Skylights & Polished Concrete — Building a Pole & Aerial Dance Studio
The day before Thanksgiving, 2016, I walked into San Francisco Pole and Dance’s first location. The couches were crowded over with students waiting for the next class. 10 people sprawled across a tiny piece of floor make-shifted into a waiting room. Jackets and bags spilled out of cubbies. 11 people smushed onto 14 feet of flexibility mats, and stilettos from a pole choreography class flew razor close to each other as students shared poles that were themselves too close.
We’d grown fast and we needed to move. I began looking for a new home in SF ‘s SOMA district— one that could accommodate more poles, a dedicated flex room, and an aerial silks and lyra area.
Fast forward to Valentines Day, 2017. My landlord walked me through suite #225, a 2,800 square foot printing press in the back of the same commercial building where our first studio was located, above California Carpets on 8th and Folsom.
It was love at first skylight.
One month later, I signed the lease on #225. I was scared. No, I was terrified! #225 was more than twice the size of our original studio, and additional $2,500 a month in rent and overhead.
“What if everyone stops coming?” I asked my business partner, Joyce.
“They’ll keep coming,” she assured me. I wasn’t sure I believed her but I breathed a sigh of relief. Sometimes all we need to remind ourselves that we can do it is a friend whispering it so into our ears.
We got to work. I took every dollar that I had made in the first seven months of operation and put it back into building out #225. It was (almost) enough.
The day after we signed the lease, I met with my Creative Director, Lia.
“Where should we start?” I asked her.
“Pinterest,” she said, not missing a beat. Lia is something of a Pinterest-lebrity. With thousands of followers, it is one of her mediums for design development and she navigates it easily, not falling into it like a black hole, the way so many of us do.
We spent three hours working out the fine details about what we liked and we didn’t so that we could get on the same page, a clean aesthetic with a simple black, white, and grey color palette. Since we liked seeing our one-color logo in a rose gold pink, we also agreed on small pops of pastel color.
These early meetings helped to guide how we made decisions while keeping the style minimalist, zen, and free of visual noise.
Then we began to build, starting from the ground up.
The printing press that had occupied our space before us had left behind a concrete floor covered in commercial printing ink spills and years of wear and tear. Here’s how it looked:
We decided to replace the grey, matte vinyl with a marbled concrete and a gloss-finish inspired by this Instagram post from Dogpatch Wineries.
I worked with Gustavo from Twin Post Painting and Decorating in San Francisco to get the job done. The estimate ($7,000) included the repair of all holes and cracks, scraping the floors clean, the application of an epoxy base floor paint, a marbling detail, and two coats of clear epoxy to protect the floor with a glossy layer.
Here’s how it turned out:
I had originally intended to keep the floors all polished concrete but learned fast from my instructor team that the perceived value of laminate or wood looking material for pole dancing is very high. I didn’t want to dissuade people from coming but I also simply couldn’t afford the gold-standard; a sprung dance floor of the type used in traditional dance studios and which would have cost upwards of $40,000.
I opted instead to cover the pole space with commercial-grade, wood-vinyl laminate, a product that is not quite wood, but offers a smoothness and level of shock absorption slightly higher than concrete alone. This was an unexpected cost because it added just over $7,000 to the total cost. In the end, I believe it was worth it, not in actual value but in the fact that it influenced (upwards) the perceived value of the dance floor.
Fixtures and Aerial Installation.
Once the flooring done, it was time to re-outfit #225 with all the equipment — poles, silks, aerial rigging, flexibility mats, and crash mats.
The terms of my lease required that all work done in the space be done by one specific contractor team, and their subcontractors so I ended up spending more on rigging than I otherwise would have had I instead worked directly with an aerial rigging professional.
This contractual limitation also meant I spent an unexpected amount of time learning the ins and outs of rigging safety and then communicating that knowledge back and forth to my general contractor team. First, I worked with a professional rigger to come in to the studio and provide recommendations on how to perform the work. I then relayed that information back to the contractor team. Note that for liability reasons, a lot of buildings and landlords write this requirement into their lease agreements.
Once my contractor team got to work on the installation, they discovered foundational issues with the roofing that would have compromised the security of the poles had they been installed directly into the ceiling. This is also not uncommon.
In order to maintain the highest level of safety (really, the most important objective of any studio), we decided to go with a Unistrut metal framing system. Using unistruts means that the poles had to be installed one behind each other instead of diagonal from one another, which was what we had envisioned. Altogether, the take down and set up for 8 poles in a Unistrut system and five days of work with two contractors working from 5am-1pm each day, the bill came out to $9,000. Here’s how it looks:
As the poles went up, we also got started on the aerial rigging, which is almost always custom work because rigs are generally site-specific. In #225, we are lucky enough to have concrete beams hanging down from the top of our ceiling and bolstered into the building frame. This made it straightforward for our contractors to drill custom built steel enforced plates directly into the beams, which look like this:
Once the drilling began, we ran into noise complaints. The neighbors complained when the drilling was done before 8am, because sleep matters. But when we started drilling later in the day, the commercial tenants in our building (dance studios and startups) complained that the noise was disrupting their work. Ugh.
Luckily, when we talked to the other tenants, we discovered that startups and dance studios are similar in one aspect — work doesn’t really start before 10am. This left us with a sweet spot between 8am-10am each day when the contractors could drill. Boom!
Pro tip: Bring your noise cancelling headphones!
One thing I wanted to avoid was closing down. In order to accommodate the build out of the new space, I paid two monthly rent payments (at SF price rents 😧) in order to avoid class disruption. We didn’t plan to stop holding classes until the five day period when the poles were being moved from the old space and installed into #225.
That is where my instructor team got super creative. I told them we’d need to cancel classes for five days because there weren’t any poles. They were like ‘Amy, who cares? Let’s hold non-pole classes’. I agreed but was skeptical.
A pole dance studio with no poles?
It ended up being one of most highly attended weeks. Students came in droves, partially out of curiosity, and partially just to be supportive (Reason #5178 that I love the pole community).
Kimmy taught sexy floorwork choroegraphy (in 10-inch heels), Sean Michael taught low flow across the floor work, Karri twerkshopped, and Yoko brought us showgirl style burlesque.
Even as half the studio was covered in U struts, metal work, concrete powder, and the half in dancers, people showed up, pitched in. It felt something like the way a barn raising is described in Little House on the Prairie books. Even with the mirrors sitting on the floor, a proverbial construction site in the aerial side of the space, and no poles, we made it work and had a blast dancing our hearts out in what was becoming our second home.
For our new poles, I went with Platinum Stages 14 foot 45mm stainless steel commercial poles. I like that they have a base with a pin that pops out. I prefer the pin base to a pole that requires a turnkey to switch between static and spin because I’ve been in many studios where the screw is stripped and the pole is hard to switch back and forth. Though I’d heard really good things about Lupit Poles, I was told that the price for shipping them would be close to a thousand dollars, putting it out of my price range. Platinum Stages it was. Four new poles came out to about $2,400.
For aerial rigging, silks, lyras, spansets, hardware, and fly away kits, I purchased from Aerial Essentials. They have lots of options in terms of colors and sizes and great customer support. Total cost was $3,000 all in for three lyras, aerial silks and equipment.
Mats (So many types mats!):
Mats were another big equipment expense. We covered the entire floor space of the dedicated flexibility room with EZ Flex Foam Mats ($1,200 for three 6X12X2 mats and another $300 for shipping) for comfortable contortion style stretching, six crash (landing) mats from AK Athletics, one for each aerial rig ($2,500), four Wacces pole crash mats ($600), and three 5X10 Norbert’s Panel Mats ($1,000) for our adult gymnastics classes.
In total, the cost for the studio build-out came in at about $50,000. Here’s the breakdown:
- Flooring (concrete polishing/commercial laminate): $14,500
- Poles installation and tear down from previous space: $11,000
- Aerial Rigging installation: $3,000
- Extra Rent to avoid schedule disruption: $6,000
- Equipment (poles, silks, mats): $10,600
- Painting: $500
Total Cost for barebones move-in: $45,600
While the cost breakdown does not include additional items like furniture (the topic of a later post) or increased cost of liability insurance, I was able to stick pretty close to my original budget of $45,000. Woot!
Five months later, and the new space has turned out great. Natural light pours in through low dancers windows, high windows, and skylights that basks everything with an industrial serenity. When new students walk in for the first time, they gasp. It really is beautiful.
My biggest learning is that renovations and design decisions are hard. I’m never going to get exactly what I want. Repurposing #225 has given me a newfound appreciation for the conscious decision making that people who run businesses make every time they turn a blank piece of paper into a real life thing, whether that thing is a studio, restaurant, an apartment or something else.
Things that look good or work usually don’t look good or work on accident. If I were to go back, I would have buffered in more time for things things I didn’t think about — coordinating contractors, receiving deliveries, painting, planning, making calls, etc. I’d probably use more spreadsheets for tracking equipment and (hopefully) have less anxiety by building bigger time buffers in to my planning process. I can’t wait to do it again!