What were you doing at 18? Alex was creating a dance company

Video by MWN

 

Tell us a bit about Spark Youth Dance Company. 

Spark Youth Dance Company is a non-profit dance company driven entirely by youth from the Mornington Peninsula. I started Spark when I was eighteen years old, two months after graduating from high school after realising that there were no opportunities for young dancers in the area to be part of a dance company experience and that it was hard for young, aspiring creatives to get started in the industry.

Alex Dellaportas founder of Spark Youth Dance Company
Alex Dellaportas founder of Spark Youth Dance Company

I also was very interested in choreography myself and wanted a place where I could expand my knowledge and continue choreographing the stories I wanted to tell.

Our purpose is to inspire young people to tell stories through dance. Young dancers often grow up surrounded by dance competitions and exams and are never really exposed to the creative possibilities of dance. We want to provide a safe space for young people to come together and create art, to learn about the world and themselves through dance. We do this by auditioning for dancers each year and then creating a number of dance projects throughout the year with them - including our major work at the end of each year that includes a live orchestra. We have connected with 10 local dance schools through all the dance students that are involved each year and continue to connect these young artists to professionals in the industry.

What were you doing before you went into business for yourself?

Well, I was at school! At school my favourite subjects were things like dance, music, English, history and literature - so I guess combining all of these things was my first instinct when faced with the task of figuring out what I wanted to do for my life.

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And I am actually not paid for any of the work I do with Spark as we’re non-profit so every dollar counts. We pay all professionals involved with the company but all our amazing young people are volunteers. When I started Spark in 2016 I was also teaching at a dance school, attending Deakin University and working at a bookstore. It was full on.

This year, I made the decision to put Uni on hold for a year and go all in on the dance company to see what would happen, and also for my own mental health to focus on just one thing at a time. And so far, it has definitely paid off!

What made you want to start your own business?

I guess I was just really excited to start something of my own and have something I could nurture and grow as I learnt more about the world and created my art. I have probably always been the entrepreneurial type, always making plans for big things and including myself in the leadership teams at both primary and high school. My parents are both like this, too. My mum owns her own accounting business, Aspire Accounting Professionals and my dad is a photographer but also does his own music, plays in a band, does graphic design and all sorts of other creative things such as filmmaking.

I also always wanted to choreograph and was a co-choreographer for Rosebud Secondary College’s Wakakirri entries in 2014 and 2015. In 2015 our story about the Holocaust, ‘One of Us’, won first place in Australia, and that experience was sort of the lightbulb moment where I knew I wanted to tell stories for a living. And I knew I wanted to do it with young people since I was one myself and knew that kids and youth are almost always underestimated. I wanted to prove people wrong and make beautiful art with kids and teenagers.

How did you come up with the name?

Honestly, it took me a long time to come up with a name. Choreographing for Wakakirri was a hugely defining experience for me. I think that was the moment that made me want to set something up in the future where I could do that forever. So the word “Spark” comes from the moment here that “sparked” my passion for this industry.

My hope is that we will be able to “spark” this kind of fiery passion in all the young people we involve in the company. And not just for a career in the arts, but also a passion for life and for being curious and pushing boundaries and having a voice.

Describe the staff/ownership structure of Spark Dance Company. 

When we first started it was just me. I roped my accountant mum into being our Secretary and my incredible Aunty Nat into being Treasurer. I also called on a lot of my friends to help with the management of the company. Since then, we are now operating with two volunteer admin assistants as well as myself still heading the company with the assistance of my friend Sophie. We also involve young people on our creative team and so have youth filling the roles of Photographer, Lighting Designer, Orchestra Management, Stage Manager and we have a couple of other choreographers working with us this year for our upcoming Triple Bill in April.

But a lot of the work is still done by me at my little desk in my bedroom. I wear quite a few hats sometimes - some days switching from admin person, to choreographer, to dance teacher, to marketing director, to finance director all in one day!

Did you require investment to start your business? Where did that come from?

We have grown purely through sponsorships and grants that we’ve had from local businesses and organisations. A lot of the company has been funded by myself and my other jobs, though we have had support from our Shire Council and our local Bendigo Bank. We also have one individual sponsor who has donated a generous amount each year. But we are always looking for new partnerships where we can pair our brand with other businesses.

 

DANCE STUDIO OWNERS! ✨ We’d love to welcome all dance studios to bring groups of students to see our 90min dance work ‘Shatter’ about the Suffragettes with live orchestra, at the discounted price of $15 each! ???? Email us to get the discount link for Bunjil Place show on 11th April and Geelong show on 14th April. . . We are also offering: - FREE workshops at your studio - FREE post-show talk with us . . This work has been directed by youth and focuses on such an important message about gender equality and women’s rights. We would love to share these stories with your dancers and inspire them to work hard to have their voices heard as the future glass-ceiling breakers of our world ???????? Please comment below or email us at [email protected] if you are interested in any of these opportunities for your students. . . Proudly Supported by @mamamiaaus, Australia’s first Women’s Media Company @miafreedman . #dancestudioowner #melbourne #melbournedance #melbournetheatre #danceschool #danceschools #SYDCShatter

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What kind of advice did you get before you started and from who?

The advice I mostly got from people was to not do it! People thought I was crazy trying to set something like this up with next to no money. They didn’t think it would continue for more than one year but boy did I prove them wrong!

I remember one post I made in our local Facebook group when we just started advertising for youth dancers, there was a lady that commented saying “it’s a good idea, but it’s not going to work” who then proceeded to list all the reasons young people shouldn’t run a dance company. I wish I could find that lady now and show her how far we’ve come.

Otherwise, I did get a lot of advice from local dance teachers and family members. Most of them were sceptical, but all told me to keep working hard. In our first year, we also worked with former Principal Artist of The Australian Ballet, Daniel Gaudiello, and I remember him saying to never give up and to keep pushing to see where this journey could lead. That was definitely advice I needed and it meant a great deal coming from someone so high up in the dance world.

What’s the single best piece of advice you got?

So far, I think just watching my dad work has been the biggest piece of advice I’ve ever had. He lives and breathes hard work and is always so passionate about what he does. He is a big believer in doing things in the moment and thinking about them later and that is something I try to replicate every single day. I try to take on every opportunity and just go for the things I want in life because if you don’t ask the universe, it will never be a possibility.

What’s the one bit of advice you would give yourself if you were starting again?

If I was starting this all again, I would tell my 18-year old self that it’s going to be hard. That there are going to be days where you just want to give up and unregister the company. There will be days where you don’t want to get out of bed. And there will be days where you move quickly from the happiest mood ever to a sad one. But through all of that, just remember that you are giving those kids something incredible and in a few years you are going to be a role model in their lives and will be able to help others learn about themselves and find their passions.

I would also tell myself to look after me. My health has suffered quite a bit in the last few years, especially during production weeks. Nothing is more important than your physical and mental health. Even when you are forced to burn the candle at both ends to get work done!

At Mamamia we have an expression “flearning” - failing and learning. What have been your biggest flearnings since you have started Spark?

Oh gosh there are just so many of these moments it’s going to be hard to pick just one!

I would say I go through “flearning” every single day. But actually, the biggest “flearning” moment for me would actually have to be right now. We’re in the process of taking our 90-minute dance work “Shatter” on tour to Geelong and Narre Warren, and it has all come around super fast. Our team are working crazy hours to sell tickets, especially in the Geelong area, and we’re currently considering cancelling a show. So every step of this experience over the last few weeks, while not really “failing”, has been teaching me things about how to go on tour next time and about how a tour works. I never consider anything a genuine failure. I love that word flearning because I truly do believe that every experience is worth it from what you can learn from it. I hope our tour does go ahead despite our ticketing problems if we can manage to sell a few more but also it will have been such an integral learning experience for me that I wouldn’t give up for the world.

 

What is the smartest thing you’ve done since starting your business?

At the moment, the smartest thing I am learning is the art of delegation. I’ve got two amazing admin assistants that have been taking on a lot of the jobs I normally do myself and it has been so worth it. We are more efficient as a team and we’re getting jobs done a lot faster!

 

Are there any pieces of technology or software, apps or systems that have made it easier to do what you do?

We use Google Drive a lot and find it handy to share documents with each other so we can edit together in real-time. We also use Movitae, a platform that dance schools and groups use to privately share videos with students so they can go over choreography at home. Movitae has been a life-saver for us while we’ve been restaging ‘Shatter’ as the kids have been able to re-learn/learn the choreography at home - saving us a lot of time in rehearsals.

 

What do you do when you’re feeling like you’re in a hole emotionally (or financially)? How do you handle those ‘deep-trough-of-pain’ startup moments?

I mean, sometimes I just need to lie on the floor and take a few minutes to just be sad.

And then pick myself up and get working again.

But other times I generally know when I am too stressed to continue doing efficient work. So in those times, I usually will just stop what I’m doing and go watch a movie or do something fun to stop thinking about it. I usually need to find a way to reset my mind.

I often also feel lonely in my work as well - there aren’t many other dance company directors that are my age doing what I do, so it can be hard sometimes to find people that understand what I’m going through. Those moments can be especially tough. And sometimes just crying it out to a sympathetic sister will be enough to make me feel like I can keep going.

I find that this job is quite tough because usually, I am switching between the creative side and the admin/business side very quickly, which is taxing for my mind and body. Sometimes when I am feeling too overwhelmed I will go find a quiet space and just improvise. That’s the benefit of being a dancer - it is my stress causer sometimes but it can also be my stress release. I will forever love the freedom of dancing on my own to some loud, emotional music. It’s where I feel safest and it’s where I can always turn back to feel more like ‘me’.

Knowing that the bad moments don’t last forever though, as cliche as it sounds, is definitely something that always helps. It lets me just sit in whatever is causing me stress and know that it will pass and I won’t feel like that forever. In those moments I try to remember those feelings I get when I’m watching one of my productions side stage in a beautiful theatre. That is my ‘why’ and that is why I keep going through the tough moments.

Mamamia Outloud discuss how saying "No" can be one of the hardest things to do. Post continues after audio...

How many hours a day do you work on your business? Has this changed? How do you manage your time?

Shouldn’t the question be how many hours don’t I work on my business? Lol. Usually, I spend from 9 am in the morning until about 1 am at night working. In between that there is sometimes the occasional shift at work and a couple of hours a week teaching dance. With social media it is sometimes quite hard to switch off, so even if I am sitting on the couch watching TV, I’m usually working hard on social media, scheduling posts or posting on Instagram.

To be honest I haven’t mastered the work-life balance thing yet. And I’m still only 20 years old so hopefully, I will learn this more as I go. I definitely know when my body is tried though and I generally know when I have to stop and take a break.

 

What are your non-negotiables? 

I always make sure I have at least one dance class for myself every week. Something so simple like a ballet class can make such a difference to how I’m feeling in a day. It reminds me of why I love to dance in the first place. So usually I try not to miss dance classes (except for in crazy production weeks).

 

What's the biggest misconception you had about starting your business - how is it different to what you'd imagined?

I definitely had no idea just how hard running a non-profit would be. The financial side has probably been the biggest struggle for us. Unlike other businesses, we don’t really have a conventional “product” to sell. Our products are our shows and each show takes months to produce. It’s difficult to convince people to support something that they haven’t seen yet and even more difficult to convince people to donate to the arts. Even though art is all around us every day and ALL of us should be constantly giving to places that encourage this art to happen.

I’ve even been denied a grant because the group didn’t support “art for art’s sake”, whatever the hell that means. I don’t think any artist ever has ever done “art for art’s sake” but that’s exactly what most of the public think when they think of artists.

 

Tell us about your proudest moment?

Last year, we created our production ‘Shatter’ which is a 90-minute dance work about the Suffragettes. My dream had always been to make a production with an orchestra and the first year we couldn’t get it up and running as we had so many other things to organise.

But last year, I was determined to make it happen. We had a pretty mixed repertoire of pieces for the show including the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Shostakovich Symphony 10 Allegro, and we also had an original piece composed for us by a local young composer named Annie Pirotta (also a young talent you should look out for!)

Myself and our amazing Music Director Laura Campbell worked incredibly hard to get the orchestra together. And we did it.

There was this one moment on opening night when the orchestra was all seated in the pit and the dancers and crew were sitting on the stage and I was addressing everyone - over 90 people - and I just broke into tears. I was looking at the very thing I had imagined in my head for so long. It was right there. I was so emotional that day. And so proud of what we had created. The curtain opening, the orchestra playing their first notes and the spotlight fading onto our main dancer with all of our young ones holding their breath in the wings; that was the proudest moment of my life.

 

What does your personal life look like? Who are the important people in your life and work?

The most important people in my life are my family and the incredible friends who have helped make this all happen. My sister, although she’s only 14, has been my biggest source of guidance and support on this journey. I couldn’t do it without her.

 

How much sleep do you get every night?

Not enough, probably.

 

What can you recommend to women who might want to get their own hustle going?  

Make sure you are really passionate about what you want to do. It is the passion that will get you through all the tough moments. If you have a passion for something, nothing and no one can stop you. Don’t be afraid to do something new because the world needs new voices.

 

Do you have a mentor? Who do you go to for help and advice now?

I have had a few different mentors over the years but one very special one has been Melanie Gard, the Principal of Peninsula School of Dance. She has been an incredible support both with encouraging her students to join the company and also giving me such valuable business advice. She is a living example of the kinds of women we celebrate in our dance work ‘Shatter’ and I love that I have had her support for this adventure!

 

Since we’re in the #LadyStartUp spirit, which Lady Startups do you recommend? Who should we be looking out for?

I would definitely recommend checking out freelance artist Jacqi Russo. She has made a whole bunch of merchandise for our ‘Shatter’ show and is the mother of two of our company artists. She is a feminist to her core and believes so much in her art and creation. I have loved working with her and have admired seeing her work on Instagram. She inspires me greatly and even though she doesn’t have a traditional startup, I think she’s a person in the art business worth supporting. 

 

Shatter is the story of Rosie, a young woman living through the era of the Suffrage movement in London, 1908; a movement that wanted to grant women the right to vote.

After growing up with a passionate Suffragette mother, Rosie turns away from women’s rights, fearing to be completely outcast by society. As the Suffragettes gain momentum in their protests through rallies and violent acts, Rosie is pulled into the movement and sacrifices all to shatter not only her own glass ceilings but the world’s as well.

Performed by young contemporary dancers to a live orchestra and choreographed and designed by young creatives, Shatter will take you on an epic journey through one of the most incredible eras in our history.

GET YOUR TICKETS HERE

Bunjil Place theatre
Wednesday 11th April 7.30pm

Geelong Performing Arts Centre
Saturday 14th April 7.30pm

 

You can see more from Spark Youth Dance Company on their websiteFacebook and Instagram. If you have a #LadyStartUp or want to recommend one for us to cover, drop us an email: [email protected]



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