One of the best series of consumer advice columns online is Smart Money’s Ten Things column. In each column, a Smart Money reporter looks at an industry and illuminates its shady practices in an unbiased manner while also providing accurate explanations that may or may not justify such practices. Given how replete the dance industry is with questionable practices, here are 10 things your dance teacher won’t tell you, from a former professional dance teacher.
1. I’m as much of a student as you.
International con artist Frank Abignale made a career out of pretending to be men of distinction, such as airline pilots and doctors. At one point he took on the role of a university professor, teaching at Brigham Young University. How’d he do it? According to his autobiography, “I just read one chapter ahead of the students and selected what portions of the text I wanted to emphasize.”
Unfortunately, there are many studios out there who will take people completely new to dancing, throw them through a crash-course on dancing, and have them teaching paid students in less than two months. These teachers, commonly derided as “six week wonders,” are rarely better than their students and often far worse. This is, fortunately, becoming a rare practice.
2. I won’t even say goodbye.
If a teacher is under contract to a studio, it is made very explicit that the students “belong” to the studio and not the teacher. If a teacher leaves a studio for any reason, he may be forbidden from even telling students he or she is leaving, let alone where he or she will be teaching next. It’s not uncommon for pro-am students to lose their professional partner without notice when the teacher leaves.
Be aware that while you may have signed a big contract with a studio, expecting to be able to take your lessons with your favorite teacher, but losing that teacher is rarely considered grounds for refunding the contract.
3. … and I may not have even said hello.
Many studios prohibit teachers from fraternizing with their students, including not only romantic relationships but friendships and social engagements. Teachers may be forbidden from anything from taking their students out on a date to accepting a dinner party invitation to even telling their students where they go out social dancing.
Ostensibly, this is done to protect the teacher from accusations of favoritism – imagine the outcry if a teacher was perceived as providing extra attention to a significant other in group classes – but can also make student-teacher relationships feel very cold and distant.
4. You don’t pay less and we’ll give you more.
A common practice, particularly among franchise studios, is to offer all-inclusive packages. With these packages, you may pay a monthly membership fee that covers all your group classes and parties, or agree to pay for a certain number of private lessons per month and group classes and parties come free. It’s possible, that these are actually really good deals. Most students, however, don’t come to enough group classes to take advantage of the offer, either because they can’t make it to the studio for all the classes offered, or the studio doesn’t provide enough classes at their level.
Your best defense: start off with ala carte lessons, and switch up to a package once you know you’re dancing enough that it’ll save you money.
5. I’m not really a dance teacher.
I once heard a coach speaking with three teachers. The coach asked, “What’s your job?” Two of the teachers went back and forth with different guesses. “I’m a dancer.” “I’m a teacher.” They tried to make it more descriptive. “To teach people to dance.” “To make people comfortable dancing.” The coach kept shaking his head. Finally the third teacher said, “To sell dance lessons.”
Some studios are renowned for high-pressure sales tactics, even if they’re good studios. Good instructors will remember that the best sales tool he or she has is delivering a good lesson. Bad instructors rely on constant barrages and pushing. If you find a teacher spends more time selling you than teaching you, you’re probably in the wrong place.
6. I have no idea what people are dancing.
Dance is constantly evolving, but most instructors don’t have the time to see it evolve. Few instructors spend their weekends out social dancing, having spent their entire week giving lessons in social dance. Consequently, the only exposure many teachers have to dance outside their studios is at competitions. New trends in dance may blow right by these teachers, the same way trends in literature or music may blow right by literature professors and music teachers.
Salsa is an extremely popular style of social dance right now, but how many ballroom teachers do you know who go out to salsa clubs on a weekly or even monthly basis? While they may know the steps and be certified to teach salsa, those don’t always prepare someone for the way salsa is danced on an actual social floor. The more specialized a dance is, such as salsa, Argentine tango, lindy hop, west coast swing, and hustle, the more a teacher needs to be aware of the social trends in the dance. Be sure to check with your teacher to find out how often he or she goes out dancing and, if it’s not often enough, stick to the more formal dances.
7. My certifications are better than your certifications.
Dance teachers like to talk about being certified and passing examinations, and they like to talk about student medal examinations, but don’t think that the two are the same thing. Teachers’ examinations are much more thorough, requiring exacting knowledge of every component of every figure as well as the ability to explain that knowledge. Student examinations are rarely, if ever done to the same standard.
This isn’t to say students examinations can’t provide useful goals or standards, but they often don’t. A warning sign: when a studio conducts its own testing, rather than bringing in an outside examiner.
8. Your personal choreography isn’t.
Many studios promise to create original choreography for wedding couples. The fact is, however, most couples don’t take enough lessons to learn any choreography. Instead they get an entrance, a few moves that can be done lead-and-follow, and a dip. Most of the time, it’s the same entrance and the same dip, and the same moves for each dance.
If you’re really set on having an original routine for your wedding, start early. Expect it to take twenty lessons, if not more, and budget time and money accordingly.
9. This won’t really help you when you go out dancing.
Many people get involved in ballroom dance because they want to be able to dance with people at bars, clubs, or weddings. The problem is, unless you’re dancing with someone else who knows ballroom dance, you won’t be able to do a whole lot. Men can at least try to teach a lady an impromptu basic, then forcibly lead her, but for women there’s not a whole lot of options.
If you’re set on doing partner dancing with strangers try to focus on the simpler dances, such as merengue. More importantly, work on shines and other solo patterns that you can do regardless of whom you’re dancing with. Still, expect most of your social dancing to occur at ballroom parties, not out there in “the real world,” unless you bring a partner with you.
10. You’re never going to be done.
At a certain point, nearly every dance student realizes they’ve met their original dance goals and sees that they’ve been working on an entire new set. Teachers will praise your accomplishments but will always be working to develop new goals for you so you will continue taking – and paying for – lessons.
If you’re set on simply reaching a good enough state, you’ll have to be firm about it with your instructor, but many dancers find those original goals aren’t enough. If you enjoy dancing, you’ll probably recognize that much of that enjoyment comes from developing your skills. Dancing is a lifelong pursuit; enjoy it.