ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
She couldn’t decide which she loved more-dancing or cooking.
So when a building in Marion opened up that would allow her the space to turn a profit off of both passions, Erika Jo Larson of McPherson decided to buy the building at 110 N. Fourth and start up two businesses in the space of just a few months.
“I just decided I was going to do it, and we’ll see what happens,” Larson said of her new Marion-based ventures-Movement Connection Dance Studios and Larson Grille & Skillet Custom Catering.
“I was torn between whether I wanted to dance or I wanted to cook,” she added. “And buying this facility-it has a very large kitchen, and we’ll have capability of doing both.”
It’s not too late for girls and boys of all ages to sign up for classes at her dance studio, Larson said, which started in September and will run through May.
Students have until Dec. 15 to enroll, because Larson needs to order costumes by the end of the month for their April 29 recital and for other performances in May and in June at Chingawassa Days.
She has about 50 students from age 3 through adult in classes ranging in size from two students to 12.
“They’re divided basically by age but a little bit by skill level,” Larson said.
“Our capacity is 150, so we’re a third full-but this is our first year and that’s to be expected.”
Marion classes meet with Larson Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings for an hour to an hour-and-a-half each week and learn ballet, tap, jazz, pom and hip-hop styles of dance.
On top of a $12 enrollment fee per student, tuition ranges from $40 to $50 monthly per student in elementary levels one to four, $45 for junior- and senior-high students and $35 for adult tap.
Tuition may be scaled for multi-student families, and bringing students from other families also has rewards, Larson said.
“If there’s a mom that brings her child and two other children, she can have free tuition for her child,” she said, “which I know isn’t offered anywhere else.”
Larson also started Movement Connection studios in Lyons and Inman this fall, but Marion’s friendly atmosphere earned it the honor of being the headquarters for all three studios, she said.
“We’ve had the most welcome environment from the community here and that’s why we decided to base everything here,” she said.
Larson started dancing when she was 3 and was an assistant teacher by age 10, she said.
“I pretty much lived at the dance studio,” she said. “I’m very grateful to my parents for putting me in and for funding it.”
Rather than pursue a college career, the McPherson High School grad decided to pursue dance instruction as her career.
“I feel like my parents had as much money in that as they would have had if I’d decided to go to school,” she said.
This isn’t Larson’s first time running a dance studio, but she hopes to have better luck with this building than in previous years.
“We had a studio in Lindsborg three years ago and had to close it because the building was full of asbestos,” she said.
After going to work at CertainTeed Corp. in McPherson and then suffering a shoulder injury that put her on disability earlier this year, Larson said she realized she needed to get back to her first love-teaching others to dance.
And part of learning to dance well, according to Larson, is having a chance to see how you stack up against other area dancers-something that other dance studios around don’t offer their students.
“We emphasize that we offer a lot more competitive opportunities for kids,” she said.
“None of my students have ever been to competitions before, because they haven’t had that opportunity at the other dance studios that they’ve attended.”
Weekend trips to competitions in Wichita, Kansas City and possibly Tulsa, Okla., and Omaha, Neb., will offer students valuable learning experiences, Larson said.
“I am not emphasizing that they need to go and get first place,” she said. “I’m emphasizing that they need to go and see what other kids are doing and need to assess themselves compared to others.
“It’s a lot different when I’m telling them, ‘You need to stand up straight’ or ‘you need to turn out your toes,'” she explained.
“And then you go to competition and the judges say, ‘This is what you need to work on,’ and they see other kids their age and what they’ve done.
“It is very helpful to them.”
Students wanting take a solo number to competition can get some special attention for Larson to prepare for the big day, she said.
“Part of our enrollment promotion here was that every child has the opportunity to get free one-on-one time to do a solo if they chose,” she said. “It’s gone over very well.
Students raise money for these competitions through various fund-raisers of their own doing, which Larson said is another valuable experience for them.
“I think that the girls should have to help fund this if this is something that they want to to do,” she said.
“We try really hard to emphasize that and to put a strong work ethic into the girls at a young age, which has already helped them at school and at other activities.
“We try to not only teach the girls dance but community involvement, service and responsibility,” she added.
And having students work for the money to pay for “extras” like costumes and competitions can give their parents a little break on the payments, she said.
“I know how tight things can get,” she said. “I try to make sure that I don’t put people in a position that they have to choose what they’re going to pay for.
“At the same time, they need to be prepared to either devote the time for the fund-raisers or pay the money.”
Her students took advantage of the Thanksgiving weekend to offer babysitting and other work services as fund-raisers, Larson said.
“They have been working really hard,” she said. “It’s a service thing, yet it’s going to help them come up with money to help pay for costumes and competition fees.”
The next big event will be a babysitting clinic by the older students from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. New Year’s Eve, Larson said.
The evening will actually be a party for the kids, she said, with a pinata, crafts and other activities.
“That’s something that they’re organizing themselves, and they’ve got little committees that they’re all divided up in,” she said.
“I was surprised at how well they responded to the idea.”
Larson’s students have also gotten to work helping her transform their old building into a studio that is uniquely “theirs.”
“It gives them a sense of belonging that they’re getting to help make this studio,” she said.
“I want this to be a place where they can feel comfortable coming and hanging out.”
Apparently, it’s working-Larson said some of her older elementary students love to come early and help the younger students get ready for their classes.
“Rather than go to the babysitters, they’ll hang out,” she said. “They just want to be involved.”
Larson encourages adults, too, to take advantage of her classes as a way to get out for a while and learn some new moves.
“Granted, it’s only 30 to 45 minutes a week, but it’s something that they can do that’s just something for them,” she said.
And options for doing so will soon increase, Larson said.
“Movement Connection is also going to be offering gymnastics, karate and boxing lessons after the first of the year,” she said.
Already Larson has built a loyal following of young students who are learning to love dance and being part of the studio as much as she does.
“Girls that have never danced before are saying they just want to come all the time,” she said. “It’s good to see that they’ve found something that they like to do.”
Plans for the future include expanding the teaching personnel beyond just Larson to allow for greater flexibility in her schedule.
“Eventually I’m going to have it set up where I’ll have two trained teachers that can work together to teach classes if I have to be doing something else,” she said.
“I would do a lot of my own training so they would teach the way that I teach.”
Training others in her methods is just part of Larson’s plan to create something that can keep going beyond her own working years.
“I want it to be something that I’ve started that can continue even after I’m no longer able to do it,” she said. “I’m still young yet, so I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me, but you never know.”
Larson Grille & Skillet
And while she’s still young, Larson is pushing her entrepreneurial side to the max with a second business, Larson Grille & Skillet Custom Catering, co-owned with husband Jerod.
“I started cooking at a very young age,” said Larson, who has also worked as kitchen manager at two McPherson restaurants, Sports Page and Sirloin Stockade.
And she married into a family that enjoys cooking as much as hers does, she said.
“It makes for something that we enjoy doing as a family-we get together and cook and eat,” she said. “That’s just something that we love to do.”
She’ll make the most of that fact to help get their catering business off the ground, Larson said.
“I’m probably also going to be leaning on his parents for the first couple of months for help,” she said. “His dad has a lot of cooking experience.”
In addition to catering the traditional receptions, parties and banquets on evenings and weekends as well as some daytime luncheons, Larson is launching in Marion what she hopes will turn out to be an ingenious idea: Friday takeout.
“We’ll have three different meal choices for lunch on Friday,” she said. “You can order it, and we will deliver.”
Customers can call and order as late at 10:30 a.m., as long as food doesn’t run out, Larson said.
“We’re thinking it should be successful, because no one else offers delivery,” she said.
Larson said they will eventually have their facility ready to rent out for receptions and parties, although they’ll also cater on-site at other events.
Appetizers for these occasions include smoked shrimp and sun-dried tomato spread, Mexican tabouli dip and chicken-and-cheese quesadillas, ranging from $7 for some small platters serving eight to 12 persons to $16 for some large platters serving 21 to 26 persons.
Sides range from $1 per plate for corn in butter sauce to $1.75 for grilled asparagus.
Entrees include Italian dishes like chicken and broccoli alfredo, home-grown beef dishes like barbecue brisket, pork dishes like baked ham with a honey peach glaze, poultry dishes like baked lemon pepper chicken and seafood dishes like shrimp scampi.
Rice dishes and soups like cheeseburger chowder are also available.
While only licensed for this next year to cater in Marion County, Larson said she hopes eventually to get licenses for Rice, Saline and McPherson counties.
Banquet-style parties will receive a 10-percent discount on parties on 75 or more, a 15 percent discount on parties of 100 or more and a 20 percent discount on parties of 150 or more.
A 25 percent deposit is required to book an event, and Larson recommended calling her as soon as possible to save a date.
“I’ve got several parties booked already,” she said. “It’s filling up fast.”
For anyone worried that either of the two ventures is just a brief fling for the young McPherson couple, Larson emphasized that they’re looking to put down roots in Marion and grow each business to its fullest potential.
“People aren’t sure we’re going to be here forever,” she said. “But we’ve purchased the building and we’re here to stay.”
For more information about Movement Connection Dance Studio or Larson Grille & Skillet, contact Erika Jo Larson at 620-382-8877.