Why do Private Lessons COST so Much?

This entry was inspired by a post on Dance Forums by the same title.  The forum member asked:

Gaaahhh!!

60 dollars an hour?

How am I ever going to afford the 4 lessons a month that one would usually get with group lessons? Which would be $240!!

Anyone whom ever took private lessons how in the WORLD did you afford this?
Would I be able to get away with just taking one or two private classes a month and then practice at home?

Most of the responses were typical of the discussions we’ve had on this blog: do you need private lessons, if so how many, how do you get your money’s worth from a private lesson, what are typical going rates, private lessons are worth it, private lessons aren’t worth it, and so on.  These are all valuable topics and ones we’ve explored at great length for just that reason.  Only one forum member attempted to answer the original question, and the answer was less than satisfactory (“That’s what the market will bear.”).  So today, we’re pulling back the curtain: how dance teachers decide what to charge for lessons.

Opportunity Expenses

The first thing I do when I decide my pricing is look at my expenses.  How much does it cost me to give the lesson?  If I’m giving an in-home lesson this is pretty basic: gas and tolls, plus a little bit extra for wear-and-tear on the car.  If I have to rent space at a studio that’s added as well.  Will I be traveling so much I need to do a meal out of the house?  The result is most lessons cost me between $10 and $40 just to show up, the former being for someone close by me learning in their living room, and the latter for crossing state lines over a toll bridge and renting a studio.

But beyond those costs, there are opportunity costs.  Dance is not my only income; if someone wants me to come in during my day job hours I need to take that time off, unpaid, which means I need to add in another $30 – that’s $10 an hour for the lesson, plus an hour of transit each way.  In fact, even if I’m not taking time off of one job, I can’t book myself other dance lessons close together because of travel time to each lesson, thus in-home lessons require me to charge more even for time I don’t teach – thus I’m usually very willing to give substantive discounts to students doing double or triple sessions.

Now if I’m working for a studio and teaching back-to-back lessons there all day, my costs are significantly lower as there’s no travel involved beyond a normal commute.  Of course now the studio has its costs if I’m an employee or it’s floor charges if I’m renting space.

The end result: of my $60/hr cost for in-home lessons, I usually take home about $40, which when averaged over a two hour block (half hour travel, lesson, half hour travel), comes to just $20/hr.  A good rate, but hardly unreasonable.  When I work for a studio I generally charge $25/hr but won’t take the job unless it comes with several consecutive hours booked.

Now, you may say, the studio only pays me $25/hr but charges $75/hr for the lesson.  Where does the extra $50 go?

The answer is overhead.  The studio is usually paying rent on the space, and remember dance studios need a lot of space.  Mirrors can run thousands of dollars.  A sprung floor can cost $18 per square foot (link) and with even a small 600 square foot floor (20′ x 30′) will run over $10,0000.  Advertising is an ongoing expense for the studio.  Licensing music.  Maintenance.  An administrative worker, which may include both a studio manager and receptionist.  INSURANCE.  A contract lawyer on retainer.  An accountant.  And we haven’t even touched on ongoing staff training.  That extra $50 erodes very quickly.

Ability Costs

All of these are costs just to get out and teach a lesson, but what about the cost to be able to teach a lesson?  How much does it cost to become a dance teacher?

I’m very up front with my students: dance is a pyramid scheme, I tell them.  You take lessons from me and I turn your checks over to my coaches.  I know who they take lessons from and who they turn their checks over to.  And I know some of the teachers they turn those checks over to.  We’re all trying to learn from better and better teachers, and those high-level teachers are exceedingly rare and quite expensive.  I charge $60/hr.  This weekend my dance partner and I got a private lesson with one of our teacher’s teachers for the bargain price of $130/hr., and it’s looking like that’s going to become a regular part of our training.

But you can bet I taught a much better waltz lesson on Monday than I would have without that lesson.

Every dime of my dance income, after my immediate expenses, goes right back into my training to make me the best teacher I can be.  That includes coaching with people who aren’t just the best dancers in the world but who are also the best dance teachers in the world.  It includes certification costs so that I can guarantee to my students that I’m providing the best experience possible for them.  It includes workshops, seminars, and congresses so that I can stay current on what’s happening in the dance world.  It includes my fitness costs so that I will have the stamina to teach my last lesson of the day with the same vigor that I taught the first.  It includes dance manuals and videos.  It includes costumes so that I can perform and entertain my students.  It includes everything that makes me a dance teacher.

How much does that cost me?

Year to date it’s cost me $2,000 more than my gross income from dance.

Value

There’s one more aspect I consider when deciding on my lesson pricing, and that’s how much I value my time.  When I consider all those variable costs and average them out to figure out how much money I need to make each lesson just to break even, that still only informs me when I do my final analysis: how much is it worth it to me not to teach the lesson?

Huh?

Here’s the formula: I consider how much someone has to pay me to come teach on a day when I’m feeling great.  On a day when I love the student, am excited about the material, want to go dance, and it’s just so beautiful I can’t wait to get out of the house.  How much do you have to pay me to come show up for that lesson?  I’ll do it for $20, my average immediate expenses.

Next, I consider how much money someone has to throw at me to get me out of bed on a day when I really don’t want to teach.  When it’s cold out and raining, when my body hurts, when the student is stubborn and talentless and unpleasant, when I just don’t want to go.  You’re going to need to give me at least $100 on that day or I’ll tell you to sod off.

Average the two together, and that’s my price: $60.

Dance lessons cost so much Achilles, because we won’t show up otherwise.

10 Responses to “Why do Private Lessons COST so Much?”

  1. Amy Ellis Brown Says:

    How do parents without a great deal of money afford the needed lessons for their children? I understand over head. But am I right in saying that just like , polo, tennis, horse riding, golf etc; dance is only meant for the wealthy. I have a young daughter who loves Ballet, she practices as much as she can but as far as I know, Ballet requires formal training in order to be done correctly. She currently takes one lesson but wants to do more. But with all the fees that go along with the lessons, it gets to be more than we can afford for her to have more than one lesson a week. She is very focused for her age and loves Ballet more than anything but if we can’t afford the lessons, what are parents to do? Can Ballet be done correctly without lessons at home?

    • suburbaknght Says:

      The short answer is, “they don’t.”

      That isn’t to say their children don’t do any lessons, but they have to get by with less. Instead of private coaching with a teacher who runs a feeder program to a company, they do group classes at a local community center or small independent studio. While this can be frustrating, one needs to ask what does the student need? of course the student – any student – will benefit from the best lessons with the best possible teacher, but does the student need that to meet his or her goals? If the student is in middle school or high school and preparing for a career as a dancer, then yes, those lessons are needed (more on this below) but if the student is a young child who is taking classes for fun or just to try them out, he or she will be just as well in the cheaper classes.

      It’s very easy to focus on the results of dancing (e.g. how good one is) and lose site of why one wants those results, which for most children are simply to have fun. If your daughter is under twelve, she will be fine with the one class a week. If she is older, she should look into ways to help pay for the lessons herself. An additional class each week should only cost about $15-$20, something that anyone her age can make with a little bit of babysitting or yardwork. She should also speak to her studio and see if they have any programs that can help, such as scholarships or office work-study assistance programs.

      Dance, like the other sports and activities you mentioned, can be expensive but the expense doesn’t mean it’s only for the wealthy. Rather, it means the rest of us need to be smarter about how we use our money. It means that we must choose dance OR some other luxury, not dance AND luxury. It is harder for children who lack the financial means and agency of their parents, and it can feel devestating as a parent to have to tell your child no, because it’s a choice between extra lessons and fixing the car’s transmission, but even then it rarely means that the child cannot dance at all. It means the child will not have the same resources and other students, that he or she will have to work that much harder to make up the difference, to put in that much more time practicing on one’s own, conditioning and exercising, studying, and doing drills, so that the child gets as much benefit from his or her one hour of class as more affluent students get out of three, but in the end that child will become the better dancer.

  2. Amy Ellis Brown Says:

    I have 3 children and have no luxuries to speak of. My daughter loves to dance Ballet and wants to get better, maybe not a career, she is only 9. She has been taking lessons for 2 yrs now and was told the only way to get better is to have more time in the studio. I get the idea that every business believes that their money comes first in a families’ finances. Like going to the dentist and you tell them you don’t have the money to do something, their reply “what do you mean you don’t have the money? Don’t you care about your teeth? If you did you would find the money” Really, I thought I don’t have the money means I don’t have the money. Not all of us have places to cut in our budget.

    The studio she attends costs $60/hr/ month. Fine, I can handle one class but they add on $75 for one costume, and $60 more for a recital fee. That is for one class/ week. They are the least expensive in our area and most only give a $5 reduction in the class price for more than one class. I asked about just taking a class without the recital, they scoffed at the idea. She needs studio time, in front of a mirror, with a bar, and a good floor to get the right technique, right? We watch videos online, checked out books at the library and practice at home. Her teacher says she needs at least 4 classes a week to be where “she” wants to be. She is very focused and practices every day. But as someone who dances you probably know she can’t get enough studio time. Nothing like dancing on a real floor with a mirror and a bar for Ballet. I see it in her face when she dances, she loves to dance. Lord help my pocketbook when she gets to pointe. Those shoes are so expensive.

    I made her wait 2 yrs to start lessons because we could not afford them, I am making my other children wait for their activities because their sister wants to dance. My son is into science and I would love to send him to science camp and our eldest is a real artist but I can’t afford the painting supplies.

    Thank you for your advice. It is just hard as a parent to see your child want something and not be able to give them what other children in our area take for granted. So many of these other girls look like they don’t even want to be there but their moms make them.

    • suburbaknght Says:

      It’s a rough situation all around. My background is ballroom, not ballet, but here are some strategies I would consider:

      1) Look elsewhere for lessons. Most areas have multiple dance studios, especially that have children’s dance classes. If this studio can’t cut you any deals and won’t create a program that works with your budget, find a studio that will. Your daughter’s progress will be slower than if she were doing four classes of week – of course it will – but she will still make progress, and unless you (and she) are really aiming for professional dancer, the slower rate will be fine. The goal is to enjoy her development as a dancer.

      2) Consider private lessons instead of or in addition to studio classes. Put an ad on Craigslist looking for a private ballet teacher for your daughter. Dancers, especially amateur ballet dancers, tend to be quite abundant and underpaid. For less than the cost of a second class you can probably find a local college student with a dance background who can work one-on-one with your daughter for an hour or two each month in lieu of the second class. Your current studio may try to make you feel guilty about this; don’t let them. Just tell them, “Your couldn’t give us a program that worked with our family budget so we created our own program that does,” and be firm.

      3) Continue with the practice at home, the books, the videos, the whole deal. It’s helping more than you probably realize. The number one problem most dancers have is that they don’t get enough practice outside of lessons. You’re helping your daughter develop habits that will serve her as a dancer and in the rest of her life.

      4) If you stay at your current studio, talk to your daughter’s teacher and ask her (I’m presuming it’s a her just by probability; most ballet teachers are women, particularly so that work with children) what her goals are for your daughter. Be clear what your budget for dance is and make it clear that that is the budget for everything: lessons, costumes, recital fees, travel, etc., and that if she wants your continued patronage and your daughter as a student, she needs to work with you to create a program that works within that budget. If they can’t, go elsewhere.

      When I started my business it was because I was outraged what dance lessons cost and how I felt it blocked many people from being able to enjoy what should be universally accessible. Dancers are artists, and as such most of us empathize with being down and out because most of us are down and out ourselves. There’s a studio and teacher out there for your daughter; I promise.

  3. Ballroom dance lessons yonkers ny Says:

    Wondering are usually zumba party shoes merely a marketing and advertising tactic there are numerous conditions can be related to donning inappropriate sneakers regarding certain activities.dance

    • suburbaknght Says:

      I can’t comment on zumba shoes specifically as I don’t have much familiarity with zumba, but correct shoes are an essential to move beyond the bare basics in any dance style, dance related activity, or fitness training program. In Latin dance there are a number of swiveling actions that require the foot to slip and slide with just the right amount of force; too little slip, such as with a rubber-soled shoe, and the force required will tear your knees to shreds, but too much slip and you’re at risk for falls. Are zumba shoes essential over other dance shoes? I can’t say, but I certainly wouldn’t call the attempt to get one’s students to wear safe footwear a scan.

  4. Laurie Says:

    I am a professional ballet dancer. I studied for many years and started at the age of 7. Until I was about 12 years old my parents paid for my lessons averaging 2 a week. Then I received my first scholarship to attend a ballet company school. You audtion for these spots and if the company affiliated with the school thinks you have talent they will offer you to come to their school and give you some sort of scholarship to defray the costs. I usually received a full scholarship because those schools thought I had a high likelihood of becoming a ballet dancer. If your child has talent you can usually get scholarships to large company schools and this the way you become a professional ballet dancer not by staying at the local dance school.

    • Amy Brown Says:

      Thanks for the wonderful advice. She is now up to 3 classes a week and still can’t get enough of ballet. She will be attending a ballet school in our area with a partial scholarship this fall and will be taking summer classes. Her teacher where she is now is retiring . Our daughter is very sad about it but her teacher has told us that she will continue to follow her progress because she is good friends with the school director. Maybe someday with many more years of hard work and a continued love of ballet, I may get to report her dream of playing Odette. She would love to hear your stories of being a professional dancer.

      • suburbaknght Says:

        That’s wonderful! I’m so glad to hear that your daughter is still dancing and that things are working out.

  5. Benjamin Henry Says:

    Well said!! Awesome in fact!!!

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