MEET Shu-Chen Cuff: Shu-Chen Cuff, Founder/Artistic Director of Gin Dance Company was born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan where she established a well-rounded background in dance with training in Ballet, Modern, Chinese Opera movements, and various Chinese folk dances. In 1994, she immigrated to United States to continue her training and pursue her dance journey in U.S. In 1998, Shu-Chen received a B.F.A. from the University of Florida’s New World School of the Arts. Following college, she performed numerous classical and contemporary works while dancing with Miami Ballet and Nevada Ballet Theater. After relocating to the Washington, DC in 2002, Shu-Chen worked with Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company and has left her footprints around the world, touring to Asia, Latin and Central America, and Europe. She is currently on the faculty of BalletNova Center for Dance and Metropolitan School of the Arts. Continue reading to learn more about this remarkable woman, artist and teacher.
WMI: What inspired you to create the Gin Dance Company?
SC: It had been my dream for many years, since I was in junior high school. I even wrote down in my high school yearbook that I’d start a dance company; many of my classmates wrote notes to me in my yearbook with wishes that my dream come true. However, after the years went by, I thought owning a dance company was just a childhood dream; it’s not reality and it’s not going to happen. One day, my husband, Gary, who is the Executive Director of Gin Dance Company, and who had been encouraging me to start my own company since the day we met, showed me the Gin Dance Company logo that he created. Once I saw that, I realized it’s not just a dream, I can do this, I can make it happen. That was the day Gin Dance Company was borne.
WMI: Please share the company’s mission with Write Money Incorporated readers.
SC: At Gin Dance Company, our Mission is to provide the opportunity and environment for artists to learn, grow, and express themselves in a safe and creative space and to expose new audiences, as well as performing arts enthusiasts, to refreshing and vitalizing productions by Artistic Director, Shu-Chen Cuff, that touch the soul through visual arts and movement … enriching lives through dance.
WMI: How did you get started in dance as an individual dancer?
SC: Since I was little, I was always dancing and singing everywhere. I knew I wanted to be a performer. I saw myself as a singer, a dancer, and even as a movie star. All I ever wanted was to perform in front of people. In my elementary school, there was an after school dance class program. One day on my way walking home, I peeked into the class from the window and I fell in love with ballet. I was mesmerized by the way the dancers moved. I was in 1st grade at the time and I was so excited and wanted to enroll in the class, but my parents didn’t have enough money for me to do that. Every time I mentioned it to my parents, they would tell me, “You don’t want to be a dancer because you would have big thighs and calves with all the dancing everyday.” I couldn’t wait any longer. So one day I just starting taking class, I would go with into class in my street clothes and socks. I did that for a couple of weeks without any payment. Finally, I had to let my dad know that my teacher had been asking for payment. He came to watch my ballet class and, after that, he enrolled in the class and got me proper dance wear.
Years later, when I was 14, my friend in Taiwan gave me my 1st Dance Magazine(from U.S.), I immediately knew I wanted to come to the U.S. to purse my dance dreams. I came to the US and went to college at New World School of the Arts (University of Florida’s Performing Arts School). After graduation, I was hired by Nevada Ballet Theater and my career in Dance was launched.
WMI: Tell us what your role is as the company’s artistic director.
SC: My role as an Artistic Director is to oversee how the company grows in the artistic side of it. I focus on bringing the right dancers into the company. Dancers who not only have strong technique but who also can offer their unique artistry to each work. Most importantly, my role is to create refreshing and vitalizing works that touch our audience and at the same time help our dancers to reach their full potential.
WMI: What process do you follow to select dancers for your company?
SC: We hold an open audition prior to each of GDC’s upcoming seasons. However, during the season, there have been dancers who would like to try out for the company but missed the open audition. In those cases, I’ve invited them to join company class as an audition. I observe them, if I think they’re a good fit for the company, I offer them a position.
WMI: Do you offer programs for kids? If so, what services are offered during the programs?
SC: Being a professional company, we don’t have kids performing. However, we do lots of outreach to children. I teach Master Classes for kids; we conduct an annual book fair where we do mini performances and book readings (dance books) for little aspiring dancers; and we offer discounted tickets for kids to many of our performances. I’m also on the faculty with BalletNova and the Metropolitan School of the Arts and really enjoy working with pre-professional students.
WMI: Tell Write Money Incorporated readers about some of the remarkable events your company has performed at.
SC: Since launching GDC in the Fall of 2011, we’ve been enthusiastically creating new works and performing all over town to reach our goal and mission – Enriching lives through dance. In 2012, we performed at the Annual Reston Multicultural Festival, KMUAA Annual National Event, Fairfax County Dance Coalition Annual Gala, and the BalletNova Spring concert. We also performed for a great cause at the American Diabetes Association’s event – ‘Step Out – Walk to Stop Diabetes’ at National Harbor. We brought the curtain down on our 2012 season with a well-received full evening production in October of 2012 at Reston’s CenterStage.
We kicked off our 2013 season with a performance at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage (in March), followed by performances at BalletNova’s Spring concert in May, and the Angel Fund’s 2013 Remembrance Cabaret in honor of Reema Samaha who died in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting in June. We premiered ‘The Teller’ and ‘Unchain’ at our full evening production ‘A Night With Gin’ at the CenterStage in Reston in September. Earlier this month (October), we presented our award nominated works ‘Dear Mr. Cooper’ at the VelocityDC Dance Festival at the Sidney Harman Hall, and performed at the Fairfax County Dance Coalition’s Annual Gala. Later in the fall, we’ll be touring to Richmond, VA to participate in a national dance and theater festival, “Yes! Dance Invitational”.
We have also been nominated in several categories of the DC Dance Awards including Excellence in Choreography, Best Overall Performance, Best Group Performance, and Best Individual Performance.
WMI: Is this your first time operating and managing your own business? If not, please share with us a bit of history about another business you owned.
SC: No, my husband, Gary, and I also currently own Cuff and Company Realtors, a real estate brokerage. Helping manage the real estate business has been a real help in developing my business skills. Many arts companies struggle because their focus is solely on the artistic side of the business while the business side is neglected. I’d like to think that my business experience makes me a better, more well rounded leader of Gin Dance Company.
WMI: A lot has been said about start-up funding. Where did you find the funding to get the Gin Dance Company off the ground?
SC: Generally speaking, when starting a non-profit arts organization, funding is the single biggest challenge. We kicked off our GDC with a fund-raiser dinner and silent auction. It was a great help in getting the company off the ground. However, when starting a non-profit, it’s a labor of love and most people who’ve launched a non-profit organization will tell you that they funded much of the start-up costs themselves. We’re no exception to that.
WMI: What has been the toughest thing to learn about owning a business?
SC: I think it is managing the budget… because you are watching your spending, you can’t hire as many people as you would like to run the business. I found myself doing everything from running the rehearsals and creating new works to editing the music, films, and photos, marketing, booking performance venues, fan relations… The list just keeps going. I work all the time. It’s not uncommon to find me to be ironing or sewing costumes at 3 am.
WMI: What has been the most rewarding part of owning a business?
SC: It’s presenting our work after months and months of rehearsals in the studio, working on every detail, to an audience then seeing and hearing the reactions after the show. When the audience takes the time to say how much they enjoyed the performance and/or how they’ve been touched by it, it makes all the hard work worth it. I really get energized by the audience’s excitement and appreciation. Guess that’s the performer in me.
WMI: Social media networks, press releases, interviews, etc. provide a myriad of marketing opportunities. Share three to four specific marketing strategies/action steps you have found to be most effective at getting you exposure for your products.
SC: Social media is a great way for us to connect with our audience. However, to achieve a real connection with people, you have to be consistent. Without consistency, you simply can’t build relationships and building relationships is what social media is all about. Of course, the traditional way to market a product, service, or build a brand is advertising. Advertising doesn’t work on social media. Trying to sell something on social media is the quickest way to lose followers/friends. It’s all about connecting with people and being accessible … being real. The natural bi-product of sincerely building relationships with others is creating a loyal group of followers. If done properly, you’ll truly build a community of followers who care about what you’re doing. Social media is a passion for me. I really enjoy connecting with people there…
Press releases are also beneficial. They are a good way to build awareness and connections in the media. Again, consistency is the key. Do press releases on anything that may be newsworthy. Even if a story doesn’t get picked up (and most won’t), the consistency helps to demonstrate to the media that you’re there and you’re professional. One day, they may turn to you as an expert source for a story … But only if they know who you are.
WMI: To keep your business going, you have to generate cash inflow. Tell us about two to three effective cash inflow generating strategies you’ve found effective.
SC: As a non-profit organization, we rely on supporters (donations), fundraisers, & ticket sales to keep us going. Grants are also a source of funding for many non-profits arts organizations, but we have not turned to grants for any of our funding.
WMI: Who inspired you to go after your dreams when you were a child? How is this person still positively impacting your life today?
SC: When I was a child, my Dad was always encouraging me to go after my dreams. He was always telling me who made it successfully in their lives and careers and how they never gave up and kept moving forward even in the face of adversity. Those words definitely helped shape my life. Even today, they still impact me deeply. He’s living in Taiwan, but I Skype with him every week, so the lessons continue…
WMI: What’s next for Shu-Chen? Where do you see yourself and the Gin Dance Company two to three years from now?
SC: My goal is to have a 5 to 10 city domestic tour each season. I’d also like to take the company on limited international tours to Europe & Asia. I’d especially like to tour to Taiwan … It would be great to exchange works with Taiwan artists.