Focus 33 Photography Series | Women Entrepreneurs
Charlotte Foster Williamson – Atlanta Dance Central
Featured this month in our Women Entrepreneurs Series is Charlotte Foster Williamson, owner of Atlanta Dance Central. She graciously shared with us her entrepreneurial journey and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Dancing has always been part of life for Charlotte Foster Williamson, owner of Atlanta Dance Central. She started dancing at the age of three when her mom enrolled her in her first class. “I really loved dance,” she says. “I had a lot of teachers (in the beginning) that were more focused on the passion for dance, and that made it fun. I think that’s what made me fall in love with it.”
Charlotte continued to dance throughout elementary school, and through high school. She developed her technical skills in the art form and her passion followed. She studied many different genres of competitive dance including ballet, jazz, tap, and hip hop. In 2006, Charlotte earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Dance with a focus on education from The University of Georgia.
“I thought that I wanted to be a Rockette or perform on Broadway,” she recalls. “But I never liked auditioning, and the instability that would involve.” She ultimately realized that she preferred teaching and choreographing more than performing. After graduating from UGA, Charlotte knew her ultimate goal was to open a dance studio and offer programs for special needs children.
Charlotte’s interest in the special needs population begin while in college when she took an “adapted PE” class that required her to create a workout plan for a special needs student. She was paired with an autistic woman who was non-verbal and not remotely interested in doing the exercises. One day, however, as Charlotte playfully sung out loud what they were to do, she noticed that the singing resonated with the young lady. She was suddenly moving along perfectly in sync with Charlotte. “For some reason the singing worked for her. It was very fascinating to me,” she says. “That inspired me to try and reach those who seemed unreachable and not being helped.”
Charlotte took a teaching position with The City of Roswell immediately following college. She took over a recreational performance dance company, which was comprised of 18 girls. “They were kind of like a group of misfits,” she jokes. “I had my work cut out for me. I started to work with those kids, and I fell in love with them.”
At the same time, Charlotte also began a dance program for children with Down syndrome. While in college, she had assisted Vince Schmidt with a tennis academy he had developed to help children, like his son with Down syndrome. The program, which included a tennis and physical therapy component, sparked the idea for Charlotte and Vince to work together to create a similar program in Atlanta that would focus on her teaching dance to special needs students. The Foster-Schmidt Dance Academy for Down Syndrome was born, and Charlotte began to teach the program at weekend workshops.
Charlotte continued to teach dance classes and workshops while also managing SIDEWAYS, a professional dance company she had started for adults. All the while, she was determined to open her own space. “I found this space two years before I actually rented it,” she remembers. “I would come and sit outside and envision what the studio would look like.”
In April 2009, right in the midst of the recession, Charlotte decided it was time to move forward with her dream and bring everything she was working on into one place. “A lot of people thought I was crazy. “They couldn’t understand why I’d start a business in the middle of a recession,” she recalls. But she was determined. She signed a seven-year lease on the space in Roswell, and worked diligently with construction crews for four months to finish the studio. The final build out joined together two separate retail spaces into one totaling 6,000 square feet, including three large dance studios for classes. It was not a conservative approach, but one that would accommodate the future growth that Charlotte envisioned for Atlanta Dance Central.
Without a business background there was a lot to learn in the beginning. Charlotte’s parents and husband, Jeremy, have been instrumental in advising her on the operational and financial aspects of the business. They also provided great emotional support along the way. “My mom and dad believed that the studio would be a success even when I had doubts,” she remembers. “They just trusted in me and knew it would work.”
Atlanta Dance Central opened on October 1, 2009, and Charlotte’s first class of 18 girls moved over to the new studio with her. Enrollment steadily began to grow. In the first year, 70 students performed in the studio’s recital. Now, five years after opening, there are currently over 300 students enrolled in programs, and there is still room to grow. The staff at Atlanta Dance Central has also expanded, with five staff members on board all working together collaboratively to ensure the best experience for students and parents.
“When I started the studio, my goal was to create a place where students could train in any style they wanted,” Charlotte explains. Whereas most dance studios have a specific focus, she aimed to give authentic training in a variety of different disciplines, and create well-rounded dancers. But she and her staff are teaching more than just dance. They are leaving a lasting impression as they impart skills like responsibility, self confidence, positive body image, goal-setting, and discipline in their students.
The Foster-Schmidt Dance Academy for Down Syndrome has flourished. This year, the program has 35 kids enrolled. The program, open to kids and adults with Down syndrome, now consists of three levels of classes and a dance company. The students attend classes weekly and perform in the annual studio recital each May. Charlotte still teaches the classes and sees first-hand the growth in her students. “Through dance, they are learning to develop skills like coordination, balance, independence, short-term memory retention, focus, and rhythm.” she explains. “We work on remembering the five rules before every class. My number one rule is to try your best.”
Students in The Foster-Schmidt Dance Academy program can also audition for a place in the dance company. Being involved in the company requires more commitment, additional practices, and the opportunity to perform throughout the year. “Auditioning for the company gives students something to set a goal for and achieve. It’s something to be proud of,” Charlotte explains. The company was recently accepted to participate in a workshop at Disney World next summer. The students are looking forward to the opportunity to learn from Disney cast members, and to perform three dances on stage at Downtown Disney.
Mrs. Charlotte (as her students call her) has succeeded in bringing her vision to life. Atlanta Dance Central is the direct result of her tenacity, hard work, and a “Just Do It” attitude. The abundant love she has for her students is unmistakable, and it continues to fuel her passion for teaching.
To learn more about Charlotte’s dance studio, visit: atlantadancecentral.com
Slideshow: A Look Inside Atlanta Dance Central