Reexamining The Cost of Being a Ballroom Dancer

I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow ballroom dancer for the first time in person this past week. She is one of several Maine dancers who proved me wrong when I thought I was moving to a place where I didn’t know anyone. I also learned that she has been following the blog from the beginning!

We had a lovely chat on a picnic table over tea, which of course primarily focused on our ballroom journeys. She voiced her appreciation for my willingness to openly discuss the financial aspect of ballroom. It can have a great impact on someone’s dance journey, but so often, the cost of being a ballroom dancer is swept under the rug or hidden in the shadows behind the bright lights and sparkling rhinestones. Don’t look over there, look here on the dance floor where everything is shiny and colorful and everyone is smiling.

Finding a Way

I’ve never hidden the fact that financing my ballroom journey has always been a struggle. There are plenty of articles on this site going back to the blog’s inception where I share the trials and tribulations of being a dancer on a budget. I tracked every penny in order to pay for private lessons and competitions. I prioritized ballroom dance over everything that wasn’t rent or food. I sold old trinkets on eBay. I freelanced on the side of my day job. I ultimately turned my blog into a business to help support my dancing dreams. Two of my published books were inspired by my financial struggles – Ballroom Budgeting and The Solo Practice Guide (because solo practice is free).

Money can be a real mind fuck, whether you have it or you don’t. It’s weaved in so tightly to our values as a society that it easily triggers feelings of guilt, shame, entitlement, superiority, fear, panic, suspicion, infatuation, etc. When I was first introduced to competitive ballroom dancing, I felt like I found my niche, the place I belonged, and then immediately felt rejected and excluded. I didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on a competition dress! I couldn’t afford 5 to 6 private lessons a week!

It felt like a cruel joke that I would be shown the place that lit a passion fire within me and then be shown the exorbitant entry fee. It’s like finding “the one” wedding dress and then learning the sales person pulled it from a rack that they knew was above your budget range.

Humans can do amazing things when they’re motivated. Though I felt the sting of that initial exclusion by the expenses of the ballroom world, the dance itself called to me. I had to find a way to make ballroom a part of my life. And I did! I found several ways in fact and then wrote a book on them. There was still a lot of struggle but with 16 competitions under my belt, I know if I have the will, I will find the way to the next one.

Why Must There Be Struggle?

While I’ve managed to make it work, I know there are plenty of others who just can’t due to their life circumstances. They start off enjoying some group classes, maybe treat themselves to a private lesson every so often. It’s a wonderful and joyful escape from the daily grind. But after awhile, that feeling of exclusion creeps in as they watch other students prepare for showcases and competitions. They notice how much more attentive the studio staff is to those clients who shell out the big bucks. After awhile, their teacher stops asking them if they want to join in because they know the answer will be “no, I can’t afford that.”

That built-in exclusiveness has always bothered me. The way the cost of ballroom is swept under the rug makes it worse. On the surface, the ballroom world seems so warm and welcoming to everyone because dance is for everyone. But then you realize there is an asterisk on “everyone*” that clarifies “*who can pay.” If you can’t pay, that initial warm welcome turns cold and hollow. It feels like a bait and switch. If you’re not the fish the studio wanted to catch, you get thrown back.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than the scenario of studios and teachers trying to squeeze as much money out of their clients as possible. Running a studio is expensive, especially if you’re in an area like New York, San Francisco or Southern California. Working as an independent teacher comes with a lot of expense as well, especially if you’re also competing professionally. Granted, when I drove to the studio in my 15-year old car and saw all of the teachers’ luxury leases parked out front, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.

Luxury is part of the ballroom experience. Ballroom teachers and studios are selling a high-end experience and their appearance needs to match. You would look at your dance teacher differently if they drove an old beater or showed up at your lesson wearing a cheap pair of pants and a t-shirt. So they spend their money on the more expensive clothes and cars to keep up appearances. You might be thinking you wouldn’t care what your teacher wore on your lessons, you just care about the dance. Me too! But would I have thought the same thing when I first met my teacher? Or would I have been more inclined to work with someone who fit the look of what I thought ballroom dancing was with all of its glitz and glamour? We all know appearance in ballroom matters, whether we want it to or not.

Dancewear makers contribute to the high price tag too, charging thousands for competition costumes and hundreds for practice wear. I still practice in the workout clothes I bought probably 7 years ago, on sale. But even I can’t deny, there is a benefit to getting the feel of the practice skirt that mimics the dress you’ll wear on a competition day. Then there are the shoe companies, the coaches, the event spaces – all charge a premium rate for their part in the ballroom experience.

Why does ballroom dance in this country have to be so expensive?

Does everyone really have to be charging so much for their products and services? Sometimes I wonder if it’s so expensive because that’s the way it’s been done and no one feels the need to explore alternatives. After all, if the way they’re doing things now is affording them a comfortable lifestyle, why change?

When you’re running a business, you cater to your ideal client. For ballroom businesses, that ideal client is not the person with the most dance potential; it’s the one who has money to burn and is willing to pay for a luxury experience. I remember being at a showcase with someone who was new to ballroom. She wondered why certain people were on stage multiple times when (no offense) they weren’t that good. I explained it’s because they paid for it. Top billing at a ballroom showcase is not given to the best student; it’s given to the student willing to pay the most. Top student awards at competitions work in a similar way.

Ballroom studios are not like mainstream dance studios or academies where you’re expected to improve and advance as a student. As a ballroom student, you can stay in Bronze for as long as you like and never be told “maybe this isn’t for you.” You can compete for years and never make the podium. Ballroom studios don’t build their reputations on the skills of their students; they build them on the experience they provide.

Individual teachers do care more about how their competitive students perform. If a student never seems to improve, then you have to wonder about the pro dancer’s teaching abilities. Still, my world champion title didn’t get me any discounts on lesson packages. Teacher still had a business to run and while a student with a title is a great achievement, it doesn’t pay the rent or floor fees.

It Always Comes Back to Your Own Dance Journey

Though I’m not interested in teaching ballroom, sometimes I wish I was so I could explore ways of making ballroom more accessible and inclusive to anyone who wanted to learn while still making a decent living. I wouldn’t want to teach just for the sake of a financial experiment; students deserve more. I do have plans for the stables behind my house, so I may still be able to create that truly inclusive ballroom space. I have to believe that if you start off with that intention and value and hold true to it, then you will make it happen. Just like making my last 8-9 years of dancing happen though, it isn’t easy because it goes against the established way. There would be tradeoffs and sacrifices. Maybe you don’t wear the fancy clothes or drive the fancy car. Maybe your parties look a little less posh. But the ideal client for a truly inclusive ballroom space wouldn’t be the one looking for the luxury experience. They would be the one who wants to learn and grow as a dancer and is willing to put in the maximum effort, whatever that looks like for them.

Ultimately, whether you’re a professional dancer trying to make a living or a student trying to live their passion, you have to choose the path that best suits you and avoid comparing your path to others. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but I promise that it gets easier with practice and time. There is no shame in spending money on a luxury experience. There is no shame in not being able to afford a luxury experience. Your bank account balance, high or low, does not determine your worth as a dancer. If dance lives in you, then you’re a dancer.

14 thoughts on “Reexamining The Cost of Being a Ballroom Dancer

  1. Babs says:

    Bravo! Thank you for your honesty. I started dancing late (almost 60) and had that incredible feeling of passion and resolve that comes with dancing. Yet, the cost always bothered me. We have an adequate but modest income and I felt guilty spending this money on myself. Yet, my lessons were at a local Arts Center which was considerably less than a private studio. When I decided I wanted to compete I was very lucky in finding “pre-owned” dresses. Even knowing I could be the 4th owner, I still was surprised at the cost.

    I held back from moving to Rhythm due to the cost of another pair of shoes and a different dress. Eventually I did get one dress (used of course) and another pair of shoes. I’m glad I tried it, but I couldn’t afford to dance multiple heats in both disciplines, so I stuck to smooth. However, I only danced in showcase style events, not full-blown competitions, as I couldn’t spend that type of money. For me, those two or three events a year were enough. I went to watch the big DanceSport comp, and I realized there was no way I’d spend almost as much to enter one or two events as I would for dancing in multiple events at the “fun” events. Yes, they were fun, but still very competitive. I’m glad I watched friends dance, but I lost any desire for my previous goal–dancing at the Big Show.

    I did feel better talking to other dancers and finding that they too often bought used dresses and worried about the cost. There IS a way to do this more cheaply, but it does limit one’s options.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Karen says:

    I appreciate your honesty. You have expressed many of the feelings that I have had over the years. My last dance instructor lost his studio so I stopped dancing. Now, after 5 years he is back- but he didn’t stay in contact with me .I can’t have the same trust that I had in him before the studio closed. It was fun being on stage for two different dances- but was the cost worth it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheGirlWithTheTreeTattoo says:

      Thank you for sharing. “Is it worth the cost?” is the question I had to ask before committing to every competition I entered. It’s important to ask because if the answer is yes, then you can release any guilt/shame over spending the money. If no, then don’t do it and feel good about that decision too!

      Like

  3. kdnovember13 says:

    Great article, and I can relate, as well. I, too, started taking ballroom lessons at the age of 63 (I think) and it was a challenge, but thrilling. The ballroom that I attended is VERY posh, and the sales effort is intense. Nonetheless, I so enjoyed dancing with my instructor and participating in reaching the goal of four bronze metal tests. However, the cost and my age really led me to want to just focus on two dances, primarily, the waltzes. I became frustrated with my coach for not individualizing my lessons – we spent 15 minutes at the beginning of each lesson doing a warmup of other dances. If I were younger and was going to finally commit to dance and perhaps compete, I accept the need to be proficient in all the dances. I couldn’t speak my mind because he was the expert, and he was correct about perfecting all the ballroom dances. But, he started dancing when he was five years old, so he had plenty of time to travel the road. Anyway, he has since left the ballroom and opened his own studio far away. I, too, felt guilty about the expense and without a practice partner, one lesson per week just doesn’t cut it. I know I can “afford” it, but I still feel uncomfortable, and the options for dancing with a new teacher don’t appeal to me. Again, if I had a regular peer practice partner, I’m sure I would do one lesson per week and feel that I was making more progress.

    I am so glad that you wrote this article because even though it’s been one year since my last dance at the ballroom, I am still mentally struggling with going back-not going back, etc.!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheGirlWithTheTreeTattoo says:

      Thank you for sharing! I love it when an article shows up for someone when they need it. 🤗 I can tell you from personal experience that you can make progress with one lesson per week plus solo practice (insert shameless plug for the Solo Practice Guide). Having a teacher who will support your solo practice efforts with focus on your lessons is important too. Now that you have some experience and know what you want to work on, working with a new teacher may go better than you expect!

      Like

    • Babs says:

      KD, sounds like we have similar paths, but I was very grateful that my teacher’s passion and wonderful teaching methods, for me, over-came his lack of “technical” skills. He studied under a national champ, so he had very good skilsl, but obviously, not what others may have had. But we used a VERY different technique.

      I had no idea, until I found out what other teachers did for comps. MY instructor did literal “free-style”, we DANCED TO THE MUSIC! We obviously had specific skills prepared, but each dance was different in my comp, so we could adjust if things went awry and I loved the spontaneity. I only found out after 3 years that the other teachers did the same routine for each student! To me and Rod, that was cookie-cutter factory style, to make it easier on the teacher. But beside my weekly private lessons with Rod, once a year I did an intense 15 lesson stretch in 10 days.

      While on vacation in FL, I’d take lessons (VERY expensive ones) at the studio of a multiple world champ/Blackpool dancer, but he was a wonderful, humble person and had outstanding teachers. One day, Lon told me that I’d never be as good as the other dancers in a comp, because they knew exactly what was coming and could practice that routine over and over. I was devastated, as i took it as a criticism of me and my instructor. It seemed he felt we didn’t take our dancing seriously or work hard enough at it. He saw the look on my face and the next lesson we worked thru that. He now understood how, on one level, I took the comments the wrong way, but there were also many pluses to our style. The funny thing is, that while I may not have been as “good” a dancer as some others, I always got great scores and had people tell me how much they enjoyed watching me dance. I was shocked, but after that conversation with Lon, I realized, that Rod and I had a much stronger connection and our love of dance and care for each other showed as we performed. Some others looked wooden, even fearful, as they wanted to make sure they’d remember the “correct” routine. I think my ignorance of what the bigger studios (or the famous named one) did really helped me. Rod and I had (like everyone, the pandemic has stopped me from dancing for almost two years) a terrific relationship,but at the same time, he’d defer to me at times, if I was truly uncomfortable with a figure. He knew just how much to push, cajole or try one more way for me to figure out how to do something hard. I don’t know if I’ll dance again. I had foot problems for years, and since I stopped dancing, they’ve almost disappeared. Plus, at 66, can I get back to where I was after two years off? I don’t know, I try not to think about it as it’s too painful

      Liked by 1 person

      • TheGirlWithTheTreeTattoo says:

        Babs, nothing against Lon but I object to his assertion that you’ll never be as good as the other dancers. They may perform their routines more precisely because they’ve rehearsed them over and over, which may lead to better marks at a comp because of less hiccups. But we all know there is a lot more to being a great dancer than just knowing a routine. 😘

        Like

        • Babs says:

          I did eventually figure that out with help from others, and my own somewhat obsessive (LOL) thinking about it. Hmm, maybe someone here was a big help?? But for others, I did talk to my regular instructor, very carefully, about Lon’s comments and we decided that we’d have slightly longer sections prepared, so I could rely more on muscle memory, but that we’d still react more to the music. BTW, that was a sweet comment, but I was/am hardly a great dancer, but I worked damn hard to achieve what I did. Sadly, we haven’t had any comps, and my favorite one may not exist as the woman who ran it has closed her studio.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Francesca Fortunato says:

    Thank you for your ongoing examination of the costs of ballroom. I started at 51 (I’m 59 now) and have only done a fraction of the competitions that I wanted to do, because I couldn’t afford more. Early on, I decided to specialize in one style (Standard) because I wanted to excel, and that was my favorite/best style. I have done well, since making that decision, and took First at my last competition. My goal had been to reach gold level by age 60, but I remain at silver, because all I can afford is one group class per week now; no privates or competitions at all. I practice every day, as I hope for better times (financially.)
    I wanted to share one source of inspiration that I received a couple of years ago. The great Shirley Ballas (multiple Blackpool Latin champion) did an interview, where she said that, when she was young, she could only afford one lesson per month! The rest of the time, she practiced on her own, and used video instruction to improve her technique. So, I try to think of Shirley Ballas, as I dance in my living room, along with Dance Vision videos…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kris says:

    Thanks for talking about this! My dance journey has been similar financially where I can only afford 1 lesson a week, sometimes 2. I make the most of it by attending as many group classes as possible which I’ve found really helps, but do feel sad not being able to complete or participate in most extras. I’ve done a total of 2 comps in 5 years and it blows my mind that some students are able to do multiple a year and dance 50-100 heats each one! In a few cases, the students that seem to be paying the most don’t seem to be improving which is strange but like you mentioned, those students are paying for the luxury experience and I guess there is no harm if they can afford it and are having a great time. 🤷‍♀️ I just wish it wasn’t so expensive so the rest of us could have more fun too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheGirlWithTheTreeTattoo says:

      Just physically I don’t know how they manage 50-100 or more heats, haha! Never mind the financial cost. I’m with you – kudos to those who are living out their dancing dreams with money to spare. It’s not like we can take it with us! But yeah, let’s figure out how the rest of us can do the same or similar. ❤

      Like

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