Letting Go

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.

Assess Performance
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.”

Communicate Dissatisfaction
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.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"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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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
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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