Sharon Saunders started her school in the small town of Marong, on the edge of Bendigo, after she had her first child. The school quickly expanded to include a second venue in Kangaroo Flat, and it wasn’t long before Saunders and her husband opened a purpose-built studio there. With most schools in the area heavily focused on competitions, Saunders was more interested in providing a fun experience for local kids.
And now, Sharon Saunders Dancers (SSD) is celebrating 25 years. Although the school has grown significantly since starting out, it still has the same ethos; in fact, “our focus word this year happens to be ‘fun’,” says Saunders.
From just teaching a few classes in the Marong Hall, Saunders is now an affiliate member to The Australian Teachers of Dancing Limited, offers several dance styles and has six teachers – three of which are former students of the school, one being Saunders’ daughter. Many families have been with the school for over 10 years, some over 20 years.
“Back when we started 26 years ago, I made all the costumes, my girlfriend typed my newsletters, I had my home phone (which resulted in many late night phone calls from interested customers), we didn’t have internet or any support from other teachers or studio owners,” Saunders recalls. “I spent many hours sitting in music stores listening to CDs and buying albums for one song that ‘might’ be suitable to use. Then I would record the music and try to edit it to use on my tape deck!”
From concerts in public halls with family running all aspects of the events, SSD now has its concert in the state-of-the-art Ulumbarra Theatre, a 1000-seat facility.
The success, of course, hasn’t come easily, and the hardest part for Saunders was not having family living nearby when she started her school.
“I had to take my kids to dancing, and my hubby had to finish a long day of concreting before picking kids up,” she shares. “He didn’t have a finish time, so it was always an unknown time. I always prepared meals before I went to studio, but it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have any staff for the first few years. Working when you are sick is never fun, but I have never cancelled a class to this day. When I had my second child, I was forced to find a teacher!”
But the payback comes in spades — seeing the difference being made in students and families lives, says Saunders.
“It makes it all worthwhile when you find out a new student doesn’t speak to anyone but family and they talk to you (and mum is in tears); that is special,” she adds. “When any student grows in confidence and life skills, I am happy. I am especially proud when I see my preschoolers dance all through their school years with the same dance friends and then are still dancing or teaching as adults. The friendships that are made by families is priceless. Dance changes so many lives and enriches them!”
Saunders believes it’s the “beautiful supportive culture” that makes her school so special.
“Like most dance studios, it is a safe and happy place for its students and families,” she assures. “There is no negativity or rudeness. We respect and care for each other. We are very organised and make sure everyone is well informed and can prepare for upcoming events with ease.”
She also ensures herself and her staff never stop learning, continuing to evolve their approach to classes through professional development and team training. Industry leaders visit the studio several times a year to inspire the dancers and bring new skills to the teachers, keeping things fresh and exciting for everyone involved.
So what’s next for SSD? Systemising! Saunders has taken care of all aspects of her business for a quarter of a century and says it’s time for her to share that workload. With such a large school on her hands, the process, she says, will be slow, but it’s crucial. Luckily, she has the help of her daughter, who has recently completed a bachelor of Early Childhood and Primary Education and is now teaching the school’s preschoolers.
One thing that won’t change, though, is the school’s success; it’s been built on such solid foundations of heart, soul and fun.
“I cannot imagine life without my dance school,” says Saunders. “It’s in my blood, and I love it!”
For more on Sharon Saunders Dancers, visit sharonsaundersdancers.webs.com.
By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.