September 2016 | Ask Rhee Gold

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Advice for dance teachers

Q: Dear Rhee,

I am a new studio owner who has a great deal to learn, but I am willing to educate myself in every way possible. In the two years I’ve been teaching I have learned to love my students more than I expected. Teaching dance is a true joy for me, and I know that the studio is where I need to be.

As my school enters its third year, it is starting to make a profit; however, we have only one dance room and I think we need more space. If we had two rooms, we could run more classes during the prime times. The catch is that some of our classes have only three or four kids in them, and we do have some downtime when the school is closed because we can’t fill the classes in that time slot. I don’t know whether to go back into debt to move to a larger space or stay where I am. —Alissa

A: Dear Alissa,

My mother (also my dance teacher) used to say, “Don’t move your school to a larger space unless you are busting out of the walls.” Why did she say that? Because a move and the associated build-out costs are often extremely expensive, and it’s only when a school has so many students that it’s busting out of its walls that you know you can afford to make it happen. Also, it is important to note that the larger your school becomes, the less personal interaction you are likely to have with your clients. (In fact, providing a personal touch is one reason new schools do well when they launch.) By expanding your school slowly, it’s more likely that you could keep those relationships intact.

This is what I’d think about if I were in your position: what could fill those downtime hours? Could an adult class, private lessons, or another kind of program work in those time slots and generate income? I’d also focus on increasing the enrollment in those classes that have only three or four students. Or—and I know this is a tough decision—could you replace those low-enrollment classes with other classes that would attract 10 or 12 students?

Another thing to keep in mind is that with another room you would need a second teacher, because you can’t be in two classes at once; also, with more traffic in and out of the school, you’d probably need to increase your office staff. To cover such an increase in payroll, you would need a large increase in enrollment.

I encourage you to build on what you have so that you can afford a larger space. When your income comfortably exceeds your expenses and your school is busting out of its walls, it’s time to move. I really appreciate that you love your students and that you are eager to learn, because to me that’s a sign that you’ll do just fine on your dance school journey. Good luck! —Rhee

Q: Dear Rhee,

When I ended my professional dance career, I decided to teach for my mother, who owns the school where I trained as a child. At the time, my husband and I were expecting our first child. That was four years ago.

When I started working with my mother, she told me that we would become partners within a couple of years. With that goal in mind I worked hard, and I grew the school’s enrollment by 50 percent. We have a bunch of new classes and styles of dance that have put new energy into a 44-year-old business. I am more proud of that than I can express.

After two years, there was no more talk about partnership and I got a $2 raise each year. One time, when I brought up the partnership idea, my mother started crying and told me she’s afraid she won’t have enough money to take care of herself when she gets old. She accused me of pushing her into something she wasn’t ready to do. I tried to explain that I would never allow her to be without an income or support, but she didn’t want to talk about it.

Now I have finished my fourth year at the school and there has been no discussion about the future. My husband works and goes to school, and we have two babies. We are struggling. My husband is mad at my mother and there seems to be stress everywhere, but no one talks about it.

I’ve thought about moving away to open a school, but I feel so much loyalty to my mother and my students. But I can’t afford to do this anymore. How do you quit working for your mother? The funny thing is that her fear of going broke might happen if I’m not part of the school. This is the worst situation of my life. Can you offer words of wisdom? —Rebecca

A: Dear Rebecca,

I think you should go to a family counselor who can address your mother’s actions and fears. I understand the difficulty here because my mom, a school owner like yours, was always afraid that she wouldn’t be able to take care of herself when she couldn’t teach anymore. When she died at 59, she had a good chunk of money that she hadn’t spent because of her fears about the future. I believe many people are scared of the same thing.

Having said that, you have good reason to be frustrated, and so does your husband. I’m assuming that one of the reasons you made the decision to move back home was because of your mother’s promise to give you a partnership in her business. The fact that it’s not happening creates a difficult situation, especially when it involves family members.

I suggest that you work some numbers. Do your best to figure out how much income has come from the 50 percent increase in enrollment you brought to the business. Also estimate how much more income would come from other ideas you have for the school (and would implement if you were a partner). Be smart, and be confident in your knowledge. Then find someone who knows and loves both of you and can offer guidance to keep you, your mother, and the school on track (and hopefully prevent your mom from avoiding the subject). I wish you the best. —Rhee

Q: Dear Rhee,

Simple question: I notice that you always use the word “school” instead of “studio.” Is there a reason for that? Thanks. —Roger

A: Hi Roger,

Good question. Many years ago a man by the name of Bill Como was editor in chief of Dance Magazine, and he told me that the word “school” got more respect than “studio.” From that day forward I have used the word “school.” —Rhee

Q: Dear Rhee,

Do you think school owners should pay for continuing education for their faculty, or is that the responsibility of the teachers? —Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

There is no clear answer to your question. While some school owners can afford to pay for continuing education for their faculty, others can’t. I know some school owners who cover a percentage of the cost of continuing education; others offer bonuses to be used for that purpose.

If you’re wondering whether to ask your boss to offer you something toward your education, and you’re planning to tell her you want to do it because you want to be a better teacher at her school, I say go for it! I don’t know too many school owners who would not want to help you in whatever way they could. I wish you the best. —Rhee