In this article, Diane talks about the state of dance teacher training in the United States and how her program is revolutionizing the ballroom dance industry.
Why do we need to change the way ballroom dance teachers are trained?
The ballroom dance industry is exploding. There are major TV shows and Hollywood movies devoted to ballroom dancing. Our dance champions are now celebrities. People want ballroom to become part of the standard curriculum in public schools. In every city in every state, people want to learn to dance. Now, more than ever, there is a need for quality dance teachers.
It’s a big challenge for studio owners to meet this growing demand, especially for instructors to teach beginning students. I’m concerned that we as an industry are not meeting this challenge.
At the highest competitive levels of our sport, the caliber of dance training and teaching is phenomenal. Those dancers just keep getting better and better. But the quality of dance teaching at the basic social level has not always kept up, despite the best efforts of studio owners everywhere.
Why is it so difficult to find highly trained dance teachers to teach beginning students?
I think it’s time to look at the way dance teachers are trained in this country.
Studios have a constant need for trained dance teachers. No teachers: no paying students and no income. Traditionally, studios place ads for people interested in becoming dance teachers, offering free training sessions and the possibility of future employment.
Typically, the people who sign up for these free training sessions tend to be young and inexperienced. Often they have no dance training at all and no real-world work experience. They may think they’d like to be dance teachers, but they aren’t sure what that would really entail.
Studio owners then devote weeks and weeks to these free training sessions. Many trainees leave during this time, once they see how much work being a dance teacher actually involves. Those that make it through are then hired to teach beginning students at the studio.
Unfortunately, this is not an optimal situation for our students.
The teacher is inexperienced, and may not have the skills to support very fearful or awkward students. Because of gaps in his own training, the new teacher may not be able to identify simple mistakes the student is making. Even if he can see what’s wrong, he may not know what to do to fix it. Even worse, the teacher may lose his patience with uncoordinated students or those who can’t seem to “get it.”
The teacher gets frustrated and may quit; the student gets frustrated, feels like a failure, and may quit dancing altogether.
And the studio owner, after having spent countless hours on free training sessions, loses another teacher and more paying students.
Why do studio owners persist in offering free training sessions?
It may be just tradition within the industry. This is the way it’s always been done, so inertia keeps it in place. And occasionally, a wonderful teacher is discovered in the free training sessions. But these discoveries are few and far between. In reality, studio owners spend time and resources training people who’ll never work out, and then more time and resources counseling new teachers on the fundamentals of professional behavior (don’t be late, dress appropriately, don’t date your students, etc.)
A very well-known studio executive told me that by his estimate, less than 1 in 100 people who are recruited via ads for free training sessions ever work out as producing dance instructors. Others have estimated that the numbers are even smaller than that.
And those teachers who do make it through the system often feel poorly prepared for their lessons because they have just not spent enough time on their own training.
Meanwhile, studios continue to lose anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 per year in time wasted on marketing these free training sessions, conducting them, training unsuitable people, and in general not spending time on crucial income and program generating projects that would benefit their students and build their business.
I ran my own dance studio for seventeen years, so I know what these studio owners are up against. I know what it’s like to face all the financial and business stresses. But I also know there is a better way. In 1991, I walked out of yet another disastrous training session and said, “I will never teach another free dance training session again.”
And so Ballroom Dance Teachers College was born.
Why is the Ballroom Dance Teachers College training program so different?
First off, it’s a professional, vocational training school. Prospective teachers pay for their training just as any professional (hair dresser, dental hygienist, or lawyer) would. This helps to ensure the trainees will be committed to their training and instills a sense of its value.
Next, the classes are held at night, after work, usually for 2 two-hour sessions per week. This has two advantages. First, it attracts working people, with incomes to pay for their training and a more mature sense of workplace professionalism. I know these trainees are employable, because they already have jobs.
Second, offering the training sessions at night allows people to continue working their day jobs while they explore whether a career in ballroom dancing is right for them. This means that people who might never otherwise imagine they could leave their unsatisfying day jobs can get this incredible training; it’s there for the taking as long as the trainees stick with it.
How do you choose who will be in the teacher training class?
Everyone is welcome to join the class—there are no dance prerequisites at all. I never prejudge someone’s potential until I’ve worked with him or her for several months. The serious trainees are able to keep up with the course work, whereas those who cannot keep up will naturally drop out.
This open-door policy helps ensure a full class of paying trainees. It also opens up the entire profession to people who might never be hired at many conventional studios. Here I’m talking about people who are middle-aged, may be slightly overweight, or may not be drop-dead gorgeous in a Hollywood sense.
It doesn’t matter. A plump middle-aged, insurance broker can become an extraordinary dance teacher who will change and inspire her students in the most phenomenal ways. Graduates of my program are teaching in top ballroom dance studios across the country, as well as in senior centers, in public schools, at community events, — and they are having a wonderful effect on everyone they touch.
While everyone can join, once they become part of the program, they must do the work. Ballroom Dance Teachers College is the most rigorous, systematic, and comprehensive training offered anywhere in the country. It takes trainees through the entire DVIDA Bronze Syllabus for all 17 American Style and nightclub dances. Trainees learn every technical element for every figure, as both leader and follower. There are regular dance exams, written tests, and homework assignments. Before they can graduate, each trainee has to teach a successful private lesson and a group class to beginners.
Dance teachers who come through Ballroom Dance Teachers College are trained dancers teachers, as well as consummate professionals. Any dance studio would be lucky to have them. The teachers themselves are free to work wherever they choose. They aren’t bound to the studio that offered them the free training, as teachers have been with the traditional model.
Where do you offer this teacher training?
There’s the rub. Historically, this training has only been offered in the Bay Area—San Francisco or Oakland, California. And the course normally takes sixteen months to complete, which limited enrollment geographically to people living in Northern California. We have recently begun fast-tracking the course for people who are extraordinarily dedicated. These trainees study full-time and can complete their training in as little as four months. But even so, we are still limited as to who can attend our Bay Area training.
This was really troubling to me. Every day I’d receive phone calls and emails—from New York, Florida, Wisconsin, Canada, Australia—all saying the same thing: “When are you going to open up a school here?” or “I’d love to participate in your program, but I just can’t move to California for that long.”
During one of these phone calls, I happened to look down at a box at my feet. For the past few years, I’d been having one of my trainees transcribe my lectures from the teacher training sessions. All the notes from all the lectures were piled into this box, and as I sat there on the phone I thought “This is it—this is my Ballroom Dance Teachers College in a Box!” I realized I could package these lectures so that studios everywhere could use my program.
How did you go about creating Ballroom Dance Teachers College in a Box?
I knew it was too big of an undertaking to do on my own. I had the knowledge and the experience, but with my schedule, I knew I needed support to make Ballroom Dance Teachers College in a Box a reality.
So I hired two of my most successful graduates to help me write the curriculum. One of the writers is Melissa Saphir—she had been a technical writer, then got a PhD from Stanford in communication and was doing evaluation research when she fell in love with dance. The other writer is Brandee Selck—a brilliant web designer who left that career to pursue teaching dance, and has led the Metronome Dance Center’s West Coast Swing and Lindy Hop programs for over six years. This gives you some idea of the quality of the people who collaborated with me on this project.
And Ballroom Dance Teachers College in a Box has everything a studio needs to start running their own vocational teacher training program?
Absolutely everything—a business guide, teacher’s manuals, 128 lesson plans, quiz cards, homework assignments, hand-styling tools—you name it, it’s in there. It’s designed so studios can get their own vocational training program up and running the very next month. I wanted studios to be able to start training teachers, making a profit, and contributing to raising the standard of professional excellence in the ballroom industry immediately.
Are any other dance studios using Ballroom Dance Teachers College in a Box?
Yes! The demand has been phenomenal! There are currently 30 studios in North America that are using the Ballroom Dance Teachers College in a Box curriculum, and more are signing up every week. The program has been licensed as a vocational school by the state of Florida, and Box owners are currently going through the licensing process in Ohio, Colorado, and California. The Box owners are also looking forward to having their trainees eligible for federal student loans and to have the ability to transfer credits to other college programs.
The program is going like gangbusters. The first studio to purchase the Box when it became available last year was Joy of Dance in Toronto, Canada. In just one year, Joy of Dance has grossed more than $122,000 in revenues from their teacher training program alone. More people are enrolling all the time. There is a huge demand for this type of training, and now ballrooms everywhere can be in a position to meet this demand.
Is there any reason for dance studios to continue offering free training sessions?
None at all. Studios benefit from a vocational teacher training program in a myriad of ways, far beyond the revenue the course generates each month (which is substantial!)
The program ensures a steady stream of fully trained teachers available for hire. After getting to know trainees for 16 months and seeing how they react in a variety of situations, studios can choose the cream of the crop.
In addition, trainees frequently take private lessons from studio instructors to better themselves and to prepare for their exams. Trainees can also be used as group class assistants or to balance a group class’ leader-follower ratio (which allows the studio to enroll more paying students.)
Is there a downside to Ballroom Dance Teachers College in a Box?
Honestly, no. It’s just a shame that it has taken our industry more than 50 years to figure out that this is the most ethical, profitable, and professional way of doing business. We are finally able to provide our beginning students with the quality of instruction they deserve. It’s a win for the studios, it’s a win for prospective teachers, and it’s a win for students. And it elevates all of us in this glorious profession of ballroom dancing.
Written by Dolly Tavasieff