Can dance teachers demand loyalty?

Addie K. writes:

I teach ballet in a community where there are two other dance studios, both of which have been in business longer than I have. I own my studio and employ two other teachers. I’ve never had a problem with another studio until recently when a teenage student told me in tears that she would no longer be able to study with me. She had been taking class three times a week at another studio, where she has trained for several years, but when her family moved and her school schedule changed, she could only take class there twice a week. My studio’s location was convenient for her, so she started taking once a week with me. When her main teacher found out she had been taking my class, she called her a “traitor” and told the girl that if she didn’t stop taking class at my studio, she would have to leave hers.

Then she wrote a letter to all the parents laying out her “policy” that no one was allowed to train at other studios because her training method “comes directly from the top Russian companies” and she “couldn’t guarantee the standards at other schools.” Those are quotes from a copy of the letter which I was shown. She has a contract with her students and she is adding a “loyalty” clause to it.

I was shocked. I would never tell a student not to take class with another teacher. I also have a contract with my students. It’s very short and only requires that students make a regular commitment, follow the dress code, behave with decorum in the studio, treat their teachers and each other with respect, and speak personally to me or to one of their teachers if they have a problem.

No one gets rich running a ballet studio but as far as I can tell, there is enough business in our town to support our three studios. I considered calling the other studio owner and giving her a piece of my mind, but I didn’t want to stoop to her level. I spoke to the student’s parents and told them that I thought the ultimatum was unreasonable and unprofessional. They thanked me, and apologized (Lord knows for what) and I haven’t seen them since.

I’m interested in other teachers’ opinions. I wonder if this behavior is more common than I imagined. If so, what is the ballet world coming to?

Degas takes on the ballet teacher.

Degas takes on the ballet teacher.


Ballet to the People responds:

The ballet world isn’t going anywhere it hasn’t already been.

Monstrous egos have popped up since the time of Louis XIV.

On the subject of violently insecure ballet teachers, you might find these words wise and grounding: Amanda Niehaus’ advice to her students. My favorite lines:

You as a student owe me nothing. You may thank me after class, you may credit me on your first performance DVD, you may remember me when you are touring with Jillina, but you do not owe me anything. (You paid for your class, I taught you, we are even.) I am an emotionally mature adult (for the most part.) I do not require your “loyalty” or allegiance… You will not be “cheating on” me by taking classes with another instructor. – Amanda Niehaus, courtesy

This professed betrayal by an innocent student may not be the only thorn in your rival’s side; she may have more reasons to feel threatened. She may be getting some very bad advice on how to manage her business. Or she may just be a control freak. But that’s speculation. The only way to find out and change her behavior would be to reach out to her. However, life is too short, and the world too full of wonderful things and decent people, to bother with the petty and spiteful.

Other opinions?

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13 thoughts on “Can dance teachers demand loyalty?

  1. Sadly, this is all too common, even in big cities like Los Angeles. There are many students who take class with me, enjoy it, and want to return but tell me point blank that they can only take with me when their other teacher is out of town or sick. I have been in classes with teachers whose attitude is, “If you aren’t taking with me, you aren’t taking class” and their students accept that literally.

    I encourage all of my students, particularly younger ones who need exposure to lots of different types of technique and teaching styles, to try other studios. I am confident enough in my skills as a teacher that I trust they will come back. If they don’t, oh well. But I certainly wouldn’t want people to remain in my classes if they felt coerced to do so. Who needs that energy?

  2. wow. Amusingly, I’m poking at this site because Carla’s studio is closer to my new apartment than where I dance at now.

    My regular ballet teacher–frequently, loudly, and in class–encourages us to dance with as many instructors, and at as many studios, as we can. She will sometimes note that there are multiple correct ways to perform certain moves, or that we might have learned a slightly different placement elsewhere, and sometimes she wants *this* specific version (for specific reasons she always tells us: strengthening certain muscles, or balance), but it’s never my-way-or-the-highway.

    I dance because joint pain, and it’s super-bad when I skip class. Last month I was out of town during my regular class, so I asked if I could join her more advanced group later in the week. She said no problem, but also pushed for me to find a drop-in class in NYC and just take it while I was there.

    • The truth is that dance is a business and the economy does not allow for parents to be paying at several studios. Beware of teachers teaching at various places. I have had teachers who have tried recruiting for other studios where they taught. This is disastrous. Students need to choose one studio and stay loyal. Too much jumping around and wanting to take everywhere. Not good for the studios or the students.

      • Elizabeth, I agree with you when it comes to pre-professional students. They need to find an instructor who is right for them, whose philosophy and teaching method produces tangible advancement in the student’s technique and promotes healthy body development – even if that means some sacrifice in terms of travel time and hours. Not every teacher is universally successful; bodies and minds are vastly different, and the best teacher for you is not necessarily the best teacher for the person next to you at the barre.

        However, for the much larger population of recreational dancers, both children and adults, taking classes from different teachers is no great sin, it can be both convenient and beneficial to the student.

        But “too much jumping around” is never a good idea for anyone, as you say. Habit and routine are needed to build solid technique. And studios, which earn most of their profit from recitals, have to be able to plan ahead for their performances. Most of them need their students to make a commitment for at least one school year in order to program a successful year end performance.

  3. The other truth to it is that the economy over the past few years doesnt really allow people to take multiple places. They can barley pay their regular tuition on time.

    It’s also hard for the pre-professional students to form a tight bond if they are dancing for other pre-professional performance groups. Unfortunately, everyone wants their child to be a star and take everywhere they can because they think that’s going to get them on stage. 🙁 It’s not even about the education anymore, it’s all about the show!

    • So true, Elizabeth. Ballet to most parents is another sport – but unlike sports, there aren’t frequent games that parents can attend, where they can cheer their kids on. So all their expectations are funneled into the annual recital. Even for those parents who look on ballet as an art, there is no artwork that can be pinned on the walls to show their kids’ progress. So once again everyone is focused on the show. If parents would watch those films about students at the Vaganova school or Paris Opera Ballet school, showing the little kids who leave home, get on a train, and enter this austere, convent-like environment, they might understand and value the training more.

  4. There is a whole new generation of unprofessional younger dance teachers out there & their disloyalty could cost a dance company a lot of money. The last thing a school needs is their own teacher recruiting for other schools. That could lose a school business and money. Something more dance school owners need to be aware about. It’s definitely happening out there. I have cameras and mics in my classes and heard it for myself. So unprofessional 🙁

    • You are secretly recording children and adults in your studio? In many states, eavesdropping is illegal. Hope no one finds out!

      • Penelope, good point. Though when I read Elizabeth’s statement I interpreted it to mean that she, in common with many studios, openly records with the consent of parents and students – it is standard for a signed waiver to be part of each student’s record, with the understanding that video footage may be used for marketing and for teaching and feedback purposes. Perhaps she will let us know how she handles this in her studio…

  5. I feel Elizabeth’s frustration!

    Regarding video recording, we do that in our studio with the consent of teachers, students and parents. In the 15 years that I’ve been teaching (not all of them in my own studio) I can only recall one family that had a problem with this and we did not video the classes and rehearsals their child was in. I’ve used video in meetings with teachers to go over curriculum and make sure we are consistent in our teaching practices. Also with students to go over specific technique issues. (Video is so helpful because you can slow it down and see what is really going on at every second, for example in every stage of a pirouette.) Sometimes we’ll show video to parents who can’t make it to open classes which we hold once a term. It’s a very useful way to address parents’ questions and complaints. And we used to put short clips on our website, though now we emphasize clips of performances rather than classes. Only very experienced parents know what to look for when they’re watching clips of ballet class, and so I don’t find class video very helpful as a marketing tool.

    Have we ever “caught” on video students or teachers saying or doing things they shouldn’t in class? Sure. And I try to address it when we see it. Etiquette is covered in our student and teacher “contracts” so it’s usually a quick conversation to remind them of our policies.

  6. Fascism lives on. This is a form of mind control that keeps the ballet world in the dark ages. Kids and parents are intimidated by these monsters. Are they acting out of deep rooted insecurity? Or are they just trying to protect their businesses? It doesn’t matter! Those kids who make it to the corps de ballet learn to be docile and obedient and never question the person in authority. But there is a difference between the discipline needed to maintain the perfect alignment of 4 rows of 24 swans and the guts to speak up for your rights. Professional dancers, excepting the top stars, are treated like mindless slaves. When a tormented young man like Sergei Polunin stands up to authority you call him out for his bad behavior. But what he is revealing to the world is the result of years of abuse. In 21st century we should be able to keep these ancient beautiful traditions alive without practicing ancient forms of mind control.

  7. I agree with you completely. I took from several studios growing up and I believe it made me a more diverse dancer and teacher. Teachers that put these regulations on their students are sadly insecure with themselves and their teaching abilities. I know my students will come back because I’m good at my job. You can’t dictate where people go to learn and if you’re a good teacher you don’t have too.

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