Unconventional Wisdom: Eight Wacky Schools

For these entrepreneurs, teaching their unusual skills -- from exotic dancing to swallowing swords -- is big business.

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Entrepreneurs often are adept at combining a personal skill or interest with business savvy to create a new enterprise. But what happens when a person's area of expertise is a little, well, unusual? As in fire-eating and snake-charming type of wacky. The enterprising performers on this list have created businesses out of teaching their special talents to others. And as it turns out, the businesses behind these schools are growing. Revenues in the fine-arts schools category, which as unlikely as it may sound includes such training, are projected to increase by nearly 3 percent this year to $4.73 billion, says industry research firm IBISWorld. By 2015, revenues are expected to jump to $5.72 billion. That's a lot of clowns, dancers, musicians, sideshow performers -- OK, you get the idea.

Trapeze School of New York

Trapeze School of New York
Founders: Jonathon Conant, Dave Brown and Anne Brown
Year opened: 2001
Locations: New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Chicago
Fee: $45-$75 per class

Ever wonder what it's like to flip through the air, your adrenaline pumping as you swing from bar-to-bar high above the ground? If so, the Trapeze School of New York might be for you. (Acrophobics need not apply.) The school offers classes for all skill levels, as well as intensive multisession workshops for more advanced "flyers." While the number of students varies annually, the school can collectively host as many as 100,000 classes a year, according to co-founder Jonathon Conant. He says the best part about running the trapeze school is the opportunity to see people "pushing their limits" and "learning to trust themselves and others more fully." We bet it's the thrill of it all, too.


Founder: Vishwa Prakash
Year opened: 2004
Location: New York City
Fee: Free

Chuckling. Giggling. Snorting. Call it whatever you like, but laughter is considered by some people to be therapeutic. After studying in Mumbai with trainer Madan Katari, Vishwa Prakash opened Yogalaff, a classroom in Midtown Manhattan that attracts students of all ages and nationalities to practice "yoga laughter" -- a unique form of yoga that triggers laughter. While anyone can attend his weekly public classes for free, Prakash makes money teaching classes for corporate clients, which can start at $250. Combined, Prakash estimates that he shares a good laugh with roughly 2,000 people each year.

The New York Goofs Clown School

The New York Goofs Clown School
Founders: Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley
Year opened: 1998
Locations: New York City and Dallas
Fee: $300 for a weekend course, $750 for a week-long course, $1,300 for a two-week course

When the official Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College shuttered in 1998, director Dick Monday teamed up with fellow clown and choreographer Tiffany Riley to pick up where the college left off and opened the New York Goofs Clown School. While other clown schools may focus on make-up and costumes, Monday and Riley stress a "well rounded" clowning education that includes teaching skills such as gag structure, character development, dance, improvisation and, of course, juggling. The "goofs" teach approximately 150 students annually.

Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy

Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy
Founders: Tandy Rice and Chip Huffman
Year opened: 2009
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Cost: $1,000 per class

Veteran tour driver Chip Huffman (right) teamed up with Tandy Rice (left), owner of celebrity booking agency Top Billing Inc. to found the Celebrity Bus Drivers Academy, which teaches students how to drive tour busses for the rich and famous. To be accepted to the program, students must pass criminal and credit checks, have a commercial driver's license and be at least 25 years old. From there, students are taught skills that go behind driving the busses, including how to set up the on-board Wi-Fi to the basics of managing celebrity personalities. The academy trains as many as 20 students person session, twice annually.

New York School of Burlesque

New York School of Burlesque
Founder: Jo Weldon
Year opened: 2005
Location: New York City
Cost range: $15 for a one-hour class to $300 for a multiweek workshop

Feathers and fringes and pink stockings -- oh my! Longtime provocative dancer Jo Weldon (center, above) founded the New York School of Burlesque in 2005 at New York's The Slipper Room burlesque club. Weldon says that she and her team of experienced entertainers instruct hundreds of students each year, ranging from bachelorette and birthday partygoers to individuals who are interested in becoming professional performers.

Scratch DJ Academy

Scratch DJ Academy
Founders: Rob Principe and Jason Mizell (Jam Master Jay)
Year opened: 2002
Locations: New York, Los Angeles and Miami
Fee: $350 for a six-week course, $110 for a private lesson

Rob Principe met Jason Mizell -- better known as Jam Master Jay, the DJ for legendary rap group Run DMC -- aboard a flight from New York City to San Diego. Principe was only 12 years old. Fast forward 17 years and Principe found himself standing before Mizell once again, this time pitching him an idea to transform the traditional one-on-one DJ apprenticeship into a classroom experience. That's when the Scratch DJ Academy was born. Catering to the hordes of young music enthusiasts (students generally range in age from 19 to 34), Principe says more than 100,000 students have come to the academy to learn the ways of spinning and scratching records.

Oaksterdam University

Oaksterdam University
Founder: Richard Lee
Year opened: 2007
Location: Oakland, Calif.
Fee: $300-$650 per class

The legalization of medical marijuana in states like Maine, Vermont and California has created more than just controversy. For Richard Lee, it opened an entrepreneurial window. The former Aerosmith roadie became a staunch cannabis activist after an accident in 1990 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In a bid to help legitimize the cannabis industry, Lee in 2007 opened a school that focuses on the business behind the plant, which is known commonly as a recreational drug and can be used to make products like clothes and paper. At Lee's Oaksterdam University, the curriculum focuses on cannabis-related topics including politics, legal issues and horticulture. The school hosts approximately 4,000 students each year.

Coney Island USA's Sideshow School

Coney Island USA's Sideshow School
Founders: Todd Robbins, Dick Zigun and Fred Kahl
Year opened: 2002
Location: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Fee: $800 per class

Want to learn how to hammer a nail into your skull? Or, at least make it look like you did? The talented professionals at Coney Island USA's Sideshow School can show you how. Among other skills taught are snake charming, magic, sword swallowing and, yes, fire eating. The class is offered three times annually and averages between 20 and 30 students a year. Located in the Sideshows by the Seashore building on New York's famous Coney Island, the school was established to help "train a new generation of circus idiots for the 21st century," co-founder Dick Zigun says. If you ask us, it sounds like fun.
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