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Dear Rhee,
I started dance at 4 and continued until I graduated from high school. After going to college, I went back home to fulfill my dream of teaching dance at the school where I trained. The studio was like fantasyland for me as a child, a fun place where everyone was so nice and happy to see you and the teachers loved to dance. That’s why I wanted to go back—to see younger kids have the chance to experience dance like I did. I have always felt that I would make teaching at my hometown school my career.

Last year I noticed that my former teacher had seemed to lose her enthusiasm for dance and everything else. No longer the smiling face everyone looked for at the studio, she became a person people dreaded to run into. Her negativity can be felt in every nook and cranny of the school and the enrollment in all classes is on a rapid decline. I recently lost a student who I know loved to dance with me. I called the mom to find out why they left and learned that my boss had screamed at the child for slamming the bathroom door. The mom said that she and her daughter were afraid of the school owner.

Today my fantasyland has become the place kids and parents want to get away from. Out of fear for the future I have tried to speak with my boss many times, but she is always argumentative, telling me that I don’t walk in her shoes and that it is not my place to judge her. Instead of seeing me as loyal to her, she seems to think I am her enemy. Some days when I come in to teach and we are the only ones in the building, she doesn’t even say hello. I feel like I want to run away, like so many of the students and parents have. Dance is everything to me, and the person who gave me that love is beginning to take me to the miserable place she has created for herself.

I don’t know what to do. Trying to talk to her just makes her angrier. Do I quit? Should I look for a job teaching somewhere else? Do I ride it out, hoping things get back to normal someday? —Disappointed Dance Teacher

Dear Disappointed,
Your loyalty to the school and to your former dance teacher is to be commended. It is obvious that you still care for her; however, I am not sure there is a way to solve this problem. This school owner seems to be suffering from burnout, which may have been brought on by her years of owning the school or possibly personal problems that have nothing to do with you or her business. Either way it sounds like a toxic situation for everyone involved.

Obviously my first bit of advice would have been to have a heart-to-heart talk with your boss, but you have already tried that without positive results. Within this magazine’s pages I am always advocating that those who desire to have their own school should never open one that’s in competition with the person who instilled their passion for dance. But your situation may be an exception. Have you ever thought about exploring other opportunities? I am not necessarily suggesting that you open your own school, but I’ll bet there are a few enthusiastic school owners in your vicinity who would love to have you as a member of their faculty.

My advice is to finish your commitment for this school year while investigating other teaching options for next season. If you can pull off teaching for a school that is some distance from where you are now, that would help to alleviate the tension that might come if you leave her school. But if that’s not possible, then you have to do what you must to bring the joy of dance back into your own life and to the children you teach.

Do everything you can to make this change with integrity. As the end of the season comes, let your boss know that you will not be returning next year. Be sure that she has a good amount of time to replace you. Also, do what you can to let her know that you continue to appreciate all that she did for you growing up, but that it is time for you to move on. Do not bad-mouth the school within the community or with your future employer. Hopefully as time goes on the memories of your fantasyland dance school will prevail and you can continue to respect the teacher who gave you the gift of dance. I wish you all the best. —Rhee

Dear Rhee,
Growing up I loved ballet, but I also took jazz, tap, and acrobatics. My mom always told me that I should be able to do everything if I wanted to be a professional. It was good advice because I ended up at Cirque du Soleil for three years, which would not have happened if I didn’t have a good mix of training, especially the acrobatics. Although I could have continued with the show, I opted to pursue a degree in dance, which I accomplished.

My college professors looked down on my experience with Cirque and my appreciation for jazz, tap, and acrobatics. They told me that college dance was real dance, which to them was modern. Although I disagreed, I immersed myself in learning, which led me to develop a true love for modern dance.

A few years after I opened my own school, which offers all styles of dance, I decided to bring in one of my college professors to teach a master class. I was so excited for him to see what I had accomplished, and I wanted him to know that I was teaching real modern to my students.

It was a disaster. He told me he couldn’t teach with that “loud noise” (a tap class) coming from the other room, so I asked the teacher to have the kids change shoes and do a jazz class instead. When he looked at the recital pictures on the walls, he said, “You are ripping off parents by making them purchase expensive costumes for an amateur recital.” Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. During his class he was rude to my dancers, telling some that they needed to lose weight and others to sit out because they weren’t capable of taking his class.

I was embarrassed and I know my dancers were humiliated. I was holding back tears, knowing I had made a huge mistake. I couldn’t wait for him to get out of town.

I am so upset that people who claim to love dance can be so judgmental of a dance world that they know nothing about. It makes me sad that I and other teachers like me will send our dancers off to college dance programs that don’t appreciate who they are or where they come from. Do you have any words of wisdom that will make me feel better about this terrible experience? —Sad Teacher

Dear Sad,
Let me start by letting you know that there are several really good college dance programs for students who come from private-sector dance studios. Some have incorporated jazz and tap into their curriculum, although I have yet to see an acrobatic class at the college level. Oklahoma City University has a studio management program that prepares future teachers for the business side of the dance world, including running a private-sector school. (For more on OCU, see “All the Tools They Need” in the August 2010 Dance Studio Life.) You can confidently send your dancers to a college program that will appreciate who they are and the schools they come from. And I believe that the trend is to be more accommodating of students who come from the private-sector world; otherwise the college programs will not survive.

With all that said, you have worked as a professional dancer with Cirque du Soleil and you survived a college dance program that could have pulled you away from your passion for all forms of dance. Instead you respected what they had to offer, immersed yourself in the modern program, and added it to your personal repertoire of dance knowledge. In my mind that makes you more educated than the closed-minded professor who isn’t professional enough to treat you and your dancers with the respect you deserve.

Forget about the nutty professor and the experience; let it motivate you to renew your commitment to the diversity of dance. You are inspiring future dancers and teachers to think like you, and that’s going to make for a brighter tomorrow for all dancers. —Rhee

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January 2011
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