These days, it’s easy to get caught up in the flu panic. But don’t fret. While a dance studio—like any school—is at a high risk for illness outbreaks due to the number of people interacting in an enclosed space, there are smart ways to prevent the spread of germs. Follow these tips to learn how to protect your studio.
1. Make the studio warm ’n’ toasty. “Remember that warming up the body properly and keeping it warm will make the immune system stronger and more able to ward off bacteria or viruses,” says Natalie Caamano, a certified sports nutritionist and dance instructor at the Garden State Ballet in Rutherford, NJ. Keep an eye on the thermostat, remember to turn the heat on well before the first class and remind staff to begin every class with a 10- to 15-minute warm-up. Also, encourage students to wear cozy cover-ups for the first part of class and when arriving at and leaving the studio.
2. Scrub your space spotless. High-trafficked areas are breeding grounds for germs, so take action to keep your studio clean. “Wipe barres down at the end of every class,” advises Dr. Rebecca Clearman, a former dancer and current director of the Personal Physician Group in Houston, TX. “Wipe down anything people touch—door handles, telephones, mirrors, mats, sinks, toilets, class props.” Dr. Clearman recommends placing disinfecting-wipe dispensers in handy spots around your building. Keep hand sanitizer gel and Kleenex readily available inside each classroom, as well.
3. Wash, wash, wash those hands! The number one defense against catching colds is to wash hands with soap and warm water several times a day. Keep antibacterial soap and paper towels on hand in the bathrooms, and be sure to remind all students to cleanse hands before and after class. “We have signs posted over our sinks about hand washing and how to do it properly,” says Caamano, who suggests telling younger students to sing “Happy Birthday” twice through to ensure proper hand-washing time.
4. Sometimes not sharing is caring. It’s OK to teach children not to share some types of personal items, say our experts. “During flu season, dance students shouldn’t share anything—towels, water bottles, snacks, ChapStick,” says Dr. Clearman. Doing so puts the entire class at risk for spreading sickness through simple hand-to-hand or hand-to-surface contact, especially if sweat or saliva is involved. Repeat this information weekly to your classes.
5. Lighten attendance policies. With viruses like H1N1 becoming widespread earlier this year, it’s best to be flexible about attendance this winter. “If you notice someone coughing and sneezing, send them home. And have a specific place where sick children can rest apart from the other students while waiting for their parents to pick them up—one kid will get everybody sick,” says Dr. Clearman. But, it’s important that sick students aren’t penalized for their absences, she adds. Be reasonable about tuition costs, and consider holding additional auditions or rehearsals if a number of students miss important ones.
6. Keep parents in the loop. A studio handout or e-newsletter on germ-fighting tips is an excellent tool for teachers to communicate with parents during flu season, says Karlyn Grimes, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist in Boston, MA. “A newsletter makes the dancers and their families feel cared for and important,” she adds. An informative poster on the studio bulletin board or walls (download free posters from www.flu.gov), or a website announcement can serve the same purpose. Parents will notice your concern and appreciate your flu-season preparedness and competency.
7. And don’t forget to take care of yourself! Never underestimate the power of basic healthy habits, says Grimes. A well-balanced diet, exercise and plenty of sleep certainly help ward off sickness for physically active people. “Taking a multivitamin will ensure you are getting more cold-fighting nutrients such as vitamin C, which keeps your immune system strong,” says Grimes. “But remember, a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables full of disease-fighting antioxidants gives you the complete nutritional package.” DT
Debbie Strong is a health editor and dance teacher in New York City.
Recently after dance class, I was praising one of my young students to her mother. I described how she’d mastered the French names of steps and was leading the rest of the class in warmup. “I’m so glad,” her mother said. “I just hope she can drop some weight. I keep telling her that dance will help her lose that belly.” The child, just shy of first grade, stood nearby staring at herself in the mirror.
Though I was angry at the mother and sad for her child, I stopped myself from correcting her. After all, I’m just the teacher. Instead, I tried to steer the conversation back to all the other great things dance brings to the child’s life, like coordination, social skills and self-esteem, which this mother was chipping away at every time she brought up her daughter’s weight.
While you can’t control what goes on at home, dance educators can use the studio to instill positive messages about body and nutrition. According to Connie Evers, MS, RD, a child nutrition consultant and author of the Nutrition for Kids book series, you can start with children as young as age 2 or 3. “Kids that age really look up to their teachers and coaches,” she explains. “Dance teachers probably don’t realize just how big of an influence they have on these students. Anything they say can make a really huge impression.”
Kristen Nastanski, a former professional dancer and instructor at the Dance Theatre of Wilkes-Barre in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, also believes that introducing students to the value of nutrition at a young age will help stave off future problems. “I know a lot of young women who have struggled with their body images as dancers,” notes Nastanksi, “and if they had received some education at an earlier age, it may have been beneficial to their health.”
Start with Simple Messages
As many toddler-age dance classes begin with students and teacher sitting in a circle talking, find a way to casually work nutrition into these conversations. “Dance teaches kids that their bodies are useful; they can do many things,” says Evers. “Talk to them about how they need to treat their bodies right, that they need healthy food to give their bodies energy. Push the message that every body is beautiful, and that bodies come in all shapes and sizes.”
For morning classes, Evers suggests asking students, “Who ate a healthy breakfast?” Go over the top, gushing about how great the kids are for eating healthy foods and including breakfast in their daily regime. “Keep asking students week after week, and soon they’ll be trying to get your praise by telling you what healthy foods they had,” adds Evers.
No matter what they ate, however, never label a food as good or bad. “Don’t ever tell them that eating cake is bad, or that any foods are off-limits. It’s little ideas like these that will stick in kids’ minds.” Instead, talk about how much you love healthy foods, like blueberries, for example. “The next thing you know, your 4-year-old student is saying, ‘I love blueberries, too!’” Evers says. Remember to notify the parents about the activity, as they’ll be the ones providing the children with a well-balanced breakfast.
Incorporate Song and Dance
Teachers can also work nutrition and food into class activities. Try using a fun food-related song for your warm-up or during a class game. “So much of what kids learn is through hearing the words to songs over and over again and memorizing them,” says Evers, who recommends the Smart & Tasty CDs by ABridgeClub. (For more teaching resources, see “Nutritional Aids” above.)
Role-playing, or having students dance like certain healthy foods, is another useful tool. “You can ask, ‘Who can dance like a banana?’ and have them peel their arms down,” says Evers, “or bounce or ‘pop’ like popcorn.” Students can also dance like pea pods, and link up as “two peas in a pod.” Be sure to mention how much you like bananas, popcorn and pea pods, for additional emphasis.
Always Lead by Example
Kids emulate your behavior, so as a teacher it’s wise to never engage in unhealthful behavior—like smoking, calling yourself fat while looking in the mirror or labeling certain foods as bad. The same goes for your staff. “Nutrition is a very serious matter and teachers should be educated on the subject before sharing wrong ideas with young dancers,” says Nastanski.
Creating a healthy culture in your studio can go a long way toward instilling good eating habits. If you’re having a party in dance class, for example, encourage parents to bring in healthy snacks rather than the usual cupcakes or cookies. “Kids will eat them,” says Evers, “especially if they think they’re getting a ‘yummy’ treat. Cut up a bunch of fruit, or arrange a cheese and cracker tray with cheese cut into little fun shapes.” Kids also like baked chips with hummus, salsa or guacamole.
Most importantly, try not to make learning about nutrition a too-serious or strict part of your toddlers’ curriculum. Keep things light and enjoyable, with an emphasis on fun. The ultimate goal is to provide them with positive reinforcement and, according to Evers, “to do everything you can to help children develop self-esteem and learn to appreciate their bodies.” DT
Debbie Strong is a writer and dancer. She teaches dance and Pilates at All the Buzz in Queens, NY.
As a dance teacher, chances are you strive daily to be a great role model for your students—cheerful, enthusiastic and motivating, offering plenty of positive reinforcement as well as a sense of clear control over your classroom. But what happens when your personal life gets in the way of those good intentions?
By nature, dance teachers—and dancers in general—are a hardy and resilient group, with stamina that helps them through a physically grueling schedule, not to mention the discipline
and dedication that dance requires. That devotion likely spills over into everything they do, meaning that when the going gets tough, many teachers buckle down and keep going, however stressful that may be.
Elsa Posey, director of the National Registry of Dance Educators, is one teacher who is no stranger to such devotion. She has continued to teach despite overwhelming personal hardships. “I am going through breast cancer complications, but I continue to teach,” she says. “I did this 10 years ago without missing a class. Most of us keep going—no matter what concerns we have.” That’s not to say that doing so is easy; the challenge is to keep these issues from disrupting a good learning environment. So read on as several educators share their methods for achieving personal balance.
Maintain mind over matter.
For many teachers, the strategy is to first and foremost commit to leaving those personal issues at the door when teaching class. “We all have problems outside of the studio. Who wants to take class from someone who has their problems hanging out all over the place, or who has a negative attitude? No one,” says Maria Triano, owner of the PA Dance Network in Pennsylvania. “So with that in mind, I focus only on what my job is while I’m at the studio.” Sometimes, she admits, it comes down to good old-fashioned mind tricks. “When other thoughts come into my mind, I allow them to pass by without getting attached to them or the emotions they create. It’s not easy, but I have no choice,” says Triano, who names divorce, family issues, self-doubt, problematic home renovation and monthly hormonal changes as things that have affected her mood while teaching class.
Triano cites yoga and spending quiet time reading as ways she maintains her mental health in her busy life. “I do a guided meditation at home before leaving for the studio, even if it’s a three-minute one. It allows me to relax my whole body and it takes my mind elsewhere, giving me space to be more present when I walk through the door of my studio. And I make sure to get outside every day,” she says. “It’s like filling up your gas tank and using up all of the gas. If you don’t have ways of refueling yourself, you are empty.”
Try reflective thinking.
For times when emotion gets the best of you and you feel overwhelmed, take a minute to reflect on the situation before acting out emotionally, recommends Dr. Harlene Goldschmidt, a psychologist who also serves as director of arts education and wellness at the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble. “Strong emotions push out logical thinking,” she says. “When you feel yourself getting worked up over a situation with a student, take the time to be reflective and ask yourself: Is there an underlying reason why I’m getting upset? Is this situation representing something else?” For instance, maybe a disobedient student is reminding you of the way your children have been acting at home, or it’s triggering a memory of your childhood when a classmate was mean to you. “Try to figure out what larger issues are at play, and you’ll feel that much more in control and equipped to deal with the situation,” she says.
Talk it out—but be professional.
Goldschmidt also advises keeping a sense of humor, because it can relieve tension. When you’re feeling upset, make a joke or say something lighthearted that will make you and your students laugh for a few minutes, while still being respectful and class-appropriate. And she says it’s imperative that every teacher put a support system in place. “A teacher should have someone she can talk to—not necessarily a professional, but a colleague, a friend, a spouse. She needs a place to vent, to put it out there.” Talking to someone who is understanding and not judgmental, who will listen and take the time to help you sort out your problems can be one of the best ways to help keep the problem out of the studio, she says.
But Goldschmidt says think twice before blurting out at the studio or during class the frustration or problems you are having. “This varies from teacher to teacher on what their comfort level is on sharing with students what may be going on in their lives. Just be sure you aren’t mentioning your problems to solicit sympathy or help from your students. Maintain clear boundaries between yourself as an adult and your students. You could just say, ‘I’m going through a stressful time in my life,’ if you don’t want to get into details.” Above all, she says, “Always respect the boundaries between teacher and student. Keep it strictly professional, and be consistent.”
Sending Out An SOS
What happens when it’s the students’ life issues that threaten to spill over into class? One teacher, Dalana Moore of Encore Performance Company in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, found a unique—yet perfectly fitting—way of helping her students: She encouraged them to express their emotions through dance.
“As teachers, we know immediately when children are simply not themselves. While it is unprofessional to get too involved with the personal lives of your students, because we do care, it is nearly impossible to ask them to just leave their issues at the door,” she says. “As educators and mentors, we need to let the children know that their feelings are natural and normal. I wanted the students to be able to face their emotions in a positive way.”
So to help a group of her students deal with jealous bullying at school, Moore created a dance project with them. “We designed a piece that represented the vicious circle of jealousy and how kids will often follow the bad just to fit in,” she says. “I chose an upbeat ’80s song that could carry many of the emotions associated with typical pre-teen and teenage school drama. Each week, we dealt through dance and discussion with the different feelings and scenarios associated with this teenage tragedy. There was a positive message in the story, too, which is always a plus. And the choreography primarily consisted of strong movements, which we all know helps to release frustration. In the end, it proved to be a very healthy project.”
Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.
photo copyright iStockphoto.com/Anna Omeltchenko
Just after your studio’s end-of-the-year recital, do you plan to do nothing but relax until next season? Well, think again! Now’s the time to really plan for the fall. Use the summer months to get organized, brainstorm new ideas and improve on last year’s methods—it’s your chance to gear up for a great next season. Read on for tips on how to get cracking.
Develop a school calendar.
Ask any dance teacher, and she’ll tell you: Preparing for the busy fall season is a monumental task. A detailed calendar is essential to help everybody stay organized and successful in the coming year, advises MaryAnna Gooch, owner of Dance Connection Too in Gilbert, Arizona. “In July, we hand our students and their families a detailed calendar for the entire next year, so they know which holidays we have off, which competitions we’re going to and the recital dates. This way they know and can plan vacations accordingly,” she says.
Set staffing schedules.
Another smart way to get ahead is to hold a staff meeting to set schedules and lay the ground rules for the upcoming season. Jeff Pitzer, co-owner of Miracle Dance Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio, knows that his 16 staff members all have other full-time jobs, so he likes to work out the dates early on. “We meet and I read everyone the agenda for the year. I let them know the important dates, like when they need to have all costumes selected by, what date their holiday-show music needs to be in by, etc., so that everyone is aware.”
Pitzer advises making schedules online. He uses Google Calendars and Google Docs—spreadsheets of things like recital plans, rehearsal schedules that only his teachers can access and update on their own, from home. “We all have e-mail accounts and can all share the same files,” he says. “It makes updating and keeping track of things much easier.”
Conducting a staff meeting is also a nice way to bond as a group and make everyone feel more like a team. So consider making yours special by holding it as a picnic in the last days of summer or providing fun refreshments. Using this time to give a good old-fashioned pep talk or motivating discussion will really boost your spirits—and your staff’s—before the long months ahead.
Clean house and make repairs.
The summer is an essential time to give the studio a good, deep cleaning. Use the days when the studio is quiet to look around your facility and see what needs repairing or better organization. “Every summer, we strip the wood floors and refinish them, and we also fix whatever’s broken and bring in painters for touch-ups,” says Pitzer. He does a lot of the work himself, but fathers of students also help out. Next year, post a notice at recital time asking for help around your studio. Chances are, some dads will be willing to lend a hand.
Revise your existing budget plan.
Jim Muehlhausen, a small business expert and the author of The 51 Fatal Business Errors and How to Avoid Them, says it’s imperative for studio directors to take the summer to really look at their bottom line and make necessary changes to staffing and budgets. “Think carefully before staffing too heavily this fall. It is much easier to hire an extra instructor or assistant if you truly can’t handle the workload, versus the pain of having to let a trusted staff member go halfway through the season.” He also suggests you consider putting more students in each class. “Yes, your quality of service will suffer,” he says, “but consumers are very price-sensitive these days.”
Look for new ways to promote your business.
Gail Vartanian, director of the ContempraDance Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania, says that during the summer, she posts advertisement flyers all over her community and has one of her internet-savvy dancers search for places on the web to advertise for free.
Vartanian also uses the off months to bring in guest artists and offer special dance intensives not available during the rest of the year. She instructs her staff members to use extra enthusiasm and energy, so that kids are excited to come back in the fall. “New kids always ask for info about our regular classes, so I make sure that I have plenty of brochures on hand.” Holding multiple open houses where people can register for classes, tour the studio and get fitted for shoes and tights, is another way to bring in new faces, recommends Pitzer.
Muehlhausen also reminds studio owners to not only advertise to new clients, but to past students as well. “Personally call every ex-customer of the last three years. Do not ask them why they left. Create a ‘welcome back’ deal and try to convert them into a customer once again,” he recommends.
But remember the most important thing when planning for the new year: Make sure you reach out for help. Vartanian hires an office manager during the summer to help her get—and stay—organized all year long. “That’s my number one piece of advice,” she says. “Get an incredibly committed person or group of people to help you. Running a studio is a tough, time-consuming job. You really can’t do it alone.” DT
Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.
National Dance Week, April 24 to May 3, is just around the corner. So what does that mean for your dance business? The annual event is intended to promote pride and appreciation for all forms of the art. But it’s also an excellent way to showcase your studio dancers, strengthen community spirit and attract new students.
Cheri Eagan is a firm believer in the value of hosting an event during NDW. For four years now the former studio owner has organized the Annual Market Street NDW Festival in an area of South Houston known as The Woodlands. “Students and teachers are planning competitions and recitals all year long, and this is something different that’s completely stress-free and really fun,” she says. Eagan invites about 15 to 20 area schools to show their work in 15- to 30-minute segments. The festival runs much like a competition—minus the prizes—giving students a chance to perform and to also watch the work of their peers.
Eagan begins planning the event months in advance, she says, recruiting performance groups and community volunteers. To market the event, she puts up posters in cooperating businesses and asks the participating studios to promote the show in their regions. “Last year, we had a guest speaker from the Houston Ballet, Lauren Anderson, a former principal dancer, so that drew more people in,” shares Eagan. And her job as a representative for Curtain Call Costumes, a division of Perform Group, LLC, works to her advantage. “I network like crazy,” she says. “The people who run Market Street are very community-oriented. So when I proposed the idea for a dance festival, they loved it,” Eagan says. Each year, she is able to use the space and sound system for free. The all-day event lasts for six hours; families, friends and other guests bring lawn chairs or blankets and lounge on the grass to watch.
While a daylong festival is a great way to unite dozens of dance studios in your region, it isn’t necessary to operate on a large scale when organizing an event. Take, for example, last year’s “Kick It Off Big for National Dance Week,” hosted by Triangle Youth Ballet of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The two-hour, kid-friendly carnival was held at a local park and included a silent auction for adults and various low-cost children’s activities, such as a rubber-duck race, maypole dance, lemonade stand and mini-dance class/contest. Proceeds helped fund school performances and other
According to Kate Vollrath, a TYB teacher, studio manager and registrar, the event was a great way to publicize the school and its company. “Our event is crafted in a way to introduce young children and their parents to our teaching style, and to develop their interest in taking a trial class, trying out a week-long camp or seeing a TYB show,” she says. “Older children are more likely to have a studio they call home; we are primarily trying to generate interest from that younger, unattached group of potential students.” To advertise at the event, the school displayed posters, course catalogs, registration forms and cards offering one free class. All attendees were also asked to sign in on a mailing list to keep them informed about TYB. “We even had dancers dress in their Sleeping Beauty costumes for an upcoming show, and charged $5 to ‘have your picture taken with Princess Aurora,’” Vollrath recalls.
While she feels that the school and company’s presence was strengthened by the event, looking back, Vollrath says there are a few things they will do differently in the future, like holding the silent auction and kids’ activities separately, so that parents can focus more on the auction, and promoting the event more in depth.
“I really encourage studios to get involved,” shares Eagan. “Do Dance Magazine and Capezio/Ballet Makers Inc.’s poster contest; do Dance Spirit magazine’s essay contest. Hold an open house with a dance demonstration, even if it’s just recital dances. The first year you have to plant the seed; year after year, it will grow.”
Ways to promote your studio during National Dance Week
- Run a promotional booth at a high-traffic community area, like a school, church, community center or movie theater.
- Offer in-store discounts and free goody bags at your studio’s dancewear boutique or give away a month’s worth of free dance classes.
- Give public ballroom lessons at little or no cost, with special performances by students.
- Hold a “Bring a Friend to Dance Day” for all classes, with plenty of games and partner work.
- Ask local businesses to display your studio’s NDW poster.
- Partner with a neighborhood bookstore to create a themed book fair with a small dance exhibition.
- Ask a professional dancer to speak or teach a master class at your studio, and invite the public.
- Offer to do a reading of a dance-related book at your local library, accompanied by an Angelina Ballerina–themed coloring contest, a short performance or a free children’s mini-class.
- Hold a dance-inspired book drive to benefit your library, or a dance-shoe drive to benefit a low-income school.
For more information, visit www.nationaldanceweek.org.
Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.
Five ways to help students properly increase their flexibility
Stretching is an essential part of any dance class, but how do you know if your instruction is correct? “I absolutely recommend that my students stretch both before and after the barre, as well as after class,” says Jessie Sierra-Roman, a dancer, teacher and choreographer for the Boston Dance Company and the Boston-based dance school, The Ballet Space. “Stretching is necessary for dancers to maintain and increase flexibility, muscle balance and technique throughout their career. It helps loosen joints, wakes up muscles and gets the blood flowing through the body.”
But believe it or not, stretching can actually hurt dancers in some cases—especially if it’s done too often or pushed too far. It’s best to teach students the importance of safe stretching practices at an early age, so it will remain a constant in their life. DT experts offer five strategies to help your students establish safe stretching habits—and reach their peak performance quality.
1. Never work cold muscles.
Stretching muscles that haven’t been correctly warmed up beforehand can cause injuries and strains. “Being completely warm is crucial for healthy stretching,” says Sierra-Roman. A simple warm-up elevates the body’s temperature, causing muscles to become more flexible. In turn, the easier it is for the tissue to stretch, the less likely it will tear.
Teach students a basic warm-up to get their hearts pumping. Light prances or exaggerated marching steps are good examples. Have students slowly and gently alternate raising and lowering each knee and leg, keeping the knees soft and rolling through the feet, toe to ball to heel. Add in soft-swinging arms to increase movement, and consistently remind students that the goal is to lift the legs to a level where they begin to feel their body temperature increase—not too high or low.
2. Start with active stretches.
Jennifer Green, PT, MS, CMFT, a physical therapist and the founder of PhysioArts physical therapy in New York City, says she prefers to begin a dance class with active stretches. “Active stretches are long moving stretches; when you move in and out of a range instead of settling into one passive stretch,” says Green, who has served as the company physical therapist to multiple professional dance troupes and Broadway productions. “This is a lot safer than settling into a stretch, overstretching the body, then dancing or performing, where the body is doing short bursts of activity. That’s what leads to common injuries.” Green recommends that students isolate one single muscle or group, stretching it in and out of their flexibility range, before furthering class work.
Incorporating balanced stretches into your routine is a must, says Green: “One of the biggest mistakes I see is dancers stretching muscles that are already flexible.” For instance, dancers who want to kick higher tend to focus on stretching their hamstrings, but they should also stretch muscles like the hip flexor and quads, she advises.
3. End with holding stretches.
Dancers should focus on increasing flexibility toward the end of class. “Students should never rush through these stretches,” says Sierra-Roman. “I remind my dancers that they have to hold a stretch for at least 30 seconds to gain any benefit, so bouncing [in these positions] won’t do them any good.” Green cautions that the body should be very warm by this point of the session, so it’s best to save static stretching exercises, like splits, for the last few minutes of class.
There is a tendency for more advanced dancers to push to their maximum stretching range immediately, but this is wrong, says Green. “You don’t want to go right to your highest range of motion; you want to hold the stretch at mid range—the place where you first start to feel resistance,” she adds. “That’s how you build flexibility and strength.”
4. Avoid overstretching.
“A dancer can become overstretched, especially if their body type is very loose to start with,” Sierra-Roman says. She suggests that teachers help their students seek a balance between strength, stability and flexibility. “If I notice that a dancer is extremely flexible by nature, I’ll still have them stretch, but I’ll also add in strengthening exercises to help maintain their muscle stability,” says Sierra-Roman. “When young dancers become overstretched, they tend to lose their ability to jump and, ironically, to maintain their extensions.”
5. Stress “pure” technique.
Green has also noticed a good deal of injuries caused by dancers who are not “pure” in their stretching methods, meaning they cross different joints or use the wrong muscles. For example, “say the student is doing a hamstring stretch at the barre, but her hips aren’t square and she is rounding her back over to reach her arm farther, essentially cheating at the stretch,” Green says. The dancer isn’t using her hamstrings, but rather those tissues around them. A good way to emphasize this for students, advises Green, is to remind them to tuck the pelvis under when stretching the front of the legs, and to gently arch the back when stretching the back of the legs.
Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.
Most studio owners don’t like to think about firing a teacher, but unfortunately, sometimes it’s necessary. The longer you’re in business, the more likely you’ll encounter a teacher who doesn’t work out on your staff, and you’ll be faced with the tough task of letting that person go. How do you know when it’s time? And is there a best way?
“Terminating an employee can be difficult for the employer, embarrassing for the employee and uncomfortable for the rest of the staff,” says Lauren McCausland, studio director of Studio Bleu Dance Center in Ashburn, Virginia. “It’s even more complicated due to the family-oriented nature of most studios. Dance instructors often form close relationships with their students, acting as role models and mentors. This dynamic makes firing an instructor potentially disruptive to the fun, supportive studio environment.” Read on for some guidelines on how to handle this delicate situation.
When you bring new teachers on board at your studio, it’s essential that you have them sign a written contract that lays out your ground rules. Also, be sure to give them an employee handbook that details what is and isn’t acceptable performance or behavior. “You want to make sure that as a manager, you’ve been clear with the employee regarding your expectations,” says Sharon Armstrong, co-author of The Essential HR Handbook. Once you’ve communicated your guidelines, it should be easier to determine when they aren’t being met.
When an instructor chooses not to behave respectfully to students, parents or other staff members, letting that person go is crucial, says McCausland. “Managers must always keep a pulse on guests’ expectations and their opinions on when an employee is interfering with students’ learning environment. An instructor forfeits the privilege of teaching when he or she jeopardizes the studio’s reputation or environment, or threatens a student’s confidence or safety. It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch.”
Dance teacher Raissa Simpson agrees that although an unpleasant task, releasing underperforming employees is absolutely necessary. As the one-time administrative director for Fitness in Transit in Oakland, California, Simpson was in charge of hiring and firing between nine and 15 contract teachers, who traveled to area schools teaching dance to children ages 2 to 11. One instructor had problems communicating and being prepared for class. “She was a great teacher,” Simpson says. “She just didn’t necessarily work well with children and didn’t adapt in the way that we needed her to.”
It’s important to maintain open lines of communication with your staff—and know how and when to take action when needed. If you sense a problem, Armstrong recommends sitting down with the employee, being clear and honest about your concerns and expressing willingness to help him or her improve. “If the studio owner has given the teacher ample opportunity to correct the problem, but the employee continues to have a chronic problem, then the employee really ‘fires herself,’” she says.
Simpson says she first tried talking to a habitually late teacher about making improvements. “I said, ‘Let’s come up with a plan of how we can work together to improve things. What can I do to make sure your class goes well?’” After about a month, there was still no change, so Simpson fired the instructor.
“I felt good about my decision. I didn’t feel guilty,” Simpson says. “You need teachers who love working with children and are attentive to their needs. I know in most cases like this [where the level of commitment is the problem], it’s the person’s life or scheduling issues, and they’re having trouble focusing.” She phoned the teacher to inform her that it was best they go their separate ways.
“Dismissals should always be handled with the utmost professionalism, in order to respect the privacy and dignity of the employee that is being let go,” says Mario Barrett, a business management expert and author of Leading from the Inside-Out. “It should never be done in a public forum, no matter how small the company.” Since there is always the possibility that a dismissed employee will take legal action, Barrett stresses the importance of basing dismissals solely on performance or business needs–related reasons, and to keep careful records of any issues that do arise.
Ensure a Smooth Transition
Since most dance businesses are close-knit communities, you’ll want to have a plan in place for addressing an employee firing and minimizing the disruption such a change can cause. Obviously, students and their parents, as well as other staff members, will want to know what happened. “The message should always be delivered in a sensitive and humane way,” says Armstrong. “Few details should be shared with co-workers. Often managers just say that ‘worker X is no longer with our company.’”
In addition, make sure that you’re prepared for the employee’s departure—that their classes are covered, for example. “You want to know what access to the business the employee has and restrict it,” says McCausland. “Did the employee sign a noncompete? Is there a threat that they will take other students away if they go to another studio? Will you have a parents’ meeting?” Advance planning for the details will ensure a smooth change.
Simpson made sure that all of her students were familiar with multiple teachers, so that when their main teacher was no longer there, they could still take class with someone they know. “The kids know me very well, so I was able to be there with the new teacher, and I gave them someone who had already helped out in the past,” she says. Ideally, Simpson believes it’s best to wait until the end of the school year to fire someone, then start the next season fresh with a new teacher. But in this particular case, the termination was mid-season. “The main thing is to make sure that the students feel comfortable,” she says. “That should always be the top priority.”
Above all else, keep a positive outlook. “When an instructor leaves the studio, students often feel as though they’ve lost a family member,” says McCausland. “But although it seems devastating for students to deal with losing an instructor with whom they’ve developed a close relationship, new instructors are almost always warmly accepted and often provide a new sense of excitement and motivation among students. Your business will certainly survive!”
Debbie Strong is a freelance writer in New York City.
When it comes time to retire, what will happen to your dance business? It’s a difficult yet inevitable question for studio owners—many of whom have been in the business their entire lives and can’t imagine life any other way. For that reason, some may find it hard to start planning for retirement. It’s difficult to think about being too old to run your business fulltime, and it’s even harder to think about who will be able to adequately take over and protect what you’ve worked so hard to create. But having a proper plan in place well before retiring can mean the difference between a graceful, fulfilling exit and a sad, stressful one.
“Any retiring individual must think ahead,” says Christine Moriarty, a financial-planning expert who works with retirees. “Before an owner wants to retire, she should start planning for the transition at least a year ahead. She may want to train the next owner or even sell to a current employee.” For many studio owners, that presents a best-case scenario for stepping down from their jobs; they can ensure that the legacy they’ve built winds up in safe hands—most of the time, hands that the owners have trained themselves.
Carrying On Traditions
Passing on a legacy is exactly what Betty Parlier did in 2005, when she gave her 60-year-old dance studio, Betty’s School of Dance in Statesville, North Carolina, to her longtime student, Natasha Smyth Marko. “I wanted to hand my studio to someone I knew would be completely dedicated,” she says. “Natasha was absolutely the right person. She taught dance the way I always had,” adds Parlier, who was Marko’s dance teacher since she was 4 years old.
To initiate the handover, Parlier indicated that she wanted to have Marko run the dance studio under the name Betty’s School of Dance for a couple of years before she retired. The close relationship between the two allowed for a smooth transition over the next few years.
“For the first year, Miss Betty let me teach out of her existing studio practically for free,” Marko remembers. “Although I had assisted her in the studio since I was 14, she had a lot to teach me about her business in that year. She helped me organize classes, build relationships with the students’ parents, handle finances and manage the studio.” Marko ultimately decided to keep the school’s name as is. “It is a little piece of history, and I think the current name will benefit the studio for years to come,” says Marko.
Taking that extra time to show a younger staff member the ropes can mean all the difference when it comes to ensuring that your studio will continue to thrive in your absence. “I knew that if I was expecting to continue the studio for another 60 years, it was important for me to see what aspects of it she had worked the hardest to establish,” says Marko. “She trusted me to uphold her methods and traditions. Miss Betty is a legend in our town and has touched so many people’s lives. I know that our families and students were happy to be able to stay at the studio that they had trusted for generations.”
When the Timing Is Right
For Dianne Clements, who founded Augusta West Dance Studio in 1978, retirement seemed right this year, her school’s 30th anniversary. When her daughter, a busy mother of three, decided not to take control of the dance business, Clements handed the reins to two longtime students, Merry Beckham and Megan Luquire. “This was a pivotal year for a number of reasons,” says Clements, who also celebrated her 65th birthday this year. “It felt like the perfect time to go.” With well over 500 students at her establishment, it was important for her to ensure that she was putting things in good hands, so she asked Beckham and Luquire to shadow her for one year prior. “We really respect the families and the students here,” Clements adds, “and in turn, they respect us.”
Admitting she was ready to go has allowed her to see the value in handing over management duties to members of a younger generation. “Times have changed,” she says. “Whereas I don’t know a lot about computers, Megan will sit down at one, download a song, edit the music, burn a CD and be back on the dance floor in no time at all.” She says she thinks of Beckham and Luquire as her own: “They’re a part of the family. They come to all of our family parties and gatherings; they’re like two more daughters.”
Adapting to Retirement
Dealing with the emotions involved in giving up a business is another hurdle for owners. Moriarty recommends gradually decreasing responsibilities to avoid going through total withdrawal. “On my fridge is a saying: ‘It is not the pace that kills me, it is the stopping.’ Once a high-energy business owner who has been self-motivated retires, she’d better have lots of other things to accomplish to enjoy herself and keep the spark in life.”
To that end, Clements has signed up for an art class, and is looking forward to playing golf and having more time to attend her grandsons’ football games. She advises studio owners to get excited and enjoy retirement. “I felt like 30 years was enough,” Clements says. “Accept that the next stage of your life is here, and move into it.”
Staying involved in a lesser role within the studio seems to be a win-win situation for both owners and their successors. Clements, for example, continues to teach a couple of classes for the studio once a week, which is helping her ease into the new lifestyle. Parlier also maintains a level of involvement that works for both her and Marko. “She is my mentor and continues to give me advice in all aspects of the studio,” says Marko. Parlier attends all of the school’s productions, Christmas parties and other studio events. “I know she is happy with what I am doing with the studio because we communicate regularly and she tells me,” says Marko. “I take her advice to heart and work my hardest to live up to her expectations, and hopefully exceed them.”
Marko says that she continues to learn from her mentor even today. “She continues to teach me things about dance and running the studio now, so really I’m still her student today,” she says. Marko also notes that her beloved Miss Betty comes by once a week to bring her granddaughter to class. “When I hold her granddaughter’s hand, I can’t help but think that I have the chance to touch her life in the same way that Miss Betty touched mine.” DT
Debbie Strong is a writer and dancer. She teaches dance and Pilates at All the Buzz in Queens, NY.