We were lucky to catch up with Leslie Gourley recently and have shared our conversation below.
Alright, Leslie thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. It’s always helpful to hear about times when someone’s had to take a risk – how did they think through the decision, why did they take the risk, and what ended up happening. We’d love to hear about a risk you’ve taken.
The biggest risk I have ever undertaken was purchasing Decatur School of Ballet in 2018. I was in my mid-50’s and I had had a fairly successful career as dancer, teacher, choreographer and company associate director. My husband and I had finally gotten to a place where we weren’t feeling the struggle every month. Our daughter (who is a professional dancer in the Atlanta area and a teacher with our school) had graduated college, so that hurdle was behind us. Then this offer was extended, and it felt like it was something I could not pass up – at least I had to try. I really didn’t think that the bank would finance me, but as it turned out, they liked the idea. So, at age 55 I put everything we own on the line and bought the property and the business. The first year was a crash course in learning how to run a business. I had no background in business, so the learning curve was steep. Midway through my second year, COVID hit. This was the singular most frightening time in my life, because there was a real chance that my husband and I would lose everything. I also had to worry about my employees who rely on our studio for their livelihood. Immediately we had to learn how to pivot to online learning, using a platform (Zoom) that until late March of 2020, I had never heard of. I grasped at the hope that we would be back after “14 days to stop the spread”. Foolish hope. We continued to create innovative ways to complete our season, gave financial incentives to patrons who didn’t withdraw from dance (we lost 1/3 of our students the first year of COVID). We came back into the studio in mid-June of 2020, offering classes in studio and online, an option which continued through May of 2021. We discovered, like so many others did, the art of presenting dance performances via streaming services and outdoor venues. In 2021, we built our student body back by a third of the third we lost, and by May of 2022 we were able to present a recital in our typical venue. So far this fall, we have added another 35 students, hovering at around 486. We feel so fortunate, as about 35% of the private dance studios folded during the pandemic. This year we are trying to reach out into the community, both the dance community and the community at large, by creating residency opportunities for emerging artists, scholarship opportunities (which are still in the works) and collaborations with other artistic entities. The risk is still there. The economic situation, particularly the rising interest rates, is still a worry. But I am feeling hopeful that we have weathered the storm and that the business will continue to thrive.
Leslie , before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
Well, I feel certain most people have never heard of me. Mine has been an ordinary life, full of extraordinary moments. When I was two years old, I saw a movie short with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and I said to my mother, “Mommy, that’s what I want to be when I grow up.” I started my dance training when I was 6, just after recovering from a broken leg. After 3 years of training, my family moved from Georgia to Mississippi and my training floundered for a time. When I was in 11th grade, my mom and I moved back to Georgia, and at the beginning of my senior year in high school, I arrived at Decatur School of Ballet. I was accepted into the performing company headquartered at the school (then called Decatur-DeKalb Civic Ballet). I continued as a member of the company for the first two years of college. As a junior in college, I transferred to Texas Christian University to pursue a BFA in Ballet Performance. After graduating in 1986, I returned home and was hired as a teacher at Decatur School of Ballet and was accepted as a professional member of the performing company (which had changed its name to Decatur Dancers, later to become Beacon Dance Company, and finally Decatur City Dance). I continued to teach and perform, but also added choreographer and associate director to the mix. In 2018 I purchased Decatur School of Ballet, becoming the 3rd owner and became the artistic director of Decatur City Dance. I think one of the things that sets me apart from many studio owners is that I have been in the teacher’s shoes for so many years. I know what it is like to be in the classroom. I know what I wish I could have done when I was teaching and still performing. I understand the struggles of young artists and I think I am well situated to understand what our students need as well. I have a passion for the art of dance and want to encourage students to find that same passion and I want to help emerging artist find support as they carry on their journey of creating and enriching. I also appreciate the history of our school, now in its 75th year. I knew the previous owners and I feel a responsibility to continue and build upon their legacies.
Is there a mission driving your creative journey?
My original goal was to be a famous ballerina. To dance in NYC with ABT or NYCB. Over time, it became obvious that this was not my path. So as I continued on my creative journey, my goal was first to be fully immersed in my character, role, or the performance quality necessary to connect with the audience. As my performing career wound down, I began to create choreography. My goal in creating movement and dance was to have a point of view that could connect with both the performer and the audience. I continue to find value in performance with purpose.
What do you find most rewarding about being a creative?
What is so rewarding about being a creative artist is connecting with other human beings, sharing with others points of view, spiritual or emotional journeys, or just pure beauty. Art used as a unifier is a beautiful thing. It can help us understand each other in a deeply personal way, not always articulated or understood in a simple conversation. I guess by being an artist I get to bare my soul for others to see – or feel.
Billy Woods; Kathleen Banks Everett