It’s recital season, and we all know what that means—running around and last minute details, headaches and heartbreaks, problems piling up, and that sinking suspicion that there’s no way all those dances will ever be clean . . . !
Need to de-stress? Visit the DanceLife Retreat Center Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/#!/DanceLifeRetreatCenter?fref=ts), and spend a minute with studio owners and teachers who understand exactly what you’re going through. Peruse the uplifting messages and video snippets from Rhee Gold, then take a gander at the latest news about what’s planned for this summer’s sessions at the Retreat Center—a secluded hideaway built in the woods of Norton, Massachusetts, by Gold just for teachers and studio owners like you.
Or, as Gold says: “No students, no parents, no mob scenes: simply about you and your business.” Sound good? Registration is now underway for six summer sessions. Visit www.danceliferetreat.com for details.
“This was the most amazing weekend I have had in a long time! It is with an uplifted spirit but a heavy heart that I am leaving.”
That sentiment was voiced by Neala Dunn of Dance Alive, Bourbonnais, Illinois, but shared by many of the studio owners and teachers who attended last year’s inaugural season at the DanceLife Retreat Center.
Based upon the accolades and thanks that poured in from participants, the unique three-day sessions designed by Rhee Gold specifically to address the business, creative, and motivational needs of studio owners and dance teachers were a huge hit.
“It was a difficult decision to spend the money for both my daughter and myself to come to this retreat, but it was worth every cent. You are a warm, caring, and inspiring person. You have changed my life, business, and my students’ lives for the better by inspiring me and giving me the tools and renewed inspiration to continue to do what I love and do best,” said Kathie Morris of Kats Dance Centre, Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
The seminar price includes all activities at the Retreat Center including lectures and classes, manuals and other materials, catered lunches and dinners, snacks, and beverages, plus shuttle service to the nearby Holiday Inn (which offers a special discounted rate for attendees).
Interested? Don’t hesitate, because all seminars are limited to 30 attendees. Summer sessions in 2013 have been set for June 14 to 16, July 7 to 9, July 12 to 14, July 19 to 21, August 16 to 18, and August 23 to 25. Visit www.danceliferetreat.com for more information.
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
Do-it-yourself staff development and continuing education
By Julie Holt Lucia
For studio owners and dance teachers, summer’s inevitable slowdown means that we finally have time to recharge our batteries and reboot for a new season. Every summer, opportunities abound for continuing education—a dizzying number of dance classes, teaching seminars, conventions, and conferences to choose from. But what if those are out of reach this year? What if you have a tight budget, or you can’t travel, or the timing is bad—or all of the above?
If that’s the case, it’s time to rethink your options. Inspiration can be anywhere, even in your own backyard. How about hosting a summer conference with your own staff members? Choose just a few activities to implement over the course of a weekend or keep the momentum going all summer with a series of classes and meetings. Either way, by creating your own opportunities, you can find new ideas and new motivation—without going overboard on travel or budget.
Get your summer plans off the ground by starting a dance “book club” among your staff. You could meet once or twice or schedule multiple meetings throughout the summer. To start, choose a pedagogy-based book for everyone to read, and then set a date to discuss it. You could choose a dance-history book or biography—pick subjects that are interesting to you and relevant to your studio. If you don’t have enough books for everyone, take turns with one or two. You could even mark certain passages or chapters as “must-reads” if you think some people won’t have time to read the whole book.
You could do the same thing with videos of famous dances and dancers. For example, ask everyone to watch three Balanchine ballets from three different decades and discuss them, or have them watch three ballets/dances by choreographers new to them. Another viewing option might be an important historical dance piece. For example, the full Appalachian Spring with Martha Graham dancing in it can be found on YouTube.
If the book/DVD club is successful, keep it up during the school year and broaden your reading list to include motivational or business genres. (See sidebar for suggested dance reading and video resources.)
If you have teachers who specialize in certain dance styles and lack significant experience in others, ask each one to lead a teachers-only class in his or her specialty. This is not only a valuable way for you and your staff members to expand your dance knowledge and skills, it’s also a practical way to learn about one another’s teaching styles. Sometimes paying attention to another teacher’s warm-up or hearing her describe a step with different imagery than you might use leads to a light-bulb moment.
Inspiration can be anywhere, even in your own backyard. How about hosting a summer conference with your own staff members?
Alleviate anxiety about teaching studio colleagues with an important reminder: we are all experiencing a learning curve, all the time. Sometimes that curve is steeper than at other times, but we are always educating ourselves.
Consider hiring a one-time guest teacher for your staff. Offer a completely new dance style, such as African or belly dancing, or encourage exploration of a related movement form or mode, like Pilates, Zumba, yoga, or meditation. Bring in an early childhood expert or an adolescent counselor to talk about developmental changes that children experience at various ages or to discuss the teaching challenges and rewards that may arise with these age groups.
In hiring outside experts (no matter the topic), be sure they understand the context of their presentation—that they are teaching other teachers and need to be aware of their abilities and knowledge. Also, make your expectations clear, whether they’re to introduce the teachers to a new dance style or to offer new classroom tools.
Studio to studio
Taking this idea one step further, think about asking another studio within a certain geographical radius—maybe up to a two- or three-hour drive away—if they would be willing to have you visit their studio, and vice versa. Find schools whose mission is similar to yours, or that are in a similar type of community.
Treat the visit like a mini-conference: bring marketing materials and questions for the other participants, schedule a couple of teachers to hold dance classes for the others (or hire a guest teacher), and have lunch or dinner together.
This could be a one-day or weekend-long event. It requires some level of financial commitment, but it would cost much less than most regional or national conferences do—and you’ll still have the opportunity to make some new dance friends.
Feedback from your employees can be essential to running your business at its peak; even teachers who do not work in the studio office or in other administrative capacities can offer new perspectives and suggestions about organization, policies, recitals, and so on. With that in mind, set aside some time for a few staff brainstorming sessions to discuss why you do things the way you do, and how to improve for the next season. Focus on a few general areas of business; for example, customer service, the registration process, and recital time.
Start each meeting by talking about your existing policies and procedures and then move on to what improvements could be made. Write down every idea that comes up—no matter how seemingly crazy—and choose a few at the end of each meeting that you may be able to act on.
Another way to attract feedback from your employees (and for you to give feedback as well) is by doing role-play using common studio scenarios. (You can do this during the brainstorming meetings or in separate sessions.) Have two people act out such familiar scenarios as a customer trying to get her daughter moved up a level or trying to get a late fee waived, and see if everyone agrees on the proper responses. Work your way up to less common scenarios and situations.
You’ll want to hear consistency in your staff’s responses to customers; hopefully you’ll find that everyone understands studio policies well. Role-playing like this can become silly, but it does help work out the kinks in your office policies and procedures. It can reveal areas that need more attention and clarification, as well as where changes may be needed.
If you survey your customers at the end of each season, these meetings are great opportunities to review the results with your staff. With help from your employees, identify one or two issues that could be addressed—such as cleanliness in the lobby during class times, or distributing recital ticket information in the most effective way—and work together to come up with realistic solutions.
Whatever changes you decide to implement, having everyone work together to make it happen will boost the level of camaraderie among your faculty and staff. Everyone who participated can take pride in the changes.
Educational experiences pursued independently are great catalysts for inspiration, so consider offering each of your staff members a small stipend (perhaps $50) to pursue continuing education in the summer. For a teacher, this could mean attending nearby dance or fitness classes, purchasing an instructional DVD or book, or buying teaching tools like dance terminology flashcards or Thera-Bands.
The stipend might afford an office manager the opportunity to take a computer or accounting class at a community college, or even a sewing workshop at a local hobby store—who better to learn a quick stitch or two than your office manager? Place limits or guidelines on the stipend to ensure it’s used appropriately—for example, between certain dates—and ask for receipts. Near the end of the summer or during your first staff meeting of the next season, have everyone share how they used their stipend and what they learned from the experience. (Consider giving yourself the stipend, too.)
Connecting with your employees personally can be as important as inspiring them in their jobs, so think beyond dance in the summer. Give your staff the chance to bond outside of the studio and to escape the usual dance talk during fun or relaxing outings. It could be an evening of bowling or a trip to the zoo, or a group art lesson or yoga class.
If your budget is an issue, invite everyone to your place for a game night, cocktails, or backyard barbecue (or all three!). Use that time to cultivate the relationships that are so important to the success of your business. Having a chance to connect over non-dance activities can reenergize everyone’s spirits and help them to see each other as more than just “dance people” or fellow employees.
The United Dance Merchants of America (UDMA) is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its Dance Resource & Costume Show in 2013 with shows in three locations and special giveaways.
Studio owners and dance teachers who attend any of this year’s three shows have a chance to win $4,000 in UDMA Gift Bucks (redeemable with any UDMA exhibitor) on Saturdays, or an iPad on Sundays.
Locations include Atlanta, Georgia, on October 5 and 6; the Meadowlands, New Jersey, on October 12 and 13; or Chicago, Illinois, on October 19 and 20. Saturday show hours are noon to 6pm in New Jersey and Illinois, or 3 to 6pm in Georgia; and 9am to 3pm Sundays in all cities.
The annual UDMA Dance Resource & Costume Show features a large selection of dance vendors—costumes, competitions, conventions, video and teaching tools, tours, flooring, fundraisers, magazines, and other organizations—showcasing complete product lines and offerings to help studios move forward. Register online, plus get more information, at www.UDMA.org or call 800.304.UDMA (8362). Email email@example.com with questions.
After a successful inaugural year at the DanceLife Retreat Center that attracted studio owners and teachers from as far away as Scotland and Italy, Rhee Gold is gearing up for an even more successful second season.
Dates for the summer and fall 2013 DanceLife Retreat Center weekend events have now been released.
All summer sessions are open to school owners and faculty. Along with lectures and presentation from Gold and other esteemed faculty, open discussions, and motivational sessions, the summer dates will also incorporate discussions for studio owners only that will run while faculty attendees are in movement/technique classes.
Summer weekends run Friday/Saturday/Sunday (unless otherwise indicated) and dates include: June 14 to 16; July 7 to 9 (Sunday/Monday/Tuesday); July 12 to 14; July 19 to 21; August 16 to 18; and August 23 to 25.
All fall sessions follow a theme and are open to both school owners and faculty. They include: November 2 to 3 Ballet Edition; November 9 to 10 “The Future” Edition (curriculum for ages 8 and younger); November 16 to 17 Competition Edition; and December 27 to 29 Limited Edition Rejuvenation Weekend.
All seminars take place at the DanceLife Retreat Center, 155 Pine Street, Norton, Massachusetts. For details or to register, visit http://www.danceliferetreat.com/#!2013-seminars.
Teachers and studio owners counting down the days until the 2013 DanceLife Teacher Conference can whet their appetites with a visit to a stylish new website devoted to the biennial event.
Located at www.dancelifeteacherconference.com, the site opens with a gorgeous panoramic shot of The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, where this year’s conference will take place. Scrolling over the graphic will open up new pages dedicated to faculty, vendors, testimonials, Rhee Gold’s video inspirations (media), and registration information. Here readers can also access the brand new DLTC blog, featuring tidbits and fun facts about the esteemed and well-respected faculty that will be leading classes and conferences this coming summer.
Check back often for updates and news reports. The DLTC is set for August 1 to 4, and spaces are filling up fast. Let the countdown begin!
Improve your business by examining how you work
By MaryBeth Kemp
Most studio owners have become experts at a diverse array of tasks: generating new ideas, maintaining mailing lists, sending out newsletters, updating websites, devising marketing plans, and scheduling, emailing, choreographing, costuming, and handling studio conflicts. Most of the time our efforts yield positive outcomes—what we wanted and expected. But sometimes the results are weak or even negative. Why? How does that happen, and why are we caught off-guard when it does?
To answer those questions, we need to reflect on and examine our actions. Learning how to be more introspective about how we manage our studios and lead our staffs will increase our chances of getting the results we want.
What is introspective leadership?
Introspection is an examination of one’s own thoughts and feelings. Leadership is the capacity or ability to lead. Introspective leadership is the action of analyzing your thoughts, practices, and experiences to improve outcomes for those you lead, your organization, and yourself.
Implementing an introspective style of management and leadership can help you launch your business to new heights, bring your dancers to new levels of development, and give you more personal satisfaction. Being an introspective leader is not as difficult as it sounds; spending time on a few simple exercises will create big changes and have a major impact on the success of your business.
Begin by putting into practice the first principle of introspection—reflection. This is not the same as scrutiny. Reflection means taking the time to simply contemplate; to mull over an idea, a thought, a question, or an issue. To start, take a moment to reflect on the characteristics you think a good leader possesses. Make a mental note of these qualities, or better yet, write them down. You may even find that this is a good way to recognize the leadership qualities you already possess.
Examination can be uncomfortable and challenging, but without it you risk immobilizing your business or settling for things you really don’t want.
You’ve probably listed characteristics such as organization, passion, honesty, charisma, and level-headedness. And it’s true; those are qualities of a good leader. But to gain them, you first have to recognize and identify these qualities. Then you can master them and put them into practice.
It takes time to develop the skills that lead to success. Just like a dance movement, your leadership qualities will become stronger and more refined with practice. Keeping your personal list handy and adding to it regularly will remind you of the leadership qualities you most aspire to, especially during particularly challenging times.
Here’s a sample list of desired leadership traits. Your list might look quite different, but this will give you a starting point in identifying what you value most.
• Tough-loving: challenging students to do their best by being firm but fair.
• Educated: understanding and explaining reasons for instructions, critiques, and procedures.
• Patient: doing whatever it takes to make sure students are fully prepared before they present at a competition or showcase so that they do not suffer harm to their self-esteem or confidence.
• Encouraging: believing in second, third, and even fourth chances; trying hard not to let students become discouraged and give up.
• Enthusiastic: celebrating success and creating a happy environment.
• Organized: conducting business affairs in a purposeful, consistent, timely, and reasonable fashion.
• Sensitive: demonstrating understanding and consideration, especially when dealing with delicate personal issues.
• Honest: practicing honesty by finding a balance between full disclosure, discretion, and tact.
• Gracious: applying a compassionate, thankful, pleasant, good-natured attitude in all you do at the studio.
• Caring: listening to and watching your students attentively as they share their talents or stories; and responding with sympathy, understanding, enthusiasm, or joy for what has been shared with you.
The act of reflection can be applied to any aspect of your business. Just remember, it is the actual practice and development of characteristics and behaviors you’ve identified during the process of reflection that will help you to become an effective leader.
And good leadership cannot help but improve your business. A studio with a strong, capable studio owner at its helm gets noticed. Your students and parents will recognize the professionalism you bring to your business, and word gets around. Increase your leadership capabilities and you’ll increase your studio’s visibility, enrollment, and the quality of your faculty and students.
An introspective leader takes time to examine her organization. It’s easy to forget this when you are busy—pulled in many different directions and influenced by many factors, both positive and negative. How do you even begin to know what you want and what works for you? Examining and defining what you want from your studio and your dancers are crucial processes in laying the groundwork for business and personal success.
You might want your enrollment numbers to increase by 25 percent, maybe even 50. Or you may see that you need to increase the number and type of classes you offer. Perhaps you want your students’ ballet technique to improve significantly. Maybe you simply want to boost your dancers’ technique, period. Another goal might be to find a better balance between work and personal life.
Examination can be uncomfortable and challenging, but without it you risk immobilizing your business or settling for things you really don’t want. Get honest and listen to yourself. Write down your business objectives, the ambitions you have for your dancers, and your ideas, aspirations, and goals. Keeping a journal is a good idea. It will serve as a reminder and a prompt to stay on task and focused, with a clear mind. After you have taken on the challenge of defining what you want, then and only then can you forge a path to attain those desires.
Another aspect of evaluation is careful analysis. When you analyze something you dissect it from every angle. You identify the positive features, any negative outcomes, and what strengthened or weakened the results of an effort or a project. Once that task is complete, you can apply this new knowledge to build an outline for a new strategy.
This practice can be applied to every aspect of your business. For example, to address enrollment numbers you’ll probably want to analyze your current marketing plan—why and how it’s working or not working—and then identify and implement a new plan. You might also look at ways to improve communication, upgrade technology, spruce up the studio, or develop new and improved organizational skills. A close analysis of the level of your students’ dancing might make you formulate a plan to invite guest teachers to give master classes, or to attend more workshops yourself.
Dance teachers and choreographers put systems of evaluation into play all the time. Teachers adapt their communication styles and teaching methods for greater effectiveness. Choreographers change, clean, and polish routines until they have become what they want them to be.
The same practice, applied to your business, will help you build a stable, well-run school whose standards of excellence ensure the loyalty of old clients and attract new ones. Introspective evaluation will clarify goals, missions, and standards and help identify ways to implement them in an organized manner. This clarity and organization can only improve business practices and increase business.
So give yourself permission to slow down and take a few deep breaths. Reflect on, examine, and analyze the management and leadership of your studio. Listen to yourself and allow yourself to be more aware and find new perspective. Your leadership will grow to be exceptional and distinctive. Then watch how your business, your studio, and yourself become more lucrative, productive, and rewarding.
By Karen White
The five wild turkeys were in no rush, scratching their way methodically across the DanceLife Retreat Center lawn, looking up and loping into the woods when a car crunched across the gravel drive.
If they were seeking a spot in southeastern Massachusetts where they could reflect and relax in quiet seclusion, they found it. So did the 32 dance teachers, studio owners, and spouses seated inside the center. During this two-and-a-half-day weekend, friends were made, advice shared, and tears shed, all of it happening inside an oversized, rustic-style cabin so new that the freshly hewn woodwork seemed almost to glow. Everyone left sneakers and flip-flops at the door rather than risk scuffing the spotless floors.
This is a setting that Rhee Gold had dreamed about for years, and now this group of retreat participants—only the third of the summer—was living his dream firsthand. “This is all about building a community,” Gold said. “What’s going on with all this communicating and going back and forth is just what I wanted this to be. This is how the whole dance community needs to be, and we are starting it here in Norton, Massachusetts.”
Despite the new facilities, Gold hasn’t thrown out everything old. All the elements that have made his touring Project Motivate seminars a success—from the in-depth discussions on marketing and making a profit to the “I know what you’re going through” atmosphere—are still present. Former Boston Ballet dancer Kathy Kozul gave her always well-received floor barre class, and longtime DanceLife Teacher Conference lecturer Melissa Hoffman ran through her successful setup for teaching 2-year-olds.
Far overhead, hanging from the main hall’s cathedral ceilings, fans churned lazily. The wall of mirrors and gray marley floor gave it away as a dance studio, but during this weekend, round banquet tables were spread throughout the space. Teachers propped laptops on tables or stretched out on the floor, quickly becoming comfortable enough to leave a lecture for a little leg stretching or to help themselves to water and snacks.
At the DanceLife Retreat Center, common ground, creativity, and wisdom make for good times and lasting connections
As always, Gold was generous with advice. “I’m an advocate of short shows,” he said during a discussion on recitals, then proceeded to explain how to cut minutes off a show’s running time by saving solos and duos for a separate performance, organizing entrances and exits without blackouts, and combining numbers into mini-productions.
“What you don’t want to happen is for Daddy to be bored to death, then turn to Suzie on the car ride home and say, ‘Isn’t there anything else you’d like to do?’ ” Gold said, and chuckles rippled through the room.
But he also put his guests to work. Gold threw out theme titles—“Imagine That!” and “From Diapers to Diplomas”—and charged the eight guests sitting at each table to dream up an entire show. Each person was urged to contribute ideas about songs or fun visuals, such as a slide show, PowerPoint presentation, or skit, that would fit the theme.
As guests searched for songs online or debated ideas, the room buzzed with chatter. When Gold called time, one representative from each table detailed what just a few minutes of brainstorming had produced. One group wanted to decorate a scrim with images of what the dancers would be “when they grew up.” Another would dress up dancers as a mom and dad, and after they mimed rushing off to the hospital, the audience would hear the sound effect of a baby crying—introducing a preschool dance to “Isn’t She Lovely?” A third would use the Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory version of “Pure Imagination” with little dancers and segue into the Glee version for older kids.
Teachers at other tables nodded and scribbled down thoughts. One teacher jumped up and presented an entire preschool dance, complete with catchy lyrics and easy hand motions, generating loud applause and laughter.
Fun, perhaps, but the exercise provided a point: a fairly common theme can still lend itself to endless ideas—especially if creative minds are willing to work together.
“This is awesome,” Gold said. “You should be doing this at your studio. Make your staff a part of the process. Give your customers more than what they expect. Look at what you did last year, and give them something better. It doesn’t cost more money—all it takes is a little more time and creativity.”
As the work went on, the room’s oversized windows were thrown open. A rainstorm had passed through the night before and the fresh air flowed into the center’s open spaces. Inside, teachers scribbled down Gold’s suggestions for summer camps and Facebook advertising; outside, someone’s husband dove into the sparkling pool and paddled about, enjoying a solitary swim.
On the open-air porch, Bob Cibulskis settled down in a rocking chair with his iPhone. His wife, Kathleen Cirioli, had opened Kathleen Academy of Dance of Hillsborough, New Jersey, in 1971, just before they got married. He was enjoying the “interesting perspective” of the retreat, where his experienced wife could sit beside a rookie studio owner and both could learn from each other.
“This is a beautiful setting. People can come here and it’s like a vacation from their lives, and they can discuss things that maybe they can’t usually discuss,” he said. “She usually burns herself out at a teacher convention, dancing four or five days. This is different—she’s more relaxed and less tired. Plus she knows what Rhee has to offer her and her colleagues in this business.”
Between chats about how to be a better boss or whether intensive dancers are a financial drain, participants crowded cheerfully onto picnic table benches to munch on barbeque or veggie pizza as they talked shop. Aleisia Ashlaw, executive artistic director of Beaufort [SC] Academy of Dance, said she was purposely sitting at different tables for each meal so she could hear everyone’s ideas.
Ashlaw was thrilled to be there. She had mentioned to her office manager how much she wanted to attend a DanceLife Retreat Center weekend and so in lieu of giving her a traditional recital gift, her faculty and students raised the money to send her off on the retreat. “I want to see what I can do to improve my studio,” said Ashlaw, a school owner for 15 years. “The minute I heard Rhee speak I was inspired. I realized some of the things he was suggesting I had already implemented, but he has even more ideas to make it better.”
With 22 years under her belt, Carolyn Nelson-Kavajecz was describing how she runs her Sterling Silver Studio in Superior, Wisconsin, to two Illinois studio owners. Trish Rowley of Illinois Dance Academy in Joliet and Neala Dunn of Dance Alive! Dance Studio in Manteno asked Nelson-Kavajecz how she deals with rule breakers on her staff, how she balances a life and a business, and how she runs her 501(c)3 nonprofit scholarship foundation.
“I used to feel about my studio just how you guys feel—that I love it so much, I would do it for free,” Nelson-Kavajecz said. “Then I started treating it like a business, put together a business plan, and run it as any business would run.”
Studio owners sank into plush couches or sprawled on the Great Room’s rug for a session with certified life coach Sandi Duncan. “I’m actually going to let the role of dance teacher go and talk to you as normal people,” she said, lightening the mood before an hour of soul-searching generated by a host of thoughtful questions. “Are you moving forward?” she asked. “How do you celebrate you? What in life are you thankful for? What inspires you? Besides dance, what in life makes you happy? What would you do if you couldn’t fail?”
You can complain about things, she reminded her listeners, or you can change. “The choice is yours. You are CEO of your own life,” she said.
And what would a dance convention be without vendors? Costume Gallery president Ellen Ferreira showed up with a kitchen bowl full of colorful flash drives containing next season’s costume catalog and a touching video about how her company and others helped a young woman whose studio in Joplin, Missouri, had been destroyed by a tornado.
Joe Sclafani, vice president of sales for Discount Dance Supply, discussed the profit margins to be made from selling the company’s brand of dancewear, Theatricals, in a studio. As the owners examined the sample shoes and leotards he passed around, one expressed disappointment that he didn’t bring any tights. Without missing a beat, Sclafani offered to send some to her—and to everyone in the room.
Rather than making a presentation, International Dance Challenge vice president Joe Martin asked the teachers a question: “What are your needs and what are your wants?” That spurred a spirited back-and-forth about medals and scoring, age divisions, and generic critiques from uninspired or inadequate judges.
Martin said the honest discussion was just what he wanted to hear. He and IDC president Randy Coleman (who purchased the company in 2011 from founders Art and Nancy Stone) jumped on the retreat center’s sponsorship opportunities. “We looked at our budget, and as an organization under a new owner, we felt this personalized the process—to be right in front of these people,” said Martin. “From a business perspective, to get to meet owners, this is a very rewarding experience.”
On Saturday evening, Gold broke out the good china and served a formal, candlelit dinner with entertainment courtesy of 93-year-old studio owner Georgia Deane, a friend who had dropped by to sing a song. After dessert, all retired to the great room for an informal gabfest with Gold. One owner’s tirade about a breast-feeding situation in her school lobby elicited gasps (“The kid is 7!”) and laughs. Deane shared how she keeps from stressing (“I sing!”) and what she does when she gets tired (“I go to bed!”).
When 9 o’clock hit, new friends wished each other a pleasant night. “Bring your T-shirts tomorrow for a group photo!” Gold called after them.
The final day was short and sweet. The few owners who had to scoot out early to catch flights were ushered out with hugs and loud goodbyes. Most stayed to hear Gold’s final encouragements and best wishes for continued success.
“This dance thing—that’s your freedom. Get lost in the music; get lost in the movement. If you haven’t felt that in a long time, you need to get that back,” he said. “Say to yourself: ‘This is my chance to let go and share my passion.’ ”
Facing a long trip home to Kilmarnock, Scotland, was Margaret Bunten, who said she had thoroughly enjoyed the retreat—particularly for its intimate size and the personal attention showered on the participants. A one-woman show (she holds classes for 300 kids in various rented halls and community centers four days a week, doing all the teaching and paperwork herself, and even making the costumes), Bunten said she was leaving the center with renewed faith in her own abilities.
“It’s so good to hear that dance teachers all over have the same problems,” she said. “This gives me lots of confidence that I’m running my dance school, and I’m doing it right.”
Retaining students is key to survival—here’s how to do it
By James Careless
Dance studios cannot survive without attracting new students. But retaining the ones you already have makes sound business sense. Moreover, says Kathy Holland, owner of NorthPointe Dance Academy in Westerville, Ohio, “it is much easier to keep current students than to look for new ones.” In other words, not retaining students is a waste of time and money—and that’s something few studios can afford.
So how does a school keep its students coming back year after year? Here is some advice from studio owners who have mastered student retention.
It starts with relationships
Studio owners who take the time to foster relationships with their students (and parents) increase the chances that those families will re-enroll. The worst mistake they can make is to take money from customers and then ignore their needs for the duration of their lessons. When the time comes for re-enrollment, it won’t happen: those customers will remember that they were neglected, and leave.
Fostering relationships “means making yourself available to receive feedback from your students and to address their concerns,” says Suzanne Blake Gerety, vice president of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire. “After all, customer service is the backbone of any studio’s retention efforts.”
Holland agrees that good relationships matter but says that fostering them goes beyond mere availability. To keep students connected, owners must communicate with them on a regular basis—and keep their parents (where applicable) in the loop too.
Sarah Ghimire believes in going the extra mile when it comes to building relationships. “We try to connect to our students on a personal level that goes beyond dance,” says Ghimire, who co-owns and teaches at Salsa Mississippi in Jackson, Mississippi. “This can be as simple as going out for a coffee with them after class,” she says of her adult students.
“The main thing is that the students need to feel as if they have a real social connection at the studio, to motivate them to keep signing up,” Ghimire says. “I have noticed that if people who like the dancing don’t have anyone to chat with when they are here, they don’t tend to re-enroll.”
Social media sites such as Facebook are another good means to build community and keep students involved. With 365 Facebook “likes” for its information-packed pages—and lots of postings from its dancers—NorthPointe Dance Academy appears to be succeeding in this venue. The secret to their success? “We just post often, and post material that is of interest to our dancers,” says Holland.
Students need to see progress
Dancers are as much athletes as they are artists, and athletes seek achievement. This is why dance studios should offer multi-level programs that offer advancement opportunities, giving students goals they can reach and tangible markers of their progress.
“You need to have some sort of ‘ascension model’ in place,” says Gerety, adding that unfortunately, many studios are so focused on their beginner classes that they forget the importance of serving their more experienced students. At many schools, the opposite is true—advanced students get all the attention, sometimes to a fault. But Gerety has noted that at studios where the owner is the only teacher, they tend to be so focused on teaching beginner classes “that they don’t have space in their schedules for advancement in a particular genre,” she says. “In those situations, a new studio owner may want to consider adding a faculty member to add some depth to their programs.” If they don’t, the people who are paying the bills—either the students or their parents— may lose faith and seek advanced training elsewhere.
Keep them interested
People like novelty. Doing the same thing day in and day out bores them—and bored students leave. This is why Kathy Blake Dance Studios offers master classes and guest instructors. “Having new material and teachers is key to keeping everyone interested,” Gerety says.
At the NUEVO School of Contemporary Dance in Chino, California, “the [serious] students are pretty much committed to our program, so our retention rate is pretty high,” says Francisco Gella, the school’s founder and artistic director. “It’s a little different for recreational students, however. By advertising new, fun classes such as more hip-hop or interesting styles such as Bollywood, I find that they are more likely to stay.”
Offer incentives to return
A current student who takes a new class at a dance studio is demonstrating loyalty, and loyalty needs to be rewarded to endure. Doing so is relatively simple: you give returning students incentives to sign up.
A case in point: “A few years ago, after reading an article in Dance Studio Life, we began having pre-registration incentives,” says Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in Tonawanda, New York. “The first year we kept the registration the same—$15 for returning students, $25 for new—but gave away a T-shirt valued at $15. The next year we did the same thing. We have continued to keep our registration fees the same but have made the incentives a lesser value, so our cash flow is more positive with this.” Boniszewski always offers a promotional item with the studio’s name on it. “This year we gave away nylon book bags that are popular with the kids,” she says.
Dancers are as much athletes as they are artists, and athletes seek achievement. This is why dance studios should offer multi-level programs that offer advancement opportunities.
Sometimes money is the simplest and most direct incentive. That’s why Dance Rhythms, Ltd., of Indianapolis gives price breaks to its returning students. “We start half-price registration in April for our next year,” says Judi Gott, the school’s office and customer service manager. “That way we have everyone signed back up before they leave for summer break.” Add in promotional shows at local county and state fairs that keep student interest high, and “our retention rate is over 75 percent.”
Surviving the summer
For dance studios that follow a September through June schedule, summers are financial droughts. To offset this loss, Tonawanda Dance Arts runs a weeklong camp in July to keep its students involved and primed for fall enrollment. “I would not say it helps to retain a ton of students, but does help retain some,” says Boniszewski. “It does allow students to try different genres of dance that they haven’t taken yet and want to try.”
As well, the studio stages a yearly summer picnic, takes part in the Canal Fest parade and holds three or four open houses each year. “We invite current students to come to a summer open house and participate in a free class to get ready for the dance year,” says Boniszewski. The free classes serve as demonstration classes for new visitors to the studio. In addition, she offers free preschool classes during the open house, which help to boost new enrollment.
Kathy Blake Dance Studios also uses the summer to renew its students’ enthusiasm. “During these months we like to change up our normal offerings and give our students a chance to take classes that are out of the ordinary, such as Broadway Tap, Video Dance, Audition Class, Creating a Solo, Improv for Contemporary, and more,” says Gerety. “This keeps them excited about new styles and often inspires them to try new classes in the fall. To encourage students to register for the fall we have open houses for studio tours and meeting teachers.”
The studio also opens online registration in midsummer so that parents can easily book spots for their children.
For NUEVO School, the summer months are key to student retention efforts. “To get the students to return in the fall for our conservatory, we prepare in the last weeks of the summer semester to have them re-audition for the fall,” says Gella. “We advertise what new and exciting things will be happening at the school, such as ideas for new choreography, the guest teachers who are coming in for the year, [plus] plans to participate at dance festivals and not just competitions.”
Goodbye might not be forever
Even when a studio owner does everything possible to retain students, some will inevitably leave. When this happens, Gerety sends departing students a thank-you card and an exit survey with a self-addressed stamped envelope for feedback on their studio experience.
“Gathering feedback from a student who leaves gives us a chance to make improvements right away for those currently enrolled,” Gerety says. Typically, children quit dance due to lack of interest or scheduling conflicts. “However, if we find that there are recurring complaints from parents or students regarding a particular teacher in that survey, it is a chance to make modifications so that we don’t lose more students.”
Reaching out to students who dropped and inviting them back to try a new class is worth the effort, she says. “You might be surprised by their renewed interest or referrals to others in the future.”
Coping with teachers who tread on your turf
By Lauren Green
She hired them believing they would strengthen and nurture her dance program. With no warning, they left and opened a new studio four miles down the street, taking as many students and teachers with them as they could hustle.
“I did not lose just one teacher,” says Jane Brown (not her real name). “I lost nearly my entire faculty all in one sweep.” This disheartening tale is not uncommon in the dance studio world. It only takes one problem teacher to infect the atmosphere of a studio.
Brown was on the highway, taking her daughter to a summer intensive in New York City, when she got the call. Focused on getting her daughter settled, she wasn’t expecting a call from the studio. And she definitely wasn’t expecting to be read three letters of resignation over the phone, only a month before fall registration and the national dance competition that her students were to attend. She had thought of the teachers as friends, so she was shocked that they hadn’t come to her in person. Her former teachers set up their new school four miles away from her studio.
Another school owner, Susan Woods, watched a degreed, promising teacher unglue her competition team and healthy classroom environment one rumor at a time. “She told the students to come with her, that she’d outgrown this school,” says Woods, former director of Susan Woods Dancenters in Reading and Stoneham, Massachusetts.
More than a decade later, Woods says that what was at the time a terrible experience actually helped her business. “The week [that teacher] was gone, my studio was a healthier place.” She and Brown turned their hardships into positive changes, resulting in programs they are more proud of than ever.
No studio owner wants to believe that a teacher he or she has invested in would create gossip and stress, let alone tear apart the business. Brown would never have imagined that her teachers, people she considered friends, would leave and open a school so close to hers. But in retrospect, she sees the warning signs.
So does Woods. She recalls an exchange with one of her teachers who defended her costly costume picks by saying, “It’s my choreography.” Woods responded by saying, “You work for me. If I say they’re putting tutus on their heads, they’re putting tutus on their heads.”
Here are some of the warning signs that Woods and Brown noticed. You might have a teacher who’s planning to leave on your hands if she
- doesn’t follow the rules;
- makes decisions without your consent;
- has a large ego;
- becomes overly friendly with students;
- makes you feel like the “bad guy”;
- refers to her students as “my dancers” and shows little regard for the team atmosphere of the studio.
Another potential tip-off that a teacher is becoming a problem is a change in her students’ attitude. Brown noticed that certain classes were getting lazier and that pizza parties were happening during class without her consent. Some dancers became increasingly disrespectful; in one instance a teenage dancer ignored Brown when she tried to talk to her in the hallway. “It stems from the message the faculty was sending, which was that [the director] didn’t need to be listened to anymore,” says Brown.
Woods’ teacher, a former student of hers, had trouble following the rules from the get-go. She spoke privately to the students about doing competitions that weren’t on the school’s schedule and then had to disappoint the dancers. According to Woods, she cast her as the villain, saying, “Susan says we can’t.” The 22-year-old teacher also took her 17-year-old students to parties and advised them to come to the mall instead of ballet class.
Woods says that she held several staff meetings over the year and sent out staff newsletters that addressed studio policies and rules for competitions. She even met with the problem teacher privately on several occasions. “It didn’t matter if it was in the guidelines for the studio or not,” she says. “She thought she could make decisions and had no regard for the rules.”
Woods had to let her go—the first teacher she’d fired in 26 years. In the aftermath, the competition team was divided between loyalty to the studio and to the teacher who’d been let go. Woods met with the team students and parents and expressed her concerns about the animosity. Many respected her honesty, she says, but some students wanted to do many more competitions than the school attended. To those families she said, “Maybe you should follow her.”
Regardless of the director–faculty conflict, it is the students who will always bear the battle scars. Brown chokes up as she remembers having to explain her situation to her young dancers. A question she heard a lot was, “Miss Jane, how come these teachers didn’t want to be with us anymore?”
“And how do you answer that?” asks Brown. “My answer was simply, ‘Honey, I know they still love you, but you know how when people grow up they want to have their own house someday? Well, they just wanted to have their own dance studio.’ ”
Even if you see the warning signs, firing a problematic teacher isn’t always an option, especially during competition or performance season. In Brown’s case, she kept the problem teachers on through the nationals competition. While she would have preferred to let them go as soon as the resignation letters surfaced, she wanted them to fulfill their commitment to the students. She found out after the fact that the teachers had been mailing solicitation flyers to her students over the summer.
Brown admits denying the early warning signs. Some of her adult students had told her about the teachers’ plan to open a new studio months before, but she convinced herself that the students were confused. “A part of it was denial, but it was also because we had had such a long-running healthy relationship,” says Brown.
“I did not lose just one teacher. I lost nearly my entire faculty all in one sweep.” —studio owner Jane Brown (not her real name)
There is no guaranteed way to avoid such problems with teachers, but a little prevention can help. Now Brown tries not to give any one teacher too much responsibility. She also avoids giving one teacher too many classes of the same level, “so that no dancer or family comes to bond entirely with that one teacher and believe that their sole existence as a dancer rests only with that teacher.”
Woods admits that she did not interview her problem teacher because she thought she knew her strengths. “She was a longtime student, a fabulous dancer—but she knew that, and she let other people know that,” says Woods. “She went to college, got her degree in dance, and needed a job. And I desperately needed teachers.”
A thorough interview process is a key step in getting to know prospective teachers, whether they are brand-new or former students. Below are things Woods and Brown look for during the interview process:
- A degree in dance or a background in performance. This typically shows a higher understanding and knowledge of dance and hopefully a more committed educator; however, it’s no guarantee that a teacher won’t become problematic.
- How the potential hire would approach specific teaching scenarios, such as discipline or working with a struggling child. Better yet, have the interviewee teach an audition class or view an audition tape to better understand how she interacts and work with the students. “Everything looks pretty impressive on paper, but that doesn’t mean they can do it,” says Brown.
- The desire to be a part of that particular studio setting. In Woods’ case, the teacher was gung-ho about competitions and simply did not fit with the studio’s mission.
- Career goals. Desire to be a studio owner someday doesn’t have to be a warning sign. A potential hire who says, “I want to own a studio, but I’m fresh out of college and I have a lot to learn. I’m hoping to learn from your studio, and I’d be happy to agree contractually not to compete with you,” is at least being forthright while also displaying gumption and focus.
- A willingness to sign a non-compete contract. Designed to protect studio owners from unethical employee harm, a non-compete contract can identify a mileage radius within which employees cannot start a similar business. While litigation is costly and these contracts tend to have gray areas, a teacher’s willingness to sign such a contract is usually enough to prove his or her good intentions. (See “Once an Employee, Now a Rival,” Dance Studio Life, August 2009.)
- References. A reference can make or break someone’s contract. The teacher who left Woods’ studio was hired at a neighboring school whose director did not ask Woods for a referral. The diva teacher took all of that school’s teams and teachers when she opened her school down the street, leaving that director with nothing.
React in a timely fashion
The little back-and-forths among teachers, and teachers and students, don’t always reach directors’ ears. But if a complaint gets to the administrative level, it’s probably worth attending to. Setting a clear studio policy lets faculty know the rules and boundaries. It is also a jumping-off point for dealing with teacher conflicts should they arise. “It was a learning experience,” says Woods. “Now, anytime there’s a communication issue, we sit down and talk about it.”
Brown now considers the experience a blessing. She has found more knowledgeable and committed teachers who have helped improve the quality of her program. And she’s no longer doing her job “in the shadows,” she says. “I was never the kind of boss who says, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it.’ I always embrace my faculty as part of the team, welcome their opinions and suggestions.” She thinks the teachers who left got too comfortable, and she didn’t know how to handle it without “stepping on toes because of those delicate artistic egos.”
Many of Brown’s students and families remained loyal to her for moral reasons. Using what she calls a “breathe and believe” philosophy, she has since developed a team-friendly program. Today, while she still adheres to her team approach, she tries to be more vigilant in the program and works harder to communicate well with her faculty.
Woods’ difficult experience was one of many factors that contributed to her decision to sell her studio to one of her longtime faculty members, Lindsay Fresco-Fucarile, just over a year ago. She now teaches for her. Over her 26 years as director Woods saw around 20 teachers move on, many of whom have now opened studios of their own. About two-thirds of them left the “right way,” giving plenty of notice and assuring Woods of their good intentions. With sufficient notice (ideally, six months), studio owners can prepare for the change and even help the young business owner. Woods sometimes shares substitute teachers with some of her former employees who are now directors, goes to their open houses, and sometimes teaches master classes for them.
The reality is that most teachers gain a following, and naturally students want to study with the teachers they love. “Everyone has the right to sow their dream and move on,” says Brown, “but how you treat those who have helped you along the way does matter.”
Artistic director and co-founder, The State Ballet of Rhode Island; artistic director and owner, The Brae Crest School of Classical Ballet, Lincoln, RI
NOMINATED BY: Gloria Silva, parent: “Mrs. Marsden is the best dance teacher there is. At 73, she still teaches all her ballet classes. She allows every student to perform; she encourages even those who think picking dance wasn’t a great choice. They stay—why? Because of her. Students get an experience there that they would not get anywhere else. My daughter, who has many disabilities, feels good about herself because of Mrs. Marsden.”
YEARS TEACHING: 53 years
GENRES TAUGHT: Classical ballet: technique and pointe, including pas de deux, classical variations, and character dancing
AGES TAUGHT: 8 to adult
WHY SHE CHOSE TEACHING AS A CAREER: I have always been appreciative of others who helped me throughout my dancing career as well as during my childhood in a war-torn country, Croatia (formerly part of Yugoslavia). Inspired by teachers who gave me opportunities that changed my life for the better, I knew that sharing my love for ballet as a performer and teacher would continue the legacy of classical ballet, my inspirational teachers, and my passion and belief in the power of the arts. When my family and I moved to the United States, it was an opportunity for me to share my talents as a dancer by teaching others. There was no question about my decision to teach, because it was a living tribute to give back what I had been blessed with. By teaching, all were alive: ballet, my teachers, myself, and the future of my students.
GREATEST INSPIRATION: I have a great love and appreciation for classical ballet, and I share that with the teachers who inspired me: Ana Roje, Oskar Harmos, Mila Katic, and Mia Slavenska. I also value the Slavic heritage I share with many of my teachers.
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY: Dance all you can today because you never know what tomorrow brings.
WHAT MAKES HER A GOOD TEACHER: I have always shared with my students the love and respect I have for ballet. Ballet is my way of life, and my students are part of my everyday world. My teaching, disciplined yet open to artistic expression, is conveyed with love so they too can appreciate ballet.
FONDEST TEACHING MOMENT: I take great pride in watching my students progress as dancers and as individuals. So many of them, from my ballet school as well as from the University of Rhode Island, have chosen paths in life in which they have been so successful: dancers, doctors, teachers, business leaders, and artists in other genres.
ADVICE TO STUDENTS: Continue to love the art of ballet. It is a way to live, grow, inspire, create, cope, express, and feel free. Always do your ballet class because it exercises your mind, body, and soul. It is OK to take risks and be afraid of the challenges along the way of reaching your dreams and achieving your goals. Believe in yourself and the discipline you’ve learned in ballet class and you will attain wonderful achievements and strength as a dancer and quality human being.
IF SHE WASN’T A DANCE TEACHER: It is not a matter of what I would do if I were not a ballet teacher, but rather who I would be. Ballet is who I am, and teaching is how I share myself with my students.
DO YOU KNOW A DANCE TEACHER WHO DESERVES TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT? Email your nominations to Arisa@rheegold.com or mail them to Arisa White, Dance Studio Life, P.O. Box 2150, Norton, MA 02766. Please include why you think this teacher should be featured, along with his or her contact information.
The work doesn’t stop when former students join your staff
By Debbie Werbrouck
As a studio owner, it can be wonderfully satisfying when the newest teacher to join your faculty is a former student who “grew up” under your tutelage.
There are many benefits to hiring former students. They know your teaching style and school philosophy. Parents will see them as role models for younger students. They often cling fast to your values while bringing in fresh energy.
Of course, the transition from student to teacher is not always a smooth one. Everyone in the studio may have to make adjustments. A new faculty member might have to teach students who were once her peers, which is difficult for both parties. Parents need to accept these young teachers as authority figures and other teachers must consider them (perhaps once their own students) as equals. But with good preparation, mentoring, and open communication, studio owners can make sure these bumps in the road don’t become major obstacles to a healthy studio environment.
Take the time to train
Student demonstrator and teacher training programs are a good way to mentor future teachers from an early age. Debra Collier of Debra Collier’s School of Dance in Warsaw, Indiana, runs a popular student-demonstrating program that she uses as the first step in developing future teachers. By seeing a class from a demonstrator’s point of view, these dancers gain a different perspective from that of students focused on only their individual development.
Collier’s demonstrators are trained in their duties (in the classes they assist in and in separate training sessions), given written information, and monitored for behavior. By observing her students as demonstrators, Collier can identify which ones might have potential as future staff members. To date, she’s hired 15.
Most young teachers have little experience in structuring a lesson, understanding classroom or student management, or interacting appropriately with students and parents. At Debbie Werbrouck’s School of Dance & Music in northern Indiana, teacher training program participants learn how to follow the syllabuses and detailed lesson plans that are used for the studio’s graded system. They are taught how to read and write choreography notes, and they learn the basics of constructing age-appropriate choreography. They also observe several classes run by experienced teachers and make notes on what they have learned. Any questions are discussed with a mentor, one of three studio teachers with specific experience working with young trainees.
Jaci Mullins, a former student and now a faculty member at the Werbrouck school, credits the education she received in the student demonstrator and assistant teacher programs for her accomplishments. A popular and requested teacher who produces well-trained dancers, Mullins holds a master certification from Chicago National Association of Dance Masters and has been teaching for 14 years. “I learned a lot in the teacher-training program from all of the teachers but especially from my mentor, Julie Bodle [assistant director of the Werbrouck school]. It gave me the confidence that I could teach without constantly being observed,” Mullins says.
At Sandy Stramonine ’s School of Dance in Macedon, New York, all but one teacher was trained at the school and went through Stramonine ’s student teaching program. “When I started [teaching], I didn’t have an in-studio mentor. I had to learn from my mistakes. I tell my young teachers that I’m willing to share what I’ve learned with them,” Stramonine says.
Her student teachers begin as college freshmen and are assigned to teach one class for a full school year using Stramonine ’s lesson plans and choreography. She frequently observes those classes to make sure the young teachers are on track and helps them with teaching tips, such as using a strong, enthusiastic voice and setting the pace of the class. “I tell them not to ask students if they would like to do something but to tell them, ‘Now we’re going to do this,’ ” Stramonine says. For the recital dances, she gives the teachers lists of what to clean since they typically don’t have enough experience to see the details.
Some studio owners require trainees to attend out-of-studio training sessions, such as those offered by many dance teacher organizations. Potential teachers at both the Collier and Werbrouck schools attend the summer teacher-training school offered by the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, which focuses on pedagogical education from beginning to advanced levels. Once trainees become teachers, providing a syllabus will help them see if their students are keeping pace with expectations for that level.
In addition to the how-tos, it is also important for studio owners to communicate clearly about how and why their studio functions as it does. Students may have spent countless hours there but still have limited knowledge of how things work behind the scenes. As teachers they must take an active role in studio decisions, and often they find that their ideas are very different from the owner’s.
“When I started [teaching], I didn’t have an in-studio mentor. I had to learn from my mistakes. I tell my young teachers that I’m willing to share what I’ve learned with them.” —Sandy Stramonine
For example, owners need to be prepared to guide young teachers in music and costume choices, perhaps by asking for several choices and taking the time to discuss why one would be more appropriate. For song choices, Virginia Davis of Virginia Davis School of Dance in Madison, Wisconsin, asks her young teachers to print out the lyrics. This allows her to explain why a song with inappropriate content should not be used and suggest other options.
Don’t forget to counsel new teachers about appropriate class attire, conduct in and out of the studio, and participation in continuing education, both in-house and away. With established guidelines owners can measure the new teachers’ progress, as well as that of their students. Owners should not assume that new teachers know how to act or react in every situation. Mentors should continue to offer advice and provide positive feedback.
Learning the ropes
After spending many years dancing at a studio, a new teacher might feel overly comfortable in her new position or think she’s “arrived.” Some might consider their views or methods fresh and hip and the studio owner’s ideas creaky and old. A few might even challenge authority outright. But most of the time, says Sheila Bailey of Westside Studio of Performing Arts in St. George, Utah, they simply lack experience. Instead of following studio tradition or taking cues from the other teachers, “it’s like they want to do their own thing,” she says. “To have their own little studio within a studio.”
And sometimes they simply want to be liked by parents or students, like one young teacher who rewarded her preschoolers with candy after class. Bailey had to explain that while the students love getting candy, parents might not appreciate their little ones leaving class on a “sugar high” and that a sticker or hand stamp would be a more appropriate reward.
For Marissa Salemi, owner of Breaking Ground Dance Center in Pleasantville, New York, it’s important that her teachers maintain a professional respect for each other, both in public and in private. She described an instance when several of her young teachers began kidding her about choices of music, costumes, and choreography they considered old-fashioned. Thinking that their opinions could cause problems if shared with customers or students, Salemi explained that parents might misinterpret even a casual remark made by a teacher. That might be obvious to a veteran teacher, but to a newbie it could be a revelation.
When trainees become employees, the transition can be difficult for everyone. It can take time for parents to accept that this person they knew as a child or a teen will now be teaching their children. Owners should make it known that their young teachers have had adequate training, are competent to teach the level of classes assigned, and will continue to receive guidance from more experienced faculty members. Such public displays of support will reassure parents and build confidence in the new teacher. Studio owners especially need to step in and set the tone in classes where a former student might be called upon to teach former classmates.
If a problem arises, address it quickly and use it as a teaching moment. Here are some good practices to keep in mind.
- Offer student demonstrator and/or teacher training programs for students with teaching potential.
- Be clear about rules and requirements.
- Increase responsibility slowly and monitor progress.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate.
- Thoroughly explain policies and procedures.
- If a problem emerges, fix it and consider it a teachable moment.
- Guide young teachers with observations and evaluations.
- Provide positive critiques and encouragement.
- Remind all faculty members to treat each other with respect.
As a studio owner, I am endlessly pondering and planning business opportunities and new sources of income. Still, one of my biggest successes—a performance team for 5- and 6-year-olds—sprang from a simple observation by my husband.
For nine years I’ve had a performance company at my studio that featured my most accomplished teen dancers. One day my husband, who is not involved with the dance studio, said, “The advanced dancers are awesome, but I don’t necessarily think, ‘Hey, my little girl could do that,’ when I watch them. You should showcase younger kids, too.”
I knew he was right, but it wasn’t until a few years later at the UPA Eclipse Cup competition in Minneapolis that I found the right concept. There 25-plus little kids dressed as rubber duckies tumbled out of metal bathtubs to a jamming remix of the classic Sesame Street song “Rubber Duckie,” filling the stage with energy. It was an irresistible sight and the highlight of the show for me.
At that moment I knew I had found the right song for a young performing group. It was the perfect fit for my studio: age appropriate, high energy, and fun. With bright costumes, kid-sized tubs, and duck props, I knew that this group number would be a real showstopper.
I advertised the group within the studio as open to 5- and 6-year-olds. “Auditions” were set, but I used the term loosely with parents, saying that I was looking for dancers who would have fun while they danced, could listen to the teacher, and could stay in the room for the whole time. My hope was for 12 to 15 kids, but when I got to the studio that day, the parking lot was full.
Inside, 35 bright-eyed, hopeful kids were ready to dance. To dispel the moms’ obvious nervous tension, I announced, “Wow, there are a lot of ducks in there. I think we’re going to need two ‘ponds’ to hold them all!” I decided on the spot that everyone who came to the audition would be invited to join one of two groups of Rubber Duckies (called Pond 1 and Pond 2).
The season kicked off with a parent meeting and a “Duckie Camp” for each Pond, which consisted of a one-hour rehearsal two days in a row where they learned most of the “Rubber Duckie” dance. My goal was to create an atmosphere of encouragement right away, so I created the Rubber Duckie Pledge: “I will do my best. I will be a good friend. I am here to have fun!” Team members learned the pledge at camp, and later recited it at all our rehearsals and performances.
I knew I had found the right song for a young performing group. It was the perfect fit for my studio: age appropriate, high energy, and fun.
My next task was prop construction. Using a jigsaw, my husband and I cut three large ducks (4 feet by 4 feet) and three large tub shapes (3 feet tall by 4 feet wide) out of 3-inch foam insulation board. Parents helped prime and paint the props and a grandpa made stands for the tubs. Costumes were ordered before the school year started.
After a few weekly rehearsals (30 minutes max), the Ducks and their show-stopping number were ready. Each Pond performed between six to eight times, appearing alongside my older groups at a Special Olympics fund-raiser, Downtown Days, school events, community festivals, our studio’s Christmas social, and our spring recital. Parent volunteers were always ready to transport props and provide “Pond patrol” backstage. I alternated performance opportunities between Ponds to keep the kids (and their parents) from wearing out.
We didn’t attend any competitions. I wanted these kids to fall in love with dance and become comfortable performing. Those who did can move up to my non-competitive Dancing Kids! for ages 7 to 9, or my competitive Performance Company for ages 9 and up.
The Ducks have been a great addition to my program. They’ve increased the studio’s visibility, generated parent and student enthusiasm for our performing programs, and raised income—the Ducks pay for an extra class in addition to their regular tuition bill.
Looking back, I admit I had some reservations. After all, 5 and 6 are pretty young ages to be touring with a three-and-a-half-minute dance. But after one season with the Ducks and their supportive parents, I have to say, “Rubber Duckie, you’re the one!”
Kiner Enterprises Inc., a dance teacher staffing agency, will launch an online dance teacher staffing network beginning April 15 that will help dance teachers and dance studio owners to connect 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Founded in 2007, Kiner Enterprises Inc., under the direction of CEO/president Ashani Mfuko, has been providing dance teachers in the New York metropolitan area with substitute dance teaching jobs at local dance studios, and helping dance studio owners find and hire dance teachers.
Through the network, dance studio owners will be able to post job advertisements on a cost-per-ad basis. Network members will be able to post unlimited job ads each month, plus hire dance teachers in the network for master classes, dance workshops, choreography, long-term teaching positions, and for help with last-minute subs. Both the dance teachers and dance studio owners in the network will receive exclusive tips, tools, and resources on branding, marketing, and maximizing social media through ebooks, videos, teleseminars, and an online forum, plus online promotion through Kiner Enteprises Inc.’s live weekly internet radio show and dancer’s blog.
Monthly membership fee is $10 for dance teachers. A monthly membership option for dance studio owners will be available by May 23. Learn more about Kiner Enterprises Inc. at www.kinerenterprises.com.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT:
Rhee Gold Company 508.285.665
LOOK TO MISTY LOWN FOR INCOME-GENERATING TIPS
AT 2011 DANCELIFE TEACHER CONFERENCE
NORTON, MA, April 06, 2011
Being the owner and director of a thriving Wisconsin dance studio is just one of the business skills Misty Lown brings to the table as a faculty member at this year’s DanceLife Teacher Conference.
Lown will lead sessions for dance teachers and school owners from across the United States on “10 Income-Generating Ideas” and “How Do You Handle That?” at the conference, held July 30 through August 2 at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In addition to running Misty’s Dance Unlimited, which serves more than 700 students in Onalaska, Wisconsin, Lown is also the owner of a dancewear store and a managing partner of five daycare centers. Lown also writes for Dance Studio Life and tours as a dance teacher and business consultant with Dance Revolution.
For more information about the DanceLife Teacher Conference, visit www.dancestudiolife.com/dltc/.
I never wanted to be anything but a dancer, but that proved to be only the beginning of my career’s evolution. As my development from dancer to teacher to choreographer to director has proved, you never know what you can do unless you try it.
My early training was strictly ballet and my first teacher, Norman Craig, gave me a solid foundation. I danced with the Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company for many years before moving to New York, where I added jazz and other forms of dance to my training. I had many wonderful teachers, among them Matt Mattox, Luigi, Bob Hamilton, and Frank Wagner for jazz, and for ballet, all the madames who were teaching at that time in New York. Some were purist in that the technique was all that you needed. Some taught from the soul and gave inspiring classes. Others wanted both. Each teacher added a layer to my training. Little did I know at the time that I was preparing to become a teacher.
While still taking classes, I danced in Broadway shows (The Music Man, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, I Had a Ball, Sail Away, and others) and added acting and singing lessons. All the time I was gaining experience from directors, choreographers, and music directors. I also did TV and industrial shows. Every job was another opportunity to work with all kinds of talented people. Then I opted out of auditions and performances to become a mom and a teacher. Real-life experiences are so important; they are what we draw from as artists.
As a teacher, I worked for various studios in and around New York City. Then, when my family relocated to New Jersey, I decided that other people’s visions, although rewarding to work toward, were not the same as mine. So I opened my own studio and loved making all the artistic decisions. I learned a lot in running a business. I became a combination of all the teachers I took class from, adding my life experience. I saw my students as individuals and gave them the attention they deserved. I was so pleased to see their dreams come true—as professional dancers, in other careers, and as moms—and to pass my love of dance to them. Each student took a little piece of my heart with her.
During my 18 years as teacher/studio owner, progressing to choreographer was the next step. As if by osmosis, I became a combination of all the choreographers I had ever worked for. I do believe that my ballet and musical theater background shaped my style of choreography. I loved blending ballet technique with the entertainment factor of musical theater and adding a twist to my pieces, like putting my ballet dancers in construction boots. I never gave the dancers material that was beyond them, and I always considered how to please the audience.
As if by osmosis, I became a combination of all the choreographers I had ever worked for. I do believe that my ballet and musical theater background shaped my style of choreography.
All of the above roles—dancer, teacher, studio owner, choreographer—lead to the ultimate experience: director. Theater is all about storytelling, movement, and pictures. Storytelling is what choreographers do all the time. They have to convey their inner thoughts and use imagination to make the story come alive. I have seen so many wonderful creative choreographers through my judging of dance competitions. They made the stories come alive and could easily translate their movement into words or a script.
Directors use scripts as guidelines to tell stories, but they use the same methods as choreographers. Directors choreograph all movements for the actors to get the maximum effect, visualizing their actors just as choreographers do their dancers. They see the actors entering and exiting a scene and how their body language relates to the other actors, telling a story through movements and pictures as well as words.
If you would like to direct but don’t think you could, prepare by reading books and talking with people who have made the transition. Draw from your life experience. Think about dance people who became wonderful directors—I worked for Bob Fosse, Joe Layton, and Herbert Ross, all of whom were terrific chorographers before becoming directors. Have a look at local theaters and high schools and see what productions they’re planning. Then go for it—add another layer to your life’s experiences by becoming a director.
Dates have been announced for the 18th annual UDMA (United Dance Merchants of America) Dance Resource and Costume Show, the country’s biggest vendor gathering for dance teachers and studio owners.
The 2011 dates include September 24-25, Long Beach, California; October 1-2, Atlanta, Georgia; October 8-9, New Jersey, and October 15-16, Chicago, Illinois.
The event is a showcase for costumes, competitions, conventions, video and teaching tools, tours, flooring, fundraisers, magazines, and many other attractions, with vendors showing their newest products and services to help teachers and studios owners with the business of dance.
Studio owners can review entire costume and dancewear lines. They also can speak one-on-one with company representatives and designers or chat with leaders in a wide range of other dance-related fields, including competition hosts, shoe manufacturers, flooring specialists, and photographers. For more in-depth information, attend any of the show’s brand new seminars, all led by experts in their fields. The event includes deals, exclusive show specials, prizes, and giveaways.
Admission to the show is free. For more information, visit www.udma.org.
By Melissa Hoffman
What can email do for your business? If you’re like me—not a computer whiz—it’s probably more than you think.
Until about eight months ago I believed that the biggest advantage of using email was that I could answer inquiries and parents’ questions at midnight if need be and send out an information letter five times a year. True, the 24/7 aspect of email makes it a valuable communication tool in the dance school business, what with our crazy hours. However, I have since learned that email can be hugely beneficial in marketing my business to clientele new and old.
Not long ago, I decided to rethink my approach to marketing, and a large part of that was to begin using email as the marketing tool it can be. Since I know far more about dance than about using the Internet to market my business, I was a bit nervous. Right away I enlisted help, not only to help me get started but to learn everything I could about this aspect of my business. I hired one of my teachers who is very computer savvy, who is teaching me as we go. I now do much of the inputting and she adds photos and formats everything properly. We meet once a week for an hour to go over what’s coming up for future emails.
Let’s walk through the steps I took to make email work its magic for me.
Step 1: Choosing a provider
My first task was to find the right email marketing tool for me. That meant taking a look at our current email list and determining how best to reach out to additional clientele.
There are several email marketing companies (see sidebar), and all come with a monthly fee that’s based on the number of emails you plan to send. You can also add features, such as the ability to include photos, for an added cost. The prices seemed fairly comparable. After speaking to many customers of such services and watching informational videos, I decided on Constant Contact. For me, what was most important was that the system would be easy to use, and many people I know who use Constant Contact were very positive about it. Live help is always available and there are many tutorials.
Next, I had my web designer add a “join our mailing list” button to my school’s website so that those who are looking for dance classes can receive notifications from us.
Step 2: Getting set up
Next I needed to transfer my existing email list to Constant Contact. I chose to divide the list into categories: existing students, new students, general interest (the new contacts who clicked on the “join our mailing list” button), and company dancers. This makes it easy to send emails to only certain groups.
With this service I can send emails to more addresses than my regular email account allowed, which was 100 at a time. I also like that it is permission based, so people can choose to remove themselves from the list. I can include the same address in several email categories without worrying that people will get duplicate emails; Constant Contact will send only one email to any address.
Although people have the option to unsubscribe, as of the end of 2010 I had had only seven removals since the time I began using Constant Contact in June 2010. There is also a feature that allows the recipients to forward the email to a friend, and I have seen those referrals happen much more often than removals.
Once you’ve created the mailing list, the fun can begin!
Step 3: Rethink your content
In analyzing my email lists, I realized I’d made a mistake over the years by not including past clients. I have always kept non-returning students on my “snail mail” list for three years; however, I did not keep them on my email list. But now I’ve gone through my files from the past couple of years and added those families onto my email list. Why? Although they might not have children who still want to dance, they might have grandchildren, friends, or neighbors who might be interested. They don’t need to know when dress rehearsal is, but there are other events that could draw them to the school.
My newsletter has never looked so professional. When the first one went out, I received 12 emails within a few minutes telling me how impressive it was.
So, given the broader scope of my email list, I’ve changed my newsletters to include information for the general public. We offer plenty of activities that anyone can participate in without having a child enrolled in the school, such as Parents Night Out, birthday parties, or Zumba for adults. Now people from outside the school are joining in activities they otherwise would not have. And the list helps with publicity: the more times people see the name of your business, the more likely they are to remember it.
Step 4: Create templates
The thought of creating templates made me feel like I was stepping outside of my comfort zone, so I got help. My assistant created numerous templates, including one for our monthly newsletter and others for quick reminder blasts about upcoming events. The templates make it easy to create each newsletter, though I still enlist help with pictures and making each mailing look the best it can.
My newsletter has never looked so professional. Readers can click on a subject and go right to that feature article, join us on Facebook and Twitter, and click on links that bring them to my school’s website. Plus, I can archive the newsletters or quick blasts for easy reference. When the first newsletter went out, I received 12 emails within a few minutes telling me how impressive it was.
Step 5: Reap the benefits
Since beginning with Constant Contact I have watched my mailing list double. Along with the former clients I put back on the list, others have joined via my school’s website and from referrals. Constant Contact has quickly become an integral part of how I do business.
One of the best features of this system is the ability to analyze email activity (included in the monthly fee). I can see whose emails bounced (and why), who has opened their email (and who has not), who opted out of receiving them, and much more. This information is available as soon as an email is sent, but I generally look the next day so that I can manage any bounce-backs. This feature is invaluable for me as a business owner.
And I’ve put my emails to work for me. After revamping my newsletters, I began offering advertising opportunities to other businesses. I take only two per month (business-card size) and charge $20, and now there is a waiting list. These businesses also now share my newsletters with their clientele.
Through better use of email, I’ve increased my school’s visibility—and what’s just as important is the fact that what goes out to my existing and potential clients adds to my image as a professional.
Constant Contact: www.ConstantContact.com
Benchmark Email: www.benchmarkemail.com
Mad Mimi: www.madmimi.com
Studio owner/artistic director, Carolyn Dutra Dance Studio, Warwick, Cranston, and Greenville, Rhode Island
NOMINATED BY: Juliette de Roxas, teacher/studio manager, Carolyn Dutra Dance Studio: “I started dancing at Carolyn Dutra Dance Studio 27 years ago. Miss Carolyn has been my mentor; she is like a second mother and has helped shape the teacher and person I am today. She truly loves what she does, and does what she loves like no other. She acts as a role model for all her dancers, instilling the characteristics of what a true young dancer should strive to be. Her dancers are well educated, well behaved, and well rounded. Her teaching style keeps dancers interested, attentive, and excited.”
YEARS TEACHING: I was a teacher’s assistant from the ages of 12 to 18 and started teaching when I was 24, so almost 40 years. I am now 62 and proud of it!
AGES TAUGHT: 3 to adult.
GENRES TAUGHT: Ballet, tap, jazz, creative movement, pointe, lyrical, and theater.
WHY SHE CHOSE TEACHING AS A CAREER: I danced professionally as a Rockette in New York City. I went home to help my family through a difficult time and started to teach. I loved assisting my dance teacher as a teen and knew I would love to do it on my own. I knew it was a challenging field because it is more than just teaching movement—it’s a combination of psychology, good instincts, mothering, mentoring, and of course, teaching the true tradition of dance.
GREATEST INSPIRATION: The Radio City Rockettes! My dance teacher, Judy Mello, took my dance class to Radio City Music Hall during our annual dance convention—National Association of Dance and Affiliated Arts at the Commodore Hotel above Grand Central Station. As soon as I saw the Rockettes come out, I knew that’s what I aspired to be!
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY: If you learned one new thing, or had one great feeling, it was time well spent. This is true in dance and in life.
WHAT MAKES HER A GOOD TEACHER: I have good instincts. I want to share with children. I know that when they come into my class they have a teacher who is kind and compassionate, and they can sense my genuine love for teaching and dance. Dance has always been there for me and I want it to be there for them.
FONDEST TEACHING MEMORY: I once had a 5-year-old dancer who had only one leg. She had a steel prosthesis, and I asked her mother if we could sit in a circle and talk about her leg so that everyone could see and touch it. I knew if we could share that experience it would be better than not addressing it. It was a moving experience to see that young dancer sauté in the center of the studio.
ADVICE TO DANCE TEACHERS: Continuing to learn to dance is a very, very important part of being a dance teacher. You can never stop learning. Keep your mind open to all movement. These days, that is what dance is all about. Through dance and movement, we are continuing and perpetuating the true culture of history. Dance has evolved so much into telling stories—I love it.
IF SHE WEREN’T A DANCE TEACHER: I would be a psychotherapist. I love touching lives and helping others.
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: Dance is not just about physicality. I am teaching life lessons needed to guide our young people through life. Dance is a release. Greet your students with a welcoming, enthusiastic, upbeat, and positive aura. They will respond in the same way.
DO YOU KNOW A DANCE TEACHER WHO DESERVES TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT? Email your nominations to Arisa@rheegold.com or mail them to Arisa White, Dance Studio Life, 10 South Washington St., Norton, MA 02766. Please include why you think this teacher should be featured, along with his or her contact information.
Born 2 Dance redefines what a suburban school can be
By Jennifer Kaplan
When Azin Mahoozi Shalan was growing up, dance classes were forbidden to her. Yet today, as director of her own dance company and a dance studio owner, Shalan has overcome cultural and religious impediments to reshape her life while opening up a world of dance—literally—to her students in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC.
A onetime specialist in information systems at eTrade who holds a BS from James Madison University, Shalan uses the jargon of her former profession when she says she re-engineered her career, moving from a high-stress job in finance to one she loves: teaching, choreographing, and running a growing dance studio.
“Culturally I come from a conservative background,” 31-year-old Shalan says. “I’m Persian and lived in [Shiraz], Iran, with my family until I was 8.” There was no such thing as a public dance class for women and girls, who, following the toppling of the shah in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution, were required to cover themselves with scarves and robes whenever they appeared in public.
And yet, Shalan couldn’t help herself. Dance called to her. Whenever music played at a family or religious celebration, she couldn’t keep still. “I would always start moving, to the point where my grandfather would say to my mother, ‘Please, stop this girl.’ I always loved dancing, but I could never do anything about it.”
After her family’s move to Springfield, Virginia, Shalan spent the rest of her childhood in a typical, traffic-clogged American suburb where shopping malls were the town squares and high school weekends included football games and homecoming dances. There she found an outlet for her love of dance and a way to identify with her Persian culture. She created the first Persian dance club in her Northern Virginia high school and later did the same at James Madison University. For both groups, she created dances and rehearsed other members for performances, which were typically offered at international nights and other school events. But dance remained a hobby for Shalan.
After graduation, her job in the corporate world didn’t take. “During two years I learned that corporate life was definitely not for me,” she says. “To relieve some stress I went to Gold’s Gym to work out. The director was an alumnus of JMU and she saw me dance at international nights.”
Soon Shalan was asked to teach her unique style of Persian belly dance. She became a certified fitness instructor and taught a single class at Gold’s Gym. Within a few months she was teaching 10 classes a week, in addition to working 40-plus hours at eTrade. (The DC region can’t seem to get its fill of belly dance classes, which are offered in dance studios, fitness centers, spas, and community centers.)
After two years and a three-month belly dance study trip to Egypt, Shalan left the day job behind. She taught classes throughout the region in spas, gyms, and other venues. She also began a Persian dance company, Born 2 Dance, with a few of her most dedicated students. With invitations to perform with some of the best-known Persian touring artists who stop in Washington, DC, for shows, Shalan’s company has danced at prestigious venues like the Kennedy Center, Warner Theatre, and DAR Constitution Hall.
In 2007 she took the plunge and opened her own studio, also called Born 2 Dance—the name, of course, was inspired by Shalan’s own inborn love of bodies in motion. But she took an unusual approach by not offering the staples: ballet, tap, and jazz. Her focus, international dance, is well suited to the cosmopolitan DC metropolitan region, with its eclectic mix of embassies, international nonprofits, and universities that attracts an educated, well-traveled clientele. At Born 2 Dance Studio they can partake of classes in 14 styles or genres from African to Zumba, salsa to samba, belly dance, Bollywood, break dance, capoeira, exotic dance, flamenco, hip-hop, hula hoop, Polynesian hula, and Persian dance.
“I would always start moving [as a child in Iran], to the point where my grandfather would say to my mother, ‘Please, stop this girl.’ I always loved dancing, but I could never do anything about it.” —Azin Mahoozi Shalan
Shalan insists on hiring only highly experienced instructors; most of her 33 teachers are professional dancers who also enjoy teaching and choreographing and exhibit expertise in their genres. That means, for example, that flamenco teacher Estela Velez directs one of the region’s locally renowned flamenco companies, Furia Flamenca; while Bollywood teacher Kajal Mehta founded the area’s premier South Asian Bollywood dance company, Dhoonya Dance Performance Company. Nikki Gambhir, a hip-hop instructor, previously danced with Cirque du Soleil and currently performs with DCypher Dance and other area troupes, and salsa teacher Abdul Al-Ali, with more than a decade of experience, danced with Salsa Fuego before founding his own Conga Beat Dance Company.
Born 2 Dance differs from most suburban studios in another way: its primary clientele is adults. In fact, only 10 percent of the studio’s students are children, though Shalan predicts that number will increase in coming years as her adult students begin to put their children in world dance classes for the same reasons they take them.
Shalan began with 60 students three years ago; since she opened her doors in August 2007, more than 600 students have taken at least a workshop or an 8- to 12-week session. She describes her typical student: “A lot of them come in because they want to learn something new. They’re tired of the traditional treadmill workout at the gym. They want a community. They want something exciting, something fun to go to. They want to release the stress from their daytime jobs and their worries. They’re all ages, but most of our students are young professionals.”
To attract that young, professional crowd, Shalan keeps course registrations simple and the sessions short. Each class typically meets in 10-week sessions and most dance styles are offered in both technique and fitness formats. The fitness classes are simpler and geared toward a workout, while technique, of course, concentrates on mastery of a specific range of motion, set of steps, and style. Some classes are available on a drop-in basis, but others require registration for the full 8 to 12 weeks.
“We also do a lot of fusion dance styles,” Shalan says. In fusing two styles, she will put two instructors together; for example, a belly dance teacher and Bollywood teacher. They work out choreography and offer a workshop called, in this case, “Belly Bolly.” They’ve also offered belly (hip) hop and tried a few other fusion forms, and many students enjoy the additional challenge of assimilating a new style.
All of Born 2 Dance’s technique classes offer a performance opportunity at no additional charge, the semi-annual “Awaken the Dancer Within” concert. Shalan rents an auditorium for the full-evening performances. She doesn’t charge an extra performance fee, and rehearsals take place in addition to the class time, so students who choose to perform actually dance more by attending separate rehearsals. The studio also provides a take-home DVD that contains the steps and choreography to help with off-hours practice.
For the past three years, the audiences have grown so much that Shalan has had to find bigger auditoriums. The performances benefit not only the students but also the studio by attracting new students (often friends of the performers who are ready to take the dance plunge) as well as enticing current students to try a new genre. A salsa dancer, she explains, might decide to add a session of belly dance after watching what she describes as the “internal muscular and rhythmic permutations” that emanate from the dancers’ cores.
Shalan runs the studio with her husband, who has a background in finance. In her first year she taught up to 27 classes a week, but now she spends more of her time choreographing and directing the performing company; she’s down to teaching about 10 Persian and belly dance classes. In the next three to five years, she hopes to open two more locations in Northern Virginia while also developing her unique Persian-influenced belly dance method to the point where she can release a video on her teaching technique.
As for her parents and their long-ago objections to dancing in public? They’ve come around. “I never thought this would be the case,” Shalan says, “but they’re very proud. They’ve been to every single one of my performances. My mom always said, ‘If you’re going to do this, do it in a respectful way.’ Belly dance is not about the [revealing] costume; it’s a style of dance that is very internal, focusing on the isolations of the belly becoming the dominating part of the body.
“Belly dance doesn’t have to be too provocative or too exotic, to the point where you’re revealing too much,” Shalan adds. “My mom always insisted on that and I have followed her advice. I’m glad I did.”
You’d like to think that any mother would see to it that her daughter was prepared for the onset of menstruation. But some don’t. Some are neglectful, others are embarrassed, and some don’t know that puberty now comes as early as age 7 for some girls.
If you’re a dance school owner—or just a concerned parent—there’s a product from Dot Girl Products to help girls caught unawares by their first period.
The Dot Girl First Period Kit includes The Dot Girl Period Answer Book, packed with frequently asked questions and answers; five feminine pads; five disposal bags; one reusable heating pad, and two hand wipes, all packaged in a discreet carrying case.
It’s available from http://www.dotgirlproducts.com for $22.99 each, with discounts for those who buy seven or more kits. Schools and non-profit organizations enjoy preferred pricing upon proof of non-profit status.
What you need to know about occupational safety inspections
By Vanina and Dennis Wilson
A dance studio owner may view an inspection by occupational safety regulators the way the ancients regarded the appearance of a comet: as a harbinger of doom. But such inspections need not be an ordeal. Studio owners who understand occupational safety regulation, know what inspectors are likely to look for, and are prepared to follow the procedures prescribed by the regulations stand a good chance of emerging from the encounter unscathed.
With the Industrial Revolution came all kinds of new machinery, along with new safety and health hazards. But workers went without federal protection until 1970, when Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act (OSHA, pronounced “Oh-shah.”) OSHA seeks to protect workers by issuing workplace safety standards, inspecting workplaces, imposing penalties, and requiring employers to correct violations of the standards. State occupational safety and health regulators have assumed OSHA’s responsibility for occupational safety in 22 states, so a dance studio owner could be inspected by state rather than federal employees.
What do OSHA officers look for when they inspect a dance studio? A review of the violations that OSHA inspectors have found in dance studios over the past 20 years hints at those regulations that OSHA is likely interested in enforcing when it conducts an inspection:
- portable fire extinguishers not fully charged or in a place where employees could not reach them without the risk of injury;
- electrical wiring and boxes that don’t conform to code;
- unsafe staircases;
- an emergency action plan that’s inadequate or not communicated to employees;
- fire-suppression sprinklers installed too far apart;
- unclean or unsanitary facilities;
- obstructed exit routes;
- failure to put up the required posters informing employees of their workplace safety rights.
With the exception of the emergency action plans and the required posters, all of these cited violations dealt with physical facilities. OSHA will supply employers with up-to-date posters upon request, and its website (osha.gov/SLTC/etools/evacuation/index.html) provides employers with guidelines about whether they must have an emergency action plan and how to make one.
OSHA may be looking for things like tags showing when fire extinguishers were last recharged.
Most of the violations appear to be relatively easy to remedy. Those that aren’t—the electrical wiring, staircase, and sprinkler spacing violations—will probably be the building owner’s responsibility. Studio owners who own their building and suspect problems in these areas might want to hire a specialized consultant to conduct an inspection and report possible violations (or, if they are renters, ask their landlord to do so). Renters may also want to check with their lawyers to see whose obligation it is to correct violations involving physical facilities under the lease. Even if that obligation falls on the landlord, OSHA still may cite the dance studio if it is the studio’s employees who are being put at risk.
Inspections by OSHA officers must be done during regular working hours or other reasonable times, and must be performed in a reasonable manner. What is “reasonable” depends on the kind of business. The inspection will not likely, however, involve any advance notice, unless it is in response to an employee complaint or if it falls into one of these categories:
- imminent-danger situations that require correction as soon as possible;
- inspections that must take place after regular business hours, or that require special preparation;
- cases in which notice is required to ensure that the employer and employee representative or other personnel will be present;
- situations in which the OSHA area director determines that advance notice would produce a more thorough or effective inspection.
Dance studio owners who do receive advance notice of inspections can ask that inspections take place when classes are not in session, especially if inspectors are interested mainly in physical facilities. If the studio receives no advance warning, school owners may still request a postponement until later, when classes are not in session. This may not be a major problem, since most OSHA inspectors work during normal business hours and many dance classes take place in the evening or on weekends.
During the inspection OSHA officers may question the employer and employees, take photographs, and review records that OSHA requires to be kept and others that are directly related to the purpose of the inspection. Since dance studios are not ordinarily required to keep injury and illness records, OSHA may be looking for things like tags showing when fire extinguishers were last recharged or the presence of the required posters.
OSHA inspectors should avoid unreasonably disrupting the dance studio’s operations. The employer and an authorized employee representative may accompany the OSHA officer during the inspection.
At the end of an inspection, the OSHA officers will ordinarily inform the employer of any apparent safety or health violations; the area director will then determine whether a citation will be issued. Any citation will describe the nature of the violation and specify a time by which it must be corrected. The employer must post the citation where employees can see it.
OSHA may also seek a fine for a violation. The amount of the proposed fine will depend on the size of the business, the seriousness of the violation, the good faith of the employer, and any history of past violations. The amounts of fines sought against dance operations have varied from zero (for minor violations) up to $3,500.
Most cases end when the employer corrects the violation and pays the fine. But employers who do not agree that they have violated the standards, or who wish to contest the appropriateness or the amount of the fine, or the time set for abatement, must notify OSHA in writing within 15 working days. Cases that are not resolved go to an administrative law judge. In that case, attorney’s fees and other costs can be in the thousands or the tens of thousands of dollars. The judge’s decision may be reviewed by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (an independent agency not associated with OSHA or the Department of Labor) in Washington, DC, and/or by the courts, both of which are even more expensive.
A low-hazard occupation
Dance studios pose few hazards to employees and, in light of the fact that more than 5,000 workers died in 2008 in job-related accidents (and 29 workers died in a West Virginia coal mine while this article was being written), OSHA generally has more pressing matters than inspecting dance studios. In the absence of an employee complaint or a serious injury to an employee, OSHA isn’t likely to inspect a dance studio. Studios are not even required to keep injury and illness records unless OSHA specifically asks them to do so. Dance studios are required to report to OSHA any incident that results in the death of an employee or the hospitalization of at least three employees.
Complying with OSHA standards protects everyone on a dance school’s premises, so there’s no reason not to. And if an inspection does occur, those studio owners who keep their facilities in compliance and who understand their rights during and after an inspection have the best chance to emerge from it with minimal or no violations.
By Misty Lown
Here’s a confession: I’m writing this article for myself. With five kids, a dancewear store and studio, 700 students, and a new job as managing partner of five daycare centers, I have reached a whole new level of multitasking. My question is: at what point does multitasking become plain overload?
For many of us, time management is the number-one challenge. I am constantly asking, “What is the highest, best use of my time in this moment?” This is a great question. Unfortunately, I don’t always come up with an answer because I’m too busy responding to other people’s questions on my email or cell phone.
Like most people, I have a hard time focusing on one task when I know there is a message waiting to be answered. Thanks to the benefits of technology, these interruptions keep coming. Entire days are eaten up in busyness, yet nothing gets checked off the to-do list. Almost-finished projects beg for 30 minutes of undivided attention but never get it. Do we have too much on our plates? Is there a way to deal effectively with incessant interruptions? Is multitasking itself the problem?
Interruptions are the enemy
“Email is making you stupid,” shouted a recent headline in Entrepreneur magazine. According to this article, the brain actually shifts gears when interrupted. The author described the interruption like this: “So the gum-chewing part of the brain is now replying to the boss’ email.” Is that the part of your brain you want to use when you respond to a cranky parent or sensitive staff issue?
From the boardroom to the classroom, Wall Street to Main Street, workers are feeling the effects of e-interruptions. According to the Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org), the growing assault of e-interruptions on our workday causes lower productivity, diminished comprehension, compromised concentration, and less innovation. For dance teachers, that means getting less done, making more mistakes, having to redo things, and running dry in the creativity department. Basically, it’s a recipe for burnout.
Divided attention equals inefficiency
Consider this: how much longer would it take you to get through ballet class if you alternated each barre exercise with choreography for the recital? Can you imagine jumping from pliés to working on formations, only to head back to the barre for a quick tendu before cleaning the turns section of the routine? Switching gears mentally isn’t much more efficient. In the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2001, researchers Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans found a hefty increase in the total time it took subjects to complete two problems when they switched back and forth mentally between the tasks, compared with subjects who focused on and completed one problem before turning to the other.
Entire days are eaten up in busyness, yet nothing gets checked off the to-do list. Almost-finished projects beg for 30 minutes of undivided attention but never get it.
“People in a work setting,” Meyer told CNN, “who are banging away on word processors at the same time they have to answer phones and talk to their co-workers or bosses—they’re doing switches all the time. Not being able to concentrate for, say, tens of minutes at a time, may mean it’s costing a company as much as 20 to 40 percent” in terms of potential efficiency lost, or the “time cost” of switching, as these researchers call it.
“In effect,” Meyer told CNN, “you’ve got writer’s block briefly as you go from one task to another. You’ve got to (a) want to switch tasks; you’ve got to (b) make the switch; and then you’ve got to (c) get warmed back up on what you’re doing.”
Reinforcing the point, French researchers Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron reported in April in the journal Science that humans are wired to do one—or a maximum of two—things at one time. Their research on the brain revealed that if one goal is being pursued, both frontal lobes work together. If two goals are being pursued, each lobe pursues its own goal. Add a third goal and—you guessed it—the first goal gets bumped. We may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but that’s about it.
Not only can we not handle three things at once, we fall apart when we try to. As reported by the British Broadcasting Corp., University of London psychologist Glenn Wilson claims: “Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night’s sleep.”
The real issue
Teaching class or running a studio is tiring enough without the extra mental fatigue of multitasking. So why do we continue bouncing from task to tweet if we know it leads to this kind of stress? Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, claims multitasking is a symptom of “task creep,” or doing more to feel productive while actually accomplishing less. “Doing something unimportant well does not make it important,” Ferriss says, adding that efficiency is only useful if applied to the right things.
What are the right things? For dance teachers and studio owners, time and attention need to go to the tasks that move the studio forward, like planning classes, rehearsals, and performances; communicating with teachers, parents, and students; and marketing, budgeting, and networking.
While most of us are handling all of these things, we’re not doing them one at a time. Phone calls, emails, queries from our kids, checking up on social sites, even hunger pangs—at the studio or working at home, the interruptions can be endless.
Resolving to change
With all this information in hand, I have made two resolutions: first, to cut multitasking out of my diet for a month; and second, to plan a technology-free vacation for next Christmas. I’m committed to change. Why not meet me in this challenge? Turn off the email notification, put down the cell phone, schedule time for friends and families, recharge those old batteries. Throw multitasking out the window and see where it leads. Be sure to email me (through Dance Studio Life) with stories about your experiences. And if you do, I promise to read them only during my newly dedicated email time
For thousands of teachers and school owners, the start of summer is a time to brainstorm, to plot and dream about everything they want to achieve during the upcoming dance season. It’s a time to look back on the lessons of the past year—some learned the hard way and others in a flash, those light-bulb moments that make us wonder why we didn’t think of that idea years ago. It’s through the live-and-learn process that we become better at what we do.
I would like to interrupt your brainstorming session to interject a few thoughts about the next season. I’ve been thinking about responsibility as it pertains to dance teachers. According to my dictionary, being responsible means having the capacity to make moral decisions (and thus being accountable for one’s actions) and being capable of rational thought or action. So, as you contemplate the choreography and music for this season’s competitions or other performance opportunities for the children in your charge, I’m asking you to act responsibly, in the full meaning of the word.
Let’s look at what each component of this definition means.
The capacity to make moral decisions
In my mind, this means that teachers are obligated to know what is appropriate for their students. They and their parents rely on teachers to do what is morally right in their classrooms and in making choices regarding their students’ performances. Number one for me is never sacrificing the obligation to let children be children.
Many things come to mind when I reflect on what teachers are accountable for, but the one that rises to the top is how their actions affect the dance education field. Each teacher’s decisions reflect well or poorly on thousands of other teachers, all of whom love to share their passion for dance. So I would never take an action that would blemish my profession.
Accountability is also a factor in parents’ trust that a teacher’s decisions are appropriate for their children. Parents who respect their children’s teachers as professionals believe that they would never present their children in performance in ways that could even slightly be interpreted as inappropriate—their professional experience and knowledge wouldn’t allow it.
Capable of rational thought or action
To me, being rational means understanding that aspiring to win a trophy or some other form of accolade is no reason to make an inappropriate music, costume, or choreography choice, regardless of the response it might get due to shock value or the few extra points it might gain.
So what I’m saying is that dance teachers have a heck of a lot of responsibility: to their fellow dance educators, their students, and their students’ parents. Now, with that in mind, go back to your brainstorming. I wish you all good things in the new season.
What social networking media outlets can do for you
By Christina H. Davis
It’s never been easier to get the word out about your studio. School owners now have a plethora of online marketing opportunities to choose from to reach students and parents, including popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Learning how to put online marketing to use may seem daunting, but dance studio owners can harness the power of social media to help build their businesses. All it takes is a little research, experimentation, and effort.
Stepping out with Facebook
The hottest social media site continues to be Facebook, which boasts more than 400 million active users around the globe. While the site was originally launched by and for college students, it has attracted people of all ages looking to connect virtually, and it’s also become a great place for businesses to connect with customers—including dance studios.
While individuals can create pages to communicate with friends and family, businesses can create “fan pages” at no cost. Users of Facebook can then become a “fan” of the business and leave messages, post photos, and upload videos.
One studio that has begun experimenting with a Facebook fan page is California Dance Academy. Robbin Shahani, the studio’s executive director, and his wife bought what was then known as the Rozann-Zimmerman Ballet Center in Chatsworth, a suburb of Los Angeles, in July 2008. Less than a year later, they launched a Facebook page under the school’s current name.
Initially, Shahani had hoped to develop a portion of his school’s website as a place for current students to connect and post comments and pictures. But he soon realized that Facebook offered an existing platform to do that—and that many of his students and their parents were already on the fast-growing social networking site.
So far, it’s still slow going, according to Shahani. As of May 24, the school, which has 110 students and 10 teachers, had 149 fans on its Facebook page. “There’s been some interaction between the students, which is what I really want to foster and encourage more of,” Shahani says. “If we were better at regular posts, I suspect people would make it part of a routine” to check the page for updates.
Shahani’s measure of success is mostly anecdotal. “When students or parents take the initiative in posting what’s important to them, that’s obviously great insight for us as directors,” he says.
School owners use social media sites like Facebook for a variety of reasons, according to Stacey Marolf. She owns StudioOfDance.com, a Portland, Oregon-based business that focuses on websites for dance studios. She says some of her clients simply want to boost loyalty with existing customers by providing them with an online way to connect with the studio, much like California Dance Academy’s strategy. Other schools are focused on driving traffic from Facebook to their websites, while still others hope to generate new business.
At a minimum, Marolf says, owners should track how new students hear about their studios. “Asking new students and/or their parents whether they know about your Facebook presence, and whether it played a role in their decision, will allow you to measure your success,” she says.
One school that’s been more aggressive about tracking its Facebook page’s success is The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia and West Chester, Pennsylvania. The school, which has a very strong ballet program for teens, launched its Facebook page in July 2009. As of May 24, it had an impressive 8,887 fans.
Alexander Spassoff, communications director for The Rock, says he uses Facebook primarily as a broadcast platform and is hoping to move it toward being “a help center” for teens interested in dance to ask questions. He pays particular attention to Facebook Insights, a free program that provides demographic information at no cost for any Facebook page. He can see clearly that the school’s Facebook audience is within its target market—females ages 13 to 17.
Facebook has attracted people of all ages looking to connect virtually, and it’s also become a great place for businesses to connect with customers—including dance studios.
Spassoff also delves into the analytics for the school’s website (therockschool.org) and says Facebook is consistently in the top three for referring traffic. As a one-man marketing operation for the 1,500-student school (1,000 in the regular program and 500 in the summer program), Spassoff’s time is stretched thin, but he’s convinced that Facebook is an important alternative to traditional newspapers for getting the word out about the school. “Maybe Facebook is not where it’s going to be,” he says. “Maybe it’s YouTube or maybe it’s something no one’s heard of. But everyone agrees that media’s changing.”
Of course, the resources available to The Rock School far outpace the average dance studio. So Marolf offers some words of advice to her clients who feel overwhelmed by the demands of keeping pace. “I think that a lot of social media can be great, if you are ready to commit to them and be consistent” by keeping online information current, she says. An out-of-date Facebook page or blog can send a bad message to prospective students.
Rather than setting up a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a blog all at once, Marolf advises her clients to start with one outlet. She says studio owners should talk to their students and parents about how they would like to connect and go with the most popular method.
While Shahani and others are happy to jump onto the Web 2.0 bandwagon, some still keep their feet on the curb. One of them is Nancy Solomon Rothenberg, owner of Studio B Dance Center in Eastchester, New York. She loves using Facebook in her personal life but has no plans to create a page for her studio. “I believe in word of mouth,” she says. “If parents love you and talk about you, that’s the best form of advertising.”
Solomon Rothenberg says that other studio owners have reported problems or fears with sites like Facebook. A parent who posts a negative comment can scare off potential customers, she says. And the need to police constantly changing privacy policies worries many people.
There are ways to keep tabs on some of the online social media chatter, according to Chad Michael Lawson, a Phoenix-based website developer and marketer who owns RealDealDanceWebSites.com and RealDealDanceMarketing.com. He recommends setting up email alerts on Facebook, which notify you every time someone posts on your studio’s fan page. For other sites, you can set up custom email alerts through search engines such as Google or Yahoo with your studio’s name as a filter. You’ll automatically be notified every time your studio’s name is mentioned on the Internet.
Another potential problem with sites like Facebook is the blurring of the line that separates teachers from students and even parents. Solomon Rothenberg says she has banned her teachers from friending students on Facebook. At first, her teachers were “a little put off about the rules,” she says, but soon they came to understand that the policy was about maintaining the studio’s professional image.
While Solomon Rothenberg is cautious about social media, she isn’t ignoring the Internet. She has a studio website with a dynamic video introduction and a full page of testimonials from students about why they love dance. To her, that page of testimonials is worth more than any Facebook page. “Those are real kids,” she says. “You can just feel their enthusiasm coming through.”
Facebook and Twitter may be getting the most attention from marketers at the moment, but video-hosting sites can be equally useful for studio owners. What better way to show what a studio is about than through a video clip?
Cathy Patterson, owner of Point B Dance in Lawrence, Kansas, has been an early adopter of online video. Her studio focuses solely on adult students, most of whom attend the University of Kansas. After attending a marketing class that reviewed the power of video to draw people into a website, she knew she had to give it a try. Over the past year she’s uploaded numerous clips from rehearsals and classes at her studio, and she now features a video clip prominently on her site’s home page. “My enrollment has jumped up since I added the video on the home page,” she says.
But part of the reason why YouTube has worked for Patterson is that the majority of her students are college age, meaning that they can legally give their consent to appear in a promotional video. She says that if she owned a traditional studio with younger students, she’d be more hesitant to use the videos so prominently.
The novelty of starring on a short video clip has not worn off on the students at Point B.
“I have people texting me, asking me when that one is going up on YouTube,” Patterson says. “I didn’t think it would be that big a deal, but it is.”
Patterson uses a Flip camera (which retails for as little as $149) to shoot simple footage at the end of class. She announces that she’ll be recording and gives the students the choice to sit out. Then she uploads the video and it’s on her site within minutes.
Patterson hasn’t done much on Facebook or Twitter, and she shares some of Solomon Rothenberg’s misgivings about them. In fact, when she uploads videos, she blocks the ability for people to comment on them. “I want people to make their own opinions,” she says.
While Patterson is concerned about comments, she’s not worried about people stealing her or her staff’s choreography when they watch it online. “We would feel like it was a compliment,” she says.
Lawson is a big proponent of the power of leveraging social media. “You can’t put a website online and just think, ‘Oh, this is enough,’ ” he says. “It has to be alive. You have to be tied into [social media] in order for it to work.”
So when Lawson builds a website for a client, he’s sure to establish a presence for the business with Twitter, Blip (a video hosting site similar to YouTube), and Flickr (a photo hosting site), along with Facebook. He builds a simple interface with the various social media sites right into each client’s website content management system.
Establishing a presence on a variety of sites is important, Lawson says, because studio owners will find a different audience at each. The people found on Flickr, which is popular with photo buffs, are quite different from those who hang out on Twitter. And the users of Twitter are likely to only overlap slightly with those on Facebook.
Keeping each social site’s audience in mind is key, according to Lawson. For example, he says the best way to connect on Twitter is for dance studio owners to follow members of the local community and share news that would be of interest to potential customers. “If you want to use Twitter for business, post stuff going on around your town,” he says. “It’s like being a member of the chamber of commerce without having to leave your studio.”
Establishing a presence doesn’t mean giving prospective clients the hard-sell; that doesn’t work on social media, says Lawson. “If you come across too strong,” he says, “it’s like walking into a party and immediately saying, ‘Here’s my card.’ No one wants to talk to that guy. You have to mimic how you would act at a party.”
Lawson acknowledges the challenge in managing a business along with multiple fan pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels. To cope with their competing time demands, he recommends something that dance people are very familiar with: discipline. “If you can carve out a half an hour in the morning, that’s all you need,” he says.
Social Media Basics
What is it? A website where people can connect with others to share photos, videos, and information.
How many people use it? More than 400 million active users.
The pros? Its popularity is skyrocketing, with a broad cross-section of age groups.
The cons? The potential for negative feedback and privacy issues.
What is it? A “micro-blog” where users share status updates (limited to 140 characters) with their “followers.”
How many people use it? Nearly 75 million (industry estimate).
The pros? It can create a lot of buzz around a dance studio if used properly.
The cons? The audience may not match with the demographic of the average dance studio.
What is it? A video hosting site.
How many people use it? The site receives 1 billion views per day.
The pros? Studio owners can upload videos for free and embed them on their websites or Facebook fan pages.
The cons? Some parents may not feel comfortable with their children’s images being posted on the site.
Creating a team-oriented studio atmosphere
By Melissa Hoffman
You know that great feeling of walking into your studio and realizing that all is well? Teachers are excited about teaching, the dancers are happy, and the office staff greets you with a smile. Wouldn’t you like to re-create this team atmosphere every day? You can—by creating a comfortable workplace where your employees feel appreciated for what they bring to the organization and are inspired to work for you for many years to come.
Sounds easy, right? But it’s not, because you are dealing with human feelings. As studio owners and directors, our biggest responsibility is to treat those who work for us with respect and find ways to continue to build a team mentality. In doing so we produce happy teachers, which means happy dancers, happy parents, and, in the end, a profitable business.
As Shawn Terenzi of Shawn Terenzi Academy of Dance in Lawrence, Massachusetts, points out, “The atmosphere of your studio comes from the director.” That means it all starts with us. Here’s how to do it.
Show your appreciation
The easiest (and probably most overlooked) way to promote goodwill among your staff is to say thank you for a job well done. Suzanne Citere of Realdance in Lighthouse Point, Florida, notes that “everyone wants to be acknowledged and know that their hard work is appreciated.”
For starters, try to thank each teacher at the end of the day. Our industry is one of many fragile egos, so get in the habit of telling your teachers when you enjoyed their choreography or class. Thanks are also appropriate after rehearsals and recitals or anytime teachers go beyond what’s expected of them.
And watch for opportunities to acknowledge a job well done. If you see a teacher handle a challenging situation with sensitivity and a professional demeanor, don’t keep your satisfaction to yourself. Let that teacher know that you’re proud of her.
Other ideas for how to acknowledge your staff are holiday dinners and end-of-year parties. I give each teacher a bonus at both of these events, usually in the form of a gift card. For our staff meetings, I take the teachers to lunch or order takeout.
Always be respectful when you have to deliver constructive criticism about your teachers’ work. Maybe you’ve received complaints regarding a teacher’s performance or you think personal issues are interfering with effectiveness in the classroom. Set aside time for a one-on-one chat. Making corrections in front of the dancers embarrasses teachers and leads to feelings of disdain rather than respect for you. Show your staff that you care by setting aside time to talk in private about job performance and personal concerns regarding health, family issues, maternity leave, and so on; it’s a small effort that will be appreciated.
Sometimes I suggest taking a “mental health day.” I think we all need those at times.
Also, be aware of your own tendencies toward favoritism. Apply any staff-related policies across the board, regardless of your personal feelings about your teachers. And when possible, allow everyone to have input into major decisions. Asking for opinions from some teachers and not others is bound to make those who are ignored feel less valued.
Good communication is important on every level, so make good use of memos, in-person chats, emails, and meetings. Most school owners understand how important it is to keep the staff informed about policies, events, and so on. But they might be tempted to be closed-mouthed about more difficult issues, like the need to cut someone’s hours, the news that no one will get a raise this year, or anything else that makes staffers worry about losing their jobs.
The easiest (and probably most overlooked) way to promote goodwill among your staff is to say thank you for a job well done.
Poor communication about such hot topics can lead to hard feelings. If cutbacks are imminent, I give plenty of warning and try to make them as painless as possible. For example, last December I met with my teachers because we needed to cut classes with low enrollment. We shared the burden and each teacher lost only one hour of class time.
Creating a family-friendly environment is important in keeping students and their parents happy. But family matters to your staff, too, and flexibility in scheduling is a must if you want to keep them happy and on the job. I am as flexible as possible when teachers need time off to attend their children’s special events or stay home with a sick child. And I have found that they do not take advantage of this; instead, they pick the events that are most important to them. If you’re worried about what parents will think of this policy, I have experienced no negativity from parents if they know a teacher is out in order to be at her own child’s event.
That sense of being taken care of can lead to longevity in staffing. As Charlotte Klein of Charlotte Klein Dance Centers in Massachusetts puts it, “Over our 53 years, no matter how large our school or staff, we have worked to create an extended family, which creates an environment of loyalty for the long haul.”
If you want your teachers to feel like part of a team, they’ve got to know the other players. Cindy Flanagan of Concord [NH] Dance Academy says that she and her staff rotate classrooms “so that each teacher has an appreciation of what the others do. This is not only fun for the dancers, but it refreshes the teachers.” Sometimes they observe and sometimes they teach each other’s classes.
Flanagan’s teachers also help each other review and clean choreography, and as a result, all are open to sharing their work and receiving feedback without feeling threatened. This practice has another benefit: it lets the dancers know that each teacher has a different approach and that learning from others can benefit their training.
Don’t forget finances
You can show your appreciation and long-term commitment to your staff through financial means as well.
Many school owners feel that paying above-average salaries to valued teachers will encourage them to stay. But not everyone can afford to pay top dollar, no matter how much they respect their teachers and hope to retain them. Other options to consider are bonuses, at the holidays or at the end of the school year (or both), and reimbursing teachers for continuing their education at seminars or conventions.
Many schools require their teachers to attend staff meetings, dress rehearsals, and recitals. Whether it’s an hourly rate or flat fee, paying something for these events goes a long way toward generating a positive feeling about working for you. (For meetings, I pay my teachers what I call an “administrative fee”; you don’t have to base the amount on their teaching wage.) If your school participates in competitions or conventions, consider a daily stipend for those teachers who attend. After all, this is also their time.
Another great benefit is setting up a 401(k) account for your full-time employees, even if you are unable to contribute to it. (I consider someone who teaches 15 or more hours a week a full-time employee.) Also consider offering vacation and sick pay.
With the exception of bonuses, it’s important to document exactly what you intend to pay for various events or duties. Benefits that are the same for everyone could be documented in a staff handbook. For those who are paid on an individual basis, outline each person’s benefits before the school year begins. Let everyone know what to expect financially and you’ll start the year off with a team atmosphere.
Give them a voice
If you want your teachers to feel valued, you must let them have a voice. That means allowing them to express their opinions and offer suggestions and feedback about your policies and decisions. They need to feel that you are approachable, so let them know the accepted channels for them to voice their concerns. I always joke that approaching me between classes or when I am engrossed in a project is probably not the best time.
Be sure to address any staff issues quickly, before they become out of control. If a concern involves all of your staff, call a meeting.
At each staff meeting, I make a point of saying that we can agree to disagree. Listening to ideas and thoughts is imperative, as long as everyone communicates in a respectful way. Most of the best ideas for my school have come from my staff.
Some employees might not speak out in meetings because they’re uncomfortable doing so or worry about expressing a minority view. I make sure my staff knows that they can email me or talk in private. It is also important to tune in to people’s nonverbal signals. I can always sense when someone is not happy or has a problem, and I address it before it gets worse.
When I asked my teachers, most of whom have been with the studio for more than 10 years, why they choose to work here and why they feel we are a good team, teacher Sandi Duncan said, “Because we are given the freedom to express ourselves creatively without constraints. We are able to bring our own styles to the classroom and know that you trust that we know what we are doing.”
Another teacher, Deana Corlis, said, “I feel that we each have a place and a respect for what we bring to the studio.”
And Heidi Conard likes the fact that “when input is asked for, the teachers are listened to.” She laughed and added that I am approachable “most of the time.”
I also asked what we could do better. The consensus was that we need to spend more time meeting together as a staff.
I suggest that you pose the same two questions to your employees. If they feel comfortable enough to respond honestly, the information they give may be eye opening. And it will be an excellent step toward building the kind of team atmosphere that will allow your school to thrive.
We live in a very small town in Kentucky. For more than 36 years we were the only studio in town. Now a girl from out of town is opening up a studio and my students and their parents are asking all kinds of questions, like “Did you know there is a new studio?” I really don’t know how to respond to them. It’s hard to know whether to have faith in my parents to do the right thing and stay with me or say something now to try to prevent them going. Any advice? I have been up nights worrying about this. Dance dollars are few with the struggling economy, and now having to compete with a new place is causing me great stress. Thanks so much! —Patricia
I know it is easier said than done, but try not to stress out about this situation. You have 36 years of experience while this new school is only beginning. The owner has not been teaching dance for a couple of generations in your town, nor does she have the goodwill within the community that you do. And she certainly has not gained all the knowledge that you have through the years.
However, I’m not suggesting that you should sit back and do nothing. I would think of this as your time to solidify your reputation within the community by marketing your experience. At your next show, you could have a reunion of the couple of generations of students who have danced through your classrooms. Invite the press to cover the event and encourage them to interview the former students about their experiences dancing at your school. This kind of coverage would bring a sense of nostalgia about your business to the community, and that’s something that the new school won’t be able to do for another 30 years.
Also, start to think about how you can improve or expand your offerings. What can you offer your community that the new school can’t? Is it new preschool programs (which would also help solidify your future)? Your years of experience will sway most of the moms of preschool children in your direction. By working hard to register the “babies” now, you can pretty much guarantee that those children will stay with your school for as long as they desire to dance.
Be sure to make yourself appear a cut above your competition when it comes to your school’s website, brochures, and other marketing materials. A newer school probably doesn’t have the budget to make those things happen in its first year, but you do. In other words, out-class the new school, which will bring your experience factor to the forefront when parents are deciding where to bring their children for dance training.
Maybe the opening of this new school is a blessing in disguise for you. It is your chance to re-evaluate how and why you do what you do and make changes to improve—good changes that might not have happened had you continued to be the only school in town. You and your students could gain much from this situation if you handle it the right way. And you might succeed in keeping your school on top for another 36 years! It’s a new beginning for you—embrace it. —Rhee
I’ve attended your DanceLife Teacher Conference for three years and feel like I’ve learned so much. I’ve gained so much confidence in my job and felt like I could handle any situation like a pro—until today. One of my students passed away, and I’m a total mess. You’re the only one I feel can guide me in this situation. I feel completely lost and helpless. The little girl was in our youngest class, the 3-year-olds. Our studio is like a family. We have only 90 students and I am the owner and only teacher. Everyone always says that teachers make such a great impact on students, but not many people realize how much of an impact these young students make on teachers.
From a business perspective, what’s appropriate to do in this situation? I was going to send flowers and a card to the family, but that doesn’t seem like enough. I don’t know what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. —Sandy
First, I am sorry for your loss. I can only imagine how your studio family must feel at this time. Certainly sending flowers and a card is an appropriate and thoughtful way to express your feelings.
In addition, consider creating a school scholarship in the child’s name. By doing so, you will keep the memory of this child alive for years to come. You should determine the criteria for eligibility and who receives the award, but inviting the parents or another family member to present the scholarship at your annual performance would be a nice gesture. That way they can remain a part of your studio family. The enduring nature of the scholarship will allow this family to know that through their child they are bringing the joy of dance to other children, which should be comforting to them.
Also, it may be appropriate to bring a grief counselor into your school so that your students can share their thoughts and feelings about this loss. We had to do this at our family’s school and it made a big difference to the students and parents.
I know it’s not an easy situation to deal with, but coming up with a way to keep this child’s memory alive is one way to comfort those who are grieving. All the best to you. —Rhee
One of my teachers choreographed a lyric routine for a student of ours three years ago for competition. Recently I found out that another student performed this routine at a local talent show. Neither the parent nor the child asked the choreographer, the mother of the dancer the routine was made for, or me for permission to do this. The first-place winner gets $500, by the way.
Should I put anything in my studio policies regarding this? For example, something saying that people must ask permission of the choreographer, teacher, or studio owner if they want to use choreography that was done for someone else? Does the choreographer or the person who paid for it, or both, own the choreography? I am not looking for compensation, just a suggestion for how to avoid allowing people to take what doesn’t belong to them without asking. —Janette
Very interesting question. My first instinct is that this child should not be performing a piece that was choreographed for someone else. If it was created at the request of and paid for by a parent, then that dance belongs to that family. And if it was choreographed for a school performance, the rights belong to the choreographer or the school, depending on the school’s policy. However, I doubt that the parents or the child would know that they shouldn’t perform a piece without asking for the rights to it, because they are not thinking about it the way you or I would. They were probably just trying to come up with a way to be part of the talent show.
As school owners, part of our responsibility is to educate our students and their parents about what is ethically right in the world of dance. With that said, I agree that you should cover the subject in your school policies or handbook. Simply put, the policy should state that no choreography created at the school can be performed at a talent show or any other performance without the school’s permission. Not only will this cover a situation like the one you describe, but it will help you to know when your students are performing your school’s choreography elsewhere in the community.
It’s funny how our clientele helps us come up with policies that we would never think of on our own, isn’t it? This is one of those situations that make us better at what we do. Good luck! —Rhee
What would you say to a parent who constantly knocks on the classroom door 10 minutes before the class ends to remove her child? She’s done this not once, but about six times over the past couple of months. I am stumped that she doesn’t realize that she disrupts the class and that her child is falling behind because she’s missing part of her class. Help! —Cincinnati
My first response is a question for you: why have you let this go on for so long? It is time for you to educate this parent (in the kindest way possible) on proper etiquette when it comes to respecting the child’s teachers and classmates.
Give her a call or meet with her, and start by asking why the child has had to leave class early. Explain the same points you made to me: that it’s disruptive and her child loses out on class experiences each time she leaves early. Then tell her that for the benefit of everyone involved, she needs to understand that it is your policy not to excuse any child early unless it is an emergency or has been prearranged with the school.
Address these kinds of issues head on as soon as they happen, with the same confidence you have in the classroom or in creating a piece of choreography. Otherwise the parents may assume that your silence means their behavior is acceptable to you. Good luck! —Rhee
I have a confession: I am the other woman. Sort of. The other teacher, actually. I worked for someone and left to open my own studio. But it’s not what you think.
Once upon a time, I was a burned-out college dance major. I decided that I wanted to be a “normal” person and did not want to change clothes three times a day. I took a break from college, had an awesome summer internship at a museum, changed my major to philosophy, and graduated from college and into a staff position in higher ed. But I didn’t leave dance cold turkey. I kept thinking about it, going back and forth in my mind and taking classes when I could. Finally, after a big move and marriage, I began teaching part-time for the very studio where I had danced as a young teen. It was a full-circle moment.
My relationship with that studio steadied over the next couple of years. I taught minimally, given my 40-hour workweek behind a desk, but even so teaching reminded me how much I missed being immersed in the dance world. It had sparked something in me, restoring the dancer I had all but cast aside in my efforts to be “normal.” And so I began to nurse thoughts of having my own school. I began exploring the idea, improving my dance skills and business acumen. I started a business plan, working on it haphazardly for nearly a year.
I never intended to cause friction. The studio owner knew of my plans, however distant at the time, and though I think she might have been initially surprised, she encouraged me and allowed me to discuss it candidly. If I followed through with it, my school would open a good 20 miles and 30 minutes away in a neighboring town, and none of my current students would know. (Nor, do I think, would they have traveled out of their way for me, given the dance studios on nearly every block in between.)
But I can’t help acknowledging this unshakeable feeling—even years later—that I should have gone farther or done more to preserve the relationship with the lady who had become a subtle influence, like an unintentional mentor. I did not think of my leaving as a betrayal. But now I wonder if she thought of it that way, even in the slightest, and put on a happy face to wish me well. I did not take any students or staff members away from her and I set up shop in another city, but I wonder if I could have done more to put her mind at ease. Or perhaps she didn’t give my departure much thought. Either way, it’s clearer to me now that I came close to crossing a line that is not normally touched in our industry.
I don’t regret my decision. My studio is like a second home, a second family. I love my customers. I love my employees to death; I am immensely proud of them and would be very sad to see any of them leave as I did. It is rewarding to see how my school has grown and how it’s different than I expected. I’m excited and nervous to see what’s next for us. But I might not have done it at all if it hadn’t been for that chance opportunity to teach years ago, to nurture my passion again.
I promise I’m not writing this to assuage any guilt. But I give in to the “what-ifs” at times, and the questions do hit me: “What if she didn’t see it the way I did?” and “What if the bridge I thought I left intact is actually in an ashy heap?”
So Cindi, if you’re reading this, let me say this better than I did in that silly thank-you note four years ago: Thank you for real. Thank you for giving me a chance. Thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for letting me read your Goldrush (the precursor to Dance Studio Life). And thank you for letting me go and make my own little dance world possible. I believe—no, I know—that we are all a product of our collective teachers, and I’m glad you were one of mine.
Among the current highlights, his students in the ICONic Boyz, whose members are all younger than 15, won a performance slot at New York’s legendary Apollo Theater in an amateur night audition. Come May 19, they’ll be strutting their stuff on the same stage where James Brown did the Camel Walk back in the day.
Tickets are $17, $19, and $22, with group discounts available through Hubela’s school, ICON Dance Complex in Englishtown, New Jersey. Call 732.446.3320 for details.
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
Cost-cutting ideas for a quality production
By Diane Gudat
When it comes to recital time, do you dream about putting on that perfect fantasy production? Well, think again—it might actually be the right time to consider cutting back. “Cut back!” you say. “Forget it! Last year’s recital was really good and I am going to have to do something to top it.” But cutting back on recital expenses might be the best business move you could ever make.
Most studios do their shows during the last weekends of May or throughout the month of June. The following two months of July and August are generally the bleakest when it comes to the health of the studio checking account, so depleting your funds at this time of year simply does not make good business sense. Many teachers struggle to put together summer camps and workshops just to pay those July bills instead of taking a little well-deserved time off; yet they do not hesitate to drop unbudgeted money for that extra pair of lights or the live video feed into the waiting rooms.
Let’s take a moment to rethink the situation. A change in your attitude toward the recital itself might be the biggest cost-cutter of all. Start by asking yourself if you are overdoing it. Better yet, consider asking your spouse or mother what they think is “over the top” spending in this area. They have no emotional attachment to the situation (unless, of course, they too are dance people).
If you’re a studio owner, ask yourself what the purpose of the year-end show is and what it does to improve your studio’s enrollment. This becomes a huge struggle between the right and left sides of your brain. The artist in you wants the show to be the biggest, most amazing production known to planet Earth. You want Busby Berkeley to roll over in his grave. We all love big props, big lights, and big ooohs and ahhhs, but the business manager in us needs to look at the show as part of the entire year’s budget.
Does the amount of money you spend on recital extras translate into an equivalent number of new students, or are you simply excessively entertaining your current clientele and their families while feeding your own obsessive, need-for-perfection genes? Do more lights and props make your dancers look better, or would spicing up the choreography and using interesting staging do the same trick? Will the parents be impressed with all the expensive extra lights or would they rather see their children’s sweet faces in simple lighting?
What will your dance students remember about the day or weekend—the teachers who were calm, pleasant, and proud, or the extra props? Hopefully their memories are of a special day when family and friends gathered to give them their undivided attention with pictures taken, lots of applause, and maybe even a flower or two.
Shouldn’t we strive, every time a child steps into our classroom, to ensure that she will want to return the next year and that she will bring her relatives and friends?
Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to show parents that we deserve their respect by keeping things organized, calm, and simple at dress rehearsal and backstage at the show?
How about showing them that we respect their hard-earned investment in their child’s dance training by keeping a lid on the cost of costumes and extras?
What can be done in the costume department to alleviate some of the financial stress and strain? First, let’s point out that costume costs should include the time it takes the school owner and studio staff to select, measure, and order them. Finding reasonably priced costumes that reflect the quality you expect is a lot of work! Do not leave yourself out of the equation.
- When selecting costumes, consider ordering basics in fun colors. All costume companies offer a wide variety of undecorated ballet tutus and dancewear basics. These can then be decorated with simple accessories like flowers, sashes, or appliqués. Some pieces, like leotards or jazz pants, can even be worn in dance class after the recital.
- Get creative in making costume pieces do double duty. For younger dancers, consider using a banded tutu for their ballet piece and then folding it in half and tacking it to the rear of the costume as a bustle for their tap or jazz piece.
- Build a large accessories “library” that will spruce up your choreography for years to come. You can do this by not including accessories in the costume fee. Collect all hats, headpieces, and handheld props at the end of the recital and store them for future use.
- Order costumes early to take advantage of the discounts offered by the costume companies. Try to use one or two major companies for your entire order. This might require a bit of compromise, but it will allow your order to reach an overall amount that will qualify for even more discounts. Large orders also might receive free or discounted postage.
- Take advantage of companies that offer “two-in-ones”—one costume that comes with a themed base leotard and two choices of accessories that covert it from ballet to jazz. By spacing the classes that wear these two looks far apart in the recital, you can fool the audience into thinking that each is a totally new look. Avoid buying extras like gloves and shoe covers; instead buy gloves and frilly socks on sale after Easter and save them for the following year.
- Consider sharing hats, props, and backdrops with dance studio owners in your area. Offer them yours and you might be amazed at what they will loan to you. I have costumes and crazy props on loan all over the country.
- Pair inexpensive, trendy tops from bargain fashion stores with nicely structured jazz pants or modern shorts. By investing in an airbrush machine, you can convert basic costumes into colorful, one-of-a-kind masterpieces that enhance a story line. You can achieve the same effect with cans of spray paint from the dollar store and some homemade stencils. (As the winner of a few overall costume awards, I can attest to the effectiveness of this technique: My garage floor shows the signs of many spray-painted costumes.) Of course, the costumes will need time to air out in order to minimize the paint smell (fresh-air sprays help the process), and the painted fabric will lose its stiffness quickly with use.
- Well-fitting, basic dress pants can be accented with suspenders or embellished with rhinestones, sequins, or ribbon along the seams or at the cuffs.
- Dying white or light-colored basics also creates beautiful effects. Tie-dyeing, drip dyeing, or dipping the costumes to create color levels are all reasonably easy projects.
- Take advantage of the online convenience and splurge control of shopping online at discount department stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Kmart. These are excellent sources for hip-hop basics like hoodies, baggie jeans, overalls, cute skirts, and multicolored T-shirts, as well as matching sneakers. Shopping online also cuts down on the valuable time you would spend and gas you would use in trying to find 15 identical shirts in a variety of sizes.
- Use your imagination instead of buying ready-made costumes. For example, convert black sweatshirts and sweat pants into “faux tuxedos” for your guys. Remove the sweatshirt’s ribbing, slice it down the front, peel back and shape the lapels, hot glue some buttons on, and add a stripe of ribbon to the outside seam of each pant leg. Under the jacket, place a white T-shirt with multiple layers of edge lace glued down the front and you’ve created the impression of vintage tuxedos for your Nutcracker party guests. A few safety pins alter the size and keep the front closed. With the same kind of simple basics you can easily make Dalmatian, clown, and chicken costumes. Add black felt dots and tails to large white sweatshirts and you’ve got a pack of Dalmatians; for clowns, use large, colorful sweatshirts with small hula-hoops threaded through the bottom ribbing; to make chickens, add stuffing to yellow sweatshirts and top them with ball caps with orange bills.
The rule of thumb for all costuming is that it must create the correct illusion from the front seat of the theater, which is usually at least 20 feet away from the performers.
How about showing parents that you respect their hard-earned investment in their child’s dance training by keeping a lid on the cost of costumes and extras?
Props and backdrops
With scenic elements, simpler is better. For example, if you want a forest set, do not allow your dancers to get lost in the confusion and color of a full forest backdrop. Instead create the suggestion of a forest with these simple but effective methods.
- Place a few wire and papier-mâché trees upstage right or left. Alternately, or in addition, build triangular, three-sided flats on casters that can be painted to look like trees and rotated as the scenes change. These can be repainted repeatedly for years of use.
- Use a gobo to throw the image of a forest or clump of trees on the back curtain. Gobos (circular metal plates used to create patterns of projected light) can be as inexpensive as $12 each and can cover the stage with any shape or design imaginable. Creative souls can make simple gobos out of soda cans. (Beer cans are more fun and can actually enhance your creativity! Plus, some of them are thinner and therefore easier to work with than soda cans.) Ask your theater crew if they have a supply of gobos that you could borrow and if they have lights that are equipped with fittings to hold them. Renting a light or two to hold a variety of gobos can be infinitely less expensive than renting, installing, and returning rented backdrops.
- If you insist on using a backdrop, check with the theater to see if they have any from previous performances; they might already be hung and available for your use.
- In this day of mixed-media events, consider using the computer skills of your dancers or their “geek” friends to project beautiful still or moving images onto the stage.
- Owning your own fog machine and simple accessories like a disco ball and rotating mount will eliminate rental fees for such items and allow you to create special “club nights” at the studio for your jazz or hip-hop classes during the year.
When you ask the staff at your rental facility for favors, loans, and freebies, be sure to treat them with the utmost respect and kindness. Send them a thank-you note for a job well done and enclose a small gift card to a coffee spot or local restaurant. This will go a long way to getting those extras for your next show.
Other ways to save
One essential that you should never compromise on is an excellent sound system. However, that doesn’t mean you have to race out and buy the latest equipment. Check with your theater staff to see what they have before ordering or transporting your studio systems. And don’t forget to use your clients as a resource—I requested help with sound equipment in my newsletter and unearthed two studio dads who were in small rock bands; they let me use their full stack of concert-quality speakers absolutely free. They also hooked up the speakers and loaned me their strobe and laser lights. Do not be embarrassed to ask for help.
Check to see if a business that you or your students frequent would be willing to sponsor the printing of your recital tickets. Defray the cost of your programs by including business sponsors or selling “good luck” lines. But be careful not to overload your already insane schedule with these extra endeavors. Delegate, delegate, delegate—and when that does not work, beg for help.
Quality, not quantity
With the crumbling economy we seem to be facing, many families will appreciate any efforts you make to ensure that their out-of-pocket expenses for their children’s extracurricular activities are kept as low as possible. “Less is more!” is a wonderful motto to aspire to. The key is to be organized, start early to meet deadlines, and go for quality, not quantity. We can be our best for less.
Defining your studio’s unique identity
By Nancy Wozny
No two people are alike, so it follows that no two businesses are alike either. There might be a dozen dance studios in the country with identical names, all of which offer jazz, tap, and lyrical, but if you look beyond the surface, each is distinct. What makes them so? You, the school owners, that’s who. You are unique and your one-of-a-kind personality infuses your business. If there’s one idea I came away with after spending four days with roughly 500 dance teachers at the DanceLife Teacher Conference last summer, it’s that each dance studio is different.
There’s an idea going around that A-list studios have a certain look. They’re big, with several dance rooms, huge enrollments, dozens of faculty members, and snazzy competition teams. This is simply not true. Teachers aspire to their own definition of success. Here are just a few of the ways teachers I’ve spoken to describe what they do:
- “I am a one-person dance studio.”
- “I don’t do competitions.”
- “We are all about performing for our local community.”
- “I specialize in adults.”
- “We do alternative recitals.”
- “I want to grow my enrollment to 100.”
- “I am hoping to reach 700 students this fall.”
- “I work out of a community center.”
- “I have a dance studio and a company under one roof.”
Honestly, if each school owner you ever met described her studio to you, I doubt you would hear two stories that were the same. For each of these descriptions, there are parents out there looking for exactly what those schools do.
But sometimes you hear otherwise. Books, articles, and workshops abound for dance studio owners, all telling you how best to run and market your business. Have a dress code, keep parents at a distance, emphasize classes for ages 3 to 13, get a flashy website, charge this or that fee. Dance teachers are inundated with well-meaning advice. What if you looked at these ideas as suggestions and not a set of operating instructions? How can those suggestions be adapted to fit you? You know your school and yourself better than anyone else, so pick and choose according to what best fits your unique niche in the dance world.
Most dance studio owners have a mission statement. Usually it says something about aspiring to the highest standards of dance education and providing a nurturing environment for learning. All of that is fine, and important—but it’s too generic. Your business has more flavor than that. What if you took it a step further and truly defined your studio’s personality? If you took over an existing studio when you opened your business, then it’s especially important to do this work.
What’s the vibe at your studio? What feeling does the school evoke? How is it different from other studios? If a stranger walked in the door and had to describe the environment in just one sentence, what would she say? How do people talk about your studio? How do you talk about your studio?
Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an “elevator speech.” Afterward, have the listeners write down three ideas that popped into their minds. How well do these ideas match with your concept of your school? Try the exercise a few times and select three sound ideas that describe you perfectly. Add them to your mission statement.
Why define myself?
Your goal is to have clarity in all that you do and portray, from the person who answers the phone to the sign on the building. When you define yourself you attract the students who could benefit most from your unique service. Sometimes studio owners think that they need to be everything to everybody. Students sometimes leave and they wonder why. There are many reasons why students leave (see “Wish They’d Stay, Wish They’d Go,” DSL, October 2008), but one is that your service was not a match for that particular student or family. And students who leave open up spaces in class for someone who is a good match. It’s an entirely different way to look at losing business: as an opportunity. The good news is that there are enough dance students out there for everyone.
OK, I have defined myself. Now what?
Ideally people discover whether there is a match between student and teacher in an actual dance class, but a lot happens before that relationship begins. Opinions are formed long before anybody steps in the door. That’s why it’s best to make sure that your entire environment, both physical and virtual, as well as your print materials, reflect your special message. Think of your entire marketing package as having a cumulative effect. It’s impossible to import your entire personality into your website or your lobby. But if you take a good look at what’s already in place, chances are you will be delighted to find that you are naturally doing this all by yourself. Now how can you do it more consciously and consistently through your entire business?
Website and print media
A website is often a potential customer’s first stop in considering your school. Take a good look at yours and rate it from 1 to 10 on how well it conveys your message. How could you get that number up? Do the photos send an accurate visual message? Do they look like the kids that you actually see at your studio? Lovely photos are wonderful, but if they send the wrong message they will attract the wrong students, and if those students are not a good fit they might eventually leave. Even a simple font change can make a difference in the online image of your school. However, a website doesn’t have to do it all, so try not to stress out about having the perfect site.
When it comes to print media the same principles apply. Images, fonts, and overall design lend specific messages about what goes on at your studio. Take out some old ads, postcards, or brochures. Are they generic? Could they fit just about any dance studio? If so, it’s time for an update. If you are working with a professional graphic designer, describe what’s unique about your business so that he or she can transfer that information into a visual image. That’s the designer’s job, not yours.
Putting more you in your studio environment
Start with your front door and signage. What does it say about you? If someone were to walk by and peek in the door, would what he saw be an accurate reflection of what you stand for? What can you change easily without spending a bundle? Signs are expensive, and you might have been limited in your choices, especially if you are located in a strip mall. Ask yourself what is changeable in a way that would be more suited to you—color, size, overall design? Or perhaps adding lights to an existing sign is an option.
Find a few friends who are not in the dance studio business and ask them to listen to you talk about your school for 30 seconds. In the sales world, this is known as an ‘elevator speech.’
Next move to your lobby. How is your personality present in your interior choices, color scheme, furniture, photos on the wall? All of it counts. Now take a tour to the nucleus of your business, the actual dance rooms. Are the walls blank and white? If that feels perfect for you, great; you are there. If they feel a little pale, it’s time to jazz them up with your style. Or perhaps they are still painted that ’80s mauve from two owners ago. If so, it’s time for a trip to the paint store. And maybe add some photos on the wall or update a window treatment. Never underestimate the power of small changes; think of them as putting a touch of you in your dance rooms.
You at the front desk
Many people claim that word of mouth is their best selling tool. That’s great, but what about the mouth that is doing the talking for you? Do the people answering the phone at your school reflect your values? What’s on your answering machine? Consider recording the message or writing the script yourself. The front desk staff should be familiar with your mission statement and able to convey a consistent message. From time to time it’s good to have a meeting with your faculty and staff to go through this important information.
You in your recital
Recitals are widely considered to be good selling tools, so why not have yours also connect to your mission? There are so many options for recitals these days; in fact, it’s possible to buy an entire recital in a box. Backdrops and themes, complete with music, can be ordered from a catalog, making it easier for you to put on a big show. But is it your studio’s show? Take a look at the DVD of last year’s recital. What could you change easily? It could be the venue, length, presentation style, program, costumes, choice of music, or style of dance. Here’s a good indicator of how well your recital matches you: When you sit in the audience, are you having the time of your life?
Don’t break the bank
Defining your business is an ongoing process and does not need to be done in one day or even a year. In fact, small changes work best. Start with what needs the most work. Take your time. Say you change the art in your studio. How does it feel? Was it a good move? If you are on a tight budget, hold off on buying that snazzy new couch for your lobby and do something simpler, like adding new photos to your website or changing an old ad. Think of this as a fun and creative project. Talk to your faculty about your ideas and ask them for theirs. Get feedback from friends, and notice how parents and students respond to any changes you make.
Which advice to use?
By all means, keep reading articles and attending workshops on business and marketing strategies. We can’t come up with ideas all by ourselves, and it makes sense to listen to experts. It’s what you do with the information that counts. When you reach for the pen at the bottom of your very large dance bag because you can’t wait to write down an idea and try it, that’s a good indication that it’s a good fit. When your first impression is “I would never do that,” that’s a good indication that it’s not for you—or at least not yet. Always ask yourself how an idea can be modified to fit your goals.
Defined for success
A well-defined business acts as a lighthouse, shining your bright light in the direction of just the kind of students you will love teaching. You have created a beacon of your strengths and individuality. Dance is a huge world, large enough for myriad dance studios, all offering quality dance education. There is no one perfect model for an ideal dance studio and there will never be. Celebrate your diversity and give yourself permission to teach dance to your own beat.
Cross-training, body awareness, and old-fashioned common sense mean fewer injuries among students
By Darrah Carr
“Break a leg!” The theatrical well wish for actors and dancers has an irony that often escapes young performers. Indeed, for most young, healthy dancers, the possibility of injury feels remote and doesn’t factor greatly into their daily routine. For their older, more experienced teachers, however, the reality of injury and the desire to prevent it create a serious responsibility.
Fortunately, for as many potential problems that dancers can face, there exists an equal number of precautions that teachers can take. To begin with, teachers must establish a healthy working environment within the studio, taking into consideration the need for safe physical facilities as well as for strong emotional support.
As Richard d’Alton, director of International Ballet of Houston, notes, “the artistic director is responsible for having good flooring. Dancing on concrete or wood with no marley is an archaic thing of the past. Thank goodness our standards have come a long way since then!” Having a well-stocked first-aid cabinet with plenty of ice on hand is another must for studio owners, as are operating hours that reflect a balanced, realistic schedule. “Overwork, multiple private lessons, and late night rehearsals are not necessary,” d’Alton says. “Dancers must be considered as human beings. And, as human beings, we all shut down at some point during the day. There is no need to go until 10 p.m. I believe in quality rather than quantity of instruction.”
Balancing the studio schedule by offering a wide variety of classes can also reduce injuries related to overuse. Sarita Zuniga, owner of Sarita’s Dance Studio in San Antonio, TX, explains, “We aim to have a well-rounded, balanced program and encourage the students to try different disciplines of dance. On Mondays we offer ballet and jazz; on Tuesdays it is folklorico; on Wednesday nights we have flamenco, and so on. If the students can do different movements every day, then they are not constantly relying on the same muscle groups and they don’t run as high a risk of injury from overuse.”
Studios with a more singular focus can also promote balanced musculature by encouraging their students to cross train. Zola Dishong, who runs Contra Costa Ballet in Walnut Creek, CA, along with her partner, Richard Cammack, advocates Pilates for her population of serious classical ballet students. “Bringing Pilates into the studio has been great because the philosophy of the class is all about injury prevention,” Dishong says. “You can strengthen any weaknesses and even work through an injury with Pilates.”
D’Alton encourages his ballet dancers to seek additional Pilates training outside of the studio and to spend time lifting weights as well. “Boys especially need weight training,” he says. “I don’t want them to be the size of champion prize fighters, of course. But they must be strong enough to partner the girls correctly. It is another means of injury prevention.”
Zuniga enhances her dancers’ training with yoga. “We always do 30 to 40 minutes of yoga before beginning rehearsal. We play soothing music, lower the lights, and meditate a bit so that the dancers can start listening to their bodies. I try to inspire them to integrate their whole mind into the movement,” she explains. “I’ve seen a big change in the dancers. Yoga strengthens their core and balances their muscles. In dance, many problems stem from overuse injuries. If dancers are straining their quads, for example, then yoga can balance that by lengthening their hamstrings.”
A studio owner’s efforts to create a healthy working environment must be maintained by the entire teaching staff. Diane Pippen, who co-owns Diamond Dance Center in Forrest Hill, MD, along with her sister, Barbara Peterson, believes that faculty education is of primary importance for injury prevention. “If you have a big faculty, you must sit down with them and review teaching expectations in terms of the physical developmental stages that children go through and the anatomical principles that apply. Teachers have to be on the lookout for things like pronation and hyperextension, and they must know what the proper anatomy is,” Pippen says. “Teachers also have to be aware of growth-spurt injuries such as problems with ligaments and tendons. As girls hit puberty and their hips widen, for example, we start to see problems with pronation, especially in the knees. Teachers can’t force a perfect fifth position on those kids.”
‘Bringing Pilates into the studio has been great because the philosophy of the class is all about injury prevention. You can strengthen any weaknesses and even work through an injury with Pilates.’ —Zola Dishong
Pippen cites a number of anatomical variances among students that can lead to injury if not properly monitored, including tibial torsion, hyperextended knees, shin splints, hip popping, pelvic tipping, and ankle issues involving the peroneal and posterior tibialis tendons. She believes that students must be made aware of the unique, individual structures of their own bodies. “Children need to be educated about their own bodies and made to understand that ‘My body does this, but not this,’ ” Pippen explains. “The culture at the studio needs to be supportive enough that students feel comfortable speaking up [about physical concerns] and modifying certain movements if need be.”
Whatever the style of dance, certain movements tend to lead to injury more than others. Teachers must be aware of potential pitfalls within the given vocabulary and take precautions to demonstrate those steps safely. Dishong recommends introducing new petit allegro jumps at the barre so that students become familiar with the intricacies of the steps before moving to the center. D’Alton suggests that teachers set a goal for the day and then build the structure of the class accordingly. “You can’t do big jumps before small jumps. You can’t make dancers go up on pointe or do anything in the center until they are properly warmed up,” he notes. “We don’t do grand pliés until the middle of the barre. They are bad for you in the very beginning of class. And, I never encourage grand plié in fourth. It is a position we don’t use very often in ballet anyway, and it causes unnecessary strain.”
Heightened body awareness and a thorough education can extend to the waiting room, where pamphlets and articles on injury prevention can be made available to students and their parents. The International Association of Dance Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, and Deborah Vogel’s “The Body Series” are just a few invaluable resources for teachers to draw upon.
“Many times parents don’t know how to help a child who is complaining of pain,” Zuniga notes. “We educate both dancers and their parents on the RICE method (rest, ice, compress, and elevate), and we encourage Epsom salt soaks for minor aches and pains. We also explain that if the body is tired and not getting proper nutrition, then the chances of injury increase. Rest, nutrition, and injury prevention are all connected. Many parents don’t understand this.”
When addressing both parents and students, d’Alton stresses the importance of allowing time to warm up even before class begins. “It is not OK for a student to sit in the car for 40 minutes, or even 15 minutes, and then run into class,” he says. “Students shouldn’t arrive 2 minutes before class time, or, even worse, 5 minutes after class begins.”
Many teachers also advise families about the risk of injury from non-dance–related activities. Dishong notes, “Nine times out of ten, when a dancer comes to me with an injury it is from gym class, running track, or some other kind of sports activity.”
Zuniga too recognizes the prevalence of sports injuries. “Coaches tend to be more abusive to the body than instructors in the fields of dance or fitness,” she says. “They can have a mentality of ‘No pain, no gain,’ which really is the philosophy of the past.”
Even when students get injured outside of the studio, dance teachers are often sought out for advice. “Parents tend to think that you know everything about the body, so they’ll call and ask your opinion even if the child got injured in school,” Zuniga says. “I’ll say, ‘Call a doctor; I’m not qualified.’ Then I’ll always refer them to a medical professional.”
Often dance teachers act as important facilitators among an injured dancer, a concerned parent, and a doctor. “I’m not qualified to diagnose a dancer. No teacher should attempt to do that,” d’Alton states. “It is my job to ensure that an ache or pain doesn’t turn into something more serious. I have to make sure that if something is hurting, dancers are being honest with themselves and are also letting us know. Dancers are very motivated people. We know that they always want to be in the studio. But if they are in pain, then the first thing they need to do is to take a few days off.” If the pain is severe or persistent, d’Alton insists that the dancer see a doctor in order to determine whether an X-ray or MRI is needed. He’ll also serve as the dancer’s advocate. “If I don’t agree with the doctor’s diagnosis, then I’ll encourage them to seek a second or even third opinion,” he says.
Many studios develop relationships with local medical professionals who specialize in dance medicine, sports medicine, or physical therapy. These specialists are often more helpful in treating an injured dancer than pediatricians or other general practitioners. Pippen, whose own background as a nurse comes in handy when addressing her students’ injuries, says, “We do have to counsel our parents to see a sports medicine doctor or one who has a dance background. We find that ‘regular’ doctors frequently do not understand the needs of dancers; their first inclination is to put them on crutches, in huge braces, or completely off dance when ‘relative rest’ and other treatments are warranted. We also find that some doctors do not always explain the diagnosis to the parent or the child, which I do not agree with at all. I want them to understand what is going on and how to fix it.”
An injury often leads to a greater understanding of the body and can have a lasting impact on a dancer. “I’ve seen very positive results when girls return after an injury,” Dishong says. “They are forced to be more intelligent about their work, to work more slowly, and to make better choices. They are often better off for it.”
While guiding dancers along the road to recovery, d’Alton requires them to watch classes and rehearsals. “The dancers usually want to watch anyway. They always hate being away from the studio. They can learn so much by watching their teacher teach and by watching both the good and bad examples of their fellow students,” he says.
Easing into classes after an injury is important in preventing reinjury. D’Alton does not believe in putting recovering dancers back into their regular class schedule right away. For one, the other dancers in the class need to continue to be challenged and shouldn’t be held up by a recovering dancer’s slower pace. “Working with a recovering dancer requires a good deal of one-on-one time. I don’t mind going in early or staying late to help a dancer with specific exercises until they can be incorporated back into their regular class,” d’Alton says. “It is a slow process. As their teacher, you have to put all expectations aside. Let them know that they don’t need to prove anything; they just need to get better.”
The recovery process requires patience from the dancers, of course, but also from their parents. “Often parents are very driven for their child to succeed in dance,” d’Alton says. “But you can’t get a quick fix in this business. And there is nothing more important than the long-term health and safety of the dancer.”
Fair practices for disbursing competition awards cash
By Jennifer Rienert
Owners of dance studios that participate in competitions know that to do well requires hard work, good choreography, and dedicated and talented dancers. So when you hear “And the first-place winner is . . .” and your studio’s name is called, you have reason to be excited and proud of your accomplishments. It’s likely that a lot of people participated in making that number first rate: the teachers who gave the students good technique, the studio owner who provided them with the opportunity to compete, the choreographer who shared his or her creativity with them—and of course the students themselves, who carried out the assignment effectively.
But sometimes, along with the first-place trophy or plaque comes a white envelope containing a cash award. While this is a much desired and appreciated perk, now comes a tricky question: Who gets the money?
Varying viewpoints abound on how to disburse the money, but there are no right or wrong answers, no rules, no guidelines. Many studio owners don’t ponder the options for sharing this financial recognition until their studios begin to win a few first-place scholarships. Since so many people were involved in the process of bringing the winning piece to the stage, who is entitled to the cash? What’s best and what’s fair?
Sometimes this dilemma sneaks up on you. When my school first started competing 16 years ago, my staff’s goal was to obtain high silver and gold medals; we never even considered the possibility of winning high scores. But when our entries did begin to bring in some cash, I wanted to be fair. I had no idea what other studio owners were doing with the money their schools won, but since in the beginning I was the sole choreographer and teacher, I kept the check. I felt it was a fair payment for my choreography and time. I never charged the students any fees for my time on competition weekends—my babysitter, gas, and hotel expenses came from my own pocket. And if my students won nothing for the weekend, then I wasn’t paid.
If the award was a large sum, after my expenses were paid I put whatever was left (maybe $150 to $200) back into the studio. Sometimes that money paid for new costumes or props; sometimes it helped with the cost of a new rug or studio repairs. I felt that this policy was fair and for the most part I still live by that belief today.
However, some of my teachers now do some of our competition choreography, and if one of their routines wins first place, I pass the cash award on to them. Most of my choreographers are on my staff, so they are the ones who rehearse the students on a weekly basis and attend the competitions. For their efforts and loyalty, I believe they should receive the scholarship money for their winning routines. However, guest choreographers are paid well for their services, and I do not feel obligated to give them additional funds if the piece created for us takes the high score.
There is one time when I believe students should receive the cash award, and that is when they win for a solo, duo, or trio. This is a personal victory, since high scores are primarily based on performance quality; also, these students must pay substantially more in entry fees than those who dance only in group numbers. So at my school the $50 or $100 award for an overall high-score winning solo or duo/trio goes to the students. In most cases the check doesn’t even cover the cost of their entry fees, but it helps.
Sometimes a duo or trio wins the highest award in the event, which comes with a substantial check, sometimes as much as $500. In this case, if the high score was based on both performance and choreography, I split the award between the students and the choreographer.
Often parents choose to apply their student’s winnings toward the next month’s tuition or the next competition. However, if a family owes money to the studio for tuition, competition fees, costumes, or any other expenses, then I apply the award check directly to what they owe, with no option. I believe this process is fair, and it has worked well for us over the years.
Linda Juliano, owner of Dance Connection in East Haven, CT, has been teaching for 50 years and her students have been competing for about 35. She understands the dilemma about disbursements since many people feel that the choreography is such an important factor in a winning piece. Still, she gives all cash awards to the students. “I have always felt that the parents pay the competition fees and the kids need the money,” she says. “If the money is won by a group, then it is divided evenly among the dancers; if it is a soloist, [he or she] receives all of the money.” Juliano stipulates that cash awards must go toward paying for dance lessons, costumes, or other studio-related expenses and allows the parents to choose how the funds should be used.
Bobbie Tauber, owner and director of Bobbie’s School of Performing Arts in Newbury Park, CA, says, “The prize money from our company helps to cover various expenses such as transportation of props, hotel rooms for faculty, master classes, awards banquets and celebrations. We will sometimes use the money to buy a specific kind of dance shoe for a dance number or costume parts that are shared by all. When students win cash prizes for solos, duos, or trios, they receive all but 10 percent of that money. The 10 percent covers my tax liability, since the check is made out to the studio.”
Some studio owners, like Lisa Kaplan Barbash of The Dance Studio in Stoughton, MA, come up with interesting ideas about how to use award money. “If it is a year that we are not going to a summer national competition,” she says, “I design an article of dancewear, usually a sweatshirt, or a dance bag,” which is embroidered with the students’ names and title. “This really makes the dancers feel special. However, if we are going to nationals that year, I usually disburse checks to the parent of each dancer to use as spending money on their trip to the finals.”
Some teachers feel that there is no fair way to distribute cash winnings among a group of students; therefore, to alleviate any problems and allow all the students to share in the benefits, they use the money for school improvements. Cindy Flanagan of Concord Dance Academy in Concord, NH, says, “We have written into the teachers’ and the students’ contracts that all monies won belong to the school. The first thing we do at the end of every season is have a competition banquet where we feed all the students and their families and give them all the trophies they have won that season. If there are funds left over after the party, we always upgrade something in the school that all can enjoy.” She has used the funds to paint the dance classrooms, update the bathrooms, and buy a refrigerator for the students to keep their drinks and snacks in.
Studio owners should consider all of the options for disbursing cash awards and then make it known to all staff, students, and parents how any winnings will be handled each year. Being consistent and clear about the expectations and rewards of competing will eliminate the chance of questions or hard feelings that could negate the joy of winning that first-place award. Having a plan will help keep everyone focused on their accomplishments rather than squabbling over what’s in that white envelope.
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
How to barter in a money-based financial world
By Shevon McBride
Do you love being an independent professional? Do you relish the freedom, the flexible hours, and the 4:00 p.m. naps? Sure, but chances are you don’t savor the quarterly taxation and high start-up costs, and most likely you will miss out on the paid vacations, insurance benefits, sick leave, and other pluses that employees enjoy. There isn’t much you can do to avoid the taxes, but there is a way for you to squeeze by the other pitfalls. Are you looking for a creative way to save money or, better yet, not deal with money at all?
The secret is bartering. Before the printing of money, our country operated on a barter system, and this type of exchange is still common (though not always easy to spot). In bartering, goods or services are exchanged for other goods or services; for example, a plumber might do repair work for a dentist in exchange for dental care. Usually bartering results in a gain for both parties.
How it’s done
Because dance studio owners typically have clients who are hairdressers, manicurists, seamstresses, house cleaners, chiropractors, website designers, landscapers, masseuses, accountants, and so on, there are ample opportunities to barter services. Here’s one idea: If you have a social dance program, you could teach lessons to a group in exchange for a service that the group performs, such as a law firm exchanging professional services to draw up papers for you to establish an LLC. Most swaps are with friends who need a hand, so think of it as friends helping friends.
Another use of bartering is to pay off debt. Many dance studio owners barter with clients during peak times when extra help is needed. Asking clients to donate their time is a great way to help them pay off past-due accounts. One popular opportunity is on picture day, when extra help is a must. This is a good time to recruit one or two reliable parents who work well with the public. In return for their help, you could give them a tuition discount for the following month. They will appreciate the opportunity to help out in exchange for getting credit toward their bill.
One great advantage of bartering with an individual or small business is that it generates a strong feeling of getting as good as you give.
The opportunities to barter can go beyond the studio and have a trickle-down effect in the community. Not only does bartering eliminate the exchange of money, it’s also good for networking. For example, you might know a parent who could design your program or tickets in exchange for free recital tickets or a tuition discount. Not only do both of you benefit, but people in the community become aware of the talents that others have to offer.
On the flip side of bartering is the possibility of an unbalanced exchange, when one person feels that the service performed is worth more than what is received. That can be avoided when the exchange is based on an agreed-upon value for the time or service. For a win–win situation to exist in a barter agreement, both parties involved need to compare the exchange of goods and services in a quantitative fashion. For example, using the previously mentioned scenario of bartering tuition costs for help on picture day, you would offer that parent a credit based on what you would have paid an office helper to assist you.
Another problem arises when parents expect you to barter with them, which sometimes gives other clients the impression that you are showing favoritism. To prevent this from happening, post a notice on the bulletin board to inform parents that you do barter and let them know which services you need.
Although bartering means saving money, it doesn’t mean saving time. Plan to spend a reasonable amount of time arranging the exchange, negotiating the terms, and keeping track of the necessary paperwork. Putting in writing the terms of the service being bartered and its agreed-upon value in dollars is essential. A written agreement helps to keep the exchange balanced and avoids any feelings of discontent that can arise with a verbal agreement. Include specifics, such as time lines, costs, and terms of approval of the completed service, to ensure that the barter is fair and balanced. Never assume that both parties understand the terms of a casual negotiation in the same way. Get it in writing!
Bartering does not offer a loophole to avoid taxation. According to the IRS (www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc420.html), “income from bartering is taxable in the year in which you receive the goods or services. Generally, you report this income on Schedule C, Profit or Loss from Business Form 1040.” In other words, an exchange of services counts as income and must be declared on your tax form. Reporting bartering activities to the wranglers of revenue is an intricate process, though it doesn’t always discourage people from swapping services.
Reporting a barter to the IRS, filling out the appropriate forms, doing the calculations, and keeping track of the exchange seems like a lot of work. So why bother? Isn’t it smarter to do business as usual? It’s true that it’s probably less of a headache to take money for your goods and services. After all, our society is set up to deal with cash-based exchanges, especially in multistage transactions—imagine trying to pay taxes with the massage you got from a parent in exchange for her daughter’s dance lessons. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean you should avoid taking the unconventional route. You have to decide if it is worth it to you.
One great advantage of bartering with an individual or small business is that it generates a strong feeling of getting as good as you give. Bartering lets both you and your trading partner show off your work and gives you an appreciative audience for your work—and that’s the kind of thing you can’t get from some big, impersonal corporate client. However, if a dispute arises about the quality of the service or product you receive, refer to your written agreement to settle it. The last thing you want is for the exchange to end with hard feelings—and the potential for negative word of mouth about you or your studio.
Some people think bartering is silly, a primitive technique from the days before money was invented. Others find it to be creative, fun, and even practical. Bartering is the modern-day expression of the Latin quid pro quo, which means “something for something.” You’ll have to decide whether it makes sense for you and your business. But the possibilities are endless and the results can be good—for the soul, for your image, and for livening up your life.
Quick Look: Bartering Pros and Cons
Pro: Bartering can be a cheap means of marketing for your business. For example, if you barter with a parent who owns a daycare and she is happy with the exchange of goods, she in turn promotes your business through positive word of mouth.
Con: You shouldn’t count too heavily on bartering as a way to market your school. You might be better off using direct mail to create a good buzz about your business.
Pro: Bartering gives you a chance to work closely with interesting people from different walks of life and become familiar with their products or services.
Con: People who are unfamiliar with the dance world might make unreasonable demands or have high expectations about what they should receive for their service.
Pro: Bartering can teach you new ways to negotiate and offer fresh insights into client relations.
Con: You can waste a lot of time in the bartering process. It can distract you from your real work.
Forget the Gregorian calendar—here’s one for dance teachers!
By Diane Gudat
For dance teachers, enduring a year feels like being stuck on a warped carousel. Through the ups and downs, there is no way to keep it from spinning or to slow it down. For the most part, the ride is fun and exciting—you never know what is around the next turn. But since dance teachers do not live the same kind of life as people in other professions, why should we adhere to the same calendar? I’ve devised one with a more realistic view of our year, plus some suggestions to make it more suited for our nontraditional needs.
We will begin our calendar in September, when the dance year begins both fiscally and emotionally. However, we will call it “Acceptember” because during this month parents must accept our decisions about their children’s class placement.
This would be a great time to purchase frames for your teaching certificates and resume so that you can create a display that proves you are an educated professional. Consider placing a lovely photo album in the lobby that shows you hugging the hundreds of happy children who have attended classes at your studio for years. You might also display some of the thank-you letters you’ve received from appreciative parents who think you are the “best dance teacher ever!”
October begins with the root “Oct,” which means “eight.” I am not sure why it is traditionally the 10th month of the year, but since most dance teachers have lost the ability to count past the number eight, it is not a problem. The name of the month ends with the last four letters of the word “sober.” This is the month by which we have finally recovered from summer trips or must consider going into rehab. If the month must be renamed, it should probably be called “Deca-recovery.”
At this point in the year, we feel that there is no way we will ever successfully complete the holiday show. One of the biggest problems is getting students to attend class regularly.
Notice that the word “dance” appears in “attendance.” This word was created by a dance master in ancient Rome who was responsible for the Winter Solstice Festival and would find his head on a stick if it was not spectacular.
The root words of “December” are “deception” and “remember.”
Most people can fool themselves into thinking that the holiday season is easy. But dance teachers know better than to practice the art of self-deception at this time of year; we juggle so many more details that the entire month is a blur. While others are leisurely trimming trees, we are dragging students to the mall and local nursing homes. While they are contemplating the perfect gifts for everyone, we are contemplating what we are going to do for recital and what everyone will wear. Instead of “gift of the month” catalogs, we are studying costume catalogs. Instead of reserving a hotel room for the winter break, we are trying to get someone from our performance venue to return a call. Lists of competitions and unfinished solos replace gift lists.
I know the Gregorian calendar was set up for only 12 months, but was this Greg a dance teacher? I think not!
Most of us cannot imagine this month going by without attending at least one Nutcracker performance. Whether Clara falls asleep on the couch, floor, or overstuffed chair, I envy her the rest. During the second act, which she spends sitting on a throne, I wonder when was the last time I sat still for one full hour without a headset on.
I am sure that my December is very different from the one experienced by the relatives I sit next to at Christmas dinner. Heaven help me if they try to discuss current events—mine are confined to the four walls of the dance studio and its inhabitants.
The dance teacher’s calendar adds an extra month here called “Breathurary.” This would be a dream come true! Those of us with Christmas trees still up at the end of January, holiday costumes in our cars, and teachers who cannot or should not return this semester need an extra month right now. Having more time to send in costume orders (and for the companies to make them) would change our lives. We have so much music to prepare, and our performance groups are nowhere near ready for competition. Thirty days here would change our lives. Let’s face it—even 10 extra minutes would make a difference.
If the dance studio were a paper shredder, by the end of this month we would feel like we had been sliced into a thousand tiny pieces. Costume company discounts usually expire on the 15th of this month; so, like during tax season for the average person, most of us file a late return on costume orders. We wonder what happened to the holiday vacation and how long the neighbors will tolerate seeing Christmas lights on our house.
Let us dedicate this month to having parents and students remember to bring forms—whether for costumes, competitions, or anything else—back on time. Most of us have perfected the arts of tackling parents in the lobby and chasing down cars in the parking lot. As I often point out, “deadline” has the word “dead” in it. We have all cheated death more than once while flagging down parents in the parking lot to get their signatures.
March is the perfect name for this month. We are marching toward recital and we need parents to march their children into class every week so we can teach them their recital dances. It is maddening to try to choreograph with at least one child missing from every class every week. This is the month when dancers need to recommit to class—and it is also the time of year when spring sports begin, school musicals are presented, and dance class seems to take a back seat to other activities. We dance teachers need to march to the mall and buy ourselves a little “you can do it” present to get us through.
This is the month when high-school seniors become maniacs (if they aren’t already). In order to leave the nest for college (the dance studio is often more of a nest than the home), these children work under the misconception that if they behave like apes and make everyone dislike them, they will be able to leave for college comfortably. They also believe that every move they make will be the last of its kind, so they suddenly care deeply about every high-school function. That means they are never at rehearsal, even though they are featured in every dance routine. As for their parents, they begin crying at the drop of a hat and taking pictures of their children as if they were newborns.
All this will pass, and by Thanksgiving break those students will be back for a visit and you will see that they are the same lovely humans you remember helping to raise.
Most of us love what we do and cannot imagine doing anything else, but during this month we have had it! Some of us are able to hold recitals during this month, while the rest of us are in full panic mode. As we drive to the studio, we pass people coming home from work and try to imagine dinner at home and a non-TiVo television show. On Saturdays we gaze enviously at people in their yards as we head for a full day of rehearsals. This is a year-round problem that becomes more pointed when the weather starts to change. Schedule lunch with another dance teacher and tell each other how valuable you are.
The word “jungle” contains all the letters you need to spell June—this is no coincidence. The best we can hope for is that we survive and get a few good recital gifts. And on that note, we need to get parents to understand that gift cards to music stores are never what we need; we use our business accounts to buy music for class and choreography. And we do not listen to music for enjoyment; what we want is quiet—peace and blessed quiet! We need a good meal and some liquid comfort, so we suggest gift cards for restaurants. Or for department stores—if June is not our recital month, then it is wedding/graduation month and we can use the cards to buy presents for these never-ending events.
No cards! No phone calls! If we are traveling with you, stay out of our room! Do not be surprised or hurt if when traveling we choose to have dinner or an evening out with a fellow dance teacher. In fact, students, do your research and send your teacher a gift card for a five-star restaurant close to the competition hotel. Or, better yet, one to the hotel spa!
August/I-guessed (my charge card would max out)
What we need at this time of year is for parents to pay that first-semester bill in full—with cash. Most of us do not get paid during July and August, yet those are the months when we tend to spend the most money. The bills from the convention hotel, meals, show tickets, formals, shoes, and souvenirs begin to arrive and we do our best to pay the minimum balance on the cards. Our line of credit is sweating bullets and our significant other has given us yet another lecture on responsible spending.
Let’s add another new month here. I know the Gregorian calendar was set up for only 12 months, but was this Greg a dance teacher? I think not! We need at least 30 days to make heads and tails of the schedule, figure out who is teaching what, and get the studio in shape to handle the new dance year.
A new calendar might not solve any problems, but it would certainly shed light on how different a dance teacher’s life can sometimes feel from a “normal” person’s. Adding two extra months should help—but as long as we are wishing, let’s add an extra day between Saturday and Sunday plus a 25th hour in each day. That ought to do it!
I have been an owner/director of a studio for 16 years. I have had a group of teens for a while now, my competition team, who are pretty dedicated, good kids. One of them is the daughter of one of my teachers. That teacher told me that a girl who is very negative and disrespectful is upsetting her daughter, and she mentioned going to another studio if her daughter is not happy here. I love this teacher and her daughter; they are very loyal and hardworking. I would hate to see them leave because one girl is upsetting them. Then I heard of two other girls who are not happy and may go to another studio next year, and I don’t know why.
I called the mother of the girl who is negative to see if she could talk to her daughter about being more positive and having more respect for her teachers and fellow dancers. She told me she has not been happy. So five people are not happy, and my competition team is small, only 20 kids. I know at this age the girls can be very cliquey.
How do I handle this? I would say I run a disciplined school, but I have to admit that I can be a pushover. It seems like when the kids get in high school a lot of them leave for some reason or another. I would like to stop this and keep at least most of them at the studio until graduation. Do you have any advice? —Confused and Upset
Hello Confused and Upset,
I would have a rap session with the five girls who seem to be disgruntled. Start out with something like, “I’ve called you all together because I feel that you’re not happy in my classroom, which is causing tension that I can feel while I am teaching. Please take this opportunity to let me know what’s on your mind, because I love what I do and I love you guys, but I can’t deal with the tension.” Stay totally calm. Don’t allow yourself to get upset by anything they say, and be sure that they act respectfully toward each other. Use this talk as a learning experience to give you more insight on how situations like this arise. (There’s a lot to be learned from our students.)
If you discover that the problem leads back to the one dancer that you describe as negative and disrespectful, it may be time to give her directions to some of the other schools in the area. That may seem harsh, but her negativity will continue to impact the attitudes of the dancers she encounters.
Overall, I would not sit back and wonder what’s going on. It’s better to confront the problems now rather than letting them fester throughout the rest of the season. That usually leads to students ending the season on a negative note, which means that they would be less likely to return to your school. Make the changes needed to bring harmony back. Good luck! —Rhee
I’m in terrible distress and feel I have nowhere else to turn. I’m a 24-year-old studio owner who bought an existing business with the help of my parents last year. I graduated as a dance pedagogy major from a major university a couple of years ago, so when this opportunity presented itself I was thrilled. But I’m feeling very alone. I didn’t realize what a lonely business this is, or maybe I just need to make friends with other studio owners who have the same weird work hours that I do.
I have almost 250 students, employ 4 people, and teach 36 hours a week. Running this business, preparing to teach classes, ordering costumes, etc. is exhausting. I feel drained of all the passion I ever had for dance. I need to choreograph for the end-of-the-year show, but I’m bogged down in negative thoughts about life and dance and the pressure I feel to keep the standards as high as they were with the previous owner.
I’m overwhelmed and searching for any kind of inspiration I can get. I’m heartbroken that my dream of having my own studio has left me depressed, stressed, anxious, and lonely. I can’t do anything without thinking about the studio. It has completely taken over my mind, like an obsession. I want so badly to run the business perfectly and be an amazing teacher and choreographer, but the stress is eating me alive. I guess I just want someone to tell me it will get easier with experience. How can I pull myself out of this rut? —Sasha
Most school owners will tell you that they are happiest when they’re in the classroom with the kids. The perfect scenario is a shut door with no disruptions or phone—just the teacher and the students doing what they love most. Unfortunately, most of them don’t get enough of that “behind closed doors” time. Instead they’re dealing with all the non-dance stuff that must be accomplished to keep the school rolling. And that’s not always easy.
When you own a school you usually wake up wondering what to do first. Should you focus on the choreography that should have been finished last week, or is it more important to call the mom who wants to know why her daughter isn’t in a higher-level class? Maybe you should fill out that rental application for the recital—but that needs a copy of your insurance policy and you have no idea where that is. When you do decide what you can accomplish that day, you have to keep in mind that you must open the school at 3:00 and teach until 9:30 that night.
So why do people do this job? Because they just can’t help themselves; somewhere in their early journey a teacher instilled that “dance passion” in their blood, and it can’t be disregarded. Sharing that passion with their own students becomes a mission.
After you’ve owned your school for a few years you’ll discover other rewards. For instance, you know that 6-year-old who spent her first couple of classes in the back of the room crying for her mother? Twelve years from now she will be a confident young lady who has learned things like discipline, commitment, and the value of working hard to accomplish her goals. Eventually, if she does something cool like land a scholarship at an Ivy League school, it will be due, at least in part, to the ethics you helped to instill in her. She and her parents will credit your school as the place that gave her some of the tools she needed to become a successful adult. What could be more rewarding? This scenario will play out over and over again, guaranteed.
You write that it can be a lonely life and I agree with you. Part of it has to do with the hours and part of it to the fact that friends often don’t understand the kind of commitment this job takes. The best thing to do is to find some “dance friends.” Check out the dance teacher organizations or attend conventions, conferences, and workshops where you will meet others who live the life you do. There is nothing better than just hanging out with people who understand what your passion is all about!
The struggles you are having now do become easier because owning a school is a live-and-learn process. Though we can pursue a degree or certification to make us the best teachers we can be, there is no educational program that teaches us how to run a dance school. Think of the first few years of school ownership as continuing that education you started in college. This time you’re going for your “master’s” in running a dance school. You won’t get a diploma, but you will go through a process that will make you a much smarter businessperson, and along the way you will develop organizational skills that make all that non-dance stuff easier.
You are not alone. You’ve chosen one of the most exciting professions in the world, and I have a feeling that you’ll agree once you’ve been through the learning curve. —Rhee
I offer incentives to my customers to pay tuition for a full season (September to June) at the start of the year. Recently I have had to give refunds to several customers who chose not to complete the season. I would prefer not to offer refunds on tuition, but I’m afraid that if I don’t, fewer customers will pay for the season up front. What should I do? —Robin
I think you are doing the right thing by giving refunds to those who request them. If you do not you probably will find, as you suspect, that your customers are apprehensive about paying for the year up front. But you might consider initiating a policy that states that there are no refunds past a certain date in the season or that a partial refund will be given in some cases. For example, if a child withdraws after you have completed choreography for the year-end performance (in which the child was included), I think you would be justified in not offering that family a refund. Or if you used studio funds to pay for costumes for the child, it is reasonable to deduct the costume fees from the refund. And if the child were to withdraw in late spring, I would have to contemplate whether I would offer a refund.
However, if a child stops dancing within the first few months of the season, I would give a refund because I would want that customer to speak positively about my school. And maybe the child will decide to dance again, and I would want my school to be their first choice—which it probably would be if they didn’t leave on a sour note. It’s not easy to offer refunds when you’re barely keeping up with expenses, but there are times when it is better for business to just do it! Good luck! —Rhee
The pros and cons of opening a dance studio before age 30
Edited by Nancy Wozny
Young people today have many options when it comes to entrepreneurial careers, and owning a dance studio is a popular one. Considering its physicality and long hours, it’s a career that seems to suit the young quite well. Fearlessness and technical savvy come into play as well. The following people contributed their stories, expertise, and wisdom.
Amanda Armetta-Gring, 21 (school owner at 19), Armetta’s Grand Jeté Studio of Dance, Macungie, PA
Nadia Avigliano, 30 (school owner at 25), Nadia’s Performing Arts Centre, Whitestone, NY
Melanie Brooke Campbell, 26 (school owner at 21), Orangecrest Dance Academy, Riverside, CA
Amy Leigh Hall, 28 (school owner at 21), Rhythms Dance Academy, Point Pleasant, NJ
Amber Hemmer, 28 (school owner at 25), AHA! Amber Hemmer’s Academy of Dance, Cedar Grove, NJ
Tanya Neary, 25 (school owner at 19), Stars of Tomorrow Dance Academy, Huntington, NY
Will Shover, 28 (school owner at 26), Dance Upstairs, Elkin, NC
Alicia Smith, 21 (school owner at 21), Patricia Krus School of Dance, Garrett, ID
Jaclyn Augustyn Smith, 30 (school owner at 27), CORE Academy of Movement, Mt. Laurel, NJ
DeAnna Stojan, 24 (school owner at 18), Jubilee Dance School, Wake Forest, NC
Tammy Wills, 42, and Debbie Thiel, 38 (school owners at 18 and 14, respectively), Dancin On Broadway, Brooklyn Park, MN
What are some of the advantages of being a young dance studio owner?
Amanda Armetta-Gring: I am much further in my career than the people I graduated with. I am young, upbeat, and I can relate to my students very well.
Melanie Brooke Campbell: Having a fresh take on things—more of a fire to inspire students.
Amy Leigh Hall: You begin fresh, with an open mind and the ability to take more in and learn from others. You can make and fix your mistakes earlier than others and give them time to work themselves out. The older kids feel comfortable with me because I’m not a “mom” figure.
Amber Hemmer: It enables me to relate directly with my students. I am very aware of current music, movies, and TV shows.
Tanya Neary: Having large amounts of energy and time to put into growing a studio. At 19 I was not worried about sharing my time with a husband or children. As the time nears when I will want to have a family, my studio is well on its way to being established and has the potential to be run without my daily presence.
Will Shover: At 26 I was passionate and motivated. I think I brought a new and innovative approach as well as excitement and energy to taking dance in a community that needed it. Plus I am still OK with Pasta Roni for dinner when money is tight.
Alicia Smith: I have the energy, passion, and excitement to stay encouraged when things get stressful. I also don’t have a family that has to make sacrifices because of my schedule. I am not set in my own ways yet; I try to remain open-minded, especially with my instructors.
DeAnna Stojan: When I was younger I had fewer responsibilities. I was able to attend college classes in the mornings, teach and work at the studio, and also work an additional part-time job. If I had had a husband and/or children, I would not have been able to do it all.
Tammy Wills/Debbie Thiel: The biggest advantage was that we were naive. We didn’t know what we would have to give up to make our dance studios successful.
What are some of the challenges that come with owning a school at a young age?
Nadia Avigliano: Having the parents see me as a professional, not one of the kids. I tried very hard to stick to my policies and be organized to prove that I was in control. Now I have the respect of the parents that have been with me for five years.
Amy Leigh Hall: People didn’t think I could run a good school at such a young age. I knew what I was doing and needed to stick to my guns to get where I am today.
Amber Hemmer: Drawing a distinct line between being a teacher and being a friend [to the students].
Tanya Neary: It was hard for some people to take me seriously. I had to have my mom present at meetings with potential landlords so that they would be comfortable knowing I had support, even though financially my parents had no involvement. Gaining trust took time—clients who had jobs in the business world tried to teach me how to do business, even though they knew nothing about dance. Also, it took time to assert myself as their equal in conflicts over billing or policies.
Will Shover: Being a male and owning a dance school in a small town was the first obstacle. Also, I do not look like a typical dance teacher; I look more like a football player.
Tammy Wills/Debbie Thiel: Being taken seriously by the business world. Every once in a while a family might question our ages, but once they saw us in class they became some of our biggest supporters.
Did you seek mentorship or training that helped you establish your business?
Nadia Avigliano: I started assisting and teaching at an early age. While obtaining my undergraduate degree in dance, I sought out my first teaching job, where I realized I had a knack for working with children. I walked into a wonderful environment with a studio owner who became a dear friend and mentor. I learned so much by watching her: how she handled stressful situations, spoke to parents, gave corrections to students. When a problem arises, I ask myself how she would handle it. When I decided to open my business, she helped me figure out what I would need to start. She also told me things like how high my barres should be mounted, that I had to pay music licensing fees, and all those things that you don’t think about when you’re about to jump into the water without testing it first. I am grateful every day for all that I learned from her.
Melanie Brooke Campbell: I have met many wonderful studio owners in many different settings, like Rhee Gold’s Mini-Project Motivate, Sam Beckford’s Successful Studio Strategies seminars, and Tremaine Dance Conventions. I have had many questions answered by owners who were my age or slightly older and seasoned vets.
Amber Hemmer: Roseanna Brogan-Smith, my teacher and former boss who still owns and runs her studio (she started at 16 and is now in her 70s), is still my mentor. I participated in an apprentice program at her studio where I was trained in jazz, tumbling, lyrical, tap, and ballet. I believe an important asset as an owner is my ability to teach multiple disciplines to all age groups and ability levels. My business training was through Miss Roseanna, watching the daily operations of the studio and taking on more responsibilities as I grew older. The Small Business Administration also proved a valuable resource.
Do you feel more technically savvy because of your age?
Amanda Armetta-Gring: Yes, in high school I took all the computer and business classes. I designed my own web page, ads, brochures, business cards, and show tickets and I do all of my accounting on the computer.
Amy Leigh Hall: Some parents are still not on my e-mail lists and it drives me crazy. Some schools don’t have any online information at all, and I think those of us who do are better off. Parents like to look at things on their own time.
Alicia Smith: Computer and technical knowledge is an advantage I have over my school’s previous owner. I can do a lot of things that she had to pay someone to do.
DeAnna Stojan: We have had a website for six years. We can register students online and offer the option of receiving email newsletters and reminders. However, a dance studio needs to be only as techy as the parents are. This is the first year that we have been able to go completely online for all our communication. We have had these things available for years, but the concept has just caught on. Now parents say how great it is to get newsletters via email rather than digging through dance bags.
It takes a lot of energy to run a dance studio—is it a job for the young?
Amanda Armetta-Gring: It is a lot of work, but when I’m teaching I forget about the crazy business side of it. When it gets tough I think about how I am affecting these kids’ lives and helping them grow into tomorrow’s leaders.
Nadia Avigliano: Having energy is a definite advantage. Living with my parents and not having the responsibility of a husband or family, I could put all of my energy into the business. I didn’t feel guilty about late nights and weekends at competitions.
Melanie Brooke Campbell: Yes, but the dating department goes on a slight hiatus during the months of September to June! Having a social life is a juggle. My friends help out with shows and performances. They see how much I do, and their way of reaching out is to do the little things.
Jaclyn Augustyn Smith: Yes, I can still get down on my hands and knees for “Animal Action” and keep up with the 6-year-olds for “Skip to My Lou.” But I am also mature and confident enough to discipline and deal with the hard part of being cool enough for the tweens and teens.
Do parents ever have issues with you because of your age?
Melanie Brooke Campbell: Parents are very understanding. If they have never met me, they are shocked to see me. They always ask who the owner is or how old I am. When I tell them and give a little background about my training, they are so impressed. I present myself and dress appropriately, and I’ve never had anyone say anything negative or question my reasons.
Amy Leigh Hall: They were wary of me at first, but some of the parents who gave me a shot that first year are still with me today. It took time to become a local figure of dance arts that people were willing to take a chance on.
Amber Hemmer: I have not yet experienced a lack of trust with parents due to my age. In fact, parents question me about how to discipline their children at home because they see them respond so well in class. It’s important to be specific about expectations with both parents and students; it results in respect and order in the studio. I usually allow parents to view their student’s first class so that any doubts about my competence can be erased.
Alicia Smith: I felt my lack of experience when planning communication with the parents. I thought I could place some responsibility in their hands, but they don’t read the paperwork and need to be constantly reminded of and provided with everything.
Jaclyn Augustyn Smith: I am 100 percent honest with them. I have a strict dress code because I don’t think certain styles are appropriate. Telling parents why their little ones can’t wear the hip, belly-baring style is the reason they trust me to choose costumes for them. Being honest with them leaves me no reason to back-pedal.
What advice do you have for young people who are considering opening a studio?
Amber Hemmer: Do your homework about all aspects of your venture, especially finances. Have money saved and keep your credit clean. One of the major challenges is financing a startup; it is not always easy to get a loan or mortgage when you don’t yet own property or have collateral, or when you have never owned a business. You may need help from family members in cosigning on a loan or mortgage, so make sure you have their support. There is so much you don’t know when starting out that any feedback or information can be beneficial. I found others especially helpful in ironing out my business plan. Have others review your plan, especially an accountant. If seeking a location, be aware of other studios in the area; rather than competing with them, offer something unique or find a unique location.
Tanya Neary: Be prepared to give up Friday nights out because you have to open the studio at 9:00 on Saturday morning, spend your weekends sewing rhinestones on costumes, clean up “accidents” and bloody noses and other injuries, deal with unreliable faculty and with angry parents who take out their stresses on you. And be prepared for the fact that for some time, you’re going to have to do everything yourself.
Alicia Smith: Be prepared to feel like you work 80 hours a week and get paid for 15. Figure out quickly what you are willing to delegate and what you need to do yourself. Have someone who is willing to listen to you vent. Be sure that you have stability in your personal life and that you are over that young adult need to feel irresponsible and just have fun. Be sure you have a passion for the students, a love for dance, and a mind for business. Know that unfortunately your work will become about 80 percent business and 20 percent dance.
How do you think owning a studio rates as a career choice?
Nadia Avigliano: It opens a door for young people to make their own hours and make business decisions that one would have to have years of experience in other fields to do. However, when the business is yours, especially when you are young and trying to establish yourself, you have to oversee everything. I work more than my friends in the corporate world in Manhattan. I don’t get to take vacation days; I work almost every weekend of the year. I don’t get to sit down to dinner with my husband during the week, and I take a lot of my work home with me. And I wouldn’t change it for the world. Very few people can say they are truly passionate about their career choice; very few people younger than 30 can see their biggest dream realized.
Melanie Brooke Campbell: I originally wanted to be a registered nurse. I fell in love with teaching and my father told me to get “this dance thing” out of my system so I could pursue nursing full-time. Well, I never looked back. I feel like I am a confident and successful person. It can be intimidating to say I am a business owner, but then I look at everyone I graduated high school with and I feel better.
Tanya Neary: I can’t imagine anything else that could make me this happy and allow me the freedom of being my own boss and the pleasure of working with children and teaching something I love. I can’t think of another career that could afford me the same opportunities at this or any other point in my life.
Jacyln Augustyn Smith: You are an entrepreneur; you get to set your own hours and be in control. How many other businesses are truly open for young people?
How summers in NYC transformed a dance family
By Darrah Carr
“Most people come to find their fortune in New York City at age 21. I did it in reverse. I came during middle age,” says Toni Noblett with a laugh. “It is amazing that you can do something completely different with your life at age 55.” Two years ago the dance teacher sold the studio that she had operated for 25 years in Roxboro, NC, and moved to New York City.
Although Toni had a staff of six teachers by the time she sold her studio, in the beginning she taught every class herself. Over the years she had anywhere from 125 to 300 students to teach, in addition to collecting costume money, cleaning the bathrooms, and running the annual recital. “As a dance teacher, I’d have some of the same kids for 15 years. They became an extended family. The responsibilities extended to helping with college applications and dealing with family problems,” says Toni. “A dance studio in a small town can become a community center. I chose to be that involved and I don’t regret it, but it is an emotional cost.”
Toni’s studio family also included her own children, Casey and Cassidy, both of whom were at the studio from the time they could walk. Both have successful dance careers, and they credit their mom for exposing them to as much dance as possible, despite their rural location. Casey, 28, says, “Rather than sending her students to big conventions, my mom thought her budget would be better spent bringing in guest teachers. We had people like Chuck Davis and Barbara Duffy come to teach for a weekend at the studio. They’d stay at our house, and at the time we didn’t realize just how famous and talented they were.”
Toni developed a network of guest teachers to teach at her school during the summers, when she and her children were in New York City working with Jacques d’Amboise and the National Dance Institute, which he founded. “I met Jacques during a community class in North Carolina when I was 9,” Casey explains. “He invited me to come up to New York to take part in his five-week summer program. My mom taught tap for the National Dance Institute, made costumes, and worked as his assistant. Even after I aged out of the program at 15, my brother continued to study with him while I would take class at Steps and Broadway Dance Center. The experience allowed us to realize that you could make a career out of dance.”
Toni credits d’Amboise for having an incredible impact on their lives. “Jacques pulled us out of North Carolina and gave us a new perspective,” she says. “For five weeks each summer we’d get a sublet. We’d try a different neighborhood each year. We’d try different foods, go to museums and Broadway shows, and take dance classes. What an adventure!”
Those summers with d’Amboise were the roots of Toni’s eventual move to NYC. She joined the staff of Rosie’s Broadway Kids, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing dance and music programs to public schools. Today, as faculty director and a teaching artist specializing in musical theater and tap, she doesn’t miss owning a studio. “I thought I would miss [it] terribly when I moved to New York,” Toni says. “But I don’t, because I’m teaching here and I realized that teaching is what I love. It doesn’t matter if the classes are held in Chinatown, or if the kids speak English as a second language, or if the kids I’m teaching are from rural Roxboro, NC.”
Toni also relishes the camaraderie of New York City’s tap community. “There are so many women here who are extraordinary, powerful dancers. And so many women who are not really young, but who are still dancing, performing, and passing on what they know. They are performing into their 70s and 80s. It is a constant reminder of where we get the tradition and richness of the craft,” she says. As part of her investment in the community, Toni is developing a tap syllabus for the American Tap Dance Foundation. “It’s a program for the little ones, ages 3 to 8. How do we make these kids become really good tap dancers? What do you do at that age? In thinking about how to train a really good musical tap dancer, you don’t start at age 8 or 9. You start from the first time they put their shoes on. Whereas an 8- or 9-year-old will be shy if asked to try something alone, a 3- or 4-year-old will run right over you!”
‘We’d try a different neighborhood [in New York City] each year. We’d try different foods, go to museums and Broadway shows, and take dance classes. What an adventure!’ —Toni Noblett
In Toni’s syllabus, musicality takes precedence over vocabulary. A secondary concern is making the students feel comfortable in the space by honoring their perceptions and contributions. “Every small child who comes into a studio has their own vision of what being a dancer is. They come in with the idea that they can already dance. They come in rattling their feet. Let them do that in a disciplined way and they’ll learn to improvise. Honor what they think tap is. That doesn’t mean that they run the class, but [it’s important to] craft a time in class where they can improvise,” Toni says. “Also, if you do the improv at the beginning of class, it gets the wiggles out and takes the edge off.”
Toni, who created a video called Creative Movement for 3- and 4-Year-Olds, hopes to make a tap DVD eventually. “Working on these projects has made me organize what I know,” she says. “As teachers, we often go in and teach off the top of our heads. But making the video and the syllabus encouraged me to think about how I do what I do and how I can do it better.” Compiling the syllabus also made Toni realize how much knowledge she has acquired over the years. “When coming from a small-town studio, we often second-guess ourselves. We’re not given credit for knowing what we’re doing. We’re too worried about making sure the parents are happy and the kids are happy,” she says. “But all of those years teaching regular kids in a small town—it was grad school for me.”
As for Casey, once she realized that dance was a career option, it was full steam ahead. Her business, N-House Productions (the name is a double entendre: “N” stands for “Noblett,” while “N-House” represents the idea that all of the work is done in-house), founded in 2002, is based on those experiences in NYC, plus her childhood exposure to guest teachers. By acting as the coordinator between studio owners and her own database of 40 industry professionals, Casey creates workshops and conventions that are tailor made for specific studios. She explains, “After college I was doing some guest teaching on my own, and studio owners would ask me if I knew a good tap teacher or a good jazz teacher. After my summers in New York, I knew 20 good tap teachers and 20 good jazz teachers! I want to bring guest teachers to cities all over the country. I’m finally able to do what my mom did for us, and it makes such a difference to the kids.”
Both Casey’s mom and brother are on staff as teachers and consultants at N-House Productions. Through his sister’s program, Cassidy, 23, frequently conducts workshops throughout the country. “Casey’s program is amazing! She brings New York and L.A. and Chicago to kids who don’t have the money to go away,” he says. “She creates a positive, rewarding atmosphere for kids, where they win ribbons based on workshopping rather than on competitions. She’ll give ribbons for the best smile or the best spirit. She took a great element that our mom gave to us and expanded upon it.”
When Cassidy is not traveling with N-House Productions he is in L.A., where he is pursuing a career in hip-hop. He has danced in videos and on tours and awards shows for artists such as Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, and the Black Eyed Peas. “Being from a small town, it was my passion to get out and see the cities where dance flourishes. That gave me an extra kick-start. Being from a small town makes you want it more, I think. Because I didn’t live where Broadway shows were happening, or where music was being released, or where award shows were being produced, I wanted to go find it.”
Watching her children flourish in the dance world pleases Toni, although she did not encourage them to be professional dancers. “I encouraged them to do what brought them joy. If it was dance, then great!” she says. “If, as a parent, you can help your child discover the thing in life that brings them joy, then you’ve done a good job. It is a happy accident that they happened to choose my profession.
“When I watch my kids dance, I feel it in my bones and in my body and it’s like I’m dancing with them,” Toni continues. “I think it’s a mother thing. I love to watch them dance. They dance like I see dance in my dreams.”
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
Downsizing for increased job satisfaction
By Annette Looper
Owning my own dance studio was always a goal of mine. And opening my first studio in the mid-1980s also meant that striving for more was almost inevitable. I had done everything right—I had the dance training, had studied teaching techniques, and had been teaching for 10 years. Plus, I had studied business in college, saved as much money as I could, interviewed hundreds of people about what they liked and disliked about their dance studios (this was pre-Internet), and even managed a couple of studios so I could get that experience. I was ready!
So in June of 1987 I opened my school, Miss Annette’s “The Place to Dance” in Centerville, OH, with 40 students signed up for summer classes. By that September I had more than 100 students, and the enrollment continued to grow. Five years later I was overwhelmed, teaching some 52 classes a week—it was time to hire a teacher or two! My business continued to grow and I expanded to more than one studio, hired teachers I trusted, and delegated responsibilities to studio managers. I was successful, blessed with great friends who were also employees, nice students and parents, and few real problems. But then something changed.
It was recital time in 1999, and I realized that I wasn’t happy. Successful, yes, but not happy. My true joy, one of the main reasons I chose to do this for a living, is getting to know the kids, becoming a part of their lives and having them become a part of mine. But my business had grown so big that I barely knew some of their names. That was not my vision for my business, and I knew I had changes to make.
Luckily, and in true dancer form, my timing was perfect. The lease was up on one studio, and one teacher was leaving and another needed to cut back on hours. Also, my husband (at the time) made a great income, so we didn’t have to worry about money. I downsized then, and again the next year, cutting back to one studio, three teachers plus myself, and about 350 students. Yes, the school lost students, but I tried to combine classes and keep as many as we could. Things went so smoothly during all those transitions and I was so much happier. The next few years were great and I never regretted my decision. I was back to running the kind of studio I wanted, one that met my original vision, one where the students, parents, staff, and I all were happy. Sure, there was a lot less money, but the studio supported itself and gave me a small income. Life was good!
You might think the story ends there. It doesn’t. Although downsizing my business worked at the time, I’ve recently gone through another transition in my life, and had things been different with my studio, my life might be different now. Remember the husband with the great income? At about the same time that I was downsizing the studio, we decided to plan for our early retirements. We planned that over the next 5 to 10 years I would not actively grow my business; I know how hard losing your dance family can be and I wanted to minimize the number of students who would need to transition to a new studio. Once again, I was downsizing. I did no advertising, put no new classes on the schedule, and didn’t even replace a teacher who left. One other instructor and I handled all the classes. Everything was still going as planned and I had no complaints.
My business had grown so big that I barely knew some of my students’ names. That was not my vision for my business, and I knew I had changes to make.
Then, when I was 43, hubby dropped the divorce bomb and I suddenly found myself having to live on the small income generated by my now very small studio, with no spousal support, no health insurance, and fewer than 150 students. In short, after all that downsizing, I now had to build my business back up! I fought to stay alive and in business for the next three years until the summer of 2006, when I decided that I had no choice but to close my doors and go back to teaching for someone else. It was not a decision I ever expected to have to make, and certainly not under those circumstances.
Despite the unexpected turn my life took, I still feel that at the time I made the right decision. Downsizing had worked well for me. Would my life be different now if I hadn’t done it? Probably, but I wouldn’t trade those years of happiness for any amount of money! The bonds I made with all those kids over the years are priceless and would never have happened if my business had kept growing. I’m not putting down large studios—in fact, I always thought that’s what I wanted. But when it came down to it, for me, smaller was better.
My advice to school owners who are considering such a transition is simple: Plan for the one thing I forgot. What if you have to build the business back up? My divorce came as a shock, as things in life often do, and we cannot foresee what lies in store for us. Have a backup plan in place to protect you so that you can make the decisions you want to make for yourself and your business.
Downsizing may sound crazy to some, but you have to do what is best for you and your business, no matter what anyone else thinks. Look at all your options, put it all on paper, and think on it for a while. Then, when your head is done with all the decisions, follow your heart and do what you think is best for you and your students. After all, they are why you went into this crazy business of owning a dance studio in the first place!
Life on the road with three convention teachers
By Nancy Wozny
Conventions make an exciting complement to dance-studio education. More and more studios are opting for competitions that come with a learning component or forgo the gold and silver of competitions altogether in favor of the convention experience. Teachers who work the convention circuit are a special breed, one that can handle the challenge of teaching large groups that they may never see again. The ratio of one teacher to crowds of 500-plus has to be a daunting prospect for even the most polished among them. Unlike studio teachers, they have only a short time period to make their mark. Here to tell us about life on the road—and in front of the crowds—are three convention teachers.
Dennis Caspary understands well the differences between convention teaching and owning a studio, because he co-owned Studio C in Downey, CA, with his siblings for 10 years before he taught at his first convention. He also has a string of impressive TV credits, including work on Coach and Head of the Class. Currently he teaches regularly at Shock the Intensive (the convention arm of Star Systems) and his own convention, 2 Days in the O.C. Caspary is the first to admit that the convention teacher is a completely different animal. “Because you don’t see the kids day after day, you have one day to make an impression,” he says. He travels 35 to 40 weekends a year for conventions and to teach master classes at private studios.
Teaching conditions at conventions can be challenging: You trade in your sprung wood floor for a hotel ballroom that can accommodate 200 to 1,500 people. With those large numbers comes a good deal of excitement. Convention teachers have to know how to work the crowd. With hoards of eager eyes looking to them for inspiration, it’s not a job for the faint of nerve. Being energetic and outgoing also goes with the territory. “You have to break the ice,” says Caspary. “There is an art to controlling the room and demanding attention; it takes time to develop. Our job is not to yell at the kids.”
Caspary finds that the convention experience is a great confidence builder for students. “If you can dance in front of 1,000 kids, that has to help you in life,” he says. “You can’t put a price tag on that.” He also likes the exposure to a variety of styles that’s typical at conventions. “At Shock we do a group warm-up where each teacher throws in their own style,” he says. “The warm-up is designed to get the blood flowing and feel the power of the room.” He says it’s amazing to see 700 dancers moving together. “It’s a ‘you have to see it to believe it’ kind of experience.”
The students get the feeling that they are part of something big, something larger than their own studio community, and they gain a different perspective from what their day-in, day-out teachers offer. In addition, they get to dance with a larger group of peers, which can be a tremendous learning experience.
Technical levels vary from city to city and convention teachers need to think on their feet when it comes to altering the material. “I never tone it down too much,” says Caspary. “We learn more from a struggle than from an easy class. The students need something to strive for.”
A pep talk is part of his act. “You are training your minds right now, and dance is the best stepping-stone for any career you choose,” he tells the kids. He acknowledges that few of them will end up working as professional dancers, “but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try their best at every moment. That drive will transfer to anything they decide to do with their lives.”
Convention teaching comes with some obvious perks. “Marcy Tuttle [of Star Systems] makes sure we are well taken care of in terms of hotels and other amenities,” says Caspary. Convention teachers never have to deal with parents, costumes, tuition, and other day-to-day details of studio life. “It’s fun to leave [the students] wanting more and then go off to the next city.” Plus, the financial remuneration can be impressive.
Caspary chose to stop working in the commercial dance industry because he finds working on the convention circuit “much more inspiring. Also, commercial work is sporadic and inconsistent.” However, he admits that the convention life, in which dancing full-out is a must, has taken a toll on his 38-year-old body, even though he warms up thoroughly before teaching to reduce strain. “My body has taken severe punishment,” he says. “[Still,] I know I have more energy than people half my age.”
Convention teacher Ray Leeper describes his job as equal parts dance evangelist and dance teacher.
The convention life also poses some challenges to family life. A newlywed with two children ages 12 and 18, Caspary does his best to spend his downtime with his kids. “The life has its pros and cons,” he admits. “You have to leave the woman you love at home during many weekends. But then again, I can work very hard and take a whole month off.” When Caspary is home he is totally involved with his family, helping out with homework and other dad jobs. Right now he’s enjoying the lifestyle’s flexibility.
Another teacher, Ray Leeper, has 16 years of convention teaching behind him and is going strong as he begins his fifth year at JUMP (Break the Floor) events. He cut his convention-teaching teeth with Joe Tremaine, a pioneer in the industry. “It’s all about motivating the kids—check your ego at the door,” Leeper jokes. “After all these years I still get a bit anxious.” As well he should; he has taught crowds of up to 1,200 kids at a time.
Leeper’s professional credits include work with Elton John and Cher as well as several TV commercials. His choreography has been presented at the Jazz Dance World Congress in Germany and in the off-Broadway hit Inappropriate. He received the Gold Leo Award for excellence in jazz choreography, awarded by Leo’s Dancewear, in 1996.
Leeper describes the convention-teacher job as equal parts dance evangelist and dance teacher. “You have just a short time with the kids to make a lasting impression,” he says. “Still, I learn something every weekend I teach.” Leeper gives an inspirational talk as part of his mission. His favorite advice: “Be the best in the room; keep trying; learn from the people around you; watch what others are doing. If you see someone dancing well, figure it out.” He also likes to encourage the kids to take a risk. “If not now, then when?”
Leeper is still a working choreographer, which he is able to do because he gets weekends off. “It’s important to stay in the game and keep working professionally. Then I have something to bring to the table.” He spends what downtime he has guest choreographing for competitions and teaching master classes.
The competition circuit is a small world: another convention teacher, Mark Meismer, studied at Studio C with Caspary and Leeper. “We are all friends,” Meismer says. “The convention world is like a family.” He studied jazz, tap, and ballet and began working professionally after high school. His TV and film credits include Scrubs, Will and Grace, The MTV Video Music Awards, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Austin Powers, Starsky and Hutch, Gigli, and A Time For Dancing, and he danced with Mia Michaels R.A.W. and assisted Michaels on A New Day and So You Think You Can Dance.
These days Meismer teaches master classes and choreographs for private studios around the United States while directing his own modern jazz troupe, Orange County-based Evolution Dance Company. Though he’s no longer traveling on the convention circuit, he still teaches for his friend Caspary at 2 Days in the OC.
Meismer earned his teaching chops entirely through the convention circuit. He started as a demonstrator for Jackie Sleight of L.A. Dance Magic, then moved up to teaching junior classes, and finally became a full-fledged faculty member. “I grew as a teacher with each year,” he says. “Jackie was a brilliant convention teacher. She gave me a chance and I took it all the way.” For nine years he toured the United States, also working as a judge for competitions.
Like Leeper, Meismer combined his convention teaching with commercial work. “I tried my best to have it not conflict,” he says. “I wanted to follow through on my commitment, even though sometimes it meant taking a red-eye to teach at 8:00 the next morning.”
His first time in front of the crowd, Meismer recalls, “I wasn’t too much older than the dancers in the room, and I was petrified. It’s scary and warm and loving all at the same time. It certainly helped that most of the dancers knew me as Jackie’s assistant. They knew what I was all about.”
At many conventions, the teachers perform in a faculty show, which is another great way for the students to get to know them. “Looking out and seeing 600 kids doing your choreography was amazing,” says Meismer about those early years. “You have their undivided attention, and once you reel them in the learning can really take place.” He also likes the fact that hotel ballrooms have no mirrors. “You need that freedom,” he says. “We are always too critical of ourselves, and the mirror can hold people back.”
Meismer prefers to work with one combination all year, scaling it up or down appropriately for the level of the students. Sometimes he doesn’t teach the entire combination to lower levels. “You find great dancers wherever you go, so I would alter the combination based on what was happening in the room.” He chooses his music carefully. “You have to love the combination because you are going to be working with it all year,” he says.
Although he can’t build the same kind of relationships with students that a studio teacher can, Meismer does recognize students from year to year and enjoys watching them grow up. With upward of 500 kids in a class, he might not remember their names, but he does remember their dancing. And getting to know the teachers who take class at conventions, many of whom find it rejuvenating, has been a life-changing experience for Meismer. He deeply connected with the teachers, who told him how charged up their students became after working with him. “A convention can relight their fire so that when they return to the studio they want to work their butts off,” he says. He began to build on those connections by teaching at studios across the country.
Meismer enjoys being more detail-oriented and spending more time with the students at the schools where he teaches. “I like the personal part of teaching this way; I get to make a deeper connection.” But he looks back fondly on his years as a full-time convention teacher. “It was an amazing blessing,” he says. “We were like a family; we laughed, cried, and grew together.”
Caspary, Leeper, and Meismer have inspired a legion of dancers and they in turn have been inspired by the process of teaching. If you’re tempted to walk in their footsteps, here’s what it takes: Leave your ego at home; be willing to give back to the kids (because it’s not about you); create challenging combinations that diverse groups can do; be positive and inspiring; work on your communication skills; work the room; and be outgoing and approachable. If you can do all that, convention teaching may be the life for you.
The launch of the Federation of Dance Competitions
By Nancy Wozny
Fall is a time to start the new dance season with energy and enthusiasm. For many studio owners it’s also the time to consider which competitions to attend. Then the dreaded paperwork starts. But what if your favorite competition companies are coming to your city on the same weekend? Historically, applying to multiple competitions has been a complicated, tedious process. Rather than one set of rules, each competition can have its own parameters for group sizes, age requirements, and so on. The process can wreak havoc for studio owners who had hoped to streamline their competition season. Well, if you’re one of them, you can relax—your life is about to get easier.
A new coalition has come to the rescue: the Federation of Dance Competitions (FDC). The seven-member organization’s mission is “to enhance the studio director/dance teacher’s competition experience by normalizing rules, simplifying the pre- and post-competition experience, as well as consistently insuring safe and well-run events.” Designed with the studio owner in mind, the FDC attempts to standardize all the elements that can differ from company to company, like age range, time limit, and group size.
“Registration can be a nightmare for teachers who go to four or five competitions a year, which is the norm in most parts of the country,” says Gary Pate, FDC’s vice-president and owner of Starpower. “As a former studio owner, I’ve been on both sides of the fence and can bring that perspective to the group.”
Making the registration process easier for studio owners means freeing them to concentrate on their students’ dancing rather than paperwork. “Ultimately we want to create the best possible experience for the performer,” says Steve Wappel, owner of StarQuest and an FDC member. “Having a more streamlined application process will trickle down to the performer.” With better dancing as an end goal, the spirit is win–win for all.
According to Pate, the FDC is long overdue. The lack of universal competition guidelines among the industry’s 100-plus companies has given it a less-than-stellar reputation. “It’s been 25 years of helter-skelter, so it’s time to implement some parameters,” says Pate. “The customer has choices, and we want to be the elite.”
Kent Helton of Nexstar concurs. “Sports and gymnastics have had this [kind of structure] in place for years. All over the U.S., [in football] a first down is on the 10-yard line. Why can’t dance competitions have the same kind of rules?”
Although standardization of rules is a major thrust of FDC, in no way is the group trying to homogenize the dance competition field. “We will all keep our unique personalities and have no plans to discuss trade secrets,” Wappel says.
“We have different business models that have brought us each our own brand of success, and we intend to keep those distinct,” Pate says. “This is not a franchise.” The current FDC roster includes Starpower (Pate and Grace Wakefield), K.A.R. Productions (Rick Lands), Nexstar (Helton), Rainbow Connection (Vikki Anthony), StarQuest (Wappel), Applause (Mary Ann Weisbrod), and PrimeTime Dance and Showbiz (David Westerfield).
Designed with the studio owner in mind, the FDC attempts to standardize all the elements that can differ from company to company, like age range, time limit, and group size.
The FDC wants to attract members with staying power who will uphold the highest ethical and moral business practices. To be considered for membership, a company needs to have been in existence for five years and must be able to comply with the basic standards, such as safety measures. Membership fees go toward a salary for a commissioner, who will ensure that each member maintains the standards. The commissioner, to be appointed in the near future, will be an outside person with vast knowledge in the field but without affiliations in any member group.
The FDC story began quite casually when Helton suggested that a few companies get together to plan dates in the major cities. “It just didn’t make sense to have three companies in Detroit one weekend with nothing happening the next weekend,” he says. “I’m a down-to-earth guy—why not communicate this kind of basic information that will make all of our lives easier?” The discussions got them talking about more than just schedules. Soon a meeting was scheduled and competition history was in the making. “People left their egos back home and really got to work,” says Helton about that first meeting. “We had similar problems and complaints, all of which are in the process of being fixed.”
Wappel claims that Helton’s good-hearted instincts got the ball rolling. “There was something so unassuming and caring about [his] approach; [it] established an atmosphere of trust that has continued to grow,” he says. “He initiated a spirit of cooperation that has spurred us onward. Helton presented his ideas so innocently and sincerely that [the coalition] just took off. He was the right man in the right place and became the glue that brought us all together.”
Some of the standards for FDC membership have been set, and most have to do with providing a safe environment. Although the requirements seem basic, they are not standard in the industry. Now, at FDC-affiliated competitions, a marley floor and rosin must be available, along with a backstage first-aid kit, adequate dressing rooms, a good sound system (no boom boxes allowed), and stage managers. Other mandates include a “no water onstage” rule, a size limit on props, and a closing time prior to 10:30 p.m. on Sundays. “All of these standards will make it easier on teachers and put the parents at ease,” says Pate. “Eventually we hope to have an iPod interface handy as well.”
The judging process is another hot topic. The FDC recommends that judges be selected from three possible backgrounds: successful studio owners; independent, well-known teachers; and experienced performers. Although the judging structure will differ among members, there is some talk of standardizing that as well, and Pate envisions a judging clinic in the future. Discussion about implementing a compulsory category (in which certain dance movements would be mandatory) also surfaced. Age-appropriate costuming and choreography is another issue on the table, as is the development of a college scholarship fund. “We want to give back to the field,” says Helton. “It’s a slow process, but I was amazed at how willing everyone was to get down to work.”
Pate, Wappel, and Helton all describe the fledgling organization’s discussions as lively and, at times, funny. “We have so many of the same stories,” says Wappel. “All this time I thought certain situations were just happening to me.” Meetings contain a healthy dose of laughter, especially when it comes to all the gossip they have heard about each other, and the camaraderie has made the process both productive and informative. “We are all competitors, yet we can sit around this table and have a wonderful conversation,” says Wappel. He leaves the meetings both drained by the sheer amount of work to be done, and energized by how much the group can accomplish with its collective desire to make a better experience for all.
The FDC members share similar values in their wish to provide the best experience for performers and teachers. All involved expect membership to expand as time goes on. The plan is to start small but strong with a clear vision in place. Wappel sums up the common thread: “to simply do a better job and improve performance conditions.” He adds, “We wanted to launch with the most important issues first. We have a lot of topics to be discussed as time goes on.”
The FDC is wasting no time in getting off the ground. In only three meetings the members hashed out standards and brainstormed about the future. A website (www.thedancersfederation.com) is up, and joint advertising opportunities and an FDC national event are already in the works. “We see it as a national of the nationals, a best of the best,” says Wappel. “So often high-ranking dancers and studios don’t know how they compare with their peers. Now they will have a chance.” The FDC national competition is slated for fall of 2008, after the individual members’ nationals have concluded. A special point system, which will be put in place this coming year, will determine who gets to attend. The FDC will create a special award for the top studio as well.
The future looks bright for school owners who take their students to competitions. The goals the FDC has set for itself are ambitious but doable, and its can-do members are willing to take charge and make important changes in the field. Wappel imagines that in a few years the registration process will be completely standardized, with an online application that can be modified via a password, much like state college applications. Lose a dancer, gain a number—no problem. All can be adjusted in an easy online process.
“The teacher has enough on her plate; why not make it easier?” says Pate. “It’s about time we raised the bar for this industry.”
Nominated by: David Koch, her husband: “Nina has grown the studio—one of the newest—to be the biggest in our area. She has achieved more success in 5 years than some people have in 20! She is such a great teacher and business owner that she is preparing to open a second location. She is ambitious, smart, a great mom, and a keen businesswoman!”
Ages taught: 2 to adult
Genres taught: The studio offers classes in ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, and modern as well as music classes. I teach tap and jazz.
Teaching dance for: 18 years
Greatest inspiration: I am inspired by the children I work with every day.
Philosophy of teaching: If you have high expectations for children they will exceed them. I strive to offer an environment where children are challenged and nurtured at the same time.
What makes her a good teacher: I talk to the kids, not at them. I am tough, but my dancers always know that they are loved and respected.
Fondest teaching memory: Teaching creative movement to children with special needs. Watching them discover and experience something new and progress through the program was a gift.
Best piece of advice for students and/or teachers: My advice for students would be not to let the opinion of a teacher, judge, or a director affect how you feel about being a dancer. If you have passion, feed your passion. You have to dance for you, not for the opinions of others. You will always encounter criticism and disappointment. Listen and learn what you can, but don’t let it define you as a person or dancer. As for teachers—so many of them think they are the best at what they do. That may be true, but don’t let ego get in the way of learning. Everyone has something to teach you.
What she would do if she couldn’t teach dance: I would do what I am doing now, running my studio. I love the business side of it.
More thoughts on dance and teaching: Dance is not just about teaching steps and technique. It is about teaching life lessons for children to take with them forever, whether they dance professionally or not. As dance teachers we have a responsibility to give our students opportunities. If you don’t let them participate in dance activities outside your studio, you are doing them a disservice. That is detrimental to their learning. Have the confidence to let them go and they will come back to you.
Why she teaches: I love it. There was a very short time in my life when I was not dancing and I knew something was missing. I wasn’t happy. That is when I knew I was meant to teach.
Make your school open house say “Welcome!” to all and everyone wins
By Rhee Gold
If you’re like many school owners, you hold an annual open house to welcome the community and potential new clients. Great idea! Now put aside the temptation to use the occasion to prove how terrific your advanced dancers are—the goal of the day should be to show how fun dance can be, not to show off.
Presenting a dance demonstration that is overly detailed or too advanced is a mistake many school owners make. Instead, focus on a performance that everyone can enjoy—one that includes all levels and ages from preschoolers to your most advanced dancers. Abbreviated versions of class demonstrations work best, but don’t combine levels; give each class its own mini-performance. You want visiting youngsters of all ages to look at your dancers and say to their parents, “I can do that!”
A recent example of an excellent open house was the one held at Boston Ballet School last fall. Young visitors were invited to meet teachers, participate in or watch a class, and try on costumes. Attendees could sign up for a chance to win prizes, including tickets to Boston Ballet’s fall productions and classes at the school’s South Shore branch. Parent volunteers were on hand to answer questions and help with costume try-ons. All students who enrolled during the open house received a 10 percent discount and a pair of tickets to a Boston Ballet production.
So take a cue from the folks at Boston Ballet School and then follow the guidelines listed below, and your next open house will no doubt be a rousing success—and a lot of fun.
Promoting the event
Determine the date for a fall open house at the start of the summer. This will give you the chance to promote the event all summer, as well as ample time to invite all the prospective clients who inquire about your school over the summer. Also send invitations to everyone who has made inquiries in the past three years. Although inviting your current students is a good idea, you should be more interested in bringing new faces through your school.
Enlist the help of your current students with your promotional efforts. Give each of them five invitations to send to their friends. Or you could ask them for their friends’ addresses; having that contact information allows you to follow up with those who attended the open house.
Sending press releases to the local newspapers and following up with a phone call is critical. Time your paid advertising to appear in the Friday weekend section and in the Saturday morning edition for maximum impact.
The goal of the day should be to show how fun dance can be, not to show off.
Send flyers and an invitation letter to the owners and directors of other family-related businesses in your community, including daycare centers, preschools, karate schools, and real estate offices. Invite them to see what your school is all about and ask them to post your flyer on their bulletin boards. Offer to do the same for them. Also consider creating an open house advertising committee of volunteers and students who can blanket the neighborhoods with door hangers and flyers advertising the event.
Impress with organization
Preparation is the key to a successful open house. Plan it like you would a performance; make it organized, entertaining, and good for business. Let people walk away saying, “That school runs a smooth operation.”
Encourage all of your faculty and staff to be part of the day’s activities. Have them give tours of the school, answer questions, hand out brochures, take registrations, and help with performances or class demonstrations. The more staff on hand, the better. Delegate responsibilities for each staff member, such as who will answer questions (and where in the school they will be stationed) and who will supervise the performances. Hold brainstorming sessions to decide what kind of class demonstrations would be best for your market.
Consider whether your open house will have an effect on neighboring businesses. Some of them may want to get involved. Any business can sponsor an ad, and restaurants may be willing to provide free refreshments, such as pizza, for attendees.
Fill the day with imaginative and varied activities. Here are some ideas:
- Hand out giveaway gifts (bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, balloons imprinted with the studio’s logo).
- Create a goody bag to give to each visiting family. Include a giveaway gift, studio brochure, program from the previous year’s recital, and other school literature.
- Display a wide variety of pictures of your students having fun in classes and performances.
- Play DVDs of the school’s recitals and other performances.
- Offer refreshments.
- Keep children engaged with face painting, games, and storytelling. (Angelina Ballerina stories are perfect.)
- Let the younger children try on costumes. Tutus are a great way to inspire youngsters to become ballerinas.
- Offer a free family hip-hop class. (Consider requiring reservations.)
- Hold a raffle, the proceeds of which could go to a charity. A raffle is an excellent way to build your mailing lists; have ticket purchasers write down their street and email addresses along with their phone numbers. Ideas for raffle prizes could include a complimentary first month’s tuition, free tuition for one class for the year, a $250 gift certificate for school tuition (classes only, not costumes or dancewear), or a dancewear item or pair of shoes.
- Consider incorporating a fund-raiser, like a dance-a-thon, into your open house, with proceeds benefiting a children’s charity. Such events are a multiple win: The media will be attracted to the event and the community will recognize your school as a charity-minded organization.
Offer special attendees-only incentives to register at the open house. Some possibilities include:
- A free second class for the first month to new students who register for one class.
- A discounted or waived registration fee.
- A 10 percent discount when the full season’s tuition is paid up front.
- A 50 percent discount on tuition for the second child when siblings are enrolled.
- A free leotard and tights.
- A waiver of the last month’s tuition with registration for the full season.
A little planning, a welcoming and inclusive approach, and a fun-filled day of activities will make your open house a popular event that everyone looks forward to each year. Plus, it’s a chance to show that your school is about more than merely good dance training—it’s a vibrant part of the community.
7 common marketing mistakes and how to avoid them
By Tracy Bauer-Durso
Do you wonder why some studios prosper and grow year after year while others struggle to maintain their current students? Often a school that has trouble attracting students offers a program that is as good or better than one that attracts students with ease. Each might have a dedicated staff, highly trained teachers, quality programs and classes, exciting opportunities, and a passion for dance instruction. Yet one studio is able to market its program in a way that allows it to grow rapidly, while the other must rely on word of mouth or referrals from existing students just to stay in business no matter how much it advertises.
Even if the dance instruction being offered is top-notch, it can be challenging to communicate this “inner excellence” to the outside community in a way that intrigues them and encourages them to contact you. No matter how much advertising you do, you could be wasting your money if you are making any of the following common mistakes in dance studio marketing.
1. Promoting negative messages about competitors
This is a serious mistake. While it may seem advantageous to tell people why they should avoid your competitors, you must remember that other schools are part of your dance community and that you will often share teachers and performance spaces with them. Bashing them will only make your fellow dance educators angry with you and give you a reputation for being petty. Dance classes are an option, not a need, and few parents want their children to be influenced by an unfriendly, competitive faculty. In fact, negative comments may turn people off from studying dance altogether. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of dance and what makes your studio special. It’s all in the rhetoric. People respond better to “Simple payment plan, affordable costumes, and family-friendly performances” than they do to “No hidden fees, expensive costumes, or endless performances.”
2. Focusing on the school’s features rather than on the benefit to potential customers
Though it may seem that mentioning your wonderful teachers, facility, opportunities, and programs is enough, new prospects don’t care about the school as much as they care about themselves. Instead of just listing your studio’s features, explain how they benefit your target market with a headline and supporting facts or testimonials that speak specifically to their needs and desires. Spelling out what your school has to offer your prospects gives your message more impact. “Gain confidence, poise, and lasting friendships by studying with nurturing teachers in a noncompetitive environment” is more appealing and will receive more responses than “Ballet, tap, and jazz for all ages. In business since 1980,” which focuses more on the school than on the potential student.
3. Puffery: Using baseless claims instead of compelling information
Common examples of puffery include claims like “family owned,” “excellent instruction,” “the only choice,” or “the best.” These phrases not only focus on the school rather than on the readers’ needs, they also don’t offer any compelling information. Almost any studio can make the same claims. If a business is family owned, does that make it better than a school that isn’t? It seems unlikely. If a school has been in business for 10 years, does that make it better than a school that’s been around for 5 years? Does it mean it’s not as good as a school that’s been around for 20 years? And how many times have you heard a business claim that it’s the best? People automatically dismiss these kinds of phrases because so many businesses use them. How could everybody possibly be the best? Puffed-up phrases don’t teach your prospects what they really need to know about your school in order to make an informed decision. When you avoid using generic phrases that could just as easily describe your competitors, your message is more believable.
4. Listing a menu of the school’s dance programs as the only ad copy
Most dance studio ads include only the name of the school, a list of classes offered, and contact information. However, people already expect a school to offer ballet, tap, jazz, and performing opportunities. Use the ad space to offer them more compelling reasons to choose your school. There’s a lot of competition out there. You want to stand out. What makes you different? What can you say that others aren’t saying?
People respond better to “Simple payment plan and affordable costumes” than they do to “No hidden fees or expensive costumes.”
5. Using the studio name and phone number as a call to action
Your marketing should give your prospects a compelling reason to act now. If it doesn’t, they may notice you but never contact you. Merely telling them you’re out there will seldom get a response, and you don’t want to waste your marketing dollars. Inspire your prospects to want to know more by offering them a free brochure, trial class, or open house. Then once they contact you, you can more easily convince them to register.
6. Photos that don’t represent the marketing message and support the headline
Your photo must support the goal of your marketing message or it is a waste of space. Most studio ads tend to have a picture or artwork of a dancer. What does your picture say about your school? If your school caters to young children, it would be a mistake to use a performance picture of a teen with her leg held up to her ear. If you want to emphasize a nurturing staff, a picture of a child in costume is less effective than one of a teacher working with a student. Consider the message you send with the age, sex, and dress code of the people in the picture you use. Be careful not to clutter your ad with too many photos and always include a caption with the picture so that it relates to the rest of the ad.
7. Painting an inaccurate picture of what the studio offers
The reality of what makes your studio special, and the experience people have when they study there, is a huge part of your marketing. Be sure that you deliver the promises that you make in your marketing campaigns. If your advertisements promote a certain image and create specific expectations, the school must live up to the reputation those ads generate. If it doesn’t, people may be very disappointed in their experience with you and spread negative word of mouth. For example, parents may respond to a studio that advertises to young children, then find that it caters to intensive dancers. When they leave, they share their disappointment with others.
The world is filled with potential clients, and they sign up for dance for different reasons. One school is unlikely to please everyone, because different programs and policies appeal to different people. Choose your position in the market and deliver the vision you describe in your marketing materials. Then the students that best support your vision will be the ones that join your studio—and chances are they will stay for years to come.
Employee problems and how to handle them
By Rhee Gold
All dance school owners eventually encounter a problem employee. It’s not easy to deal with, and if the problem can’t be resolved it can put you in the difficult position of having to dismiss that employee or teacher. These situations are frustrating because when you hired that person, she seemed to be full of enthusiasm and promise. So what could have happened that would cause her to not turn out to be what you thought she was?
Reasons for employee problems
More than likely, before you make the decision to dismiss an employee, you will have spoken with her about some of the issues you’re facing. Communication is the first step to solving any problem. Perhaps the employee was unsure of how to do a job, or lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to be a good teacher or office person. Believe it or not, some people won’t admit that they don’t know how to do something. They don’t want to appear incompetent, which is understandable; but their refusal to admit the truth can lead to long-term, more serious problems. One way to combat this behavior is to make yourself as accessible as possible to your faculty and staff. Encourage them to ask questions and don’t hesitate to offer direction. If you are asked for help, try to be patient and understanding.
One frequently encountered dilemma is how to deal with employees who lack motivation or have a poor attitude. This problem must lead to a pointed discussion about what changes the employee needs to make to ensure her continued employment with your school. A bad attitude can be contagious among other faculty and staff members—and even your students. If you sense that you’ve got a problem, then you probably do. In some cases you’ll need to simply eliminate the problem quickly and quietly.
Handling bad habits
If, on the other hand, you have an otherwise good employee who has a bad habit—for example, being late on a regular basis—you might consider employing the following strategy.
Invite her into your office for a talk. Explain that you have an employee who does not show up for class on time. This throws the timing of the day’s classes off, and the parents are starting to rumble. You’ve spoken with this employee several times about her punctuality problem, yet it continues. If she were this person’s boss, what would she do?
It is best not to get into a rip-roaring argument with problem employees.
It won’t be but a few seconds before she figures out that you’re really talking about her. You might get “I have no idea” in response. However, if you continue to press her for an answer, she’ll probably suggest that you have to let this person go. Your response would then be: “I’m afraid that’s the way I’m going to handle it, if it happens again.” Hopefully, you’ll have scared her enough that it won’t happen again. But be prepared, because if it does, you have to follow through.
Preparation and aftermath
If you’re lucky, the actual dismissal will be uneventful. However, it pays to prepare for it before letting your employee know what your intentions are. Be sure to protect yourself from someone who could hurt your business in the future. An unhappy employee can leave your school with student contact information, syllabuses, business secrets, attendance records, and more. Collect all those studio-related materials either before you let the person go or at the time you do. Also, if she had signed a contract when you hired her, make sure she has a copy of that when she leaves as a reminder of the policies she agreed to (for instance, a non-compete clause for teachers) when she was hired.
During talks with troublesome employees and especially when letting someone go, it is best not to get into a rip-roaring argument with them. Keep your cool and act like the professional you are. A good way to explain your action is to simply state that she just wasn’t a good match for your school. Then send her out the door with your good wishes and a couple of weeks of severance pay.
Have you had a positive experience in handling problem employees? Dance Studio Life would like to hear about effective or creative ways school owners have come up with to resolve staff members’ problem behaviors or attitudes. Or, if you have a funny or too-wild-to-be-believed story about an erratic employee, we’d like to hear about that too. Email your stories to Cheryl@rheegold.com or mail them to Theresa Grenier, Rhee Gold Company, 10 South Washington St., Norton, MA 02766.