"Winds of Change" An interview with the new forces behind FADS

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Winds of Change at Fred Astaire!

In everything we do there are always going to be changes, changes that will affect how we live and how we move forward.

Even in dance there is evolution or should we say change - changes in trends, costumes, new dances and even steps. In September 2017, the Fred Astaire Dance Studios had a major change, the homegrown, younger members of this association, many of them owners of studious or regions, took over the lead of the, bringing with them a fresh look and feel to an organization that has been around for many years, since Fred Astaire along with the Casanave brothers gave birth to this iconic dance school franchise.

The new stock holders of this new and improved Fred Astaire Association are Luann Pulliam, John Gates, Stephen Knight, Bruno Collins, Rae Josephs, Charlie & Jeannie Penatello, Tad & Elizabeth Joy, Pahjmon & Cindy Lipsey and Kim Haidinger. Six of this group - John, Rae, Bruno, Charley, Stephen and Luann Pulliam take part comprise the Board of Directors with Luann being the President as you will learn, and with the former President, Jack Rothweiler, continuing as a seventh board member.

Photo - Standing, left to right: Pajman Lipsey, John Gates, Cindy Lipsey, Tad Joy, Bruno Collins Seated, left to right: Stephen Knight, Rae Josephs, Kim Haidinger, Jean Penetello, Charlie Penetello, Elizabeth Joy, Lunn Pulliam

We interviewed many of the board member during the 2018 Fred Astaire World Championships in Vegas, Nevada this July, as well as most of the stockholders, in order for us to get a better understanding of the new and improved Fred Astaire, their goals and future perspective for this iconic company. During this meeting our first question was to to Luann, as the current President, and we asked her, what would the future holds for the company with the new Board of Directors in the lead?

Luann: What I like about the group is that every one of the members of the board as well as the new stockholders have all started with the company and have all worked in the company, grown in the company and so this gives us a great perspective to create new and fresh ideas, especially since we really all know our product.

Noticing that the majority of the Board and stockholders were former competitor dancers, we asked Steven Knight, a former Fred Astaire National Dance Director, US Professional Rhythm finalist and co-owner of a prominent school and an area franchiser, now a stockholder himself, how important it is to be a former competitor in this mix?

Steven: It is important that we have so much knowledge of our product that we have been involved with it for so many years. So corporate is now more than ever involved in the field, because we know or product we are able to trickle down all this knowledge that we have right down to every studio, every teacher, and every student.

Charlie Penatello, possibly one of the older members of this organization and a former US Rhythm Champion himself added this to Steven’s response.

Charlie: As you see, here we have people that have owned studios, have manage and owned regions, are able to motivate, and so we have all this important information to give out in the field right now.

Rae Josephs, Steven Knight’s former dance partner and US Professional Rhythm finalist, as well as a studio owner and regional director, added to the explanation.

Rae: What I love about it is that we are in an image business, it is all about celebrity status and how it all looks to the public, and how we look from the outside in, and dancing is what creates that. Just looking into the ballroom today you have your rhinestones, you have your top teachers, you have your top students, and what is great about that is that you have dancers now running the company that are also great business people. In the past we had situations perhaps where the people managing the company did not know what it was to go on the floor with a number on their back, they did not know that feeling. So being dancers we can help that brand new baby student going on to the dancefloor, all the way to the top professionals of the world.

Both Keith Todd, the Editor of Dance Beat and I, were former Fred Astaire teachers and so we have a little idea about some of the issues that some of the organizations as well as the franchisees have and so we were quite frank with the group when we asked, “all these ideas and and plans are great but how will you bring it all together and make sure that everyone accepts the ideas and help you are offering? How are you going to keep the schools from saying, that is all great guys but I will just pay you my fee and keep doing what I have always done?” John Gates jumped at the question.

John: We are restructuring the entire company, we will have fourteen different departments, from the franchising to our Astaire management program, to the competitions. These 14 different departments will make sure everything is restructured across the board. We are going to be stronger in compliancy. The only way we can bring the value up for each studio, each area and the company is to have an across the board unified system. In the past where everyone did their own thing is not going to work anymore, basically some studios were basically independent with a Fred Astaire sign on their door, we are going to change that and in exchange it will increase the value of each studio.

Our attention then went to Luann the President of the organization, this is a first within our Ballroom industry that a woman would be president of a prominent Dance School Franchise, so we asked, “as a woman how do you feel taking the lead as President of this major association, perhaps the first time in the dance history?” Luann was quick to reply.

Luann: I am very excited to have the opportunity, but I feel that this is about our team, it is not about one person leading but it is about our group moving forward. I just happen to have the title. We want it all about being a team effort we really discuss things back and forth. However, if anyone has to take the fall that would be me, but it is all about a group effort. It is about all of us pulling together. The platform that we have been using is that we want to be a transparent company, that we can be trusted, that they are in good hands, that we can be trusted, all the way from the training a beginning staff member on. Most importantly, the decisions that we make in our company are for their best interests and not our best interests, it is about our company.

As I mentioned earlier Keith and I were very lucky to have started our teaching careers with this company under the leadership of Mr. John Monte who we also personally knew and who we admired for his great accomplishments such as founding the United States Championships and knowing how much he cared for Ballroom dancing we asked the obvious, “is continuing the quest for better dancing as this great hero and wanted, one of your goals now?”

John: “We really believe that this is about the dance business, and not just about the sales aspect of dance lessons.

Rae: A great thing is that we all come from different walks of dancing - some people did the International, some people majored in ballroom, others in cabaret. So we have different personalities and know different kinds of people that we can bring that will contribute majorly to our company, so together we can always bring the best. And of course anyone that is enthusiastic about our product, we want them to join, we want them to come along and be a part of this exciting company.

We then pointed out that for a while specially after the tumbling of the eastern “Wall,” a lot of the teachers at Fred Astaire and indeed Arthur Murray and independents, were imports many of them from eastern countries like Russia, Bellarussia, Czech Republic, Estonia, and so on. However, due to the new climate about immigration in this country where it is getting harder and harder for anyone to come in just with a special trade like Ballroom dancing, we asked what their plans are to supply teachers especially if they start to grow at a fast pace. John took the question.

John: Having an international company helps a lot because we can bring the best from Europe and other countries in to help and we send trainers back as well. We have immigration attorneys that are helping us. However, we really believe that by training our own and being strong with our own training classes, we can develop a majority of the people we need here. In conjunction with the arts department, the schools that teach jazz and tap, we can bring great talent to our company. And it does not have to be the Juliard School! There are the other thousands of schools across the country with tremendous talent. We can recruit and train those that may not get the Broadway job.

Luann: It is all good bringing fully trained people, but the great thing is we have the capability to train our own, and make them something. I myself came in from a training class, nearly everyone of us came from a training class.

John: And the good thing about the people that come from other countries is that we can give them an opportunity to come and build a business or go back and build a business there with the model here from the USA. Europe and the world is growing, especially in the pro/am field but they most replicate our model here or they will never grow as fast.

We noticed that the Fred Astaire organization supports many of the independent events, “is this something you will continue to do or you will change this? Is it going to be taboo to go to independent competitions?”

John: We of course like our people to support our regional events and also as a company, our national events, but we don’t mind people supporting the industry as a whole.

Rae: I also think that as a professional you should be everywhere. However, there is always a cost to them and so with the help of some of their students they are able to go and compete everywhere. Especially if you’re in a US final and even more importantly if you are in the top three you should be representing Fred Astaire everywhere and with their students providing they are reciprocating by being in our regional and national events. We don’t frown upon this. We do, if that is all they are doing! I think the representation of Fred Astaire outside in the independent world is huge and that is a good thing.

So, we wondered, do they think their professionals competing in independent events was a good thing?

Rae: Our professionals are out there, my goodness, I don’t think we celebrate them enough. We have some of the best professionals not only in the professional competitive field, but also in the Pro/am arena. How many times does an independent organizer says “that Fred Astaire team is great, it is fun, it is crazy they have such a great time, and look at their dancing!” We are just a very proud group! Besides we are not afraid to bring the best coaches from in and out of our organization to help move us forward as the best dance corporation in the world.

When it comes to procedures how are you guys approaching the changes in clientele, people know it all and they don’t take instruction as well as they used to nowadays, they want what they want? Tad Joy took this question.

Tad: This is possibly one of the biggest benefits we have in being a part of Fred Astaire, it is so easy to miss change, as the market changes and evolves. One of the most important things that you have is being a part of something bigger than your four walls, where you can miss a change. But we are watching what is going on in the entire country. So as that changes occurs the different market, the different clientele, more important than that - the different staff that you have. So I might have missed the change and we look around and on the other side of the US there is some very successful studio, so being part of something bigger than my four walls, than my county, than my region, than my single studio, I can call any one of those dances studios, that are doing well around the world and say, “I don’t know what you’re doing and I am doing this and they will say well, no! we do this in a completely different style because my clientele is younger than yours, my teachers are younger, etc. So it is this being a part of a larger organization that gives us the opportunity to not be alone. The market shifts, the difference in the staff is not so major than ten years ago, but it is the support difference that allows us to keep up with change. But numbers don’t lie there is plenty of us that do not like change but if we can show how it is changing that is a great help.

So what are some of the new changes we might see?

Steven: For one, being totally in touch with our clientele, almost at a personal basis, with our professionals, with our students and making sure there is improvement in every way and getting better every day, that is the big difference. We know that we will never be so high that we wont go down in the trenches with our professionals, with our students and help them be successful and get better and better at a faster rate.

What are you plans for your international market?

John: We for sure want to move and branch out 100% more especially in Europe. We want to have an American board and a European board, and then be able to share all that information and come together as a strong international corporation.

We continued to be intrigued by the international answer and so we ask, “Is there a reason you changed the name of this competition from Cross Country to Worlds? Once again john answers.

John: We still have the Cross Country, this one here is the Worlds and eventually will travel around the world.

Luann: There are going to be lots of changes and improvements coming that will be noticeable to all, especially to our franchisees and it’s going to be a very exciting time.

In conclusion it was so great to see these colleagues of ours, some who competed along with us when we used to share the floor, now take hold of the reins of this excellent dance organization. For many of them this is their dream come true and we are sure that as passionate as they were when they competed, they will continue to be as passionate running this corporation that not only hired so many of our dancers but that contributes highly to our independent dance industry.

Our congratulations to all the new stockholders and we wish you the best and we will follow your progress!

Since this interview was conducted, the Fred Astaire Dance Organization announced another major change. Tony Dovolani of Dancing with the Stars fame, and himself a former FADS Franchisee, has been named as Co-National Dance Director. He will work with Sasha Bylim who was already the National Dance Director.

  • Report by:: Didio Barrera
  • Photos by:: Ryan Kenner Photography

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