Stop operating out of fear—there are better ways to protect your business.  

If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s definitely happened to a studio owner you know: An employee—someone you trusted, confided in, mentored—suddenly announces she’s opening her own studio. Down the block. Before you can say “pas de chat,” she’s absconded with a third of your clientele and modeled every detail of her new business after one she’s found perennially successful—yours!

To protect themselves, many studio owners include a noncompete clause in their employees’ contracts, stipulating that the employee promises not to pursue a similar profession or trade in direct competition with you, the employer. A well-crafted noncompete has three restrictions for the employee: geographic distance, time frame and the type of conduct or employment. For example, a newly hired instructor may be restricted from teaching dance at another school or owning her own studio within 15 miles for three years after leaving your studio.

Sounds foolproof, right? Think again: You’ll need to pay hefty legal fees to take a former instructor to court over a noncompete—and then it may not even be worth it: Noncompete agreements are famously difficult to get upheld in court. Judges are more and more reluctant to rule in favor of an employment clause that interferes with someone’s ability to make a living, according to Frank A. Natoli of law firm Natoli-Lapin, LLC. “Even conservative judges don’t want to rule against a guy’s living,” he says.

Any noncompete agreement that comes under scrutiny in a court will also be carefully judged for its reasonableness—that is, are the agreement’s restrictions of duration and area typical for similar contracts within that jurisdiction? Natoli can’t emphasize enough how important reasonableness is: “You look at what the case law speaks to in that jurisdiction,” he says, “and stay within those limits.”

When The Academy of Dance Arts studio owner Sherry Moray—who routinely includes a noncompete clause in her employee contracts—had a teacher quit her school and open up a studio in the town next door, she ended up not pursuing it in court. “She knew it would cost me a lot of money to go after her,” says Moray.

If You Can’t Beat ’Em…Help ’Em?

Instead of running your business from a place of fear (“Who’s about to turn on me and run off with all of my students?”), consider these alternatives to protect your business.

Some legal remedies do work. Nonsolicitation clauses restrict your employees from soliciting other employees or customers of your business after they leave your studio. This type of clause, generally viewed as a legitimate effort by a business to protect its goodwill, is often upheld by the same courts that strike down noncompetes. Nondisclosure agreements prevent your recent employee from disclosing proprietary information about your studio, such as client lists, outstanding contracts and the business’ history.

Or follow the example of owners like Sue Sampson-Dalena, who focus on good management and being the boss people want to work for. Sampson-Dalena, who owns The Dance Studio of Fresno in California (one of several states that routinely refuses to uphold noncompetes), has never had a staff member sign any sort of contract in more than 32 years of business. Instead, she’s careful about whom she hires. “I hire many of the girls who have grown up in the studio and share my philosophy,” she says. The satisfaction goes both ways. “They’re exactly the style of teacher I need them to be, and they’re really committed to me,” she says.

What’s more, Sampson-Dalena views her talented young teachers not as a threat but as an opportunity to expand her own teaching style and grow her business through creative partnerships. She will actually groom certain students-turned-instructors to begin studios of their own eventually (at a good distance from her main studio, of course, “so it won’t draw too many people away from me”). “When I see someone who’s really ambitious, who has the type of personality that would be good for a studio owner,” she says, “I talk to them about partnering and growing a location that’s far away from the main studio.”

Sampson-Dalena has helped three former instructors establish their own California studios, each with a slightly different setup and financial arrangement. One studio is currently operating as a franchise of her studio; one started out as a partnership, though Sampson-Dalena’s employee is gradually becoming the school’s sole proprietor; and the third studio—Sampson-Dalena’s first joint venture, which she invested cash in—now functions entirely as its own entity. These continue to be mutually beneficial arrangements—Sampson-Dalena will invite students from these schools to the master classes she hosts at her own studio, and she’s also offered to take on any advanced students at her own Fresno branch, should they need further training down the line.

Through Thick and Thin

Sampson-Dalena chalks up her employees’ loyalty to her management style. “I’m not a micromanager,” she says. She’s also strongly supportive of her staff in any issues with studio parents, and she makes a point of fostering mutual respect among all her teachers, no matter what genre or age they teach. “None of them feels like what they’re doing is any less important than what the others do,” she says.

Moray, too, understands how taking care of her faculty is the key to a happy, loyal staff and a healthy business. Her instructors’ salaries are competitive, and she encourages them to set their own rates for any private lessons they give. “It’s like they each have a built-in clientele,” she says, should they need to make some extra money on the side or fulfill a need to play studio owner for a few hours.

Sampson-Dalena characterizes herself as a relaxed, confident business owner, and it shows: Her turnover, in both faculty members and students, is minimal. Remember that treating your students well—offering them quality dance education in a warm, drama-free setting—is another built-in defense against the allure of new studios and greedy former employees.

“We have good chemistry here,” Sampson-Dalena says. “You’ve got to look for those quality kids in your own backyard.” Channeling the ambition she sees in her own stock of students, rather than fearing it, has helped her develop strong teachers and a growing business. DT

 Photo by Mitch Aunger/Thinkstock

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox