Dubai performing arts schools get into the business groove

The British pop stars Lisa Scott-Lee and Johnny Shentall have joined the growing number of performing arts businesses in Dubai, but others say the sector has its challenges.

Lisa and Scott Marshall run Diverse Choreography in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
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When the pop stars Lisa Scott-Lee of Steps and her husband, the former Hear'say singer Johnny Shentallinvited wannabe performers to sign up for their new performing arts academy in Dubai this month, the security guards in the car park outside struggled to control the traffic.
The British songstress can rely on her celebrity kudos to attract youngsters to the Dubai Performing Arts Academy, and Shentall can boast 25 years of experience as a dancer for superstars such as Robbie Williams and Diana Ross.
But they have launched at a time when the UAE market for performing arts businesses would appear to be saturated.
Some of the new and expanding businesses are tapping into the Glee factor, attracting young "Gleeks", as fans of the US TV show musical sensation are known.
"Popular arts has been glamourised by shows such as Glee and High School Musical - it's cool now for teenagers to perform, whether they are male or female", says Ferne Reynolds Lategan, whose company Drama Scene Dubai is about to expand into Khalifa City in Abu Dhabi. "Our business is going really well, we have waiting lists for our classes."
Hayley Doyle, a former West End dancer and published author, set up Hayley's Comet Theatre Company in Dubai's Alex and James Studios last year. For Ms Doyle, the secret to running a successful performing arts company is absolute dedication to the craft.
"I never switch off," she says. "If I stop working for a few days, the business just stops running. My holidays are a nightmare - I am always on the hunt for Wi-Fi. Hopefully, the hard work makes the shows we do extra special."
As well as performing arts in general, there has been a surge in growth within the dance market in particular. The Iranian singer Afshin Jafari, who headed the German band A-Team and counts fans in their millions, launched Melodica music and dance studio in JLT this month. And Ocean Kids Dubai, which already has a base in Karama, opened a new branch this month in Al Ghusais, offering Bollywood, hip-hop and contemporary dance classes.
There are now more than 20 dance studios operating just in Dubai. In the US, the dance studios market has grown 2.3 per cent a year since 2009, according to the business intelligence provider IbisWorld.
Krista Degaetano, who runs Contemporary Dance Dubai (CDD) from a studio at a hotel on Jumeirah Beach, says TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars are driving the demand for dance classes.
However, the entrepreneur acknowledges that running a dance studio can be a tricky business model to operate here. "The big issue in Dubai is that the rental cost of dance studios is so high. There's less and less space available for the growing dance world. As the economy develops, there are more smaller studios opening which are being used solely for their own purposes and not to rent or collaborate with other companies. The studios are often not fitted out to the professional standards of what a studio needs for professional dance. So the hardship is either not finding space at all, or finding poor quality studio spaces that are not suitable for a professional company."
Lisa and Scott Marshall have run Diverse Choreography since 2008. They have managed to ride out the storm of escalating rental costs by moving into their own studios, and signing a three-year deal binding their landlord to allow rent to rise only by a small, set amount each year.
"The price of the chiller was included in the rent, so that's been a massive thing for us", says Ms Marshall. "The landlord has been good to us, and we've been lucky. But the move was expensive. We refitted four studios, which cost us almost Dh500,000. And this month, we've just expanded again, with two extra dance studios and a drama room.
"Some of our senior level students want to make a career out of dance and are here for 30 to 40 hours a week, so it's really important for them to have spring flooring. But it's not cheap. For one studio it costs almost Dh30,000. You also need mirrors to check moves, which we ship in from Italy because they're of a better quality. We didn't take out a loan, we scrimped and saved. But it was tight."
Ms Marshall says it can be challenging to make a performing arts business profitable. "It depends who's running it," she adds. "Scott and I were both professional dancers before we came here - not business minds - but we're driven by trying to make what we offer the best it can be."
But not every company survives. The Bollywood star Meghna Naidu, who appeared in the 2004 film Hawas, established the Meghna Naidu Dance Academy in Dubai in July 2012. But the Bollywood dance company later shut down. Earlier this year, Move Ya Dance Studios in JLT also closed its doors. The managing director Wafik M'hamdi, who is now a personal trainer, says: "There was just no profit to be made in the dance business and there's so much competition in this market."
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