Posts Tagged ‘Money’

The Dancer’s Guide to Red Tape

December 5, 2010

This morning I registered for a competition with my girlfriend.  There were some difficulties using the online registration form so I downloaded the paper form and as I was filling it out I had two thoughts.  The first was, This is the easiest registration form I’ve ever filled out. This was immediately followed by, Why aren’t they all like this?

Registering for a competition can be a lengthy and confusing process, and if done incorrectly it can be an expensive one as well.  Worse, it’s a needlessly expensive hassle that is almost never addressed.  Today: how to register yourself for a competition and save hundreds of dollars in the process.  For purposes of example, we’ll use one of the local competitions in my area, Philadelphia Festival Dancesport Championships.  Let’s go to the forms and registrations page (link) so we can all follow along together.

Why is this so complicated?

Before we get into how to register, one needs to understand that the complexity of registration is deliberate.  Not maliciously so, but deliberate nonetheless.  Why would someone make registering for a competition needlessly complex?  To understand that, one needs to understand how the competition industry is organized.

Now before I start accusing competition organizers and dance teachers of being shiftless, money-grubbing capitalists who are only out to make a quick buck, let me state that I hold no such beliefs.  Ballroom dance is a very hard industry in which to make a go of it, and if all one desires is to make money, dance is about the worst business one could have chosen.  I hold it absolutely true that the overwhelming majority of people in the dance industry, no matter what capacity they operate in, do so out of a genuine love of dance.  There are a few bad eggs out there, as there are in any business, but by and large, dancers do not receive their principle motivation from profit.

That said, any successful business person, in the dance industry or elsewhere, must be aware of the fact that without profit he or she cannot survive in that business.  A competition does not consistently turn a profit, or at least break even, will die unless it receives some outside sponsorship, and a dance instructor who does not profit from his or her dance must find some other line of work with which to support him or herself.  This can hardly be considered a shocking revelation but it must be ackwnoweldged because it allows us to state the mandate of every competition and instructor must include the stated goal of making money.

From the Organizer’s Point of View

Competitions and instructors do this in different ways.  Competitions make money by attracting competitors and selling entries.  As in most businesses, it is usually very difficult to attract new patrons (competitors) and is comparatively easier to self additional entries to the competitors already planning to attend.  This is an example of the 80/20 rule in action.  In many respects it is fairly easy to sell additional entries.  The dancer is already at the competition, and likely wants to do as much dancing as possible rather than sit on the sidelines.  The organizer can accomodate the dancer by offering additional opportunities to dance and by charging per event rather than for the whole competition.  If those opportunities are not present, the organizer must create additional events to manufacture opportunities.

A common case of manufactured events is offering both single-dance and multi-dance events.  A beginning bronze dancer may know standard waltz, tango, and quickstep.  If these are all danced as a multi-dance, averaging the scores in each dance, the organizer only receives one entry fee.  If they are offered as single-dances, the organizer receives three fees.  If the organizer offers both single-dance and multi-dance events, there are four fees.  The organizer can even create different events by offering the same event as was earlier danced but with a prize, which is exactly what the Scholarship event is (otherwise pro-am multi-dance).

Another way events are created is by offering different levels of and allowing dancers to enter more advanced levels than they are rated.  Dancers are generally allowed to dance up, such as a bronze dancer competing in both bronze and silver.  This doubles the potential number of entries, but it extends beyond such simple doubling.  While the syllabus (pre-bronze, bronze, silver, and gold) and open (novice, pre-champion, champion) levels are generally well-known, there are others that exist only within the competition world such as Advanced Bronze, Pre-Gold, or Open Silver.  We’ll get into the details of these categories below, but they all exist for the purpose of creating additional entries.

Then there are age categories.  Just as one dance “up” levels one can also dance younger.  It’s obvious that a 16 year old dancer will probably have very different physical capabilities than a 90 year old dancer, and so normally dancers are separated into age categories.  Some dancers may want the challenge, or just the opportunity, to dance against younger dancers and so competitions permit dancers to dance down in as many age groups as they like, down to 18 years old (adults competing against children is not permitted, but often children can dance older to dance against adults).

This is why the forms have so many different options: competition organizers create lots and lots of events so that the dancers in attendance do lots and lots of dances, paying separately for each one.

From the Instructor’s Point of View

The dance instructor makes his or her money in a different way.  The instructor and his or her studio have made money selling lessons, but the competition itself presents a different financial situation.  If the instructor is at the competition, either dancing pro-am or continuing to coach and advise the dancers, he or she is not at the studio teaching lessons (thus not making the studio money), to say nothing of the costs involved in attending the competition, such as hotel, travel, and food.  As such, the instructor needs to pay for his or her expenses and make up the missed lessons.

Hence, the instructor or studio will often add a fee to the competition registration when a dancer registers through the studio.  This may be an overall fee (usually done for the studio), a per-dance fee (usually for the instructor, and almost certainly applied if dancing pro-am), or both.  I’ve seen overall fees of $50 to $500, and I’ve seen per-dance fees of $10 to $20.

Before I talk about how to avoid these fees, we should at least acknowledge that they can ocassionally be worthwhile.  Studios have access to several perks that individual dancers lack, including:

  • Preferential Seating – When studios register they are often given block seating in the audience or reserved tables.  In addition to being able to sit with your friends and teachers, these seats usually provide a better view than most of the general seating.  This is particularly advantageous when watching professional competitions or evening showcases.
  • Studio Support – Instructors attend competitions to take care of their students.  A student who registers separately is telling the instructor, “I don’t need you,” and the instructor will hear the message.  He or she will spend the competition time, when not on the floor, looking after the students who are paying for the instructor to attend the competition (see above costs), not on the students who’ve removed themselves.  It can be very helpful, especially at early competitions, to have an experienced hand guiding you about where to go, when to queue up for heats, deciphering schedules, assisting with costumes, and all the myriad difficulties of competitions.
  • Pro-Am – If oone is dancing pro-am, one will have to register through the studio, and pay their fees, since the student and pro must register together.  In these instances the extra fees make it possible for the instructor to attend and compete with the student.
  • Eligibility – By registering with a studio, your performance is factored into your studio’s and instructor’s averages, making them eligible for top studio and top teacher awards, and making you eligible to participate in those awards.  Likewise, one must register with a studio in order to compete in team matches.
  • Assistance Registering – When you register with a studio, they often take care of all the paperwork for you.  While this article will attempt to explain how to do your own paperwork, sometimes it’s just easier to turn it over to someone else.
  • Bonus Perks – Studios that support competitions for many years often have additional perks thrown their way by the competition’s organizers.  For example, one studio I know when attending a certain large competition is often given the presidential suite to host parties, and for students and instructors to relax in.

Are these benefits worth the extra costs?  That’s up to you.  I’ve registered independently and I’ve registered with studios and the benefits are often justified, but not always.  Compare your studio’s registration prices with those of registering independently, and if the costs are out of line, don’t be afraid to ask the studio’s competition coordinator what you get for the extra money.  Don’t say, “Why does it cost so much more to register with you?  Why shouldn’t I just go sign up on my own, dance, and pay $200 less?”  which is both confrontational and rude.  Instead say, “I noticed that our studio has added some extra fees to register.  What are the benefits to registering with you and paying the extra money?”

If they can’t say anything more than, “Well then you get to be part of our studio at the competition,” I’d run.

Okay, I’m Going on my Own.  How do I Fill out the Damn Form?

Maybe you don’t think the studio is worth the extra money to register with them or maybe they’re not supporting the competition you want to go to.  Either way, you need to sign yourself up.  How do you do it?

What Forms do I Need?

More difficult than filling out the forms themselves, the biggest hurdle is often figuring out which forms need filling out.  Let’s go back to the Philly Festival website again.  There are thirteen downloads, some of which are clearly forms and some of which are not.  Rather than guess which ones we’ll need based on vague titles, we’re going to go through them one-by-one.

1) Package Information is not actually a form.  Instead, it provides information on package registration that include hotel reservations, admission to the ballroom, preferred seating at events, and so forth.  These can actually be very good deals but, as you see, the page does not include prices which would have been sent to the studios so that they could add their own mark-up without students being the wiser.  call or e-mail to get the price (in fact, do this even if registering with the studio so you have something to compare).

You will note that while package information is given, neither this form nor any of the others allow a way to order said package.  One should e-mail or call the competition organizers to place an order for a package.

Next we have 2) Pro Am Entry Form.  We’ll skip this one since we would only fill it out if registering with a studio, in which case they would fill it out for us or with us.  Moving on, however, we come to 3) Am Am Single Dances, one of the most important forms for an amateur competitor.  Going from the top we have the names and contact information for the competitors which isn’t too difficult.  We also have a line for NDCA#.  Most competitions require dancers to register with either the NDCA or USA Dance (depending on who is sanctioning the competition).  This can be done on each organization’s website for a small fee (between $30 and $80 depending on one’s specifics) and numbers usually arrive in about a week.  The most difficult line in this opening section is “Teacher” and is used to calculate Top Teacher awards and for Scholarship events (see below).  Unless one is competing as part of a studio with a teacher bringing dozens of students, that teacher is unlikely to win top teacher and scholarship is usually reserved for pro-am.  Fill it out honestly or leave it blank; it doesn’t usually matter.

Next on the form we come to the meat and potatoes: the entries themselves.  Let’s go through column-by-column.

The first column is level and is, probably, the most confusing part of this form.  The legend at the bottom helps a little but not much, so let’s just define each level:

  • Newcomer – Seemingly the simplest category, everyone knows you’re a newcomer when you start but it’s hotly debated when you stop being a newcomer.  I’ve seen definitions that include, “Your first comp and only your first comp,” “Has been dancing for less than 6 months,” “Has been dancing for less than 1 year,” “Has taken less than 50 hours of private lessons,” and “Has never placed (top 3).”  I recommend always doing newcomer if it’s your first competition and get your teacher’s opinion after that.  If you can, stay in newcomer until you place in the top 3 or they kick you up.  Interestingly enough, there are no restrtictions on figures in Newcomer, but dancers are strongly advised to limit themselves to basic (pre-bronze) figures.
  • Pre-Bronze – This category is often combined with Newcomer at competitions.  When separated, it’s a category for dancers who aren’t allowed to compete in Newcomer because that category is limited to first-time competitors or is limited by a maximum time or number of lessons, but who don’t feel they’re ready for Bronze yet.  Usually figures are limited to the first half of the syllabus (specified as pre-bronze in international.  Varies in American).
  • Intermediate Bronze – This category has the same figure limits as pre-bronze but is for dancers who’ve placed in pre-bronze.  I don’t recommend dancing intermediate bronze unless you’re trying to do every dance you can; very few dancers enter it.  Even if you don’t know full bronze figures, go to Full Bronze and dance your pre-bronze routine.
  • Full Bronze – This category allows the entire bronze syllabus and is the definitive bronze category.
  • Open Bronze – This is a strange category.  Open work is normally limited to the open post-syllabus categories (Novice, Pre-Champion, Champion) and in open dancers are not restricted to school figures (a.k.a. syllabus).  Open Bronze allows dancers to compete with that freedom but against other dancers at their same level.  It provides an opportunity to dance with minimal restrictions much earlier than would otherwise be possible.
  • Pre-Silver – This level is not listed on the Philly Festival entry form, but I’m including it for the sake of completeness.  Pre-Silver allows Bronze dancers to dance with Silver technique and some Silver figures (usually the first third of the syllabus) but they only compared against other bronze dancers.  It provides a way to try out a higher level a little bit early.
  • Intermediate/Full/Open Silver – As Intermediate/Full/Open Bronze for Silver dancers.
  • Pre-Gold – As Pre-Silver, for Silver dancers.
  • Gold/Open Gold – As Full Bronze/Open Bronze, for Gold dancers.
  • Gold Star – Some studios include a syllabus that extends past the Gold level.  Regardless of their names, they are usually competed as Gold Star and are danced like Full Bronze, for Gold Star dancers.

The next column is age.  As we said before, age category is designed to increase the number of total entries, making the event more lucrative, so one may enter one’s own age category and lower.  It should be noted that the base age category is based on the younger partner.  Thus a 65 year-old man and 60 year-old woman could enter C category (51-60 years) but they could also enter B, A1, and A.  They could not enter D because the woman is too young.

The next column is where one specifies dances.  The dances are abbreviated under their categories by the first initials and include smooth waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, Peabody, rhythm cha cha, rumba, swing, mambo, merengue, samba, bolero, hustle, west coast swing, salsa, standard, waltz, tango, Viennese, foxtrot, quickstep, and Latin cha cha, samba, rumba, paso doble, and jive.

In each line, one should select the level and age group, the enter all the dances the couple will be entering under those headings.

Next, total up the number of entries and fill in the appropriate spaces to determine how much one must pay for single dances.  WARNING: THESE COSTS CAN QUICKLY SPIRAL OUT OF CONTROL.  It is strongly recommended to avoid entering unusual categories (i.e. Open Bronze, pre-silver, etc.) to save on numbers of entries.

There is also a section for exhibition dances.  These are solo performances with your own choreography in a style of your choice to music of your selection.  Typically you will receive written remarks from the judges as well as individual scores.  If you are planning to do an exhibition dance, mark the entry here.

Next there is 4) Pro/Am Scholarship Form.  This is a multi-dance event and is the only event in which amateurs can win money (however the money may only be used for lesons.  In fact, the check is made out to the student’s teacher!).  That said, because it is a pro/am event, we will not be discussing it here.

5) DVIDA Entry Form is for another pro/am scholarship event, the prize money for which may be spent on Dance Vision products (the prizes are awarded as gift certificates).

6) Professional Entry Form is for professional competition.  As a student, you won’t need it.

7) General Admission Ticket & Grand Banquet is potentially a very important form.  Many competitions do not include general admission when registering competition entries, and one should call or e-mail the competition organizer if at all unclear where your competition falls (this competition does not include general admission).  One should refer back to the competition schedule to figure out when all of one’s entries will be run, and then figure out what sessions will be needed.  It should be noted that many packages (see Form 1) include these general admissions and banquet tickets.

Of particular note are items 4/5 and 5, the banquet & competition and pro competition entries.  Saturday evening is when most competitions have professionals compete, and often precede this with a dinner.  If you are interested in seeing the professional competition, one should order either the banquet & competition or the professional competition, but not both.  Personally, I don’t find the banquet worthwhile and can get a much better meal for less, even from the hotel restaurant, but many people prefer the convenience and camaraderie of the banquet, as well as the opportunities for social dancing (though they are often surprisingly limited).

8) Awards Page simply contains prize information for top teacher and top studio.  We need not concern ourselves with it.

The following page, 9) Dancesport Series is for an ongoing qualifying pro/am event.  If you’re dancing pro/am, ask your instructor about it, but even then you won’t need to fill this out on your own.

10) Visit Philadelphia and 11) Hotel Information contain tourist and lodging information respectively.  The Hotel Information form is somewhat useful but does not need to be filled out.

The last form for us is 12) Adult Amateur Form.  The form is filled out similarly to the Am/Am single dance form but is greatly simplified.  Note that each event is multi-dance, meaning every couple dances all the listed dances in each style, the scores of which are considered collectively.  There are fewer levels and age categories as, because this is multi-dance, each event takes longer.  The form notes that dancing multiple age categories is not recommended as events may be run simultaneously and, in my experience, they often are.  Take this warning seriously.

The last form is 13) Rules & Regulations.  I strongly recommend taking the time to review these rules thoroughly.  For example, these rules state that Newcomer is for dancers who have never competed before only and that you may only dance in two different age categories, both of which may require us to revise our entries.

So there you have it: these forms aren’t particularly confusing once the terminology is explained, but they do require some understanding.  Remember, they are not written for the independent competitor, so if you are going it alone, don’t be afraid to contact the competition organizer and ask for help.

After all, it’s your comp too.

[email protected]

Watching Competitions on the Cheap

September 9, 2010

Watching dance competitions live can be an incredible experience.  There’s the joy seeing incredible dancing, true, but there’s also something wonderful about seeing these competitions as they’re executed that DVDs or YouTube can’t quite capture.  Anyone who watches other live sporting events or attends theater will understand this.

Unfortunately, attending competitions is pricey and inconvenient, something that many professionals have speculated is a cause for ballroom competition’s failure to reach mainstream audiences despite the success of many dance-based reality TV shows.  Tickets start at around $30 to watch beginner events on weekday mornings, and tickets to evening professional competitions can run be $50, $100, or even more for prime seats at major events.  While this is a reasonable cost for an evening’s entertainment – this is a price on par with Broadway theater or dinner at a high-end restaurant – it is still an exhorbitant cost for most people, especially for something they’re unsure of.

Fortunately, there is another alternative.  Many dance competitions are starting to offer live streaming of their events, some for free and some on a pay-per-view basis; many are doing both, offering free streaming for daytime syllabus events, then switching to pay-per-view for pro or open amateur evening events.

Tomorrow evening I’ll be watching my first live online event, the United States Dance Chapionships, which will determine the US representatives to the world dance championships.  The whole event can be ordered from http://starstreamers.com/ for $9.95 and I believe they have the afternoon events for free as well.

Keep watching these streamers.  It’ll probably be a bit shakey for the next year or so, but companies are ironing out the technology and I expect this will become a popular choice in the next few years.  Global Dance TV has already had a lot of success broadcasting other events, which means we’re seeing economic competition and incentive to get this right.  What a great time to be a dance fan!

Review: The Glamour Addiction

May 2, 2010

Cover

This has been a hard post to write.  When I read the description of The Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry, I was intrigued, particularly regarding the book’s claim to explore “economics that often foster inequality,” so I ordered a copy and read it cover to cover.

What I read infuriated me.

The author, Juliet McMains, was one of the top professional dancers in the United States and, it must be acknowledged, understands what she is talking about.  Dancers may choose to pay the often exorbitant costs of ballroom dancing or may choose not to, but we are rarely surprised by them; a non-dancer is far more likely to be shocked at the notion of paying $3,000 for a gown but a dancer understands the costs associated with specialized worksmanship that appeals to a limited customer base and is less likely to be outraged at the notion of paying that much for a gown, even if she chooses not to purchase it.  For someone with McMains’ experience to come off as critical of ballroom economics as she does, we cannot blame sticker shock.

I keep dancing around the issue without describing the book, so let’s get to it.

Preface

McMains begins by describing her own dance history, beginning with her training in ballet and performance dance in secondary school, then beginning ballroom and competing on the school team when she attended Harvard as an undergraduate.   After completing her bachelor’s degree, she took a position at a Fred Astair studio that appears to have embodied the worst of all the chain studio stereotypes.  She continued teaching and competing professionally even while attending graduate school, the continued moving around the country to pursue competition training and partnerships, until the biography abruptly ends with her partner quitting dance altogether and McMains’ own future uncertain.

Introduction

This section, brief though it is, gives us the key terminology to understand McMains’ work.  An important, but ultimately secondary role, is to explain the mechanics of how dance sport competitions work: what is meant by pro-am, how judges are appointed, and so on.  The primary purpose of this section is to explain Glamour, the key term that is central to McMains’ thesis of abusive and harmful practices in the dance industry.

I’d hoped to be able to use a quote here, but upon re-reading this section, I can’t find any place where McMains actually says, “Glamour is…” and defines the term.  Rather, she describes Glamour’s components and methods of production, but seems unable to say what it truly is.  It is possible that this is because McMains considers the term ephemeral, shifting to suit the industry’s needs and thus incapable of being defined.  It is also possible that she is unclear on the concept herself, though given her strong academic background and dance background, I cannot accept that McMains is so ignorant regarding her core term.

Glamour, as McMains uses the term (with a capital G) refers to the processes used by the dance industry and its chief product.  Glamour encapsulates all the ideals and dreams that sell dance lessons and that people claim to take away (pleasure, grace, class, socialization, spectacle, beauty, admiration, artistry, etc.) and all of the mechanisms that produce them (lessons, competitions, costumes, parties, performances, etc.).  She goes into the history of glamour as an industry, including other social artifacts that have sold themselves through Glamour, such as the Zieffeld Girls from the early 20th century.

Having explained, if not defined, Glamour, McMains becomes critical of it, taking the stance she will maintain throughout the entire book.  Her opposition to Glamour is based on three tenets:

1) Glamour is impossible to fully achieve.
2) The dance industry exists to sell Glamour.

(one can already see the problem McMains is driving at)

3) The dance industry is forced to engage in immoral practices in order to achieve point 2 while hiding point 1 from its patrons.

Chapter 1: The Glamour Machine

This chapter focuses entirely on the Dance Sport experience, from competitions to training, amateur and professional, dancer and judge.  McMains not only describes in great detail what competitions are like, but delves into the history of Dance Sport in America in order to explain how things became the way they are.

The most interesting part of the chapter is the beginning in which McMains creates composite characters to represent each type of person who participates in Dance Sport.  She claims none are solely anyone in particular, but rather are composites of people she’s met, though it’s obvious that one is clearly a stand-in for her.  These characters are fascinating because they very clearly illustrate the difference between the image that Dance Sport projects (Glamour) and the harsh, comparatively ugly reality which underlies the image and is required to produce it.  For example:

It’s been two years since Karen graduated from Yale, where she was very successful on the university ballroom dance team.  Ballroom dancing had been her main activity in college, the haven where she found like-minded friends who would rather spend their Saturday nights dancing foxtrots and cha chas in an old ballroom than guzzling beer at a dorm party.  Since graduation, she has been work at a small marketing firm in Manhattan and has grown progressively more obsessed with DanceSport competition.  She spends all her disposable income on lessons, and most of her free time as well.  If she’s not practicing ballroom, she’s taking class in ballet or flamenco.  Her Korean immigrant parents don’t understand her interest in dnace and are unsure of its value in the American social system.  They didn’t pay for their daughter to go to Yale and become a dnacer.  She has been studying ballroom for only five years, and she recognizes her disadvantage compared to the Russian kids who started when they were five years old.  Karen believes she could be just as good as they if only she had a partner, which is why she is here.  Karen hopes that by dancing the pro-am scholarship, the highest level of pro-am competition and the only one in which amateurs can win money (which can only be used for additional dance lessons because teh check is written out to the student’s teacher), she will increase her visibility in the industry, improving her chances of landing an amateur partner.  Despite its roots in social dance, DanceSport is not practiced informally in social settings.  To participate, one must be in a partnership – an agreement to train and compete together negotiated after several try-outs.  Competitors do not dance casually or indiscriminately with friends or acquaintances – partners dance only with each other.  There is no DanceSport practice session where one can drop in alone expecting to dance with whoever is available.  In between partners, amateurs can only continue their training if they take pro-am lessons.  Professionals have even fewer choices and between partnerships are likely to dance only with their students.  Partnershpi searches may constitute a significant portion of a competitor’s career.

The problem with McMains’ claims is that she’s wrong.  There are many Dance Sport competitors who dance socially as well as competitively.  There are competition partnerships that meet social dancing (I’m in one right now).  While between partners one is not required to compete pro-am; true, lessons will focus on your skills and technique rather than the partnership, but that’s not a bad thing.  In fact, that’s why many amateur partners continue taking individual lessons.

This type of negative focus is characteristic of McMains’ book.  She seems convinced that there is one way to approach Dance Sport, and that is her way, the Glamourous way, a way that she doesn’t like.  With another of her composite characters, McMains notes, “It was eight months before Misty accidentally stumbled into a National Dance Council of America competition and began to realize that DanceSport extended beyond the dominion of Fred Astaire Studios.”  It seems like McMains has yet to realize that dancing extends beyond her path.

Chapter 2: Representations of Social Dance: A Genealogy of Improvisation

In this chapter McMains criticizes social ballroom dancing in general for being false and lacking in improvisation.  These are criticisms we have heard before and responded to.

McMains goes beyond criticizing the aesthetic of practiced social dance, however, and attacks the system that produces it.  The reason, she says, social ballroom relies on patterns and practiced technique is because one cannot sell improvisation.  If dance students were told they could do what they wanted, what would dance teachers sell?  How can you sell lessons if what one teaches is irrelevant?

There are two problems with this view.  The first is that improvisation can be taught, or at least encouraged.  Anyone who’s ever taken an advanced class in hip hop, salsa, Argentine tango, or west coast swing, or even a beginner class in contact improv is aware of this, and anyone who’s ever gone social dancing on a crowded floor is aware of just how much ballroom dancers do improvise.  The second probelm is that even if ballroom dancing had no improvisation whatsoever, that doesn’t invalidate it as a form of social dance.  Folk dancing contains no improvisation, but folk dances are the oldest dance forms of social dance we know and are still practiced today by millions of people.

It is in this chapter that we begin to see that McMains truly has an axe to grind.  She’s trying to make ballroom dancing into something else, but she’s doing so without taking the time to understand what it is – something I find very strange given her status as a national rising star finalist.  What she’s trying to do, however, doesn’t become clear until the fourth chapter.

Chapter 3: Brownface: Representations of Latinness in Latin Dance

This chapter is actually an expansion of an article McMains published in 2001 in The Social and Popular Dance Reader.  It is both simultaneously the most and least interesting chapter in the book, in that it presents a fascinating history but doesn’t say much of particular relevance.

McMains goes into the history of Latin dancing and how various South American dances were co-opted by the ballroom dance community, then distorted in such a way as to be scarcely recognizeable.  Her descriptions of Afro-Cuban cha cha and rhumba and Brazillian samba are fascinating but leave me saying, “so what?”

Her main contention is that the dance we call “cha cha” isn’t real cha cha and is so different from Afro-Cuban cha cha that we should all be outraged.  To be fair, this is an argument I’ve heard before, particularly from the Brazillian community regarding samba, and they are justified when a dance that is a cultural icon is taken, altered, and presented as authentic.  It must be acknowledged that the ballroom Latin dances have very little in common with traditional Latin dancing, which may explain why outside of competitions they are rarely danced to actual Latin music.

Still, this argument always leaving me with a, “so what?” feeling.  So ballroom rumba is different from Afro-Cuban rhumba – so what?  In what way does that invalidate ballroom rumba as a dance?  So ballroom samba bears little resemblence to Brazillian samba – does that mean one cannot or should not dance ballroom samba?  The ballroom Latin dances are unique styles and if they lack historical legitimacy, that doesn’t mean they lack artistic legitimacy.  If one enjoys the feeling of dancing ballroom cha cha or the visual aesthetic of watching ballroom tango, how is that a problem?

McMains seems to ignore the whole question of value.  Her argument is based on historical authenticity and she does at last present a solution rather than a complaint.  She recommends that dancers who want to learn authentic Latin dancing study salsa, though she points out the “disturbing” trend of salsa teachers becoming more like ballroom teachers.  Curiously, she ignores the history of salsa, which evolved in New York City and is not a truly authentic Latin dance.

Chapter 4: Exceeding the Limits of Competition: Innovations in Theatrical Ballroom Dance

In the final chapter McMains presents some of her ideas for improving the world of ballroom dancing.  Of all the chapters in the book, while I disagreed with this chapter more than any other I found that I supported her ideas more than any other section.

McMains presents some examples of creative approaches to ballroom dance in the exhibition category of competitions and then illustrates how dancers and choreographers attempted to transition these dances out of the ballroom and into theaters.  While the pieces she cites are intriguing, she seems to be missing the point.  Early on, in the first chapter, McMains describes a ballroom competition by saying, “competitors and audience memebrs continually exchange places, furhter blurring the dubious distinction between observer and observed.”

This is one of the greatest strengths of ballroom, and one of its appeals.  The rise of performance dance – by which I mean ballet, jazz, contemporary, etc. – has created the notion that some people are dancers and some are not.  Likewise, many of these performance dances have become so esoteric and technical in terms of their artistry that they are all but inaccessible to the common viewer.  The advantage of ballroom is that anyone can take a class or lessons and then go out for a fun night of social dancing.  Ballroom dance can have an audience, though it is not required to have one, and an audience can appreciate the aesthetic of the dances without having a formal training in said dance.  Most of McMains’ suggestions seem to be aimed at making ballroom more theatrical, which I believe would lead ballroom into the same ghetto that performance dances are in: unaccessible to anyone except their practitioners and (mostly) incomprehensible to anyone except their small elite group of patrons.

My Impressions

McMains has some very strong points about problems in the dance industry.  She is right that advancement in Dance Sport is often impossible to anyone who isn’t prepared to spend thousands of dollars on the sport, but what she fails to acknowledge is that that range is largely limited to Dance Sport’s super-athletes.  For a social dancer who has no interest in competing, such an investment is hardly necessary.  For a casual competitive dancer or a collegiate dancer, one cna participate at far less cost.

Is ballroom seductive?  Absolutely.  Who doesn’t dream of being the next Johnathan Roberts or Yulia Zagoruychenko?  But why does that mean we must be these super heroes in order to enjoy dancing?  One can enjoy singing karaoke at a bar without insisting on winning American Idol, so why shouldn’t one be able to enjoy ballroom dancing, even competitive dancing, without an insistence on being the Best There Is?  By definition there can only be one Best and most of us aren’t going to be it, so we’d better find another reason to enjoy dancing.

I belive McMains’ blinders come from being burnt out on dancing.  Her background was performance dance, her early experiences competitive, her later experiences professional, and it seems that sacrificing so much for the sake of competition became too much for her.  Not only has she been living in the high-stakes world of upper-echelon professional ballroom dance for most of her dance career, but she never got to experience the lower echelons.  McMains’ was never a pure social dancer so she doesn’t know what it’s like to consider oneself a social dancer.  Her beginning competition experience was for one of the top ballroom competition teams in the country – no small pressure there – so how could she not integrate that pressure into her dancing?  And then it was only a brief period before she entered the professional world.

McMains went right to the top of the dance world without building a solid foundation of how to enjoy it.  Is it any wonder her pleasure wound up on shaky grounds before crashing altogether?

The Glamour Addiction is a fascinating book for its insights into the reality of what Dance Sport is like in terms of what happens at competitions, how teachers spend their days, what competitors do between lessons, how the current system came to be the way it is, and so on.  One should be very careful about the value judgments presented, however, and remember that they are presented by what appears to be a bitter and burnt out fomer star.

Cut it Out

August 23, 2009

I don’t know how often I’ve linked to Ramit’s amazing website, I Will Teach You to Be Rich, a break-it-down approach to personal finance, but everyone should check one of his recent articles, “What Do You NOT Care About Spending Money On?” I’ve talked before about prioritizing your dance expenses – or even whether dance itself is a priority – but how often do we think about what things aren’t a priority?

I had to face this recently.  I didn’t update last week because I was traveling.  We had a great time, met some cool people, ran classes that were very well received, and culminated with a fantastic social dance, but it also wiped my finances.  Furthermore, my lessons are slowing down as wedding season comes to a close and, put simply, my budget will not afford everything I’m currently doing dance-wise.  Something has to go.

I began by looking at my expenses.  There are generally two expenses I face: regular expenses and irregular ones.  Regular expenses include things like weekly lessons, while irregular expenses would be private lessons with visiting coaches, competitions, video purchases, and the like.  Right away I notice that I’m spending far more on my irregular expenses than my regular expenses.  In the past month, I’ve spent nearly twice as much on a dance weekend with workshops and competitions, videos, and an upcoming showcase, as I have on my certification training.  Given that my next certification is my overtly-stated priority, this is a problem!  I may care more about passing that test, but it’s getting less than a third of my resources!

The next thing I do is cut out what I don’t care about.  The first thing to go are competitions.  They’re fun but they’re also expensive, both at the time and in preperation.  Even a low-cost competition, done on a budget, can pay for nearly a month’s worth of my certification lessons.  Dance weekends are also out; the workshops are helpful and informative but they’re usually in specialty dances, not ones I’m being tested on.  Likewise, video purchases are gone, at least until I exhaust the videos I already have.

Now that’s a great declaration, but remember that these are irregular purchases.  I shudder to think how many of them were spur of the moment.  If I’m going to stick with this budget then everytime an opportunity to make another dance purchase comes up, I need to ask myself:

  • Do I really want this?
  • Will this help me reach my dance goals?
  • Will this take away resources from pursuing my true goals?

Are Routines Worth It?

July 19, 2009

Recently, a friend and former co-teacher sent me a song asking if it would be good for a lindy routine.  Ignoring the fact that I don’t do lindy, I replied it would be fun but I had a little too much on my plate right now with trying to put together three performance routines and no less than ten routines for certification.  Still, it got me thinking.  Routines can be a lot of fun but they’re an enormous investment in time, energy, and money.  Are they really worth it?

The Benefits

I generally encourage people to learn routines.  Aside from being fun to watch and perform, they afford one the opportunity to real delve deep into a dance.  In my last post, I remarked that dancers who focus on specialty dances seem to make much faster progress than dancers who learn a plethora of social dances – an observation few will argue with, as it’s only natural to expect that concentrated effort will yield faster results than diffused efforts.  Learning a routine gives ballroom dancers the chance to make the same sort of dedicated progress that specialty dancers do.  A full bronze routine, for example, often includes silver steps which means it will also require silver technique.  More practice will be required to learn not only the steps, but to dance them at a level suitable for performance.  The end result is the dancer makes a great deal of progress in one dance, even as he or she continues to study other dances for social or competitive reasons.

Another benefit of routines isn’t just increased ability with a dance, but understanding of the dance.  Very few performanc routines limit themselves to syllabus figures, nor should they, and the inclusion of open choreography gives many dancers a greater understanding of the timing, flow, and feel of the dance.

A third reason to do a routine is the chance to dance in a way that one can almost never dance socially.  There are some steps, for example, that are too risky or too difficult for lead and follow or that take up too much space, and so it is not only rude to dance them on a social floor, but dangerous as well.  Many of the traveling dances cannot be danced to their fullest extension on social floors, or even on crowded competition floors, and a performance gives one the entire dance floor to enjoy the dance with.

The Drawbacks

On the other hand, routines take an enormous investment.  Expect at least a half-dozen lessons per minute of choreography, and it is not uncommon to go beyond that number as later lessons focus more and more on execution and performance.  A two minute routine might require two-dozen lessons, which can easily come to $1800 or more.

We often urge people to save money by practicing more so that lessons can be spent on new material and further refinement of old material, rather than relearning the previous lesson’s material.  Unfortunately, there are very few places to practice routines.  Many studios lack sufficient space for a big, traveling waltz routine, and even Latin dances may suffer from insufficient area.  All this means that you will have a great deal of trouble practicing at home, or even in the studio if there are other lessons going on at the time.  If you’re doing a pro-am routine, opportunities to practice together will be even more limited and expensive when they do arise.

Next, consider the opportunity to use a routine.  Routines are often learned with a single event in mind.  What do you do with the routine after that event?  When I take a lesson in tango, I know I’ll be able to use what I’ve learned anytime I go social dancing, but when I learn a paso doble routine, I will need an entire floor to myself and specific music playing.  Moreover, I’ll only be able to dance it with one partner.  What happens if you spend two grand learning a routine, then there’s a falling out, an injury, or a loss of interest?  Will you have learned enough to make the lessons worthwhile?

Yay or Nay?

I can’t tell you whether routines are worth it or not.  To me they are.  I have a great deal of fun learning and performing them, and the increased opportunity to really get in there on a dance is an enormous motivation.  On the other hand, of the thirteen routines I’m doing at the moment, ten are simply collections of syllabus figures for certification exams, one I am saving money by choreographing myself before we get a coach to polish it, one is a pro-am routine that is taking the place of my regular lessons with that teacher, and the last is being reused.

If you’re interested in doing a routine, or your teacher suggests one, ask him or her, and yourself the following questions:

  • How will this help my dancing?
  • Will I have the opportunity to use this material again?
  • What dance should I do?  Why X and not Y?
  • How many additional lessons will I need to purchase?
  • What other expenses (registration fees, ball tickets, costumes, etc.) will be attached?

Time to Go

June 14, 2009

We’ve talked before about finding a great teacher, but what happens when you find a bad one? For that matter, how do you recognize that someone is a bad teacher? Above all, how can you leave a studio with your dignity, relationships, and finances intact?

It’s Not You… It’s Me

In our article on finding teachers, we discussed finding a teacher who can help you reach your goals as a dancer. A teacher is the wrong teacher if they’re not helping you reach your goals for any reason. Those last three words are important. A teacher can do a great job in many respects but if you’re not achieving your goals, he or she isn’t the right teacher for you. I cannot make this clear enough: someone can be an excellent teacher but wrong for a given student. You are the only standard by which you can measure the teacher, you and no one else.

A few years ago, I was taking lindy hop classes with a university organization. These were good teachers who had trained many very skilled dancers and built a thriving lindy hop community where none existed. In addition to my two hours of weekly class, I was also taking semi-regular private lessons from them. Both the class and the lessons were extremely well priced, and I was able to go out to the organization’s social dances and hold my own as a beginner. When I went to lindy hop events, however, I found myself lost and confused. The lessons had prepared me to dance with the organization’s dancers, but not in the larger lindy hop community. I recognized that while I was getting a lot out these lessons, they weren’t right for me. When it came time to renew my lessons, I opted out and devoted the time and money to my ballroom lessons.

The above case is an example of a no-fault break. The teachers were doing a great job, but it wasn’t what the student is looking for. This is extremely common. There are many approaches to dancing, and to the teaching of dance, such that it is extremely unlikely a teacher’s default method will be perfect for every student. A good teacher will be able to adapt to meet the student’s goals in private lessons, and good students will focus on getting what they can out of group classes even when the class’s focus doesn’t perfectly suit their goals, but if these modifications are insufficient it may be time to leave that teacher.

Another common sticking point is price. Dance can be very expensive, and if you don’t feel you’re getting your money’s worth it is absolutely time to move on. A friend of mine was taking lessons from a former Soviet champion. They were working on slow waltz and, after months, the teacher had only shown her the turning box. Due to all of the teacher’s emphasis on technique, my friend had the most beautiful turning box I have ever seen, but she had no knowledge of the rest of the dance. She moved on to another coach who helped her expand her exquisite technique to other steps. This is a case where the student was getting a great deal out of the lessons, but not enough to justify the price she was paying.

Finally, some teachers are just bad. The United States does not require dance teachers to be certified or even have undergone training in order to teach dance. A would-be teacher could simply order a few dance videos and syllabi then set up an operation teaching dance, all the while reading the books and trying to stay one step ahead of the students. And by could, I mean this happens with unfortunate regularity. Still other teachers may be great dancers, but have little to know ability to explain to others how they do what they do, or how their students can do the same. If you’re stuck with a bad teacher, it’s time to leave.

Some signs that you have a bad teacher:

  • You don’t feel you’ve learned anything in the past two lessons.

  • You’re dancing feels the same as it did six months ago.

  • Going to lessons has begun to feel like a burden.

  • Dancing itself has begun to feel like a burden.

He’s Not Really So Bad

Once you’ve recognized a problem, don’t make excuses for the teacher, and don’t hide it. Speak to your teacher or the studio manager right away. The studio wants to keep you as a student and if you’re unhappy with the lesson, they know they need to make a change if they want you to stay with them. They may not be able to do something about a class being too fast or too slow – which, after all, must accommodate the learning speeds of all the students – but they can certainly change how they approach private lessons, or give you additional attention (or homework) so that you get more out of group classes.

Some people may bristle about criticizing their dance teacher. They may be concerned about hurting his or her feelings or coming across as a complainer. All I can say about this is that if you don’t speak up, nothing will change: the lessons will continue in their current state.

One area that absolutely must be brought to the teacher’s attention is problem students. You may not consider this to be the teacher’s fault, but he or she is responsible for conduct within the class and enforcing said conduct. When I first switched to WordPress, the very first article we published automatically linked to One Smart Cookie’s blog about some very unpleasant group class experiences. I was shocked at what the teacher was allowing to go on in her class. The following activities are never acceptable in a group class and it is the teacher’s job to stop them:

  • Intoxicated students.
  • Students criticizing other students.
  • Poor hygiene.

Students should not have to confront one another about these problems, and a teacher who can’t handle them in a respectful but firm manner, is not mature enough to teach.

Getting Out

You’ve identified a problem teacher, you’ve tried to deal with the problem through proper channels, and it’s still not working out. You may need to leave the teacher. How do you handle this properly? The dance community is very small; bad-mouthing the teacher will not help you. Creating a dramatic exit will not help you. Both of these actions are likely to follow you around, may cost you your friends who still take lessons from that teacher, and may make it difficult to get any remaining tuition refunded to you.

The easiest, and often best thing to do, is to simply finish your current enrollment and not renew. If you always purchase lessons individually this is as simple as not showing up again. If you’re on a package, you can finish the rest of your lessons but don’t sign up for any additional lessons. Note that some studios, may put pressure on you to continue, as evidenced in the following Yelp review:

On to the sales pitches. They’re neverending! You think a used car lot is bad? These guys put them to shame. Also, with as many items that you have to pay for (see the list above)….you can see how often you get hit with them. Their routine is to pull you into a closed room with either the studio owner, or the assistant manager…and occasionally your instructor to “tag team” you. It’s hideously uncomfortable, and almost to the point of being sleazy.

These sales pitches can be helpful as a way to ask questions and learn about the program, however if your mind is made up to leave, don’t let them pressure you into a private room for a consultation, and if they do get you in there stay resolute. Most studios, even those that do use sales methods such as this, are respectful of their students but there are unfortunate exceptions.

Your teacher may ask you why you’ve decided to leave. If you followed the advice given above, and spoke to the instructor about problems you were having before you decided to leave, this won’t be a surprise to him or her. Simply remain respectful but reiterate your complaints and emphasize that they have not been sufficiently addressed. If you did not talk to your teacher while he or she could have still done something to help you, don’t be surprised if they seem upset.

The biggest hurdle is getting your money back if you still have lessons remaining. Unfortunately, getting refunds from dance studios can be an incredibly difficult prospect. Your best bet is not to speak to them directly but to write a letter. I have seen people spend weeks trying to get a refund in person or over the phone without much success, and I have seen manager’s writing refund checks after scarcely reading letters. Your letter should have the following sections:

  1. Remind them who you are. Identify your name, your teacher, your level, when you started at the studio, and, if you’re on a package, when you started your current package.
  2. Explain your complaints and any steps you took to have them addressed. The more you can demonstrate you’ve already tried to reconcile this with the studio, the more likely the manager is to issue a refund without further attempts at reconciliation.
  3. Request a refund. Be specific and request a certain amount, as well as how you arrived at that figure. For example, “We are requesting a $500 refund for the unused 10 lessons of our 20 lesson package.” If you signed a contract, search the contract for any information regarding refunds and include the relevant text.
  4. Include all your contact information in case the teacher or manager has any questions.

Send the letter by certified mail. If you do not hear from the studio within one week (mark it on your calendar) call and ask to speak to the manager.

It is an unfortunate when a student must break off ties with a his or her studio, but your dancing is too valuable for you to waste your resources on people who aren’t helping you become the dancer you want to be.

Finding a Partner

June 6, 2009

Last night I had a try out with a new partner, Kayleigh.

I’m starting too soon. My partner Ellen and I are scaling back our partnership for financial reasons.

No, now I’m too early. I have been looking for a partner. Ah, there we go.

I actually hear this rather frequently. People are often looking for partners and, difficult as the search can be, it can also be very rewarding, both personally and financially. As always, the first question in finding a partner is to identify your goals, not just personally but regarding the partnership itself. Did you know there are actually different kinds of dance partnerships?

  • Competition Partner: The one most people think of, when it comes to a partnership is the competition partner. You and your partner train to compete together, then go to a competition, dance together there, and hopefully win. The focus is on those competitions: you focus a great deal on technique and presentation, and may eschew other dance opportunities to focus on your dancing together. Partners must be of similar skill level, have similar levels of dedication, and be willing to spend a great deal of time with each other. These partnerships can be very high-stress and are known to frequently break down.

  • Social Partner: Often neglected, the social partnership is formed by two people who simply enjoy going out dancing together. This partnership often has a basis in friendship or romance. Of all partnerships, social partners are the most tolerant of differences, including skill level, goals, time, and dedication.

  • Performance Partner: Similar to the competition partner, performance partners actually have much more in common with theatrical dancers, such as ballet and contemporary dancers, as the focus becomes not simply developing social dance to its highest level, but transforming it into a public art form. Performance partners prepare routines together which may be performed in competitions, but also for parties, studio showcases, or even paying gigs. Yes, performance partnerships can actually generate revenue… if they’re good enough.

  • Lesson Partners: When people think about taking lessons together, they usually imagine taking them with a loved one, or even a friend, but sometimes it can be beneficial to take the lessons with someone who’s simply another dancer. The most obvious benefit is that one is splitting the cost of the lesson among two people, but it also provides both partners with someone to practice with. Lesson partners may be found in group classes but are most commonly associated with private lessons fro the financial benefit.

  • Business Partners: While rarely thought of as form a dance partnership, for many professionals one’s dance partner is also one’s business partner. In addition to prize money, winning competitions, teaching at events, and giving performances are all a form of self-promotion, to say nothing of running a studio together. All of these require the two dancers to be in-sync with one another, on the floor as well as off.

Once you know what sort of partnership you want, you’ll have a better idea what you’re looking for. If all you want is someone to go dancing with on Friday nights, nearly anyone will do – even if they don’t know how to dance they can take lessons! On the other hand, competing will require a great commitment to one another, as well as the dancing, and will further require someone who can match you in skill, finances, and time. When I look for a partner, I utilize every resource I have. I make sure all of my teachers know I’m looking for a dance partner, as well as my friends, family and co-workers. I post on web sites and bulletin boards, both those used by dancers and otherwise. I’ve found potential partners through Craigslist and online dating sites, such as OKCupid, even though I wasn’t looking to date (a fact I repeated no less than three times in my profile). While I do not utilize www.dancepartner.com, I have heard positive things about it from those who do. Regardless, I have soon made contact with several potential partners.

The next step is to make sure you’re both looking for the same type of partnership. Consider this Craigslist post and compare it to this lady’s post on DancePartner.com. Both are women in the same age category but they have very different goals and very different levels of dedication and skill. While the latter woman wants to dance over two hours a day, five days a week (not an unreasonable expectation for a competitive dancer, I doubt I’d receive much enthusiasm were I to approach the Craigslist woman with such a schedule. Likewise, if I were to approach the DancePartner woman with a proposal to “go cheese it up” at a local dance, she’d probably feel I was wasting my time. The message: don’t be afraid to state what you’re really looking for.

After establishing that you both have similar goals in mind, I strongly recommend holding a try-out with your partner. For high-level dancers (gold and open levels) this may be an audition, but for most dancers this simply means trying one another out. Do you enjoy dancing with one another? Can you stand to be around each other for several hours? Are you physically compatible? Do your styles work well together? Don’t think of this as an evaluation (although that is a part of it) but an experiment to determine if you’ll actually like dancing together.

Having established a dancing rapport with your partner, now is the time to discuss methods. Is your potential partner willing to do three lessons a week? If so, can you both pay for three lessons a week? For that matter, whom do you want to take lessons from? If you’re going to compete, which competitions will you go to? How often do you want to go to them? Are you both willing to travel? What styles do you want to pursue? Standard? Latin? 10-dance? 19-dance? West coast swing? Lindy hop? How often do you expect to practice? Is either of you willing to compromise, and if so, on what? You don’t need to iron out every detail at this point, but you should both be thinking about them.

Next should come another try out. The two of you should jointly decide on a coach and take a lesson together. Failing that, try a group class together. If the lesson goes well, then it’s time to start ironing out the rest of those details. Congratulations, you have a partner!

This is, admittedly, a long process. Many potential partnerships will fall through, but those that do so are the partnerships that you probably shouldn’t have been in. Having established the partnership, it’s easy to see why so many dancers are so protective of them: finding a good partner is a blessing

Going Prefessional

June 6, 2009

No, that’s not a typo.

I constantly emphasize the importance of setting goals, and when I started my own dance business this past February, goals were an important start of the process. I knew what I wanted from the business, and what I didn’t want. For example, I didn’t want to endanger my amateur status for competitions. I didn’t want to get in trouble for violating my non-compete clause with my new studio. Nor did I want to harm business at my new studios. On the other hand, I did want to provide quality dance instruction. I wanted to help people without having to be a pushy salesman. And I wanted to make enough money to pay for my own lessons.

That last one was the key goal. It told me how much revenue I needed the business to generate. Which, surprisingly, wasn’t that much, and was a goal I met after just my first month.

There’s a concept in the world of dancing that doesn’t have a name, but should so I’m going to name it. I call it a “prefessional dancer.” A prefessional is a dancer who generates revenue through some aspect of dancicng, but is not yet a professional; which is to say they’re not making a career out of dance nor are they competing at a professional level. There are a lot of dancers out there who should consider going prefessional. Maybe you’re one of them.

The first thing you need to consider is how can you use your dancing to generate revenue. Traditionally, people do this by:

  • Teaching

  • Performing

  • Judging

  • Partnering

We all know what teaching means. You can teach group classes or private lessons, advertise a great deal or by word of mouth, and rent space in a studio or make do with lesser dance spaces. Regardless, however, you must know your material. If you don’t already have a syllabus, get one, both the written and video syllabi. You should know every aspect of what you’re teaching for both the man’s and lady’s parts. Try giving a few free lessons to your friends and family before you start charging, to see what you need to improve on with your teaching.

Performance is any occasion where you dance for other people. This can mean a stage performance to a talent contest with a prize. My favorite performances are window dressing performances. These are events where you and your partner largely serve as mobile decorations for an event. These events may not pay as well as teaching but they go over great at fund raisers in which case you may be able to claim the cost of your services as a tax deductible charitable donation instead – remember, you don’t need to get cash to profit from your dancing.

Judging is a very difficult area to get into. It requires extremely high levels of certification, but can be very lucrative once you break into the field. If you’re interested in becoming a judge, speak to your teacher.

Finally, there’s partnering. While not very common in the US, some people will hire dancers to either practice with them or serve as escorts to events. If you’re dancing is at a high enough level (at least silver, gold is better), consider being a paid dance partner.

Keep in mind, however, that while these types of gigs pay, there are numerous other ways to profit off of your dancing. If you want a vacation, for example, cruise lines often offer discount cruises to amateur dancers who can teach a class. Even if you only make a little money through dancing, if you start a business to promote yourself then many of your dance expenses, including costumes, videos, and travel costs, become tax-deductible business expenses (NB: I am not a tax expert. See an accountant before trying this).

Above all, stay open to new ideas. Think about how you can make dancing work for you. If you compete, be sure to carefully read USA Dance and the NDCA’s distinctions between athletes and professionals – and recognize that some competitions use entirely different definitions.

Lastly, I highly recommend Bob Thomas’s classic article, “Swinging For Cash,” on how to get started as a for-profit dancer.

Pro-Am: Top Bargain or Waste of Money

June 6, 2009

When you start talking to competitive ballroom dancers about the expenses of the hobby, nothing is likely to raise their ire nearly so much as the concept of pro-am. “Pro-am,” is an abbreviation of “professional-amateur,” and is a form of competition in which couples are composed of one professional dancer and one amateur dancer. Dancing With the Stars is a pro-am competition, and is probably the best well-known pro-am competition in the world, but one doesn’t need to be a celebrity to enjoy pro-am. Pro-am is most popular in the United States, though it is gaining popularity around the world.

The main benefits of pro-am are that one gets to compete with your professional. This is no small thing, and goes well beyond simply having a good partner – after all, everyone else on the floor has a professional partner too. Rather, the advantage is that you are dancing with your professional. Your partner is not simply a good dance partner but your teacher and your guide. He or she knows your strengths and weaknesses, and how to show off the former and hide the latter. Your professional partner has done more dancing than most amateur partners could ever hope to, and so is extremely unlikely to make the kind of mistakes that crop up in amateur-only competitions. He or she has a great deal of experience competing and knows what to do to make you stand out for the judges.

In short, when you compete pro-am, you get to compete under the best possible circumstances imaginable: with a professional, experienced partner who knows your dancing as well as humanly possible.

Those are the benefits. The disadvantages are fairly significant, however. The first one every pro-am detractor will raise is the cost. While some studios (often including chain studios) don’t require any additional pro-am fees for all students who register for the competition through their studio, others charge between $10 and $30 a dance, this on top of a $25 to $35 per-dance registration fee to the competition organizers, and that on top of a $100 to $400 registration fee just to be eligible for entry. A ten-dance competitor could end up spending an extra $300 just to get on the floor for fifteen minutes the whole weekend!

Nor is that the only cost associated with pro-am. While amateur partners can practice together for free, or at least for the low cost of a floor rental fee (generally $10 to $20 an hour), practicing with your professional requires you to purchase additional lessons Competitive partners are advised to practice three to four hours a week. To do that with a professional partner at $75/hr would cost up to $300 every single week. This is on top of coaching lessons, which are no longer split with an amateur partner, and costumes for any showcases, which generally come out of the amateur’s pocket.

Finally, there is time. While any professional can dance pro-am with his or her student, the fact is that just as with any other type of competition, some professionals are better pro-am competitors than others. Maybe it’s because they’re better teachers, maybe they look better on the floor, or for whatever reason they just do better. These professionals are in extremely high demand and it can be very difficult to book time for all those extra lessons, even if it’s within your budget. You may have a hard time booking floor time with even the less-demanded teachers during competition season.

Is pro-am worth it? That depends on the dancer. Some will see it as a great way to expand and improve their dancing, while others will see it as a colossal waste of money. Some will see it as a viable alternative or supplement to amateur dancing, while others will see it as a tactic for studios to squeeze extra money out of their clients. The real question isn’t whether pro-am is worth the cost, but whether it’s worth the cost to you, and that goes right back to setting goals. If you’re goal is to be the best dancer you can be, and you’re willing to budget for it, you could do a heck of a lot worse than to compete pro-am.

10 Things Your Dance Teacher Won’t Tell You

June 6, 2009

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.


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