Interview | Glenda Yee

The Ready Set Dance team: Natalie Ettingshausens, Belinda Agostina, Jade Barnes, Glenda Yee and Priscilla Severino celebrating their win at the 2020 AusMumprenuer Awards.

Dance Doyenne Continues to Make a Big Entrance

Interview with Glenda Yee

Interview by Chris Duncan

A respected and revered member of Australian dance education, Glenda Yee ran her hugely successful dance studio, GY Dance, in South Western Sydney for over 30 years before passing it on to a former student and retiring her teacher’s shoes in 2016. Despite being happily employed as a primary school teacher and never purposely intending to open a dance school, GY Dance become one the country’s leading performing arts training facilities and produced a plethora of professional artists.

Now, Glenda is still involved in the dance world and is experiencing her second successful career as one of the five co-creators and co-directors of the Ready Set Dance pre-school dance program that has transformed dance studios across Australia. The program was then re-invented as a TV program by Nickelodeon and has brought fun, structured dance lessons to boys and girls at home via the show airing on Nick Jr and Channel 10. They filmed and launched their second TV season and had live performances lined up before Covid19 halted their rolling projects. A trip to the USA to promote the program was also put on hold. Recently, Ready Set Dance won four awards at the 2020 AusMumpreneur business awards including AusMumpreneur of the Year Award! [Read about their nominations here.]

Despite having ups and downs this year due to Covid, Glenda considers herself fortunate to still be working with Ready Set Dance and genuinely sympathises with people struggling this year, both financially and emotionally. She also understands that people’s mental health is a priority right now. As a former studio owner, she especially feels for all the dance teachers and owners who have seen their business severely impacted by the restrictions imposed because of the virus, which may never fully recover.

Times like this year call for insight from wiser heads who have weathered many storms over the years managing dance studios in good times and bad, of which Glenda knows a thing or two. So, DanceLife decided to get Glenda’s advice and inspiration for all dance teachers to take on board at this difficult time, and share her wisdom and knowledge with our readers. She also shares her philosophy and mantra for success and happiness in her own personal life. And because she likes to make an entrance, please welcome to the stage … Glenda Yee!

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Q: How are you?
I guess mostly up, then obviously a few downs. Personally, I’m good. I’m lucky. I’m still working. I’ve got plenty to occupy my mind and so I’m feeling like one of the fortunate ones. I really sympathise with people that are struggling at the moment. I just feel for everyone’s mental health at the moment. People are doing everything they can to survive. But it’s a struggle to run a business. They’re all feeling like what is the point and it’s just so bad for your mental health. And then, of course, that can affect personal relationships as well. If they knew when this was all going to be over, it would help maintain hope.

Q: You’ve had such an incredible teaching career, but what kind of philosophies have you gained over the years teaching?
I’ve always put the kids first in my business; they are the most important thing. I always took this philosophy into every class that I’ve ever taught. I either make eye contact or I speak to every single person in every single class. And I believe that that has built a lot of unity and inclusiveness. I really believe in inclusiveness in running a studio as well.

Teamwork. It’s so easy for teachers to concentrate solely on that one per cent of the class who they think are going to give them the glory, or the one per cent that are the most demanding in the class, or the one per cent of parents who are the most demanding! And I always really believe that even the worst dancer in the class is there for a reason and I try to make them feel inclusive in any decision-making.

When you run a studio, you have so many duties with the kids … it’s not just putting steps down for a routine. As I said, it’s so easy to concentrate on that front centre girl, or the one that’s just to the right or the left of them. I remember once I had a student who I noticed was sketching in the corridor, and you’d never notice her in a routine, but I realised she had great design skills so I asked her to design a costume for a particular senior routine. Her eyes lit up and I realised that everyone in class has something they can contribute. That taught me a really big lesson about creating a great team for every single age group.

I think that’s been a philosophy that I’ve tried to see through. I learnt as I went along and now I am a huge believer in teamwork. But I wasn’t like that in my early years teaching. It’s all trial and error.

I remember back in the early years I’d be absolutely devastated and crying if somebody left the studio. I felt personally attacked. But you learn to realise that if they’re not happy, they’re best to move on because somebody else is going to take their place and be more deserving or it gives another dancer an opportunity to someone else. You live and you learn as a teacher.

Q: What was your background Glenda? Where did you train?
I’m from Sydney. Mum had done a bit of ballroom dancing and she really wanted me to dance. So, when I was two she took me to the local studio in Maroubra and she tells the story of me going up, being all keen with my ballet shoes, and then seeing this teacher that had really long black hair and pointy nose and me screaming, “She’s a witch!” And running out and mum running after me down the street.

I started very early and I was an Eisteddfod kid. Apparently, I was a great tapper at the time. And then when I was about eight or nine I auditioned for the Joan Smith Academy. She was at Rockdale and to get into her dance school you had to audition. Rhonda Burchmore learnt from her too. She placed all her students into little ‘boxes’ – I was in the ballet and tap box. To be honest, Joan was a tyrant of a teacher. I remember being whacked so many times, smacked. I remember winning my first ballet at Eisteddfod at like nine, and then coming off stage and she whacked into me, because my retiré wasn’t high enough or something.

I had a duodenal ulcer by the time I was 11, through nerves. So, mum pulled me out of competition dancing and I had six months off school, as I was so sick. That background taught me to have compassion for kids when I started my school, because I was determined I was not going to be that type of teacher.

After that I learnt from Robina Beard at Valrene Tweedy studio. I was a Halliday’s ballet girl. I won a ballet scholarship with Halliday. I went on then to dance for the love of it, so I did a full-time course, which back then was three years. I was in a small modern dance company that toured around Australia and New Zealand. It was nothing fancy, but it gave me a real appreciation of not just all forms of dance, but of how to treat people.

Then I went and did a teaching degree and was a primary school teacher for six years, which taught me class discipline and class management, which I was very fortunate to take with me to dance studio teaching when I did eventually start the school.

As a side note, I never meant to even start a dance school … it was never on the horizon. There were a couple of mums that asked me to teach them an exercise class so I did a jazz and tap class for them after hours. And then they started asking me to teach their daughters, and before you knew it I had a dance school!

There was no forethought whatsoever in it. And I didn’t even have a business sense at all. It wasn’t until the school kept growing and growing and we had a lot of success in various corporate areas and at Eisteddfods and things that we formalised the business and even my husband came to work for me. And that’s how Glenda Yee Dance started.

Q: How did you get involved in creating the Ready Set Dance program with the other four women?
[Ready Set Dance is run by Belinda Agostina, Glenda Yee, Jade Barnes, Priscilla Severino, and Natalie Ettingshausens.]

It was mid-2014 and we were all studio owners at that time. We were all sitting around and discussing how bad our pre-school dance programs were. We were only talking about putting our heads together to come up with a pre-school dance program that was going to be a solution for our own schools.

We were so bored with the music choices that we had then for pre-schoolers, we had played The Wiggles and Hi-5 to death! Plus, we all had a struggle trying to get boys into pre-school dance because a lot of dads did not want their boys to dance at all. Yet, all of us absolutely loved having boys in the class and in the older age groups. And kids are not stupid, they hear everything that’s going on and all the music on the radio and everything, in the car and yeah, they want really fun, fresh music as well.

We were sick everything for pre-school dance being pink and ballet-ish. That did not attract everyone, especially boys. It was so outdated. We all had a different philosophy of what we did in our own schools with pre-schoolers. So we thought, “Right, we’re going to do our own pre-school program. We can do this, we can get our heads together.” And that’s basically why we started it.

We only set out to create a solution for our own schools, but after we got underway and started it, this lightbulb moment happened to all of us. And it seems so silly to say now, but we realised we were going to actually maintain these kids at the studio because of Ready Set Dance. We have to now think about an exciting dance program for five-year olds. Because when they went from our new Ready Set Dance program into the next age group the five year olds were bored. They were like, “Hang on a minute, this isn’t fun like it was back in…”

We realised we had to improve the rest of our junior classes as well, because we want to keep these kids. A couple of years later we had 30 kids in under sixes whereas we used to be lucky to have 15 prior. So, it was like lightbulb moment where this is the feeder for the rest of our business. And it seems so basic to say that, but it’s what happened.

Q: So what was the main aspiration with launching the Ready Set Dance program outside your own studios and as a business?
Firstly, our aspiration is to get the world moving one pre-schooler at a time, because we really believe in kids today moving from a young age, and not just sitting with their iPads and tablets.

Secondly, to see all of our Ready Set Dance licensees with a future focus, not just focused on the now. To help them thrive in every aspect of their business and to keep focusing on the feeder classes and the future of their schools. And that’s one thing that we really try and help and support them with.

We still have a few licences left for a few trade areas across Australia if anyone is interested in teaching Ready Set Dance, because we’d love to see the program being taught in those areas as well. [Contact glenda@readyset.dance for more information.]

Q: You mentioned teamwork in running your dance studio, but would you say that that was one of the most important aspects of the success of Ready Set Dance?
Yes, our motto, I guess you can say at the moment is ‘collaboration is the new competition’.

You put a whole heap of people together, and you’re going to do a far better job than just one person on their own. When we started the business our advisors said that having five equal directors of a company was never going to work. But we definitely proved them wrong.

With five of us, the generation gap is huge, it’s like there’s a three-decade generation gap between the youngest to the oldest of us, me being the oldest of course! So, we all bring a different experience based on our upbringing and ages. And those experiences we found to be absolutely brilliant for us. We all learn from each other continually. But aside from that we support each other both in a business sense and in our personal lives. So, bringing those five networks together has been gold for our business.

Jade Barnes has come from a TV background having choreographed a lot for ABC and she brought in the music writer, because she worked with him in the past. If we didn’t have that connection, our music today wouldn’t be what it is, because our writer is brilliant. Priscilla Severino is brilliant with design and graphics and everything technical. I’ve had a huge network of people that I’ve grown up with that helped to get Ready Set Dance off the ground, because I knew so many teachers in so many different states that trusted me, we were able to test the program outside our own schools. Belinda Agostina‘s got the marketing degree. And Natalie Ettingshausens is so great with the business side. We complement each other so well, and that’s why I think we’ve been successful in this project.

They call me the godmother of dance! But on the other hand, I’ve learned so much from each of them as well. So, it’s a really great collaboration.

Q: What sort of challenges have you come across with Ready Set Dance?
Well, during these times with Covid, there have been times where we’ve worried if we can pay our wages and continue to make things happen… Because we sympathise and have wanted to support our licensees so much that we’ve frozen quite a lot of subscription fees over the last few months, especially in Victoria. We’ve halved a lot of schools’ fees because we just really empathise with them.

So, we’ve had to diversify our income stream, and one way of doing that is by setting up an e-store and going more into retail. We created a dance ‘At Home Pack’ because we’re on Zoom or dancing at home in front of the show on Nick Jr or 10 Play. So, they had a little prop pack of their own, and that really helped us to stay on our feet. We lost our revenue stream of live shows. That was such a shame because having created season two of Ready Set Dance we were so proud of it and the kid crew we selected to be in shows are awesome.

We had all these TV appearances lined up for them that couldn’t go ahead. So, that was a real challenge. We decided to do more YouTube things and get our channel going, so that we could still involve the kids in some safe Covid way.

Another challenge was that we had plans to go to America this year to all the conventions over there and start marketing Ready Set Dance in the States, but that also couldn’t happen.

Q: Any triumphs this year?
We have just signed a huge joint venture with Weissman, the biggest costume company in the world, which means our Ready Set Dance merchandise will be exposed to 50,000 dance studios globally and will market us throughout the United States, UK and Canada.

So, that’s going to be great for us, just to get the word out there. And then, another I guess triumph is that season two is going onto Channel 10 Shake at the end of this month. That’s a new channel from Channel 10 that is a kids’ channel. And it will become an adults’ channel in different hours through the day. But it’s going to open up the Ready Set Dance program to so many more homes that don’t have Nick Jr on Foxtel.

So, there’s been lots of challenges, we feel like we’ve been able to turn them into a few triumphs as well. Because we can’t get on TV at the moment, we’ve had to keep thinking, brainstorming and coming up with ideas to keep our business afloat during these times. Because that helps our licensees as well.

Q: What guides you and inspires you in your personal life?
I have the luxury now of choosing the people that I want in my life. When you own a dance school business, you have to be everything to everybody. And you do it because it’s your business, and that is part of your business model. Now I no longer run the studio, I’ve come to the point where I probably have just a handful of people that I want in my life. So, people are my inspiration because I want to be around people that I can still learn something from, and still have a laugh with.

And for me personally, it’s definitely my family. My husband, son and daughter. I actually learn from them something nearly every day, just by talking to them. And I love that. And the girls at Ready Set Dance and in the office… We have so many laughs, and so much fun while still getting the work done. And that to me, is such a blessing.

And then there are people in the industry that I respect so much, because I’m still learning through their journey. I’ve got to mention the Squared Division here. I cannot believe how amazing and talented these boys are, and I’ve been lucky enough to know them for probably the last 13 years. I’ve watched them from modelling in fashion parades in Westfield shopping centres to now seeing them have global success with the business they created. I’m very fortunate to be considered as one of their friends as well, and they have the best work ethic. They’re inspirational. And the other thing too about them is that they’re loyal. If there’s any job they will try and get Australians that have worked for them.

Q: Do you have any other tips that you would like to pass on regarding the state of affairs right now with Covid and how much it has affected the dance and performing arts industries, specifically for dance teachers?
This is a hard one just because of the situation now. But if I had any advice for dance teachers it’s to bring the fun back. They can’t be concentrating on the competitive element in their studios really anymore, especially now. I think the world has changed now forever.

So, I think if kids are going to be dancing and if parents are paying for dance classes, it can’t just be about preparing them to be a professional dancer anymore. The message I’m very clear about is that there are so many benefits of a child going to dance that aren’t just about becoming a professional dancer anymore. There’s so many careers that you can go into with a great dance background. Whether you go into directing or in costume design, or into music editing or videography. There’s so many things that you can actually do that we shouldn’t just pigeonhole a performance career as the only reason for learning to dance. I think people that dance have learned so many great aspects of their personality that they can carry into any line of business.

But there needs to be fun in learning dance now. I’m loving seeing studios at the moment with their TikTok challenges and their dress up days and filming routines in their studio and putting it out there so that the parents can share in what’s happening. This is great… this is bringing the fun back. Think of other things that you can do that don’t necessarily focus on Eisteddfods.

I think competitions are a definite asset to learning to dance, because kids do need to perform, but there are other performance opportunities. But most kids do love an Eisteddfod, even if it’s the point of seeing other kids from other studios and networking themselves. But if you can’t do competitions, then you’ve got to replace it with something else in your class. So, do anything you can to make it fun.

Another bit of advice I’d have is don’t forget to make the kids feel inclusive in the class, regardless of the age group. Sit down and talk to kids. Kids have an opinion, so talk to them about what you think your theme should be for the next film that you do or if you’re going to do a concert in some form or other. Who’s got some great ideas for costumes? Or do you think it’s a great idea that we audition for this particular part of this routine? How should we audition? Do you bring them all in on the decision process? Make them feel as an included part of the process. Gone are the days of kids standing there and you just dictating to them what they’re going to learn. Bring the teamwork back.

Q: Do you have a mantra you live by?
My mantra is ‘Always make an entrance!’

I walk into a room and always try and make an entrance. If I’m feeling great I make a big entrance because I want everyone in that room to feel good. I want to be infectious. I address every single person in the room. I really bring the energy up, because it makes me feel good, as well. That is my mantra, I’ve always done it, and I think I’ll always do it until the day you have to wheel me in in a wheelchair. So, always make an entrance… that’s my mantra … that’s very showgirl, isn’t it?

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