Recruiting teachers for a remote or small-town studio
by Bonner Odell
Regardless of its location, a dance school’s reputation rides largely on the quality of its instructors. For schools in small or out-of-the-way places, finding teachers who are well trained in the dance styles on offer is hard enough. Finding staff with both training in dance education and solid teaching experience can seem next to impossible. But dance studio owners are by nature a creative and resourceful bunch. Networking, both in one’s community and at regional and national dance conferences and competitions, can yield surprising results. Many studio owners keep a running list of contacts they can turn to when they need to fill a position.
“It’s a tighter-knit community than you’re likely to find in a big city,” says Julie McBarron of her area, “so word gets out if there’s someone with a background in the performing arts.”
Popular resources for finding teachers include nearby universities or community colleges that offer dance, and online job boards such as Dance Teacher Finder and regional job banks like the ones maintained by Ohio Dance and Dance Place in Washington, DC. These options, however, tend to be skewed toward large cities and urban environments. Owners seeking faculty in remote locations and small towns more often rely on word of mouth (and social media) or train their own teachers from scratch. The owners of three such studios share how they have managed to keep their schools staffed with teachers they can feel good about.
Dance It Out Studios, La Crosse, Virginia
Nestled in a patchwork of farms, the quaint but tiny town of La Crosse, Virginia, is not exactly the kind of place professional dance educators seek out.
“Finding qualified teachers is one of the biggest challenges we face,” says Alicia Washburn, co-owner with Michelle Harris of Dance It Out Studios in downtown La Crosse. “Most of our teachers came to the area because they married locals.”
Considering that Harris and Washburn employ seven teachers between Dance It Out and its partner gymnastics school, Flip It Out, they must be doing something right. “We have our studio parents to thank,” says Harris. “They keep their eyes and ears open for us. If someone in the community says to me, ‘I know this person who used to dance or do gymnastics,’ I never let it fall by the wayside. I follow up right away.”
Dance It Out’s Irish dance program was born from one such follow-up call. The parent of a Dance It Out student was talking with her daughter’s newly hired math teacher, Deanna Rea, at a middle school open house when it emerged that Rea has a background in competitive Irish dance. The parent told Harris and Washburn, who called Rea the next day with an invitation to teach. Three years later, Dance It Out’s Irish dance classes are going strong.
Like Rea, most of the teachers at Dance It Out have day jobs outside the studio. For example, ballet instructor Mary Glenn Coleman is a fifth-grade teacher, and acting teacher Sandra Lowe works for the Army Corps of Engineers. Lowe came to Dance It Out via the studio’s strong partnership with the Colonial Center for the Performing Arts in neighboring South Hill, Virginia, as did the studio’s lyrical dance teacher, Jobeth Hardin, and voice teacher, Katie Davis. (Hardin works as an office administrator part time and Davis teaches preschool.)
As at any studio where most teachers work other jobs, but perhaps even more so in a small town or remote location, teacher absences present a challenge. In a larger city, Harris and Washburn would have more access to subs or temps. As it is, the two women end up doing the bulk of the subbing, along with Hardin, whose work schedule is more flexible than those of the other instructors.
Professional development for instructors can also pose a challenge for studios in small towns, and usually requires higher costs and more planning than for studios in larger urban areas. To provide such opportunities for their faculty, Harris and Washburn take their teachers to industry conferences around the country that include technique classes and business seminars. The studio pays for the faculty’s travel, hotel, and conference fees. The two women also bring master teachers to their studio, which they say benefits instructors and students alike. Teachers visiting this year include former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Roni Mahler and former Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet soloist Eileen Juric, both of whom Harris and Washburn met in 2015 at the DanceLife Teacher Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Dance Arts Studio Academy of Performing Arts, Morehead City and Beaufort, North Carolina
Julie McBarron’s experience echoes Harris’ and Washburn’s when it comes to finding teaching talent in a small town. “It’s a tighter-knit community than you’re likely to find in a big city,” says McBarron, “so word gets out if there’s someone with a background in the performing arts.”
When McBarron, a former Detroit City Ballet dancer, bought Dance Arts Studio in 1999, tap and jazz teacher Hazel Collins, a former member of Chuck Davis African-American Dance Ensemble, had already been teaching at the Morehead City studio for more than 15 years. Because the facility only housed one classroom, McBarron and Collins were able to teach nearly all of the classes for the next 13 years, augmenting the staff with student assistants.
When McBarron acquired a second studio in 2006 in the neighboring town of Beaufort, the two women taught those classes as well until the lease on the property expired in 2012 and McBarron learned the space would no longer be available. She searched for a new location but was dismayed by the results. The only viable option in Beaufort was bigger and more expensive than she had hoped to find. What at first appeared to be an unworkable situation, however, turned out to be a catalyst that propelled Dance Arts in a new direction and significantly expanded its teaching staff.
“The wheels had been churning for my idea to expand beyond piano and dance,” says McBarron. “Leading up to the location search I learned that the mother of one of my students was involved in community theater. I asked if she might be interested in teaching a theater class, and she said yes. She also taught private voice lessons out of her home and had tap and jazz teaching experience. I realized we could expand to become Dance Arts Studio Academy of Performing Arts, offering dance, piano, musical theater, and voice.” The mother, Katie Dixon, now teaches musical theater, voice, tap, and dance for preschoolers at Dance Arts. A certified preschool teacher, Dixon initially worked at a local day care center while teaching for the studio, but left that job a year later to help accommodate Dance Arts’ growing programs.
McBarron used the extra space at the new Beaufort location to build rooms for private music lessons. Not long after, she also hired her father’s neighbor, a guitar player and teacher, for a new guitar program at the studio.
Last year, Dixon discovered that two of her musical theater students were the daughters of a locally based former ballerina named Tracy Hockett. Invited to join American Ballet Theatre when she was 20, Hockett was in the process of moving to New York when her car was hit by a semi-trailer on the freeway. She suffered a back injury that required six months of rehabilitation and ended her professional dance career. Hockett later moved to the Morehead City area when her husband, who is in the Navy, was transferred to Camp Lejeune in nearby Jacksonville. Dixon shared this story with McBarron, who called Hockett shortly after. “I told her, ‘I really need a ballet teacher. Are you interested?’ She said yes right away. She is in her first year teaching for us. It’s been a joy to watch.”
Hockett’s story illustrates one of many gifts small-town studios bring to their areas: they provide opportunities for community members to share their talents with the next generation.
Generation Dance Studio, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada
Finding qualified dance teachers became so difficult for Generation Dance Studio owner Kim Hurley that she decided to start her own teacher training program. “Unless your spouse works in oil, there is no reason for dance teachers to move here,” she says of Fort McMurray, which is located in a remote section of northern Alberta, 270 miles northeast of Edmonton.
There are two levels to Generation Dance’s teacher training program: assistant and junior instructor. Assistants are students ages 12 and up, usually competitive dancers, who help out in classes with younger kids. They assist with classroom management and usually lead one section of class. Assistants receive a $200 credit toward their tuition for each course they assist.
“It’s great experience for them,” says Hurley, “because it establishes a sense of leadership and role modeling. Those assistants who do venture on to become instructors learn how to teach much more quickly than they would otherwise.”
Junior instructors are dancers ages 15 to 17 who teach classes on their own and are on the studio payroll. Generation Dance offers two classes taught by junior instructors, lyrical dance and hip-hop, the latter led by a duo of teen girls. “Parents are sometimes skeptical about enrolling their child in a class taught by students,” says Hurley, “but once they see the results at the end of the year, they recognize the quality.”
Hurley’s investment in teacher training has paid off. Among Hurley’s small faculty, two started as students, including assistant director Melinda Stepanowich. While most of the students Hurley trains move away after high school, some return to teach workshops in the summer. “When former students come back after dancing in Edmonton or Calgary or another big city,” she says, “they bring an element of stardom with them. It’s an inspiration for the kids, and it shows them what’s possible.”
Hurley also flies in guest teachers to lead intensives with the Generation Dance students. “It’s expensive to fly master teachers all the way up here, but it’s important,” she says. “They motivate the students to work harder.”
Hurley’s commitment to providing her students with the best dance education possible, despite the obstacles of geography, speaks to her own passion for the art of dance. That same passion is evident in Harris, Washburn, McBarron, and so many other studio owners serving small and remote communities. They prove daily that wherever there is a will to keep quality dance alive, there is a way.
Bonner Odell has served as editor of In Dance, a lecturer at California State University–East Bay, and a teaching artist for Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MA in dance from Mills College.