Advice for dance teachers
I have worked as an instructor at the same studio for seven years. A year ago I was promoted to manage our recreational department; it has suffered over the past few years. I raised the numbers a bit, but our studio’s company has always made up the bulk of our enrollment.
Now we have experienced a mass exodus. Since the company is small, when a few decided to leave, the rest wondered who they’d be grouped with for their numbers and they all went to a larger studio. I will be assuming the company director’s responsibilities if we have a new team at some point.
How do I rebuild? How do I cope with the loss of my beloved students? I also should mention that the studio is not a traditional one; we are part of a large facility that provides gymnastics and cheer on recreational and competitive levels. Many parents who bring their kids to our facility for gymnastics go elsewhere for dance. Our owners are frustrated with the loss of these accounts. I need their support to advertise and rebuild, and we are in a very oversaturated market, with three of the city’s most popular studios on our street. Thanks for any advice. —Defeated and Heartbroken
I am sorry you’re dealing with a mass exodus. Students and their parents don’t always realize that most dance teachers consider their students their “kids.” When they lose one student, let alone many, all kinds of emotions go along with it.
With that said, it is time to concentrate on building flourishing preschool and recreational programs. It’s a fact that when school owners focus the majority of their energy and time on the company or competitive dancers, inevitably they have a hard time maintaining the “bread and butter” enrollment, which consists of the once-a-week students who dance simply for the joy of it. Those students pay full tuition, unlike the company dancers at most schools, whose classes are discounted. In many cases, schools cannot sustain themselves when their most advanced students move on, which is exactly what you have described.
You need to rethink whether you want to rebuild what you had. If your market is oversaturated, it’s probably time to determine what you can offer the community that the other schools can’t.
Also, and this is important, let the students who left know that your door is always open if they want to return. Wishing them the best in whatever they do maintains a feeling of mutual respect. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
My 10-year-old daughter has been dancing at an amazing school and has been a company dancer for five years. She has always had solid spots in routines, but this year she was moved to the back in everything. Granted, she is the tallest in the class, but there is a definite difference in her placement. She was also removed from her small group and was not given anything in place of it. Every girl in the small group was given a special role (duo, trio, etc.) except her. Also, this year there was a switch in teachers.
My daughter has trouble lifting her leg and holding it and stretching, but all in all she’s a really good dancer. Every year there is solid improvement. She does not have that “kill or be killed attitude,” and I think she feels she let herself down. She became withdrawn from her class, as did I. I felt very hurt for her and removed myself from the studio, whereas before I was their biggest cheerleader.
With all the time, money, and energy my family puts into dance, I want to make sure everyone is happy. The teacher had promised me this would be a better year for my daughter. How can I approach her to ask about my daughter’s future in the class? —Rosanne
Class placement is one of the hardest tasks for dance teachers. The placement itself isn’t the problem; expertise guides those decisions. What’s difficult is dealing with the parents’ reactions, especially when a child doesn’t progress as much as her classmates.
If I were teaching a child who I believed would lose her joy for dance if the material was beyond her capabilities (at that time), I would keep her where she was. The goal would be to allow the child to keep up and still enjoy dance. Often, if we push children to do what they aren’t ready for or what is too difficult, they quit dancing altogether. Children gain confidence when they are on top of the class rather than struggling. However, if parents don’t accept a teacher’s decision, the children are caught in the middle. Who should they believe when their teacher and parents argue about what’s best for them?
You say you think your daughter feels she let herself down and became withdrawn, as you did. But is that what your daughter truly feels? Is it possible that she knows where she belongs? Could it be she knows she would have a hard time keeping up with the group if the choreography included “lifting her leg” or stretching? Kids know more than we give them credit for.
My advice is to have an honest talk with your daughter about where she believes she belongs, based on her capabilities. I hope this helps. —Rhee
I worked for a studio for seven years. I loved where I was and felt like an integral part of the studio, but things changed when the director gave more responsibilities to her daughter. Enrollment dropped drastically and morale was low, and the competition director resented me because I was often requested for private lessons. The studio became a haven for gossip instead of dance, divided between teachers who were structured and teachers who taught haphazardly.
When I quit (which I did in plenty of time for the owner to find new teachers), I got a few nasty emails and phone calls from her. I quit only after years of being called anorexic (because I don’t eat animal products), being harassed for my political beliefs, enduring sexual harassment by the owner’s husband, and being accused of favoring my students from another studio because they were “spoiled rich” like me.
That was a year ago. I love the studios I am currently with; they couldn’t be more different from teaching for my old boss. They’re professional, fair, and dedicated to the art of dance and the artistic growth of students and teachers alike. However, my former employer is still saying untrue things about me. She speaks negatively about almost everyone; if you are anything besides white, Christian, straight, and middle class, rest assured you’ve been trashed.
Because of that, I wasn’t taking her badmouthing personally, but now I’m moving. I feel dishonest not listing my employment at her studio on my resume, but I’m afraid of what she might say about me. Months back I asked her to stop saying untrue things about me and apologized for anything I could have handled better. I heard nothing except more gossip about myself and my husband.
I don’t understand this. I’m here to share my knowledge about dance and the wonderful values attached to it, as well as give kids a place to express themselves and accomplish artistic goals. I thought that’s what the studio was for. I never signed up for this type of nonsense. Please advise. —Glenda
It sounds like you have a level head on your shoulders. If this woman has time to waste on untruths and gossip regarding her former employees, then you have less to worry about than you think. Her unethical behavior will catch up with her.
You need to move on and ignore her negativity. She probably knows that what she is doing breaks your heart, and you can’t give her that satisfaction. Use her negativity as your motivation to be the best dance teacher you can be. In other words, turn her negativity into your reason for always being a positive dance teacher and person.
As far as your resume goes, list only the schools you’ve taught at since you left your former employer. If someone asks about your prior employment, speak positively about the students and how much you loved teaching there and say you had professional differences with the owner. It’s likely that potential employers will be more interested in your most recent experience. Good luck! —Rhee
Wisdom of Youth
I volunteer in a program that offers support to high school seniors—all the first in their families to attend college—as they write their college application essays. At our second meeting a recent high school graduate and program alum, who has been accepted to the University of California–Berkeley, spoke to the group of 50-odd coaches and students.
Wearing sneakers, jeans, and an oversized hoodie, the young woman leaned against a pillar in the high school cafeteria and offered advice to the students who were embarking on the essay-writing process.
First, she told them (and I paraphrase, but only slightly): “You’re young and you think you know everything. But you don’t. Your coach knows more, believe me. Listen to him.”
Her second piece of advice: “Don’t be afraid to throw something away. You have to do that to make room for something that’s really good. Trust that it will come. It will.”
Finally, she said: “Do not try to take the advice of too many people. It’s OK to show your essay to your English teacher, or one or two people, but if you listen to too many people, you’ll end up with a mess. Work on it until it’s good—until it’s yours—and then hold on to it.”
She’s only 18, but I haven’t heard smarter or more useful advice from anyone in a long time. We all need to remember that there are people out there who do know more and have a lot to offer, and that we should accept what they share openly and willingly. And that if something we’ve created isn’t working, we have to let it go. There are more clever paragraphs and beautiful steps left in us; we’re not going to run out.
Her wise words also reminded me that although sometimes it’s hard to have faith in our work, in the end it really is ours. We should trust it and be proud of it.
I only hope a kid in a sweatshirt will appear every so often to remind me of these things. —Lisa Okuhn, Associate Editor
One More Thing
As a leadership workshop for high school sophomores came to a close, the speaker raved about future opportunities for these soon-to-be alumni: volunteering with Special Olympics, training as group leaders, participating in a global congress.
It all sounded wonderful, one mother said. “But my son has soccer and baseball, plus he’s class president and runs the photography club, tutors, has piano on Tuesday, and works at the soup kitchen twice a month. How could he fit this in?”
The speaker immediately launched into a well-rehearsed explanation of how that already overbooked kid could squeeze in one more thing.
Just once I want to hear someone speak the truth: “Your kid? You mean Mr. Busy-Pants? If he wants to do this badly enough, he’ll have to give up something else.”
I’m not a meanie, just a dance teacher who would dearly love to have two rehearsals in a row with all of the dancers present. Last spring’s middle school production was the worst ever. Kids would show up for one rehearsal, miss three, then argue with me about the choreography. They’d come late (from softball), then leave early (for goodness-knows-what). With no irony whatsoever, two sweet fifth-graders asked if they could still be in the number even though they’d missed all the rehearsals.
I let them. With all the other absences, two more kids who only knew half the steps wouldn’t make a bit of difference. They were happy, their mom was happy—I was the only one with fingernails bitten to the nub.
We’re all busy. I get it. And as every dance school owner knows, the “best” kids tend to be the busiest of all. We can ask them to notify us of conflicts in advance. We can stay up until 2am sweating over schedules. We can say “No missed rehearsals,” in our firmest tones, but when Mrs. Jones mentions that Mari’s voice concert is the same night as dress rehearsal—and she has a solo—we’re helpless.
The only person who can help us is Mr. Busy-Pants himself, and I believe I see him signing up for another activity right now. —Karen White, Associate Editor
Advice for dance teachers
I recently learned that my landlord has leased the space next to my school to a tattoo parlor. I’m devastated. I recently expanded my school, but I’m sure future business for me will be grim because people will see what’s next door and drive down the street to the next dance school. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. —Donna
I’m not sure that the tattoo parlor will deter students from coming to your school. However, if you panic over the situation and tell everyone how upset you are, then you might find yourself living the grim future you fear. If I were you, I would ignore the fact that there will be a tattoo parlor next door to the school; instead, spread the word about how excited you are that you expanded your business and can offer more for your students.
Many years ago, a liquor store opened next door to my mother’s school, and my mom feared it would hurt her business. She assumed the store would attract shady characters; instead, the store became a convenient place for her clientele to pick up a gallon of milk, and the dance students often went there to buy candy. More than 20 years later, the liquor store has closed, and everyone misses the convenience.
My advice is to keep your concerns to yourself. Chances are everything will work out fine. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I’m wondering where I could find more information concerning dance schools and going nonprofit. We are signing a new lease with our landlord and expanding into the space next to us. The landlord is a lawyer and has asked us if we would consider becoming a nonprofit in order to gain community support for the school.
I am a registered teacher with the Royal Academy of Dance, which is a nonprofit organization. I know some schools are nonprofit and some aren’t, or they have a company that is nonprofit and the school is not. I would appreciate any suggestions or guidance. —Rachel
Your question is timely, because our July 2013 issue has two stories that will give you plenty of information about nonprofits and a related topic, grantwriting (“Nonprofit Nuts and Bolts” and “The Fine Art of Finding Money.”)
A nonprofit organization associated with your school provides opportunities to do some wonderful things for your students and business. You would be able to help families who are unable to afford lessons by giving them full or partial tuition scholarships. One business-related benefit is that nonprofit schools often receive discounted rates on auditorium rentals, printing, and so on.
However, nonprofit status requires you to take on new responsibilities. You’ll need to establish a board of directors that meets at least annually. (I believe the minutes of those meetings must be recorded with your state.) You would have less control than you have with a for-profit business because decisions would be made by the multiple people involved in the organization. The IRS might scrutinize your tax returns more carefully than they would those of a for-profit business. If you establish scholarships, you may be required to offer those opportunities to children who dance at other schools.
I do think it is worth discussing the details with an attorney and an accountant to determine whether a nonprofit is the right move for you. Good luck! —Rhee
I have a teacher who works for me and at another school, which participates in competitions. My school doesn’t compete. This teacher announced on Facebook how proud she is that her sons are a part of this school because she believes in competition. (Her daughter is 3 and takes class with me.) I never respond to anything on Facebook, but I feel like saying in a separate comment, “I usually love Facebook, but I worry for our children because even I, a confident adult, can get hurt on Facebook.” What is your opinion? —Kelly
If we analyze posts on Facebook, we all could find ourselves hurt by someone’s comments. This teacher is entitled to her preferences and beliefs and probably had no idea that her post would bother you. I say ignore her comments and move on. Being a confident adult who has made the decision not to participate in dance competitions should give you the self-assurance that you have made the right decision for you and your students. I hope this helps. —Rhee
Recently my daughter was in her first recital. Cutest thing ever—except one of the dances done by the young teens was set to the song “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” I’m not a prude by any stretch; however, had my 12-year-old daughter been dancing to that song, I would have flipped my lid. Should I let it go, or should I bring up my concern with the dance studio owner?
If you think it’s appropriate to bring it up, how can I do it without causing problems? I don’t want my daughter labeled as the kid with the uptight parents. I loved 99 percent of the recital; I’d never been to one and was impressed with everything they did and how efficiently it was run. I figured you’d have some insight about how to handle this respectfully. —Dancing Dad
Dear Dancing Dad,
Good for you for noticing. The issue of inappropriate music comes up lot in our field. It’s one of my peeves, because I believe kids should be kids for as long as we can keep them that way. With literally millions of choices for music, I often wonder why some teachers make the choices they do.
You might want to drop a note to the school praising them for what you liked about the show and then mention that you felt uncomfortable with the “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” piece. If they appreciate your comments and say they will consider your opinion when determining appropriate music, then you have helped them out. If they become defensive or critical of your opinion, you might learn that the school is not the right place for your daughter. Good luck! —Rhee
The Healthy Dancer: ABT Guidelines for Dancer Health is a comprehensive, easy-to-follow manual that provides sound advice for dance teachers, parents, and students while addressing the needs of young dancers and athletes, both pre-professional and recreational.
Compiled by medical professionals from the fields of sports medicine, nutrition, physical therapy, and orthopedics, the focus is on ballet training, but the advice is applicable to all types of dance and sports.
• Part 1 presents an overview of anatomy and kinesiology with a particular focus on injury prevention and recovery. There are clear diagrams that relate anatomy to dance and illustrate common dance injuries. Turnout and introduction of pointe work is also discussed.
• Part 2 offers advice specific to the development and health of the young dancer, addressing phases of development; the role of the teacher and parent for each stage; psychological and emotional factors of dance training; nutrition; and recommendations for healthy strength and flexibility training.
• Part 3 focuses on risk management and recommendations for teachers to create a healthy training environment, outlining recommended safety policies and practices for dance studios.
The Healthy Dancer: ABT Guidelines for Dancer Health is published by Macfadden Performing Arts Media and is available for purchase for $19.95 at http://www.abtgiftshop.org/.
I am having a difficult time. I run a small studio with only one room and one teacher, with around 150 kids. About five years ago we were kicked out of a mall because the businesses didn’t like the noise; about a year later my studio burned down. It turned out that our insurance covered losses only if we were the cause of the fire, and since the furnace blew and it was ruled that no one was at fault, we were out of luck and money. Then, about a year ago, my mother (and business manager) passed away from breast cancer.
Now I feel pushed to the edge because some of my former dancers opened a studio in the town next to us. They come to my performances and recitals and take notes. I have tried not to say anything; however, now this studio harasses my dancers by saying they will beat them at competitions. At a recent competition they did receive higher awards, but the studio entered the students in a lower category. I knew they were being dishonest about the number of hours per week they dance because they copy my class schedule.
I read on Facebook about the competition and their recital, which also uses my ideas, and it’s very hard for me. I love my job, but I don’t know how to keep going. Any advice? —Rhonda
If you were to make up this story, no one would believe it. I know it’s hard to accept, but these obstacles will make you stronger. And remember, things will get better.
The last thing you should do is worry about the other school. No, they should not come to your shows to take notes; no, they shouldn’t cheat at dance competitions—but they will deal with the results of that unethical behavior themselves. Their students’ parents know how long their children are in class, and they will realize that a school that cheats is not a positive influence for their children.
Think of the positives: since you have a one-room school with about 150 students, you have much less overhead than the new school does. And all of your students and their parents know you and feel your passion for teaching. And you must put on a good show, because your competitors want to learn from you. You’ll probably scour your leases and insurance papers to be sure you never get yourself into those messes again.
The past is behind you; now focus on yourself and what you want to accomplish, and how to be the best mentor, leader, and teacher possible. Apply all the tough lessons you’ve learned to your teaching. Your experience makes you smarter and stronger than the competition. That’s all you have to think about.
I wish you the best. —Rhee
I implemented a “no compete” contract with my teachers, and since then three teachers have quit. They said I was keeping them from making money elsewhere since they didn’t work full time for me. Two of them were my studio managers, and they and another studio manager have joined forces to open a performing arts center in town, offering not only dance but music, voice, tumbling, pageant preparations, and musical theater, as well as the fringe things I offer, like ballroom and Zumba. They’ve even created a Mom ’n’ Me class for ages 1-plus. (Mine starts at age 2 and a half.)
Now the unethical things: they are contacting my students via email and Facebook, asking them to try their workshops. They tell my students’ parents how wonderful it would be for the dancers to “try something new” and that they offer so much more than I do. Several of my company dancers have unfriended them on Facebook. But what about new clients? I am in a military town and always lose a quarter to a third of my students yearly to military moves.
Also, the new school’s prices are extremely low—$40 for the first three classes, $5 discounts on more than three. These are 1990 prices! It’s taken me eight years to raise prices to $54 a month for one-hour classes, and I’ve been told I’m undervalued at these prices.
Do I lower my prices—not to match them, but to be competitive? Do I offer a discount to get current families to stay with me? (I have about 400 students.) Do I use group coupons to bring in new people? I know you say the next year’s attendance is only as good as the previous year’s recital, and this one is going to be fantastic!
I haven’t badmouthed these people, but it’s so hard to take the high road. Another local dance studio owner says to rely on my 40 years in the community to carry me through. My husband wants to lower our prices. My gut tells me not to, but instead to add value to my class offerings, combining tap and ballet classes into combo classes for our youngest students, to keep the bread-and-butter. Or limit costumes to save parents money. Any suggestions? —Lynn
Please stop worrying! Yes, you are dealing with a new school in your area, but you have a 40-year reputation in your community, and it will take years for your competitors to catch up. My guess is that you have a lot of community loyalty and will continue to attract students because so many people know you. Many parents who took lessons from you themselves probably would never think of taking their children to anyone else. It takes a long time to build what you have.
Please do not lower your tuition rates; doing so would jeopardize your financial security, and that might be what your competitors are hoping for. I suspect they will soon realize that they cannot afford to undercut your tuition costs. It has taken you years to raise your tuition to where it is today, and it will take your competitors a long time to gain the kind of financial stability you have. People get what they pay for, and they will certainly get less experience from the new school in town.
The fact that your students are unfriending these people on Facebook proves how loyal your clients are. Yes, your competitors might attract some of your students, but not in the numbers you fear; they will need time and money to build their credibility. More people in your community know about the controversy than you realize, and many will side with you.
Your concept of putting on a great show and adding value to your classes is the way to go. Giving your clientele more than they expect is the best approach, and you should have no problem doing that.
We all get a kick in the butt every once in a while; it’s how we handle the kicks that matters. Hold your head high, show the world how confident you are, and always be one step ahead of the competition. I do suggest that you continue to refrain from discussing this issue with your clients. Pretend that none of this matters, and good luck! —Rhee
I recently let a student go because of an abusive parent who was described as a toxic presence by other parents. My question is this: she prepaid some tuition and paid entry fees for a competition her child didn’t go to because she was taken off the team. The woman wants her money back. If I don’t refund it, she will sue me.
This woman verbally abused me and physically put her hands on me, so people tell me I should fight the lawsuit. I say write her a check and enjoy the peace we have because she’s gone, but my studio policies state that tuition and entry fees are nonrefundable. Would that open the door for future problems with my policies? —Wendy
Sorry to hear that you had to deal with this abusive parent. I am sure the people who tell you not to refund the money have good intentions, but I would advise you to do it. It doesn’t violate your policy of no refunds because in this case you asked her to leave the school; she didn’t choose not to return.
Be thankful that you have rid yourself of the negativity this woman brought to your school. Look at the refund as a small price to pay for your sanity. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
Words from our readers
I wanted to thank you for including me in the article on seniors [“Aging Boomers, Dance Boom,” May/June 2013]. I was so pleased to be interviewed with such an amazing group of instructors who have a passion for the same demographic. Thank you so much!
West Coast Movement Project
Laguna Hills, CA
I am a teacher at Backstage Performing Arts. I want to personally thank you for running the story about Ella [“Thinking Out Loud: Miracle Girl,” May/June 2013]. She truly amazes me each week. Thank you for sharing her story with everyone!
Jordan Dickey Allen
I have been a subscriber ever since I started dancing many years ago. I have looked to your magazine for advice and inspiration on hundreds of occasions. Rhee’s letters [“On My Mind”] are usually right on target with whatever is going on with my studio that month. I want to thank you for helping me through some difficult times!
Danceworks of Colorado Springs
Colorado Springs, CO
Advice for dance teachers
My sister and I own a studio in a very small town. We have attended your seminars and conferences, and we agree with your philosophy of studio ownership. Here is our situation.
One of our competitive dancers told me she overheard a group of other competitive dancers (all are that fabulous middle-school age) making fun of another competitive dancer while watching a video from a recent showcase. We have our first competition of the season this weekend and would like to avoid tons of drama. All of these girls are in several dances together, and we do not want the ones who are not involved to suffer. This town is so small that anything that happens is news!
How do you recommend handling this type of making fun/bullying behavior? We considered not allowing them to dance this weekend, but that punishes the entire group and this is an isolated incident. Or we could notify the parents after the competition and have them address this with their children before the next event.
Too bad we can’t put the students in detention like in a public education setting. Our competitive dancers are taught that we are a family and we act as a family. The dancer who told me about the incident said, “You teach us to help each other, treat each other like family, and that we are all equal, but what I saw and heard tonight did not represent our competitive dancers.”
Any advice would be great. —Randi
If this is the first time that you have witnessed this kind of behavior at your school, I wouldn’t punish anyone or call out a group of students. This situation is an opportunity to educate your students and their parents, and possibly, to spread positive vibes throughout your small community.
Schedule a mandatory team-building meeting with the competitive dancers and their parents. Ask the kids what they love most about dance. Ask the parents to describe the positive results their children have experienced because of their dance training. This is an opportunity to remind them what a cool thing the dance experience can be, and it will build camaraderie among the group.
My next question would be, “What makes a good dancer?” Some might respond that it’s the number of pirouettes or the awesome tricks a dancer can do. Others might bring up dancers they’ve seen on So You Think You Can Dance. There are no wrong answers; however, the dialogue opens the door for you to share what else might define the qualities of a good dancer.
Before the gathering, spend some time on YouTube looking for inspiring performances by dancers who don’t necessarily fit the mold you expect your students and their parents to identify as good. Share with them videos of dancers who have disabilities or a group of senior-citizen dancers. The point is to show them people of all kinds who can move an audience because their love for dance shows in their performance.
Explain that people who love dance are part of a special community that accepts anyone who shares that love, and that community includes your school. Emphasize the importance of encouraging and supporting each member of their dance family, regardless of their differences or ability level. Let your students know that you don’t care if they can do a simple shuffle or eight pirouettes—either way, you love them all the same.
My guess is that you will make your point without turning the situation into a “he said, she said,” and you will be teaching a life lesson that is so important for young people to understand. Good luck! —Rhee
I am a former dancer who grew up competing. I danced every day from the age of 3 until I graduated from high school. While I was in college, I went home every week to teach classes for my former teacher. But after a while I wanted out of dance; I was burned out. I had a boyfriend (now my husband) who introduced me to the “normal life,” and that’s what I thought I wanted. In my third year of college I quit teaching and have not stepped into a studio since.
I have had 13 years of living a “normal life.” I have two beautiful children and a very nice home. My husband is good to me and he makes a good living. But I am so missing the studio and I want to get involved again. Maybe I could teach or choreograph, but I don’t know where to begin.
My former teacher still has her school and I want to call her, but I burned a bridge when I quit teaching in the middle of the school year. She was very upset with me. Now I know I shouldn’t have done that and I am so sorry I did, but I can’t change it.
I don’t know where to go, but I do know that I need dance in my life. Do you have any advice? —Lynda
You are a good example of someone who has dance flowing through her veins and just can’t stop it. You have a couple of options.
First, you could begin to get yourself back in dance by finding a studio that offers adult classes. This will get you moving again without any pressure and will probably satisfy your urge to bring dance back into your life.
Another option is to call your former teacher to tell her you are sorry for leaving in the middle of the season. Let her know that you now see that your actions were wrong, but you didn’t see it at the time. However she reacts, I’ve got a feeling you should get it off your chest. My guess is that after 13 years she will forgive you—and she just might welcome you back to her school to teach or choreograph. You won’t know until you take the first step.
Whatever action you decide is right for you, get yourself moving again to fulfill that need to have dance in your life. I wish you the best. —Rhee
I co-own a studio that has three locations. My business partner and I have encountered a challenging situation that we need advice on.
For nearly 20 years, our faculty has been consistent, focused, and stable. We have never experienced major faculty turnover. We have an employee handbook and systems in place to simplify the teachers’ jobs, and we offer competitive wages based on performance and experience. However, in this last year some teachers have arrived late for class or not shown up (and as a result, we have had to replace them) and others have left mid-semester, sometimes forcing us to cycle three or more teachers through their classes.
Most of the teachers’ reasons for leaving have been valid and understandable—husbands get transferred, etc.; however, as educators, we see how difficult this is for the students. As business owners, we see it as devastating to our reputation, particularly at our newest location, which opened this season.
This is not how we like to run our business and we are mortified by the staffing situation. We recently hosted an online survey and the clientele are understandably upset. I am certain we will lose many of them because of this problem.
I know that some teachers will leave in the future, but what do you suggest we do to recover our business, halt any further damage, and rebuild our reputation? Thank you. —Carolyn
This doesn’t sound like an easy situation, and I’m sorry you have to deal with it. If I were in your position, I would do everything possible to find teachers who are willing to finish out this season and commit to next year too. If you can end the season on a positive note—by allowing the students and their parents to build new relationships with a teacher who’s there consistently—your clientele will be more likely to return.
If you are unable to hire permanent teachers by the end of the year, stay in touch with your students’ families over the summer. Keep them updated on any new faculty and offer them an incentive to return by waiving the registration fee or offering a tuition-free first month. Do anything you can to get your clients back through the door feeling secure that their teacher will be there for the year.
On another note, sometimes it is time to clean house, make a fresh start, and rejuvenate the business in general. I know the situation you’re in is probably not the best way to go about it, but you might find that your new faculty is what you need to take your business to the next level. Good luck! —Rhee
Words from the publisher
Recently I got a phone call from a frantic school-owner friend looking for advice. She had started a business selling dancewear to her students and the community, and she was panicking because she was still losing money after four years. She told me how she had worked so hard to make the business a success. And then she said, “I can’t stand the thought of failure.” She was worried about what her family or friends would think of her if she couldn’t pull it off.
She explained that the dancewear shop had a large inventory, a rental space separate from the school, and two employees. She was concerned about her employees losing their jobs if she closed the store. Because of her loyalty to them she couldn’t give herself any credit for spending the last four years working and worrying.
Never did my friend mention what this business was doing for her. Never did she say she loved the business. Never did she say anything positive about it. Yet she couldn’t let go because of what people might say or because she didn’t want to let anyone down.
As we discussed her options, she calmed down. When the conversation ended, she thanked me over and over for helping her. But she was the one who had come up with a solution; all she needed was someone to ask the right questions to help her figure it out. And most important was her decision to take care of herself and her needs without worrying about what others would think.
The day after that conversation, after almost 20 years in the same office, I had to tackle cleaning the attic to prepare for a move. I found some cool memorabilia and pictures from my American Dance Awards days all the way through the launch of Project Motivate and Dance Studio Life. It felt great to look back to see how far my company has come.
One of the toughest jobs was sorting through boxes of paperwork that included two decades of tax returns. I found papers from the New England Ballet Festival, a side business I had launched that was a competition for ballet schools only. That event lasted two years before two or three other national ballet competitions were doing a better job, so I stopped producing the event.
I had another company called The Rhinestone Dancer, a short-lived business that sold rhinestones to dancers and teachers. Another business was The Dance Teacher Store, which was profitable but not worth the time for my employees or me.
There were more, but you get the point. Each time I let one of those businesses go, I felt insecure because I couldn’t make them work. Yet I always knew it was time to move on.
Today I can confidently say that each of those failures led to something better, and if I had not learned from the experiences I would not have the knowledge I do today. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, nor do I worry about what others think, because I know what is right for me.
Now here’s the happy ending for my dance-teacher friend: she moved her store into her school, where it is now making a profit. And her school is growing because she’s not focused on making her dancewear store a success.
3 later-in-life teachers offer a long view of teaching
By Holly Derville-Teer
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be on the far end of a 40-year dance career? How do teachers over the age of 60 adjust their teaching style? What lessons did they learn? To gain some insight and advice from people who have danced into their 60s or 70s, we asked three longtime teachers, all in the Oregon dance community, to share their thoughts.
Julane Stites, 62
Julane Stites is the dance director at Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, a public performing-arts school in Beaverton, Oregon. She grew up dancing in her mother’s studio, Stites Center of Performing Arts in Gresham, Oregon. At 16 she embarked on a Broadway career, appearing first as Gillie Bonnard in Happy Time and then as Miss Polanski in Promises, Promises. She also played Vivien Della Hoya in Promises, Promises—a role originated by Donna McKechnie—and was featured on The Ed Sullivan Show in an excerpt from the show.
After living in Los Angeles for several years and transitioning into teaching, Stites, then 29, returned to Oregon, settling in Portland. She joined the faculty of Jefferson Performing Arts High School, teaching there for 17 years and eventually directing the program.
At age 49 she took the position of dance director of the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, which serves children in grades 6 through 12. When Stites started, in September 1999, she began the transformation of the existing program into one with multiple levels and a pre-professional company. It became so popular that dance department enrollment skyrocketed from 6 students to 90 in one year. By the end of the third year the department had reached capacity (230 students), and it has turned students away every year since. In addition to overseeing the department, Stites teaches ballet, tap, modern jazz, and repertoire.
Stites prefers working in a public school because she loves teaching dance to children who otherwise would not have the opportunity. “Children need something that they care about,” she says. “They need structure. They need a safe environment where they can take risks.”
At 62, Stites has several strategies that have helped her achieve longevity as a dance teacher. At age 55 her body began demanding that she change her daily teaching routine. “Parts of my body were saying, ‘Don’t stretch me.’ Injuries didn’t heal as quickly and I got strange injuries from doing the littlest things.”
To pace herself, she warns students that she will show a step only three times. Instead of demonstrating repeatedly, she talks about how a step should feel. “Sometimes verbalizing is more effective than showing something 20 times,” Stites says.
“Parts of my body were saying, ‘Don’t stretch me.’ Injuries didn’t heal as quickly and I got strange injuries from doing the littlest things.” —Julane Stites
“It’s a different game when you get older, but there is a place for us,” she adds. And with age comes wisdom. Stites works hard to help young women be more forgiving and accepting of themselves. “I see so many girls spending so much energy hating their bodies, and I remember feeling that way about myself as a young woman. As you get older, you become more accepting and forgiving and learn to do the best with what you’ve got.”
For Stites, the most important aspect of teaching is to make the effort to truly reach the dancers. “You can have a million wonderful credits behind your name. It doesn’t mean a thing to those kids unless you connect with them. You have to pick and choose the moments when you let them know you really care. I’ve learned that every child has a story.”
And never, she says, underestimate a student. “Never say, ‘You’ll never do this’ or ‘You’ll never do that.’ I have seen the most amazing things.”
Carla Webber, 72
Carla Webber, former owner of Portland Gymnastics Center/Carla Webber Studio of Dance, opened her school in 1961. She grew up studying dance with her parents in their school, The Drumm Studio, in Bridgeport, Ohio. At age 18 she moved to New York City, where she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts; from 1958 to 1961, she performed as a Rockette.
At 21 she married and moved to Portland, Oregon. She opened a studio that grew from 50 to 200 students in a single year. After 12 successful years, she had a new facility built, which included a fully equipped gym and four studios. By the time she was ready to sell the business at age 41, the school’s student enrollment had grown to 1,600.
Webber continued to teach group classes at Westside Dance & Gymnastics Academy (her former studio’s new name) until she was 62. She now teaches private lessons there and at Innovative Dance, another Portland-area studio.
Webber advises studio owners to guard against growing too fast. “Make sure there is quality in every department,” she says, particularly during periods of explosive growth. Beginner students need strong, highly qualified teachers who have proven they are great with children; however, during periods of rapid expansion, she says, owners are often forced to hire quickly.
Teaching, says Webber, “is about how you help develop a child as a person, into what they are going to be like as an adult. Are they going to be fair? Are they going to be kind? Are they going to be just? Are they going to be examples? When you lose control of that, you sacrifice some of your own ethics.”
She warns against allowing a studio to become too parent-driven. “You want the students to be the reason you do what you do. It’s hard to put [parental influence] in its proper place so you can be the best person you can be for their child. If you set very high standards for yourself, you will do just fine. Follow the things you know are the right things to do.”
As for the nuts-and-bolts aspects of running a studio, Webber advises new studio owners to enroll in business classes and to ask seasoned studio owners for advice. “Everyone you talk to will teach you something. Bookkeeping, roll charts—there’s someone out there who can teach you to do it better.”
She also cautions studio owners about prioritizing the artistic side of the studio at the expense of its organizational health. “If you don’t want to focus on the business side of things, hire someone who will,” she says.
And, Webber says, aging teachers need to take good care of their bodies. “The problem with teachers is that they love to dance,” she says. “They want to give the best class they can, so they dance every class full out, stretching their body to the limit every time.” She advocates icing after teaching and getting regular massages.
Although older teachers may need to stop dancing, they can still enjoy teaching and choreographing. “You can have a fulfilling career as a choreographer even if you can’t demonstrate,” says Webber. “The quality of your work doesn’t have to diminish with age. Your skills are never the same, but that doesn’t mean you have to drop off the face of the earth.”
Above all, she has learned that it’s best not to overvalue perfection. “That’s the biggest thing about aging. I’m very happy and satisfied when a child is trying their best.”
John Gardner, 72
John Gardner, the former owner/director of Portland Dance Academy, graduated from Portland State University and studied at San Francisco Ballet School on a Ford Foundation scholarship. Two years later, at 23, he relocated to the East Coast, dancing with American Ballet Theatre and Pennsylvania Ballet. Gardner also appeared in the chorus of Here’s Where I Belong and as a replacement dancer in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway. He spent five years in Germany dancing with Hamburg Ballet, and then returned to Portland at 45 to begin his teaching career.
After teaching ballet and directing the dance program at Portland Park and Recreation for five years, the 50-year-old Gardner opened a nonprofit studio, Oregon Festival Ballet Company, in Sellwood, Oregon. A few years later he moved the school to Portland, renaming it Portland Dance Academy. The school grew from 15 dancers to 300, eventually expanding to include 10 teachers and 4 studios. Gardner retired as a studio owner at age 68 and now teaches 12 hours per week at three Portland-area schools.
Several elements are needed to build a successful ballet school, says Gardner. “You have to have a fabulous product, enthusiastic teachers, a clientele that can pay the bills, and nice facilities.” Diversity, he adds, is also important. Gardner’s school offered everything from Irish step dancing to flamenco, and he advises ballet school owners to expand their curriculums. “Ballet schools have a hard time making it, especially if there’s competition,” he says. “Even though ballet was my focus, a studio with a lot of disciplines is the way to go in the suburbs.”
Ballet schools, he says, need a good strategy to encourage a healthy influx of new dancers. For his studio, “Nutcracker was the gimmick that worked.” His annual show, with professional dancers in the lead roles, performed to 12 full houses each season. Gardner kept the show fresh by changing the choreography and some of the costumes each year.
Performances at local schools proved to be another excellent marketing tool. However, Gardner believes a good reputation is the real key to success. “You can advertise until you’re blue in the face, but it’s word of mouth that really builds a studio,” he says.
As for teaching later in life, Gardner has several strategies. He uses both sides of his body evenly during class and gets acupuncture regularly. He often marks steps and asks students to demonstrate. He also brings in videos to illustrate how steps are supposed to look and insists that his students know ballet terminology.
Gardner most likes “to watch potential develop. I like to see it grow. That’s the most exciting thing.” In addition to teaching, choreographing, and coaching (which he plans to do indefinitely), he is working to chronicle the history of dance in Portland. While not yet sure what form the project will take, he is gathering materials and conducting interviews to record living histories.
Teaching at 72 isn’t for everyone, Gardner says. “If you can’t deal with not being able to dance, you should retire.” However, he advises retiring teachers to find a new creative project. “Getting rid of teaching totally is not a good idea unless you have something new.”
Advice for dance teachers
I have a dedicated 14-year-old student who shows up for every class and rehearsal by walking or taking the bus to the studio. Her life has been one tragedy after another. Her mom died when she was 8. For a while relatives dropped her off and picked her up at the studio. They were always late with tuition and other payments, but I let it go. About three years ago her older brother was killed and recently her father had a mental breakdown. Now no one drives her to dance or pays her tuition, but she manages to get to the studio almost every day.
A few weeks ago she showed up at my house asking if she could stay the night because she was locked out of her house. I invited her in, fed her, and called the uncle she was staying with. He didn’t respond until the next morning, when he told me that the girl knows the house key is in a secret place. He seemed angry and didn’t offer to pick her up. He said he had to go to work and that she could get in the house if she needed to.
Ever since then I have felt the need to check in on this girl. She has stayed overnight with me a few times, and no one seems concerned when she is not in her own bed at night. I asked her if she wanted me to call the authorities or another relative to get her some help, but she cries and tells me that she doesn’t want to go to a foster home and that all she wants is to dance.
I am not sure what to do. I don’t want to cause her more trauma. Do I continue to help and keep quiet? Do I contact Child Protective Services? I am willing to have her move in with me, but I don’t want her to be put in a foster home or have to stop dancing.
Dance seems to be her thing, and it might be the key to keeping her on track. Please let me know your thoughts. —Concerned Teacher
Wow, what a story! Thank you so much for being a concerned teacher. Often I tell teachers that dance involves a lot more than classroom instruction, and you have proven that point vividly.
Please know that I am not a professional and can only offer you advice from my heart. I think I would contact Child Protective Services anonymously to find out what the possibilities are. You might be able to become her foster parent or guardian if her uncle or other relatives welcome the idea. It doesn’t hurt to inquire.
Try to speak with the uncle soon to learn more about the girl’s circumstances. Does the father show any concern for his daughter? Is he still her legal guardian or is he out of the picture? These questions might help you decide what to do to help the child.
It is obvious that she looks up to or feels safe with you, because she sought your help even though she has a home. That means that you have made a positive impact on her life already. Be proud of yourself for that.
I am assuming that you have provided this child with costumes, shoes, and other dance-related needs, so you have already taken on more responsibility for her than would be expected. Pursue your options for continuing to help, because this could turn into the most rewarding experience of your teaching career. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
My heart is broken at the loss of one of my longtime teachers and friends who taught for my studio since it opened more than nine years ago. It all came out of left field when I got an email telling me she could not return to her employment with me because her new husband felt that I have been ripping her off all these years. He thinks I should have made her a partner in the school or at least offered her a percentage of the profits because she had been with me for so long.
I wanted this teacher to be my partner when I opened, but she didn’t accept at the time and never mentioned it again until this email. She started at a rate of $15 an hour and it rose to $44. As the school grew, I gave her raises and bonuses, and I took her to conventions, covering all of her expenses.
She was one of my best friends until about six months ago, when the man she married came into her life. I accepted that our friendship had changed but never expected that she would quit without talking to me. I am willing to talk this out with her and her husband, but she doesn’t return my calls or respond to my emails.
The kids and parents are asking about her, and I have a hard time explaining what happened. Do I just move on, or should I continue to try to reach her? —Heartbroken
My instinct tells me that you should move on. Your pain seems to be more about losing a friend than an employee. It’s time to move forward knowing that you have done the best you could. It is she who won’t return your calls, and it is she who chose not to become your partner when the option was offered.
This is not the first time I have heard this story. Apparently some non-dancing husbands believe their dance-teacher wives are being ripped off by rich school owners. Forty-four dollars per hour is actually above the standard rate for dance teachers—which most often runs $25 to $35—and you went beyond that by covering her expenses for continuing education and giving her bonuses. And I get the feeling that if she had asked for a raise you would have given it to her. But she never gave you that opportunity.
My guess is that your former employee will come to realize she didn’t have it so bad, especially if she pursues another teaching job. You made the choice nine years ago to invest in your business and to work hard to establish it; obviously you have done something right. Pat yourself on the back—and know that this probably won’t be the last time you will be dumbfounded by one of your employees.
As for what to tell the students and parents, explain that the teacher has decided to leave and that you will miss her. Don’t reveal any hard feelings on your part. Show the respect for her that she didn’t show for you. Good luck! —Rhee
As far as I know, dance studios traditionally run their schedules on an academic school-year calendar. However, more and more people want to register halfway into the season, in January. It’s a great problem to have, but it does raise other issues, such as students missing the groundwork of technique from prior months and late recital costume orders. Should I run semesters/sessions or keep our traditional schedule? The way we are set up now gives me the advantage of knowing what my income is for nine consecutive months. Any suggestions? —Diane
Maybe you should consider running a separate 10-week (or longer) session for the new, mid-season students. They would not participate in the recital, but you could give them two complimentary tickets so that they can attend and get excited about it. Then, if they want to continue with classes, register them in the regular program for the following fall. You won’t be turning them away, and you’ll avoid some of the issues you mentioned. All the best to you. —Rhee
Advice for dance teachers
I own a school that was founded by my grandmother. I grew up knowing that someday I would take the reins and I always looked forward to it. I am proud of what we have built, but my children have their own interests, and they don’t include directing the family school.
After 30 years of running the school, I plan to retire with my husband and move to our house in Florida within the next couple of years. The responsibility to carry on the family legacy has turned into a burden for me because we have come to the end of the line.
My dilemma is that my mother and my grandmother each turned over the school to the next in line, but never thought of retiring; both taught until they died. I think they expected me to do the same, but my husband and I have worked very hard to save enough money to retire.
I have thought about selling the school to one of our teachers, but a friend of mine would like to purchase the building to open a restaurant. At first I was against doing anything that would hinder the school from continuing, but now I think it would be easier to sell the building and let the business end. My problem is that I can’t get over the guilt of ending the family legacy. I am hoping you can offer me some insight. —Carol
My family’s school is now owned and directed by my brother Rennie, but I do relate to your feelings about keeping the legacy going. When my mom died I had my own businesses and made a good living, but I took over the school for a couple of years because Rennie was unable to at the time. Like you, I felt guilty at the thought that the legacy might end. But I worked so hard that I was completely burned out. When Rennie was ready to take over the school two years later, I was thrilled.
For many years after my mom’s death, I thought the school had to continue no matter what; it seemed like letting it go would, somehow, be letting my mother and her memory down. But I don’t think that way anymore. As I’ve grown older I have realized that life is all about change, and we have the choice to accept that or not. However, if we choose not to accept it, we will end up unhappy because we will always mourn what was instead of accepting what is. Embracing change makes for a life that is always filled with exciting opportunities to grow and discover.
I can honestly say at this point that if my brother were to close or sell the school it would be OK with me. Each of us has continued our mother’s legacy in our own way, just like your own children will do with the choices they make for their future. They might not have chosen teaching dance as their profession, but through your hard work you have influenced their work ethic and pursuit of their dreams, just like your mom and grandmother did for you.
Please let go of the guilt and do what’s best for you and your future. If selling the building to your friend will make this transition easier, then do it. And you could sell the business itself to one of your teachers, who could move it to a new location, or maybe one of them will open a school of their own and you’ll know that your legacy continues in a new way. You have the right to retire and spend time with your husband. And who knows—you just might end up teaching dance in Florida! —Rhee
It has always been a policy at our school that students who want to take non-ballet classes must also take ballet. Until the last couple of years that policy has gone unchallenged, but now I feel like we are losing out on new students because nearby schools let students take whatever they want, and ballet is not required.
The problem started when we added hip-hop to the curriculum, because those students don’t want to take anything else. As a result of our ballet requirement, the hip-hop classes have four or five students, while other schools in the area have 20 students in their hip-hop classes. A side of me wants to get rid of hip-hop altogether, but I worry that we would lose even more potential students.
I have always felt that all students need ballet as a base, and I have a hard time letting that belief go. Any suggestions? —Jeannie
I too believe that ballet is the foundation for all solid dance training, but I would make an exception for those who take only hip-hop, Zumba, or adult classes. You are right when you say that most hip-hop dancers don’t want to take other dance forms. But in my experience, that’s when they are first starting to dance. Many hip-hop students move into other styles of dance once they are exposed to them.
The key is to get those new hip-hop students into your school so that you have the opportunity to show them all the options dance has to offer. At this point, that’s exactly what the schools in your area are doing. So eliminate the ballet requirement for hip-hop students, but do keep it for those who take jazz, tap, modern, and contemporary. Good luck! —Rhee
Last year I went to one of your seminars, where I learned that I needed to run my school more professionally, especially from a business perspective. I knew I had to hire an office manager to help me with the day-to-day operations and lift some of the pressure of the business off me. I was so excited when my office manager first started working for me because I felt like I had done something for myself. Before I went to the seminar, I wasn’t sure I deserved that.
Now we are into our third month of working together, and I am feeling a new pressure. My office manager is late for work almost every day. At first she would apologize and come up with an excuse, but now she doesn’t say anything and ignores the fact that I had to take attendance and collect tuition before starting my classes for the day. She lets things go until the last minute or until I say that they need to be done immediately.
I feel like I need to start doing some of the things I hired her to do in order to feel confident that they are getting done. I am also afraid she will be mad if I let her know I am disappointed.
I need help in developing the skills needed to be a good boss. How do I let her know that I want her here on time and that she needs to follow through on her responsibilities? —Tricia
You deserve to have help, and good for you for making it happen. Being a boss is not an easy job. Sometimes it takes several tries before you find an employee who understands your needs and her responsibilities. But I have learned that it is OK to let someone go who is not performing as expected.
One of the things I have discovered is that I need to be better about communicating my needs. For instance, if an employee is late more than a couple of times, I need to speak up before it becomes the norm. Most likely your silence about your office manager’s lateness has made her complacent about it, especially if she senses that you’re uncomfortable discussing it. And if you are worried about making her angry, maybe she isn’t the right fit for the job, or for you.
A good way to keep her on her toes is to change her start time. Tell her she needs to be on the job 30 minutes before classes start, to meet with you regarding your needs for the day and update you on the happenings in the office. Make the commitment to be really organized for the daily meeting, with your notes for discussion written out and a copy for her. That will minimize the chance for misunderstandings about her duties and your expectations.
If this method doesn’t work, then it’s probably time to start looking for a new office manager. That’s OK. You deserve to have an employee who will satisfy your needs rather than add to the daily stress of owning a business. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
Advice for dance teachers
Do you have any advice about working with competition kids and determining who is in the front row, back row, etc.? These are 7- and 8-year-old kids in their second year of competing. It is only a group of 10, so the majority of times they’re in either the first or second row. I try to rotate them as much as I can, but there are always the stronger ones I need at that age. It bothers me because I always try to make sure they all feel important and a part of the routine. How should I base which dancers are in the front row—do I assess them or give preference to the kids who have been with the studio longer than the others?
I want to have a talk with the parents, and I get tired of explaining the same thing over and over about all kids excelling at different times. Help! —Gina
I never predetermine who will be in the front row, nor do I use two lines very much. It’s better to make all the dancers look good by creating many formations and patterns, as well as being so imaginative with the choreography that no one can determine who the strongest or weakest dancers are. Also, it’s best to avoid creating pieces that are loaded with tricks that some of the dancers may not be able to do properly.
By telling parents that children excel at different times in their training and development, you are confirming that you do in fact place the stronger dancers in the front. And that means you are subliminally telling the parents of the second-row kids that their children are not good enough to be in the front.
Also, the judges can tell when a teacher has created a piece that features the best dancers and tries to hide the weaker ones in the back, which in the long run never helps the dancers (or the choreographer) receive a higher score. Actually, once the judges figure it out, they score the piece lower because they know you are hiding something.
Instead of creating another competition piece that uses the standard tricks of the trade, consider your choreography a work of art. Make it so creative and moving to the audience (and the judges) that they never think about how strong the dancers are—that becomes secondary to the fact that in viewing your work they felt or saw something that impressed them. When you put thought into making every dancer look good, you give your students the confidence that they are all good enough. That confidence gives the kids the freedom to love being onstage. Audiences and judges can see that joy and respond to it.
The competition experience shouldn’t be about putting the best dancers in front; it should be about helping all students gain self-confidence, which in turn inspires them to be the best they can be. And that happens when their teacher believes in them. When you do that, the parents will stop asking questions and you will have classrooms filled with happy children. Good luck! —Rhee
I am a studio owner, and I recently had the awesome opportunity to host a master class. I want to pay this talented professional, but I am unsure of the proper etiquette regarding payment. Are there guidelines? Does it vary from instructor to instructor? Thanks for your time! —Tom
There are lots of variables, but the majority of master teachers are paid by the hour. The rates vary based on experience; for example, $200 to $500 per hour for someone who is performing on Broadway or in a major company, and $1,000 to $1,500 per hour for some of the hot dancers or choreographers from national TV. Some teachers might require a deposit up front to reserve the dates for you, while others might ask for a contract that states that they will be compensated in case of cancellation. It is the norm to cover round-trip transportation and hotel accommodations as well.
Consider inviting dancers and teachers from neighboring schools to help defray your costs and to build camaraderie within your dance community. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I am a single mother of 2, recently separated. My dream has always been to open a dance school of my own. I have studied dance for many years throughout my life (not consistently) and I am going into my third year of Teachers Training School with DMA. I also am working toward CDTA accreditation for ballroom and I’m continuing my ballet studies.
I don’t have a lot of money to open a studio, but I have thought many times about turning one room in my house into a studio and starting out small with private lessons. What would your advice be on how to get started? —Ashley
You deserve a pat on the back for seeking out the best training to prepare to be a well-rounded dance educator. Certainly you could launch a school in your home. That is what my mom did to start her business, which after several years grew to the point when she could afford to purchase her own building.
If you choose that route, be sure that your town will allow you to run a business from your home. Also, think ahead about the available parking for your students and their parents. If you’re teaching only private lessons, parking won’t affect your neighbors, but if you decide to expand to group lessons, it could have an impact.
An alternative to operating a school at your home is renting space in a church hall or community center, which usually offers more affordable rents than commercial spaces. The catch is that you probably wouldn’t have permanent mirrors and barres because you’d be in a multi-use space.
Here’s another idea: years ago I taught classes at a low-income housing project. I did not pay rent for the space, but I did offer a discount to the children who lived there. I was allowed to enroll students from the surrounding communities, which was gravy in an already successful rent-free situation. This location was a win–win for me and the children who might never have had the chance to dance if it hadn’t been brought to them.
With some creative thinking you will be able to follow your dream in a way that will allow you to ease your way into the major expenses associated with owning a school. Never stop dreaming! —Rhee
What is the best way to handle a class of 5- to 7-year-olds when the parents are observing and the kids are out of control? Some parents do not approve of my teachers saying, “If you continue, you will be sitting with your parents,” or “Please act in a respectful manner,” or “If you continue to act in this manner, you will need to go to the baby class.” What is so wrong with these statements? What would be a better way? —Brenda
This is a case where the delivery really matters. Put yourself in the place of the parent (or the child) who hears the teacher say something like, “Behave or you will go into the baby class.” Are they hearing a mature adult speak, someone who is considering the implication of her words on the self-esteem or well-being of the student? No. The message is demeaning, even threatening, rather than a constructive comment delivered in a way that encourages the child to engage.
I believe in discipline in the classroom, but it can be achieved by gaining the respect of the students and their observing parents. First, teachers must keep in mind that they are mature mentors who choose their words wisely. With a disruptive child, the teacher might smile and take her hand, leading her to the front of the class while saying, “Boy, you have a lot of energy today, Susie! Come to the front of the class with me so you can share it with everyone else.” My guess is that those words and actions would be met with a smile instead of with concern from the parents.
Also, telling unruly students that they should behave or they’ll be sent out of class to their parents is risky because that might be exactly what the children were hoping for. Instead, have the disruptive child sit down at the front of the classroom for a few minutes.
Although there are exceptions, often when a group of 5- to 7-year-old students is out of control the reason has as much to do with the teacher as it does with the children. Why are they feeling comfortable enough to misbehave? In this or previous classes, have they been led to believe that such behavior is OK? Is the pace of the class giving them enough time to get out of control, and if so, why?
I suggest that you do an evaluation with your faculty to identify better language and actions to use when dealing with behavior issues. Most important, discuss how the teachers can improve the structure or pace of their classes to maintain control. Good luck! —Rhee
Words from our readers
I can’t begin to express what a beautiful job you did capturing the essence of our ballet scholarship competition [“Classical in Connecticut,” September 2012]. Thank you for bringing such exposure to the dance community and beyond. It also brought recognition to our CDA [Connecticut Dance Alliance] organization. I appreciate your quoting me on the educational aspect and opportunity it provides for growth. We want to continue to deliver that each year.
Hartford Stage Education Programs Manager
On behalf of all of us in Chapter 8 of Dance Masters, I want to thank you for publishing such a wonderful article [“Strength in Numbers”] in the October issue. We were very excited to see it. Our president, Marlene Merritt, was beaming at our workshop as she showed it to everyone.
Secretary, Chapter 8, Dance Masters of Western New York
Let me inform you of how much I enjoy the columns in your magazine. I especially continue to be amazed at the quality of advice in the “Ask Rhee Gold” columns. The man knows his stuff. (And the fact that I know the man has nothing to do with the high praise I accord him.)
Advice for dance teachers
I need some advice on an extremely sad, unfortunate situation. As a member of Dance Masters of America, I uphold a code of ethics. I respect my colleagues and do my best to maintain a professional working relationship with everyone. Recently, though, a full-time teacher of four years at a local dance studio got arrested for multiple instances of lewd and lascivious acts with minors. One incident occurred at a dance convention. The studio owner knew about it and still kept this teacher on staff for several months. When the owner finally let her go, she still planned to have the teacher choreograph privately for the school’s competition team. My problem is that this has lowered morale and trust in dance studios and teachers.
Do you have any suggestions for how to handle this professionally and ethically? My first instinct is to ignore the situation, but I cannot sit back when children have been affected and people are talking. Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. —Valerie
As teachers and school owners it is our responsibility to protect the minors in our care. Once we are made aware of any potential danger it is our obligation to take appropriate action.
With that said, I did some investigation into this matter and it appears that the authorities are on top of this case. According to the reports, the director of the school was questioned prior to the arrest but was not made privy to the charges being investigated, and she was told not to inform parents. Since the investigation is ongoing, the school owner’s role in this situation has yet to be determined. If that report is false, I am sure that the investigation will reveal that fact and the authorities will take the appropriate action.
My concern is that the director of the school is considered guilty by her peers based on hearsay. Imagine how you would feel if one of your faculty members was accused of a similar crime, yet you knew nothing about it. I wouldn’t speculate on anyone’s involvement because I wouldn’t want them to speculate about me in a similar circumstance. I would hope that teachers would offer each other the benefit of the doubt out of respect for their profession and each other.
My advice for handling this situation professionally and ethically is to leave the investigation to the authorities and avoid speculation or gossip. I would remain focused on making my school the best it can be and creating the safest environment possible. All the best to you. —Rhee
I am currently in my 30th year as a studio owner, and I would love to see some dialogue in your magazine about the issue I’m raising. I think it’s time for a conversation about when a student should be considered a professional and should not be competing or eligible for scholarships at conventions. At a recent competition some competing dancers had won on Paula Abdul’s Live to Dance; they have also been on America’s Got Talent, where they made it very far in a group competition. Yes, these children are 11 or 12 years old, but I feel that they have crossed a line into another realm of the dance world.
Also at this competition were dancers who have been on Lifetime TV in a couple of dance-related shows. I only had one soloist compete, and she was that top score, so these dancers were not up against mine. I do plan on talking to the owner of this event since we have a great relationship, and he will understand that I’m looking for a dialogue, not really complaining.
I believe there should be guidelines in the competition world regarding professional status. Even with these televised dance competitions, it’s almost like the difference between a pro golf tour and an amateur tour. Once you turn pro, you can’t do some extra tournaments at the amateur level. Thank you for all you do for the dance world! —Cameron
I’m a little sensitive to this issue because when I was a young dancer participating in dance competitions, there were teachers who wanted my brother Rennie and me kicked out of events because we had been paid to perform in a Nutcracker with a well-known Boston dance company. Rennie’s eligibility to compete was also questioned when he was 10 because he had been paid for performing at a dinner theater. I remember being devastated at the thought that we would not be allowed to compete. I knew that our experiences could be interpreted as professional, but I also understood that we both had a lot to learn in becoming proficient dancers.
Other questions come to mind regarding this subject. Would a young dancer who had performed a tap piece on a professional stage be considered a professional if she performed a contemporary piece at a competition? What about a girl who lands a professional gig at 10 but never gets another job—is she still considered a pro at age 16? Would someone who dances on national TV but wasn’t paid be considered a professional? Would someone who sings or acts at a professional venue be considered a professional in a dance competition?
Through the years I have seen many dancers who have had a great deal of professional experience who are not as technically advanced as others at competitions. If the dancer who has no professional experience is better (from a judge’s viewpoint), then it becomes hard to draw the line between amateur and professional.
Certainly there should be dialogue about the subject, but what we all need to keep in mind is that we are dealing with children. Keeping kids out of a competition simply because they have had some professional experience could hurt those who need the competition experience in order to grow and learn as dancers. I hope this gives you some food for thought about the dancers’ perspective. —Rhee
I am a dance teacher/studio owner, and I have come across the most persistent parents I have ever met in all my years of teaching dance (20-plus)—or school, for that matter. (I taught kindergarten for 12 years.)
These parents have a daughter who turned 4 last spring. They are angry with me and some of my teachers because I will not allow them to enroll their daughter in the beginning ballet class for 6- to 8-year-olds. My teachers and I have tried to explain that although the child is coordinated for a 4-year-old, she is not ready for the rigors of a class with 6- to 8-year-olds. She is not developmentally ready, emotionally or physically, even though she follows directions and is a good listener. Not to mention that there are eight parents with kids in the beginning ballet class who would not be happy if a 4-year-old were in there.
I am a strong believer in developmentally appropriate teaching and training. I pride myself on my school’s strong reputation in the community for having a quality preschool dance program. The 3- to 6-year-old age range is definitely my specialty.
These parents are convinced that their child is leaps and bounds above the other 4-year-olds in the ballet/jazz combo class, both in maturity and ability. They have been clients since their daughter was a year old, in the Mommy and Me classes, but I’m at the point where I want to tell them that my philosophy doesn’t fit with their attitude and that maybe my school isn’t a good fit for them. However, I always try to make things right for my clients and I want to educate them on proper dance training. And I don’t want their daughter to get hurt or learn bad habits that are hard to break.
I have spoken with the parents several times, as have my teachers. Is there an article or anything you can recommend that I can share with them? I know these parents want what is best for their daughter, and so do I.
Thank you for all your inspirational dance sayings and for all the fantastic ideas and information in the magazine each month. —Barbara
Teachers often have to deal with parents who believe that their children should be moved to a higher-level class, but it isn’t often that the request comes from the parents of a 4-year-old. Exposure to movement that is physically inappropriate could damage her young body, not to mention how important it is to build a strong foundation if in fact dance turns out to be this child’s thing. You hit the nail on the head when you said you want what is developmentally appropriate for this child. Moving her up is out of the question.
It may be time to accept that your school can’t offer these parents what they are looking for, especially since you and your faculty have respectfully discussed their concerns without success. You point out that your school is well respected in your community for its successful preschool program. One student or her parents should not deter you from continuing to maintain your quality standards. Your integrity, ethics, and expertise have helped you gain the respect of your community, which is more valuable to your success than any single student. I know it is hard, but your instinct is speaking loud and clear. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
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Advice for dance teachers
Today one of my teen students told me that she has to leave the school where I teach because her parents can’t afford the lessons, shoes, and costumes. She is such a good dancer, with a personality that cannot be beat. She’s at the studio all the time and I look forward to seeing her because she fills the room with joy.
I want to ask the school’s owner to give the girl a scholarship, but I know he is having a hard time financially too. I was thinking of paying for part of the tuition myself, but I can’t afford to cover all her expenses. I am looking for advice on how I can keep this student in the classroom. Do you have any ideas? —Jill
It is so cool that you are willing to help this dancer! I’ve got a feeling that you could get some help from your boss. Simply bring your passion for this child to him and go for it. He may be able to cover the tuition, or at least part of it. Would other students’ parents be willing to sponsor the child in some way, maybe by covering the cost of the costumes or shoes? Or you could ask a local dancewear store if they might be willing to donate the needed dancewear.
You might be surprised by the response you receive. I knew a child whose parents died in a car accident, and the parents at the studio did all they could to keep the child dancing. This little girl dreamed of becoming a professional dancer, and she achieved her dream as a result of the kindness of others.
We live in a world where many people are in financial crisis, but there are those who want to help because they have managed to hang on. I suggest that you share the story with as many people as you can. And I’ll bet this student will always remember the kindness of her dance teacher. Good luck! —Rhee
My school is starting its ninth season, and I want to take a couple of small groups to a competition this year. I have no idea where to start. I have always said that I would never do competitions, but TV has done them up big and now everyone wants to do them.
My reason for not wanting to compete is that in my area the studios are so focused on the competition kids that the recreational kids get left behind. It drives me nuts! As far as I’m concerned, if a comp kid knows what a rond de jambe and piqué are, then a rec kid should as well. You would not believe the number of older kids who come to me from other schools and don’t know what a simple port de bras or chassé is! It’s sad, really.
Anyway, after eight years of molding and reshaping, I think I might like to give competing a try. I would like to start out small and slow—where would be a good place to start?
I suggest looking for a competition that has a pre-competitive category so that your students can enjoy the experience without competing with dancers who have been at it for years. The pre-competitive dancers are all in the same boat, and it is the perfect way for a new group to begin its competitive journey.
Also, I would lower the dancers’ (and their parents’) expectations by explaining that you will be happy simply to get them out onstage and see them finish their routines. Don’t allow them to expect anything more than that or they could be disappointed.
After the event, have a talk with the dancers and their parents about the experience. Ask them what they enjoyed and what they didn’t. Do also ask about performances they saw that they liked and why; this will help them to appreciate talent rather than thinking of those dancers as competitors. That lesson, taught right from the start, will serve you well if your school continues to compete.
When it comes to choreography, make it short and sweet, leaving the judges wanting more. Don’t include tricks that your dancers cannot do properly, and be creative with your concept and movement. The judges are sitting for at least a couple of days, and they notice when something unique, or different from the same thing they have watched for hours, is presented.
I wish you and your students luck. —Rhee
I have been in the dance business for 15 years and have never had a problem until this year and would like your professional advice. I’m sure you or someone at your conferences has gone through this.
I had an instructor who opened her own studio five miles down the road, and I recently learned that a student at my school has been teaching at the new studio while still taking classes at mine. I didn’t do anything about it because of my friendship with her grandparents, who are very involved in her dance career. I didn’t like it, but I let it go. I thought it was a done deal.
Well, it wasn’t. The owner of this new studio approached another one of my school’s older dancers to teach for her when one of her own teachers didn’t show up. This student asked me how I felt about her teaching at the new studio and I told her I didn’t like it. She still took the job. I then told her she would have to choose: stay with us as a dancer or teach at the new studio. Of course she said, “You let so-and-so do it.” I then told the other student that I’d changed my mind and she had to choose too. I cannot have two of my dancers teaching at the new studio.
They have now brought lawyers into the situation. They are saying I’m wrong (breach of contract) and that I should allow them to teach at the new studio while still training at mine, which means I’m training my competitor’s instructors. And who knows what else they are taking from us to the new studio? I feel this is wrong. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. —Mary Beth
Hello Mary Beth,
The lawyers can say what they want to, and they will; however, that does not mean they have a leg to stand on. My advice is to get your own attorney. I am not a legal expert, but I can offer you some food for thought to present to your attorney.
Dance studios are private schools with the right to accept or deny a student’s enrollment. You have the right to create standards or policies by which you run your business. One of those policies certainly can be that a student may not teach for a nearby school, not only because of the business conflict of interest, but also because you are aware that your students are not properly trained as teachers.
If a student’s entire background in dance is derived from training at your school, then that is the only reference she has that she can draw on as a novice teacher. Unless she has also been trained in how to teach the material, then she is not qualified to do so.
I think you are being bullied by the students and their parents, as well as by the other school owner. Please take any correspondence from their lawyers to a professional. Also, have no discussions over the phone; be sure that there is a paper trail of all contact. That said, if the parents have told you they contacted an attorney but you have not heard from that person, the parents may be bluffing. Stick to your guns, hold your head high, and do what you know is right. Good luck, and let me know what happens. —Rhee
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Advice for dance teachers
I teach for an amazing woman who built a big school with the help of her mother, who worked in the office until she died over a year ago, at a young age. It was stunning to all of us involved in the school because she really was the one who prepared and had everything organized for everything that happens outside of the classes. She died in the spring, so all the teachers and friends jumped in to help get through the rest of the year. It worked out fine and everyone bonded, feeling like they were part of the team. It was very rewarding. When the next season started my boss had hired a new studio manager to replace her mother.
When I met her I knew that it was going to be a big change because she didn’t have much personality or enthusiasm about her new role. As the year went on, I started to hear the other teachers say they didn’t like her either—she never smiles and she isn’t nice to our customers. Then a mother of a student told me she was leaving the studio because she couldn’t handle the new secretary. She had just been yelled at because her daughter was loud in the lobby area. She said three other people had not come back this year because of how they were treated last year.
I asked the mother to talk to my boss, but no one seems to want to speak up. I want to say something to her. Is it my place to do it, or should I let her figure it out for herself? —Anita
As far as I am concerned the office manager plays one of the most important roles in a successful school. Often that person has more contact with the students and their parents, and the faculty, than the owner does. She must be friendly and always treat the customers with respect; otherwise it is better to have no one at the desk at all.
Your boss is lucky to have you on her team because it is obvious that you have a great deal of respect for her and her business. I would want to speak up if I were in your position. I advise you to do so, not only for your boss’ sake but because this situation is obviously troubling you. I would do a little research to determine which clients left because of the office manager, and then document that, along with your own observations and anything else you’ve heard.
Go to your boss with your thoughts and then back them up with the research. Yes, she might get upset, but my guess is that it will be because of the situation her office manager has put her in, not because you spoke up. Chances are good that she will appreciate you for being honest. You may find that she is already aware of the problem but hasn’t had the confidence to do something about it. Your input might be the motivation she needs in order to make a change.
Whatever happens, you should feel confident that you did what you could. You just might be the catalyst to get someone with a better demeanor sitting in that office chair. Good luck, and hold your head high for being such an awesome employee. —Rhee
For the past five years I have taught six days a week at three studios, and for the most part my employers have been very good to me financially and seem to respect my work.
I can’t keep going six days a week and I keep telling myself that I will make a change, but after things slow down during the summer, I end up repeating the same cycle the next year. I planned to cut my schedule down by quitting teaching for the studio that is more than an hour away from me, but when I approached the owner she was very upset. She said she couldn’t replace me and offered me a raise; plus she started paying for my gas. I felt like I couldn’t walk out on her because she is so generous. So I am still going, but the money isn’t worth my sanity, and I don’t feel like I am giving my best to my students. I am feeling burned out.
I can’t let someone down who has been so kind to me without feeling guilty. Got any advice? —Marla
Yes I do have advice for you! It is time for you to put yourself first, forget about feeling guilty, and have the confidence to speak up about what you know is best for you and your students. The generosity of the school owner is commendable, but if you have told her that you can’t continue working six days a week and her only solution is to pay you more, then she’s thinking more about herself than you. To show that you respect her generosity, you could ask to cut your schedule down to one day for the rest of the season and offer to help her to find a replacement for you. However, you have to let her disappointment be secondary on your list of priorities right now.
Teaching dance must be something that you love to do in every class, otherwise you shouldn’t be teaching. My guess is that you will suffer exhaustion and end up losing your passion for teaching. It’s time to do all you can to leave this school owner in a good place while taking the time you need to rejuvenate your dance spirit. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I own a school that has never competed because I don’t want my students to focus on winning trophies. We perform at community benefits, produce a Nutcracker, and have performed at Disney many times. I have always thought my way works for the type of studio that I want to run, but I just lost one of my best students because she wants to compete. I am so distraught that she’s gone and now I am not sure if I have made the right choice by not competing. I worry that other students will follow her and I can picture this huge exodus from my school to all the competition schools around me.
I thought all the parents and students were behind me because we have talked about competing, and they told me that they do not want the commitments or expenses that go with it. Now I am not sure if they have changed their minds, but I am afraid to bring it up because I know they will ask me about the student who left and I am too embarrassed to discuss it. What should I do? —Elaine
I appreciate the sentiment behind your letter, but I feel like you need more confidence in yourself. All of our readers have lost students to other schools, for many reasons. Of course it hurts, but we can’t let such occurrences change our philosophy and practices. You are fearful about things that haven’t happened yet. Think about this: you may have the clientele you do because you have chosen not to compete. Also, how will you find out what’s on your clients’ minds if you are embarrassed or afraid to talk to them? With the performance opportunities you offer, you are already doing a lot for your dancers. If you can overcome your fears, you might discover that the majority of your students and their parents really appreciate the fact that you don’t compete. If anyone brings up the student who left, say, “I wish her all the best,” and leave it at that. Attack your fears head-on. I have a feeling you’ll learn that you have less to worry about than you think. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
Advice for dance teachers
I have the chance to buy a building that has been foreclosed on. Is someone who is closer to age 60 than 50 nuts to buy? I couldn’t teach for three weeks this spring when I had surgery, and I discovered that there is no way I am ready to retire. I still love it too, too much!
From my estimates, it looks like it would cost $200 to $300 more per month to own rather than rent, but I’d build up equity while doing so. I’m thinking I would have a semi-viable dance studio and building to sell when I do retire (about 30 years from now!). Otherwise, all I have is a class list that is worth about nothing in a small town. —Mary Ann
Hello Mary Ann,
No, I don’t think “closer to 60 than 50” is too old to purchase a building. There is no age limit on improving your circumstances or doing something you’ve dreamed of for a long time. And since the sale is a foreclosure, it’s probably a good deal. I do think the economy will recover (ever so slowly) and you just might be making a great investment in some retirement money if the value of the property goes up. (I don’t think it would drop lower at this point.) If the difference between rent and mortgage payments is only a few hundred dollars, I say go for it.
But before you do, have someone inspect the property to give you a realistic concept of the cost you’ll incur in making repairs and remodeling this space into what you need it to be. Also, do inquire about an estimated monthly cost for utilities, insurance, and any other potential costs. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
My entire life has been all about dance. In my early 20s I opened the school of my dreams, and with the help of a loyal faculty and staff I have built a successful business with more than 500 students. Now I am 37 and beginning to see that I have missed out on some things because my focal point has always been dance and my students.
The father of one of my students has asked me out. He is single, but I turned him down because it has been 15 years since I’ve dated. I just haven’t had that on my mind because I am committed to my school, and I don’t know if it is appropriate to date a parent of a student. He has sent me cards and flowers for the recital, my birthday, and the first day of classes. Sometimes when he is at the studio he takes out the trash and helps my office staff.
I was uncomfortable with it at first, but he is so nice and sincere that I have grown to appreciate his kindness. My staff knows that he would like to take me out and they are always telling me that I am nuts not to do it, but I’m scared of what people will say if they know I’m dating a dad from my school. Also, I wonder what his daughter would think. Another thing that makes me nervous is that everyone who works for me knows about this and I’d like to keep my personal life private.
I am thinking of saying yes to the date, because I would like a life outside of the studio. This man’s attention has opened my mind to the things that I have missed out on. Is it appropriate for me to do this, or is it out of line? —Happy But Confused
This is the first time I’ve felt like “Dear Abby,” but I’m going to tackle it with my honest opinion. Your dedication to your studio and students is a testament to your passion for dance, but we all need a life outside of dance and you deserve the chance to explore the world outside of your business. Although I would be discreet about it, I think you should go out with this guy.
You can determine how much you want to share with your employees. I do think you should keep your personal life separate from the business, but don’t let that stop you in this situation. This guy obviously appreciates who you are and what you do, and that tells me he is sincere in his respect for you.
Speaking of his daughter, there is no reason that your proper teacher–student relationship should change unless things get more serious. And if that becomes the case, I have a feeling you can handle it.
Stop coming up with excuses and do this for yourself. You have worked hard, and that dedication has obviously worked to your benefit and the benefit of your dancers. Pat yourself on the back for that, but don’t eliminate the outside possibilities that could also make you happy. Go on the date and have a blast. Good luck! —Rhee
I teach many children who love to dance but who will probably never get past an intermediate level because of all the other commitments they have or because they just like to dance for fun and exercise, which is totally fine with me. But about two years ago a student entered our school with something special. She always picks up the movement really quickly and instinctively knows body lines and technique. I see an innate quality that shouts out that she could be a great dancer.
My problem is that she is in classes with students who are not that serious or who do not have a similar level of natural talent. I’m feeling like my school is holding her back and that I need to send her to a more serious school. However, when I discuss this with her other teachers at my school, they all tell me that it would be embarrassing to send her somewhere else. They think I would be making it clear to the parents at our school that we can’t offer training to really good students.
I see the teachers’ side of the argument, but I feel guilty that I am not pushing this student to the next level, which I can’t give her at my school. She loves to dance and works very hard, and I try to give her special attention after class is over—but I know she could do so much more.
I don’t want my students or their parents to believe that I am not offering them the best training I can, but I know they are getting from my school what they need. And I know this girl should move on. Are my teachers right? —Lori
You are an admirable teacher and school owner, and the teachers who are telling you that you should be embarrassed need to think long and hard about what is right for this child and not their egos. Please send this child to a school that can give her what she needs, and stay in touch with her so you can proudly follow her on the dance journey you inspired.
Don’t ever second-guess yourself when you know you are doing what’s right for a child. Your heart is in the right place. Brava to you for having the confidence to know what you do best and the understanding that we all must do the right thing. —Rhee
I am working as assistant director at a good-sized studio and I will soon become the owner, which I am very excited about. I am a huge fan of Dance Studio Life and your postings on Facebook and would love any advice you can offer as I transform myself into an owner (a dream I’ve had since I was 8 years old). Your philosophies on teaching truly inspire me and motivate me to continue to do what I do, the way I do it. —Mandy
Your question is short and simple but an excellent one. As you transition from teacher to owner, your main focus should be to offer the best dance education possible. First and foremost, continue your own education and require your faculty to do the same. Dance education is consistently evolving, and fine-tuning your own and your staff’s knowledge to best serve your students is critical to your success. In the 21st century school owners need to be on top of the business side, too, including marketing, customer service, organization, and the other non-dance aspects of any small business that help it grow.
I always emphasize to school owners that financial success in the average studio is tied to the quality of the programs offered to 4- to 12-year-old children. A solid preschool and recreational program is the key. Once those programs are strong, you will be able to afford to put the needed time, energy, and financial resources into creating a strong intensive program. Many school owners have started the other way around and are no longer in business.
Your website and print promotional materials should always include pictures of young children experiencing the joy of dance. Too much focus on the stronger dancers can intimidate the parents of young children.
Also, and most important in my opinion, is that you look at every child as an opportunity to make a positive impact on her future. The words, actions, and atmosphere your students experience at your school will have a lasting impression on all of them—young or old, big or small, talented or not.
I could go on, but I’ll close by saying that if you do what you’re doing for the right reasons, and appreciate the gift, everything will be just fine. Good luck! —Rhee
I have been teaching for 13 years at a school owned by my best friend. We have been friends since middle school. She has devoted herself to her business and dance forever. Her dream was to own a school and my dream was to teach without the pressures of a business. The relationship has been pretty much perfect for many years.
Four years ago I married the man of my dreams, and we have two children. My best friend was my maid of honor and is the godmother of my first child. But in the last few months she has made several unflattering remarks about what she refers to as my “perfect family” and often says things like, “Go home and enjoy your normal life,” as though my normal life is not as important as her life.
Then she got a nasty note from a disgruntled parent. She called me to talk about it and then turned on me, yelling and telling me that I have no idea about real problems. I was quiet as I listened to her hurtful comments, but I am really offended that she would treat me this way. I have stood by her through good and bad—I was there for her when she was sick and couldn’t teach and I have defended her actions when I thought she should have handled a situation differently.
I don’t want to say anything that could jeopardize our longtime friendship, especially because of my daughter, who loves her godmother. But I’m uncomfortable and I’m hurt. I hope you’ll have some words to help me out. —Rosanne
I found your question very interesting for a couple of reasons. First, I’m questioning whether I might offend my friends when I make comments about a “normal life.” I appreciate my friends who have managed that “normal life” and are happy, but it does raise the question of how our words sound to others.
The second reason is that I recognize something I see in people who are extraordinarily dedicated to one thing. I’m speaking from experience here: when you have spent the majority of your life focused on what you want and need to accomplish, you can lose sight of what you need to nourish your spirit. That can be personal relationships, time with family, the ability to stop for a minute because that’s what your body is telling you to do, or simply putting yourself first once in a while.
For 13 years your friend has been building her business, with you by her side as reflection of where she comes from. When she’s stressed or feeling burned out, she probably wonders if she’d be happier if she were living a life like yours.
If I were your friend I would want you to speak up about how you’re feeling. Your friendship is important, and she probably values the opportunity to be a good godparent and might not realize she’s jeopardizing that. It sounds to me like she needs your normalcy in her life.
Go hang out with her in a place where you both have a lot of history. In the kindest way possible, express how you’re feeling. My guess is that she’ll appreciate your words. —Rhee
A former student of mine came back to class after having been gone for a year when she moved out of town. She has since graduated from high school. She joined the class with the same kids she was in class with before. They have danced together for four or five years; the rest of the class are mostly seniors.
This week only half the class showed up and one of the moms and her daughter stayed afterward to talk to me. It seems the reason no one showed up is because this girl who is back in class supposedly just got out of jail and is on probation for assisting in a robbery. Of course this is all hearsay. She did not come to class this week and I am praying that she has decided not to come back and the problem is solved.
I told the mom to give me a couple of weeks to check things out. I don’t want to lose an entire class because of this girl, but unless I have concrete evidence I cannot kick her out. And I really like this young lady. I do know she has had problems in the past, but nothing like this. If she was in jail it would have been as a juvenile, so the records would be closed. What do I do? —Lauren
This is a tricky situation. Bear in mind that you might already have had a student or parent in your school who has a juvenile criminal record and were unaware of it. What you’re facing is a rumor, and it’s important not to take any action that shows that you’re judging this girl. That said, the happiness and comfort of the other students in the class are important considerations.
Consider meeting with the student (and her parents, if they’ve involved in her life) to discuss what you’ve heard. Understand that you risk hurting her feelings; she may not be aware of the talk about her. And if the rumor isn’t true, she will probably be offended. Don’t judge her; just tell her you’d like to know the real story so that you can speak to the concerns of the other students and their parents with a complete understanding of the situation.
If she agrees to discuss it and the rumor is true, you’ll need to ask her for permission to discuss her past. If she grants it, explain to the others that dance may be the thing that helps this girl make good things happen in her life. Parents might be able to relate if they realized that any child can get into trouble and be forgiven. Instead of shunning her, maybe they could encourage her to be a success.
If she denies the rumor, you’ll have to accept that as the truth and do everything you can to get the others to accept her. Without any evidence that the girl is a danger to anyone at your school, it would be unethical to judge her by forcing her out.
Good luck! —Rhee
I am teaching for the instructor I studied with for 15 years. The parents request me for a teacher and I get letters from former students thanking me for the confidence I’ve given them through dance—and in return I get snide comments and what I now recognize as jealousy from my employer. For nine years my instruction, choreography, and methods have been scrutinized by her. (Her daughter is also a teacher.)
I don’t want to bash my employer since I learned a lot from her, but I also learned from many other teachers over the years. My dilemma is that I feel creatively and emotionally drained. I don’t want to desert the students, but when every dance I choreograph, every plié I do, or even every costume I look at is said to be stale or boring, I just want to move on. Judges always say my pieces are creative and innovative, but my employer told me that I need to change my style. I represent her studio! I do this for her!
I feel loyalty and tried to tell her I need to leave before bad blood is created. I’m scared to teach the way I like to and I am creatively depleted. Please help. —Unhappy
Your frustration is coming through loud and clear. It sounds like you are teaching in a toxic environment that has to change, but given your long history with your former teacher/boss it is worth the effort to make one more attempt to clear the air.
Make an appointment to meet with her, maybe outside of the studio so that you both can be on neutral territory. Make it a public place so that you both will have to present yourselves in a professional manner.
Start by expressing your loyalty to her for all that she has taught you and for the opportunity to teach at her school. Let her know that you really enjoy teaching but that based on her constant criticism you feel like you are not giving her what she wants.
Instead of referring to her snide remarks, put your concerns in question form. For instance, “You are asking me to change my style; can you give me an example of what you think is wrong with my current style?” Let her answer without interruption, and listen closely to determine if there is any validity to her opinion. Also, ask her why judges call your work creative or innovative and why she doesn’t see it that way.
Don’t bring up her daughter or the jealousy you perceive. It’s better to make this about you and your employer so that she doesn’t become defensive about her child.
It is important that she know that you cannot continue to work where you feel creatively or emotionally drained, in a setting where you are constantly criticized or discouraged. Explain that you don’t want to leave but that you need to feel appreciated and encouraged to grow as a teacher.
If things don’t change, then I would advise you to move on to a school that will let you work with confidence in who you are and what you believe to be solid teaching practices. I wish you the best. —Rhee
More than a year ago, I was teaching a class when a student broke her ankle. I called 911 immediately and grabbed an ice pack. The child was hysterical. Because her parents weren’t at the school I rode in the ambulance with her. Her parents met us at the emergency room, where they thanked me for taking good care of their daughter. I stayed there for hours to be sure that the student was OK. She was out of dance for several weeks.
While she was recovering, she observed her classes because we were heavy into choreography and she didn’t want to miss it. When her cast was removed and she had finished physical therapy she came back to class and danced for the rest of the year before leaving for college.
Last week I received a letter from the family’s attorney asking me to come in for a deposition because the parents had filed a lawsuit against me personally and my business. They feel that I was negligent in caring for the injured child and that I encouraged her to return to class before the injury had healed. Therefore, they say, the child is now suffering from a permanent injury that I am responsible for.
I have hired an attorney I cannot afford, and my insurance company has an attorney as well. I am doing my best to recall the things that happened and were said that night so that I can be prepared for the deposition. I am nervous that this situation is going to cost me a fortune and that my insurance is going to be canceled. The hardest part about all of this is that the child seemed completely healed before she returned to dancing. She brought me a note from the physical therapist that said she was cleared to return to class.
Do you have advice on how to handle this? I am completely lost. —Karen
I have dealt with this kind of situation before, and the attorney did cost a lot of money, but in the end I was cleared of all negligence. Here’s what I learned along the way.
When an injury takes place, either at the studio or at a performance, you need to make an accident report. This means that you write down everything that happened in great detail, including what the injured party was doing when the accident occurred and everything the injured party says and does. In this case, I would have written down what the parents said at the hospital as well.
Next, you should ask all witnesses to write down what they observed. Another important thing to do is to have a camera available to take pictures of the child, her injury, and the surroundings. That way you have a much easier time recalling what took place long after the incident. These actions also give the lawyers the impression that you are organized and responsible, which could discourage the lawsuit in the first place.
At this point, I suggest writing down everything you can remember. Ask your students or anyone else involved to write down what they recall, too. It’s very important to bring to your attorney’s attention the letter from the physical therapist clearing the child to dance. If there’s a video of the injured child performing or taking class after she was cleared to return, it could help you prove that the child did not appear to have any signs of a permanent injury after the fact.
When I went through this situation, I discovered that a large percentage of these types of lawsuits are dismissed and that the lawyers are really looking for a payoff from your insurance company and not you. Obviously I am not an attorney and you need to follow the advice of yours in this matter, but do provide as much information as you can that defends your actions.
It is easier said than done, but try not to panic. Let the professionals handle the legalities and you do the best that you can to behave professionally during the deposition. In the long run you will be smarter and stronger for this experience. Good luck. —Rhee
All of my life I have danced or taught dance, but today I am dealing with serious health issues that are going to cause me to stop teaching. I don’t know what I will do without dance in my life because it is all that I know and it is my passion. My family keeps telling me not to worry because I will be able to collect disability and not have to worry about anything, but what they don’t understand is that dance is not about money for me, it’s who I am. No one around me understands what I am going through and I’m hoping you might offer me some words of wisdom. —Katherine
I am sorry that you are dealing with this illness. You are not alone when it comes to your passion for dance and the fear of giving it up. My responsibilities as a publisher and speaker now keep me from teaching, but I still think of myself as a dancer. That’s because dance is in my blood and nothing can take that away from me—nor you.
If your health permits it, look for new ways to be involved in the dance world. You could consider writing about your experiences as a dancer and teacher. You might be able to consult for other teachers or work in a management position for a school. You could create a curriculum based on your years of experience and knowledge. I see a dance world that has endless possibilities for everyone who “knows the passion.”
Take care of your health, but don’t think that you can’t continue to share your expertise and love for dance unless you teach. You have many options to continue in the world you love so much. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
In “Ask Rhee Gold” this month (page 116), there’s a letter that’s given me lots to think about. People write to me for advice on an enormous range of issues, and I usually feel that I can offer something useful because I’ve been in the dance field for a long time in a lot of different roles. But some letters, especially the ones that make me really feel someone’s pain, leave me asking myself: What do I say to this person?
The letter is from a woman who’s gone into partnership with her son and opened a dance studio in a small town. The school is doing well and everything seems to be fine until she hears a couple of moms gossiping about her son, who is gay. They’re worried about the “perversion” he’s supposedly bringing to their community.
The woman who wrote to me handled this situation admirably. She didn’t say a word and didn’t even acknowledge that she’d heard their gossip. She could have challenged them, taking them to task for their narrow-mindedness, and the encounter might have ended with her saying a permanent goodbye to two (now former) customers. Telling those women what she thought about them would have felt great—for a little while.
But then, once she cooled down, she might realize that every one of her customers would be sure to hear about the harsh exchange of words. Many would probably feel the need to take sides, and by raising a fuss in public, the school owner would have made that choice harder for them. She would have put them in a position of having to take sides—and siding with her might mean going against the beliefs of women they see at church or at work or at their kids’ school. A public outburst like that would likely make it harder for her other clients to do what they know, deep down, is right.
Attitudes about sexual orientation across the country are changing. People are becoming more tolerant. When they learn that their gay neighbor worries about the same things they do—the crabgrass, the missed garbage pickup, the foreclosed houses down the street—suddenly gay people don’t seem so foreign and threatening. But when we make choosing tolerance harder to do, for no good reason, nobody benefits.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that gay people (or their moms) should put up with insults or injustice without complaint. Nobody wins respect by being a doormat. But between the bigots on one side and the nonjudgmental people on the other, there are a lot of others who aren’t sure what to do. They can be won to the side of tolerance. Sometimes all they need is a nudge.
You can provide that nudge, by practicing tolerance, hiring with diversity in mind, and making sure that everyone—everyone—feels welcome in your school and in your classrooms. It’s that “lead by example” thing. And little by little, slowly but surely, it works.
Those preschool classes are your future. Give them (and their moms) experienced teachers who are passionate about the age group to create a future of consistent growth and positive word of mouth. Give them an inexperienced 16 year-old teacher and you will always wonder why your enrollment never increases. Just a thought . . . have a great day—Rhee Gold
Make it your goal is to instill a passion for the art of dance in every child . . . what’s really cool about this objective is that the “passion” isn’t limited to those who can do five pirouettes, it’s something that once-a-week student can accomplish, too. That’s what teaching dance is all about! Have a great day–Rhee[ad#Store]
A parent signed her kid up for a 4:00 p.m. jazz class for 5- to 8-year-olds. We didn’t have enough children to run the class, so the secretary asked the parents if the children could move to the 4:45 p.m. jazz class and told me that all three moms said yes. I sent an email confirming the change before winter break, since we were ordering costumes. No one contacted me to say they were not interested in the change, so I ordered the costumes. After the break the class met, and one mom claimed her daughter left in tears and hated it (which didn’t happen because I was there to see how it went), and she wants a refund for her costume.
The woman claims that she had said that they would try the class but it isn’t working, so she wants a refund. I told her I was there and no one was crying, nor did anyone say that the class was not going to work when they were asked to make the change. She then went on about how driving home later was a traffic issue and her daughter can’t get her homework done. So I told her that the costume was already ordered and paid for. She signed a form that said “No refunds,” but she is complaining that the change in class is the issue.
I offered to ask the students’ parents if the class could move to an earlier time, but she said that wouldn’t work. Then I suggested that her daughter be a helper in the class and that the student teacher could spend some extra time with the girl so she would feel more comfortable, and she said it wasn’t going to work. She thanked me for all the suggestions but still wants a refund for her daughter’s costume. I don’t know what more to say to her. Can you help me? —Joan
It is obvious that this mom doesn’t want to abide by your policy on refunds, which you’ve made clear to her. My usual reaction to this kind of situation would be to explain that the costume payment has already been sent to the manufacturer and the only option is to mail the costume to the child when it arrives. However, in this case, the mom registered her daughter for a class on a certain day and time and you changed that commitment. You don’t have any confirmation in writing or verbally that this mom had agreed to the change, which could put you in a bind legally. I’m sure, if an attorney asked her why she wants a refund, her response would be that you made a change in the class time that does not work for her or her daughter.
For me, the mess of fighting the mom would not be worth the cost of the costume. I would try telling her that you’ll send the costume to her when it arrives, but if she argues, I would give her a refund and put the incident behind me. Then I would create a form that notifies parents of any changes in times or days of classes and states that in signing the form, the parents agree to the change.
We all learn through experience and this is one of those lessons you won’t forget. Good luck. —Rhee
I am in negotiations to purchase a dance studio where I have been employed for six years. I am nervous in this economy and feel their asking price is way too high. I have read articles in your magazine about being able to pay for your business purchase in three to five years. I would need to apply to take over the lease and there are many needed repairs. When purchasing the business, should income generated remain in the business account, or should the previous owners get to keep it? I don’t have the financial stability to support the business through the summer months, and the changeover would occur during the summer.
I also am curious about what is reasonable regarding a non-compete clause. The current owner has no desire to open another studio but wishes to continue to teach at various nursery school, churches, and YMCA-type programs. I feel that this is a conflict to the operation of a business I would be purchasing. —Concerned, Confused, and Eager
I am not sure that you are in the financial place to purchase this business, especially if you think the asking price is too high and you don’t have the funds to get through the summer months. I also sense that you don’t trust the current owner and that you think she is trying to take advantage of you. Whether or not your perception is correct, that is not a good way to start these negotiations.
With that said, if I were planning to purchase a school and needed to get through the summer months, I would come up with a way to generate income during that time. My reasons would be twofold: to sustain the business through the summer and to increase fall enrollment by offering summer activities or classes that would bring in new students.
When you purchase a business, it’s not typical to receive the cash assets (cash in the business account), unless such a transfer is specified in the sales agreement.
As for the non-compete agreement, I would definitely put one in place that specifies that the former owner could not open a school or teach for another school within a certain time period and distance. However, I would not try to keep the teacher from working in places like nursery schools because her students would have to move on (perhaps to your school) if they want to continue with dance. If you maintain a good relationship with the previous owner, I would think that she would recommend your school to the children’s parents. As for the YMCA, church programs, or other options, you could include a clause that allows her to teach in those venues for a specified number of hours or if they are distant enough from your school.
Pursue professional legal advice and hire an accountant to help you evaluate this business and to offer you advice on the negotiations, value of the business, and any other concerns. Regarding the asking price being too high, you need to understand that the current owner has built this business and she is selling you her investment in time, money, and energy to make it what it is. You are purchasing her current student base as well as her goodwill within the community and among her clientele. Sometimes the value of the business isn’t measured only in the asking price; it also takes into account the potential for future income.
The school’s continued success also depends on the new owner being creative and attentive to what the clientele needs. You must make this purchase because you are enthusiastic about building the business and with the understanding that you, not the previous owner, will be responsible for its future. I wish you good luck! —Rhee
I do a bunhead contest for all my ballet classes for 6-year-olds and up. If they wear a bun for 10 classes, they get a small prize like a tattoo or button. I’ve done this for the past six years.
Recently, a new student who has short hair went home crying, and her mom called to complain about the contest. What do I say to her? It’s not a short-hair contest, it’s ballet class. I want to encourage buns and pulled-back hair and the kids love the contest. Also, I don’t believe in giving everyone a prize just to be fair. Thanks! —Raquel
I agree that students should wear their hair in a bun for ballet class; after all, that is one of the ways they learn the discipline of ballet, not to mention the lesson of respect. But in my mind, it should be a policy, not something students get rewarded for.
I also agree that it’s not good to give every child a prize just to be fair. So if you are going to have a contest, it should be something that every child can participate in. Your contest excludes children who have short hair, and you’ve already seen the kind of problems that creates. Hope that helps. —Rhee
Advice for dance teachers
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
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
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
Advice for dance teachers
I am interested in selling my studio and am willing to stay on as a teacher. (My older girls would likely leave rather than stay for the new teacher; this way we could transition them over a few seasons to the new program while the younger girls build their loyalty to the new regime.) Do you have any suggestions for how to sell or find a buyer without broadcasting to my competitors (or clients) that I’m looking to sell? I have no staff or teachers. I have almost two years before my next lease renewal and figure the process will probably take a year.
Also, I’m struggling with the feeling that closing equals failure, which is why I keep going. I can’t get past that association, even though moving on is the right thing. I am in my 18th season. —Stuck in Maryland
Please don’t allow yourself to feel like a failure. I have built and sold businesses myself, and in my experience, the decision to sell or close a business is usually prompted by an inner voice that is saying there is more to accomplish in life. It might sound like a cliché to say, “Once one door closes, another opens,” but for me that is exactly what has happened each time. Once you get over the fear that the next door won’t open and feel comfortable enough to dance your way through it when it does, I’ll bet you’ll have no regrets. Chances are you’ll realize that your new place in life is just what you needed.
One route you could go in selling your school is to find a business broker who might be able to help find a buyer. Usually a broker will ask potential buyers to sign a confidentiality agreement before revealing any information about the business. Once they sign the agreement, it is illegal for them to share the information with anyone (usually for a designated period of time). The catch to using business brokers is that they require a percentage of the sale price, just like a real estate agent. In a quick Internet search of “business brokers,” I found businessbroker.net, which will give you a concept of the procedure. (Note: I am not endorsing this site.) There are many options out there and you probably want to find a broker who is based in your state.
You could bypass the broker idea and come up with a list of potential buyers on your own. Look for successful schools in the area whose owners might be interested in expanding their operations. Also, former students who are teaching somewhere else or have the desire to teach might be interested in purchasing your business. Also consider parents of former or current students. They might be interested in investing in your business and might want you to continue teaching until they better understand the business process.
Another possibility is to take an ad in the newspaper or on a site like Craiglist.com, where you can solicit inquiries without including details about the actual location or the business. (But do mention which state the school is located in.) Once potential buyers contact you, require them to sign a confidentiality agreement before you reveal the school’s location or financial details.
I wish you all the best. —Rhee
Some parents of our competitive students are complaining because we are using a big sheet of material for a piece of choreography and we have billed them for it. The material is being used by all the dancers and not being worn. Who should keep the material? One parent said she wants one-eighth of it when the dance is done. Others say that the studio should cover the cost. What do you think? Thank you! —Macey
My thought is that the school should purchase the material and keep it for future use. It is hard to charge the students for a single item because they cannot each take it home with them. Consider it a prop that you will be able to use again, either in the same way or in some other fashion down the road. —Rhee
My studio has students from many surrounding communities. We love it that our students can balance school, dance, and other activities in their schools and community, and we encourage them to do so.
A new issue I am dealing with is donations. I average three or four requests a week for support, donations, or the purchase of ads for the students’ other activities, including Scouts, Nutcracker performances, and church, sport, and drama groups. Now multiply that by the number of communities our students come from. Where, when, and how do we limit it?
I am not talking about a $25 advertisement in a program book. I am dealing with people requesting $400 banners, $250 advertisements, donations of scholarships, and birthday party giveaways. I know it is a sign of the economic times and that fund-raising is a way that some of these programs can stay running, but it is hurting my business. I don’t want to exclude anyone or appear to support one particular group or town, so how do we tame this? —Paulette
I have experience with this situation. My thought is to come up with one charity or group that your school supports—something that benefits children is the best way to go. Explain to those who seek donations that you support a charity and that is the only group you donate to.
Bear in mind that the more donations you make that include an ad for your school (with your contact info), the more calls you will receive from groups seeking donations. Organizations contact people and companies that have a proven record of making contributions. Every once in a while I do give in and make a donation, but I always ask that the gift be anonymous so that I do not receive donation requests from others. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
The economy has done a great job on my dance studio here in Texas—people are keeping their kids at home and saving their money, plus there are other factors such as other dance studios opening. Most of my students love to do things in groups, so if one decides not to dance, then five of them don’t. I love what I do but it needs to pay the bills like it used to. This is my 20th year and sometimes I want to look for another job because of the money situation, and then I read Dance Studio Life and I get back that hope.
I think I need to reach new customers, but I’m not sure how to do it. I have a large Hispanic population in my school. I normally don’t advertise because word of mouth used to work fine for me. I’m trying Facebook and MySpace since they’re free, but I am not that computer savvy. I need to make ends meet and of course make some profit. Thanks! —Tonya
It is time for you to get new faces into your school as quickly as possible. You have nothing to lose by offering a “bring a friend” week. Allow your students to invite their non-dancer friends to join them in class. (Teach at an elementary level during this week.) Make some sort of an offer to the enrolled students (a discount of 10 percent on tuition or something similar) if their friend registers for classes. You could also offer a discount to any of their friends who enroll.
Another way to bring in new students is to diversify your curriculum. Start to offer hip-hop (if you do not already) or social dance classes. You could do these classes in six- or eight-week increments to determine what’s popular in your area. It also might be a good idea to cater to the Hispanic population by offering dance traditions and folk dances of Mexico, South America, and Spain. Learn all you can about Hispanic culture and dance history so that you will be well educated in areas that will interest the potential clientele within your community. I believe many parents would be interested in exposing their children to dance that has origins in their culture.
Get out of the studio and do performances within your community to expose what your school is all about. At these performances be sure to hand out coupons for a free class in any style of dance. Build mailing and email lists by having a drawing for a month of free classes.
This is a time when you need to be creative by trying new things and overcoming any fears of stepping out of your comfort zone. Sometimes we find ourselves in the type of situation that you are experiencing because it is time to move in a new direction. You have nothing to lose, and this could be a learning experience that sets you on a new path that will lead to much success down the road. Good luck to you. —Rhee
By Mignon Furman
A child who disrupts a class obviously wants attention. If the child is young, explain that you need to have someone hold your hand; then firmly and kindly hold that child’s hand. Or give the child a special place in the front of the class, along with the responsibility of being the class model. It usually works well.
An older student who always pushes to be in center front can be very discouraging to the rest of the class. To avoid this, assign the students to specific places in line and then rotate the lines so that all students have the chance to be in front during each class.
Feeling overwhelmed? Here’s how to say no to others and yes to yourself.
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
Everyone would agree that the year’s end is a difficult time. It usually involves frantic list making, wrapping up the fall season’s dance programs, and facing increased family and social commitments. And then there’s coming to terms with what did and did not happen in the business plan for the year. If that isn’t a recipe for hyperventilating and an impending sense of doom, I don’t know what is.
“Just say no” is a familiar mantra against drug use, yet how many of us are addicted to the adrenaline surge of deadlines and the endorphin rush of people-pleasing? As a businessperson, my goal has been to always give lagniappe to my clients. I learned this French concept from business owners in my native New Orleans. Lagniappe means “a little extra something.” That means giving your clients more service, more friendliness—to dote on them in a sincere manner. It’s a sure-fire win in business. But where does it stop? Here are some ideas on how to tend to business and still enjoy a rewarding holiday time. We’ll boil it down into boundaries and self-sabotage issues.
Boundaries typically fall into two categories: personal and work related. Unfortunately, in the arts world, where what I call “dual relationships” are common, these two often become intertwined. Dual relationships happen when we become friends with or emotionally attached to our employees, colleagues, and clients. We want to provide meals, rides, and chore relief for sick co-workers, or help with carpools and babysitting for special students.
The key here is to differentiate lagniappe from charity and responsibility so that a shift of dependence in others doesn’t become a burden to you. Learn to recognize potential conflicts of interest before the relationship starts. Know the limits of what you can realistically deliver, and if possible, make a written policy to avoid disappointing those who need your help as well as yourself. Email lists are helpful in keeping everyone posted about health news or when organizing an assistance network for a sick or heartbroken person. I admire the preschool rules I hear about from my clients, which fine parents for every minute they’re late to pick up a child. Preschools know boundaries.
Feeling guilty about not coming through for someone is like putting on boots of lead—sure to slow you down. Of course, in extreme circumstances, such as a death in the family or catastrophic illness, letting others into the loop can lessen your load enough that you can do those labors of love. For those non-catastrophic times, decide what your boundaries will be.
For instance, in my practice, I allow limited email and phone consultations outside of office times when necessary. However, sometimes a client doesn’t understand that I cannot be responsible for wakeup calls and hour-by-hour physical meltdown consultations. So I have a protocol: I often use practice advisors—friends and colleagues in similar private practice settings, or former clients who were mentors in my life and can offer me objective viewpoints—to decide how to approach clients who have unrealistic expectations of personalized medical care.
I encourage small business owners to use business advisors. They can lessen the frustration of dealing with needy clients and give a third-party perspective about what is feasible in terms of service. (A nonprofit, national organization that specializes in small business advising is SCORE—Service Corps of Retired Executives.) Sometimes just talking to an advisor can create a dynamic change that will then allow you to move into the next phase of untangling a mess.
Often the most misunderstood boundaries are the ones we hold with ourselves. We may prefer to follow the path of least resistance, avoiding unpleasant confrontations; consequently we do not set limits on what we will tolerate and take on. This behavior often leads to resentment because we fail to identify the true source of our distress. The perpetrators are not the “others” who force us to take on more and more responsibilities, but ourselves, when we refuse to set limits.
Often the most misunderstood boundaries are the ones we hold with ourselves. We may prefer to follow the path of least resistance; consequently we do not set limits on what we will tolerate.
And sometimes we are enthusiastic and exuberant, wanting to be everything to all people, which often leads to “time-debt.” Time-debting behavior is seen in people who constantly run late or don’t show up after making many promises to too many people. What starts as a promise turns into a series of disappointments. This is a potential career-limiting move, since others will move away from an unreliable you.
Both of these scenarios point to lack of understanding of how long things take to get done as well as the inability to acknowledge our own limits.
Take heart—putting the reins on runaway overbooking doesn’t have to squelch your productivity and joie de vivre. I surprised even myself when I added writing books, producing DVDs, and earning a doctorate to my already busy life. But I did have to learn tricks. Learning the limits of self-discipline requires trial and error. No one is perfect, so give yourself a break.
Look in the mirror and repeat after me: “I can change only myself, not others.” But to change a behavior, first you have to identify it. This is the idea behind mindfulness. Spend a week—OK, four days since you’re pressed for time—noticing all the times you add to your to-do list without really being invested in those activities. The idea isn’t to promote the “I/me/mine” movement, it’s to fully engage in and commit to what we’re agreeing to do.
Being overwhelmed scatters us. It keeps us from focusing on what we need to do to achieve the success we seek. Getting a grip on overbooking behavior can mean the difference in coping in the short term and achieving our goals over the long term.
Once we’ve decided what is meaningful to us, prioritized our interest areas, examined our motives, and resolved to forgo the unnecessary, the question becomes “What’s stopping me?” In his recent book, Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits, Wayne Dyer offers ideas to help put less-than-useful behavior in perspective and plant the seed of change. He lists 18 excuses that keep us from doing all that we can for a fulfilling life.
One technique he recommends is to recite affirmations to yourself just before you go to sleep, allowing the brain to assimilate the desired effect during sleep. We are often overwhelmed by fears of not accomplishing everything we’d like to and frustrated when we can’t find time for the things that are important to us. Dyer recommends identifying your excuses and reversing them with a positive affirmation. Stir up as much feeling as you can muster for best effect.
Going a step farther is author Noah St. John, in Permission to Succeed. He believes that success is more naturally driven than failure because in nature success is crucial to ensure the continuation of the species. He says the brain responds better to questions than to statements (the usual format for affirmations) and that the brain is very good at negative self-talk (“Why am I so dumb?”). He advises “re-forming” the brain through positive self-talk in the form of “why” questions, which he calls “afformations.” He states that “Why?” is a motivating question to the brain, a command to seek an answer. His afformations concentrate on strengths, even if imagined, rather than deficits, using questions such as “Why am I so attractive?” or “Why am I presented with so many opportunities?”
Examining and working on your boundaries and practicing positive self-talk may take some practice, but why not start now? By January 1, 2010, you could be A Better You.
I have faith in you.
Advice for dance teachers
I am a studio owner who is starting to see the effects of the economy in my area, and I’m worried that this will be my last year due to financial pressures. I have been in business for seven years. I just took 17 kids to Dance the Magic in California and had a great time. My clients are happy, but the numbers are just not there. If I can’t get out of this debt, then I will have to close, and I really don’t want to do that. I’m doing everything I can, but with seven dance studios in a five-minute driving radius, I just don’t think I will survive.
I have asked my landlord for a rent reduction, and I did get a little reduction but not enough to really help. My rent for 2,356 square feet is $7,000 a month. I can’t afford to buy a lot and build, as land here is $2 million and up.
What sets me apart from my competitors is that I have 20-plus preschool classes every week. I have only 185 students, and the classes that usually fill are not filling this year. We offer preschool classes for ages 2 to 5 years, classes for kids 6 to 18 years, competitive opportunities, and 12-week programs for those who don’t want to take class for a full year. I think I have a nice variety of classes for all ages and commitment levels.
I’m disheartened because I have goals for my studio and it has been a success, but with $12,000 of debt last year and possibly more for the upcoming year, I don’t know what to do. I have no idea how the other studios nearby are making ends meet.
I love my students and my studio, but my heart is breaking because I don’t see how the school is going to be open a year from now. Thank you for helping me figure out a solution. —Jacqueline
Thanks for sharing your story. Your love of teaching dance comes through in your email. You write about the many participation options that you offer, which is good, but one thing that stands out is that you have so many preschool classes. You also know that those classes set you apart from your competitors. It sounds to me like the path you need to follow is already there: the preschool market, especially during this economic downturn.
Some school owners want to emulate the school up the street because that’s what they think they need to do to stay in business. Knowing what sets you apart from the other schools in your area is a grand realization. The real secret is to be unique among all the others who are the same. Preschool dance is a huge market, and it’s the base for a school owner’s future success. Keep all those preschool students loving dance and they’ll stay with you for several years. And just imagine how many students you will have five years from now.
I realize that the Disney trip and the competition aspect of the school are important for you (and for many school owners), but look at it this way: If you are focused on 17 of your 185 students, that’s a little less than 10 percent of your school’s population. If all your energy is directed at ways to bring in the preschool population and keep them for years, and you are a success, then you can afford to focus on the minority population. But right now that is not the case.
One way to begin to build your enrollment is to offer your current preschool parents coupons for free classes that they can distribute to their families, friends, and neighbors. This is an inexpensive way to attract new faces to your preschool program.
Also, as a follow-up to your September registration, think about adding a mid-October or November registration that focuses on bringing in a new crop of preschool students. The holidays are also a good time to offer special promotions for preschool options—and they’re an excellent time to market to the grandparents who would love to see their grandchildren in a dance class.
Bottom line: Go nuts coming up with concepts to attract the entire preschool market in your area. Don’t stop until you’ve reached your goal. Gaining 50 new preschool students this year would probably get you out of the hole; working to keep at least 30 of them next year and then bringing in 50 more would set you ahead by 80 students. Think about the possibilities if you could accomplish this goal every year for the next five years!
Don’t spend another minute worrying about what is going to happen down the road. Take that energy, along with your passion and creativity, and use it to make your secret weapon—your preschool program—and then your school one of the largest in the area. All the best to you. —Rhee
I want to ask your advice. We have master teachers coming out to choreograph some competition routines for us, which we do every year. Last year one of our choreographers set the same dance on another studio. At this year’s DanceLife Teacher Conference, we asked Joe Tremaine if it would be offensive to ask them to sign a contract this year saying that they will not teach the dance they make for us to any other studio. Not having one is very risky, considering that we go to nationals and could run into one of those schools and find out their competition entry is the same number we are doing. How do I word the contract and present it to them without offending them? Thanks so much! —Becky
My best advice is to simply go for it without any fears and with confidence. It is not unreasonable to let the choreographers know that you don’t want the choreography set on your students used at another school. In my mind, you are paying them for their creativity for your students. Don’t think about whether you’re being offensive; this is really you standing up for yourself and your students. You have nothing to feel guilty about. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I am going on my seventh year in business. I started in July of 2003 with a friend as my business partner. She controlled more of the business side and I did the majority of the classes. This past year, she decided to leave and sold her portion to another friend/teacher who I was more than happy to take on as a partner.
Now things have spiraled out of control. The studio has grown and continues to grow; however, I am only making enough money to cover the cost of running the business and have not been able to receive a steady paycheck. I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to take over the entire business part of the studio, but how can I afford to get an accountant to take care of it when I can’t pay my partner or myself?
I also feel that there are things that my past partner did that might come back to haunt me. I do not want to lose my business or my sanity and I am scared that I might end up doing both if I don’t do something.
I feel like I need time to stop and fix the problem, but of course that can’t happen. And I feel that things are getting worse. I don’t know where to start to get control and how to do it without putting myself in a hole (which I already feel I’m in). Do you have any suggestions? —Tory
You can’t afford not to go to an accountant. The issues that you are concerned about are far beyond what you can fix without the advice of a professional. If you see your business growing, yet you cannot draw a paycheck and you don’t know why, then you need and deserve answers right away. Living in fear that actions taken by your former business partner may come back to haunt you is all the more reason to get the help you need. It’s time to put yourself and your future first and get to an accountant right away. If you are worried about financing the accountant, tell your business partner that you want this to be an expense for the school and don’t take no for an answer. Good luck! —Rhee
I have been teaching for 25 wonderful years and still love what I do. That said, I have been presented with a dilemma. My studio has a competitive team, and we have only done regionals to this point. However, a parent is pushing for her 9-year-old daughter to attend a national competition because it is close to where we live and her daughter wants to do it. The competition does not accept individual entries; therefore, I would have to enter it, and it happens to be the week of my recital. So I cannot go to the competition, nor can I send a faculty member to represent my school. Also, I feel that if I let this girl go, I need to open the competition to the rest of the girls. But is that fair to the studio to have this disruption right before the recital? —Carolyn
It might be time for you to start to think about participating in a national competition, but not this way. You should not let a parent push you into participating, especially when the event interferes with your recital. The stress associated with the show and having your kids be in a competition (especially one that you cannot attend) is more than this mom should be asking of you. I would tell her that you cannot participate this year but that you will consider a national event for your team in the future.
It’s not easy when parents interfere in areas they should leave to your discretion. Be strong and stand up for what you know is right for you and your other students. Good luck! —Rhee
I have a question regarding costumes, music, and choreography for adult dancers who are amateurs. I choreographed a piece to “Rich Man’s Frug” and purchased blonde bob wigs and dresses. Granted, the costumes looked better in the catalog than on the adult bodies. These dancers are doing nothing but complaining. We had an in-studio dress rehearsal last evening and they frumped through the routine looking like they were in extreme pain. How do I get them to just go onstage and have fun? Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated. —Lisa
I would ask the dancers what they would like to do with the costumes to make them feel more comfortable (maybe add something?). This is not an easy situation, but in the future, you might want to have a seamstress make the adult students’ costumes or let them find something they feel comfortable wearing. Sometimes an adult body needs something different from what the catalogs offer. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I have a simple question. My 9-year-old son dances for my dance studio. Should he wear tights under his costumes so that he matches how the girls look or should he have bare legs? For the tap routine the girls wear tan tights and tan shoes and he wears capri-length pants. For the lyrical routine, the girls are in brown dresses with tan stirrup tights and he wears brown shorts; for the hip-hop routine (black capris and black sneakers), the girls wear tan tights and black sneakers— should he just wear black socks? Until now his costumes have all been long pants. We want to be confident that he dances and looks like a young man. Thank you so much for your masculine authority! —Andrea
My thought is to get rid of the capri pants and get him some long pants to wear in these numbers. Although I have put boys in capri pants, it is usually for a piece in which they don’t wear shoes. Putting your son in tights with socks and shoes would look strange. (I would be intimidated by that myself.) Don’t concern yourself so much with how well he matches the girls; you can accomplish that by matching the right shirt or top with the girls’ costumes. Because he is a male, that alone makes him look different from the girls, and his look should be different. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
The single mother of a student in my dance company has been fighting breast cancer for years. Two years ago she ran up a huge bill and I told her I would allow her to make payments throughout the summer months to catch up. Come September of the next year she still had a balance, and then of course her current bills kept adding up.
Although she kept trying to make payments, some checks were returned again. She was approaching a balance due of around $2,800. Toward the end of the season, with the recital approaching, I said she would have to pay her costume balances and other material items but that I would forgive her tuition bill. She would start with a fresh slate in September 2008, but I told her she would have to keep her account paid up to date. For a few months it went fine and I was a good person in her eyes and she said would never forget what I did for her daughter.
Fast forward to 2009. She owes me around $900. My recital is in two and a half weeks. I have spoken to her, explaining that I cannot continue on this path as I have salaries, rent, and utilities to pay. Then I got a note from her asking for a detailed listing of her costs because she thinks I am charging her incorrectly. How soon she forgets what was done for her.
I printed out a detailed list and have not gotten a check since. She will not return my calls, and her 16-year-old daughter continues to come to class every week. I think the mom is calling my bluff that I will not pull her out of her dance for the recital. Doing so is not my nature and I don’t want to have to make the teachers change the choreography.
She sent in a ticket order, and I could apply that amount to the account, but it is only $96. I didn’t forgive the bill so I could put myself on a pedestal; no one knew about it except my office manager and me. But now I’m the bad person for having the nerve to ask her for the money. The girl’s teacher overheard her saying how I harass her mom constantly about money. What should I do? —Frustrated
I would probably be as frustrated as you are with this situation. One thing that’s important to remember is that you already went beyond the call of duty for this mom and her daughter. You are to be commended for that, whether they recognize it or not.
At this point, you have to let go of the emotions involved and let this mom know that you are not harassing her but are requesting payment for services rendered, just as you would with any other student in your school. If your policy states that all tuition and other monies owed to the school must be paid in full in order for students to be in the recital, then you have no choice but to take action.
Either in a phone call or a letter, explain that you cannot process her ticket request because of the outstanding balance for lessons. Ask her if she would like you to apply the $96 to that outstanding account and then ask when you can expect the remainder of her balance. If she does not pay the bill, then her daughter cannot perform in the show. As harsh as that may seem, the rest of your clients are adhering to your school’s policies; plus, you have already given to this family in a time of need. It is time for this parent to show appreciation for what you have done and take care of her balance due with respect and appreciation. If she doesn’t do that, then know in your heart that you have done all you can and that will have to be enough for you.
Don’t stop giving, though—many people in need will appreciate your kindness and not forget it. And those who do will appreciate you long after the dance classes are over. That’s what it’s all about. Good luck! —Rhee
Advice for dance teachers
I recently discovered that one of my students, Joanne (not her real name), who is 15 and has been with me since she was 3, is having issues with drug addiction. This young lady is talented, sweet, and focused when she is at my school. I have taken her under my wing because her parents have had their own problems with drugs and alcohol. Sometimes I see her sitting outside, waiting for her ride home, and it never comes. Her parents forget to pick her up, so I give her a ride. A couple of times she has cried all the way home because she’s embarrassed. I assure her that I don’t judge her by her parents’ actions and that I will be there for her if she needs anything.
I had no idea, but Joanne was also taking drugs, which she was stealing from her parents, and she went into a drug rehabilitation center for 30 days. I visited her right away and I would have been there every day, but the center limited her visitors at first.
Joanne’s predicament threw a monkey wrench into several pieces of competition choreography. We fixed the choreography and, in some cases, replaced Joanne with another dancer. Joanne’s classmates at the school have been very supportive and have sent her cards. I am moved by their kindness and sensitivity. They amaze me with their nonjudgmental attitude toward Joanne, but I know it is because she is such a good kid; you can’t help but love her despite her problems.
Then I received an email from a parent who told me that she would not bring her daughter back to my school next year if I accepted Joanne back in the fall. She says she thinks Joanne is a bad influence on the other children and doesn’t want her daughter in the same room with her. Throughout her email she degrades Joanne, calling her a loser, and I cannot write what she wrote about Joanne’s parents. I felt hatred in her correspondence.
I don’t think Joanne is a loser; she is a victim of her circumstances, and I feel that she needs the support and normalcy that dance gives her. Her studio family is much more supportive of her than her parents are. She needs dance in her life.
I feel an obligation to do what I can to help her, but the mom who sent me the email tells me she is not alone in her belief that Joanne should not return to my school. There is no way I am going to give up on Joanne. Can you help me with some advice on how to respond to this mom and the other parents who feel the same way? —Anonymous
You are to be commended for being what I think is a true teacher—one who does not judge her students and who is there when a student needs help and support. Some teachers, out of fear of losing students, would give up on the child because of the risk involved. I admire your determination to do what is best for Joanne.
I always tell dance teachers that they have much more responsibility than teaching steps or enlisting new students. The most important gifts they can offer to their students are self-esteem and a sense of belonging. If Joanne develops a passion for dance, I believe it will have more influence on her future than all the negative stuff that her parents are throwing her way. Every child is in your classroom for a reason, and regardless of what happens in Joanne’s future, I am sure that she will never forget the dance teacher who believed in her.
So what to do about the email? Call the parents together for a meeting to discuss how you feel. Explain that you wouldn’t give up on their children if they found themselves in the same circumstance. I have a feeling that the mom who sent you the email will realize that her attitude is wrong and that the majority of the other parents will stand behind you. If she does pull her child from your school, then it will be her loss—and her child’s. It sounds to me like your school is the perfect place for young people to grow up in and that you are a special teacher.
Another thought: Look through your roster of students to see if one of them has a parent who is a counselor or psychologist who might offer you some advice on dealing with the parents. Better yet, maybe you could ask that person to come to your meeting to support you and offer input.
Bravo to you for setting an example for all of us. —Rhee
I am wondering what your opinion is on newspaper advertising for registration. I have done very little print advertising in the past, but some of my competitors are taking full-page ads in the local newspaper and I am not sure if I should be doing the same thing. Do you think they are gaining students whom I will never get because I don’t advertise in the newspaper? —Laura
Good question! Recently I did a survey of dance school owners to determine their advertising strategies. It turns out that more than 67 percent of respondents are advertising in local newspapers. The only form of marketing that came in higher is a website, at a little more than 71 percent, but many of those with websites are also doing newspaper advertising.
In my research I have discovered that it takes 13 views of a logo for it to sink into a reader’s mind. So my strategy would not be to run full-page ads, because the majority of school owners could not afford 13 or more ads of that size. Instead, I would go with a series of smaller ads, run more often. I think ads that are one-sixth or one-quarter page, running over a series of weeks, would be more effective than a couple of full-page ads.
A few more statistics from our survey: Almost 53 percent of school owners are marketing with direct mail and postcards, but Internet marketing is on the rise. Email blasts are up 15 percent from our last survey at almost 26 percent, and social networking sites (which didn’t even show up in past surveys) are at almost 13 percent.
The bottom line for all school owners is to experiment to determine what works best for their business. Always ask those who inquire about your school how they heard about you to determine which marketing strategies are working best for you.
By the way, my brother’s school is still doing newspaper advertising, but his ads are much smaller than they were several years ago and he has gradually incorporated more Internet marketing to cover all the bases. If you can afford it, I think diversity in marketing is the key. Good luck! —Rhee
I am currently employed at the school I grew up at. Three years ago, I was offered $12 per hour for my classes and I was thrilled to be paid for doing something that I love. Now I am headed into my fourth year of teaching and I am taking on more classes and some of the office work (which I am not paid for). After four years, I feel that I should receive a raise, but the subject never comes up from the school owner.
When I started, the owner taught about 30 hours a week and I did about 5 hours myself. Now I am doing the 30 and she is doing about 5 hours. Frankly, I feel like I am being taken advantage of, but I don’t have the guts to speak up. This school has become my entire life, but I can’t afford to move out of my parents’ house, nor do I have time to take on another job. What are your thoughts? —Michelle
I’m not sure why the owner of the school has not taken it upon herself to discuss your compensation, especially after you have been working at the same rate for three years. She may believe that the increased hours she has given you are compensation enough, but that is just a guess on my part.
Obviously, you have the confidence and the passion to be a good teacher, otherwise you would not be handed more classes each year. It is time for you to grab on to that confidence and speak up to the school owner (in a kind way). Let her know how much you love what you do and that you are willing to take on whatever she needs from you, but also explain that you would like to be able to afford your own place and make a living by teaching for her.
Hopefully she will understand your position and appreciate that you are standing up for yourself. If not, you may have to do some thinking about whether this is the right place for you to be employed. I wish you good luck. —Rhee
Advice for dance teachers
I am a ballet school owner who has been in business for 21 years. Recently a student’s mother told me that her daughter would not be returning in the fall because they feel that I am old-fashioned. (I am 44 years old.) The mom said that requiring my students to wear a black leotard and pink tights to ballet class was “out of style” and that her daughter wanted to wear colors that would look better with her complexion. She also told me that it was ridiculous to require my students to wear their hair pulled back.
Students sometimes quit because ballet isn’t right for them or because they want to try something else, but I’ve never lost a student because I was “old-fashioned.” My dress code has been in place since I opened my school and I have never had a complaint about it.
What really concerns me is that this student is very popular at school and among my other students. She and her mother are badmouthing me, and I am afraid I will lose other students because of the dress code. I am so upset that someone would leave my school because of something that has nothing to do with the quality of my training. Should I eliminate my dress code? Please help! —Mariah
Please don’t give in to this ridiculous mom and student. There are parents and kids who don’t understand or appreciate dance like those who have the passion do. It’s OK; we will not win everyone over all the time. But we are the spark that lights the fire for those who choose to discover the dance in their soul! It’s sad, and hard to understand, but some students look in the mirror and notice their complexion and not the dance spirit that is looking them in the face.
If you don’t already do it, I suggest that you include a statement about why you have a dress code in your literature or handbooks. When students and parents understand that there’s a reason for the dress code, they are more likely to accept it without question.
If you are “old-fashioned,” so am I and so are thousands of other dance educators who read Dance Studio Life. I will wear that badge proudly, and I’m sure others would too. You are to be applauded and appreciated! —Rhee
My dance studio is in its tenth year of business. It is fairly small, but I keep trying new things to attract more students since two other studios are nearby. Since I am older than most studio owners just starting out, I have younger teachers working for me. All of them were my students.
One of them, whom I have known since she was a baby, is in her early 20s, and her mother is my receptionist. Occasionally I get complaints that she is too strict with the students, and I have to defuse the situation with the parents so as not to lose a student. Then there are students whom this teacher gets really close to—she babysits them, drives them to and from the dance studio and competitions, and takes them on outings.
At a competition this teacher told one of my students that she was getting too close to one of the team members and needed to be friends with all of the members. The girl was devastated and her mother complained to me. We have had some clique-type trouble at the studio, but I felt that a competition was not the place to take care of this. When I told the teacher that she should have let me deal with this situation, she went crying to her mother. Every time I try to discuss problems with her, this is what happens, and then her mother becomes angry with me.
I can sit down and discuss problems with my other teachers like adults. Is it a problem that this teacher and her mother get so close to the students? I feel it compromises the student–teacher relationship and that other students might see the behavior as favoritism. How should I handle this? —Ashlee
The first thing that comes to mind is that this teacher is not mature enough to be teaching. If she were, she would understand that a proper teacher–student (or teacher–parent) relationship should be professional at all times. That means that teachers don’t hang out with their students. This teacher should baby-sit only children who are not her students, and she should not be taking her students on outings.
There is another conflict here: the teacher’s mom works for you and gets mad at you for telling her daughter (one of your employees) what you expect as boss and owner. This teacher and her mom don’t understand the professional side of the relationship.
The fact that you have to deal with one ounce of stress when speaking your mind to an employee is a situation that you need to change. Employees who cry when they are told how they can improve or what is expected of them are not emotionally ready to be teaching.
Yes, you are the one who should be handling the clique issues you described and a competition is not the place to do it. Have one last talk with this teacher and her mom, and if things don’t change, then it’s time for you to initiate the change that has to happen. I wish you luck. —Rhee
We are having a big problem at the school where I teach. It is early registration time for next year, and suddenly people don’t want their children to be in the same class as some other students. The owner of the school is very good at letting the students know that that they belong in the class she has put them in. I know parents want their children to be in a more advanced level, but that isn’t so much the problem. It seems like people think they are better than one another and don’t want to be in class with them.
This idea is so far from the studio culture the owner has created. Our students are diverse—all ages, races, religions, and sizes. It is truly a melting pot and everyone is accepted for who they are. The philosophy of the school is making sure that every student who walks through the door feels loved and accepted. The owner is always on her game and nips any gossip or negativity in the bud, so we can’t figure out where this is coming from.
Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated. If I learn nothing else from this experience, I am learning how, if I ever become a parent myself, not to behave. —Annabelle
Although the behavior of these parents goes against your school’s philosophy, it’s obvious that they feel comfortable enough to express their opinions. So in order to solve this problem, you and the school owner need to figure out why this has happened. Has one mom spread her opinion to other parents, causing them to jump on the bandwagon? Could it be that the parents have been allowed to express their opinions on similar things in the past and so they feel perfectly comfortable telling you who should or should not be in their child’s class?
The parents need to be told that the school owner is the only decision maker regarding class placement and that their input will not be considered. She is the person who knows which students need a challenge and which are not ready for it, and she is a professional when it comes to those decisions.
It’s time for her to make changes so that parents don’t feel comfortable enough to tell her how to run her school. My first instinct is to say something along the lines of, “I appreciate your opinions, but decisions on class placement are based on my professional knowledge. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to listen to an inexperienced parent who thinks your child isn’t capable of being in a particular class.”
Talk to your boss about how you can keep fighting for what you believe is the right culture for the school, and tell her I said not to let anyone tell her how to do things. All the best to you. —Rhee
By Mignon Furman
What age to start pointe work? This is a question frequently asked by teachers, and my advice is not before 10 or 11 years of age. But the most important criterion is not the age of the dancer but her strength. Are the ankles strong? Are the muscles around the knee stable? Can the child hold her body correctly with the weight over the three points of the foot (big toe, little toe, and heel)?
An important factor in developing strength is how many lessons the child takes per week. My preference is to put on pointe only those children who take a minimum of three classes per week.
Once a child is ready to start pointe work, the teacher must make certain that the pointe shoes fit correctly: too big, and friction can cause blisters; too tight, and dancing with cramped toes (instead of relaxed toes that lie flat in the shoe) can cause injury to the Achilles tendon. A good, knowledgeable shoe fitter is a necessity.
By Mignon Furman
Hyperextended (or swayback) legs create a beautiful line but present problems with strength and stability in some areas, including pointe work. When working on pointe, the weight needs to be well forward and the knees must be in line over the toes, not pushed back.
Teachers often ask whether it is better to tell students to get the knees straight and allow the heels to be slightly apart in first position or to stand with the heels together and the knees slightly relaxed. I recommend standing with the heels together and the weight more forward than normal. The knees should be as straight as possible and one knee must not be in front of the other. A therapist once advised me to put a small, soft lift in the heels of the shoes; it certainly helped to get the weight forward.
Advice for dance teachers
For more than 25 years I have been teaching at the studio where I trained as a student. I loved working for the school owner, who was my teacher and a tremendous mentor. Last year she had a stroke and has been in a nursing home for several months. It does not look like she is going to become well enough to return home or back to the school.
For the last several months I have been working for the school owner’s son, who has been put in charge of his mother’s estate. The problem is that he knows nothing about dance, the business, or the people who have been loyally working for his mother all these years. He arrives every night to collect the day’s deposits and continually makes remarks about how he doesn’t trust those who are working for him.
Last week, he told our studio manager (who has been working there longer than I have) that he suspected her of stealing from the business. He said this to a woman who is closer to his mom than anyone in the world; they are best friends. That was her last night at the studio. After he had expressed his views she walked out, never to return. I have spoken with her several times and she is devastated over losing her best friend and the fact that anyone would accuse her of stealing. She just isn’t that kind of person.
Now our studio manager is the owner’s daughter-in-law, who had only been to the school once in her entire life. She is not friendly to the staff or the clientele, and the atmosphere of the school is very dark. There is no more camaraderie or laughter. Everything is serious and the focus seems to be on how much money is coming in.
It is hard for me because I know that the school owner would be humiliated to know what has happened to the school she loved so much and that her faculty is being treated the way it is. I believe that it is time for me to leave. I taught all these years for the joy of it, not because I needed the money. My issue is that I don’t want to let my teacher-mentor down. I have tried to hang in there, but each day at the school has become heartbreaking to me. I don’t want to work for the son and daughter-in-law any longer. Can you offer some words of wisdom? —Melody
What a unique situation! I can’t help but think that your circumstance is really about how life changes and nothing stays the same. It took me until my early 30s to accept that change is inevitable and that we can’t live our lives wishing things could be the way they used to be. All we can do is cherish the memories and move on to making new ones.
For more than 25 years you have been a loyal employee to your former teacher and boss. Let go of any guilt that you may have over making a decision about your own future. If this school is not the same as the one you started working for, then this is your curve in the road that leads you in a new direction. That is not something that should cause you guilt. Everything happens for a reason, and that means that there is a new door for you to dance through. All you have to do is look for it.
Get yourself out of the toxic work atmosphere and let the studio owner’s son and daughter-in-law do things their way. They will learn that loyal employees are vital to running a successful business or they will fail. But whatever happens, you will have nothing to do with it. All you need to remember are the good experiences you had working for such an awesome teacher. And realize that you will always have her with you in your heart, because you have those memories of the good times. Let go of the old and get ready for the new. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
Thank you for being such an inspiration and role model for dance teachers everywhere. I have a question about studio managers: What should the wages be? I recently moved to a new location, and my studio manager/bookkeeper (who used to work out of my home) now has a full presence at the studio. She works the desk while doing the books. We also have senior girls who work the desk and get paid minimum wage. My husband (who handles the budget) is concerned that my studio manager/bookkeeper is getting paid $25 per hour to work the desk, compared to the senior girls who get paid minimum wage. Thank you! —Karen
My thought is that you are right on track with how you’re handling the wages for both the students and the studio manager. Your husband needs to take into account the fact that your studio manager is doing more than merely staffing the desk; you are paying her for her bookkeeping work, too. The average studio manager makes $15 to 20 per hour, so you are above average on that one. I think minimum wage is right for the students. If they were to work outside of the school, in many cases, they would receive the same compensation you are offering them. By the way, many school owners do not pay students to work the desk but instead exchange lessons for their work time. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
What are your thoughts on joining one of the organizations for dance teachers? I have been avoiding becoming a member because I have heard that there is a lot of petty jealousy and politics in the groups in my area. I have a friend who was expelled from one of the organizations because another member lost a student to my friend’s school. The organization accused my friend of soliciting the student, which wasn’t true.
I am interested in joining because I want to take the classes and workshops they offer. I know I need to stay on top of my teaching skills and going to the big city to take class is not an option for me. I also think I would enjoy networking with other teachers, but I want no stress in my life. And I don’t want any part of the politics. Is it possible to be a member without getting involved in the pettiness that I hear about? Thanks for your input. —Jane
I am a second-generation member of a few of the dance teacher organizations and I have witnessed and experienced the politics you describe. However, I feel that I have benefited from being a member. The classes and workshops offered have enriched my teaching skills, and the lifelong friendships I have made with other teachers (even my competitors) are something I wouldn’t trade for anything.
One of the things I discovered a long time ago is that much of the politics has its roots in the competition end of the organizations. My suggestion is that you join with a focus on continuing your education and not getting involved in the competition side of things. The original intent of the organizations was to bring teachers together to share and learn. If enough of us join with this as our philosophy, we will eventually get back to a place of respect and camaraderie among dance educators. Who needs the politics when we all share the same passion for our art? So yes, I do recommend that you join for the right reasons and I am sure you will benefit tremendously. Good luck! —Rhee
A parent at my studio has been talking in the lobby about how she can’t wait for next year, when her daughter will do the dance team at school and take dance at my competitor’s studio. (My competitor coaches the local middle and high school dance teams and requires the dance team kids to take class at her studio, which I feel is a conflict of interest.)
I would like to give this parent a refund and tell her that she can just go to that studio right now. Is that wrong? And what should I do if she backtracks and says she doesn’t want to leave, and then next fall she is gone? I would love to know what you would do in this situation. —Denise
Any negativity being expressed in your lobby needs to be confronted as soon as you know it’s happening. I would have no problem sitting down with this parent in my office and letting her know that it is time to move on. As for the possibility of her backtracking and telling you that she wants to stay, explain that she needs to go to the competitor’s studio now because it is |obvious to you (and other parents at your school) that she is not happy with your school, and let it go at that. Wish her and her child all the best, and then focus on all the other students who do appreciate your school. Good luck! —Rhee
By Mignon Furman
How do you get students to keep straight lines when dancing in a group or ensemble for a competition or recital? It’s simple: Teach them to look directly at the back of the head of the dancer in front of them (right at the bun, if it’s a girl).
When turning and moving the lines in a sideways direction (i.e., toward the wings), the focus of each dancer’s eyes needs to be on the side of the head of the dancer in front of her.
When dancers are moving in a circle, often the circle becomes smaller or elongated, like an egg shape. To maintain a good shape of the proper size, the dancers must keep their eyes on the outside shoulder of the dancer in front of them.
Advice for dance teachers
This year a family left our studio, which was expected and is really better for the studio as a whole. The problem is this: They convinced six other families to go with them and have been harassing the studio since they left. They continue to solicit other families in our studio to leave and have posted nasty comments on Yahoo yellow pages. I would like to stop the nonsense, but I have run out of solutions. I also found out that they are planning to use some of the choreography that my daughter, the director of the studio, choreographed with one of the students who left. I am going to copyright all of our dances, but I wondered if there is anything else you can suggest. Thanks for your help. —Colleen
Become a pacifist! The best way to eliminate this problem is to drop your weapons and refuse to fight. Yes, watch out for the Internet postings and take care of them when you can, but each moment that you spend thinking about or strategizing on how to fight back, you are diverted from your own school’s success. If these traitors are able to distract you or cause you stress, then they are winning the battle.
You must be a successful school owner who has built a reputation that is respected by your community or you wouldn’t be in business. Give yourself a pat on the back for your accomplishments, hold your head high, and think of ways to give your clientele the best dance experience possible. Refusing to allow yourself to be distracted by pettiness is a win–win strategy for you and your students, because you stay fresh and your clients benefit from your ever-growing enthusiasm.
On the other hand, if you fight back and talk about this with everyone around you, including your clientele and faculty, you are simply lobbing fuel onto the fire. If everyone around you knows about the situation, people are probably gossiping about it and some of them might be talking with your former clients. Realize that that kind of behavior is beneath you. The next time someone brings it up, say something like “You know, I’ve decided to wish them the best and forget about it; I’ve got too much good stuff that I need to do here to be distracted anymore.” You’ll flip out the gossipers, who won’t know how to react, and the others will respect your professionalism. And forget about the choreography—you’ll be moving on to bigger and better dances!
Becoming a pacifist doesn’t mean that circumstances like this won’t hurt. But sometimes that pain is your kick in the butt to make changes, because you’ll be dealing with the same situations many times over the life of your school. Good luck! —Rhee
This year I purchased the studio where I had taught for a long time. The transaction happened quickly because the previous owner had financial problems and could not continue past her last recital. I assumed the lease and reopened with the previous owner and her faculty as my staff—so far, so good. The previous owner seems thankful to be rid of the school responsibilities.
However, I am going to face a big problem after my recital because I will lose most of my faculty. Two teachers are getting married; one is moving out west; another has opened a school in a different area. The one person who will remain is the previous owner, but she wants to teach only one day a week, with no other responsibilities.
At age 48, with 31 years of teaching experience, I don’t want to be the only teacher pounding the boards every day. I’ve added a second room to the school, so I have double availability all week, but no faculty. Can you offer any advice for finding new teachers? —Annie
First I want to congratulate you on your new school! Although the previous owner obviously assembled a successful faculty, consider this your opportunity to infuse your personal influence on the future of your school. I suggest that you don’t think of this situation as a problem; instead, think of it as a new beginning for you and your school.
Another thing that’s very positive about your circumstance is that you have a lot of time to find good teachers. More often than not, school owners don’t find out that they need to hire new faculty members until the last moment.
I do have some suggestions for you. First, add an “employment opportunities” page to your website. Describe what you are looking for and encourage potential candidates to send you their resumes and maybe a sample of their choreography. Not only will you find potential regular staff members, but you might find some teachers who can sub, too. I suggest that you keep the page up on your site all the time; you never know when you will need a new teacher, and by keeping resumes coming in, you’ll be on top of who’s available in your area.
Second, post an employment ad on craigslist.com. It’s a community bulletin board that is widely used by businesses for hiring purposes. I have had luck with it in the past.
Third, create a flyer to send to universities, colleges, and professional dance schools in your area. Specify what kind of teachers you’re looking for, along with basic requirements and responsibilities, and include your contact information.
Fourth, contact the dance teacher organizations in your state. They may be willing to tell their members that you are looking for teachers.
And fifth, check with other school owners. They might have faculty members who are looking for additional work.
Once you’ve screened the candidates, ask them to teach a class so that you can determine whether they’re a good fit for your students. If they would be teaching all levels of students, give them a class of recreational students first. If they are capable of teaching the rec students (the lifeblood of your school), then try them out with the more advanced students. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I have an assistant teacher who is 16 years old and has been with the studio for nine years. She has been very dedicated to the studio and says that she wants a career in dance. Recently I learned that she is taking classes at another studio on a day when she does not assist or have classes at my school. I know it is important to take a lot of classes to better yourself as a dancer, but since she is an assistant, is there any reason for me to be cautious? Should I set any limits on assistants taking classes outside of my studio? Should I make them sign a contract saying that they cannot open a studio for a certain amount of years or assist at another school while they are assisting for me? I want to make sure that I handle a situation like this correctly if it is a problem. I have a meeting with assistants before each session about what is expected, but I have nothing in writing in regard to this. I would appreciate any advice you could offer. —Robin
Good question, but not an easy one to answer. On one hand, I would want my assistant teachers to take every class that they could because doing so would only make them better in my classroom. If they were motivated to enhance their teaching skills or to become a stronger dancer, then I couldn’t help but encourage them to be the best they could be. On the other hand, if your assistant’s motivation might be to teach for your competitor eventually, then I probably would speak up in an effort to head off any future conflicts with both the assistant teacher and the other school.
I think you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with your assistant to discover what she’s thinking and where she sees herself in the future. Do it in a mentor-to-student way, not in a confrontational way. That way you will know whether you have anything to worry about. If all is well, then it’s probably time for you to guide your assistant in the direction that best suits her desires, instead of letting her try to figure it out on her own.
As for the assistant teacher contract, I had not heard about anything like it until my last conference, when a couple of school owners said that they have one with their assistants. But you would need legal advice on that topic, because with assistants you are usually dealing with teens who can’t sign a legally binding contract. That might be more trouble than it’s worth. But it is definitely time to talk with your assistant. Good luck! —Rhee
I have a student who has a mischievous side that seems to come out when she is at my school and, from what I understand, at public school too. She does things like drop mean notes in the other students’ dance bags. Sometimes she calls them fat or ugly and is always just plain mean. She never signs her name to the notes, but we have determined that it is her because of the handwriting.
On the other hand, she is a model student in class and is always respectful of the teachers. I feel like I’m dealing with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. I’ve never run into anything like this before—it’s a scary situation!
My solution was to have my students leave their dance bags in the school office. Now they are receiving anonymous emails with basically the same messages they got in their dance bags. When the kids write back, they get a message that says, “Undeliverable; no such email address.” I feel like I need to speak to the student and her mom, but this mom volunteers to help with anything we need and is always praising the positive impact our school has on her daughter. I think she would be shocked to hear this about her daughter, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. Please offer me some ideas on how to handle this. Thanks. —Frustrated Teacher
You are right that her feelings will be hurt, and she shouldn’t blame you. But don’t be surprised if she does get angry; as often happens when people get upsetting news, they “shoot the messenger.” Once she has time to process what she’s learned, I’ll bet that she will realize that her daughter, not you, is the problem and do what is necessary to get the girl the help she needs.
Remember that this child might have a lot of insecurities that have nothing to do with dance class or your school. This could be her way of telling the world about those insecurities. She is probably hoping to get caught because she needs help and this is the only way she knows how to get it.
Most likely this is a child who needs dance and the confidence that it can build. Do your best to let her know how much you appreciate how well she does in class and that you want the best for her. Believe it or not, I dealt with the “notes in the dance bag thing” myself, and the student who wrote those notes is now a professional dancer and choreographer who really has her “stuff” together. I hope that’s how this turns out for you. —Rhee
I’m curious about your opinion on opening a second school. Our school is completely filled and now we are turning away students. We can either open a second location or expand at the space we have right now, but I’m not sure which direction to go. Any suggestions would be appreciated. —Kaylynn
This is a good problem to have! From a business perspective, I recommend expanding at the location that you already have. Although I know many school owners who have more than one location, some tell me that they have a hard time giving both equal attention. You will have more control managing a business that is all under one roof than you would have traveling from one location to the other.
Expense-wise, it would be cheaper to simply expand your current school. With two locations you need two of everything, from telephones to office staff to maintenance to equipment. It’s better to expand with lower overhead than to double your expenses. —Rhee
I started my studio at age 20 (10 years ago), and in that time the studio has expanded and I have gotten married. Over the past five years I have struggled with the studio, business, and family life. Knowing that my lease was up in five years, I have tried everything—delegating, not teaching as much, and being home at night, then still not being happy and going back to teaching full time on top of dealing with the business end. It’s an endless cycle.
Here we are five years later, and in May I have to sign a lease to continue if I want to. Then here comes the economy—enrollment has dropped a tad and my rent is well over $5,000 a month. I know that in order to keep paying my rent I’ll have to keep raising my tuition prices. So I think, “Move, downsize,” but I have done that already. Now I want to spend time on my house. But my family members say, “How can you let down 300 kids?” And my response is, “What about me? Can’t I spend my Saturday with my family like they can?” (And please keep in mind that there are 15 dance studios in my town.)
I can’t stop thinking about what will happen to the 300 kids that I will disappoint. My husband says I need to be happy and live for me. I am just afraid of what will happen afterward! Please tell me that you have some success stories on this issue. —Sheila
It is admirable that you wonder what will happen to your students if you decide to close your school. However, with 15 other schools in the area, I have a feeling that your students will find a place that they can call their “dance home.” And maybe you can find yourself a teaching position at one of those schools that will offer you the personal time that you need.
School ownership can be very rewarding if you can manage a sense of normalcy, but when you feel overwhelmed or don’t have time to be with your family or work on your house, then it just might be too much. And that’s OK. An alternative to closing might be to hire additional staff to take on some of your responsibilities; however, if that would add a financial strain to the pressure you are already feeling, then don’t go in that direction.
I recently met a dance teacher who had owned a school for nine years but eventually found herself in the same place you’ve described. She closed her school, raised her kids, spent time living a “normal life,” and then opened a new school 10 years later. She managed to have it all and has a much larger school the second time around. I guess you could say that she had the best of both worlds, and so can you. Put yourself first—I think that’s a good thing! —Rhee
This is my 30th year of owning a school and I’ve loved every minute of it. Believe it or not, I have had the same office manager for the entire time that I’ve owned the school. She is part of the reason that I enjoy what I do so much—she’s always smiling, supportive, and looking out for my best interests. Last week she told me that she is moving out of the state to live with her daughter and grandchildren at the end of this season. Although I understand her decision, I feel like I will be lost without her. I fear that I will never have a person like her again. Where do I look for someone to replace her? And how will this new person be able to fill her shoes? —Joanne
How lucky you are to have had the same studio manager for 30 years! Be thankful that she has lasted as long as she has—but you must understand that life changes constantly and this is her change (and yours). My suggestion is to look for a former student’s mom who knows the history of your school and is familiar with how your office manager does things. I don’t recommend hiring the parent of a current student, because that can turn into a conflict of interest.
Pull out your old roll books and look back at some of the moms who loved bringing their children to your school and who would feel nostalgic about returning to the source of such fond memories. They make the best office managers for dance schools.
You need to realize that you will not find a replica of your current studio manager, but in time you will discover that your new manager will bring something fresh to the office. It’s a good idea to bring the new person in to work with your current manager for a couple of weeks before the end of the season; that will give her a better understanding of the school and your needs. And be sure to let your longtime employee know how much you appreciate all that she has done for you. I wish you all good things in this transition. —Rhee
In my school I have several employees, both faculty and office staff. In the past my employees have arrived late for work and some haven’t followed procedures because they wanted to save themselves some time—which I know saves no time because we have to redo the things that they didn’t do right the first time.
At the start of the season, I sat all of my employees down for a meeting to discuss the issues that were bothering me, like arriving late and not following procedures. I explained that these actions had consequences on the reputation and growth of my business. After our meeting, I really felt good because it seemed like they were receptive and that they were going to improve. And they did, for about two weeks.
Since that meeting, my teachers and office staff have continued to arrive late, saying they’re sorry but they got stuck in traffic or had an emergency. When it comes to processing payments, it is my policy to input each day’s receipts into the computer prior to leaving for that day. But instead my office staff was playing catch up at the end of the week or month to get all the payments recorded, which has led to lost payments and discrepancies about those who have paid or not.
Today I emailed bills to parents whom I thought had a balance due, and it turns out that many of them had already paid but my office staff had not processed the payments. Some of them seemed to be put off by the bill they received. I apologized and made excuses, but I was embarrassed because I feel like it made me look disorganized.
I am angry and disappointed because I have already explained why I want my policies followed and my employees have agreed to do so, but they are not following through. The hard part of this is that everyone always tells me how lucky I am to have the employees that I do, yet they don’t know that those employees are not performing up to par. I can’t fire the entire crew, and I’m lost as to what to do. Please help me! —Janice
As a business owner, I feel that the hardest part of the job is handling employee issues, and like you, one of my peeves happens to be late employees. In your situation, what makes things worse is the inability to single out one employee since the majority of them are late most of the time. Sometimes I associate this problem with children—they see their friend do something, so they believe it’s OK if they do it, even though they know it’s wrong.
It’s time for more meetings, but this time I would schedule a one-on-one talk with each employee. This eliminates any embarrassment that they might feel about being told that they’re doing something wrong in front of their peers. Explain that you consider the tardiness and/or the lack of compliance with procedures to be a serious issue and that their actions are unacceptable. Regarding the processing of each day’s receipts, explain what you went through when you emailed the bills so that each employee has a concrete example of what the consequences of his or her actions were for you.
Follow up each meeting with the consequences that the employee will face if the problem persists, anything from a dock in pay to termination. The bottom line is that you are the business owner and you make the rules; if the employees value their jobs, then they should fall in line.
The catch to this is that you must act the first time that someone doesn’t follow through on your employment policies. Whatever you told them would be the consequence of their action has to happen, no matter what. If one person gets away with not following your policies without you taking action, then you will find yourself back in the same place you are now.
Another reason that you have to confront your employees is because of the stress that is building up inside of you. You probably feel the hit in the pit in your stomach every time an employee is late or doesn’t follow through. Ignoring the problem or not having the confidence to speak up will eat away at you and distract you from focusing on your business and classes.
I know this is easier said than done, but it’s something that all employers have to deal with. You will feel a lot better when you get it off your chest. Good luck! —Rhee
For the last 26 years I have been a school owner, completely devoted to my profession. I have taken pride in seeing my students grow to become successful adults as a result of having had dance in their lives. I was also delighted when I had the chance to see two of my students dance on Broadway.
I’m a single mom, and my school has been the financial backbone that has provided me with a home to raise three children and send two of them off to college. For these things I consider my dance life to be a blessing.
With all that said, the last couple of years have been a struggle for me. I no longer get excited to go to the studio. In fact, I am filled with anxiety every time I open the doors. It is so hard to face the parents who question me about class placement or my employees who base everything they do at the school on what they are getting paid for it. In the mix are the students who want to be in my performing group but then miss their classes and rehearsals. If I discipline a student who is acting up, I can always expect a call from a parent who would never consider that their child deserved the discipline. Instead they threaten to pull the child from my school.
I realize that the difference between now and 26 years ago is that then I was in control, running my school the way I wanted to. I felt a sense of respect from my students and their parents, which has now completely diminished. Today if someone isn’t pleased with my decisions, they simply move on to a school that will give them what they want, or they quit dancing altogether.
I feel like I am held hostage in my own business. Either I do what my students want or they will leave me. My teachers believe that they are not compensated enough and constantly ask me, “How much will you pay me for that?” They will no longer agree to be at registration, dress rehearsals, performances, and so on unless they are paid for it.
I could go on and on about what I’m feeling, but just writing to you fills me with anxiety. Am I alone with my struggles or are other school owners facing the same things? I am desperate for some sort of change, but I don’t know what to do. —Lee
First, let me start by saying you are not alone, and yes, I hear from many school owners who are facing the same challenges that you’ve described. However, my instinct tells me that you are dealing with more than just those issues—I believe that you are also facing burnout. That isn’t something to be ashamed of; I have been there myself (a couple of times). It may be time for you to speak with a counselor or another professional who will help you to move past this point.
From a personal perspective, I have discovered that burnout is the sign that it is time to change the direction of your life. Maybe 26 years of owning a school is enough for you. And if it is, then what could you do to close that chapter of your life and start a new one? Maybe you could consider selling your school and becoming an employee of the new owner, or you could sell the school and take a year off to decide what you want to do next.
That spirit that inspired you to become a dance teacher and school owner is still flowing through your blood; I can feel that from your email. But now it is time to nurture that spirit by making you your priority. You have spent the last 26 years giving all you have to your school and your students; be proud of that. But now it’s time for you to make yourself a priority. Don’t waste another minute putting your school before yourself! I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I am writing to you because I would like to open a dance school, but I want to do it the right way. I have read your book, The Complete Guide to Teaching Dance, and it is such an inspiration to me. It makes me very excited to teach! I want to open a school because I truly feel it is my calling, but I want my fellow dance colleagues to understand that I like to work with people and that I can be their friend too.
In your opinion, what is the proper etiquette and procedure for opening a dance school in terms of respect for fellow dance colleagues? How do you go about it in way that is not offensive to established school owners in the area? Do you ask for permission to open? I want to build strong relationships between my fellow dance colleagues and myself. How can I do this? Thank you for your help. —Cheryl
First, thanks for your kind words concerning the book; I’m so glad you were inspired. You’ve put forth a good question that has no black-and-white answer. The fact that you ask, however, indicates that you are pursuing your dream of opening a school with an ethical foundation, and that’s a good thing.
My advice for you is to find a location within a community that doesn’t currently have a dance school. If that’s not possible, search for a place that isn’t very close to another school, especially any at which you trained or worked.
Many new school owners believe that they need to pull students from other schools to launch their businesses. But if you do that, you are launching a business with clients who will arrive at your doorstep with all their baggage from their previous school. It’s like starting with a dirty slate instead of a clean one. There will most certainly be gossip and animosity—and people who leave one school for another can be predisposed to expect more in return—after all, they helped to launch the new business.
New school owners who start from scratch have the opportunity to create policies, standards, and a philosophy through which they can see their dreams be fulfilled, as opposed to starting off feeling intimidated by clients who have become accustomed to the way their previous school did things. There is also a huge sense of satisfaction when you reach a point where you’ve trained your own dancers from the start, and you did it your way.
As for getting to know other teachers, go for it! No one understands dance teachers better than those who live the same crazy life. Build bridges right from the beginning. All the best to you. —Rhee
I have a parent who has been with me for about eight years, and for the past four years she has been very hard to deal with. She complains, gossips, and travels from car to car in the parking lot talking to other parents about issues. We finished off the year without speaking to each other, and all the teachers are hiding from her.
Normally, if I do not want someone to return to the school, I do not send them a fall registration packet. I did not send her one, but I received an email from her asking for one. I had heard that she was going to a new studio, but we ended up with a great year at nationals and I think that enticed her to return. I know I am going to have to call her and tell her I think it would be best for her to go to a different studio. Am I wrong to ask her to go somewhere else? If not, how do I ask nicely? For the past couple of years I have tried to make her happy, but I can’t; I have had several conversations with her that ended badly. If she does not leave, one of my teachers will. Help! —Confused & Frustrated
Dear Confused & Frustrated,
Ask this mom to go to another school! You have described a toxic situation that is not good for you, your business, and the teacher who doesn’t want to continue teaching for you if this mom returns. Simply explain to this parent that you have already had several unsuccessful conversations with her and that you would prefer not to go that route again. Explain that both of you need to start this year fresh, and in her case, that means finding a dance school that will satisfy her needs. Don’t back down and you will feel a sense of relief when you start your new season without the negativity. Good luck! —Rhee
I came to Project Motivate in November of 1998 and thoroughly enjoyed your seminar. I learned a lot about myself and found new ways to handle my business. However, during this past year the building I rented studio space in was sold, which forced me to move in the middle of the year. I had to find a place quickly and it really wasn’t where I wanted to be, so I told myself it was temporary. Then, after I moved, the business next door decided to close and a much bigger place became available.
Ten years ago I would have been happy to move to a much bigger location, run two studios, teach lots more classes, and hire more teachers. But in my heart I knew I didn’t want the added stress. So I offered to sell the business to one of my teachers, who has taught for me for the past 16 years. She was shocked by my decision to close and upset with me for retiring. I gave her all my reasons for wanting her to buy the business, but she chose to separate from me entirely and open her own school. I thought the business meant something to her, and I was sad that she didn’t want to at least carry on the name.
Since notifying my “dance family” of my decision to close, I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and concern. I am planning to have a tea at my house to say goodbye and thank them for their support. I’m not sure how to handle all the emotions and tears from the little ones, but I pray it will give me an opportunity to tell them my reasons for closing.
I’m 54 and obviously not going to sit at home and do nothing; since my studio didn’t sell I will be looking for other employment. Have you ever counseled dance teachers about how to transition from owner to employee? Teaching has been such a huge part of my life for so many years, but I guess running the studio was getting to be too much. I would appreciate your advice or suggestions. —Elaine
It sounds to me like you did the right thing. To continue operating a school when you are feeling stressed or burned out is not good for you or your clientele. At your tea you will have the opportunity to explain your decision to the students and parents who matter most. Don’t be surprised by how many understand and respect your decision, because many of them would like to do the same thing in their own lives. Appreciate their support and then take a bit of time for yourself before moving on to the endless possibilities that await you.
As for the former teacher who opened her own school, you have to let that one go. No, maybe she didn’t do the right thing in your eyes, but if you hang on to those negative feelings, you’re not moving on from that place of stress. Who knows—maybe someday she will be your employer and she’ll have all the stress of operating a school and you’ll go home at night with nothing to think about but how good your class was that day!
There are many school owners who would be interested in hiring a teacher with your experience; or you could consult other dance school owners on how to avoid feeling stressed or burned out. Other options include choreographing for community projects or working for a company that sells dancewear or costumes. The opportunities are endless for former school owners, and I know many who say they have never been happier once they made the change.
A word of caution—don’t move too quickly. It is a good thing to stop, evaluate, and offer yourself the time to restore your passion for dance or anything else you’ve always dreamed of doing but couldn’t because of your commitment to your school. In time, you will see this period as a time to appreciate, because your future will be filled with nothing but opportunity. Good luck! —Rhee
For 17 years I ran my school in the same rented location. Then this year a perfect space in an up-and-coming area with many children became available, so I decided to take the plunge and go for the new space.
Here’s the problem: There are multiple schools located in my vicinity, but I have never worried about the competition because I’ve had more students than I could handle and I have a lot of confidence in what I do. But one night last week I received a call from my office manager, who lives next door to my new location. She said that several people were looking in the windows and trying to open the doors to my new school. When I arrived the police were questioning five women who had scratched obscenities on my brand-new front door and vandalized the lock on the back door. I recognized three of them as a school owner and two of her teachers, all from my town. I was shocked and so were the police.
The following morning I received a phone call from the school owner’s husband, who yelled at me for pressing charges against his wife and her accomplices. He told me that I would be responsible for ruining her reputation and business. Not once did he say that he or his wife were sorry or admit that she had done anything wrong. He said that I should have expected something like this for having moved into his wife’s “territory.” I hung up on the guy and called the police, who told him that if he contacted me again he would be charged with harassment.
I can’t believe that another dance teacher would do this to me. Things have settled down, but a reporter did a big story on the incident in our local paper, triggering a lot of questions from my students’ parents. I respond that I would rather not speak about it until the case is settled because I don’t want to be accused of slander. It is so hard for me to keep my mouth shut about all of this; I am frustrated because I want to tell everyone what happened. Another thing I think about is that if she could do this to me, how can she be a good mentor or teacher for her students? I need you to tell me if talking about this incident is wrong or if I should continue to stay mum. —Shocked
The answer to this one is easy: Stay mum! You are right to worry about being accused of slander, and if you have any more concerns about your rights in this situation, you should contact a lawyer. Remember, the newspaper reporter has told the story for you, and I am sure that the entire community is gossiping about it. It is quite a tale! I am saddened to think that this school owner doesn’t seem to realize that her actions make all dance teachers look bad.
By the way, you have absolutely nothing to do with ruining this person’s reputation or business (which I do think is ruined); she and her husband can blame only herself and her accomplices for making such a stupid decision. You wondered how this person could be a mentor or a teacher, and so will every parent (or at least the smart ones) who reads the newspaper article. Again, that is why you should say nothing.
I commend your ability to refrain from discussing this incident with anyone. I probably would have been on the phone, telling this incredible story to everyone I know, but you have set an example that I will live by in the future. You are going to be just fine. I wish you all good things in your new location. —Rhee
What do you think about requiring automatic payments for everyone enrolled in my school? I have 300 students, and I am finding it harder and harder to get payments in on a timely manner, and it’s costly for me as well as for the people who are late. If I did made auto-payments mandatory, like gyms and YMCAs do, do you think people would leave my school? Times are tough, I know, and people put off dance bills for other necessary family needs.
I am moving into a 6,000-square-foot building this summer that is a lease-purchase and will eventually be my own building. It will be more expensive, but it has great exposure since it is sandwiched between an elementary school and a middle school. I thought this might be a good time to implement the auto-pay program, but do you think it might be a disaster? Thanks for your advice. —Melinda
This is the perfect time to initiate automatic payments for everyone. I know many school owners who require it for everyone at their school and it works out just fine. A couple of people might ask for another option and it is OK to work with them, but auto-pay will be fine with the majority of your clientele. (Tell them that you’re instituting it because your accountant insists on it; then they’ll be less likely to question it.) I wish you all the best. —Rhee
Please help me. I offer a one-hour combination ballet and tap class for 4-year-olds. One of the parents who has already registered her child told me that many of her friends are considering another school because their kids want hip-hop. A few years ago I lowered the age requirement for hip-hop classes to 5 years old (for business, not educational, reasons). Now I’m feeling pressured again.
I’ve been in business for 26 years and feel that I do keep up with the trends. I am not resistant to new ideas, music, or subjects, but I have always felt that developmentally, children aren’t ready for the hip-hop experience and techniques in preschool. I believe the basics of ballet and tap would be more beneficial and more appropriate for their age and skill levels. Am I wrong? I may lose these students forever. What’s your opinion and advice? —Barbara
You are not the first school owner who has written to me about parents requesting hip-hop for their preschool children. I agree that basics of ballet and tap would be more beneficial and appropriate for their age and skill level, but it seems that even preschool children (or their parents) are not immune from the latest trends.
At a Project Motivate seminar last year I met a teacher who had solved the problem by offering “Hippety-Hop” in her school’s preschool classes. By doing so, she was able to please the parents who wanted their children to be trendy, but she still managed to teach basic ballet skills along with some very basic hip-hop moves. It worked well for her, so you might want to try it. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
I have recently encountered a problem at my studio that I don’t know how to handle. I have a dancer who takes three classes a week from me and is on my competition team. She also competes with another studio in the area. Her mother has told me that the other teacher is not big on technique work, and my studio is. Now kids from the other studio are calling me about technique classes but staying with the other studio because they feel loyal to them. But if they are so loyal, why do they want to learn technique from us?
I feel like this student is getting everything from my school and using it to the other studio’s benefit, and it doesn’t seem right. But I am unsure as to how to approach the subject with her. We had an argument last year because she was going to drop out of our competition piece one week before the event due to another competition she was in with the other studio. Please help! —Frustrated in Kansas
Dear Frustrated in Kansas,
I am on your side on this one; I would feel uncomfortable in the same situation. If you have a student who chooses to train at two schools but is on your school’s competition team, then her responsibility to your school should supersede any activities with the other school. That is something you should include in your policies for next season. Basically, if students compete through your school, those activities must take priority over any others they do.
As for the students who come to you for technique classes, I might not turn them away. At my brother’s school, students come from other studios to take technique classes only. It is extra income for the school and after a while, some of them end up being full-time students with the blessing of their former teachers. I hope this info helps. —Rhee
Words from our readers
As a dance teacher for over 50 years and as an educator with a degree in education, I have always been aware that there are many effective and exciting approaches to teaching. I particularly love to see the excitement in the eyes of the very youngest dancers in my preschool classes, including the Mommy & Me classes, when I introduce a new fun-filled dance or activity to teach a step or concept. So I feel distressed when I hear a teacher say that Mommy & Me classes do not work [“Not Mommy and Me,” DSL, January/February 2008]. Perhaps they should say they haven’t found an approach that works for them, or perhaps they just don’t like to teach very young children, because Mommy & Me classes can be so beneficial to a dance studio. I love teaching them. It’s an awesome privilege and responsibility to be the first teacher to introduce these young children to dance.
Eugenia’s Dance Studio, West Seneca, NY
Thank you for the wonderful tribute to Gus Giordano in the May/June issue of Dance Studio Life. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and graduated from Northwestern University, and Gus’ classes played an important role in my jazz dance experience. His teachings have become the foundation for my jazz style. He will be missed, but as you said, not forgotten. Thank you for a great magazine.
Dare To Dance, Manteo, NC
Rhee’s article [“On My Mind,” DSL, May/June 2008] about Gus was so beautiful—absolutely perfect! I was also at that class in Boston. It was probably one of the first classes that I ever took from him. And I remember idolizing Rhee’s mother and Helen with their “Jeannie” ponytails. Rhee, Gus would have been quite moved by your article and by all of your successes!
California Dance Theatre, Agoura Hills, CA
We’d love to hear from you!
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What to do when the motivational tank runs dry
By Michael Wade Simpson
“Motivation” is a career these days. In the business world, you can make a comfortable living traveling to conferences and speaking to business groups about the subject. But in dance, motivation is like choreography—something you use every minute, every day, without thinking about it.
But motivation is also something you struggle with, no matter how great a teacher you are. There are no expert speakers waiting to address your 3-year-olds or make suggestions about dealing with teenage hormones. The experts, in the dance studio world, are often the same ones who are sweeping the floors—you. And when every student reaches the point of quitting—when it’s a question of dance or no dance—motivation is the single survival technique a studio owner has to rely on.
Of course, parents and non-dance teachers each have a role in the constantly changing weather that is a young person’s life. But for those in the business of spreading the joy of movement, more is involved than the answers a professional motivation provider might offer in a luncheon keynote. How do you keep the dream alive? Recently Dance Studio Life talked to a selection of studio owners, teachers, and young dancers around the country to see what they were thinking.
“The tendency is to lose them in high school,” says Lisa Dallas, owner and director of Dance Productions Unlimited in Arnold, MO. The demands are high for the older girls on the school’s competition team. “In the senior company they take two ballet and two jazz technique classes a week as well as tap, while hip-hop, pointe, and lyrical are optional. That is in addition to the time spent in rehearsals. Some girls can handle it,” she says, “but I’ve had good dancers say, ‘I’m dropping [dance]. I can’t do it all.’ ”
“Too tired, too sweaty, too much of a workout,” is what young teens complain about to Michelle Wurtz, owner/director of Pottstown Dance Theatre in Pottstown, PA. “Gym class is a joke,” she says, adding that it seems to come as a surprise to dance students these days that dance is a physical activity. “Dance requires commitment. When my girls have conflicts with school—they want to be cheerleaders or be in the school musical—I say, ‘Pick something.’ ”
Wurtz requires her performing teens to take a minimum of three hours of ballet a week in addition to the five hours of required rehearsals for the four full-length ballet productions she produces. Fifty to 85 students participate, many of whom “take six 90-minute classes in addition to the five hours [of rehearsal],” she says. “Sometimes I wonder how they do it all, how they find the time to dance and be good students. They sure learn to budget time.”
As for the little ones, sometimes it’s their parents who get in the way. “We have to hook them in the first year. We have to have a phenomenal preschool program and we have to make it fun,” says Donna Lynch, a teacher at Darleen Paddison’s Dance Studio in York, PA. “The parents want [their children] to try everything: dance, gymnastics, soccer,” she says. “It’s a lot of pressure. Sometimes only one or two from a class will go on.”
To keep young students interested, the preschool classes offer variety and fun. “We have theme days, like green on St. Patrick’s Day, luau week when they all wear Hawaiian skirts,” says Lynch. Props add interest as well as serving as teaching aids. “We use pencils to help teach [the children] to close their arms during pirouettes. During Christmas, we use candy canes.”
Motivation can be an unfortunate casualty of the atmosphere of teaching/salesmanship that Lynch describes. Children learn entitlement. “Sometimes the kids have a sense that they deserve to be rewarded even if they haven’t accomplished anything. They want to go on to the next level without earning it,” says Lynch.
During recital season, the little ones often get tired of rehearsing the same dance over and over again. Linda Andrews of Dance Connection in New Rochelle, NY, gets the rehearsal over fast for her 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds, and then lets them do the dances they love, “like the grasshopper, red robin, and ladybug.” She finds that after-school energy can be difficult to count on. “I bully them a little when they come into class tired from school: ‘Do a good job or look terrible,’ ” she says. “ ‘It’s up to you.’ ”
The students themselves have different ideas. Mary Piethowicz is a 13-year-old student at Wurtz’s studio, where she has been dancing since the age of 7. Ask her what keeps her dancing and she says, “Dance helps me with my emotions. I discovered on my own that I can be excited, happy, sad, mad, anything. Dance helps me let out what I feel; sometimes it feels like that’s the only way I can.” How about other kids she knows who lose their motivation? “They get blocked. The steps seem too hard. They’re not as advanced as the other students and they get frustrated,” she says. “It started to happen to me at 10 and I wanted to stop because of it. Then I realized it was something I could overcome. If I stopped, how was I going to get my emotions out?”
Sometimes motivation needs to come from a student’s support systems. “Parents need to help kids stick to it when they think they can’t do it,” says Piethowicz. And there is also the safety zone the dance studio often provides, a support system developed over years that no high school musical or cheerleading squad can offer. “At school you have enemies. The friendships in dance are a lot more positive,” she says. Then there’s the personal payoff. Piethowicz says, “I feel pretty when I dance. It’s graceful. It’s fun. I feel sophisticated.”
Piethowicz’s teacher has some tricks up her sleeve to help keep her older students interested. “I show videos of professional dance, like the Kirov, MOMIX, Alvin Ailey,” says Wurtz. Her school is known for its ballet productions, and though her students don’t do dance convention-style competitions, she says, “they compete with each other for parts” in the school shows. The prospect of dancing a coveted role can be a powerful motivator.
Eden Mason, a student at Dance Productions Unlimited, is lucky enough to have an older sister, Eve, who teaches dance. She is Eden’s clear favorite. “Eve goes to L.A. and studies with tons of people,” says the younger sister. “And when she comes back, she shares everything.” Both sisters love jazz dance, but thanks to the elder Mason’s studies in college, Eden has begun to experience styles that are new to her. “I had never even seen modern/contemporary until Eve started to learn it. I’d never done that in class.”
Eden devotes at least 15 hours a week to her dance studies and rehearsals. “I choose to be here. I’ve given up a lot of social life, like clubs and camps.” She echoes Piethowicz’s feelings about the differences between her friends at school and at dance. [My] friends at dance are closer,” she says. “At school you have acquaintances, but I’ve known my dance friends since I was 3. We work together all the time, all year long. I like to help with the younger students, and get them into it. We play games like ‘guess the position.’ ”
When every student reaches the point of quitting—when it’s a question of dance or no dance—motivation is the single survival technique a studio owner has to rely on.
Isabelle Cook of Isabelle’s Dance Time in Veradale, WA, asked several of her students about motivation. Lauren Nemitz, 14, writes, “It’s hard to get motivated sometimes because there is way too much going on.” When asked what would help her, she replies, “I need new ways to view dance class and rehearsals.”
Brittany Rigby, 16, from the same school, says, “Remind yourself why you dance. Keep short-term goals.”
Kate Harward, 15, another student at Dance Time, says, “Everybody has those days [when] it seems as if the whole world is against you and everything gets progressively worse. These days are when I need dance the most. I need to let go and just dance!”
The girls’ teacher, Cook, says, “They are on an emotional roller-coaster sometimes, and no matter what you say or do they have tuned you out. At our studio we try to give them ownership; we have students’ choreography in our shows. I also try to teach more than just dancing in class. Our students learn how to choreograph [and about] anatomy and nutrition as well.”
Cook adds that her students love to perform at local elementary schools. Other teachers concurred that performing is a powerful motivator. Dori Matkowski, director of Dance Dynamics in Walled Lake, MI, says that ballet productions give the younger students an opportunity to share an experience with the older, more advanced students. “They come to all the full rehearsals and watch the older students. It’s an incredible motivator to the younger ones.”
Matkowski, who runs an established school with 600-plus students, employs 17 teachers. “When we need a change of pace, I’ll rotate teachers for a day, or for one class, two weeks—whatever it takes,” she says. “That keeps things interesting for the teachers as well as the students.”
Discipline, surprisingly enough, seems to be a positive motivator for dance students. At Matkowski’s school, the student dance company, roughly 60 dancers strong, seemed to be in a slump at one point. “We were getting nowhere,” Matkowski explains. “The [students] weren’t getting better.” It was the “mean girl syndrome,” in part, according to the school owner. “We identified 20 kids who were perceived as [being] the problem, and then interviewed them one by one. We came right out and said, ‘What is the problem in the company?’ What we determined was that they wanted us to crack down.”
So Matkowski implemented what she calls “boot camp.” She describes the regimen: “You wore a leotard and tights; your hair was perfect; you were not a minute late.” The dancers seemed to respond to it. “After three weeks things were so good, even the air was better in the studio. The ‘mean girl syndrome’ stopped.”
Matkowski summarizes the mission and philosophy of her studio (and of many others): “We’re here to make a positive difference in our community. Out of 600 students, how many are going to become professional dancers? We’re trying to make good people here, not just dancers.” This is motivation with an impact way beyond the dance floor.
“You have to create a positive environment,” says Lisa Sharp, director of Miss Lisa’s Dance Studio near Athens, TN. One way she does that is with Miss Lisa’s Treasure Box. “I give the [students] tickets if they stand straight, or stop crying, or earn the title ‘Dancer of the Day.’ ” Accumulated tickets entitle the dancer to open the treasure chest, which is stocked with dance goodies such as socks, Hannah Montana memorabilia, hair bows, and stickers.
Ultimately, supporting the students’ preferences in dance is key to keeping them involved in the art form. “If they want to do hip-hop [at a different studio], I encourage them to follow what they want to do,” Sharp says. “It’s all about positive reinforcement. Self-esteem is so important.”
Motivational Advice from an Expert
Dance Studio Life asked Patricia P. Capello, a dance/movement therapist in the Department of Psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, for advice on keeping motivation high. Her tips take into account the stress and emotional toll that dancing can exact in young dancers.
- Take something back for yourself: Students want to shine and do their best for their teachers, but Capello says it is important to teach students to reframe this equation, to allow them to discover how to dance for themselves. By “taking something for themselves” students can “self-nurture” and increase their energy and motivation. That encourages them to continue to learn through the pleasure of dancing fully and expressively and learning new techniques that feed body and soul. In layman’s terms, that means that students should relax and enjoy dancing without worrying about being “perfect.”
- Music: Using music that the students love and feel a connection with keeps dancing fresh, personal, and inspiring.
- Peer support: Encourage talking and dancing among the students without the teacher present as a way to prevent burnout and help students find methods to cope with their fears or concerns (which are probably shared by everyone).
I am a dance teacher/school owner in the Northwest, but I am familiar with your family because I went to college in Boston and took classes from you, your brother, and your mom. To this day I pass on many of the lessons I learned from the Golds.
My school has been open for 17 years. We started with 22 students and today we have a little more than 300. I consider myself a successful school owner and businesswoman, but I am stumped on a major decision that I need to make before the season ends.
Several of my students travel 45 minutes to an hour to our school. One mom is willing to finance a second location for my school so that her daughter and a few others won’t have to travel to my current location. The mom in question is wealthy and trustworthy, so I believe that working with her would be easy.
My problem is that I am barely able to keep up with my current students or manage my family appropriately. Each week this mom asks if I’ve made a decision about the second location, and each week I put her off. I do find the opportunity tempting, but I know that there is no way I would be able to keep up with it all and maintain my sanity.
I’m afraid that if I turn down the offer, I could lose some of my students who can’t continue to travel the distance that they do. One parent is spending $100 per week on gas to get her child to and from the studio. Maybe I am too soft, but I feel guilty because of how long some of my students travel and how expensive it is for them to dance at my school.
Do you think that the second school is a good option or that I might be missing an opportunity that I could regret someday? I am so confused, and I feel like I have to make a decision as soon as possible. I don’t know what to do. —Elizabeth
It’s nice to hear from a former student and to find out that you became such a success. I can say definitively that I don’t think opening a second location is a smart move for you. I feel that you’re considering this option only because you care about the students, especially the ones who have to travel the long distance to take class from you. That is honorable, but you have to let the guilt go.
If you feel overwhelmed by keeping up with your first location and managing time for your family, then opening another location is out of the question, at least at this point. All good teachers want what is best for their students, but if that means adding more stress to your already hectic life, the situation would not be good for them and especially not for you and your family. If you’re not happy, you will find it difficult to continue being the teacher that you are now. The fact that you might lose students because they don’t want to travel (or can’t afford to) is not a good enough reason for you to make a choice that would stress everyone out.
The next time this mom asks you if you have made a decision, tell her yes. Explain that you’ve decided not to move forward with the second location. Be honest with her about your reasoning and tell her that this is not the right time in your life to open another business. Let her know how much you appreciate her support and loyalty. If she is truly loyal, she will understand. Resolving this now will eliminate the pressure you must feel each time she asks the question. Get it behind you and move on.
I would suggest that you gather the traveling students and their parents together to discuss carpooling options that might ease the time and financial burdens of traveling. But if they tell you that they can’t continue at your school, don’t feel guilty. The reason you are successful and these students travel to train with you is because you are good at what you do. You have to let those feelings of guilt go and do what is best for you and your family; otherwise the pressure will turn you into a different person and teacher than the one who is attracting students from faraway places.
Be proud that your reputation has traveled such long distances and that someone is willing to invest in you—but put yourself first, because that’s what you deserve after all the hard work and sacrifices that you and your family have made to build your business. I wish you all the best. —Rhee
Recently I saw your magazine in the lobby of my daughter’s dancing school and I saw that you answer readers’ questions. I’m hoping that you’ll have an answer for me. I have a 7-year-old daughter who has developed tap-dancing skills way beyond what her classmates can do. The other kids in her class have to keep repeating what they learned in previous classes, and my daughter is always ready to move on.
When I approached the teacher about my concerns, she told me that my daughter was in the right class and suggested that if she really wants to be a dancer she should start taking ballet and jazz classes. I’m getting the feeling that the teacher doesn’t recognize my daughter’s talent and is just trying to sell me more classes that my daughter doesn’t need. Why would she need ballet to be a tap dancer? Do you think this teacher is trying to get me to spend more money? —Concerned Mom
Dear Concerned Mom,
This column is not usually a forum for parents to ask questions; however, I think that many of our readers will appreciate my advice to you.
Your tone indicates that you do not trust your daughter’s teacher, yet you offer no examples of your expertise in the field of dance education. You suggest that your child is being held back because her classmates are not up to par with her abilities, and you base that on the repetition of material from week to week. But that repetition provides the foundation that is needed to build a strong dancer. For as long as your daughter takes tap classes, she will be repeating the same basic steps and applying them in more complex movements as she develops stronger technical skills.
Although your child may excel in tap, it is very hard to determine what she might be best at when she is only 7. You may discover that she is as talented in ballet or jazz dance as you think she is in tap. Also, it is important for you to know that many professional tap dancers consider ballet classes a necessary part of their training. Simple things like body alignment, upper-body grace and strength, and a strong technical base are some of the reasons why ballet is so important to the tap dancer.
I work with a few thousand dance teachers every year, and I can tell you that very few of them are trying to get parents to spend money on unnecessary lessons. In my opinion, your child’s dance teacher is on target with her advice. If your daughter truly has talent, then I would suggest that you leave the decision-making process to the professionals and respect their knowledge and understanding of what is best for your child in terms of her dance training.
Also, it is important to avoid judging your child’s classmates, either in dance or academics. I have been teaching for 30 years, and I can tell you that many (if not all) parents believe that their child is one of the best dancers. But most of them keep it to themselves. To avoid being one of those stage moms or alienating the parents of your daughter’s classmates, you might try to do the same. Good luck. —Rhee
Dear Mr. Gold,
If one of my instructors choreographs a dance for class or recital, does the dance belong to the teacher or the studio? One of my instructors has been asked to perform in another studio’s recital, dancing a number that he choreographed for one of my classes. He also plans on taking my students from the class to perform it. —Anna
I believe that the studio owner owns the choreography created for the school by its faculty. I base this on the fact that the teacher is being paid by the school for the time it takes to create the choreography. However, this policy should be disclosed during the hiring process and included in any contract that is signed. But even if you did not address the question of choreography rights before now, it does not mean that you can’t explain to this teacher that you do not want the choreography created for your students to be performed without your permission.
As for your students performing at another school’s recital, that definitely shouldn’t happen without your approval. It’s not very professional for a faculty member to commit to a performance that includes your students without consulting you first. If the performance is not for someone who is in direct competition with your school, then you might want to allow it if the kids are excited about it. But if it is for one of your school’s competitors, it’s probably time to have a talk with this teacher. There might be more going on here than you can see at this point. It’s not an easy situation to deal with, and I wish you all the best. —Rhee
My school has been open for 14 years and for the most part we have been extremely successful. We always stay on top at the competitions and usually go home with the high-score cash awards. Over the past few years I have added several teachers to my staff, especially those who are good with the competition program. They are all fine teachers, but most of them don’t like to teach the untalented students, or as you call them, the recreational students. I understand because I don’t like to teach the beginners or the babies, either.
Like most teachers, we all complain or make fun of the recreational students because we know that they’ll never be as good as our competition kids. But I try to explain to my teachers that they need to fake having a good time when they are teaching the beginners because that’s where their paycheck is coming from.
To date we have lost more than 40 beginners and babies in the first three months of the season. Obviously I am not saying the right thing to my teachers to make them understand that we can’t keep losing these students, but it just doesn’t seem to sink in. Do you have any advice? —Nancy
From my perspective, you are the root of your problem. Your faculty will not change their attitude until you change yours. If you don’t like to teach the recreational students and you freely share those feelings with your faculty, why should they want to teach them either? When you suggest to your faculty that they should fake enjoying these students, you set an example that I wouldn’t encourage any school owner to do. Your students and their parents can see through your façade and that’s why they’re dropping in such large numbers.
You wrote that all teachers complain about or make fun of the recreational kids because they are not as good as the competition kids. In my opinion you are completely off base with that statement. Teaching a beginner student who masters a chassé or a simple shuffle should be as rewarding to the teacher as any student who wins a trophy. And “recreational” is not a synonym for “untalented.” There are plenty of talented kids who do not aspire to a career in dance or even want to make dance the focus of their lives. Their interest in other activities or academics may limit their participation, but it doesn’t mean that they have no talent.
It is time to stop adding faculty to your competition program and start hiring teachers who actually like to teach dance to all students, regardless of their skill level. If you don’t like to teach the babies and neither does your faculty, your school probably doesn’t have much of a future. Those babies are your future.
The best advice that I can offer you is to get off your high horse and stop judging your students by whether they win awards. Then maybe your attitude will trickle down to your faculty. Until then, I have a feeling that you will continue to lose students. Ultimately you may find yourself with all the trophies but no school to display them in.
I apologize if this response seems harsh, but if you read this magazine on a regular basis you would know that you are writing to a person who believes that every child should experience the wonderful world of dance. And I don’t care if they can do multiple pirouettes or simply clap to the music. —Rhee
I am strictly a ballet teacher employed at a professional school in the Midwest. I teach both the company dancers as well as many classes in the children’s program. Although I love working with the company, there is something uniquely rewarding about working with children. Many students at the school will never be ballet dancers but might become strong dancers in another style of dance. I think some of them should be taking jazz or modern classes along with their ballet, and I have told several of them to look for a school that offers those styles. I also tell them to continue taking their ballet classes for a strong foundation.
Last week I was called into the school director’s office, where he scolded me for suggesting that my students should be taking anything other than ballet. He explained that jazz and modern are not recommended by the school and that we can’t afford to send our students to other places. When I told him that we have many students who would never become ballet dancers but who could have a future in another form of dance, he responded that it isn’t our place to tell them that. When I suggested that we add jazz and modern to our curriculum, he wouldn’t hear of it, telling me that we are a “pure” ballet school.
My daughter started taking ballet at this school, but she also took jazz and tap at a local school. Today she is a professional Broadway dancer who would never have found her place in the dance world if we had not been open to all forms of dance.
I called in sick this week because I don’t know if I can continue to teach the children. If I am a real teacher, I should be able to point my students in the direction that best suits their needs. If I don’t, my conscience tells me I am cheating them. Please help me decide what to do. —Michelle
First, thank you so much for writing. I have enormous respect for ballet teachers who appreciate and understand that all dance is created equal.
If it makes you feel better, there are many schools that have strong jazz, modern, or tap programs with children who should be training as serious ballet dancers, but their teachers don’t want to send them to a professional ballet school, either. It seems that guiding a student to another school or certain style of dance that better suits their capabilities is often taboo in our field. That goes across the board with the private sector, professional schools, and even some higher-ed programs. Too bad for all those dancers (especially the children) who never had a chance to discover the form of dance that they are best suited for.
I feel uncomfortable advising you on whether or not you should remain at this school without knowing your financial status or what the potential is to find another teaching position in your area. However, I recommend not making a drastic move until you know where you are going next. Consider remaining at your current school while you send your resume to other schools in your area. You may find that many school owners would love to have a strong ballet teacher who has as much respect for all forms of dance as you do. Or you might want to consider continuing to work with the company dancers while teaching children at another school whose owner appreciates your integrity. It is teachers like you who inspire me to do what I do.—Rhee
I am one of the lucky dance teachers with a husband who supports what I do. He has dinner waiting on the table when I come home and he takes on as much responsibility with our three children as I do. For years he has been encouraging me to buy a building for my school because he calls the rent that I pay “highway robbery.” Together we have been saving for three years to come up with a down payment for a piece of land that we know is a fantastic location for the dance school of our dreams. We are ready with a down payment, building plans, and the financing to make it a reality.
The problem is that I am not sure that I want to continue teaching dance. After having my school for 11 years, I feel burned out. I’m scared that if I build this building, I may never be able to get out. This doesn’t mean that I would stop teaching now, but paying rent makes me feel that I have an out when I’m ready. I really don’t see myself doing this for another 10 years. Probably I would teach for someone else, and then later I would like to go back to school.
The problem is that my husband is so obsessed with this building that I am nervous about telling him that I don’t think this is what I want to do. I am confused because this is what I wanted when I married my husband, but my priorities have changed. I’m afraid my husband is going to be disappointed or not support my wish to continue paying rent. What would you do? —Elaine
Right about now we have many readers who are thinking, “I will take her husband and the chance to build my own building any day!” But the reality is that you can’t move forward on building this school if you are feeling burned out before you ever lay the foundation.
I am a big one for going with your instinct, especially when you have to make a life decision like this. I’m sensing that yours is telling you that this is not the right move at this point in your life. If your husband has dinner waiting on the table and is so supportive of what you do, then I have a feeling that he will also support your decision not to move forward on this project.
Maybe it’s time for the two of you to decide whether there might be another business that you could go into together. Or maybe your burnout will not last and five years from now you’ll decide that building your school is something you want to do. Whatever the next chapter is, it sounds like you are very levelheaded and that you are extremely lucky to have the husband that you do. Go with your instinct and don’t be afraid to share your feelings with your husband. All the best to you. —Rhee
I know you have had a lot of experience in the competition field and I am hoping that you can help with me with some advice on how to become a judge. For the past couple of years I have been sending my resume to many of the national competitions inquiring about a judging position, yet no one ever contacts me.
My credentials include dancing on Broadway, on tour, and in videos with Janet Jackson, Madonna, and others. I have appeared in soap operas, movies, and almost every other professional venue out there. Last week I went to observe a competition and discovered that the judges had very little professional experience and most of them were from small-town dance schools with no professional performance credentials. How do the directors of competitions skip over my experience in favor of a local dance teacher with no experience? What do I have to do to get on a judging panel? I would think my experience would put me at the top of the list, especially above the rinky-dink dance teacher. Please help. Thanks. —Gordon
I am so glad you wrote, because I feel like you’re not alone in your thinking. As a former competition director, I appreciate the opportunity to express my views on this subject—although I have a feeling you might not like my answer.
First and foremost, the professional credentials you have do not make you a qualified judge for dance competitions. The most important credential is experience in the classroom, which gives judges the professional know-how of what it takes to get a group of 10-year-olds to dance on the same foot on the same beat in the music. These “rinky-dink” teachers, as you call them, do understand what it takes to make a group of children look good because they work with them on a daily basis, year in and year out. You do not.
In your email you do not mention any experience teaching or choreographing for children. That’s the professional experience that these teachers have that you do not. In my opinion the best judges are those who teach or are studio owners. You should be proud of your accomplishments, but they do not make you more qualified to judge a dance competition than the average dance teacher.
If you really want to be a judge, get rid of the attitude that you are better than those who are judging now and get yourself into one of these “rinky-dink” dance studios to see what it takes to be a professional dance teacher. Try your hand at choreography for a group of 7-year-olds or beginner teenagers so that you can sit in a judge’s chair with a true understanding of what you are watching and what it takes to make it happen.
I apologize if this response seems harsh, but I have heard your story many times and I’ve never had the opportunity to express my feelings on the subject. Add to that the fact that I am proud of the “rinky-dink” blood that flows through my veins and I relish the opportunity to defend the thousands of dance teachers who are working in the trenches every day. Thank you. —Rhee
Today I feel like I want to close shop. I just received a call at home from an irate mom who is questioning the class placement of her child. It’s the same old story of the mom who believes that her child is better than everyone else in the class, but this situation is more than that because this woman is beginning to scare me.
I asked her to stop calling me at home, and she has called me three times since then. She always tells me that she is sorry to bother me at home, but then she goes on a rant for anywhere from a half-hour to two hours. She cries and cusses me out every time and today, before she hung up on me, she told me that I should watch my back because she wasn’t going to take it anymore.
I can’t take another call or another rip-the-dance-teacher-apart session. I am confident that her child is in the right class and I know the child knows that too. She is always happy in class and I can tell that she is embarrassed by her mom’s actions. How do I get this to stop? Do I throw the kid out? And if I do that, will this mom be lurking in my driveway one morning, ready for a fight or worse? I think I’m dealing with a very unstable person. Any ideas for dealing with her would be appreciated. —Gina
This is serious and not the typical disgruntled-parent scenario that so many of us deal with. As far as I am concerned, you are being harassed and when she told you to watch your back, she threatened you.
In my opinion, the child and the mom have to go, and that’s too bad for the child because she has to live with her unstable mother every day. Before you do anything, you need to go to your attorney to discuss what has transpired so far. If I were in your place, I would ask the attorney to contact this parent to let her know that she and her child are not welcome at your school and that she should refrain from contacting you again. If she persists, then it may be time for a restraining order, which your attorney can help make happen.
In the meantime, you have the power to refuse to listen to this parent when she calls you at home. Screen your calls or at the least, when she calls, tell her you’d be happy to discuss her concerns at the studio and that she should call the school’s office manager or secretary if she’d like to make an appointment. Then politely say goodbye and hang up. Another option is to change your home phone number and do not list it in the phone book. If she obtains it anyway, then continue to politely refuse her calls.
It is too bad that there are parents who act like this; I can only imagine the influence that her actions have on her child. However, you don’t deserve to be harassed or threatened one second longer. Go to your attorney right away and get this behind you. Good luck! —Rhee
Your magazine is such an inspiration for me and I love to read about dance teachers who are dealing with the same issues I am. When I read your advice column, I feel like you are right on. So I have decided to throw a question your way.
When I was growing up in a dance school, I had a very loving teacher who had a passion that rubbed off on me. However, I learned early in my teaching career that my training was not all that good. Since I opened my school, I make it a point to learn as much as I can by spending my summers studying in New York and Los Angeles, training and observing classes in every style and level that I teach. I know that I’ve become a strong teacher because of my consistent continuing education and my desire to learn.
Today my school has seven faculty members from a variety of backgrounds and experience. Some of them come from the same kind of training that I did. They all love what they do, but I know they need more knowledge in order to offer the kind of dance education that I want for my students. I hear that there are teacher-training programs out there, but I have never been to one. Are they something that will help my teachers become better, and where do I find them? Any information you can offer is appreciated. —Shelby
I appreciate your drive to learn and be the best teacher you can be—you should be proud of yourself for taking the initiative to always improve your knowledge. That’s what makes a good teacher!
Throughout my dance life, I have been involved in many of the teacher-training programs, especially those associated with the dance teacher organizations. Actually, I am a proud graduate of the Dance Teachers Club of Boston Teacher Training School, and as a past president of Dance Masters of America, I was involved in their program at the University of Buffalo. And there are others that I have been a guest speaker for, including the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, Cecchetti Council of America, and Dance Educators of America, among others.
I am an advocate for these programs because, for the most part, they are developed by organizations that represent the private-sector dance educator. They know the classrooms that we come from and they understand the knowledge and tools we need to handle the variety of styles and skill levels that are unique to the private-sector dance educator. Some programs are offered over a series of years, concluding with a certificate of completion. Others are more intense and last a shorter period of time. Many are now offering post-graduate programs for teachers who complete the program but still want to continue their study.
You can find ads for these programs in many of the national dance publications, including Dance Studio Life at times, and if you type “dance-teacher training schools” in your browser, you’ll discover a ton of options. I wish you and your faculty the best in your pursuit to be the best dance educators you can be. —Rhee
I own and direct a dance studio in a small Midwestern town. I was wondering what percentage of a school’s students should return from the previous year. I’m concerned about my low number of returns but hopeful about all my new enrollments. Right now 57 percent of my students are returning. Please let me know if these numbers sound about right to you. I think I have tried everything, but what can I do to make my students more long-term? —Linda
Although there is no definitive research on student retention from year to year as it relates to the dance-school business. I estimate the average to be about 25 to 30 percent among the school owners who attend such discussions at my seminars. You seem to be above average, but I have heard of percentages that are higher. I suggest that you send your non-returning adult students and the parents of non-returning underage students a survey to get feedback on why they or their children chose not to continue dance at your school. (See a sample of this form on page 61 of Dance Studio Life, August 2007.)
As for how you can improve your retention rate, start by evaluating your preschool enrollment. These are the students who are most likely to remain on your class lists for years. If this group is dropping out at a rate of 43 percent, as you described, then it’s important to reevaluate your preschool or creative movement program. Ask yourself if the faculty is enthusiastic or has the skill to truly understand this age group. If the teachers are weak or parents perceive them as too young or inexperienced, you will continue to experience a high rate of dropouts. And that’s not good for positive word of mouth; parents of children in this age group are always talking about the activities their kids are into.
Here’s another consideration: Is your school’s atmosphere friendly and inviting? Customer service and organization play as large a role in retaining students as the training does. Is it easy for parents and students to find answers to their questions or concerns? Does the season end on a positive note? If you do recitals or year-end performances, how was the show? More important, was it a smooth, easy process for parents and students? What kind of feedback did you receive?
Other factors may have nothing to do with any of the above. What is the level of unemployment in your community? Dance lessons will be one of the first things to go when a parent loses their job. Also, children today have many activities on their agendas, with parents who want them to try various sports, arts, and clubs. Often financial and time limitations have a big effect on returning enrollment.
With all that said, making your school enjoyable and inspiring for the kids and a low-stress, professional organization for their parents often results in clientele loyalty that keeps students returning year after year. Good luck! —Rhee
I think I have gotten myself into a little mess! Like many teachers, I have a difficult time getting boys to join dance. This year I decided to follow some advice and offer dance classes to boys at half-price—anything to get them in. Great news—it worked! All seemed fine until today, when one of my competition parents who has two daughters approached me wanting to know why I was giving special treatment to boys. She accused me of discrimination, and I just stood there with my mouth open, not knowing what to say. She made a valid point about giving special treatment to a certain group, but I wasn’t trying to discriminate against any gender or group; I just wanted to get boys to dance. I feel awful! What should I do? Any suggestions on how to make everyone happy? —Jeannie
This is an excellent question, which doesn’t have an easy answer. However, with the word “discrimination” being tossed about, I would pursue advice from an attorney before taking any action. The validity of the discrimination claim aside, I know of many school owners who have offered incentives to get boys into the classroom. A large majority of male students who start to dance are the siblings of girls who are already taking lessons. Most parents don’t imagine that their sons would want to take a dance class until they see them dancing around the school lobby or practicing the movement that they observed in their sister’s classes at home. This scenario plays out hundreds of times each season.
The catch for many of these would-be young male dancers is that the dads (and sometimes the moms) discourage the boys from dance training because they believe that it is for girls or sissies. Although our society has taken some giant leaps forward when it comes to the stereotype of male dancers, especially with the hip-hop phenomena and the nationally televised dance shows, some people hang onto the perception that a boy in tights is a boy who will be gay, especially in small-town America. The first excuse this kind of parent comes up with to discourage the boys is that the classes would be a financial burden. It’s sad but true, and there are thousands of boys who would love to dance but never have the opportunity.
Many times it is for this reason that school owners initiate incentives like partial or full scholarships or a work-study program to encourage the boys to dance. It is very hard for parents to tell their son that he cannot dance when the classes are free or discounted. There are hundreds of professional male dancers and choreographers who never would be where they are if it hadn’t been for the kindness of teachers who offered them encouragement through some sort of financial aid.
I have a feeling that until we live in a society in which every child can choose to be what they want to be without stereotypes or parental fear, dance-school owners will come up with ways to bring in the boys. I’m not sure whether it is discrimination or not, but I know I would not be where I am today if not for the many scholarships and incentives I received. Get some good legal advice, but please continue to encourage the boys to dance in whatever way you can. I wish you the best. —Rhee
I have a faculty member who is an excellent teacher and choreographer but does not always set the right example for her students. She teaches in her jeans with T-shirts that have a picture of rolling papers or even worse, say “Born to raise hell,” with a picture of a person sticking her tongue out. The children seem to love this teacher, but I have heard some rumblings from the parents and I’m not sure what to do. Do I have a right to tell her to wear dance clothes and get rid of the inappropriate T-shirts? Any advice is appreciated. —Maxine
I certainly do believe that you have a right to speak up. I would not allow a teacher to wear a T-shirt with a picture of rolling papers at my school. A good approach might be to establish a faculty dress code, just like you may have done for your students. The policy should cover what is allowed as well as what is not. I don’t think it is unreasonable to require teachers to wear T-shirts with no imprint. Better yet, if they are going to wear a T-shirt, make it a policy that it has to be your school’s shirt. As for the jeans (and I am guilty of wearing them myself), you might want to make them off-limits. I would suggest a pair of sweats or leotards and tights for teachers who work with children. Good luck. —Rhee
It’s been 30 years since I opened my school. When I started I was the only one in town; now I am one of 11. Three of the other schools are directed by my former students. There are just too many dance options for our small community and my student enrollment has suffered.
Last week one of my former students (who owns one of the schools) called me for the first time in many years. She explained that her enrollment was down and that she didn’t think she would be able to keep her doors open. She’s not taking in enough to pay the expenses. Then she asked me if I would like to merge our schools.
Even though there is a lot of bad blood between us, the thought of merging our schools intrigues me. I would love to have a partner to take on some of the responsibilities, and it would put us both in a better financial place. I think I want to do this, but it feels so awkward to consider merging with a former student who has hurt me in the past. Do you think I’m nuts to consider her proposal? Should I put our past differences aside? Thanks. —Doreen
From what you have written I would say go for it! If both of your schools are experiencing dropping enrollment, this strategy could keep you both in business. I understand the “bad blood” circumstance, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly it will dissipate once you are working together to accomplish the same goal.
Be sure to invest in a good attorney to make certain that you have a partnership agreement that works best for your future (and hers). Your story is unique, but it’s a great example of things coming full circle for you and your former student. Who knows—maybe the other two former students will be calling you soon! I wish you luck. Let that bad blood go and instead focus on making this new opportunity a success. —Rhee