Running a dance studio requires a business owner to wear many hats, and these include dance teacher, choreographer, dance studio manger, mentor, entrepreneur, IT master, marketing manager, account manager and HR manager.
Whilst all these roles can seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. Creating a clear vision, focussed business plan and brand that attracts your community — having these aspects in place will form the structure in which you can design and achieve your goals. Along with a great offering, professional development and guidance to achieve objectives, employing the right team of teachers that aligns with your values and culture will be critical to the long-term success and reputation of your studio.
Hiring the right teachers for your studio is not only critical for the benefit and safety of students, but it also allows you to increase your talent pool and eliminates the chances high turnover and burnout. So, at Dance Informa, we thought who better to speak to than expert Jen Dalton, studio owner and dance business coach at Dance Studio Empire.
With years of business experience to her name, Dalton started out teaching in her parents’ garage with one student. Over the years, it grew to an excess of 1200 students, and team of teachers and staff of over 30 people.
Along with being a teacher and managing her studios, Dalton has been a speaker at dance festivals and professional development events across Australia, and will feature again at Victorian Dance Festival’s Vitality Dance Teacher Day this April. A published author for the book Teaching Dance Beyond the Steps,she trained as a Police Officer and studied Psychology (PSY111) and Communications (COM120) at CSU, Health and Fitness (SRF40206) and Dance Teaching and Management (CUA50311).
She delivers coaching and programs to equip studio owners with the tools and training they need to run a successful studio and profitable business. Dance Studio Empire is a purpose-built information hub that delivers online training, customised studio owner programs plus free resources and tools, and this July, she will be holding a two-day Dance Business Conference in Sydney.
Jen, describe your studio for us. When was it established? What styles, classes and levels do you offer? How many teachers are employed?
“I am in my 30th year of running my studio. We are a recreation studio who cater for students aged two to 18 years. At its peak, we had over 1200 students enrolled and teaching from six locations around Sydney with a team of 30-plus, and we offer jazz, tap, ballet, contemporary, hip hop, JFH, acro and musical theatre.”
How would you describe the culture of your studio, and what do you look for in teachers when hiring for positions?
“The culture of our studio is about inclusivity and making every child feel seen – learning dance is the bonus! We strive to set our students up in the best way possible for their future. Focusing on confidence, resilience and skills they can take into their future, regardless of what career they choose.
When hiring teachers, I am looking for someone who can connect with the students, listens well and makes teaching dance about the students – not about themselves.”
What values do you think are critical in teachers, and how do these impact the lives of students over time?
“Think with intention. Think beyond what the students think they need and know, and give them what you know they need (e.g. confidence, understanding, challenge).
Give more than just the steps, and know your attitude holds the power in your classroom. Only you can control your attitude and response toward your students. For example, how do you respond to things such as forgotten choreography from the week before or a student being late or missing classes and not wearing uniform?
Your students will match and mirror your attitude, so bring it every lesson. Attributes like being excited, enthusiastic, motivated will impact them greatly. The opposite applies, too, like being low in energy, tired and lethargic, unorganised and distracted.
You are working with young and developing minds, so it is important to understand the responsibility of leadership. You don’t need a title to be a leader, but there is an obligation to serve. Take something that’s complicated and make it simple by explaining in words and actions. If they don’t get it, find another way to teach it until they do.
Our role as dance teachers and the influence we have on the future of our students extends far beyond what goes on in the classroom. We are mentors, counsellors and role models. We have the privilege of inspiring the next generation of dancers to be the best they can be.
Dance teachers should not only focus on the steps being taught. We must be conscious that they are developing the students’ character, confidence and self-worth. The safety and well-being of your students must be a priority, their technical capability secondary.
It doesn’t matter what type of dancer you are teaching. Whether your students are elite, recreational, have special needs, or are young or old, the skills and techniques for delivering the lessons should be the same – and if they are implemented well, we will get the best out of the dancers no matter what their dreams and goals are.”
What credentials and experience do you believe are critical?
“This might not be a popular opinion, but some of my best teachers over the years have not done any formal or external teacher training.
I believe in training for specialised styles for safety and best practice – but when it comes to teaching, it is not a pre-requisite or a determining factor whether I employ that person.
I have written an extensive teacher training program (and it is available for other studio owners if they want) which I regularly train my teachers, and over the years, many of my students end up going through our teacher training program and become teachers at my studio.
What I encourage young potential teachers to focus on is:
After interviewing for so many years, I can usually assess if I know someone will make a good teacher. Sometimes this can be someone with teaching experience, but sometimes someone can interview with no teaching experience and be great. They are natural teachers who can communicate, connect and provide an amazing experience for the students.”
What questions do you ask when looking to fill teaching roles?
“I have a very clear and strategic process I follow when filling teaching roles.
During the interview, I ask questions such as:
To determine a good fit, I look at things such as:
Describe the different knowledge and skills needed for teaching children under the age of eight to students aged 10 all the way to teenagers.
“Apart from the actual steps, technique, progressions that should be age- and ability-specific, the main difference with teaching the different age groups comes with communication. Including the words used, body language and tonality. The ability to listen to, understand and respond appropriately is the responsibility of the teacher and should be infused into every class – for all ages being taught.
I encourage all my teachers to learn to identify individual personalities within the class and learn how to communicate with them to get a positive outcome each lesson. (There are generally five main personalities in a class and once identified, the teacher can implement slight changes in the communication and action to help the students feel comfortable and confident quicker.)
It’s important to explain your expectations and boundaries to all age groups – just expressed or demonstrated in a different way (and ensure that they understand). Finding ways to connect with their students will differ depending on the age but is important for students of all ages.
And finally, trust and respect. You should respect your two-year-olds as much as your senior dancers…it’s the only way to ensure trust and respect are reciprocated.”
Do you audition prospective teachers? Or are they selected from a strong network?
“If it’s possible, I will always look for an opportunity to have them come and cover a class, run a masterclass or guest teach at a workshop.
This way, I can assess:
How do you invest in your teachers, and how do you minimise high turnover?
“It’s super important once you find the right teacher and offer them a place on your team to have a thorough on-boarding system so they are clear about what your guidelines and expectations are.
I want them to feel as confident and comfortable as possible before starting classes and not be unsure of what’s expected of them. For example, what is their responsibility if someone injures themselves and no one else is at the studio? Or, where is the spare speaker if the main one dies mid-lesson?
We have regular teacher training days, mixed with social nights with dates booked from the beginning of the year. This way, the teachers know exactly when and where training/social events will be and are more likely to attend. During these meetings, I encourage them to share any ideas or add input to let them know I value their opinion and ideas.
I also respect that the studio is most probably not their highest priority in their life so am aware not to expect too much commitment from them outside of their job description.
Finally, I organise ‘check-in chats’ once a term. These are quick 10-minute chats where I meet them at the studio (usually before or after their class) for a quick 1:1 chat. This gives us both an opportunity to bring up any issues that may be arising or any issues they want sorted. By doing this, any small issues are extinguished before they become a raging fire.”
If you are interested in developing your business skills and growing your studio, you can visit www.dancestudioempire.au for more information and resources. Be sure to listen to Dalton’s podcast, too!
You can follow Jen Dalton on Facebook (Dance Business Coach) and Instagram (@_jendalton_). And don’t miss her at Vitality Dance Teacher Day this April 14 at the Victoria Pavilion, Melbourne Showgrounds. More information and tickets are at www.VDF.com.au/teacherday.
By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa.