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Ask Rhee Gold | February 2010


AskRheeAdvice for dance teachers

Dear Rhee,
At the start of last year I hired a well-respected ballet teacher. She is a good teacher who is well prepared for her classes and I have noticed a big difference in my students’ technical skills. They are taking their ballet classes seriously, wearing the proper attire, with their hair in a bun, all of which I hoped for when I hired this teacher.

My problem is that she thinks the other genres of dance we offer are not as respectable as her ballet classes. She is always running overtime, making the students late for other classes. When another teacher asked her to end on time, she said, “These kids don’t need a jazz class; they need the real dance training that they are getting in my ballet classes.” I respect her opinion, but she makes comments like this in front of the students and their parents, which I consider demeaning to my faculty members and to the many styles of dance we offer.

I asked her to end her classes on time and refrain from making negative comments about other forms of dance. She said I should appreciate the fact that she is giving my students and me more than their money’s worth. I explained that the parents are paying for ballet, tap, and jazz and that I was cheating the students out of a full jazz and tap class. She responded that jazz and tap would not make a dancer but that ballet would, then stormed out of the room.

I appreciate the technical qualities that my students are gaining from this teacher, but the conflict in my mind is driving me crazy. Do I keep her and live with the fact that she dislikes what my school offers, replace her, or is there something else I can do? Thanks. —Sabrina

Dear Sabrina,
It sounds like this teacher has more going on in her head than you know. Maybe she lost out on jobs or performance opportunities to dancers who were not trained in ballet, or her own teachers may have told her that ballet was the only true form of dance. Regardless of the reason for her prejudice, she needs to respect the way your school runs and the curriculum or she needs to move on. Hopefully she will have the opportunity to see a performance or sit in on jazz or tap classes to better appreciate the students and qualified teachers who have passion for those forms of dance.

Have one more talk with her to say that refraining from making negative comments about any other dance forms is a condition of her continued employment with you. If she can’t abide by your request, then start looking for a new teacher.

Regarding the time issue, you could schedule a 15-minute window between her classes and the next. That would give her a reasonable window for overtime and still let the kids get to their full jazz and tap classes. I wish you all the best. —Rhee

Dear Rhee,
I run a small school in a town with a population of 1,500. I chose the location because there were no dance studios within a 40-mile radius. For many years I have been pulling students from the surrounding towns, bringing my enrollment to 150. That number has allowed me to make a decent living, pay my rent, and employ a secretary and one teacher. The school is a four-days-a-week operation, giving me time to raise my children. Frankly, I loved my life.

Last fall two schools opened within five miles of my location. At first I concentrated on my own business and students. All went well for the first couple of months, and my enrollment was up by 10 percent.

Then one of the schools that opened got hold of my list of students. The owner has been contacting the parents of my students (on the phone and by mailing them postcards with coupons), offering them a two-month free trial at her school. She tells them that they will see a big difference in the training that she offers compared to my school. If they register with her after the trial, they will also receive a free summer session.

I have students who are taking classes from me one day and going to the other school for free lessons on other days. What is making her plan work so well is that she is offering her classes for my students on the days my school is closed, so my students are free to take them. One side of me thinks she is smart to do this and another side believes that this is completely unethical.

In speaking with some of the parents who are taking advantage of the free classes, I’ve learned that this school is very different from mine in terms of discipline and what it offers. There are no ballet classes and the students can wear whatever they want to class. The parents tell me that the kids are enjoying the classes and the teacher. They all mention that the kids love the hip-hop classes, which I do not offer. This school is also going to take its students to dance competitions, and I am not interested in becoming a competitive school.

Two of my students’ moms have told me that their children are not going to return to my school. They have chosen the new school because it is less expensive and the kids love the hip-hop classes and are looking forward to performing at competitions. I am devastated and can’t sleep because I fear that I am going to continue to lose my students. I can’t afford to offer free classes or summer programs, nor do I want to start bringing my students to competition. Do I get out before I lose my shirt, or do you have some suggestions on how to deal with this? —Small-Town Teacher

Dear Small-Town Teacher,
I am sorry to hear about your situation. I have to agree with you that this teacher’s behavior is unethical. No law prevents a teacher from opening a school, and I understand that people are free to operate their businesses anywhere they choose. But because you are in a small town, this teacher had to have known that her success would rely on pulling students from your school. If she didn’t know that when she opened, her actions indicate that she is well aware of it now. Targeting your students with offers of free classes is another indication that ethics don’t matter to her.

You have some decisions to make. Are you willing to invest more time in your school? I’m not talking about teaching more days; I mean spending time strategizing about how to take your business to a new level. Could you find a hip-hop teacher? Would you consider bringing some of your students to a dance competition? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I would stop losing sleep (I know it is easier said than done) and look at this as an opportunity to refresh your curriculum and learn how to stay one step ahead of the other school.

You’ve been at this a lot longer than the new school owner, so you have more loyalty and name recognition within your community than she has. Use those to your advantage by marketing how long you have been teaching the community’s children. Start to educate your clientele on the importance of the ballet training that you offer and the other school doesn’t. In addition to hip-hop, consider other curriculum that might add to your appeal. It could be anything from Zumba to lyrical or contemporary, as long as it is fresh and new to your clients. Some of what you try might not work, but the fact that you are expanding your offerings could be very enticing to your current and future clientele.

One thing is for sure: This teacher cannot afford to offer free classes for long and stay in business. My guess is that the “new kid on the block” appeal will wear off and that you will remain on top because of your longtime experience. Look at this as your kick in the butt to move on to new things and expand your horizons. Focus on the possibilities in front of you instead of worrying about the other school. Good luck! —Rhee


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