Recently, in the summer of 2022, while at a dance competition after-party, a friend who also owns a dance studio made a comment. They'd said that they realized all it takes to have a successful studio was to "be nice" to their clients. I think my reply was something along the lines of "You think?" The rest of the conversation cited some examples of other studios' teachers causing various types of mental grief to their students, who in turn, end up in schools like ours, if they keep dancing.
There are as infinite a number of ideas of how to run a business as there are stars in a sky. I can only imagine what my friend had thought or been apprehensive about leading up to that revelation, but I didn't press to find out. It was enough they could see a pure simplicity in how they went about their business and a nice affirmation as to why I like them as I do.
The "business" of dance studios
I've been entertained by what many studio owners I've known thought about what made a studio, over the years. I've heard "sex sells" and "it's all about making money". I've seen owners refer to their staff as their "b*tches", being proud of having their grunts, and I've seen them clarify to me how they are in a field that caters to narcissistic individuals with lots of money. I've seen studio owners get very overly-personally involved with clients and treated their studio as a dating center for themselves, and other things. I could say, from the worst of them, I haven't as often seen any immediate accountability for those actions, but ultimately, the "bill comes due" and those responsible fade away, but not after often doing some real damage to our industry and reputation. I've seen really talented students get wasted away by this (as noted above), becoming burned out or, in cases, outright betrayed.
I have a basic theory about why things like this happen, that is, why it is that studios can sometimes go so completely off-the-rails that they become more "cult-of-personality"-type things than just being a place of learning. (I am not accounting for just generally bad-actors, as they do exist.) For those that do start with their hearts in the right place, my theory is that the studio and/or its principals don't truly understand the basic premise of what a studio is supposed to do and they do not know or understand the skill of really teaching people to dance. In short, they really don't understand what the concept of "service" really is nor how to do it.
The importance of really being able to both dance and teach cannot be overstated in a business that calls itself a "dance studio". Dance studios are a service business, pure and simple. The word, "service" is defined by the 5th edition of the American Heritage dictionary is "work done for others as an occupation or business". This strikes me as a very superficial idea and I can see things become difficult from this lacking definition. It also doesn't help that a person's administrative training is generally presented from the view of the industrial definitions of "product" (with "service" generally getting lightly glossed over without any real depth. I guess sometimes it is easier to face things than it is to face people).
My point is that it takes some work to get down to practical and simple fundamentals that you can begin to build something that you can make a livelihood of. So, because the easy concepts to start from are not very readily available (in some cases, jealously guarded), there can be lots of trial and error in getting off the ground and running, and when your livelihood is at stake, it can make someone prone to bad advice - and there is plenty of that.
What I can say with a decent amount of certainty is that if a studio owner can't get things like this straight, it will have to resort to all sorts of tricks and methods to keep income coming into the studio. In the worst cases, it might resort to simple outright fraud.
When you receive services from a provider, it's fair to say that you should receive value for the service purchased, however I am always quite astounded by what little a person is willing to accept from their service provider for what they spend. I've seen people go into significant debt from this. I've seen studio owners charge exorbitant rates to clients for teachers of very low skill sets and keeping the students on the hook because they liked them or didn't know any better. Dance studios or dance teachers are not a licensed activity, so there is never any guarantee of quality, but that doesn't mean a person should be satisfied with practically nothing but pretty words - yet I keep seeing they do. The basic problem here, as I see it, has a lot to do with values and expectations.
At the outset, seldom does a prospective client know what to expect from the service of dance lessons. It then behooves a service provider to educate a student as to what to expect as they go, in addition to anything else they do. Easy enough in the beginning, but if, over time, the values and expectations don't match up between service provider and student then one would think that the student would pursue ongoing lessons with another provider that did match up. That is, surprisingly, often not the case. Here, I could probably write a volume on many of the things that can occur instead, but suffice it to say, accountability becomes difficult.
In our open market, people vote with their dollars. If there is value gained for the services rendered, then the studio should have no problem. If there isn't, the business doesn't last long without some sort of subsidy until it can figure out how to provide real value. That "artificial" subsidy can be gotten by business loans (that can't last forever), other sources of income, consistent marketing to bring in more clients than can be wasted by low-quality, as well as promises of value that never quite manifest in reality. The way I chose to approach this is simply being diligent to educate students early on and continually, to define their values and expectations as well as working with them to obtain them. Ultimately, however, the largest burden falls onto the student - it's their service, their value and their money.
The "art" in being a teacher, owning or running a studio is really just truly understanding the concept of service and putting it to use. You'll be as successful as you can help a client define their expectations and manifest the benefits of the service and subsequently, obtain the value of those benefits. "Being nice" was really just a simple expression of the idea of giving their clients what they want without berating them in the process of obtaining it.
So, it was heartening to hear such an innocuously sounding statement stated with the reverence of a life epiphany from my friend. It can be really disappointing to deal with students burned out by other studios, that come to us in hopes we might be able to rekindle the love they developed for dance, or to see someone getting led down a road with an inevitable outcome. Yes, my friend's statement told me they had more than a clue in what they were trying to do with their studio and for their students. That simple statement belied the fact that their primary interest was the positive influence they wanted to have in their student's lives, telling me that their first and foremost concern was with the value they gave to their students. People such as this are gems, treasure them when you find them.
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