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Ask Rhee Gold | March-April 2008

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Hi Rhee,
I have been an owner/director of a studio for 16 years. I have had a group of teens for a while now, my competition team, who are pretty dedicated, good kids. One of them is the daughter of one of my teachers. That teacher told me that a girl who is very negative and disrespectful is upsetting her daughter, and she mentioned going to another studio if her daughter is not happy here. I love this teacher and her daughter; they are very loyal and hardworking. I would hate to see them leave because one girl is upsetting them. Then I heard of two other girls who are not happy and may go to another studio next year, and I don’t know why.

I called the mother of the girl who is negative to see if she could talk to her daughter about being more positive and having more respect for her teachers and fellow dancers. She told me she has not been happy. So five people are not happy, and my competition team is small, only 20 kids. I know at this age the girls can be very cliquey.

How do I handle this? I would say I run a disciplined school, but I have to admit that I can be a pushover. It seems like when the kids get in high school a lot of them leave for some reason or another. I would like to stop this and keep at least most of them at the studio until graduation. Do you have any advice? —Confused and Upset

Hello Confused and Upset,
I would have a rap session with the five girls who seem to be disgruntled. Start out with something like, “I’ve called you all together because I feel that you’re not happy in my classroom, which is causing tension that I can feel while I am teaching. Please take this opportunity to let me know what’s on your mind, because I love what I do and I love you guys, but I can’t deal with the tension.” Stay totally calm. Don’t allow yourself to get upset by anything they say, and be sure that they act respectfully toward each other. Use this talk as a learning experience to give you more insight on how situations like this arise. (There’s a lot to be learned from our students.)

If you discover that the problem leads back to the one dancer that you describe as negative and disrespectful, it may be time to give her directions to some of the other schools in the area. That may seem harsh, but her negativity will continue to impact the attitudes of the dancers she encounters.

Overall, I would not sit back and wonder what’s going on. It’s better to confront the problems now rather than letting them fester throughout the rest of the season. That usually leads to students ending the season on a negative note, which means that they would be less likely to return to your school. Make the changes needed to bring harmony back. Good luck! —Rhee


 Hi Rhee,
I’m in terrible distress and feel I have nowhere else to turn. I’m a 24-year-old studio owner who bought an existing business with the help of my parents last year. I graduated as a dance pedagogy major from a major university a couple of years ago, so when this opportunity presented itself I was thrilled. But I’m feeling very alone. I didn’t realize what a lonely business this is, or maybe I just need to make friends with other studio owners who have the same weird work hours that I do.

I have almost 250 students, employ 4 people, and teach 36 hours a week. Running this business, preparing to teach classes, ordering costumes, etc. is exhausting. I feel drained of all the passion I ever had for dance. I need to choreograph for the end-of-the-year show, but I’m bogged down in negative thoughts about life and dance and the pressure I feel to keep the standards as high as they were with the previous owner.

I’m overwhelmed and searching for any kind of inspiration I can get. I’m heartbroken that my dream of having my own studio has left me depressed, stressed, anxious, and lonely. I can’t do anything without thinking about the studio. It has completely taken over my mind, like an obsession. I want so badly to run the business perfectly and be an amazing teacher and choreographer, but the stress is eating me alive. I guess I just want someone to tell me it will get easier with experience. How can I pull myself out of this rut? —Sasha

Hello Sasha,
Most school owners will tell you that they are happiest when they’re in the classroom with the kids. The perfect scenario is a shut door with no disruptions or phone—just the teacher and the students doing what they love most. Unfortunately, most of them don’t get enough of that “behind closed doors” time. Instead they’re dealing with all the non-dance stuff that must be accomplished to keep the school rolling. And that’s not always easy.

When you own a school you usually wake up wondering what to do first. Should you focus on the choreography that should have been finished last week, or is it more important to call the mom who wants to know why her daughter isn’t in a higher-level class? Maybe you should fill out that rental application for the recital—but that needs a copy of your insurance policy and you have no idea where that is. When you do decide what you can accomplish that day, you have to keep in mind that you must open the school at 3:00 and teach until 9:30 that night.

So why do people do this job? Because they just can’t help themselves; somewhere in their early journey a teacher instilled that “dance passion” in their blood, and it can’t be disregarded. Sharing that passion with their own students becomes a mission.

After you’ve owned your school for a few years you’ll discover other rewards. For instance, you know that 6-year-old who spent her first couple of classes in the back of the room crying for her mother? Twelve years from now she will be a confident young lady who has learned things like discipline, commitment, and the value of working hard to accomplish her goals. Eventually, if she does something cool like land a scholarship at an Ivy League school, it will be due, at least in part, to the ethics you helped to instill in her. She and her parents will credit your school as the place that gave her some of the tools she needed to become a successful adult. What could be more rewarding? This scenario will play out over and over again, guaranteed.

You write that it can be a lonely life and I agree with you. Part of it has to do with the hours and part of it to the fact that friends often don’t understand the kind of commitment this job takes. The best thing to do is to find some “dance friends.” Check out the dance teacher organizations or attend conventions, conferences, and workshops where you will meet others who live the life you do. There is nothing better than just hanging out with people who understand what your passion is all about!

The struggles you are having now do become easier because owning a school is a live-and-learn process. Though we can pursue a degree or certification to make us the best teachers we can be, there is no educational program that teaches us how to run a dance school. Think of the first few years of school ownership as continuing that education you started in college. This time you’re going for your “master’s” in running a dance school. You won’t get a diploma, but you will go through a process that will make you a much smarter businessperson, and along the way you will develop organizational skills that make all that non-dance stuff easier.

You are not alone. You’ve chosen one of the most exciting professions in the world, and I have a feeling that you’ll agree once you’ve been through the learning curve. —Rhee


Rhee,
I offer incentives to my customers to pay tuition for a full season (September to June) at the start of the year. Recently I have had to give refunds to several customers who chose not to complete the season. I would prefer not to offer refunds on tuition, but I’m afraid that if I don’t, fewer customers will pay for the season up front. What should I do? —Robin

Dear Robin,
I think you are doing the right thing by giving refunds to those who request them. If you do not you probably will find, as you suspect, that your customers are apprehensive about paying for the year up front. But you might consider initiating a policy that states that there are no refunds past a certain date in the season or that a partial refund will be given in some cases. For example, if a child withdraws after you have completed choreography for the year-end performance (in which the child was included), I think you would be justified in not offering that family a refund. Or if you used studio funds to pay for costumes for the child, it is reasonable to deduct the costume fees from the refund. And if the child were to withdraw in late spring, I would have to contemplate whether I would offer a refund.

However, if a child stops dancing within the first few months of the season, I would give a refund because I would want that customer to speak positively about my school. And maybe the child will decide to dance again, and I would want my school to be their first choice—which it probably would be if they didn’t leave on a sour note. It’s not easy to offer refunds when you’re barely keeping up with expenses, but there are times when it is better for business to just do it! Good luck! —Rhee

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