Young, Scrappy, & Hungry: Megan Bowen
Photo by @cesar.shoots
Megan Bowen, professional dancer and fitness instructor (among many other things) found herself in the same place that so many of us were in at the start of the pandemic - completely jobless and fearful of the immediate future of the arts. Rather than let that fear define her, she took the bleak parameters of the time, transformed them into propellers, and launched a business in the middle of a global pandemic. Dance From Home, LLC - a virtual dance fitness business that offers cardio, choreography, and stretching classes - not only has provided Megan with a stable income, but also provides a service to a community of more than 575 people, and employs other artists to teach classes and workshops.
Megan is someone whose journey I have closely followed throughout all of quarantine, and her story is nothing short of invigorating and inspiring. She was so gracious to have a chat with me so I could find out more about her life as an artist/entrepreneur!
What was the impetus for first teaching virtually and then moving to creating a proper LLC?
I think everything kind of aligned perfectly, which is weird to say because the pandemic is anything but perfect, but it gave me time. Once I had time I realized what I could do.
Actually, starting in the new year, I was visualizing what my schedule would look like if I were on Broadway 8 shows a week, and thinking about how I could create multiple streams of income if that were my reality. I’ve always thought Why can’t I be more than just a dancer? There are always instructors that are like “you have to choose performing or choreographing, or whatever.” Why though? Because there’s Lin Manuel Mirandas of the world that literally do everything and star in everything, so why can’t I do more than just this?
When the pandemic first struck, I lost all my work (obviously). Everyone in the fitness world quickly went online. I watched my friends go through this panic of “oh my god, we’re not employed,” and they jumped online and started offering all their knowledge and expertise and things they worked and paid lots of money to do, for free. I definitely think there’s a time and place for free, and free is awesome, but when you’re the one not working anymore...to me it didn’t make sense. Most of our clients were people that still had full-time jobs, but were just working from home. These are people who were paying $40 a class last week and now getting the same service (or close to it) for free. So I posted a poll on Instagram: If I charged people for a class, would they take it? People said yes, so I scheduled my first class, had about 45 people sign up for it, and that was kind of it. I thought great, this is what we’re going to do!
I kind of jumped on it right away. When the pandemic first started, everyone was being really optimistic about things opening up again, but I just knew we were done until at least 2021. My first class was March 22 or something, and I was already planning for the long haul. Something in my gut told me we were going to be here for a while. So I tested it, and as soon as we started getting money, I decided to make it a real business and file for an LLC. I come from a family of accountants, so it’s engrained in me to do everything the right way - I want everything checked off and everything paid for, so that’s what I did. And now we’re here...not to say I was right!
You kind of touched on this when you mentioned having accountants in your family, but at the beginning, did you collaborate with other professionals/outsource anything, or was it a true one-woman show?
Honestly, it’s been all me (other than the accounting information and my Work For Hire agreement). But the support of my boyfriend Parker and both our families has been instrumental in the conception and creation process as well. Forming an LLC is not just going to the website and saying you want one - there are forms, you have to mail things, wait for things, pay things, get emails - it’s just this constant anxiety of “did I do everything?” I did the website, I did the class programming, I got us set up on Mindbody which was a game-changer. We were on Venmo and Paypal for so long because the whole process of Mindbody took over a month. For the first three and a half months, I was literally tracking every single payment that came through on excel docs. It consumed my days because people would sign up last minute or cancel and I would have to jump in and make adjustments to keep it up to date and accurate. So now it’s all in Mindbody and though it’s a pricey subscription, it’s definitely worth it.
Let’s pivot to instructors! When did you hire them and how did you choose when to expand?
We transitioned a little bit in what we offer since the beginning. I wanted to offer so much (which is like Business 101, you should start small and then expand). I offered strength, stretching, cardio, and choreography. I taught all the classes for the first two weeks, and then the third week, I added three instructors. I asked Shaun to do strength classes, I asked Leon to do dance cardio, and then Rochelle (my best friend from childhood who is a flexibility coach in California) to do the stretching. They’ve been with me since that third week. Shaun has shifted now, we don’t offer strength anymore - our main focus is dance cardio and choreography. Rochelle does stretching once a week which I think will be really successful once we’re on demand. Then I slowly started adding more people and now, six months later, we have a team of eight.
Photos by @jontaylorphoto
Did you anticipate this kind of growth or did you just sort of ride the wave to see what would come of it?
A part of me did, I think I just believed in it so much that there was no time for me to doubt it. I knew that this was a valuable service for people, and I knew there were more people in the world who just want to dance for fun and joy rather than be in an advanced class of some sort. Going into it, I knew there was a market for it, I just had to figure out how to get those people. If you think about it, there are so many people in the world who started in dance studios and stopped for whatever reason, but still have a love for dance and movement. I just got really excited at the potential to market to THOSE people, especially cause we’re all online.
Lately you’ve been talking a lot about collaboration with brand developers and photographers. What do you look for when pursuing a collaboration with another artist?
There came a time about two months ago when I knew we were ready to level-up. I knew my website at the time (which, you can keep this on record) was trash. It could be so much better and it would be. I’m so excited for everyone to see the new one. But to get to what it looks like now would have taken me months if not a year to figure out on my own, so in my brain it just made sense to pay someone to do it perfectly. Make Your Mark by Maya (@makeyourmarkbym) helped us do that. She and I met through Instagram (we had seen each other in the dance world before but we connected over Instagram). She reached out to me through Instagram DMs and we had a one-on-one call to chat. I feel like if I vibe with you and trust you, then it’ll be a successful project. My photographer Jon (@jontaylorphoto) is also excellent, and we also met on Instagram. I was going to work with another photographer but then their schedule shifted and they weren’t available, so I posted on Instagram and Jon responded.
I love the new group photos on the website of all the instructors! Now shifting to your personal Instagram: you’re super transparent about being real - shattering the illusion that Instagram is a highlight reel, sharing the struggles, etc. I feel like that has, in turn, created a really dependable community for you! Can you talk a bit about some big moments that you felt that the most (the story with the LaDucas comes to mind).
Yes! So every year, LaDuca does their annual summer sale, and this year it was virtual. With that, they create a custom, one-time shoe that will ONLY be sold during the summer sale. This year, they made a shoe in honor of Robyn Hurder (I die) called “The Nini.” It’s literally the most perfect dance shoe ever...also the most expensive dance shoe ever. I jokingly posted on my Instagram story that “if 350 of you Venmo me $1, I can afford my dream shoes.” Well, two hours after I posted, I had enough money to buy the shoes, plus extra. Among these donations was also one from Robyn Hurder herself...I literally died. So, I decided I wanted to pay it forward, which is where the idea sparked to do a giveaway. I wrote up this big giveaway entry post on my page, and at the time I had enough money to buy my own shoes and one other pair. I eventually got so many donations that I was able to give away 4 pairs of LaDucas in addition to my own shoes (somewhere close to $3000). I then decided to be brave and ask Robyn if she would go “Live” with me to announce the winners, and she said yes because she’s an incredible human. We went live together on my Instagram and gave the shoes away! So in summary, I jokingly asked my Instagram community for help, they came through, I went live with Robyn, and we gave away 5 (including my) LaDucas.
After the LaDuca thing happened, I gained maybe like 600 more followers, and started getting a lot of messages from people. I had all these eyes on me, so I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about something meaningful. The more I started posting about [body representation in the dance industry], the more people I connected with, the more DMs I would get. The more you expose yourself, the more people accept you because they see themselves.
It’s honestly just talking. That’s what Instagram is. It’s connecting with the people on the other side of the screen.
What’s the origin story of #TheNewChorusGirl movement?
When I was in fifth grade I was like 5’2” and 130 lbs, so ever since I was little I was always made fun of for being tall and I guess what you would call “fat.” Throughout high school a lot of personal things were going on, and I didn’t realize then that when you go through personal trauma, sometimes your body’s response is to eat for comfort (at least mine is). At the time I was auditioning for colleges and I was just so taken aback by the negativity I received from all these schools. All my life I’ve been told to lose weight. It’s always like “Megan, you’re such a good dancer BUT…” But? But WHAT? I’M GOOD! It was always, "You’re good BUT you need to lose x pounds," "You’re good, BUT you should try to fit into this category," "You’re tall, you could be a Rockette, BUT…"
NYU is the biggest experience that really made me spiral. There were about fifty of us in the audition room. We did a ballet combo, across the floor, and then they made a first cut. My name was called and they put us all in a corner and as I watched everyone walking towards me, I realized we were all about a size 10, and then the director came over and said, “Sorry ladies, you’re not the ideal body type.” Then, what was WORSE was that we were in the far, downstage corner of the room, so we had to walk across the room in front of all the people being kept in order to leave. Like WHAT!?
But that clearly didn’t stop me, I was rejected by every college dance program, even the one I attended! I ended up getting into University of California Irvine for my grades, found out they were having another round of dance auditions during my week zero, ended up getting accepted, and I just worked really hard. In school it was nice because none of my professors ever told me to lose weight, which was really cool. There are college programs that absolutely do, and I’m just so glad that my professors didn’t.
The only time I started thinking about what I needed to look like was when I merged with the drama department. That’s when I started feeling myself get boxed in a bit. Dancers do THIS, dancers sing THIS (etc). So when I was getting ready to move to New York, I started adopting that mindset. I moved here when I was 22, and I kind of did a first audition season, but I was mostly just trying to find work. Of the things that I did go to, I noticed that a lot of the dancers that were always kept were thin and lean, so in my brain I realized that if I wanted to get jobs, I needed to look like that. I went through the Arbonne phase (which was the worst phase for me), and lost weight, gained all of it back (go figure), tried to do some things on my own, but didn’t really have success. It’s this tricky balance of wanting to be secure in who you are but also knowing what the industry standards are. It’s a confusing place at 22 years old. Eventually I found my trainer, Amber (from Dancers Who Lift) who I’ve been working with for about a year, and it’s really healed my relationship with food.
So with those experiences being the context, what was the lightbulb moment when you decided to debut #TheNewChorusGirl as an entire movement?
I did just wake up one morning and think #TheNewChorusGirl. The same thing happened with Dance From Home. But I think it was after I posted this photo, in which the caption said “I didn’t become a better dancer once I lost weight.” It’s true. I didn’t get better, I just got smaller. The post ended up getting a lot of responses. The next morning I had the idea, because through the LaDuca giveaway, I’ve discovered just how powerful social media is. This is silly but ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be in a dance history textbook. I wanted to make an impression, to get in there and make some noise. So I think that dream from childhood and my personal experiences in the industry came together in a strange way, and I thought this is what I want to do.
Photo by @jamesjinimages
So these things like the LaDuca giveaway and #TheNewChorusGirl that take place on your personal account, how do they merge with Dance From Home? Or do they not?
That’s a great question. I think Dance From Home is obviously a reflection of me, and the DANCE FOR EVERY BODY is not a phrase I came up with. That notion in itself is a reflection of #TheNewChorusGirl - they’re both kind of saying the same thing. I think ultimately Dance From Home is going to be a very separate entity than #TheNewChorusGirl. #TheNewChorusGirl applies to the professional dancer on stage and Dance From Home is for the lovers of the art that don’t want to be on stage. Will they merge? I don’t know. My gut says I can do something bigger with #TheNewChorusGirl, like some sort of blog or podcast or something, whatever that ends up looking like. I just have to get a hold of Dance From Home first before I can even give more attention to #TheNewChorusGirl. Trying to pursue both simultaneously would be like having two full-time jobs.
It definitely sounds like they serve two very different markets, which is cool! The other week, you spoke briefly about how teaching Dance From Home is not your passion, performing is. How do you temper those two things?
Right now I have been so uninspired to dance professionally and take higher level classes. One reason being because classes that I take don’t really make movement for home. I took a class one time and there were like four sets of triple pirouettes...I can’t do that on my apartment floor. It’s also really hard to take class and then see an instructor on zoom who’s in a studio. I don’t know… mentally I can’t do it. I long for that.
I guess the passion is somewhat on hold for right now. I think I’m finding it mostly through Instagram and communicating with other artists, but the actual act of dancing is almost painful right now. We’re grieving. We don’t know when it’s coming back. I’ll be in a studio again, I’m not going to make myself feel bad for not taking class right now. Business is sort of taking over everything, but that’s what’s making me happy these days, so I’m going with it.
I can imagine that as a performer, connection is such a huge part of what you do - you’re connecting with people onstage, you’re connecting with the audience, you’re connecting with the story, and it’s kind of special that you’ve sort of replicated that on social media and through the business. One question I love to ask people is what does a typical day-in-the-life look like for you?
4:30am Wake up (I’m insane…), have coffee
5:15 Meet fellow instructor/friend, Shaun at train
5:30 Gym (I usually go 4 days a week)
6:45 Come back & grab espresso, shower
7:30 That’s when I eat. Breakfast is my most important meal of the day, I cannot skip it, it is the biggest meal that I have. I love EGGS and CHEESE and TOAST. My greatest creation so far is I will have four eggs with spinach, some cheese, Everything-But-The-Bagel seasoning, Sriracha - that’s not it though! - I will get an english muffin, toast it, put some peanut butter on each half, then put Icelandic vanilla yogurt on top of it, and sprinkle with some berries. It’s savory and sweet and a huge meal and so good. So that’s my tradition - HUGE breakfast! Normally when I eat I’ll go through and reply to Instagram DMs. Probably check some emails as well.
9:30 I’ll start working on Dance From Home. The day will usually consist of whatever the big project is that’s going on (right now it’s our on-demand program). I work on anything and everything until about 5.
5:00pm I’ll get ready for class where either I or other instructors will be teaching. I’ll usually be teaching until 7 or so (whenever the last class is done).
7:00 Then the unhealthy part of me will do a little more work. After Dance From Home classes are done is normally when I dedicate time to my own Instagram to write a post and engage with people a bit.
8:00 Then I’ll make dinner, we’ll eat, watch something, and then I’ll go to bed and wake up and do it all over again. That’s the typical day to day.
I feel like I’m somewhat of a morning person but I don’t think I could ever do a 4:30am wake up call…
Yeah, it was rough. I probably sound crazy to a lot of people but the gym is my hobby (and was long before the pandemic). I was in such a weird place when gyms and studios were closed - I couldn’t get myself to dance at home, I couldn’t get myself to work out from home, so when it opened, I was like I’LL DO ANYTHING. I need this time.
So pivoting back to Dance From Home, what has been the largest obstacle that you’ve faced in the pursuit of it?
Honestly, I feel like comparison is a big thing. Of course I want to grow and get more clients, but for some reason that’s never really been a worry. I think you should take care of the people that you do have. You don’t need to have a hundred thousand clients to run a business, you know? I’m happy to have my people and give them what they want, but I do think comparison is the biggest thing that will hold me back. My other struggle is not asking for help, which I started overcoming recently by reaching out to a brand designer and a photographer and expanding my team.
I think it’s hard when you see other awesome brands, especially in the beginning. I’d be like ugh my emails don’t look like this or I don’t have this! But they have a team of people who have been doing this for 10 years, so obviously I needed to chill. I’ve just started telling myself to stay in my lane and not worry about anyone else, which helps. I feel like that’s honestly the biggest roadblock, because once you start comparing, you start doubting what you do, and then you stop focusing on who you have and your product.
What are your short-term goals (through the end of 2020) and your long-term goals (post-pandemic) for Dance From Home?
We’ll be launching the on-demand program in early 2021. We have a lot of people who either can’t make the live classes or live on the West coast, and I want to be able to cater to them. In terms of long-term goals, I would love for us to be mostly on-demand while keeping some of the live classes.
It’s hard because right now we can only plan so far ahead, right? I don’t know what the world is going to look like even in January. I do know that I’m not going to be in-studio. I could definitely see us doing monthly meet-ups for people in the area, but I do see us staying mostly online - on-demand with some live classes and workshops sprinkled in. Ideally it could be cool to expand to offer some professional workshops, because when studios open up again there are still going to be people all around that want to take classes from these professionals that can’t get in, so I feel like there’s a space for that too. It’s hard to guess.
Photo by @j.eaglephotography
If you could give any advice to someone who wants to start a business or creative entity, what would it be?
Just do it.
I feel like my process is just to figure it out as I go. Don’t let yourself plan enough to the point where you psych yourself out. You just kind of have to do it and know that you’re going to mess up and when you mess up you learn and you make it better. If you have an idea, great. And know that that’s your idea, even if it’s similar to someone else’s it’s your individual thought and YOU can make it yours. So just, *Nike symbol* do it. Because why not?
What are you most proud of?
Oof. I mean, starting a business and a #movement in a pandemic, I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of the business and what it’s going to be. I’m proud that I said I wanted another stream of income and I did that, I’m proud to employ other artists which enables them to bring in other streams of income for themselves too. I’m also really proud of the community I’m building on Instagram right now. I’m doing it. And when theatre comes back, I’ll still be able to do it.
Photo by @j.eaglephotography
If Megan’s story inspired you, give her a follow on Instagram @meganbowen_. Also check out the latest class offerings at www.dancebymeganbowen.com and give @dancefromhome_ a follow to stay updated on upcoming news, events, and releases!
Young, Scrappy, & Hungry is a series on Kelgurk that shines a spotlight on young individuals making a splash in their industry. Do you know someone who should be featured? Shoot me an email or DM!