The relationship between a ballroom dance teacher and a student (when you are the student) has to be one of the most unique you’ll ever encounter. On the surface, the arrangement is a professional one. As the student, you pay the teacher to teach you ballroom dancing and dance with you at competitions. The teacher teaches you because they are paid to teach you. It’s a business. But there are aspects of this arrangement that mirror a very personal and intimate relationship. They are impossible to ignore and difficult to escape, which is why, I assume, so many professional dance partners are also life partners. And why you hear so many stories/rumors about students and teachers entering romantic relationships or going through bad “break-ups.” For a new student, it can be very confusing and often leads to that student getting hurt emotionally. But why? You know coming into it that you are receiving a service that you are paying for, nothing more. What is it about this sport/art that turns a business arrangement into an emotional rollercoaster?
Honestly, I could write an entire book on the subject. There are so many ways a pro-am relationship develops, both positive and negative. For now, I just want to try to get at the factors that influence that development. Because everyone starts out the same. But over time…it’s crazy how many different relationships I’ve observed, just in the couple of years I’ve been dancing. So let’s try to break this down.
The most visually obvious influential factor is the physical connection. You have to be in physical contact in order to dance ballroom. If you are dancing Standard or Smooth, you have to be in very close physical contact. I’m not just talking about holding hands. Chest (a.k.a. your boobs, ladies), hips, legs – they all get pressed up against the other person at some point. It’s not intended to be in a sexual way, but this kind of close, intimate contact is usually reserved for romantic partners. It also puts you in a vulnerable position. You are allowing someone into your personal space, and there is a certain level of trust required. You don’t typically reach that level of trust in a strictly business or professional relationship. But in order to advance in ballroom, you must. Some people are comfortable with this closeness and some are not. Either way, it affects the relationship.
Because then there is the emotional connection. As humans, we are hard-wired to react emotionally to physical contact. Whether it’s scared, happy, uncomfortable, aroused, safe, awkward, etc., you feel something. As you become comfortable with physical contact with a person, you also begin to form an emotional bond. Again, not typical in a business relationship. But in order to be successful in competition, you have to be able to perform with your teacher, and it’s nearly impossible to do that if you don’t have some sort of emotional bond with the person or if you don’t at least like them. You have to be able to trust them, especially if you are the lady and therefore, following. Again with the trust.
Trust is critical in any partnership. And especially in pro-am because the partnership is so unbalanced. The name says it all. You have one professional and one amateur. One is paid and the other pays. The student has one partner – the teacher. But the teacher has multiple students and therefore multiple partners. And possibly a professional partner as well. Beyond trusting the teacher enough to allow them into your personal space, you trust that they will give you the focus and attention that you deserve as a paying client. Which brings me to the most influential factor in my opinion: expectations.
How a student’s expectations change over time greatly affects their relationship with their teacher. When expectations don’t match reality, feelings can get hurt. The most commonly skewed expectation seems to be the expectation that the teacher is more than just a teacher. To the students, they become friends, counselors, life coaches, confidantes, even potential romantic partners. Which makes perfect sense. For the 45ish minutes of a lesson, as a student, you are the center of attention. You are praised, you are complimented, you are asked to share things about yourself because the teacher wants to know more about You. From the beginning, there is friendly physical contact like hand holding. You are made to feel wanted. You are made to feel special. The thing that may get forgotten is the teacher wants to make every student feel that way. That is what gets you hooked and them your return business. Not that money is their only goal. Almost all of the teachers I’ve met love what they do. And one way to help a student perform well is to make them feel great about themselves. But it’s for the dancing, not out of personal interest. Some students will also have skewed expectations about what their money is buying them. They start expecting more of their teacher’s attention outside of lessons because they spend more money than other students. Or they have been dancing with the teacher for a greater length of time. Another unfortunate expectation is that the teacher is perfect. It’s easy to forget they are human and fallible when they seem to be all-knowing and capable of so much that you find nearly impossible.
Of course, every situation is different. Some teachers are friends with their students. Or they will play counselor or confidante. I know teachers who are married to someone they first met as their student. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. As long as the expectations are clear, so as not to damage the necessary trust.
A student’s relationship with their teacher’s other students can also have an impact. I know a group of students who have a wonderful bond with each other and their shared teacher. The teacher and the students all support each other, like a dance family. The expectations of the teacher beyond teaching do not get skewed out of proportion and the pro-am relationship develops positively and in a healthy manner. Then there are those students who see their teacher’s other students as competition for the teacher’s time and attention, usually a sign that they have over-inflated expectations of the teacher. They can become jealous and even possessive, which isn’t healthy for any relationship.
I could write so much more on this topic (maybe I will start on that book). But I’ll try to wrap this up with my own experiences. I fell into the trap of thinking my first dance teacher would also become a good friend. And unfortunately, when the difference in expectations came up (me expecting a friendship, he just doing a job), he did not handle it very professionally. I won’t go into detail, but I quickly learned that dance teachers are not perfect and will lie and gossip just like anyone else. Suffice it to say, I no longer dance with him. The impact was great. My trust was shattered and it affected the development of my relationship with my current teacher. But, just like with any painful experience, I have become stronger and wiser.
I wish there was a way for new students to come into the competitive ballroom world without needing to go through something similar. But I have been told so many stories that mirror my own, it seems almost a necessary hazing process. And honestly, if I knew I would end up where I am now on my ballroom journey, I would go through that hazing all over again. My hope is this article will help at least one new student enter ballroom a little better prepared. It sounds a little dramatic (what isn’t in ballroom?), but if I can leave you with one final thought, it would be this. Conflicting or confusing feelings are normal, you’re just getting your bearings. Keep your expectations realistic and focus on why you’re there – to dance!