Power in stories and storytelling a conversation with Kelly McAuley


September 1, 2021


In this episode, Kelly shares all about her professional writing in dance and the importance of storytelling within dance. Kelly provides insight on how best to position yourself as a dancer, dance teacher, and studio owner, and the importance of professionally running dance as a business.

Watch the episode here:

Listen to the podcast here:

Power in stories and storytelling a conversation with Kelly McAuley

Who is Kelly?

Kelly McCauley is a dance educator and creative director living in the greater Boston area. As a daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of dance studio owners, she always thought her family was in the dance studio business.

Kelly today is exploring what she now understands her family’s legacy to be the business of dance. Kelly calls up on 15 years as a professional writer to help dance professionals discover the power of storytelling on the stage. Kelly has written for dance spirit and brands like JetBlue, Jack Daniels, Dunkin, and the National Geographic Channel. She is a graduate of Oklahoma City University and Boston University and has been teaching the colleges of the Fenway dance for more than 10 years.

  The power in stories and storytelling

I’m all about stories. I think there is such power in stories and storytelling. When you think about your life, in it next to a story and next to stories, you really start to see how that can be true. From the time we are children, everything we’re taught is usually through a story. You think about fables and tales and things that are teaching you right from wrong, not to cheat, and not to tell lies. We learn all that through all these famous stories that you can think about and all the new stories that are still out there waiting to be written and waiting to be told. I remember growing up loving listening to stories, books, reading, and even aside from that, the stories you see on TV and in movies, how captivating stories can be from an educational perspective.

From a connection standpoint, it is the way that we tend to talk to each other, we tell each other stories about our lives. It is the way that we connect with each other and it is how we develop empathy with someone else by having a moment where you’re hearing something, probably through a story, and you can relate to that. So, storytelling is just super important to humans. In general, I can just say that it is a statement to humans, a way that our humanity has evolved, and storytelling has always been a part of that. In my life, that has really manifested itself in my career. As a professional writer, I’ve written for magazines, and I also work as a copywriter. I have told stories for brands, big and small, some that we are all familiar with, and then some that we don’t know, but maybe someday we will, because of their story, and because of what they have to share and what they have to offer.

Storytelling in the business perspective

I definitely think that there are some industries where storytelling has become more important than others. From a business standpoint, in the world of dance, it doesn’t seem like storytelling has made its way as much from the stage to the marketing side, if you will, the business side, as much as some others. I don’t know exactly why that is. I think part of it is, that as artists, we tend to focus so much on our art. We want to focus so much on our art form, and developing that. That’s the other stuff. Sometimes we lose track of it. Sometimes it falls to the side and sometimes there’s just not enough time to focus on bringing that to life outside of the art that you are trying to perfect and the craft that you’re trying to hone.

Artistry and selling yourself

One of the first things that come to mind about artistry and selling is that it’s almost built into the culture.  As an artist, you don’t want to be a sell-out. You don’t want to be out there selling and selling. That’s a story we’re telling ourselves as artists is that, ”Oh, I’m an artist, I can’t be salesy”. That’s just not true. If you don’t tell your story and sell yourself, no one else will. No one’s gonna do it for you.

Performing arts from a different perspective

I think the moment I realized we could look at it from a different perspective was when I realized what my family’s business, if you will, really is. Just to give some background context to that, I’ll just quickly run down that my mother owned two dance studios. My grandparents owned a dance studio together. Before that, they each owned their separate dance studios before they got married. My great grandmother ran a dance studio back in the 1920s, 1930s, in Pittsburgh. You look at that story, and they’re in the family business of dance studios. The dance studio was the business but when I look back at it now, I realize that that’s not what the family business is. The family business is the business of dance. I didn’t see that probably until I was an adult and just thinking about where do I fit into that legacy.  Where am I part of that? Sometimes you have to take that step back to see what the big picture, the big story is, and where does your life fits into that story of dance? Where do you fit into it? What’s that bigger picture of where dance fits in the world for you. That feels really big.

Treat dance as a profession/business

We need to treat our day, ourselves as dance professionals or our companies that are dance-based as corporations, not a cause, not just art. It’s more than that. I can tell you firsthand that a studio owner does work their tail off. I saw that in my life. I saw that in my family for years and years, and I couldn’t be prouder of my family and all the work they put in, and all the students they taught.

I just wrote a quote, and I digress a little bit, about how in life, we as people are lucky if six people remember us, I think was the number, whereas a teacher, you probably have hundreds of people who remember you. The value there is probably immeasurable of what that teacher or dance studio owner is doing in their community and in the world. The fact that some dance studios, some dance schools, also, on top of that, raise money to sustain their business and their livelihood, it’s very unfortunate to say the least, that that’s what we have to do.

The solution, I don’t think there’s an easy one by any means. As a parent myself, you do look at the prices of different things in different activities, and some are more expensive than others, and I think that studio owners tend to know that. They tend to know that dance comes off as one of the more expensive extracurriculars for students. Now, if you have a student in dance and a student in hockey, you might not feel so because I hear hockey is also very expensive. There are some very expensive sports as well.  I know that for a fact. But the value doesn’t seem to be there, and so it gets back to that value proposition that we’ve been dancing around, and why isn’t the value placed on that? What haven’t we done to make sure that the community sees value in what we’re doing to change future generations?

Dance as a business mindset

Not to get off-topic, but this is related. A lot of dancers, dance teachers, go into the business of dance, of owning a dance studio, because we love to dance. We don’t love business necessarily or some of us don’t even know about business.

I saw a conversation on a Facebook page recently about, ‘What do you wish you knew when you opened your dance studio’, and I saw that it’s one thing to love dance, but you have to run the business. You have to love the business.  And all these questions, you’re asking how else can we do the sales, that’s that business mindset. As a studio owner, you’re an owner of a business.  You have to be in that mindset, but even taking a little step back as a dance professional, you also need to be in that mindset, even if you’re not the studio owner, and you’re working gigs, you can create a livelihood that way. I believe it. But you have to be in that business mindset, and I think over the past year and a half, I’ve seen in my community of friends, dancers, and peers, the difference between dancers with that business mindset and dancers with the gig to gig mindset.

The difference between the gig to gig to the business mindset

You can be the best dancer in the room, you can be the best dancer on the stage, but that doesn’t mean that you’re the best teacher. You might be able to dance it, but you might not be able to break it down and teach it, and that goes back to that. You might be the best dancer, best dance teacher, but you might not be the best studio owner, and that’s all about owning your strengths and knowing what they are, and really looking within yourself to rise. The difference between that business mindset and that gig to gig mindset is, over the past year and a half, I have seen people, and the difference is are you making the opportunity or are you waiting for the opportunities?

The audition is your opportunity to go show something but you’re waiting to be called upon. Whereas that business mindset is maybe the audition is one opportunity, but maybe a $15 zoom membership monthly is my other opportunity to start teaching a class.  I’ve worked in corporate and I love it because I can find so many congruencies between the corporate world and the dance world and things that we’re not taking advantage of. One of the things that are rewarded in the corporate world is when you show initiative to do something, to bring an idea forth, to find a way to meet a goal, you hear about, and I’m not in sales, but you hear about sales people making their quota or exceeding their quota. No one is telling them to ‘call this person, call this person say that’, they get trained, but they’re not told to do those things. They’re, going out and doing it, and we don’t have other quotas to reach as dancers, we find that we need to fulfil ourselves. So, no one’s setting these expectations for us. So we’re doing what we think we need to do to meet these imaginary quotas, when really, what would it look like to exceed your quota.

The end goal

It is that more, it’s not that artistry. That’s quantifiable, it’s almost like livelihood. How can you succeed on that front that lets you have goals outside of the 10 pirouettes? Your goal might be to be the best dancer, but what does that get you? What do you want from that? We are taught, maybe, we are led to believe that it is the star role that it is to perform on certain stages for certain choreographers, certain companies, but you can only do that for so long. So that can’t be the end goal. But if you have that as your end goal, when you finally “make it”, where do you go from there? It’s great to create new goals and change your path and you can do that. But if we start thinking of these goals in a broader spectrum, can we make them all work together so that we’re moving toward a bigger end goal for life?

Taking our power back as an industry

You can learn so many things from different teachers, and grow in so many different ways, and things that won’t click at one studio for you will click if you go to a master class with another teacher. It’s crazy to think that we’re still living in such a narrow-minded industry that we won’t let people be more well-rounded in their training in some communities, and I know not everyone’s like that. I know that there are educators out there who are encouraging their students to dance everywhere, anywhere, any way they want, and really learn as much as they can about their body, mind, artistry, and path. And I have seen those changes, I’ve seen coaching and resources for dance teachers to incorporate more of a well-rounded, balanced lifestyle, and mental health aspect into their training. But it’s just not as widespread as we want it to be, and part of that is because we fall into what’s comfortable in what we know. We have dance studios that have been in existence for 100 years and it’s hard to change something that’s been happening for 100 years. It takes the right kind of personality to bring that change to what’s been happening, while some of it might be working, keep the good stuff. But let’s release the things that aren’t working. Let’s let them go.

Trying new things

When we are thinking about pushing forward as a business, either as a person, company, a brand, or a studio, I think we can find some really great examples in the dance world where the story is working and is starting to change how people view dance or how people think of dance. I think, people look at commercial dance and the Hollywoodisition of dance and dance training a little bit differently depending on what school of thought you’re coming from. Love it or hate it, Hollywood has grasped the fact that people like to watch good dancers. We’ve made shows out of it, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, the world of dance. You’ve got all these shows where dance is making someone a lot of money. Advertisers are paying money to be a part of these shows. As a dancer, and I’ve heard this from other dancers, the part of the show that I like to watch is the dancing. I’m one of those, I’ll record it, and I’ll fast forward through all of the other bits, the talking. But 90% of the people watching, the 90% who aren’t dancers, they’re watching the stories. They’re watching the drama, the backstory of the dancer from wherever, and what they’ve been through, what their families like. What it means to them to be dancing. It’s storytelling. It’s all that around it. To say that we can’t bring stories to dance, and change the way that it’s perceived as such. I can’t believe it, because I see it happening.

Where can we draw strength from

 The stories that you tell yourself are the ones that have been ingrained in you, because of things that have been said to you, things you’ve read, things you believe, things in the news, things in pop culture, the store. It’s the self-doubt that creeps in. It’s the negative feelings that come up and it’s so natural for all those feelings to come up, and for all those thoughts to come into your head because our human reaction is to protect ourselves. We are constantly seeking out whatever is “out to get us” in quotes. We’re seeking out these negative thoughts, well I’m not good enough or I can’t do that, it’s primal. The thinking I’m talking about is primal. You’re always on the hunt, always on the lookout for what’s going to get you. One day, it might have been a bear, but today it’s I’m not fit enough, and that’s out to get me that I am not good enough. That story I am telling myself, it’s coming up because I’m, I’m trying to protect myself.

The experiences that we’ve lived through that really shaped us, on the other hand, are the ones that we can actually pull strength from. They’re the ones that get us asking the questions that are the headlines to our stories. You know, you think about what have you overcome, or what has been a transformative moment in your life, and you can probably start to think of things that you’ve lived through that, are the headlines of your life, almost. And you think about what something I’ve learned? What would I tell my younger self about that? That’s a really fun one to think about what you would teach your younger self. You think about when have I changed course when have I done a one-eighty. What are these moments in my life that really had this, you know, revelation and it doesn’t mean that the sky opened up and the butterflies danced around you and the angels were singing? It doesn’t have to be. That’s not what it has to be. It’s just a moment where you’re thinking, I see myself where I am now and I know that I’m happy or that I know I need to make a change, or that I know I’m making a difference. These are all feelings that we have that we can draw strength from. There are moments where we feel very sure of who we are or what we’ve done, and you might not always see them until you look back on them. Hindsight is 2020 when it comes to crafting your story, that you’re sharing with others.

How I share my talents to the dance world

 I love storytelling, as we know, and the place where I love to do it most right now is two places. It’s Instagram and I’m on my email newsletter. I love to share ideas for how dance professionals can share their stories. A lot of that is tactical. My Instagram feed is full of ideas of ways you can tell your story and different angles, you can come out and different, really tactical post ideas that you can do. But on a level deeper than that, I also work with one on one clients to discover their brand story, if you will, their personal story if they’re a professional not associated with a company or a studio necessarily. We work one on one to develop that. What’s that elevator pitch story that you would tell somebody we work on? What are your values, and what are those core messages that you keep coming back to again and again, and what keeps you grounded in what you do based on who you are, and where you want to go. it is fun work to dig into our personas in that way. It’s exciting to me to actually write those stories, and that’s something I do one on one with clients. If you’re not ready for that level of soul searching, or just not quite to the place where you feel like you want to dig in, I do offer some one off, templatized social media prompts and templates that can help you share your story on social media. So there’s kind of a couple different ways that I am trying to share my talents with the dance world.

 Advice to 16-year-old me

Your knee will heal. Right after I turned 16 I had knee surgery and missed a dance recital. And I thought my life was over.


Bio & resources for Kelly:

Kelly is a dance educator and creative director living in the Greater Boston area.

As the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of dance studio owners, she always thought her family was in the dance studio business. Today, Kelly is exploring what she now understands her family legacy to be–the business of dance. Kelly calls upon her 15+ years as a professional writer to help dance professionals discover the power of storytelling off the stage.

Kelly has written for Dance Spirit and brands like JetBlue, Jack Daniel’s, Dunkin’, and National Geographic Channel. She is a graduate of Oklahoma City University and Boston University and has been teaching with Colleges of The Fenway Dance for more than 10 years.

Website: https://dancekellystyle.com/

Blog: https://dancekellystyle.com/blog/



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