Nine dancers discuss life as independent teachers.

Not every dance teacher imagines their name on the front door. Running a school can take time away from actually teaching, never mind the constraints of teaching in one place. Freelance teaching has always been an option for dancers—an elastic schedule can work well to complement their performance careers. But it takes a special entrepreneurial mind-set to fill independent classes and create a distinctive brand that will keep them full. DT spoke with nine teachers about how (and why) they make the freelance life work.

Wildish’s advanced adult beginner class for The Ailey Extension draws professionals and recreational dancers alike.

Kat Wildish, New York City

Weekly schedule: 14 open classes, 10 privates

Genre/Levels: ballet, pointe, partnering, audition prep, competition prep; all ages

Studio 6B of The Ailey Studios is packed on a Wednesday morning for Kat Wildish’s advanced beginner ballet class. Lined up at the barre are people of all ages. Some have ballet-trained bodies—a few are working professionals, and some are retired and take the class to stay in shape—but most are recreational adult enthusiasts. One woman says she’s 74 and had been retired from modern dance for 50 years before joining the class two years ago.

There isn’t a ballet class quite like this in all of New York City. “I am able to teach to different ages and levels, all within the same class, such that a Broadway dancer can be in the same class as a beginner,” says Wildish. She’s developed a devoted following, and it’s easy to see why. Her classes are a mix of rigor and wit. (She gives her adagios names like “Three-Toed Sloth” and “Kale and Lime Juice.”) And regardless of who is in the class, rank beginner or aging enthusiast, she treats them all like professionals.

Today is “Fouetté Wednesday,” and Wildish begins with an hour-long barre designed not only to warm up thoroughly but to build the body. She’s been teaching since she was 15 and is now certified in the ABT National Training Curriculum, Primary through Level 7 (the highest). Wildish has a unique performance background, having danced with both New York City Ballet (under Balanchine himself) and American Ballet Theatre under Baryshnikov. Though she retired from the stage in 2007, the buff blonde keeps herself in shape. “I walk the walk and look the part,” she says. “I get up early to go to the gym or yoga. There’s no slouching.”

“She’s the go-to class for Broadway people. She gets you up on your leg—your leg,” says Alfie Parker, Jr., who has performed with Pilobolus and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and whose Broadway credits include the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific. “The first time I came, I thought, ‘This woman’s crazy; this isn’t for me.’ And then the next day I was sore.” He realized how well-rounded Wildish’s workout had been. “I’ve been coming ever since.”

“My following follows me everywhere,” says Wildish. “After they go on tour with a show for four years, they return to my class. It’s home for them.” On holidays, when The Ailey Studios close, she rents space at City Center. “Holiday classes are packed. It’s when adults are available.”

She demonstrates briskly. Execution varies wildly. She quietly moves through the room, making gentle corrections. When the class groans about a grand plié, she concedes with, “OK, maybe a demi-plié.” But after an adagio that includes going upside down on one arm, she doesn’t let them off the hook. “Shall we do it on the other side?” she says. The group is not enthusiastic. “No? We’re adults, right? We can change the rules.” Not. She gives an impish grin and leads them into the left side.

And on three weekends each year, Wildish makes latent dreams come true: Her adult students perform onstage in New York City at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. Cost to participate is $165, which covers costumes and rehearsal expenses. Leading up to the show (which typically sells out), the group rehearses three weeks for a total of 12 hours.

“We do actual ballets,” she says. “I have to adjust some things. They’re not perfect arabesques. The legs don’t go up all the way—but maybe they go up 45 degrees. We do a lot of drilling in 12 hours,” she says. “At every performance, I cry. I just know how far they’ve come.”

Courtney D. Jones, Houston, Texas

Weekly schedule: six classes

Genre/Level: modern, beginner to professional level; musical theater dance, beginner to advanced; composition

I find guest teaching appropriate and manageable for my schedule. I’m at my best being part of a program like The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I enjoy coming together with other educators and finding new ways to be a part of a young dancer’s progress. I enjoy going in and teaching right before or after I’ve performed, and sharing moments with students where I literally had to apply what we talk about in the classroom to the stage.

There are some challenges. For example, when teaching a master class or guest teaching, it’s more difficult to connect with the students you don’t see consistently. If there are things that you want to fix, you only have so much time. It can also feel a bit like a blind date, where you’re not sure what you are walking into. You can arrive prepared to teach an advanced level class, and after one glance realize you’re going to have to adjust your class level on the spot. I have learned to overprepare in that regard.

Jennifer Archibald,

New York City

Weekly schedule: eight classes

Genre/Levels:

contemporary, hip hop; intermediate to advanced, pre-professional

In August, I was told Dance New Amsterdam was closing its doors on September 1. I had four hours to take my clientele to other major studios before I left the city for two weeks to work on commissions. It was like I was back hustling the way I did 10 years ago when I first came to NYC. I had taught at DNA for 10 years, eight classes a week, while building my name as a choreographer and master teacher.

Life as a freelance teacher is based on numbers, reputation and word of mouth. You have to be OK with having two to three people in your class and be ready to build it. You have to love to teach and keep yourself relevant, and that’s not easy. My schedule does change a lot, because I travel often, but my following is used to it. I have also developed 30-second YouTube commercials that show my combinations. That’s been a force behind my classes’ reputation. I am a free spirit and do not want to adhere to a strict curriculum. I teach a new combination in every single class. I choreograph really quickly and on the spot, so students need to be ready to pick it up.

Peter Chu, Las Vegas, Nevada

Weekly schedule: four classes Genre/Level: contemporary; beginner to professional

Freelancing not only gives me the opportunity to focus on my company, chuthis, but it also affords me the pleasure of working with various levels of students and developing artists. It’s inspiring to teach such a huge breadth of dancers. When working with younger dancers, I try to create consistency. By returning periodically throughout a season, I can help them navigate the work safely, and in the process this helps me become a better teacher. Freelancing also allows me the flexibility to be a collaborator in other projects (I am still in love with performing), while continuing my personal studies in movement analysis and body maintenance. I do have help. Laura Murray Public Relations manages my marketing, publicity, scheduling, booking flights, negotiating contracts and securing teaching and choreographic opportunities.

Amy O’Neal, Seattle, Washington

Weekly schedule: three classes

Genre/Levels: hip hop, house, contemporary; ages 14–60

I have a home base at Velocity Dance Center, and I fill in teaching at other places around town and travel for residencies. I like the freedom. I like being my own boss and not being responsible for all people and places. I feel responsible for my own choreography, and that feels like enough.

I prefer being the guest teacher who comes in, shakes things up, then leaves. I appreciate that the students are hungry, and there’s a different vibe when I’m the new teacher. I like dealing with less bureaucracy, too. There can be some stress in the freelance life, but I am learning to tell people what I need and to trust my instincts.

I do spend a lot of time building connections in the communities that I want to work in, and that means travel and meeting face-to-face. I have made a real effort to do that, and thanks to an Artist Trust Fellowship [grant for Washington State artists], I have been able to travel more.

Duncan Cooper, San Francisco, California 

Weekly schedule: four to five classes

Genre/Levels: classical and contemporary ballet; all levels for children 9 and older and adults

I have always admired the dance teacher who stays in the same place, but for me, as soon as I get used to one group of kids, I move to the next location and meet a whole new group. It keeps things fresh and new for me. There’s such a variety of dance going on and I really get to see what’s happening nationally. I also have to learn to be flexible on my feet because levels vary from studio to studio.

I am my own agent and have developed a network of teachers and studio owners all over the country. I am my own press person and tax person. Joe Lanteri was a huge mentor to me and inspiration. He opened my eyes to what’s possible as a businessperson and an artist.

Helen Rea, Silver Spring, Maryland

Weekly schedule: four classes

Genre/Levels: adult intermediate modern; movement improvement, all levels, post-professionals

I have been freelancing since I left my position as the director of the Dance Exchange school in 1981. I started teaching at other studios in town and never stopped. I like the variety, and during the years I was raising children, the flexibility worked well. I can teach as much or as little as I want. I’m a very organized person, so the task of setting things up comes easy for me.

I’ve always preferred studio teaching as opposed to academia. In a private studio, students are choosing to be there, to take my class. I have an incredibly loyal following, and they have followed me from place to place when I have switched studios, which has not been often. I’m very consistent, rarely use subs, and when I do, they are extremely familiar with my style. I arrive fully prepared and never choreograph on the spot. I spend an hour and a half preparing for each class. I love preparing, because it’s the way that I keep myself dancing. I also prepare specific music for each part of the class, and my students really appreciate that. The downside is that sometimes I do not have control of the situation. For example, at CityDance, my class goes away during the summer to make room for the more lucrative kids classes.

Portier is second from right

Kendra Portier, New York City

Weekly schedule: four classes

Genre/Levels: modern-contemporary, a post-downtown release–based contemporary; advanced

Class size, studio size, location, the weather—there are so many variables to establishing a consistent base for class takers. I’m demanding of myself in how much energy I expect to put forth in every class, and occasionally it is difficult to be as full-on as I desire, due to illness, injury or fatigue. Bodies need rest and recuperation, and sometimes these things are casualties of freelancing.

I will never underestimate the power of word of mouth. With the vast amount of cyber communications, it’s difficult to sort the information, and I’m grateful to the many friends who have championed my class by bringing guests and sending out their own info about classes.

I spend a lot of time creating play-lists. Sound really facilitates atmosphere and motivation. The right playlist can propel you through creative, emotional or physical lethargy. Occasionally, I will host BIGmusicLOUDdance class, which to me is simply a late-evening blowout of sweaty dance with live music.

Kiki Lucas, Houston, Texas

Weekly schedule: 12 classes

Genre/Levels: jazz, lyrical, contemporary; beginner to advanced

The biggest perk of freelancing is that instead of always concerning myself with numbers or paperwork, I get to keep the creative process as number-one in my life. I’ve always been a bit of a gypsy at heart, so being able to travel constantly, set work and teach at different colleges, studios and companies suits me well. Freelancing keeps me on my toes. I’m never bored, and I’m constantly being challenged and introduced to new people, places, things and ideas. This allows me to keep my material fresh, because I never stop learning.

Since my schedule is so demanding, finding a little downtime or social life has been tough at times. I don’t really worry about how many students are in my classes. I enjoy teaching a class either small or convention size. Each one forces me to bring something new to the table. Even though I teach all over the place, I never forget a face. I take the time to soak in as many faces staring back at me as I can.

Getting Out the Word

Social media has now surpassed e-mail as the preferred way to announce classes and location changes, and to share photos and videos. “I used to not friend my students on Facebook, but then too many of them don’t check their e-mail,” says Amy O’Neal. “I taught a class at Broadway Dance Center recently, and all the students came because of Twitter and Facebook notices.”

Kat Wildish updates her Facebook status daily and personally responds to comments. Duncan Cooper likes to post photos and even videos of his workshops. And as Peter Chu points out, the more channels you use, the better. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram each give him quick access to a different group of people.

It does take time to nurture a following. It’s one thing to post the daily location of class, but if you’re also running a company and managing out-of-town gigs, it’s wise to get help. Chu uses an agent and Jennifer Archibald has a budget dedicated to marketing and social-media advertising. She gets help from a member of her Arch Dance Company team.

Some freelancers are more comfortable with social media than others. “Self-promotion stresses me out, and every time I post something I have a slight heart attack,” says Courtney D. Jones. “In the past two years, I have made some great connections with people via my social-media presence, and I’m grateful for that. Even if it’s difficult for me, I feel it paying off in small and large rewards. I love when someone e-mails or calls and says, ‘I’ve been following your page, and I’d like to invite you to teach.’

Note: We’re not suggesting you dump your e-mail list just yet, but do consider the efficiency of a monthly newsletter. Apps like Constant Contact and MailChimp are convenient to use.

 

Photos by (top to bottom) Kyle Froman; Lynn Lane, courtesy of Jones; courtesy of Archibald; Graciela Federico, courtesy of Chu; Kyle Beckley, courtesy of O’Neal; Gina Downing, courtesy of Cooper; Robert Sugar, courtesy of Rea; Michael Abbatiello, courtesy of Portier; Ben Doyle, courtesy of Lucas

The Conversation
Getty Images

It's February! The month of love (and by extension, the month of pink) is upon us. We are major fans of a good class theme, and dressing lovey-dovey is one of our very favorites! So this month, to keep you on brand, we have a list of our favorite pink leos on the market right now. They're all kinds of wonderful.

Check them out and let us know your favorite in the comments!

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

It's the day after Valentine's Day, and every single one of us is in a chocolate coma scrolling through endless love posts on social media. It's both the best and the worst day of the year 😂. Obnoxiously mushy Instagram captions aside, whether you have a significant other or not, we all know that your studio co-workers are the actual loves of your life.

Check out our five reasons why, and let us know over in our comments if we got 'em right!

XOXO

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: Do you have any advice for dividing students into groups?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Chris Hardy Photography

In Antoine Hunter's jazz class, students inevitably pick up sign language just by virtue of being his student. Though he doesn't typically incorporate ASL into his class combos, this dynamic phrase, which is one of his favorites, includes four signs: "heart," " re," "gone" and "deaf."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
The Big Apple Tap Fest, courtesy of Dee

Debbi Dee took her first tap class at age 5 from vaudevillian hoofer and rhythm tapper Curly Fisher, in Rochester, New York. She studied tirelessly with him in the garage he had turned into a small, makeshift dance studio until she was 13 years old, when he claimed he had taken her as far as he could, and she needed to find herself a new teacher. Instead, she jumped feet first into her professional career, tapping with the Lawrence Welk and Count Basie orchestras on the traveling state fair circuit, on the Bob Hope USO shows, and in nightclubs in Vegas and the Catskills.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

We've all had times when we've failed miserably while trying our best to communicate important concepts and ideas to our students. We are all well-meaning with hopes that our dancers will achieve their dreams and become kind humans along the way. Unfortunately, our delivery may need some honing in order to help them without causing some damage,

Here are four common phrases dance teachers often say, and four ways we can adjust them to make them constructive and productive.

Let us know over on our Facebook page what phrases you try to avoid as a dance teacher!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Courtesy Harlequin Floors

Just like your car, your studio needs periodic tune-ups to keep it humming along smoothly. If you take the time to address a few small fixes, your business will stand out. And you don't have to break the bank, either—you might be surprised how low-cost, DIY improvements can make a surprising difference.

Keep reading... Show less
Unsplash

Running a studio can be a major juggling act. It's no surprise, then, that a few things slip through the cracks—costing you money or students. Watch out for two common but often unnoticed mistakes, and you'll find yourself with more time, clients and revenue on your hands.

1. Using online registration as a crutch

If you offer registration via your studio website, make sure you aren't losing clients by neglecting in-person registration. One day Kathy Morrow, director of Dance Du Coeur in Sugar Land,Texas, overheard a front desk staffer directing a new client to the studio's website to register, rather than offering to do it over the phone. "I thought, You had a fish on the hook—why didn't you walk them through it?" she says. "When you register, there are a lot of boxes to check off. Some people want to pay with a check, some to link to a credit card. We can make it easier by answering any questions directly."

2. Not delegating

Have you heard yourself say, once too often, "If I want it done right, I have to do it myself"? Overextending yourself because of perfectionism or a misguided need to control can be counterproductive. By creating choreography, teaching, bookkeeping, cleaning, making phone calls, typesetting, doing payroll, mailings and ordering, you could be leaving no time for the very things that will create your best business. Misty Lown decided to delegate all the teaching at her Onalaska, Wisconsin-based studio, Misty's Dance Unlimited. "Giving up teaching was super-hard," she says, "but it's the best decision I ever made. Whenever I was teaching, it meant I never saw the other five classrooms that were operating during that time. Now I can rotate my time checking on classrooms and interacting with students."

Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Working with a 9-year-old student, Alexandra Koltun asks the young girl to face the barre. She reviews fifth position, demi-pointe with the front foot and coupé devant. "I separate all the positions, so the student understands each one," says Koltun, founder and artistic director of Koltun Ballet Boston. She reaches down to shape the girl's foot into sur le cou-de-pied, leaving the heel in front and gently squeezing the toes around the ankle. "This position will equip the foot with more strength," she says.

Depending on a ballet teacher's preference and style of training, sur le cou-de-pied (meaning "on the neck of the foot") may be incorporated into class at different times and in various ways. From steps like pas de cheval to frappé and développé, the wrapped position can be fundamental to a student's technical development. Or it can be used less often and as a supplement to cou-de-pied front and back. Either way, the value of the position remains constant as a tool to mold and strengthen dancers' feet.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun

Show your significant other how much you love them through dance! Send them one of your favorite romantic dance videos that best describes your feelings, and they're sure to swoon!

Here are four of our favorites that depict a range of emotions along the spectrum of true love. Let us know over on our Facebook page which one best represents your relationship!

You're welcome in advance!

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun

The best way to celebrate a holiday in the dance teacher world is to create a class combo that fits the theme! It's a sure-fire way to get you and your kiddos into the spirit of the day! So, Valentine's Day, we recommend some mushy, cheesy, oh-so-wonderful love songs!

Check out these six songs for potential class combo ideas. They're sure to be a hit.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Unsplash

When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox