Why you need dance-teacher friends and what they can do for you
By Debbie Werbrouck
“Oh, you’ve got to have friends,” say the lyrics of “Friends,” an old Bette Midler song. And while it’s true for everyone, for dance educators a more accurate version would be “You’ve got to have friends who dance in your shoes.”
Teaching dance, especially in the private sector, presents a unique situation. We put so much of ourselves into our work—sharing our craft, knowledge, and creativity with students and their parents—that we take it personally when our work is not appreciated or, even worse, is criticized. What we’re looking for is someone who can listen and understand—not simply empathize or sympathize but really understand, because she’s been there herself.
Most of us find that our non-dancing/teaching friends cannot understand the life we live. The stresses, the joys, even what we consider normal—all are aspects of life that we need to share with others who speak the same language. As my husband says, “You know you’re married to a dance teacher when you find sequins in your bed.”
I’m lucky enough to have a wide circle of dance teacher/school owner friends, each of whom would attest to the importance of these friendships. Within that circle, we provide essential services for one another that make life easier and lots more fun.
Not long ago I got an email from one of these friends with “One of the things I love about my job” in the subject line. Right away I knew she had a problem. It was a parent problem and she wanted to know my thoughts. Every business has customer-service problems, but if you teach children, you are dealing with both children and parents, which takes client relationships to a whole new level.
After I laughed about the complaint letter she had received, I shared my thoughts about what to do: Stay professional and above the fray, maintain your principles, and above all (after responding to the letter), let it go.
This was an easy one since the parent’s demand was over the top. We all know the scenario: The parents want their child to be excused from a required rehearsal because of a conflicting activity. When they are not given the desired dispensation, they focus their discontent on the school owner, faulting all aspects of the school. Sometimes their complaints descend to the trivial or even personal level.
It is hard not to take complaints personally, and having the ear of a friendly fellow dance educator can keep things in perspective. A friend of mine once joked about parents who want their children to be picked up from school, taken home, fed a snack, and taught a private lesson by a qualified teacher for $5 per class. Another likes to say that she could set herself on fire and people would complain about the smoke.
More than once, a talk with a dance buddy has prevented someone in my network from reacting badly to a situation. The interval created by seeking a friend’s advice (even if it’s just a short pause) can allow you to find a different perspective or a solution to a problem. But while venting is good for the soul, try to keep your conversations from becoming a downward spiral of complaining. Challenging each other to find solutions or brainstorming about improvements or easier methods will keep your objectives positive.
Sharing ideas and more
These friendships meet practical needs as well. Several years ago, while I was bemoaning the backstage chaos that parents created, a friend of mine explained her recital check-in system. At my next show, I put it to the test. The results were amazing, and not only did I never look back, I passed the system on to others in my network. And several of my friends have taken and expanded on a simple organizing idea of mine: To keep the multiple parts of a two-in-one or three-in-one costume together, I place laundry baskets for each class in the dressing rooms during shows.
Our non-dancing/teaching friends cannot understand the life we live. The stresses, the joys, even what we consider normal—all are aspects of life that we need to share with others who speak the same language.
Have you ever come up one short when handing out props? Do you need a backdrop, set, or gobo for your show? Dance buddies to the rescue! Can’t find an old cut of music? You’re one phone call or email away. One year I couldn’t come up with the right piece of music for an advanced tap class, and I mentioned it to a dance buddy at the beginning of a conference. By the end of the first day, I had a two-page list of possible songs.
In my network, those of us who live close to one another share guest faculty, bring our students to each other’s workshops, or serve as guest teachers at each other’s schools. Bringing in friends to serve as impartial judges for auditions and the like can take the pressure off you by eliminating any accusations of favoritism. And your students benefit when guests reinforce the comments and corrections you make, which is likely to happen if their philosophies and techniques are similar to yours.
Unique business models
Dance schools often don’t fit into general business molds. For example, how many businesses provide scholarships? As school owners, we don’t do everything according to accepted formulas; often we have to act according to what we feel is right. Then there are the recurring questions that don’t fit the usual business models: Should I raise my tuition? Should I charge my staff for classes that they or their families attend? Is there promotional value in doing a performance at this particular event? Your dance buddies are your best resources when you’re stumped and need some advice.
Share your strengths
Are you strong in ballet but weaker in your knowledge of another dance discipline? If so, you could be a ballet “tutor” for a friend who can reciprocate in your area of need. Are you short of hip-hop teachers? Maybe your dance buddies can give you recommendations. Perhaps, by working together, you can provide full-time employment for an educator who otherwise would receive only part-time employment at one location.
What great program have you offered at your school that was a hit? Do you do special events to promote your school or program? Do you specialize in one age group while your friend specializes in another? Each person in your network can benefit by learning from the others. If your school is heavy in one age group or discipline, you can explore ways to increase enrollment of other age groups or participation in other disciplines.
One friend and I used to meet for lunch each month to exchange ideas and techniques. We exchanged printed advertising and marketing materials for comparison and discussed our office staff and operations, how we answered the phones and returned calls, our methods of accepting tuition payments, and whether we offered discounts. We worked our way through the school year from registration to recital, and both of us improved the operations in our schools.
Networking in numbers
Many of the teachers I know belong to the same dance organization, so we spend about 10 days together each summer. It’s always great to catch up with distant friends, and we’ve never been at a loss for subjects to discuss. We often bring music suggestions and samples of printed materials to share. In addition to casual individual encounters, we usually schedule a night to meet. It’s like having a convention within a convention.
Attending workshops, conventions, and training schools is a great way to build a cadre of dance friends. Networking with people who don’t live in your immediate area has some advantages; for example, people who aren’t direct competitors feel freer to share their ideas, and learning what is going on in other areas of the country is often helpful.
Once your network is in place, you may feel comfortable with the idea of including other educators in your area. Choosing members of your network should be a natural process—observe things like their level of technical polish (or that of their students), the philosophy of their school, and so on.
Be open to others
Don’t discount someone who has limited experience or whose technical abilities seem lower than yours; everyone has something to contribute and there is value in knowing a range of people with diverse talents. You might have more expertise in dance technique than a younger educator, but she could be the wiz you need to help you with computer technology.
The most important factor is how comfortable you feel with the people in your network. You might have several networks, small or large, or you might prefer to foster individual relationships. What’s most important is to build a web of support and friendship that will make you feel like you’re not alone.