Toni Ricci is anything but a typical dance instructor. Her friendly smile and business-like demeanor speak to her strong character and drive to achieve what few have: a successful dance studio and hundreds of students who call her business their second home.
“I was five when I realized, ‘I really want to do this forever.’” Toni told us how she started dancing extremely young, and after proving her determination to teachers and schools, eventually toured the country with a group run by the producers of Sesame Street, meeting new people and experiencing life from her hometown in Maine. “Then we came to California, and I was in love. I grew up in Maine, so I wasn’t around celebrities, and that kind of thing. I was always like ‘I wanna be in California! I wanna be on TV too! I wanna do it all!’” Thirteen years later, she’s welcoming students in the office of her own dance center.
The Elite Dance & Performing Arts studio shares its warehouse structure with a television network, so the building is enormous, at over 10,000 square feet; the interior, however, has been intricately designed to hold three different private studios, waiting rooms with live video streams of the dance floors, a welcoming lobby, dressing rooms, a kitchen, and most recently, the gorgeous rehearsal hall with brand new floors and plenty of room for 30 dancers to train together.
Toni has been working for every square inch of this place, each nail and screw and wood plank, her entire life. And in 2012, after a decade of teaching dance, working odd-jobs at retail stores, and scraping together money and support from students’ parents and friends, she achieved her goal. “I incorporated the Elite Dance and Performing Arts Center, March 27th of 2012—I’ll never forget it, I celebrate its birthday every day.”
To help finance expansions and the explosive growth her business needed, she reached out to VEDC. “VEDC was the first place that gave me a working capital loan, which helped me get through the summer,” remembers Toni. She needed to build her credit, and banks turned her down. “I started with a small loan of just $10,000 to keep us going. And then the next year we wanted to do an expansion. They believed in it, and lent us the money, and the studio grew. And then, two more years pass, and I went to them again—I always go right to them.”
In 2016, Elite Dance needed to grow again, and Toni called VEDC again. “This last one we did was a $100,000 expansion, and I said ‘Listen, I know I can do this.’ They were always so supportive.” The money went to building the rehearsal hall and adding more space for the increasing number of dancers.
“With three hundred and fifty students, we’ve done three expansions, we have twelve competition teams, I was the 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year for California, which I got from VEDC, they nominated me and I won the ‘Faces of Entrepreneurship’, which was really cool. We did some fundraisers in the community, we’ve done a lot of local performances. It’s the kids’ second home. It’s better than I could have ever expected, and more successful than I could have ever expected, and it came from nothing. So I’m very proud of it.”
Today, Elite Dance & Performing Arts offers classes for students two years old up to adults, with recreational classes for amateurs and fun-lovers, and professional programs providing high-level training in ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatics, hip hop, contemporary, and more. Nearly one hundred students compete on twelve different teams, and Toni makes sure they are taught to love and enjoy art and still keep it clean and family-oriented.
Toni gave us the best unscripted recommendation we could have asked for. Here it is, word for word:
“VEDC has really been the place that’s reminded me I’m doing a good job. I can’t explain it, but even if it’s something like this, or the nominations, or they’ll call me to go to business seminars, and help me in the community. They played a really big role with me in my business as well as supporting the growth of Elite Dance, and really supporting what we are. Had they not done what they’d done, this place would have probably closed down. I really owe them quite a bit. The community is lucky to have companies like this, for people like me. Not everybody who has a bad credit score, or not a lot of money, is not good for it, or is a loser, or not ever able to pay anything back. That’s not the truth, and I think they get that.”
Toni also has some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. “If you put in the work, and you really want it, if you really do will for something, there is a way. And I think too often, people give up on their own ideas. It’s gonna be hard work. But if you want something bad enough, it will happen. You really have to believe in it.”