I was talking to my personal trainer this morning at the gym and we were comparing notes like we often do: how many clients do you have this week, do you have any breaks to eat, are you working the weekend too, are any of your clients crazy right now, etc. He and I have similar structures in that we both work as employees of larger enterprises which we do not own (he’s at a big national chain of gyms, I’m at a studio) and we see a variety of clients mostly one-on-one. Both of us are paid a percentage (probably about 30% in his case, closer to 15% in mine) of what the client pays as his or her hourly rate, are expected to keep up with various certifications and professional qualifications, and are in what is essentially a service industry.
The big difference, as far as I can see, is the intense emotional component of teaching and participating in ballroom dance. Not to dismiss the fact that people get very attached to their fitness professionals – I am very fond of my trainer, and I was genuinely upset when the girl I worked with before him was promoted to another gym. But there is absolutely no comparison between that and the intense, visceral, and sometimes uncomfortably intimate situation produced in partner dance.
It is certainly the case that for most people who are not professional dancers, the level of personal contact and physical touch experienced through dance really only ever occurs with regularity in situations of sexual intimacy. It doesn’t help that most of the pretending we do in ballroom is about exactly those sorts of relationships – your brain is pretty much set up to get confused.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that people feel betrayed when you ask them to pay money for that experience. It feels cold, and transactional, and like you’re getting hustled. (And sometimes you are. Please, please, please – ask so many questions and don’t EVER feel like you can’t say no in a given situation; see the brilliant deconstruction of The Spinning Dancer on this topic.)
I think we, as a profession, do a bad job of explaining what people are paying money for. And I think we do a bad job of educating our clients about how the business works. The sticker shock about the cost of ballroom is common – it’s a crazy expensive pursuit, no question about it. Private lessons aren’t cheap, and pro-am Dancesport competition (as an amateur) is, with the exception of really complicated scuba diving or high-level horse related things or yachting, probably the most expensive sport you can pursue.
I get that. I also get why people think it’s worth it. And let’s be SUPER clear – professionals don’t make much money. Yeah, competitions are expensive, but even top independent comps are hardly money factories, and certainly your teachers aren’t seeing that cash. The time away from the studio in teaching, the wear and tear on your body from dancing with a student, being ‘on call’ the whole time you’re there, the costumes, all that jazz – in a best case scenario, any additional money teachers make is from the extra lessons booked in the run up to a competition. I assure you that it is lo, many tens of dollars.
By looking at the bill [for a competition], as a student, you may then wonder at the cost and ponder why, if you are paying so much, your instructor isn’t a millionaire, already? I mean, most professionals can’t demand $75 or more for less than an hour! That is significantly more than I make as a pharmacist!
Sure! I hear that, no question. But think about it this way – the studio may charge you $75/lesson but if the instructor is not teaching independently, then the studio pays him or her probably somewhere between $12-$20/lesson with the rest of that $75 going to overhead, paying for a receptionist, music licenses, insurance, etc etc etc. If a pro IS teaching independently, then of that $75, $10 or $15 goes to floor fees, more is eaten up in transportation (driving all over town to different studios to teach requires gas which is basically a thousand dollars a gallon these days), advertising (putting your name out there is not free) and the sunken time costs of teaching (editing music for wedding couples or showcases, lesson planning, continuing education under whatever syllabus you teach) that happen on your own time. At the end of the day, you probably aren’t netting a whole lot more than a studio staff teacher, plus you are responsible for generating 100% of your own client base. (Which is why I currently teach in a studio rather than independently; until I have a name, it’s a better deal for me by FAR.)
What totally blows about ballroom is that the price point is SO high and the barriers to entry are SO steep that only a small percentage of folks – those who are in possession of the disposable time and income such that they can pursue ballroom and not have to choose between that and, say, eating – can engage with that world. It sucks. I got into competitive dancing in college, when the entry costs were $30 a semester for as many group classes as I could attend, taught by a not-terrible independent teacher, and the chance to partner up with some other amateur college students and go compete. It cost me very little money, and I had a fabulous time, and I really enjoyed it. I had NO IDEA that the real world of ballroom did not function this way.
But the fundamental tension that pervades a lot of ballroom, in my observation, is the tension between the legitimate expenses of the pursuit and the emotional intimacy it generates. For various reasons, we think that associating meaningful and emotionally intimate experiences with money is transactional and tawdry – I’m not convinced that it is, actually, I just think that’s a cultural prejudice. The hard thing for a lot of people to work out in their heads is: what is this relationship that I have with this other person whose time I pay for, who touches me in a very personal way, who generates (on the floor) some pretty emotionally intense sensations? Are they a friend? A teacher? A paid escort?
We don’t have a great social category for this. I think maybe a combination of therapist + trainer + teacher is the best I can come up with. And there’s no question that good teachers feel great personal regard for their students and care about them deeply; honestly, it is not worth the terrible money if you don’t care about your students. But the relationship is always a little fraught. I think as long as both parties are aware of the potential complicating factors, and why it can sometimes feel a little weird, everything will be fine. (Again, a place where we as an industry need to do a better job of educating our students.)
But it is not always fine; sometimes it’s horrible. Another Emerald Ball story: I was meeting some friends for a drink at the bar, and we needed two seats. There was one open, and one with a lady’s bag in it. My friend goes, excuse me, can we take this seat? and an older lady who was clearly a few drinks into her evening told us very high-handedly that NO, another lady was sitting there and she is coming BACK (in the tone of, and you can go fuck yourself very much). This lady, obviously a pro-am student, was there with another student or two and their instructor, a nice guy who looked like he was maybe 28. He jumped in to manage the situation, pointing out gently that they could all move down a few seats and everything would be Totally. Fine. His tone was placating without being irritating, and I thought, this poor boy, he has been on duty all day and here he is still having to cater to these ladies, I bet he is TIRED.
So when they moved down, I looked over at him and he and I locked eyes and he knew that I knew the situation. I just smiled at him and tried to put a whole lot of, hang in there, tiger, you’re almost done for the day in my look and he soundlessly moved his lips and said, thank you and went back to his students.
Look, that’s not the typical experience of pro-am. But it happens. And for every wonderful student that you have (and there are a lot of them, and I am sure I am preaching to the choir because if you are reading this then you are NOT LIKE THAT HORRIBLE LADY) there are those who require higher maintenance and more managing. It is exhausting, for real. And it sure as shit is not worth the bullshit money you get paid.
All of which is to say: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, my friends, and I don’t care which side of the student/teacher fence you’re standing on. The question is, is what you’re getting out of it (in whatever form) worth what you’re paying (in whatever form)? If it is (and for me, right now, it is), you keep doing it. If it isn’t, or the bullshit threshold is too high, go do something else.