Something special this weeks, folks. On March 16, Daniel McGee of Top Hat Dance Studio in Philadelphia was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview. While normally we try to refrain from linking to or endorsing specific studios, we felt Top Hat’s combination of quality instruction and low prices warranted an exception. In the interest of full disclosure, I do currently take all my group classes and many of my private lessons here.
Daniel McGee is the co-owner of Top Hat and one of the head instructors here, and arguably the best value in Philadelphia. It is certainly the lowest price for ala-carte private lessons and, depending on the package, the lowest price for group classes. It’s also a very successful studio, having just gotten their second top studio award at Mad Jam in Washington D.C., and top studio at Philadelphia Festival seven years over the past fourteen years.
DTTR: So obviously you’re a successful studio. There’s a lot of social dancing that goes on here. In spite of those wins, I’d say a large portion of the students don’t compete but they clearly see enough value to keep coming back. How do you think you’re able to deliver such high results consistently at such a low cost compared to everyone else in the area?
McGee: Basically by not doing contracts. We basically want our students to want to be here and not to be obligated to be here, and we believe that the quality of our teaching is what brings them back because if you offer a product and you’re contractually obligated to be there it doesn’t matter if what you’re teaching really is [of quality], they’ll be there because they have to be. By having people paying one time, you have one chance to make an impression and then if they come back it’s base don what you did. It helps keep everybody accountable for their performance.
DTTR: You started dancing under the franchise system-
DTTR: -not to name a specific franchise. We try not to refer to specific companies when we can avoid it in order to avoid favoritism or libel, but how would you say your retention rates compare here to when you were working with a franchise?
McGee: Much higher, because in a franchise, where you are contractually obligated, the contract for lessons is like a car payment. Not everyone can afford to do it that way and it’s either that or nothing, no other options, while here everyone can afford a $10 group class. You know, it’s like going to the bar: you can afford $10. It’s much more obtainable to the general public.
DTTR: Even in spite of such values, dancing can be a very expensive hobby – it doesn’t have to be but it can certainly get that way very quickly without your realizing what happened. How do you think people can justify the expense of dance, especially in the current financial climate?
McGee: Well, as far as group classes, it’s no different than going to the bar and having a few drinks. Even back in the Depression, in the ’30′s, people still had enough money to go and do certain little things like a trip to the bar. Some people still get their hair cut or go to McDonalds. You know, $10 is not something people are going to give up, $10 is not very much money these days.
DTTR: That’s certainly true for group classes but how does it apply to people taking private lessons or training for competition?
McGee: For private lessons the majority of people taking them, a good 75% of them, are people that are empty-nesters, not younger people putting people through school or buying diapers. Even though the recession may have decreased [their discretionary income] and they may have lost some of the money in their nest-egg, so to speak, or in their retirement, the money they’re spending isn’t the money they’re using to live on, to pay their mortgage or feed their kids.
DTTR: So you think most of the people doing private lessons are still using their discretionary income, it’s just coming out of somewhere else?
DTTR: Cutting costs is one of the areas we try to touch on on the blog by looking at ways to get additional value from pre-existing purchases. What are some ways people can get more value from their existing lessons?
McGee: Practice! More on their own. Go out social dancing. I have many students that only take a lesson one hour a week. That’s the only time they dance, for one hour on their lesson, or in a group class. So in that respect, you’re really trying to learn something in an hour a week. So your time with the teacher is really you’re paying to rehearse, whereas if you’re going out social dancing you get to practice it, then when you’re actually on your lesson you can maximize your technique by already knowing all the old material.
DTTR: Can you give an example of how you’d like students to practice? The way instructors practice is different than how students practice, and while instructors can take an hour to rehearse one pattern over and over and over again, most amateur dancers can’t dedicate that level of time.
McGee: Truthfully, an amateur can practice just by going out dancing. It’s like speaking a language: the more you do it, the more it’s gonna become part of your body. It’s not like you need to be in a studio practicing hours and hours, I’d be happy to see more students going out and actually using what they’re learning, and that would improve their retention rate, like, 50%.
DTTR: You’re never afraid they’ll come back with bad technique?
McGee: Sometimes, but, you know, using the foreign language reference, even if it’s grammatically incorrect, at least you have something to fix, whereas if they don’t practice they don’t even know what they’re doing right or wrong because they don’t know the material. You can always fix something that’s wrong, but if they don’t know what that is, then they can’t fix anything.
DTTR: How do you think supplementary material, such as videos, written syllabi, and study groups fall into this?
McGee: Um… they’re good… *sigh* The hard part about that is interpretation, you know… A lot of them just don’t know how to read a book, meaning a manual; they’re very difficult to read sometimes, so you may be giving yourself wrong information, but they’re okay. DVDs are fun.
DTTR: Do you ever think about running a weekend workshops on how to read a syllabus or how to use a video correctly?
McGee: I’d actually never thought of that, but that’s something we could consider. That’s a good idea.
DTTR: Thank you. When people do take material home, I know there’s at least one couple off the top of my head that uses them. Do you provide guidance about material?
McGee: Yes! I give recommendations about which books to purchase because there’s tons of stuff out there, and some of it isn’t great. You know, anyone can write a book, so I try to guide them into which ones to purchase, which ones are more credible. And sometimes they’ll bring them into their lessons and I’ll help them interpret. It’s like a text book, it does help, it’s a learning manual, some people just need instruction in how to use it.
DTTR: One thing that I do recommend on the web site for cash-strapped students is to design your own program by picking and choosing from different studios, such as Top Hat does have the best price in the city of any legitimate studio with certified instructors, but other places might have cheaper group classes. Self-interest aside, do you think this is worthwhile for a student? Or does having different instructors working in a vacuum cause more problems than the money-saved is worth?
McGee: I think it’s important with any business – if you’re going to a doctor, if you’re going to a carpenter – it’s important to know the product that you’re getting. Cheaper does not always equal better. Unfortunately, anybody can hang a shingle outside their door and say that they do such-and-such business, hair dresser, whatever. I’d always check the source, check their credentials, as to what they’re offering you, because it could be more detrimental because you could be getting wrong information.
DTTR: So you support official licensing of dance teachers?
DTTR: *motions to go on*
McGee: Let me clarify that: they should be licensed to a point. It should be on a graduated system. There’s a lot of people who get involved in this who don’t necessarily have license in the very beginning but… more people should.
DTTR: Early on I noticed that Top Hat doesn’t push private lesson sales nearly to the extent that other studios, both chain and independent, push them. On the one hand, the low-pressure approach makes it very relaxing to be a student here; I think a lot of people keep coming because they don’t feel sales intimidation. On the other hand, there is a noticeable loss of technique in a lot of the group class students. Do you think this is worth it, both to the studio and to the student?
McGee: Yes. We really try to cover a lot of technique in the group classes, but you know the group classes are really for people who are social dancing. You know, Joe and Mary have a wedding coming up and so you really have to balance between technique and – you know in our upper-level group classes we really work hard technically –
DTTR: Thank you for that, by the way.
McGee: You’re welcome. In the beginning level classes, you know level one and level two, people are still trying to figure out their left from their right, so it’s really hard to give technique. Now private lessons, we teach an exorbitant number of private lessons and… the group class is a buffet: you sample different things and you find out what you want, and then when you want to have more of it you go into a private lesson.
DTTR: So you don’t recommend private lessons for beginning students right out of the gate?
McGee: I do! I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that either. You certainly learn more because it’s more one-on-one attention. It’s just that everybody’s desires are different, so I want people to go where they feel more comfortable.
DTTR: For the social dancer who aspires to upper-level social dancing, what do you recommend as the ratio of private lessons to group classes?
McGee: The way I see it, if somebody’s willing to take both private lessons and group classes… I try to get them to think that a private lesson is where they learn how to dance, where we’ll go over finer details of whatever they’re learning. A group class is an opportunity to practice, it’s supplemental, it’s concentrated practice, it’s a chance to dance with a bunch of different people, where if you’re working on a simple pattern you can take your basic technique and really work on it.
DTTR: Are there any products or services you’d like Top Hat to be able to offer that you just haven’t been able to? Maybe supervised practice sessions, specialty dances, visiting coaches?
McGee: We do offer coaches every once in awhile, we bring them in. Parties are great, I’d love to have more of them. You know, Top Hat is great, even though it’s a social school people can come here as a dance school rather than a night cub. I’d love to have more kids involved.
DTTR: Well you do have your ballroom youth program. Can you talk a little about that?
McGee: Sure. It’s very infantile now. The problem is boys. You know, we have a lot of girls but if you don’t have enough boys it’s challenging.
DTTR: Kind of like the adult classes.
McGee: Yeah, yeah. So you know, that’s the challenge of the youth program. You know, our youth ballet program is nice; I love working with the kids, but the youth ballroom program is very difficult.
DTTR: And for the record, all your instructors have ballet training, correct?
DTTR: Okay. Many people need to pinch every penny. How would you recommend a beginning student learn on as small a budget as possible?
McGee: Well, group classes are great. $10 is not very expensive, especially when you take two group classes together and basically get two classes for $15, or $12 or a class card, so it’s not so bad. Also, you could take a private lesson and split it with somebody, you know, share the cost with someone. Some people will say, “Well, I can’t afford a lot so I’ll take a half-hour private every-other week.” Well the truth is, you’re not going to learn very much. So even though it’s costing you less, you’re not getting much for your dollars and cents.
DTTR: Especially since it can take half an hour just to get warmed up.
McGee: Exactly, exactly. And that goes more to practicing more and doing it out [there] so you’ll be able to retain more and use more of your lesson more quickly.
DTTR: What about the budget students who want to at least try their hands at competition?
McGee: Okay. The best place for an amateur to do that on a low-financial basis is to enter as an amateur couple. There are a lot of amateur events, college events, all over the country, and they’re a lot more affordable than a typical pro-am or big scale event would be.
DTTR: So you would encourage the student to enter the competition even if the studio itself isn’t participating?
DTTR: Worst case scenario: somebody loves to dance, then they lose their job, their investments crash, and so on and so forth. Not that anyone’s seen anything like that lately. The student’s scraping by but barely, and has to temporarily cut out all unnecessary expenses. What should they do while they’re on zero-dance-budget?
McGee: On a zero-dance-budget? Well, hopefully if they’ve learned something, if they’ve already had a few classes, they should keep practicing so they don’t lose what they’ve already learned, and eventually hopefully when things turn around they’ll have at least some knowledge, some muscle memory. You never lose what you’ve already learned.
DTTR: Looking back on your own history as a dancer, is there anything you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?
McGee: Other than starting earlier?
DTTR: I think everyone wishes they’d done that.
McGee: Yeah. Um… Wow… Something I wish that someone had told me earlier… That’s a hard one. I would say, and this is gonna sound weird: No. Because a lot of the advice that I was given, if I’d have listened to people, it would not have been good. I was given a lot of misguided advice, actually.
DTTR: So you’re advice is to watch out for advice?
McGee: The best advice I have is learn the ropes as you go. Figure it out.
DTTR: Any last words of advice?
McGee: Keep doing it, don’t give up. Dance is great. You know you don’t have to dance in a studio; dance is one of the most primitive forms of movement. Everyone has dance in them some way. So studio dancing, you want to dance, just dance.
DTTR: Okay, I know I said that would be the last question, but you keep talking about getting out there, social dancing, especially with that question about not needing to be in a studio. Is this one of the reasons the instructors at Top Hat seem to love and celebrate hustle so much?
McGee: Hustle is a great dance that can be done to almost any music. It’s very practical. You go to a wedding and they’re not necessarily going to play a tango or a quickstep or a waltz, but they will play music that you can hustle to. Same thing at the local nightclub or local bar, you can pretty much do it anywhere. It’s a great dance for getting more bang for your buck because there’s so much more opportunity to use what you’re learning.
DTTR: Thank you very much. I’m glad I got to talk to you about this.
McGee: Cool. You’re welcome.