After meeting on a dance floor, Andy and Anne Walls turned their passion into a revenue stream.
“Andy was a dance teacher and I met him as a student at the studio he was teaching at,” Anne says of their introduction 15 years ago.
The couple wed and opened a dance company now called Dance With Me LLC, laying the foundation for their 2009 purchase of the Savoy Ballroom on Commercial Street.
With Dance With Me, the couple had found their calling, but still needed to find a venue. A shake-up in Andy’s career put the Wallses on a path to their own space after years of teaching in makeshift venues.
“We went out and did more than just wedding couples and generally taught social dancing out of our home,” she says.
While he was working full time at Community Hospice of America, Andy found time during lunch breaks and after work to teach dance on the side. But then he lost his job as a database analyst. A decision had to be made.
Andy decided to go into teaching dance full-time, wanting to see if he could make money without touching their savings account.
“In six months, I was actually making more teaching dance than I was as a programmer,” he says.
The couple rented community centers, gyms, the Discovery Center, Hotel Vandivort, and Bruno’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar. They traveled to Lebanon, Branson and Tulsa teaching their passion.
“Anne and Andy are wonderful,” says dance student Michele Kauffman.
She has taken lessons for the last two years through Dance With Me at the Savoy.
“The facility is amazing,” Kauffman said of Savoy. “I love the large area and the chandeliers. It’s just a beautiful venue.”
Though the couple now teaches in the Savoy, one of their most memorable classes came while on the road. It was in Ava, a small city in Douglas County.
“We taught classes out there for almost a year. It was building up to their sesquicentennial,” Andy says. “The whole town basically got together and took dance lessons.”
The classes had more than 100 people in them.
“We had everyone from high school kids to grandparents,” Andy says.
Fatigued from the travel, the couple got to the point where they were shopping for buildings around 2007, looking all over town and outside of city limits.
The big city
Their search took them to Commercial Street.
“We wanted to be a classy, ’20s-style ballroom,” Andy says.
The Wallses bought the building at 224 E. Commercial St. in 2009 and opened Savoy Ballroom a year later. Dance With Me does business in the Savoy as a separate company, Anne says.
The first thing installed was nine crystal chandeliers, which Andy says cost around $10,000 apiece.
“We had been inspired by the building in Mount Vernon that houses Tango Saloon upstairs and a stained glass studio downstairs,” Anne said.
The couple incorporated the glass element designs from that building, using mirrors on one side of Savoy Ballroom to recapture that reflective feel and make the room seem more open.
The C-Street property also features an attached courtyard.
The name comes from the famous, now-defunct Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York.
“We’re primarily swing dancers, and it’s the birthplace of swing dancing,” Andy says.
The New York Savoy had the famous dancer Frankie Manning grace its floors.
“Our Savoy also has a Frankie,” Anne says, referring to the couple’s black cat Frankie Catting, who makes the space his home.
The Savoy Ballroom has about 10 part-time employees as bartenders, dance instructors, cleaning staff and room attendants.
One of their employees, Megan Dean, held her wedding reception at Savoy and also has taken dance lessons.
“I’m a restaurant hospitality major, and I was taking a class last semester where I had to interview someone who had the job I wanted,” Dean says.
Her assignment turned into employment, working for the Savoy since July as an assistant manager. Dean is slated to become an event manager in January.
She got married first at the venue before taking the job and took waltz lessons for her wedding.
Dean’s reception is one of many the Savoy has hosted.
The Wallses’ goal for the first year was to have 24 weddings. They booked 47.
“We average about 65 a year,” Andy says.
Weddings are the primary revenue stream for the Wallses at the Savoy.
“That was a big part of our business plan – making sure we did a bunch of weddings,” Andy says. “It represents 80 percent of the money we make. It’s the reason we survive.”
Last year, the Savoy Ballroom had revenue of $320,000 combined with Dance With Me, which makes up the other 20 percent of revenues.
Rental rates range from $1,600 to $3,870 depending on the day of the week and number of guests, Anne says.
Thriller on C-Street
While weddings may be the forte, the most known event held at the Savoy Ballroom is the Thriller on C-Street, a dance honoring Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. They do it every fourth Saturday in October, through Dance With Me.
That first year in 2010 attracted a couple thousand people and received national media attention, being picked up by The Associated Press and broadcast to local markets across the country, Andy says.
“We didn’t have any crowd control,” Andy says.
After the national attention, Thriller on C-Street received funding from the Gannett Co., and now has nearly 20 sponsors. Now, the production is a full-scale show with lights.
“It’s turned from a fluke with no money spent to about a $10,000 production,” Andy says.
Edd Akers, Rick Huffman, Tracy Kimberlin and April McDonough participate in the discussion.
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