Write a studio agreement you and your competitive students can live with
by Tiffany R. Jansen
Initially, The Dance Corner’s competition team was just a small part of the West Windsor, New Jersey studio. As the team grew from roughly 30 dancers to 40, however, co-owners Amy DeCesare and Roni Wilityer realized it was time to implement a team agreement. They based it on issues they faced when the team was in its infancy, such as how to handle students taking classes elsewhere and how to cope with absences.
“We say if you know that you’re going to miss too much and you have too many functions that year, too many family weddings that are going to conflict or something, that maybe you don’t want to do it. Or talk to us first,” DeCesare says. The team continues to grow; it’s approaching 85 members in its current season. The agreement has “evolved as we’ve gone along and things have come up,” she says.
“They’re your rules; they’re what you want to live by.” —Chelsea Phillip
DeCesare and the other studio owners Dance Studio Life spoke with for this story believe any agreement a studio owner creates for a competition team should cover what the owner wants and needs from team members, but it should also be an arrangement studio families realistically can abide by. Here, these owners share their tips for creating a competition team agreement everyone can feel good about.
Consider what to cover
Absences present a challenge for competition teams, so it’s crucial that team agreements contain an attendance policy.
At Complexity Dance Center in Hillsborough, New Jersey, the 55 dancers who compose the competition company are allowed three excused absences per semester and must attend makeup classes for each additional absence. “We just feel like they’re losing too much training by being absent,” owner Chelsea Phillip explains. “If you have one dancer who hasn’t missed a single class and another who’s missed five, [the first] dancer has had five times more training than the other dancer.” Class absences aren’t the only absences Phillip’s agreement covers: dancers who miss a competition for any reason other than illness or injury are subject to removal from the company.
Given how expensive competitive dance can be, a team agreement should also clearly explain the fees involved in being a team member. “A lot [of studios] generate contracts that just say, ‘You’ll be attending x number of regionals and this many conventions,’ but they forget to add the fact that there is travel, potential hotels, food they’ll either have to purchase or remember to bring,” says Phillip. Makeup costs, late fees, and bounced check fees also should be included in the agreement, along with payment deadlines.
Classroom dress code is another important part of a team agreement. Should dancers wear a black leotard and pink tights, for instance, or is any form-fitting clothing acceptable? Agreements should also specify what footwear and hairstyles you consider appropriate, and note any consequences for not arriving in the proper attire, such as having to sit out the class and make it up later. Competition dress code is another consideration: The Dance Corner requires team members to buy a team jacket; the jacket price and the studio’s dress code for competition days are both included in the team agreement.
Lacy Chandler, who owns the Mount Juliet, Tennessee-based Rockstar Academy of Dance and oversees its 47-member competition team, says her agreement includes a behavior clause. “I explain to all of my team [members] that they are representing my studio and it’s important that they are responsible, respectful, and classy at all times. I have conversations with my teens and seniors all the time [about how] our minis and petites and juniors follow them on Instagram and follow them on Facebook, and it’s important that they’re being the type of person that we want these little kids to look up to.”
Some studio owners also include their expectations for parental behavior in the contract. If an issue arises between dancers, Chandler asks parents to approach her or the other child’s parent rather than approaching children directly, which she says can make the situation escalate more quickly. She also stipulates that parents may not collect any prize money at a competition if their child wins. “We have a clause in our contract that says that if you have a past-due balance on your account and you win any prize money at competition, that prize money goes toward that past-due balance,” she says.
Get everyone on the same page
It’s important to make sure all parties involved in the agreement understand and accept it.
“I email our [agreement] to anybody who’s interested two weeks prior to auditions,” Chandler says. That gives everyone a chance to look it over and jot down any questions or concerns. The day of auditions, Chandler reviews the agreement with parents while the dancers warm up. “In addition, we hold a meeting in September, typically two days prior to the start of our season, and review the contract again verbally,” she says. “This is already after parents have accepted the rules and regulations; however, it’s a great opportunity for everyone to be in the same room and discuss details together.”
To ensure they have read, understand, and agree to it, “both the child and the parent have to sign [the agreement] and hand it in,” DeCesare says. An agreement can have a signature line on the last page or a space for initials on each page as well as a complete signature line at the end. Chandler requires initials next to crucial points, like fees, due dates, and behavior.
This season, Phillip will require signatures from both parents. “We [ran] into a kind of speed bump where parents were separated but only one had signed the agreement,” she says, which caused several misunderstandings.
Live by the rules
DeCesare, Chandler, and Phillip have found it helpful to supply each family with a copy of the signed agreement. That way, if students or parents break part of the agreement (knowingly or otherwise), the studio owner can refer them to the document and remind them that they signed it.
“When it’s more beneficial for the team as a whole, bend something a little bit.” —Amy DeCesare
Keep a copy of the agreement within easy reach in the front office. “They’re your rules; they’re what you want to live by,” says Phillip. “But sometimes you come across things that just slip your mind. So it’s always great to have that to refer to.”
Bring your staff up to speed on the agreement, and consider providing them with copies, so they can help set the example. Phillip has found that parents and students are more likely to follow the rules—such as no street shoes, food, or cellphones in the studio—when staff members do.
When a rule is broken, address the situation right away. If older dancers break a rule, you might speak with them first. Otherwise, email or call parents to inform them of the issue. “If you need to have a meeting, have a meeting,” Phillip says. Make sure the consequences of non-compliance are clearly stated in the contract, and be ready to enforce the consequences if the problem persists, whether that’s requiring the dancer to attend makeup classes, give up a solo, pay a penalty fee, or leave the team.
All three owners agreed that parents and students struggle most with the attendance portion of the agreement. DeCesare remembers when a team member got a part in her school play. “She didn’t mention it to us and she kind of skirted around the whole thing, and then [said], ‘Oh, I can’t go to competition this weekend, I have my high school [play].’ ” The dancer was asked to leave the team.
Keeping detailed records of absences and other issues and reviewing them regularly can strengthen your position when the time comes to enforce the rules.
Exceptions to the rule: your call
Things that are out of a student’s control can be valid reasons for making exceptions. Says DeCesare, “We’re not going to kick a kid off the team if she already has two absences and then misses two additional classes to attend funerals for grandparents who died the same year.”
“I could say, ‘Susie, I’m sorry your parents got divorced, but you can’t make it to this practice, so you’re not going to compete,’ ” says Chandler, who relaxed her studio’s attendance policy after having children of her own. “Is that fair as far as our [agreement] goes? Sure! Is that fair as far as Susie goes? Not necessarily.”
The studio owners we spoke with also confessed to being more lenient with juniors and seniors, partly because of the increased academic workload during the last years of high school. Seniors are marking their last season on the team, and in some cases, their last season dancing, period. It may be worth bending the rules just a bit so those students can end their dance experience on a high note.
“When it’s more beneficial for the team as a whole, bend something a little bit,” DeCesare advises. When a team member had too many absences, DeCesare and Wilityer opted to let the dancer compete one last time as opposed to letting her go right away. They realized it would be easier on the team than changing everything at the last minute to accommodate the missing dancer.
A competition agreement is a constant work in progress. The studio owners we spoke with continuously tweak their agreements to reflect new experiences and lessons learned.
Chandler says she recommends seeking advice “from everybody you know in the business.” She calls or gets together with other studio owners and turns to Facebook groups to compare competitive team agreements. She says Google and YouTube are other excellent resources.
Parents and dancers “don’t want to walk into a studio where the owner is just living off whatever rules they make up that day,” Phillip says. Whether it’s a student who’s interested in pursuing dance as a career or the parent of a student who just loves to dance, families love the structure because “it shows how committed you are to the program and making [students] better.”
Tiffany R. Jansen, a former dance teacher and choreographer, lives in Alpharetta, Georgia. She has written for Pointe and online for Self and The Atlantic.