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.