Dance Stories: Louise Callin & the challenges of opening a studio on Waiheke Island, NZ
Louise Callin is an inspiring dance studio owner who moved across the world to set up the Louise Emma Academy of Dance on the beautiful (and somewhat remote) Waiheke Island in New Zealand. Her school and her students are the ultimate reward for overcoming the day to day challenges of running a dance school off the beaten track. We spoke to Louise to find out what drives her and how she achieves a balance between running her business and living far away from her family and friends in the UK.
Louise grew up in Surrey, England and has been dancing all her life. After starting dance at the age of 3 at a local studio she took up full time training at the Elmhurst School of Dance, and after graduating embarked on a career that took her around the world, most recently with P & O Cruises. When she met her partner, Ben, she travelled backwards and forwards between New Zealand and the UK, until, with his help, she opened the Louise Emma Academy of Dance. Since then, she hasn't looked back.
E: Did you previously have dreams of setting up a studio?
L: I always wanted to. That was always my dream, but I still thought I had dancing in me. So I came to New Zealand for a bit and then I went back to England to try and pursue my career a bit more, did some auditions and just really struggled with it, and it just made sense to come back here and see how things would go. It was a big decision to give up my dancing shoes and move out here!
E: So how did the school come about?
L: I was looking into options on the island, and I tried to get nanny work, and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. And my partner Ben knew of a space coming available for hire - he basically just took on the lease and said “make it work, you always said you wanted to do it so here you go!” If I had had the choice at the time maybe I wouldn’t have done it then, so I’m glad that he pushed me to do it. There was definitely a niche for it here though. The whole attitude here is quite laid back, so it was quite a big thing to start more of a structured school here, but I’ve stuck to my guns with it and I can’t imagine the kids not having it now.
E: And whereabouts are you in comparison to mainland New Zealand?
L: Waiheke is an island about 30 minutes from Auckland. The ferries run all day every hour in winter and every half hour in summer, so it's kind of like going to London from Surrey on the train but on a boat instead! And it’s becoming quite popular here because it’s quite luxurious compared to Auckland, so many people commute to work and live here. There’s about 8,000 residents all year round, but it’s quite a big island, so in the holidays it goes up to around 50,000 people because of tourism. It’s beautiful.
E: 8,000 permanent residents is not that many - so how many students do you have in the school?
L: It goes between about 140 and 160, it all depends on the term, and the highest we ever had was 180. You do get come and go-ers because most of the sports on the island are seasonal, so for a while there’s nothing on but then as soon as sports start again some of them drop out! And so there's a lot of students that just do one or two classes a week, but then we’ve got 25 competition kids and another 20 on top that do packages of multiple classes a week.
E: Do you think because there are limited options on the island for dance that the students appreciate it more?
L: I think generally people do really appreciate the workload that is put in, and I do have lots of parents who support and watch the competitions who definitely appreciate what we do. And I met with Jayne Coleman, who is the principal of an incredible school I used to teach at in the UK (the Jayne A Coleman Academy of Dance), when I went back home in January and she gave me some really good advice: that nothing anyone complains about is personal. Not everyone will always agree with you, it’s normal. And there's not really another school on the island, but there are some amazing schools in Auckland that people can go to if they want to commute as well. The standard here is amazing, so strong - there's a really strong competition scene here as well.
E: So do you do any of these competitions on the mainland?
L: We do competitions in Auckland, we literally get the ferry and then a taxi! There’s a boys school with a massive theatre and so we probably do six a year in the same venue, which is convenient because we all know it. There are a couple a bit further out which we do but each time a comp comes up I just weigh up if it’s worth going that far. We used to enter groups divided by age, but we’ve done a couple of numbers now in open groups, with a mixed age group with pupils that show great ability in that specific style. And that's mainly because some of the schools in town are huge, so they have 30 or 40 kids on stage and then we come on with 7! We do well but sometimes you need the impact of patterns and so on.
E: Do you have the opportunity to put on shows?
L: Running a show on the island is one of the most challenging things - because there's not really a venue. There is a theatre that holds 115, which we are using for a show in May, which will be a competition showcase of our troupe numbers and some solos from competitions. We did a full school show last year but the problem is the theatre isn't big enough to hold everyone! So for that, we had to hire a school, and we used their little stage and built another stage off it. But there was a lot of work that went into creating dressing rooms out of tents and so on, so we can't do it every year.
E: That does sound challenging! Is there anything else that you find particularly difficult on the island?
L: Exams are hard, because September is the only time ISTD offer modern exams here, so you have time everything around it. So the kids go from having four terms of training in the grade classes to only three if you take a whole term out to do a show. And you can’t just say "wait six months", because there is no opportunity until the next year, which is really hard. RAD do three opportunities a year for our ballet exams as they have an office in Wellington, so generally we do them every November, but the vocational levels require a bit more than a year. It can be stressful trying to time everything!
E: Is there much teacher training available where you are?
Not really, I’ve done both of my associate diploma qualifications here through someone in Auckland so I had a little bit of help. But my next thing is my ISTD licentiate and I’m not sure how I’m going to do it. I will just have to try and get through it! I have a friend at home in the UK who helps me when I get stuck with anything - I will Skype her and be like “help me!”, and she'll show me the steps, which has been awesome.
E: And how have you found hiring teachers for your school?
L: I have a teacher Olivia who came over from England and she’s amazing. She wanted to move here and found my website, and we met and hit it off. And she’s now wanting to get residency here, she came out on her own at 22 years old and she just really inspires me. She's a great wing woman who shares my passion for the school, and she’s English too which is great! The other teachers I have are also fantastic, and teach for me throughout the week.
E: What are your plans for the school?
L: I’d love for the school to keep going and be successful. I’ve always aspired for my school to be like Jayne’s but I also want balance in my life. I’ve now got some days where I don’t teach so I can do the admin and not be too exhausted. I’d love for the school to keep doing well and see how everything goes. We’re renovating at the moment to make it look really nice. I’d never want to just stop the school, even if something happened I would want it to go to someone who could carry it on, because the island is only getting busier.
E: And finally, what’s been the most rewarding part for you?
The competition kids are a big passion for me. Seeing them on stage is incredible. When they auditioned their solos for the show last week I was just blown away by the standard. I’m usually very critical of my own work but I couldn’t believe how far they’ve come. That’s probably the biggest reward and reminds me why I’m doing it. The improvement in the kids is why you give your blood sweat and tears I think. And it does outweigh the bad, in those key moments like exams or shows, you realise it’s so worth it.
You can follow Louise and her studio on instagram @leaod_waiheke
Interview by Emily Newton-Smith