Sonia Plumb of Sonia Plumb Dance Company always knew she wanted to dance. She eventually found her passion for directing and choreographing. However, “Being an artist and an entrepreneur are two very different things,” she emphasizes.
“When I started the company, I was still really learning to be an artist,” she admits, adding, “You keep growing as artists.” Sonia soon discovered that entrepreneurs also continue to grow.
When she decided to launch her own dance company in 1990, Sonia thought starting as a nonprofit organization would be the best route. She did all the legwork including paperwork, meeting with an attorney, and assembling a board of directors.
“I really had no idea what it would take, except these were the steps and it would open up funding and possibilities,” Sonia admits. “I had worked part time at the Hartford Stage while I was still dancing and creating, so I saw the inner workings.”
Sonia started assembling a troupe and putting on shows. “We had good traction and great response,” she notes. “The artistic side was going well, and I was learning how to be a leader, but our finding funding early was challenging.”
As she was contacting different foundations, it was suggested to Sonia that, because there was not a lot of funding available, she should simply join another dance company. The entrepreneur in Sonia did not see this as an option. “I wanted to do my own thing,” she says.
Undaunted, Sonia continued her entrepreneurial endeavor. “Being a nonprofit organization doesn’t mean you can’t make money. It’s just another way of figuring out where the resources have to come from,” she points out. “The same principles apply as for other startups. You still need that kind of funding for office space, etc.”
Additional startup challenges were mounting. “I kept being told you have to have a business plan,” Sonia recalls. “As a startup company, you must be able to show that your business is viable, and it can make money and be valued. At the time, we were getting great reviews, but how could we show we were going to make money?”
The other challenge was, without money to market, the dance company couldn’t let potential dancers know about class offerings. And, without money, it couldn’t pay the dancers.
“I have to pay the dancers,” Sonia underscores, “It can’t just be a volunteer organization. And nobody wants to work for free. If dancers are working for free, they are giving themselves away. You can’t survive and it’s not good for the business.”
Sonia says the Company is constantly looking for more ways to get funding. “We started out with foundations and donors,” she explains. “Now that we’re building even more awareness and traction, we’re working on getting corporate sponsors and working with more schools. With schools, we have to find the funding whether it’s special state grants or private foundations to marry the school with us for that particular project.”
Bringing the Arts to Hartford Schools
Over the years, Sonia began to offer arts integration work and she developed several programs at Hartford-area schools.
“I never set out to be a teacher,” she confesses. “When I had my son 18 years ago, I had to find other ways to make money and I wasn’t dancing as much. A position opened at the Hartford Conservatory (which is now defunct) and I started teaching there.”
Sonia recognized that she could apply what she had learned. “I really enjoyed sharing my experience with pre-professional or professional dancers,” she says. “That’s where the teaching started. I became involved with the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) through another teacher at the Conservatory who mentioned an open position.”
Sonia admits teaching at high schools took some getting used to. “I like it a lot now. There are always challenges, but then the other piece I really like is the arts integration programs for elementary and middle schools. I get to go into the classrooms with these kids who have never seen dance. They love it. They get to create, they get to move, and they are still learning,” she says.
“I wanted to create an apprenticeship program to help students get funding for college. Some of the students I worked with were getting into college—but they couldn’t afford to go,” Sonia explains. With the apprenticeship, if they choose to go into college, great, and then if they want to work for the dance company that’s great too. Now you have trained dancers who are staying in Hartford, not leaving the area.”
Sonia Plumb Dance Company works a lot with Hartford Performs. “We’re trying to branch out to the rest of Connecticut, getting arts into the school systems,” Sonia notes. “Arts integration is hugely important for where we are as a culture society in Hartford. I’m not showing up to teach them one dance class. My curriculum is integrated into schools’ science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics (STEAM) learning initiatives.”
Sonia’s experiences have helped her along her entrepreneurial path. “I’ve had to learn how to ask for help. I’ve had to learn how to negotiate. I’ve had to learn how to fire people. I had to learn how to understand the numbers but let other people make the decisions.”
In late 2016, Sonia Plumb Dance Company brought on a Director of Development, Mary Cadorette-Daly, who originally approached Sonia about being an intern because she was getting her Master of Fine Arts in Arts Administration from The Graduate School – UConn. When the internship was finished, she stayed on as the Company’s Executive Director.
“Mary told me she could see the organization was on the cusp of being able to grow and make it,” Sonia recalls. “We’ve been kind of growing but we needed help. We needed a push. There were things I couldn’t do anymore—or I could do them, but I couldn’t do them well. I can’t do everything well,” she admits.
“So, I’ve learned to trust Mary and trust other people in my life to take control over some of the things I no longer can do. And then the other piece is: I’m an artist. Artists have these visions. Someone has to manage those visions, and an artist is not necessarily the best person to manage them in terms of money,” Sonia acknowledges.
“I spend much of my time in the dance studio, that’s where my strength is—managing the dancers, managing the art, and creating,” she adds. “But those are different skills than those you need to manage a business. And that’s another thing, creating takes a huge amount of money and time—working with lighting designers, costumes. It takes a lot of time to put the work on the dancers. I can’t just do it myself.”
Sonia connected with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price at the She Means Business women’s networking event, which took place at Upward Hartford in May 2018. Sonia had started doing more networking to get the name out, and initially went to some Leadership Greater Hartford events.
“She Means Business was the first women’s networking event I attended. I thought it was great because I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the business from a woman’s point of view and meeting women business owners,” she says.
Before the event Sonia admits, “I didn’t know Innovation Destination Hartford! I also met other women who recognized that the arts is a vital part of Hartford’s—and—Connecticut’s success. And they recognized that dance needs to be a part of that.”
She emphasizes, “If you’re going to keep people here and staying in the Hartford area, they want things to do. And there’s a lot going on. You can’t always go to New York! It takes time and money. Let’s bring it here to the Hartford area.”
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Sonia Plumb of Sonia Plumb Dance Company. (Photo courtesy Carrie Riccardelli)