Finding the Right Fit

Catherine L. Tully is the Outside Europe Representative for the National Dance Teachers Association in the UK.

 

Hiring instructors to teach at your studio is one of the most important things you will ever do as an owner. Finding the right people, however, can be a challenge: How do you track down qualified candidates? What qualities do you want in someone representing you to students and their parents? What are warning signs to watch out for? Here are some ideas to help you find the perfect match for your studio.


Where to Look

 

Placing an ad in the newspaper or announcing job openings on your studio’s website are both good options, but a more proactive and directed approach can help you narrow the field. Check in with the faculty at local college or university dance programs and see if they have someone to recommend or somewhere to refer you. You may also inquire about posting a job description on the department bulletin board. Area dance companies are another good resource—many professional dancers or advanced students teach on the side for extra money. In addition, consider attending dance workshops to network and find someone who has the experience you need. 

 

Grooming an instructor from within your own school is often an excellent bet, as she will already be familiar with your studio’s clientele, style and standards. Sandra Vaughan, owner of Vaughan Dance Academy in Plainfield, Illinois, says that it has always been her policy to hire internally—starting with her two daughters. “As the years have gone by and the studio has grown, I have hired former students trained in our methods,” Vaughan says. “Some added to their dance expertise at other Chicago-land studios or went on to college and received their degrees in dance. All kept in contact with us and eventually came back to teach. The newest member of our staff of seven is my granddaughter.”


What to Look For

 

Once you have an applicant in mind, how can you tell if she will be a good match for your studio? One of the most important things you can do is spend time mapping out exactly what you are looking for in an instructor. Write a job description that lists in detail the expectations, rules and structure of the available positions. Decide if you want to hire individuals as employees or independent contractors. (For more on the pros and cons of each, including tax and insurance issues, visit www.irs.gov/businesses/small/topic/html and look for “Independent Contractor” in the “A-Z Index for Business.”

 

Prior to the interview, ask candidates to submit their resumés, with references—and check them ahead of time. Write down some thoughts regarding your teaching and studio philosophy that you’d like to share, and make a list of questions to ask, such as how long they have been teaching, what age groups they have experience with and any other points that you feel are important. (See page 84 for a list of sample questions.) When interviewees arrive, take note of their punctuality, demeanor, appearance and poise. In addition, be sure to ask them how they would handle difficult situations—such as an angry parent or  a shy student—so you can get a feel for their personality and problem-solving skills, as well as their capacity to work with little or no supervision. 


Consider an Audition

 

Assessing applicants’ knowledge of proper technique and teaching ability can be challenging, if not impossible, in a sit-down interview. Consider having them come in to teach a sample class as part of the process. As Lisa Wasserman, artistic director for Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley Dance Academy, says, “If we are interested in a potential teacher after reviewing her resumé and conducting an interview, I always have her teach an audition class. A resumé can only tell you so much.” 

 

Wasserman takes that opportunity to observe how the teacher interacts with students, manages the classroom and gives corrections, in addition to how well she can keep dancers motivated. “I have found the audition class to be very beneficial,” she says. “Not only do I get to see the potential instructor’s teaching style and ability, but the teacher gets a chance to learn more about our studio as well.”


What to Watch Out For

 

When considering candidates, keep an eye out for warning signs such as a string of short-lived teaching positions or a negative attitude about past jobs or co-workers. First, give potential teachers a chance to explain the situation; from there you can decide if it sounds problematic.

 

Above all, make sure you feel totally comfortable with a teacher before hiring her. Great qualifications don’t necessarily mean that a person is right for your studio, especially if her personality doesn’t mesh with others on your staff. Better to keep interviewing until you come across the right person for the job.


Making Sure It’s a Match

 

If all goes well and you find a suitable candidate, consider having a trial period to give both you and the teacher a chance to find out if you are a good match for each other. “I like to hire teachers as substitutes first,” says Diane Fotino, owner and director of Impact Dance Studios in LaGrange and Countryside, IL. “It’s a good way to get a feel for them and to see if they will work out well.” Another possibility is having periodic contracts, which allow each party to reevaluate before continuing the relationship. If you hire a teacher as an employee, include class observations and reviews as part of the agreement—that way you can continually touch base with her and establish that things are moving in the direction you want.


Making sure an instructor is the right one can be a difficult process, but finding a perfect fit is well worth the trouble. Knowing where to look, what you want and how to assess applicants are all key steps toward beginning a successful new relationship. DT



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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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