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Ask Rhee Gold | January 2008


AskRheeDear Rhee,
My school has been open for 14 years and for the most part we have been extremely successful. We always stay on top at the competitions and usually go home with the high-score cash awards. Over the past few years I have added several teachers to my staff, especially those who are good with the competition program. They are all fine teachers, but most of them don’t like to teach the untalented students, or as you call them, the recreational students. I understand because I don’t like to teach the beginners or the babies, either.

Like most teachers, we all complain or make fun of the recreational students because we know that they’ll never be as good as our competition kids. But I try to explain to my teachers that they need to fake having a good time when they are teaching the beginners because that’s where their paycheck is coming from.

To date we have lost more than 40 beginners and babies in the first three months of the season. Obviously I am not saying the right thing to my teachers to make them understand that we can’t keep losing these students, but it just doesn’t seem to sink in. Do you have any advice? —Nancy

Dear Nancy,
From my perspective, you are the root of your problem. Your faculty will not change their attitude until you change yours. If you don’t like to teach the recreational students and you freely share those feelings with your faculty, why should they want to teach them either? When you suggest to your faculty that they should fake enjoying these students, you set an example that I wouldn’t encourage any school owner to do. Your students and their parents can see through your façade and that’s why they’re dropping in such large numbers.

You wrote that all teachers complain about or make fun of the recreational kids because they are not as good as the competition kids. In my opinion you are completely off base with that statement. Teaching a beginner student who masters a chassé or a simple shuffle should be as rewarding to the teacher as any student who wins a trophy. And “recreational” is not a synonym for “untalented.” There are plenty of talented kids who do not aspire to a career in dance or even want to make dance the focus of their lives. Their interest in other activities or academics may limit their participation, but it doesn’t mean that they have no talent.

It is time to stop adding faculty to your competition program and start hiring teachers who actually like to teach dance to all students, regardless of their skill level. If you don’t like to teach the babies and neither does your faculty, your school probably doesn’t have much of a future. Those babies are your future.

The best advice that I can offer you is to get off your high horse and stop judging your students by whether they win awards. Then maybe your attitude will trickle down to your faculty. Until then, I have a feeling that you will continue to lose students. Ultimately you may find yourself with all the trophies but no school to display them in.

I apologize if this response seems harsh, but if you read this magazine on a regular basis you would know that you are writing to a person who believes that every child should experience the wonderful world of dance. And I don’t care if they can do multiple pirouettes or simply clap to the music. —Rhee

Dear Rhee,
I am strictly a ballet teacher employed at a professional school in the Midwest. I teach both the company dancers as well as many classes in the children’s program. Although I love working with the company, there is something uniquely rewarding about working with children. Many students at the school will never be ballet dancers but might become strong dancers in another style of dance. I think some of them should be taking jazz or modern classes along with their ballet, and I have told several of them to look for a school that offers those styles. I also tell them to continue taking their ballet classes for a strong foundation.

Last week I was called into the school director’s office, where he scolded me for suggesting that my students should be taking anything other than ballet. He explained that jazz and modern are not recommended by the school and that we can’t afford to send our students to other places. When I told him that we have many students who would never become ballet dancers but who could have a future in another form of dance, he responded that it isn’t our place to tell them that. When I suggested that we add jazz and modern to our curriculum, he wouldn’t hear of it, telling me that we are a “pure” ballet school.

My daughter started taking ballet at this school, but she also took jazz and tap at a local school. Today she is a professional Broadway dancer who would never have found her place in the dance world if we had not been open to all forms of dance.

I called in sick this week because I don’t know if I can continue to teach the children. If I am a real teacher, I should be able to point my students in the direction that best suits their needs. If I don’t, my conscience tells me I am cheating them. Please help me decide what to do. —Michelle

Hello Michelle,
First, thank you so much for writing. I have enormous respect for ballet teachers who appreciate and understand that all dance is created equal.

If it makes you feel better, there are many schools that have strong jazz, modern, or tap programs with children who should be training as serious ballet dancers, but their teachers don’t want to send them to a professional ballet school, either. It seems that guiding a student to another school or certain style of dance that better suits their capabilities is often taboo in our field. That goes across the board with the private sector, professional schools, and even some higher-ed programs. Too bad for all those dancers (especially the children) who never had a chance to discover the form of dance that they are best suited for.

I feel uncomfortable advising you on whether or not you should remain at this school without knowing your financial status or what the potential is to find another teaching position in your area. However, I recommend not making a drastic move until you know where you are going next. Consider remaining at your current school while you send your resume to other schools in your area. You may find that many school owners would love to have a strong ballet teacher who has as much respect for all forms of dance as you do. Or you might want to consider continuing to work with the company dancers while teaching children at another school whose owner appreciates your integrity. It is teachers like you who inspire me to do what I do.—Rhee

Dear Rhee,
I am one of the lucky dance teachers with a husband who supports what I do. He has dinner waiting on the table when I come home and he takes on as much responsibility with our three children as I do. For years he has been encouraging me to buy a building for my school because he calls the rent that I pay “highway robbery.” Together we have been saving for three years to come up with a down payment for a piece of land that we know is a fantastic location for the dance school of our dreams. We are ready with a down payment, building plans, and the financing to make it a reality.

The problem is that I am not sure that I want to continue teaching dance. After having my school for 11 years, I feel burned out. I’m scared that if I build this building, I may never be able to get out. This doesn’t mean that I would stop teaching now, but paying rent makes me feel that I have an out when I’m ready. I really don’t see myself doing this for another 10 years. Probably I would teach for someone else, and then later I would like to go back to school.

The problem is that my husband is so obsessed with this building that I am nervous about telling him that I don’t think this is what I want to do. I am confused because this is what I wanted when I married my husband, but my priorities have changed. I’m afraid my husband is going to be disappointed or not support my wish to continue paying rent. What would you do? —Elaine

Hello Elaine,
Right about now we have many readers who are thinking, “I will take her husband and the chance to build my own building any day!” But the reality is that you can’t move forward on building this school if you are feeling burned out before you ever lay the foundation.

I am a big one for going with your instinct, especially when you have to make a life decision like this. I’m sensing that yours is telling you that this is not the right move at this point in your life. If your husband has dinner waiting on the table and is so supportive of what you do, then I have a feeling that he will also support your decision not to move forward on this project.

Maybe it’s time for the two of you to decide whether there might be another business that you could go into together. Or maybe your burnout will not last and five years from now you’ll decide that building your school is something you want to do. Whatever the next chapter is, it sounds like you are very levelheaded and that you are extremely lucky to have the husband that you do. Go with your instinct and don’t be afraid to share your feelings with your husband. All the best to you. —Rhee


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