New York, moved back to Boston, and created a place where she and other women who loved dance could practice.
Mara, 29, founded DanceWorks Boston as a creative outlet for people just like her: skilled dancers who also have full-time jobs and never pursued dance as a career. A handful of friends dancing together turned into hundreds of dancers, a second DanceWorks location in New York, and a new career that marries her love of business and her passion for the art form.
Since I could walk, I was really active — I played soccer, tennis, I swam, I skied. I kind of went kicking and screaming to my first dance class. I didn't like to join things when I was younger unless a friend was doing it. But I was dancing around the house 24/7 in my older sisters' dance costumes. Excelling in athletics helped build my confidence. I was known as the girl who could run fast, or the girl who could teach you the choreography if you missed it. Dance became another sport that I did.
In seventh grade, I was hugely influenced by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and *NSYNC. I learned all the dances and sent in an audition tape to MTV's TRL. I was asked to dance on this Britney Spears show. I think in a dream world I thought I wanted to be her backup dancer, but it was also my first taste of what these glamorous Hollywood red-carpet events are like. It's like hurry up and wait. You never see the celebrities. And everyone hates it. I was like, This is kinda not fun.
I went to the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and studied PR. I knew I was organized. I knew I loved entertainment. I thought I was going to do some kind of red-carpet event planning. I found that I really enjoyed business books whenever we had the opportunity in class to read them. And I was always drawn to brands. I fell into PR because I thought that's what I would be the best at.
Syracuse has several options for trained dancers. I chose the student-run organization, DanceWorks. After a fairly competitive, strenuous audition, I joined the company my freshman year. By sophomore year, I was on the executive board, and by junior year, I was the co-director. Everything was run like a business. I choreographed dances, organized workshops for up to 300 dancers, led auditions, ordered costumes, managed budgets. I wanted a hand in everything, and I wanted to brand it "cool."
I danced about five hours a week and still did all of my studies. I still knew that I did not want to be a professional dancer. I wanted to pursue a career in something that I thought would have a better trajectory of business and job security. Being a dancer, you need to have an awareness of "Are you good enough?" And I don't think I was good enough. The dancers who pursue dance as a full-time career should be the top 10 percent. Otherwise, you're going to just get the door slammed in your face at auditions time after time.
The summer after my sophomore year, I lived in New York City and interned for NBC Universal Pictures. I was sifting boxes of T-shirts for the movies that were opening that summer. I was cold-calling radio stations to give them free tickets to our screenings. That was my first taste of real-world work. The best advice I can say to someone is, look at your boss and ask yourself, do you want to do their job? As an intern, you're always going to be doing less important work, but at the end of the day, I would watch my boss. I'd listen to her, see what she was doing, and it wasn't anything that interested me.
The next summer I was in New York again and I had two internships. I just started researching and put my nose to the ground and I emailed my résumé to the right people. One internship was at Polo Ralph Lauren doing PR for their women's apparel department. And then the other internship was with [publicity agency] PMK•BNC.
At Polo, I was realizing I didn't love fashion enough to want to be in fashion. But I learned a lot about the systems and the behind-the-scenes aspects of photo shoots and magazine covers. It was a lot of organization, and I realized I was good at things like that. The PMK internship I enjoyed a lot more. I was using many more computer skills. I was sitting in on meetings. There were brainstorming sessions. I was on the brand side of the PMK business. It clicked for me.
The following summer was graduation. I was trying to make a move back to Boston. I wanted to work for Reebok or New Balance, anything that was tied to fitness, which I thought would be a good fit with my background. But I graduated in 2008 when the crash happened. All these companies had hiring freezes.
I got a job offer at PMK, and I jumped on it. It was the only offer I got. A lot of my friends were jobless. My job title was assistant account executive. I was the bottom of the totem poll. I had to be the yes-woman to about five bosses. I did admin work, ordered cars for celebrities, did all the clippings of press mentions we had of our clients. Looking back, I realize how much the economy ties into everything. While I was at PMK, we went from having 13 assistants at my level to [about] eight of us. But the same amount of work was still required to be done.
Dance really fell off the map for me. I went to the gym when I could. But other than that, the job was my life there. As I was going into my second year at PMK, I was realizing, I can't stay at this job. I'm not depressed, but I will be if I stay at this job. I didn't want to be in New York anymore. The last time I was happy, I was dancing at Syracuse. I needed to dance again.
So I auditioned for the Washington Wizards basketball team. I was thinking of moving to D.C. at the time. I came down to the last two girls, and it was a fan vote-in. She was a local girl, and I was the girl from Boston nobody knew. So she got voted in. But if I had gotten that gig, I was going to take it. I was letting dance dictate where I ended up next.
I then auditioned for the Boston Celtics, this all while working at PMK in New York. I got into the final rounds. It was a three-day big show production. In order to do it, I had to ask for time off. But I couldn't take the time off because I didn't have any. I called my father and said, "I'm going to quit my job." He was like, "Uh, I don't think that's a good idea." I said, "Dad, I need to. I will move home and find a job in Boston. I just need to do this."
I went in the next morning and quit my job. For anybody, quitting their first job is really scary and exciting at the same time. It's this big secret that you know but your boss doesn't. I got into work really early that morning, went into my boss's office when she got in, and she knew. I probably had it all over my face. She surprised me so much in that moment. She said, "Girlfriend, I just want you to be happy." I thought she was going to be upset. Instead, she was a mentor. She saw how much I wanted to be back home with my family, and my city. I wasn't just cutting ties with that job, I was cutting ties from New York City because I didn't want to end up there.
There are many pockets of happiness we have in life, and career is one of them, because we spend so much time working on it. And to me, happiness is also where you live. Boston is it for me. I'm the youngest of four siblings. There are nieces and nephews spread around. I was always missing out on things. I knew I would have a support system in Boston.
I moved back in with my dad, and I did the Celtics final auditions. It was 10-hour days, working at the House of Blues with top NBA choreographers. What I liked most about it was meeting all of these women who love to dance. There was a show at the end of the three days. They made their announcement for the top 16 and I got cut. It was actually the best thing that ever happened to me.
The next day, I wasn't upset that I didn't get picked, but I was upset that I couldn't dance. Over the next week, I was thinking about what I would do. I remember thinking one of the best things that's happened to me is meeting all these amazing, talented women. And they all want a place to dance like me. It was the first lightbulb of creating a dance company.
I had a network of about five Syracuse alumni in Boston. I said, "Hey, I'm thinking of starting a DanceWorks Boston. Would you join if I did?" They said, "Yeah, where do I sign?"
It turned out people knew people who knew people. There were 15 of us when I looked into studio space to rent. Four of us choreographed dances, including myself, and we were going to have a show at the end of the season. Once I had the commitments, I got to work. It was February 2010. I went down to City Hall and registered as a sole proprietorship. I spoke with my cousin who is a yoga studio owner. She mentioned I needed business insurance. From there, I opened up a business account. I found a very small studio outside of Boston to rent for rehearsal. We practiced for four months and had our first show at the Dance Theater at Boston University. We sold out 250 seats. When I was leaving the show, the crowds were saying, "That was amazing! When is the next one?" All the dancers were on cloud nine.
After that first season, I spent one whole year formulating the business, the brand, and what I was actually trying to get at because I didn't want to rush ahead into another show. I wanted to create a dance company for young professionals who were just like me. The target audience I was reaching was high-caliber dancers who wanted to continue dancing and choreographing into their adult lives. Many of our dancers have full-time jobs. Many of our dancers are dance teachers, but this is their opportunity to dance for themselves.
I ended up getting a job as a special events manager for a nonprofit in Boston. I was working for the first two years while launching my business. That was very vital for me to have income while the business wasn't bringing home income to live on. I wasn't just creating a company; I wanted to create a brand. I wanted it to be a cool company to join. It's cool to join the Celtics dancers. It's not necessarily cool to join an adult dance company. You have an immediate stigma of moms dancing to Zumba when I say "adult dance company." Today when people ask me what I do for a living, I say, "I run a dance company." Then they think I teach children. And I say, "Have you seen the show, So You Think You Can Dance? That is what I do for a living."
In spring 2011, I started season two. We went from 15 dancers to 38. We moved to a really nice gym in the city for rehearsals and sold out our show again. We don't have a home. And that is because our rates for tuition are so low. To join the company, it's $305 for the season, even less for choreographers. For five months, you get 17 weeks of rehearsal and a huge show at the end. Our business model is much different than companies with brick-and-mortar shops. They struggle because they need to fill their open time, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. while everybody is working.
In fall of 2011, we were in season three of Boston, and I knew I could launch in New York City. I left my full-time job and lived on savings for about six months. At first, I ran back and forth from Boston to New York doing auditions and rehearsals for both. After two years, I hired a part-time employee to manage New York. New York grew very quickly. It was 35 dancers the first season, and we're currently at 140. And we now have the largest dance company in the city of Boston with 190 dancers.
I'm busy 24/7 running both companies. I book studio space for auditions, rehearsals, photo shoots, and the show. Choreographers run the weekly rehearsals, and I check in on rehearsals occasionally. Another major aspect of my job is financials, marketing, and social media. My office hours are not normal. It takes the right person to be working a 12-hour day on a Sunday and then check work email at night to make sure you didn't miss any important emails. You need to realize if you don't do it, no one else will. It's the best part of my job too, though, because you work on your own time. At this stage of my career, the hardest part is planning the future. Starting a business is one thing, but learning how I will adjust my business to account for family and children one day is another hurdle I have yet to tackle.
DanceWorks will continue to grow in new ways. I want both Boston and New York City running independently and at their maximum potential. I want to pursue ideas for growth within our branded culture — from community events to fundraising formals to volunteerism. Growth within new cities is something I always have in my mind, but I think it's important to take care of your two kids before having a third. Growing too fast isn't good for anybody if it means all three would suffer and I'm well aware of that. I know one thing for certain though. I will always select a job that has strong work/life balance, believes in living a healthy lifestyle, and provides flexible time off with family so you can live and work, not work to live.
By Heather Wood Rudulph | Cosmo Politan