Not far from the historic district of Folsom, inside a quiet strip mall, a ballroom dance studio has set the stage for a timid 13-year-old to find her groove, retirees to reinvigorate their marriages, and a widower and a divorcee to find love. It’s also helped owner Kate Gonzalez prove to her parents that the arts can become a lucrative career.
Greeting newcomers with a broad smile, Gonzalez walks around the hardwood dance floor in feather earrings and cowboy boots. Tonight is the Western-themed party for her students to practice their moves. But she wasn’t always so at ease in her business, as she worried it wouldn’t pan out.
Growing up, Gonzalez never imagined she would be a business owner. “I was born in the Philippines and came here at 11 as an immigrant,” she says. “Why did I think I was going to own a business in the USA? It’s the American Dream, if you think about it. I’m pretty grateful for that.”
Gonzalez launched her Folsom franchise of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in 2015 without the blessing of her family, who had wanted her to become a doctor. But, with a strong mentor, Gonzalez says she doubled her revenue from $200,000 in 2015 to $440,000 in 2016, then earned 35 percent growth to end 2017 with $590,000.
Following Her Artistic Drive
Attending Isabelle Jackson Elementary School in Sacramento in the mid ‘90s, Gonzalez says classmates made fun of her accent: “Sixth grade was not a happy time in my life.” She was getting C’s and D’s, but as soon as she took ESL classes, her grades improved. Meanwhile, she found a more direct outlet for expression through visual arts classes.
Gonzalez was a shy child, so she would often paint and draw after school. Then, at Sheldon High School in Elk Grove, her interests shifted to singing and drama, and she grew more self-assured. She even became senior class president. “As long as I was sticking to the arts and performing arts, I felt good in my studies,” she says. “That gave me confidence and a sense of who I was in this new world. I always went back to that.”
Dance didn’t enter the picture until later, once she discovered what she needed to achieve her ambitions of performing on Broadway in New York City: to become an acting, singing and dancing triple threat.
Despite her artistic drive, her parents had already predetermined her major at Sacramento State, she says, “but I hated chemistry and science. I knew my passion was in the arts.” So Gonzalez switched majors to theater with a minor in dance.
When she took her first ballroom dancing class at another outpost of Arthur Murray in her early college years, she wasn’t that smitten by it. Gonzalez thought it was simply a hoop she needed to jump through on her way to Broadway. So, when the dance instructor encouraged her to sign up for teacher training, she declined. It took three asks to get her to go for it.
When Gonzalez started teaching dance classes in 2004, she began to realize why it might make for a better career than a hardscrabble run on Broadway. “I really enjoy, of course, the performance aspect, the leadership aspect — and I could impact more people hands-on than being on stage,” she says.
Ballroom dancing competitions fueled her competitive drive, and she was hooked. Still, her parents were upset by her career choice. “My parents went to no competitions even though I placed,” she says. “They did that because they loved me and they wanted me to be OK. … And they were like, ‘You’d be a really good nurse, are you sure?’”
After a decade of teaching dance, Gonzalez was ready for the next step. In fact, she had been ready to launch her own studio since her first year of teaching. Back then, she had asked her boss if she’d be ready to go off on her own in two years. “And he said, ‘Not quite!’ and had a smirk on his face,” she says. “I had a lot of growing up to do. I already knew if I’m going to do something, I want to be the best at it.”
‘We’re a People Business’
To prepare for her future as a business owner, Gonzalez enrolled in classes at the Small Business Development Center in Folsom. She found a mentor in consultant Panda Morgan, who continues to advise Gonzalez on her business plan today.
Scott Leslie, director of the Capital Region SBDC, says he was impressed by Gonzalez’s poise and preparedness. “It’s typical for small business owners to be talented in their craft and not know how to run a business, especially from the financial standpoint,” Leslie says. “She was a great student and really listened and put into practice everything Panda was teaching her.”
If it weren’t for the SBDC, Gonzalez says she wouldn’t have had a business plan or projected her earnings. Under Morgan, she learned sales, marketing and accounting — though that last one is still the bane of her workweek. Gonzalez took her networking advice to heart and says she’s swallowed back her introverted tendencies at mixers. She’s volunteered at or sponsored dozens of events in her community, including Folsom Filipino Summer Festival, Future Folsom and El Dorado Hills Arts & Wine Festival.
Over three years, Gonzalez’s team has grown to seven full-time and four part-time employees, including her husband, professional dancer Roberto Gonzalez. Together, they lead roughly 100 private lessons a week. She gives her teachers regular business trainings. As a result, Gonzalez has noticed that her team is more strategic in the dance classes they propose. They’ve shifted their focus from what the teachers want to teach — to what the students want to learn.
“We’re a dance business, but we’re a people business,” Gonzalez says. “My focus is still on the staff. They need to feel growth all the time, that culture of never stop learning and setting a higher standard instead of being stagnant. If I can reflect back to them the best version of themselves, they reflect that back to the students and that’s good for everyone.”
The studio has a warm sense of camaraderie as a result. Brandi Lohr, an instructor at Arthur Murray, says Gonzalez is supportive of her staff in a way that’s rare for franchisees, who are usually snowed under by their to-do lists.
“She’s always there when you need something,” Lohr says. “She pays attention to what we need individually: If we need something more structured, she gives us something more structured. If we’re free-flowing, she doesn’t micromanage.”
The students have responded to that culture of support, and as a result, many of them have learned to open up through the art of dance. One 13-year-old visibly grew in confidence, so much so that another dance student made an anonymous donation for her to be able to afford practice every week, Gonzalez says. It’s one of her highlights of the job, watching students blossom beyond just the dance floor. She’s also seen romances strengthened and formed.
Her favorite? Of course, the widower who had hermited for three years, then returned to his passion for dance. At Arthur Murray, he met and fell in love with a fellow student who was freshly divorced. She had turned to dance “so that she could have something to do where she’s not crying,” Gonzalez remembers. Then, he proposed on the same dance floor where they met. “That’s one of the best romantic stories,” she says. “Who proposes in a dance studio?”
Of course, ballroom dance has also changed Gonzalez’s life and transformed her into an entrepreneur. Her parents have begun appearing at her studio’s anniversary parties. “Once they knew I was going to be a good businessperson, they were like, ‘OK.’”
For her part, Gonzalez always knew she was planning practically and for the long-term. “I have family members who want to retire early, and I never want to stop doing what I do,” she says. “For me, to have found that is magical.”