The Business Side of Ballroom

As students of ballroom dance, we are faced with countless challenges: the dance itself, the goals for progressing the dance, the funding of the dance, the personal growth triggered by the dance, the emotional bonds formed with dance teachers, etc., etc. After reading the blogs of some other ballroom students, I realized there is another challenge that should be addressed: the fact that our dancing dreams don’t always align with our teacher’s career path.

In the States, many ballroom dance instructors start out their careers at franchised studios, such as Fred Astaire or Arthur Murray. These companies have training programs that allow people to teach and learn at the same time. It’s a great starting opportunity for anyone wanting to teach ballroom dancing for a living. But few people stay at their first job, and it’s no different for ballroom instructors. Franchises are often “stepping stones” for people looking to become professional ballroom dancers/instructors. Unfortunately, that means their students at those franchises get stepped over as well.

The mix of business and personal influences has to be one of the most difficult conundrums for a ballroom student to deal with. But ballroom IS a business. Teachers go to work just like anyone else. You, as the student, are their client, which means you are part of their job. I edit one report after another at my job. Ballroom instructors teach one lesson after another at theirs. And like anyone else, they may be on the lookout for new or better opportunities, especially if they are just starting out. Maybe they want to compete on a professional level and are looking for a pro partner. That search may lead them to move out of the area. Maybe teaching dance was fun for awhile, but they find their true passion in something else. Maybe they simply want to get paid more and are looking for the chance to go independent.

All of these possibilities are great for them. If you discovered your passion was in a different career, wouldn’t you make the switch? If you had the opportunity to advance your career at another company (or by starting your own), wouldn’t you take the shot?

I suppose it depends on your acceptable level of risk and how ambitious you are. But the point remains – teachers, like anyone else, will weigh the risks and rewards of staying where they are versus moving on to something else. Even if that means moving on from you, their student.

If a teacher decides to leave a studio, as the student, you may not even know if better prospects were the reason for leaving. The studio wants to keep you as a client even if it means working with a different teacher. So they often stay mum on why a teacher left. A former ballroom student once told me that she was actually led to believe by the studio owner that something bad had happened to her first teacher and that’s why he was no longer working at her studio. It turned out that he just moved to another studio.

Hopefully, that story is a rare one, but the fact is studios don’t want students to know why teachers are leaving because they don’t want the students to follow. It’s business.

So your teacher may simply be gone. No goodbye, no explanation, they just aren’t there anymore. And you’re left behind, possibly with a paid package of unused lessons, wondering what the heck you’re supposed to do now.

It’s an unfortunate reality that can affect any student, not just those at franchises. I’ve written before that my first studio teacher dropped me as a student without explanation. I was lucky that my current teacher was available to take me on, although I had to wait five or six weeks before we could begin regular lessons. Until then, I basically hopped around from teacher to teacher, taking a lesson here and there with whomever was available. It was important to me that I kept dancing for my mental well being, but at the same time, I felt like I was going nowhere.  Even though I had teachers, I didn’t have a partner. I don’t think you can really progress past a certain point as a pro-am ballroom student unless you have a regular teacher with whom you’ve established a connection to act as your dance partner.

This connection is so vital to a successful partnership, but can also be our downfall as students. It can be hard and even hurtful to imagine that your teacher is not as emotionally invested as you are in your dancing and would not be as willing to sacrifice as much as you in order to preserve your partnership. But the reality is your teacher is a human being with his or her own life outside of your dance lesson! It sounds silly and obvious. But especially at first, ballroom teachers almost appear as gods who reside in heavens known as dance studios and are gracious enough to accept our humble offerings in exchange for some of their vast knowledge. Gods don’t go to the grocery store. Gods don’t make mistakes. And gods certainly wouldn’t abandon their loyal followers because their significant other got a better job in a different area, they’re not getting along with their boss, or they’ll do better financially as an independent. Those are human things. Oh. Wait.

It’s important to remember that your ballroom teacher is human and they are running a business.

It’s a bit of a downer because it ruins part of the ballroom fantasy that teaching you to dance is the sole purpose of your instructor’s life and nothing makes them happier. That’s not to say teaching you doesn’t make them happy. It’s very likely that they enjoy the time they have teaching you.

But while learning to dance with your teacher can become your whole world, teaching you isn’t your teacher’s whole world.

I’m not trying to burst anyone’s bubble or be negative. But I’ve seen too many people get hurt (including myself) because they forget about the business side of ballroom. Ballroom dance is a very personal experience for most students, and sometimes business is just business.

I come back around to a point that’s repeated over and over: remember you’re there to dance! Ballroom dancing is so much fun, magical and life-changing! The business side of it allows studios and teachers to devote themselves full time to providing that experience to as many students as possible. Change is unavoidable though, and sometimes that means teachers leaving.

Personally, I think a little more openness from the studios and teachers could go a long way toward easing a student’s transition from one instructor to another. If you have a teacher leave or even disappear on you, it’s easy to feel abandoned. Especially if the change is sudden and the reason is unknown. Of course, there is that conflict of interest between the studio and the teacher who is leaving to pursue greater opportunities. It’s business, but unfortunately it can affect the student personally.

If your teacher leaves, you may also feel like all of the time and hard work you put in with that teacher has been wasted.

But it hasn’t!

Your knowledge and experience do not go away with your teacher.

It can be incredibly hard to start over with a new teacher, but you do not have to start completely over. If your last teacher got you dancing up at the full bronze level, then your new teacher can continue you on that path. Some things you will need to start over, such as establishing a connection and learning to dance with your new partner (getting used to their lead or follow). Who knows, you may find you have a better connection with your new teacher! My dancing improved by leaps and bounds after I switched to my current teacher. It seems we are just a better fit. But no matter how many teachers you go through, your dance knowledge is yours to keep.

It’s worth repeating: ballroom dancing is fun, magical and life-changing! Studios, especially the franchises, work hard to provide a full-package fantasy experience around it. I say dive in and enjoy it!

But bring a little dose of reality with you.


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