A Ballet School Tries to Keep Dance Lessons Affordable

As a college student at Kilgore College in the eighties, Eric Ragan was roped into taking a dance class on a whim by a friend. The pair enrolled in a modern dance class. “It was crazy hard, and my friend lasted a week and quit,” remembers Ragan, laughing. “I got hooked on it and kept dancing from then on.”

Ragan adored the discipline, understandable repetition, and consistency of dance, ballet in particular. He loved it so much that he went on to become a professional dancer, performing with the Tulsa Ballet in Oklahoma, Ballet Austin in Texas, the American Ballet Theatre, and many more. And he’s now the owner of the Long Island City School of Ballet.

As Ragan worked his way through the ballet world, he discovered things he didn’t like: the high costs of classes and costumes, and the predominantly white ballet world’s lack of inclusivity. “I didn’t really understand how the ballet school system worked, and I didn’t like it whenever I did figure out what it was like” said Ragan.

Ever since, Ragan, 55, has dedicated his life to teaching dance in Long Island City—and to finding ways to make ballet as accessible, inclusive, and affordable to students as it was for him when he stumbled on it so many years ago. 

“I knew that they weren’t getting any arts in the schools,” said Ragan of the kids from Queens. “It’s not a ballet neighborhood.” But he feels it’s paramount to have a cost accessible studio in the borough—and he’s committed to providing it to the area’s children.

As a result, LICSB is now one of the most diverse dance studios in Queens. LICSB’s dance students hail from Astoria, Jackson Heights, Middle Village, Greenpoint, and of course, Long Island City. A large population of the students are of Asian and Hispanic descent, according to LICSB’s studio manager, Amy Spagnuolo, though most are white.  While there are no Black students at the moment, she noted, there have been many during her 12-year tenure at the school.

“It’s always been diverse, because Queens is just diverse,” said Ragan.

The school’s origins are as serendipitous as the start of Ragan’s love affair with dance. In the early 2000s, Ragan and his wife had rented the apartment below theirs to teach pilates, not dance. A friend of Ragan’s asked the then-retired dancer to teach her young son ballet. Lessons went well, so Ragan decided to start teaching a ballet class at Little Ones, a Long Island City pre-school and day-care center. The classes at Little Ones were so popular that in 2006, Ragan started LICSB.

A year later, Ragan officially moved his classes to LICSB’s current location on 23rd Street. He remembers the building as one that looked like it housed a manufacturing business — not a dance studio. But it didn’t matter to the landlords. “As long as you paid the rent, they didn’t care what you did,” he reminisced.

LICSB's windows facing 23rd Street. Photo courtesy of Amy Spagnuolo.

LICSB’s windows facing 23rd Street. Photo courtesy of Amy Spagnuolo.

At the time, the area was sparsely populated and consisted mostly of warehouses, but it has since rapidly gentrified, driving rents higher after Long Island City was identified by the NYC Department of City Planning as a “growth area with significant potential for office, retail and residential development” in 2001. 

“It was like an explosion of real estate,” remembers Ragan, who lived in the neighborhood until 2018, when he moved to Oregon because living costs for him had gotten too high. He now runs LICSB remotely, with help from Spagnuolo, who controls day-to-day operations.

With his rent doubling, and even tripling at one point, Ragan’s other business costs also increased. But he refused to go along with the trend and raise his prices. Instead, he aimed to ensure that kids from Queens could enjoy classes without putting their parents in a financial bind trying to pay for tuition and fees. So, he kept tuition prices low.

Not that such an erstwhile attempt to keep tuition affordable has been easy. Ragan and studio manager Amy Spagnuolo have had to take multiple approaches to keep tuition and costs as accessible to Queens residents as possible. Annual increases—at $25 a year— have been modest, for example. And costumes are also recycled so families don’t have to spend extra money on them each year.

“Amy [Spagnuolo] and I are kind of conservative,” when it comes to raising tuition each year, said Ragan. “So it can be accessible.”

Ragan’s tuition is in the sweet spot between his Manhattan and Queens competitors. During the pandemic, LICSB charges $1,620 for a 12-week session that offers twice-weekly, in-studio intermediate levels of ballet classes. Virtual classes are included in tuition, and students can take as many as 11 virtual classes during the week if they so choose.

LICSB’s tuition is higher than that of intermediate programs at both Long Island City’s Queens School of Ballet and Dance Matters NYC in Sunnyside, Queens. The former offers 9-week sessions that include two in-person classes and only one virtual class for $504, the latter, provides two classes per week on a monthly billing schedule for $190.

But, Ragan argues that LICSB’s classes are more comparable in value to the training dancers would receive at Ballet Academy East in Manhattan, which charges $2,560 for twice weekly, in-person classes. In other words, his students get better trained and spend less over all than their Manhattan counterparts for about $900 less in tuition.

The pandemic has brought other challenges. LICSB’s class sessions were 20 weeks long before COVID. Now class sessions are only 12 weeks long, so Spagnuolo and Ragan can re-assess more frequently and craft upcoming sessions in accordance with rapidly changing CDC and New York State health guidelines.  

In addition, LICSB dance students take a mix of online and in-person classes to accommodate current pandemic guidelines. In person class sizes have downsized from 18 to 6, and each class is a pre-determined bubble of (masked) students — siblings are put together in classes if their dance abilities correspond. In addition to sanitizing their hands and the shared ballet barres after use in class, students learn from (masked) instructors who are confined to a separate area that is behind plexiglass.

Ballet instructor Elena Madrigal teaches while separated from students by plexiglass.

Ballet instructor Elena Madrigal teaches while separated from students by plexiglass.

“We designed it so kids and families could join when it is convenient since there was no way to predict their home situation,” explained Spagnuolo.

Ragan can swing such low tuition costs, he says, because he lives frugally, and has gone through periods in which he doesn’t pay himself in order to keep the studio up and running during years of low enrollment, or when rents rise. Spagnuolo agrees, explaining that owners of creative spaces need to be flexible too. 

Close relationships with students help keep the studio afloat financially as well. Ragan has never had to pay for advertising for the school, for example, because the studio picks up new students via word of mouth, especially after other studios in the borough have closed. Currently, LICSB has 55 students.

Costume costs for LICSB students are also lower than at other schools because Spagnuolo makes the costumes herself and passes the savings on to parents. Common practice at most dance studios is for each dance class to perform at a recital, or a dance showcase at the end of a session. Students, by and large, buy costumes for each dance that they participate in. Dancers then keep their costumes. 

According to DanceParent101, costume costs can range between $55 and $125 per costume, and students can participate in anywhere from one to 13 dances per recital, each of which has its own costume. The total cost can climb as high as $1,625.

At LICSB, however, students pay a flat rate of $100 per show, which covers all the costumes they’ll wear during the show, a full ballet rather than a recital.  The fee helps Ragan and Spagnuolo pay folks to work backstage and handle the technical aspects of the shows. Unlike at other studios where students get to keep their costumes, dancers at LICSB return their costumes after the ballet has been performed so costumes can be reused.

“We wanted everybody to participate,” said Ragan of the motivation behind the flat-rate. “We didn’t want to count anybody out because they couldn’t afford the costume fee.”

Students at LICSB dance at the barre.

Students at LICSB dance at the barre.

Not being able to keep one’s costume is just one part of the trade off to keep ballet classes affordable.

Ragan and Spagnuolo’s efforts are designed to relieve the burden of families in the area who are financially strapped. And if you look at the numbers, many of them are. The NYC Department of City Planning states that almost half of residents who live in the district where Long Island City is located spend “35% or more of their income on rent,” or are considered rent burdened. Similar figures stand for Queens Community District 1, which houses other parts of Long Island City and Astoria, a large feeder area for LICSB.

In addition to the money saving practices and policies that are baked into the functioning of LICSB already, Ragan and Spagnuolo are working to turn the dance studio into a non-profit so that the studio can run, in part, on their fundraising efforts. Unfortunately, the pandemic has been an overwhelming hindrance to their efforts to reorganize into a non-profit. (Long Island City Ballet, a ballet company connected to the school and run by Ragan, is currently a non-profit.)

In the meantime, however, Spagnuolo and Ragan have been able to use unsolicited donations they have received during the pandemic to provide tuition aid for students who were considering quitting their classes at LICSB due to financial constraints. 

“I am just so delighted about that,” said Spagnuolo, who shared that her heart breaks every time a student has to stop taking classes for financial reasons. The duo is also working on building a more permanent fund to be able to help more students with tuition costs in the future. 

“These donations came in and we figured the best thing to do with them right now,” said Spagnuolo, “is use them to keep at least—at this point — one dancer dancing.”

For Spagnuolo, the idea couldn’t be more meaningful. She says she has developed strong bonds with her students and she knows firsthand how much dance classes can change her students’ lives.

It appears many students feel the same way about the school and her. In an interview with NY City Lens, Serene Shum, a 13-year old ballet student at LICSB, described how Spagnuolo took her to her first pointe shoe fitting in March 2020 — a monumental milestone in the life of any dancer — because her parents were unavailable due to work. 

“Amy started crying for me,” said Shum. “Because she’s known me for so long.”