This interview with Tansy Degen was a breath of fresh air for our new year. Tansy’s tenacious, stick-to-it-and-do-it approach to life is just the kind of energy we need at the start of a new year. Her annual event, Dancing with the Michigan Stars, is an incredible way to give back to the community — while also having fun in the community and getting to know the community. Read on to learn how she got started, and how to dance not just with the stars, but also with life.
I started working with Arthur Murray in 2000 and went through all the processes to become a teacher. I competed professionally as a rhythm dancer. I had a partner and traveled around the world. We were successful as competitive partners, but I also became pretty successful as a teacher. Becoming known as a teacher in the local area created the opportunity to take the step as a franchise partner in this business. At the time, there wasn’t a studio in Ann Arbor, so I decided to start a new school here in 2005.
As a kid, I did not take dance lessons. My parents divorced when I was young, and there was a lot of shuffling back and forth between my dad’s small farm in Shaftsburg, MI and my mom’s home in East Lansing. At my dad’s, we milked goats before we went to school and collected chicken eggs. He built and repaired roofs for a living. My mom chose a career as a folk musician. Both households were financially struggling, but incredibly rich in experiences and love. I can see now that watching them follow their passions in life really shaped my capacity to just jump into things. I wasn’t too afraid to go outside of my comfort zone.
From sidelines to dance floor
In the beginning, I was scared to death of dancing. I was a total wall fly. I would just sit and watch in awe and admiration, but terrified at the same time. I went to college in the 1990s, during a huge swing-dancing craze. I was a bartender back then and saw awesome swing dancing events. I would go to them with friends who were dancers, and loved it. One day, one of them mentioned that Arthur Murray, the dance studio franchise she was a part of, was hiring. They provided training and applicants needed zero experience. So I figured, what’s the harm in trying? I went and I interviewed for the job and got it!
I commuted from East Lansing, where I lived, to Sterling Heights every day during rush hour. I worked from five to ten o’clock at night and loved it. It was never a thought-out, planned-next-step kind of thing. I trusted that destiny would open the next door at the right time.
Initially, I think I started for really selfish reasons. I wanted to dance and I loved the attention. In the beginning, it feeds you so much when you hear “You’re amazing, great work!” But at some point that flips, and you realize the benefits you’re receiving from the dancing — the confidence, the fitness. You realize that you can see those changes in your students as well. You mature.
Eventually, you start to see what a student is really there for when they walk in the door (which most people don’t even know when they come in). So often, people think they want to learn the Foxtrot. But many are here because dance sounds fun and they want a creative, healthy hobby. You as a teacher start looking at people and figuring out what they really need. Is it self-esteem? Is it social reassurance? Is it new connections or something to do? This is what kept me in the business for so long — figuring out how we could help the students ultimately change or enhance their lives. I still can’t believe I’ve been blessed to do this for 20 years this month.
When it came to owning the studio and joining the franchise, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. There was another franchise owner who was at a stage in her life where she was ready for a break. And so I transitioned from the day I started to a franchisee quicker than I would recommend other people do it. It was only five years and when I look back, I wish I had worked in different positions even longer, because it would have saved me a lot of trial and error later.
At the time, however, she didn’t want to be in the studio, so I essentially ran her studio for her. We talked about running it as a partnership, but that wasn’t in the cards for her. So I opened my own studio here in Ann Arbor, and after five years she was ready to completely retire. Then I purchased the two franchise studios she owned, one in Northville and one in Bloomfield Hills.
No one perfects the choreography on the first try
I look back and remember some days when I would drive to work crying, wondering how I was going to make this work. There was a time when I couldn’t even afford to buy a stapler for the studio. I remember I had “Buy a stapler” on my to-do list for a whole year. When it was hard in those moments, I’d just remind myself, “One day, you will look back at this and these tears won’t matter anymore. It’ll all work out. It’s all going to be fine. And if you just keep on track with what’s the most important thing, you can do today and make a difference.”
In those early days I had no idea how I was going to make it work from day to day. It wasn’t a well-thought-out plan, but I trusted — in that Field of Dreams kind of way — that if I built it, they would come. I knew if I just stayed on course with what I thought I was meant to do and what felt good to do, I couldn’t really go wrong. Even if the studio closed.
At that point I didn’t have kids, I didn’t have a husband. What was the worst that could happen? I knew I could get a job as a teacher and a dancer at that point. So I understood the risk, but I wasn’t afraid of the risk not being worth it. Maybe that comes from my parents being self-employed. I didn’t grow up in an environment where people went to work from nine to five or have a really structured plan for life. The message I received was “Follow your heart, and it’ll work.”
Raising kids while raising a business
Eventually, I did have kids, and my kids came to work with me until they started school. That’s when things got harder, because studios operate in the evenings so people can come after work. Of course that’s when the kids were home, and I wanted to spend time with them. It was easy when they were babies; it gave me enough time to get the studios up and running and find and hire the right people to help me.
These days, I’m mostly at home with the kids in the evenings. I’m in the studios in the afternoons; I have executives in both locations running the school when I’m not there. We do training meetings so everyone knows their role and what they need to accomplish. I meet with all the staff regularly and stop in to see the students periodically.
Honestly, it’s a balance, and I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough for the kids or enough for the studios. There’s always this ongoing, internal tug-of-war: I should be here, but wait, I should be there. In the end, it becomes a matter of prioritizing. I have five different calendars and I align them all every night. I can’t fall asleep at night until I’ve reread my “Things To Do” list; otherwise I’ll lay there and wonder, “What do I have to do tomorrow?” I reread each of my logs, jut to make sure it’s all correct. Then I can clear my brain and go to bed.
When it comes to my kids dancing, neither one of them actively takes lessons right now. I never wanted it to be something they had to do. At this point, I know they learn more from me about owning their own business. To me, that’s important. They get to see what it’s like to lead people, a team, a staff group. They watch and listen when I have to leave the dinner table and answer the phone to work through whatever situation pops up at the studio. There is something special that they are learning from this business specifically that is invaluable. They are learning that what you do does make a difference and small businesses can make a positive change in people’s lives and their communities.
Dancing with the Michigan Stars
I was in a unique position where I had the dance studios, the teachers on hand, and the strong desire to give back to my community. I wanted to see how much impact I could create, so I founded Dancing with the Michigan Stars.
The event was initially born out of a desire to give back to CS Mott Children’s Hospital. They were incredibly supportive of our family one year as we moved through a challenging time. I wanted to do something to show our appreciation for what they did for us.
It grew into its own entity, its own thing. Every year we learned a little bit more about how to make it better and how to raise more money. I’m not from the charity or nonprofit world at all; the learning curve has been steep and I’m still learning a lot, even now.
This year, I’m very excited because we’ve figured out a formula that allows us to give to multiple organizations in our community. This year, we’ll have 10 different charitable organizations represented by 10 different dancers. I think it’s going to be our biggest and our best yet.
In addition to the “giving back” component, one of my favorite things about this event is that it’s just a great night out. People really dress up for it; many will do formal gala attire, which we encourage. We just want people to come and have a great time. We have a VIP party for all of our dancers and VIP ticket holders before the event, which includes cocktails and appetizers. We have a live band for some of the dancing, and then the event itself is based off the show, Dancing with the Stars, where we have our 12 dancers and they each perform a piece based on the dance they learned in preparation. We’ve got celebrity judges, and this year they’re coming from the actual show Dancing with the Stars.
This year, we will be joined by Snow Urbin and Anna Trebunskaya, who have both competed professionally, internationally, and on Dancing with the Stars. At the end of each performance, the judges will talk about what they saw, and it becomes a fun part of the evening with a lot of back and forth and witty banter.
It’s basically one big party with an open bar and incredible plated dinner. There’s dancing between the acts, and as the night goes on, the dance floor gets crowded. The Marriott Eagle Crest does an awesome job making it absolutely beautiful every year; they do full professional lighting for us, and the entire ballroom glows from the moment you walk into it.
Tickets start at $160, but you can also buy a table for a discount. We do two big awards at the end of the evening. We do a judge’s choice and a people’s choice award. The people’s choice goes to the person who raised the most money for their organization, and then the judge’s choice is of course based on their technical performances. The winners are awarded huge disco ball trophies as well as bonus checks from the proceeds of the event.
Anyone can dance, but not everyone can serve and lead
At this point in my career, I think that thing I’m most proud of is the staff that I develop and get to work with in the studio. We take people with zero experience in dancing and train them. Obviously we can teach anybody to dance — we do that all day. So, that’s not what we really look for in a team member.
We look for people we can really develop to give the quality of service that we expect at Arthur Murray. It’s this quality of service that really sets us apart from other ballroom dance studios. At Arthur Murray, we understand that great dancers aren’t always great teachers — if something comes easily to you, you may not be able to relay the details when you’re trying to teach a student. We really work a lot with the staff on people skills, customer service development, and how to be the best that they can be. We even go as far as to teach our team about different life stages and how to understand why people come to learn how to dance, and how to make an impact that could really change lives in the long run.
At our studio, we get it that dancing is fun; but you can learn how to dance at a million places. You can learn how to dance on YouTube. But here, we have a commitment to enhance the person’s life in the deepest way possible. It’s deeply fulfilling to see the staff I’ve been able to train go on to open their own studios and create their own livelihood in the same career. It’s also very satisfying to see the staff I have worked with now competing at a very high level.
These are the things I think about when I have mini-moments of regret or wish things went differently in the past. With some distance, problems just seem so much smaller than they ever were in the moment. In that moment, it may have felt like things were falling apart. But in hindsight, I barely remember those things. Or even better, I can see the perfection in why those things happened the way they did.
For example, when I sold the dance studio in Bloomfield Hills, that was a really hard decision for me, because at the time it felt like a failure. Now looking back, it makes perfect sense why it all happened the way it did. It allowed me to start Dancing with the Michigan Stars, which is something I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had that third studio. So now, it all seems to make perfect sense. It may have felt like things were going wrong at the time, but they were actually working out.
One of my biggest lessons in life — and something I wish I could tell younger me — is to slow down. I used to not see stop signs, I would just speed past them. I opened my own studio at 26, but 25-year-old me could have worked for somebody else a little bit longer and experienced a little bit more before taking that leap. It may have made my journey a little bit easier. I’d make sure 25-year-old me knew that life isn’t a race to the finish line. She’d get there no matter what, she just needed to breathe through it all.
One of our favorite insights about our time with Tansy is the recognition that no matter how your life and circumstances are going, it’s almost always working out for our benefit, even if we feel like things are going horribly wrong. Her willingness to give back and to keep going, no matter what comes, is a testament to the incredibly bright future her Arthur Murray Studio has in front of it.
If you’d like to attend this year’s Dancing with The Michigan Stars, please call the Arthur Murray Studio at (734) 995-9500 or check out the Facebook Page for more information.