By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
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“I was known in Miami but I was thinking, How can I be known nationwide, you know?” she asks. “I was restless. Back then I had something to prove. I'd look through magazines and see the different instructors and think about how I could join them. I saw [fitness personality] Denise Austin on TV. In her case in particular, I was like, “Darn it, I can do that! How can I achieve that?'”
She took a major step toward her dream by sharing first place in a national aerobics competition sponsored by Crystal Light drink mix. Stone successfully leveraged that title into a gig teaching aerobics around the world. She was the spokeswoman for a chain of Japanese health clubs. For three years she lived out her dream by dancing on a cable television workout program alongside “Buns of Steel” goddess Tamilee Webb.
Stone tried to market her own aerobics tape, with moderate success. Her video pushed a new kind of aerobics program, which she called cardio-funk. She had hoped to ride this workout into a boom as big as step aerobics or spinning. Although cardio-funk never caught on, she found in it the genesis of her current gig.
“It was about nine years ago when I was asked if I could get a couple of kids to dance at a birthday party,” she remembers. “So I got a few of them together, taught them a few steps, and we all had so much fun that I decided to teach a regular class for kids. That's pretty much when it was born.”
At the time hip-hop music was starting to infiltrate the nation's dance studios. Teachers in New York City and Philadelphia began forming their own hip-hop dance companies. Stone soon followed suit, though in a manner that made the music palatable to the privileged white girls who dominate her program.
“Hip-hop is the hottest, phat (awesome), dank (top of the line) phenomena in music today, and its popularity is seeping beyond the boundaries of its Urban American roots,” she cheers in her promotional literature. “Suburban kids all over the nation are trading in their tutus and tap shoes for graffiti-covered overalls, Doc Martens, positive messages, funky beats, and the fast and fractured movements hip-hop inspires.”
Stone registered the name of her troupe, first as the Hip Hop Kids and then, to differentiate herself from competitors in Los Angeles and elsewhere, as the Hip Hop Kidz. The overalls and shoes followed shortly thereafter. Her business expanded so quickly she moved it out of her kitchen counter and into private offices.
The program grew initially by word of mouth, but Stone soon learned to market herself to the community. She took out ads in the Miami Herald. Full-color brochures were printed advertising “the FUNKIEST childrens' dance class in town.” Skittish suburban parents were assured that the gritty story lines of much rap music would be avoided in favor of family-friendly lyricists such as Will Smith. Stone pitched the program as a “healthy alternative” and a “healthy outlet for ... emotions and self-expression.”
Business boomed. Stone now employs three people full-time, as well as twelve part-time dance instructors. Revenues exceed $300,000 per year, she says, admitting her estimate is conservative. That figure doesn't include the ten-percent cut she takes from her growing side business managing her dancers' commercial careers.
None of this came about by accident. Stone works hard to grow her brand, advertising constantly, seeking out performance opportunities, and talking care of the little things, such as scanning the Web in search of competitors, like a class in England daring to call itself the Hip Hop Kidz -- same spelling and everything. That proprietor can expect a letter from Stone's attorney any day now. She's also threatened a lawsuit against a dance instructor in Los Angeles who put out a videotape five years ago with the too-similar title of Hip Hop Kids.
“I cannot help it,” she says of her work habits. “I'm definitely type A. People always tell me: “Suzy, relax.' But I'm like this,” she explains, holding a jittery hand in front of her. “My heart is pounding all the time. It's not that I'm not satisfied. It's just that I'm always striving to reach some other level.”
The next level, the level to which she's always strived, is television. In her Hip Hop Kidz she sees a chance to break into the medium in a way she never was able to with aerobics.
She began working toward television almost immediately after founding the program. Inspired by the success of the Power Rangers toys, she registered as a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office a crude drawing of a superhero with a lightning bolt streaking down his chest. “High Voltage” was to be the leader of a dance troupe of urban overall-clad youth.
She has since given up on High Voltage, but she hasn't abandoned her TV dream. She envisions something airing on Nickelodeon, perhaps, a new Zoom, only less dorky. “Somewhere between Barney and MTV,” she says. “A Mickey Mouse Club for the 21st Century.” The new promotional video is in the can. A publicist hired by Stone is shopping around the concept. At this point, though, there aren't a lot of specifics to discuss.