Parents as Partners

As any successful dance school owner can attest, parents are as much a part of the studio as the students and staff. Not only do they pay tuition, but they also have a lot of decision-making power when it comes to studio and class selection. So, while your main objective is to provide a child-friendly, enjoyable atmosphere, it’s wise to extend your customer-service efforts to the entire family.

Parental involvement is “a very positive thing for a studio,” says Jacob Rodevelt-Gamlieli, president, owner and director of Action Dance Academy in Tacoma, Washington. “It helps out the studio, it makes our jobs as teachers easier—and, most importantly, it keeps the parents busy,” he says. Read on for ways to turn your studio parents into allies, instead of just walking, talking checkbooks. Ultimately, your students, business and sanity will benefit.

Promote a Positive Atmosphere

One of the most important things you can do is also one of the easiest—maintain a friendly, approachable demeanor in your interactions with parents and kids. Even a simple smile can go a long way. In general, parents want to like you; they’ll be more apt to keep their children coming back for years if they feel a personal connection to you and the studio. In addition to soccer, piano lessons, Girl Scouts and other extracurricular activities, there are plenty of dance studios vying for children’s attention. What may make parents choose yours is if they know you are an accessible point person who genuinely likes them and their children.

“I try to make everyone feel welcome in my studio,” says Jennifer Hammar, owner of Success Dance & Performing Arts Center in Merrimack, New Hampshire. “I make it a point to talk to everyone, even if it’s just a, ‘Hey, how are you?’ thing. I’ll ask how their week is going or chat about their child’s class. I want them to know me and feel comfortable talking to me.” Hammar has been running Success Dance for five years and believes her high rate of returning students is due to her open rapport. “The parents know they can come to me anytime with questions or concerns,” she says.

It’s important to go out of your way to get face time with the parents, either before or after classes and at dance-related events. Make a concerted effort to learn first and last names, and show moms and dads that you’re happy to see them. If possible, place a coatrack, watercooler or coffeepot, and chairs or benches in the studio’s waiting area so family members can relax comfortably while waiting for their children. Just as a good host anticipates the needs of her guests, a good studio owner tries to accommodate everyone who enters her facility.

Send Out an S.O.S.

In addition to making them feel useful and included, asking parents to volunteer at the studio is a great way to ease the burden on you and your staff. Is your annual recital or competition coming up? Are you taking your ballet students to see a professional performance? Asking parents to donate their time or transportation can alleviate some of the stress of carrying out a big project.

Hammar asks moms and dads to help with everything from selling tickets and running concession stands to readying students backstage for performance. “I can’t do it all myself,” she says. “Parental cooperation helps things run smoothly not only in the studio, but at performances as well. Without their cooperation, it would be a burdensome, rocky road.”

Consider posting a sign-up sheet for volunteers in the studio waiting room, running an announcement in your studio newsletter or asking a few of the more seasoned dance parents to start a phone tree. Designate a few small sub-groups to handle each task, and be sure to keep a running list of who is helping with what.

Form a Parents’ Club 

Rodevelt-Gamlieli has established a highly organized system for parent volunteers, called the Action Parent Association. After having run a YMCA in his previous career, Rodevelt-Gamlieli saw firsthand the benefits of the YMCA’s parent-run Booster Club, and based APA on that model. The association is made of an elected board of directors, who meet the first Saturday of each month, as well as at other times to plan fundraisers and other activities. “They do this completely on their own, with a president, treasurer, etc.,” explains Rodevelt-Gamlieli. “The board even has its own bank account, and they handle everything. I don’t have to get involved.”

Through annual silent auctions, sleepovers, car washes and candle, candy and jewelry sales, APA raises the funds to cover dancers’ entry fees at national and regional competitions. “Dance parents have a tendency to be really involved and present at the studio, and this gives them something to do,” he says. “It keeps them from gossiping; it’s a way to use all that energy for something positive.”

Another great benefit is that they work together to handle studio issues that arise. “Most of the time they handle things on their own,” says Rodevelt-Gamlieli. “If it’s a real problem, they’ll come to me and present the complaint as a group, along with their ideas for a solution.” For example, Rodevelt-Gamlieli planned a show for a date that many parents were unhappy with. The members of APA met to discuss the issue and came to him with a new date they voted on as a group. “It worked out well,” he recalls. “If it had been one parent who came to me saying her child couldn’t make it, I wouldn’t have switched the date. But it was one voice coming to me and representing a number of people; I welcomed their input and changed the date.”

If your studio doesn’t have a parents’ club, send out anonymous questionnaires, make use of a suggestion box and have your staff keep their ears perked for comments and concerns. Every business encounters problems; the first step to solving them is opening the lines of communication.

Show Your Gratitude 

Don’t forget to recognize parents who become your partners. “I always thank parents for their help,” says Hammar, who includes the names of her parent volunteers in the recital program. She also holds a party at the studio after her annual Nutcracker performance. Moms and dads make or bring different foods and drinks, so everyone can relax and mingle post-show. “We’re very much a family-friendly business,” she says. “The parents bring their other kids to the party, too. I like that everyone knows the studio is a place for the whole family.” Indeed, just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes many people to grow a great dance program. DT

Debbie Strong is a writer and dancer. She teaches dance and Pilates at All the Buzz in Queens, NY.

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