Jeni Kemper hoped dance would take her all over the world — and it did.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in dance from the University of Arizona, Kemper landed a job performing with the Royal Caribbean cruise line, dancing in exotic locales such as Jamaica and the Bahamas.
“And then after two years, I decided that I loved being on land and not at sea,” said Kemper, 36.
The Doherty High School graduate had no idea what was next when she returned to Colorado Springs, but soon she was presented with an opportunity to co-own a dance studio. After that deal fell through, she opened Kemper Dance Academy on North Academy Boulevard in June 2010.
“We have been on a full-fledged roller coaster,” Kemper said.
Kemper, who lives in Monument with her husband and two children, talked with the Business Journal about the transition from performer to business owner, and why dance still has a place in children’s lives.
How long have you been dancing?
Actually, I started in gymnastics and they were like, ‘She’s really, really great at what she does — she just has two left feet. You need to put her in dance.’ … I started dance when I was 7, so I was what they consider a late bloomer in the dance world. And then I’ve been doing it since, which is crazy.
Did you always think your career would involve dance?
Yeah. Ever since I discovered dance I fell in love with it, and always knew somehow I wanted to do something with it — either performing or teaching, but I always knew dance had to be part of my life. So I tried the performing aspects throughout college in high school. I got scholarships to Giordano Dance [Chicago], which is a company out in Chicago — same with River North, another large company in Chicago. I decided that I don’t like Chicago. The Windy City is not my thing. I did a couple of workshops in New York and decided New York is not my pace — it’s way too fast.
What was it like transitioning from performer to business owner?
At first I was a little hesitant just because I didn’t really know the business side of owning your own business … but it was one of those things where I was a single mom and I wanted to prove to my daughter that she can do anything, and that your dreams can come true if you put your mind to it and work super hard. So that is why I jumped on the train for the roller coaster ride. … It was more for my daughter — something for her to be proud of me, as well as myself.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching?
It’s a great passion. Seeing the light bulb click with the kids is amazing, and then now since we’re celebrating 10 years here at the studio, it’s amazing to see where these kids have gone. This year we’re doing a big 10-year celebration and we’re bringing all the alumni back to do a giant performance at our spring showcase, which will be super fun. KDA has a bunch of students that have left here and have gotten to dance out in [Los Angeles]. They left and got their degrees in dance and then now they’re in L.A. doing their whole thing. It’s amazing to see what the kids can do afterwards because it’s like they’re my own kids, so to see them grow up — that’s amazing.
What has dance meant to you?
I love the responsibility that comes from dancing. It teaches you a lot of time management. It makes you responsible for yourself. Dance trains us to be better human beings for the world today, which I absolutely love. I thrive on being a great leader for my kids. It teaches a ton of teamwork, which is awesome to watch when a new kid shows up and they’re super scared to even talk to anybody, and then the kids go and reach out and talk to them and make them feel at home.
Dance, to me, is a second family. All of these people who are my clients at the studio — and even outside of the studio, just the dance community itself — we’re all there for each other.
Do you have a favorite style to perform versus teach?
My favorite style to teach is jazz, just because of all the technical basis that comes along with it. It’s just fast movement, it keeps your brain moving and grooving. My favorite style to perform is lyrical. Lyrical has a story behind it … and if you hit the right notes, it really just kind of moves the entire audience — and hopefully everybody cries, or at least they walk away feeling something from it. Us as performers, that’s like our main goal and job. That’s what we love to do.
How does KDA stand out among other dance studios in the Springs?
We have grown as a dance community, and every dance studio here in Colorado Springs has their greatness. I’ve always said that there’s enough kids in this community to fill every single dance studio. What I think best separates us is that we are versatile here. I train my dancers to be great at everything. They can’t specialize in one thing. We also have a lot of guest teachers who come in from L.A. and New York and Chicago and work with them, as well as agents, performers, choreographers. A couple of my students have already booked jobs because we bring out those opportunities for them. We offer opportunities for these dancers to create their future, if dance is what they want to do. If not, I’m happy to help them in any other way. … I just love that we’re here to help them guide into their future.
You’re coming up on your 10th year of business. What’s changed?
I guess I could say that we’ve grown with the times, but at the same time kept who we are. We’re still very much about family. I still want to know every single kid and every single family personally by name, instead of being like, ‘Wait, who’s that kid?’ I just love that I have that connection with those families but at the same time, we are growing with technology, with social media, with our training.
How do you balance that growth with that sense of intimacy?
For me it’s just being constantly here in the studio and making sure that I say hi to every single person. I’m very personable. My door is always open to anybody — it doesn’t matter if you’re on my competition team or my recreational team. I’m still very hands on.
Is there anything you wish you would have known before starting a business?
That’s hard because I feel like being a business owner, a lot of it is living and learning — and I’m not dogging going to school for business, not at all — but a lot of it is just trial and error; what best fits into your business and the way that you want your business to be represented. I wish that I would have known in the beginning that it’s OK to fail and it’s OK to have those trials and errors, because sometimes, being a business owner, you beat yourself up over it.
What is the biggest difference between teaching and performing?
It really would be patience and allowing other people to fail without feeling like you’re failing with them — because you can be so hard on yourself, but that’s your own responsibility. Just to be able to teach and know each one of these kids individually and know how hard you can push them or what triggers them, or what pushes the button to help make them become better. Patience is definitely the key word right there, and knowing that this week might not be the week but next week could. n CSBJ