By Lois Burch O’Brian
At Off Broadway Dance Company, owners Pat Balderas and Geri Messer, both 66, are having as much fun as their students. That’s not unheard of. But what’s unusual at this Toledo-based studio, now in its third year, is the fact that these two women, neither of whom had thought about owning a dance school, came out of retirement to do just that.
Balderas, who retired from her job as a court administrator in May 2010, had planned to spend her retirement years traveling, spending time with her granddaughter, and helping her husband, Joe Balderas, at the nonprofit cultural center he directs. Messer, a nurse, found retirement unfulfilling, too lacking in activities and organizational challenges. She was the catalyst Balderas needed to make the transition into a second career.
Not everyone would be comfortable using retirement funds to start a new business, but Messer and Balderas had reason to think they would recoup their investment in a reasonable time.
To launch the school, the two women tapped into their retirement funds. That might sound crazy, but after two and a half years, they are making a profit and have already expanded by renting extra space.
How it began
Balderas started studying tap 20 years ago, at the studio she now co-owns. Ten years ago she started teaching beginner classes and working closely with the owner on the business end. She had observed that the owner could have been more proactive about growing the business and securing its finances. She thought about buying the studio in order to implement those changes, but she wasn’t ready.
Messer arrived in Toledo in 2004, a New Jersey transplant, and signed up for tap classes three years later; Balderas was her teacher. Forty-one years had elapsed since Messer had last danced (semi-professionally, in her teens). Being relatively new to the area, she had a fresh outlook that wasn’t enmeshed in how things had been done previously.
Quickly, the teacher/student relationship became a friendship. One Saturday night, after hearing a rumor that the school’s owner might be interested in selling (she had recently taken on a full-time job), Messer said to Balderas, “Want to buy a studio?” in the same spirit in which Mickey Rooney proposed putting on a show in Babes in Arms. And the answer was yes.
In February 2011, Balderas and Messer offered to buy the school; they signed the contract on October 1. Balderas’ husband said she should have done this a long time ago. He knew how she loved the studio and thought she was putting too much time and energy into someone else’s business.
Messer’s husband, Alan Messer, was equally supportive. He knew that since their move to Toledo, his wife needed more to do. She had worked in her husband’s software business doing bookkeeping, sales, staff management, advertising, and marketing for nine years. As a nurse, she had managed a holistic center for integrative medicine, and later managed the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at what was then Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. So when Alan Messer heard the studio might be for sale, he said, “Go for it!”
The two women did, setting out immediately to make good on their goal for their students: tap dancing through middle age and beyond, including performing, regardless of previous experience. Ranging in age from early 20s to mid-80s, most of the students are in their 50s and 60s.
The months before the contract was signed were spent planning. Messer’s husband, a SCORE volunteer, suggested that she and Balderas contact the organization, which provides resources that include volunteer mentors who help people start small businesses.
Pat Balderas and Geri Messer (front line, first and second from left) came out of retirement to purchase a Toledo, Ohio, dance studio they renamed Off Broadway Dance Company.
SCORE is a nonprofit with 348 chapters throughout the United States, which also provides services through email, live workshops, online workshops/webinars, and online templates and tools. The Toledo chapter assigned a retired accountant to work with Balderas and Messer. With input from the current owner, they looked at the state of the business; as Balderas expected, there were problems. After assisting with the evaluation, the SCORE mentor advised them what to pay for the business.
The two owners-to-be then hired a lawyer, who suggested they change the studio’s name and logo. To create a website, they hired a young designer whom they met through their membership in the chamber of commerce. Not everyone would be comfortable using retirement funds to start a new business, but Messer and Balderas had reason to think they would recoup their investment in a reasonable time. First, they had committed clients who considered the studio a large part of their lives and identity. Second, they knew how much income the school generated. And third, they felt confident they could provide the kind of experience the students wanted. In addition, “the rent for the space was reasonable,” Messer says. “We were very realistic about who the market is and how to reach them, and we are fiscally conservative.”
Once Off Broadway Dance Company opened, a SCORE volunteer and former businessman told the new owners they were doing everything right in terms of advertising. They supplemented the simplest marketing device—a sign in the front yard—with budget-conscious yet focused marketing tools. With the help of their students, Messer and Balderas put flyers anywhere they were allowed, focusing on senior centers, churches, coffee shops, and libraries. Because of their work with a national veterans’ organization, Honor Flight, they were allowed to post flyers in businesses like Starbucks that normally give permission only to nonprofits. They placed ads in neighborhood papers, and students asked local businesses to buy advertising space in the program for the school’s annual showcase.
Messer and Balderas’ marketing goals matched their growth goal: to grow the studio by 10 percent each year. It sounded realistic to them. “If we had 40 students, we could get four new ones without overreaching,” says Messer.
As the former owner had done, Balderas and Messer targeted the niche market of adult tappers, specifically women. They had good reasons to: they knew and enjoyed the clientele and felt confident in their ability to manage an adult-centered studio. (A population of young students would have been unfamiliar to them.) They focused on empty nesters, women in their 40s and 50s and beyond, marketing tap as a fun way to exercise the mind as well as the body (an alternative to working out at a gym), while offering the chance to perform. They also brought back a very popular teacher, Brenda Michalak, who teaches Broadway Tappers, a class designed, as the website describes it, “for the more mature dancer.”
Balderas and Messer say the studio’s students, most of whom are retired, are committed; they love to perform and are proud of being dancers. The sense of accomplishment and camaraderie they feel as a result of performing—strengthened by socializing after performances—serves as a draw for potential new clients.
Balderas now teaches the basic and intermediate classes, while three other teachers (ages 60, 65, and 70) handle the intermediate/advanced to advanced classes. Three assistant teachers (ages 65, 66, and the “baby” of the bunch, a 30-something) work on a barter system, receiving classes in exchange for their work. Messer, who kept the books for her husband’s business, does the bookkeeping herself.
The studio has open enrollment, so no student is ever turned away. Class placement is determined in a mandatory beginning tap class taught by Balderas. Students are given a list of basic steps that must be mastered before they can move to a more advanced class. Some students remain in this class for a full year; others, who have dance experience, for one lesson.
Starting at the advanced beginner level, students learn simple routines that give them the confidence that they can do a dance, and, hence, perform. The chance to perform is the carrot that brings the students back. All students may perform at the annual showcase in October, and nearly all of them do.
Beyond the classroom
The school’s large community outreach program, the Traveling Taps, has turned into a successful marketing tool. The dancers perform regularly at 15 nursing homes each year, doing springtime shows in May and June and holiday programs in November and December that include simple steps and sentimental music. The shows are put together by assistant teacher Sue Morgenroth and student Karen Knoblauch, and 8 to 10 dancers participate.
SoLong2Studio dancers also welcome veterans home from Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio trips to Washington, DC, where—sponsored by the national organization, Honor Flight Network—veterans visit monuments built to honor their service. The dances for Honor Flights are performed by dancers wearing sparkling vests, to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and a medley of military anthems. Any dancer who has mastered the steps may participate; those who are not yet ready to perform (usually a handful) come along to greet the veterans.
This project, which began two years before Balderas and Messer bought the studio, was Knoblauch’s brainchild. She read a newspaper article about Honor Flight and realized that these veterans—part of her father’s generation—deserved recognition.
The studio raises funds for Honor Flight at the annual showcase, which draws 500 to 700 spectators. The dancers perform to the medley of military anthems while flags from all branches of the military are marched in. Veterans who were on the Honor Flights are given free admission, and their relatives pay half price, $5 per ticket. Fifty percent of funds raised at a 50/50 raffle and 10 percent of the admissions fees are donated to Honor Flight; during the show, a check is presented to an Honor Flight representative.
The school also performs at organizations such as the Red Hat Society and Ladies’ Oriental Shrine by request, presenting what Messer calls “showcase pieces.” There is no charge for the performances, but Balderas and Messer suggest an honorarium to be used toward the studio’s needs, such as the new floor they recently put in, the sound system, or the Traveling Taps. No one receives a salary for these performances.
Upcoming events include a mother/daughter church banquet, a performance for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team, and, pending approval of the studio’s application, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
For the love of dance
Each August the studio’s students and teachers attend Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s tap festival, Rhythm World, which offers classes suitable for adult novice tappers. In addition, Balderas and Messer bring in master teachers each year, such as dancers in the touring companies of Jersey Boys and Mary Poppins and CHRP’s Lane Alexander.
Unlike studios that include children, Alexander says, at Off Broadway “everyone who is there wants to be there. That changes the energy of the whole enterprise. Pat and Geri exemplify that ethos: we want to dance because we love to dance.”
In December 2012, 18 Off Broadway dancers traveled to Washington, DC, to attend “JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance,” a program honoring tap dance as an American art form. The trip included a tour of the city, including the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War memorials—important to them because of the school’s involvement with Honor Flight. A bonus was seeing the White House decorated for Christmas.
What do these formerly retired school owners think about their new careers? Balderas says, “Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop learning or improving.”
What they’re doing, Messer says, is “a labor of love and resilience.”