Nancy Parenti, Founder of Ballet Petite, Children’s Dance Education Program

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Nancy Parenti is the founder of Ballet Petite, a highly successful children’s dance education program based in the Washington, D.C. area. Ballet Petite has been around for over twenty years, educating young dancers in all aspects of the performing arts, from dance to music to storytelling.

What began as a supplementary movement class at her children’s nursery school expanded into a dance company that works with thousands of students every year. As a business founder in the early 1990s when the internet wasn’t a major resource for startups, Parenti harnessed the power of community to build this wildly successful program from scratch. Her experiences and advice are truly inspiring for any entrepreneur or business owner hoping to grow their passion into a career.

The Early Stages of Ballet Petite

As a child, Parenti began her personal ballet education at her local ballet school. After being accepted to train at the prestigious Washington School of Ballet in Washington, D.C., she went on to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees in dance.

After graduation, she returned to the Washington School of Ballet as a teacher, and worked with their program for 17 years. At the time, the Washington School of Ballet focused on students ages six and up. Though Parenti had a passion for all levels of dance education, she was specifically drawn to teaching the younger dancers.

ballet petite
Photography by Joe Henson

During her time as a teacher at Washington Ballet, Parenti became a mother to three children. Inspired by her dance background, she spearheaded a creative movement class at her children’s nursery school. As her classes evolved, Parenti expanded her lessons beyond movement, incorporating other forms of artistic and personal expression like pantomime, music, and etiquette.

Parenti based her curriculum around the books the children were reading with their teachers in school. Her program introduced props, costumes, dances, and classical musical arrangements that immersed the children into the stories.

“The teachers loved it from an educational standpoint because it was really pre-reading skills. So a little three-year-old could not yet, say, verbalize the tale of Peter Rabbit. But they could completely reenact the entire story through dance, through kinetic arts, through the musicality.”

The kinetic arts that Parenti makes reference to are based on the principles of kinesthetic learning, or “learning by doing”. Dance classes in early childhood are a prime application of this educational philosophy developed in the early twentieth century by influential philosophers like John Dewey, who asserted in his research that “action is the test of comprehension”.

The benefits of dance in early childhood extend beyond cognitive development. Dance also supports a child’s physical development (coordination, strength, endurance), emotional maturity, and social awareness.

Parenti saw firsthand how her classes supported her young students’ growth and development. What she did not see at the time was how her newly-developed performing arts curriculum would go on to become the foundation for a wildly successful business venture.

“One day a teacher turned to me and she said, ‘You know, you should do this for a job.’ I was, at that time, still teaching at Washington Ballet, and I thought, ‘You know, maybe I will try just a few little classes.’ So I rented some space from my church and started with just a handful of children.”

Growth and Development of the Program

Parenti began working with Deborah Benke, Founder of Washington Parent magazine, to distribute information about the new classes to parents in the local community. The demand for early dance education was more prominent than she had anticipated.

“[Deborah] actually ran the classes in terms of the registration component,” according to Parenti. “I remember she worked out of her basement, and of course I worked out of my basement, so I would go over to her house and we would go through the registrations and so forth and then the program simply exploded!”

As more and more parents heard about the dance program, local interest skyrocketed. Dance classes geared toward three-and-four-year-olds were in high demand, as there were few programs available in the Washington, D.C. area.

With the help of Benke, Parenti expanded from the church facilities to a second location — a little community room at a local shopping center. (This would later become the first dance studio for Ballet Petite.)

ballet petite

“I was, of course, the only teacher, so I pretty soon found myself teaching a million hours at once, teaching mostly during the daytime which was highly unique for a dance teacher. It was a full-time job. And of course, considering the fact that it was a startup, it was well over the hours of a typical full time job. Just the actual teaching part was full time.”

Parenti had to make the crucial decision of whether she was going to continue teaching alone, or whether she was going to expand the business by hiring additional teachers. She decided to take the leap, and developed a comprehensive training program for her new hires.

“From there, it just continued to grow without stopping,” Parenti explained. “I was definitely learning from experience as I went along. I had really great people that helped me, and that’s really essential. Someone that I went to high school with was one of those people. He was a tax attorney with an MBA as well, so I would have regular meetings with him and be coached on what the next steps were.”

In April 1994, Parenti started Ballet Petite, with her friend assisting on the financial, business, and legal paperwork. In addition to managing a quickly growing business, she was also facing an additional challenge — keeping up with rapid, widespread technological developments of the mid-90s.

She recalled, “That was during the days of the dot-com boom, so all sorts of technological changes were happening both on the artistic side as well as the operational back-end.”

Marketing and Brand Recognition

Despite developing a business without the digital branding and marketing resources of today, Parenti’s program found an eager audience thanks to one key advantage  — the uniqueness and inherent value of the program itself.

“I was so fortunate with Ballet Petite because it was something that parents immediately saw as high value. It was just right. Just in the right place, the right time, and right for the children,” she explained. “And then it became such a fundamentally successful brand that had such strong brand recognition and value. I didn’t have to work terribly hard at marketing. If I did, it was more for new programs that might come into place. For example, when we launched the musical theater department.”

Parenti says the rise in social media hasn’t drastically changed her approach to marketing. As an established business with a close-knit community, Ballet Petite was able to simply incorporate social media as an added bonus to their outreach strategy.

“For social media, I would have to say that we like to use it to tell stories more than anything else. Whether they’re just daily stories of what happened in class that day, or something funny that happened in the lobby, or some experience that happened outside of Ballet Petite.”

ballet petite

Evolving Through Change

As the program grew, Ballet Petite expanded beyond their original focus as a school for dancers in the three-to-four-year-old range. Ballet Petite grew into a large-scale dance academy with over 2,000 students, a headquarters, and a variety of class offerings for students ages 2 through 18.

“In the early days, as the children in the program aged up, I’d encourage them to move on. To go to Washington Ballet. To go to Joy of Motion. To go wherever the right place was for them. I was only successful at this for…not too long…”, Parenti laughed. “And for good reason! Ballet Petite is a wonderful place for children to grow and thrive.”

Though Ballet Petite did not initially intend to educate dancers through their high school years, Parenti saw the love that the dancers had for their childhood studio, their dance friends, and their teachers. Without skipping a beat, she began formulating classes and programs for her older students as well as continuing the younger curriculum.

“There’s no question that, in my heart, I just wanted to do as much as I could for what the students and parents wanted.”

While this expansion was a great sign of success for Parenti, she wanted to figure out a way to go back to the roots of the program. Looking at the evolution of her students over time, Parenti noticed fewer stay-at-home moms and more children entering school at an early age. It became clear that rather than relying on the students to come to Ballet Petite, Ballet Petite needed to come to the students.

“There was a need to return back to how we started, which was in schools and churches and community centers, simply because these places are more accessible to children on a local level. Ballet Petite had become kind of more of a regular performing arts school – not too different from most dance schools. So I really wanted to go back to what was so unique about Ballet Petite in the first place, and go to the children.”

About a year and a half ago, Parenti decided to refocus her company. Instead of continuing to build her large-scale dance academy, she developed Ballet Petite Enrichment Programs to bring her curriculum directly to elementary schools in the area.

ballet petite

Today, Ballet Petite is in its second year of the new program and has already seen significant growth. Last year, the company had seven Enrichment Programs. This year, they are up to 20 programs and counting.

As for the future of Ballet Petite, Parenti says, “We are in the throws of franchising right now, but it’s going to be based on that original vision of Ballet Petite in community settings, as opposed to the neighborhood dance school in a shopping center sort of thing.”

Advice For Entrepreneurs

Parenti had a lot on her plate while building her business. With three kids and a more-than-full-time job, she found a way to simultaneously do what she loved, work hard, and raise a family.

“There’s no question that you have to work very, very hard. You have to be relentless and there’s gonna be a lot of tough times. While I was creating Ballet Petite, I was raising three children who were all two years apart,” she said. “So of course, it was an extremely busy time, both as a parent and as a founder of a startup business that was growing so fast.

“But for me, it was never really an issue to find a ‘work-life balance.’ It was always more about how to integrate work and family together.”

Today, Ballet Petite has become a family business — with one of Parenti’s sons helping with her franchising effort and her daughter teaching with the program. This work-family integration isn’t the right fit for everyone, but it has been a wonderful situation for Parenti’s family and her business.

There were other aspects of Parenti’s entrepreneurship that didn’t come as easily — like learning some tough lessons about trust and delegation.

ballet petite

“The thing that I really needed to learn was how to trust and rely on other people’s expertise. I think a lot of it had to do with, number one, how passionate I was about my business. And since I was the founder and also the person who did everything in the beginning, I thought I was an island, and that only I could do the work the very best. But you definitely need to get help and trust the other people. And then you come to realize that there are other people who actually do things much better than you!”

This is a common struggle for many startup founders. It can be tempting to take on the entire workload when you have a vision and you’re incredibly passionate about what you’re doing, but it’s even more important to remember that your project will likely turn out better in the end if you avoid burnout by getting help.

And that passion is important, Parenti says, because focusing on your skills and interests is key to a successful business.

“If you’re going to start a business, you really need to love it,” Parenti says, “And it’s really best if you do something that you’re really good at doing, as well. Everything I put together in that initial curriculum were things that I loved to do, things that I wanted my own children to learn, things that I wanted other children to learn, and they were all things I was really good at doing.”

A degree of comfort with risk and failure is another factor that has helped Parenti build a successful business.

“You also have to be a natural risk taker. And along with taking those risks, I think you have to also be very emotionally ready for the challenges of building a business. For as much success as I’ve had, there have been so many failures,” she laughed.

Perhaps most importantly, no matter how many roadblocks Parenti faced while building her business, she never gave up.

“At the end of the day, you just can’t take no for an answer. Ever. There is always a way. There is always a solution. And you’re always going to learn from all those stumbling blocks. You just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, forget about it, and move on.”

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