Studio Owners

How to Keep Studio Parents Happy Without Sacrificing Your Sanity


Parents: Can't live with them, can't run a studio without them. They aren't shy about voicing their opinions, asking for special treatment or complaining about tuition rates. But they are, first and foremost, your customers, and that means they're entitled to a great customer experience. "Remember that you're in a service business," says Frank Sahlein of 3rd Level Consulting, who often works with studio owners to grow and improve their businesses. Here are five things you owe your customers—and easily implemented methods for meeting their needs.

A safe, clean facility

You owe your customers an orderly lobby, tidy bathrooms and well-maintained dance floors. As Sahlein says, it's every team member's responsibility to make sure your facility is kept clean and uncluttered. "My staff understands that when the trash is overflowing in the middle of the day, they need to take it out," says Annie Harlow, owner of SC Dance in Ardmore, Oklahoma. "If the bathroom is in disarray while they're working the front desk, they need to wipe down the counters. Our classes start at age 2, and babies put things in their mouth all the time." Consider some easy cosmetic upgrades, too: Harlow recently added automatic paper towel dispensers and a changing table in the bathroom, plus a student lounge space for homework. She also refinished her wooden dance floors this past summer.


You and your staff serve not only as role models to your students—demonstrating positive attire, language, posture and attitude—but also as qualified educators to their parents, reminds Sahlein. Hire skilled, competent faculty, and encourage them to take advantage of continuing education opportunities. Most importantly, make sure your parents know the extent of what you offer. "I promote our continuing education news quite a bit to our parents," says Harlow. "I think it's important for them to understand what goes into being a dance teacher, and what it means." When SC Dance joined an online teaching forum, CLI Studios, Harlow sent out an eblast to her parents, explaining the benefits of the program.

Value for their time and money invested

By making it as easy as possible to do business (online registration and billing, attentive office staff, a clear and updated website) and starting and ending each class and rehearsal on time, you communicate to your customers that they're getting more than what they pay for, says Sahlein. Harlow makes punctuality a top priority at SC Dance. "Because I am a parent and I understand what other parents' lives are," she says, "my teachers know that beginning and ending class on time is very important." In fact, on the rare occasion when a teacher loses track of time and goes over by more than five minutes, Harlow will send an apology e-mail to parents. "I explain that it wasn't intentional and that we respect their time," she says. She also recently made the switch to online billing. "Tuition is due by the first of the month, and if we don't receive payment by the 10th, their card is automatically drafted," she says. "Ninety-seven percent just wait for it to draft. They love the convenience."

A way to be heard

"Communication is very important to me," says Harlow. "I tell my studio kids, 'If there's something going on, and I don't know about it, there's nothing I can do to make it any different or better.' My parents know that, too." Her policy is that if parents contact her with a question or concern, she gets back to them within 24 hours. She also sends out surveys at least twice a year, via SurveyMonkey or Typeform. "I changed the way I did the scheduling for our competition teams, but first I sent it to the parents and said, 'Here's what I'm thinking and why it'll benefit you—are you on board?'" she says. "I do the same regarding recreation classes, new programming, new payment structure. You're getting their buy-in and making them feel like they're a part of it."

When Brookfield Center for the Arts owner Mandy Winiecki had to let a high-profile teacher go last year over aggressive classroom-management tactics, she offered her Brookfield, Wisconsin, parents the chance to sign up for half-hour, one-on-one meetings with her to discuss any questions or issues. "It was really hard—it caused some intense drama," says Winiecki. "But I addressed every concern head-on."

A sense of community

Fostering growth opportunities and intentional interactions among your students will make your customers feel connected, says Sahlein. One simple way Harlow encourages an environment of belonging is by using a hashtag, #SCDFamily, anytime she shares a picture or posts on social media, and she adds it often to T-shirts. "Any rec kid, any company parent, everybody knows: When you post a picture, use the hashtag," she says.

Last year, Winiecki created a program called Honors Academy for her recreational dancers. Students can participate in community service activities—take part in an anti-bullying campaign, for example, or visit nursing homes—and have the chance to earn up to $10,000 worth of college scholarships. "I always thought your comp teams had to be the face of your studio for the community," she says, "but those kids don't have time for community service. My advice? Empower your rec kids."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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