As a younger version of myself, I often felt the need to apologize for my career choice. It began when I entered college with a full ride academic scholarship and chose to pursue a dance degree. I often heard, “what a waste,” or “but, you’re so smart,” — as if somehow my high IQ was being squandered in the performing arts. When I started running a dance studio, I often felt that I didn’t deserve to make money since I was pursuing my passion. Fast-forward two decades and I now not only know the insane amount of work that goes in to this passion of mine, but also the true value that dance teachers provide to their community.
As I am now a seasoned member of the dance education industry, I often hear from my colleagues about how their work is constantly undervalued.
Parents who pay rates equivalent to daycare then question why they have to pay “so much” for dance classes. Dancers who expect to be able to message teachers at any hour of day or night never think that their time is worth compensation. Teachers who are burning the candle at both ends, working twelve hour days, and sacrificing their own family time often make less than a full-time minimum wage job. I see these stories time and time again.
I am extremely fortunate to work in an environment where my studio families and dancers are incredibly supportive 99 percent of the time. I know they value the experience their children are receiving through dance education. Even the strongest supporters though may not realize everything that goes in to a one hour dance class. So, here’s my short list of a few tasks that you may not have realized are on your dance teacher’s to do list.
Keep on the lights.
When parents calculate the cost per hour they pay for dance, they often don’t consider everything that goes in to running a studio. Monthly rent, electric, gas, water, internet, garbage, office supplies, print costs, mailings, insurance, payroll, website, cleaning…the list goes on and on. When you consider that a studio is typically only open after school hours, five days a week, nine months of the year, it’s a miracle our industry can survive at all! I once told a parent my monthly cost in toilet paper alone and she was shocked. That’s what happens when 300 girls a week pass through your doors!
Music, music, music.
Did you know that studios pay a high annual premium just to play music in performances and events? Our studio pays out thousands in annual fees to two different music organizations and I know some studios who pay even more. That is not counting the cost to purchase all of the song files for music used – and the time, energy, and money spent editing all of those music files.
Costumes for Days.
The single most time consuming task in our studio is costuming. Unlike many other studios, we do not do a retail mark up on costumes (something I’ve been scolded about too many times to count by every studio owner I know). The time spent measuring dancers, finding a costume that works for each class, ordering the costumes, tracking the orders, receiving the boxes, inventorying the items, hanging the costumes, and distributing the costumes is mind-boggling! We estimate 2-4 hours of administrative work per costume for our orders and we order in the thousands of costumes. Not to mention making sure that Mary Jo’s costume for her solo doesn’t look like Betty Jane’s costume and that Lulu’s costume isn’t the same color as Lola’s! Those adorable looks on stage are the result of a maddening amount of preparation, so appreciate every sparkle!
We do many community performances and events throughout the year for our dancers. We never charge parents for these extra opportunities, but we as a staff are spending valuable hours attending. My husband once joked, could you imagine if you asked your attorney to just come on down to a business meeting but you weren’t planning on paying them anything to be there? This is what happens every weekend throughout the nation as dance teachers show up to performances, competitions, and showcases without charging for their time, simply because they love seeing their students shine.
Every concept that you see come to life on stage is a result of hours of thinking, planning, scheming, sketching, and often crying. The perfect song does not just jump in to the top of the Itunes list (oh how I wish!) and is usually the result of days and days and hours upon hours of scouring obscure music lists and more google searches than I’d like to admit to. Then inevitably the song is five minutes long and the maximum time limit is three minutes, so the planning and listening and editing and re-editing begins. I often have ten or more versions of the same song on my playlists before creating the right cut. One of my dancers teasingly started labeling the final version the “Apocalypse” cut to signify the end of all editing.
Carrying It All.
While most people clock out at the end of their work day and can go home to relax, dance teachers typically eat, sleep and breathe their work. A middle of the night thought wakes us up to quickly scribble down a new combo. We worry about our dancer who was having a bad day. We precariously scroll through social media trying to keep in touch while not intruding in the personal lives of our dancers. We get texts and Facebook messages at all hours and as hard as we try to ignore them, we are often caught returning messages and emails at midnight. Often our own children become “wards of the studio” and spend their after school hours in a corner of the dance studio as we attend to the needs of other people’s children. And we love every student as our own. Their successes and failures become ours and our hearts are inextricably woven in to their journey. Our jobs can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.
Now even with all this said, I would never trade my profession for any other job in the world, and I know my colleagues feel the same. We are blessed to not only do what we love, but be surrounded by amazing dancers and to grow our families with theirs. There are more benefits than I can list (that’s another blog!) – but next time you see your dance teacher, give them a hug and let them know you appreciate them. That’s worth every hour of song searching and every pile of costumes sorted. When it all comes down to it – it is all a labor of love and we hope you love every moment of it as much as we do.
Also by Sarah Beth Byrum:
Join TheatreArtLife to access unlimited articles, our global career center, discussion forums, and professional development resource guide. Your investment will help us continue to ignite connections across the globe in live entertainment and build this community for industry professionals. Learn more about our subscription plans.
Love to write or have something to say? Become a contributor with TheatreArtLife. Join our community of industry leaders working in artistic, creative, and technical roles across the globe. Visit our CONTRIBUTE page to learn more or submit an article.