Lessons From Building a Dance Studio
It’s been about 6 months since I wrote a post. Some of that has come from being legitimately busy building a new dance studio for the Raleigh/Durham swing scene, and then a lot of it lately has been being nearly burned out from said studio construction. So I felt it might be a good return to writing to say a few things about what I learned in the process of taking over a raw space and upgrading it to a fully realized dance space these last few months. I’d have to say I learned a great deal from this process and there’s more than a few things I wish I had known (about the process and about myself) going into it. So for anyone who may find this useful, here’s what I learned from building a dance studio:
It’s hard to please everyone on details, but a comprehensive vision will pay off
With any given project, at a certain point I had to stop asking for input. Starting off with the ideal of making the studio a place to foster community, I had a desire to try and please everyone. The problem came about when asking more than a few people for their opinions or ideas inevitably seemed to create an ever-widening field of possibilities and preferences. I spent a lot of time in the first few months of design work worried about getting it “right”, which doesn’t work if you want to follow everyone’s first choice or suggestion. Wall colors were a prime example of this, everyone had a different baseline suggestion, from orange to purple. Ultimately I found it helped a great deal to focus the overall vision, things like “vintage feel, classy, energizing” to help make those decisions. And while even I cringed at some of the detail decisions (the orange walls scared me on the first coat) making decisions with that vision in mind helped pull something together that so far most everyone seems to be happy with even if particular details may not have been their cup of tea (or mine).
Over-buy tools and materials, return the excess after
Many times I got halfway into a project and realized I hadn’t bought enough of something. Whether it was a lack paint, or lumber, or tools for pulling staples. the resulting extra trips to the store were both a huge pain in the ass and cost me a lot in terms of time and motivation. Having to take an extra hour in the middle of at least half the projects to make a second (or third or fourth) run to the hardware store started to feel brutal. By the end, I was just buying probably double what I expected to use and returning the extra and it was so much nicer to be able to roll through a project and return the extra materials at my convenience. If you aren’t absolutely sure you’ve got enough, I’d recommend just go ahead and buy a bit more.
Everyone will offer to help paint
Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the offers of help, but almost everyone’s first offer was to help paint. This isn’t a critique so much as an observation. I think most folks’ first instinct was to offer to help do something they know how to do and are comfortable with. Asking people to step outside their comfort zone and help me lay tile or reset insulation or other skilled tasks tended to require me to spend a bit more time supervising and directing. While it did take more time, I found myself enjoying teaching in some cases or making a team effort to figure out how to complete a project in others. If you’re going to have help from a team of folks, it seems it’s good to figure out what tasks you need done and ask people specifically to help with them. I got a lot more out of picking particular tasks to get done and throwing a workday or asking specific people to help me than I did from just generally asking for help.
Make work days into events
Probably the most successful workday we had was a “Office Space” staple removing party. I had purchased some old church pews from a local church with the plan of using them for bench seating in the new studio. Unfortunately, they were upholstered and I wildly underestimated how much effort it would take to fully de-upholster 10 church pews. That said, getting a bunch of staple removers and offering to show “Office Space” on a big projector screen while we worked produced probably the best attended workday of the whole construction period. Anything you can do to make it interesting and engaging for people to help is a big bonus.
I dig on intensity, but…
In the course of doing this, I not only was spending the vast majority of my free time on the studio but also experience my busiest two months ever as a Rolfer®. This meant I was typically spending 10-16 hours a day for those two months working on the studio or on clients. Looking back, and still recovering on sleep and energy now, I would say I pretty much trashed myself in the process of doing this and while I was aware I was tired, my awareness barely scratched the surface of just how badly I was in sleep (and other necessities) debt. But something about it at the same time felt so right. The intensity of it was like a high and between that and a sort of mania to finish the studio so I could rest, I basically took this triumphant 8-year dream and made it such a draining thing that when it was over, I fell apart instead of being able to enjoy it.
I don’t want to be Luke Skywalker
It wasn’t until about 2 months after finishing the major construction that I ran across this TED talk on popular kid’s media and how it affects our view of gender roles. I’ve watched this several times now and the subsequent viewings have really driven it home where I feel like I went wrong in this process.
I set out with every intention of being Dorothy. I was even resistant to thinking of the studio as “mine” because I wanted the community to feel invested in it, I wanted people to have input, etc. I can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I lost that sense and started treating it like My Quest rather than an adventure with friends.
After several months of this, I came out the other end of the projects and realized I had alienated myself not just from the scene in general (had barely danced for 2 months) but also from the people who had been willing to work closest with me. I had gone into the studio idea hoping to seriously foster community and feel closer to the people and the dance I love. Instead I created a situation where I felt I had pushed myself further away both from the experience I wanted and the people I most cared about.
Were I to do this over again, this is one of the big pieces I would change about how I worked at it. I wanted this to be a project suffused with love, and it may have been for a few people, but for myself, I lost that sense. I don’t know how much to blame ego or exhaustion or trouble with expressing gratitude or whatever else. But when the wheels came off and I felt buried in the work, I wish I had been more cognizant to know I have people there who wanted to support me and that it would have been ok to just back the fuck off and complete the studio at a more reasonable pace and do it together rather than smashing myself and feeling alone.
Even when it’s over, it’s not over
So it’s about 4 months later now and I’m finally getting to where I feel mostly recovered from the ordeal that I made out of the studio. Even these past few weeks I have still had a few days where I’ve ended up sleeping 16-18 hours in 24 and it amazes me to see how much strain my body took on. But for all the rough patches I created for myself, I’m starting to feel really good about it again.
It’s taking a good deal of work and introspection but some of the friendships are getting patched up. After feeling like I pushed myself into isolation, I’m re-examining some of the things that lead me to that and finding new ways (to me at least) to connect with people. Not all of the friendships are as patched up as I would like them to be, but some have even gotten deeper as I’ve made amends.
The studio continues to be a project, and probably will be even after the last project is done. It’s a constantly evolving process and that’s one of the things I loved about the idea starting out. On the plus side, I’m being a lot more mindful of managing my time and expectations, handling goals in reasonable amounts of time and letting them slide when they don’t make sense for whatever reason (like being scheduled on a day when I ended up sleeping 16 hours). It’s made the projects a lot more enjoyable to complete and the ones that I’m still getting help from friends on are a lot more enjoyable and a lot more connected when I leave room for joking and chatting along with the work.
There are a lot of things I could have done better in working on the studio, but even having mucked up a portion of it, the space is beginning to thrive and the energy of the dances continues to improve. And even as beat up as I’ve been this year, I’m starting to find more reasons to smile about the whole thing and more plans to keep making myself and studio awesomer. For now, I’d like to end 2013 with a quote that someone recently put on the wall at my office, “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”