Retiring Gracefully

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.

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