Welcome to Money Talks, a series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.
Linda Freyer founded the Freyer Academy of Ballet in Wilton, Connecticut, in 1988; she now co-owns the studio with her two daughters Heidi Freyer and Petra Freyer Heinzinger. The business grosses around $134,000 annually, roughly $80,000 of which goes toward teacher pay. Linda, Petra, and Heidi pay themselves when they teach ballet classes; if there is net income left over at the end of a given month, they also pay themselves a small bonus.
Heidi is currently on maternity leave, but 69-year-old Linda and 34-year-old Petra came together to discuss how the dance studio became a thriving business, how the coronavirus required them to adapt, and why they’re hoping their Paycheck Protection Program application gets approved as quickly as possible.
Linda: I had been dancing all my life, since I was 6 years old. I decided to combine my two passions — dancing and teaching children — so I got a degree in dance education at Adelphi University. Then I graduated, met my husband, boom-boom-boom had three children under 5. My two oldest children were daughters, Heidi and Petra, and then my son Christian.
I kept up my dancing, even during my pregnancies, and I did some subbing for the local ballet teachers, but I knew I had to have my own studio. I set up classes for my daughters and all of their friends — instant business, when you have kids — and the business grew and grew and grew. I hired additional teachers, I kept bringing on new students, and as I kept working with the children, I started getting interest from adults. Mostly the mothers of the children, they’d come and drop their children off and look at the beautiful art and say, “Gee, do you think you could …”
So we started teaching adults in the morning and children in the afternoon — and the adults wanted this art form, they wanted to learn classical ballet, and they became passionate. I have adults that started, who never had dance training as children, and with a lot of work and discipline I got them en pointe. In toe shoes. They never believed that could happen! I have women who are still dancing with me 25 years later. We have gone through deaths of parents, we have gone through breast cancer, we have gone through brain tumors, we have gone through divorces, we have gone through so many life-changing crises, and they find solace coming to this ballet class.
I have both of my daughters working with me now. My older daughter, Heidi, got a degree in dance and studied with the Alvin Ailey program. Petra, my younger daughter ... well, I’ll let her tell it.
Petra: My story is a little different because I was working in finance before joining the studio. I loved dancing, I continued dancing when I went to college, and then I got this job in finance. I was there for a few years, but I knew it wasn’t for me — and one of the things I had always wanted to do was be a teacher.
I remember talking to my sister one day and saying, “I need a change, I don’t know if I want to stay at this job anymore,” and she said, half-jokingly, “Do you want to work at the studio?” And I said “Yes!” I got certified in Pilates and in American Ballet Theatre teacher training, so now I teach and I handle the finance end of the business.
Linda: The coronavirus rocked our boat. We are such a community — I was teaching a class on the morning of 9/11, and it was adults, and people were drifting in saying, “Did you hear? Did you hear?” We were shell-shocked. And I remember one dancer saying, “Do you want to just cancel class?” We were speechless. And one of our students looked at the group and said, “Please teach us, Linda. I have a funny feeling this class will be the highlight of the next period of time.” So I turned off the news and I taught that class, and I will tell you — the gals who were in that class still talk about it.
But this now — Wilton closed the public schools down on March 11; we immediately closed down because we felt like it was the right thing to do. At first we were like, “Okay. This is only going to be a couple of weeks, so we’ll take a break.” Then we realize that this isn’t going to go away. This isn’t going to be a week off. What are we going to do? We have students who have paid us through June!
Then we saw that all the schools were going online, so we said, “Okay, we’re doing Zoom!” Of course, for me, I was, “What is Zoom?” But our teachers — these teachers are godsends — they figured out Zoom, one-two-three, and we created a curriculum, video classes, and worksheets, and got the kids going. Tremendous feedback from the moms: “They so look forward to it, they love seeing the teachers and their friends.”
The adults, we started a week later. What I love about the adults is that, if the class starts at 6 pm, we sign on a half-hour early and gab. “How are you doing with Instacart? Did you get any meat this week? I can’t get any chicken! What am I going to do without chicken?” And then we start class, and what is amazing is that the teachers are able to give us corrections. “Linda, you aren’t working as hard as you do in the studio. Can you get your leg up a little higher?” There we are, in our little spaces, sweating in front of a computer. It’s a riot! Then class is over and we gab for another 45 minutes!
I’ll tell you right now: We are not going to stop these Zoom classes. In fact, when we started teaching Zoom classes, we sent an email out to all of our current and former students, no matter where they lived, and all of a sudden these people we hadn’t heard from in six, seven, eight years were in all of our classes. It was unbelievable! They’re part of the gang again.
Petra: We just sent out a survey, and the response was amazing. They want more classes on Zoom, and they don’t want prerecorded classes; they want them live. So we’re adding more classes to the schedule. Not everyone has the capability, I know that it isn’t as easy for someone who’s at home with three kids to join a live ballet class on Zoom, so we’re also trying to create some prerecorded classes so that we can serve everybody. When we teach a ballet class, we think about everyone who’s going to be in the ballet class and how we can make it accessible for everybody, and now we’re doing the same thing. If someone can’t make our class, we call them and ask how they’re doing and how we can help.
We also knew that we weren’t going to cut our teachers’ pay [teachers earn $40 to $50 per hour] whether their classes ran or not. It wasn’t even a question. For our kids’ classes, families pay by semester, so we already had the money we needed to pay our teachers for those classes through June. Our adult classes are trickier because they’re drop-in, but Heidi and I decided that we would give all of our adult classes to our teachers. We wouldn’t take any classes for ourselves, and we wouldn’t take any money for ourselves.
At first the shutdown didn’t affect our finances drastically, but that’s going to change. May is usually one of our strongest months of the year, and it’s going to hurt us.
Linda: My husband’s in finance, and we knew about the Paycheck Protection Program right away. There was no doubt that we were going to keep our teachers [who are independent contractors] on staff. These teachers are invaluable to us. If we don’t give them classes, if we don’t give them money, we can’t expect to snap our fingers in September and have them come back. What if they get other jobs?
So this Paycheck Protection Program, I’m all over it. I go to my bank, I fill out the forms, it’s not too bad, you have to supply a year’s worth of everything, a year’s worth of payroll, all these forms, but I get it done and off it goes. I don’t hear anything, but there are millions of people doing this, and I’m not worried. But we’re waiting and waiting and waiting, and my husband says, “Have you heard from the PPP? You’d better go on and follow up.” So I called my bank and somebody answered. They look up the application, they get back to me, they tell me that the application didn’t go through because we don’t have a business account with this bank.
Lo and behold, I Google other companies that can help, and one of them is Fundera [an online loan broker]. I filled out their form, it was very similar, they’re all the same, sent in all of the documentation, 50 pages of payroll and everything else, and now we’re waiting to hear.
It was a bit challenging, but we’re off and we’re waiting, and I’m sure it’s going to be fine.
Petra: We’re still paying our bills, but there’s less of the extra spending. We have to be very cautious about every penny. It’s been tough, because we’re trying to stay quarantined, so we’re using Instacart, which is more expensive than going to the store. We’re paying rent on a studio that has sat empty since March 11. We’re still paying electric, though it has gone down a bit. We don’t have any extras for the business that we can cut right now, so we’ve decided to pay ourselves less. Our bills are paid, and our teachers are paid, and the three of us are just coasting along.
Linda: I talked to our landlord. We’re in a little strip mall, and every one of us is a small business. I said, “I’ve applied for the PPP, I’m confident we’re going to get it, so if you could be a little flexible, give us a little time, we’re doing our best.”
If the PPP comes through, and I’m hoping it does, we’re going to be fine — and we’ll be able to start paying ourselves again.
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