Dance Teacher Resources

From baby to teen: How do you retain young students?

How to retain ballet students
Costume from Dance Forever www.danceforever.com.au

So many kids enroll when four to six years old, but how do you keep them at your studio in the years to come? What’s the benefits of them continuing on with dance through high school and even beyond? How can you keep them engaged and dedicated to dance when the teenage years hit and many kids leave dance?

From cradle to…?

Attraction and retention.

Two words any dance studio owner knows well. Neither is more important than the other, and both have their unique challenges. Much of the energy we invest attracting new students is directed toward the youngest of dancers, generally between three to five years of age. Dance is almost a rite of passage for young children, girls especially, and while there are a growing number of dance studios competing for this market, there really are enough students to go around. The real challenge lies in retaining these students as they grow from “baby ballerina” to “young adult”.

Like you, I have experienced the disappointment, and sometimes heartbreak, from students leaving. Over time, I’ve come to accept that this is part of the journey and that there are many and varied reasons for it to happen. I’ve also used it as an opportunity to look inward as to why it happens and how I can overcome it.

Lesson one? Knowing you can’t overcome it entirely.

I’ve come to peace that dance isn’t for everyone, and that I only want those students who they themselves want to dance to be at the studio. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to inspire someone who really does not want to be inspired. It affects your own feelings of self-confidence and can even lead you to question if and why you want to teach. Negativity from students dancing under “duress” has a flow-on effect to the other students in the class. Energy is contagious, and one student can really bring the vibe down. I’ve often spoken to these students after class and asked them if they really want to be there. At times, students had felt they couldn’t tell their mums because they knew how sad they would be to see them finish dance after what can be a number of years. This can rob a student from being in their own sweet spot – we all have one – an activity that we can immerse ourselves fully in where we exude energy, positivity and feel alive. It needs to come from us, not what someone else wants for us. As a result, I have had these conversations with the parents, gently navigating them, and their child, through a change in activity.

I’ve also come to peace that while a student may want to dance, that my studio is not for everyone.

A number of years ago, I lost several teen students to other studios, as they wanted to do competitions, which I do not offer. I was gutted. I felt like I had failed, and I was genuinely sad to see them go. It’s hard not to become fond of your students when you teach them for such a long time. Now, though, I see it was exactly the right thing for both them, and for me.

When you have clarity around your vision and purpose, it becomes very clear the type of student whom you choose to serve. For my studio, we “serve and guide students to discover and share their love of dance through fostering inclusion, empowering individuality and celebrating together through our community.” Each year, we fine tune our purpose, and each year, we find we not only attract more of our ideal student for our studio but also retain the students who value the same outcomes we do.   

These two strategies of “having conversations that encourage students to leave” and “losing students to other studios” may seem out of place in an article that proposes to teach you how to retain teenage students! Let me reassure you! Your teens, more than any of your students, need a studio that provides a safe space designed for them. It’s an interesting phenomenon. The more intentional we became about who, what and why, the more our teen retention grew.

Currently, our studio is blessed with a strong teen student base, all who openly value the studio for what it brings to their lives. By eliminating the negativity that comes with trying to satisfy students with the “wrong fit”, we have created a safe, judgement-free zone, and now not only are we retaining our teens, we are attracting them also. It truly is a case of “your vibe attracts your tribe!”

Let’s say you’ve clarified your vision and purpose, how else can you work to retain your youngest preschool dancers to long-standing teen students? It’s possible you were hoping for a list of quick fix practical strategies, and by now are realising that list is never going to eventuate. I do have a few practical strategies that you can start with right away, none of which are a particularly quick fix, however. Anything worth doing does take time.

Let me share a slightly embarrassing story. Following the group of teens leaving a number of years ago, a couple of my teachers and I had a think-tank session to discuss how to retain senior students. What do they want? Movie nights? No uniform? No exams, or more exams? More performance opportunities? We sat and brainstormed some ideas for about an hour, until right at the end, I had the best idea ever. “We should ask them!” I blurted out, to which we all looked at each other sheepishly and agreed! So, the very next day, we did. This is my advice to you as well. I’m not going to list the answers my students shared, as what my students need is likely to be different to what your students need. Our studios provide different cultures, and we don’t do anyone, least of all our students, all trying to be the same. The act of asking is powerful in itself.  You are showing you value their opinion and are giving them a voice to be heard. It doesn’t have to be formal; just ask, “What do you want from your dance school?”

In preparing for my thoughts and stories with you, I dug a little deeper and asked my current seniors why they do stay at my studio. The students did not collude: it was quiet as they wrote on their piece of paper and handed up their answers anonymously. The responses were astounding and humbling. I, like many dance studio owners, spend time creating wonderful experiences and exciting opportunities, but none of these were mentioned. My students stayed because of the community. They felt a sense of belonging. They described the studio as a safe place, a haven, where they were free to be themselves. They used words such as “fun” and “family”, but the overwhelming theme intertwined throughout their responses was they were not judged or compared against each other but rather to themselves. That it was a space where they could be true to their individual self. That is why they stay.  

Tears welled up in my eyes as I realised the students who had left, and the work we had completed on clarifying our purpose, had together led to us better attracting, retaining and serving our students, especially our most emotionally vulnerable – our teens. For all the challenges life can throw, this time of life can be hard to navigate.  It wasn’t more movie nights that were needed. It was our small, everyday actions that were helping to create a picture of who we were and what we stood for that made a difference. It was the fact that every student had a chance to shine, regardless of natural talent or ability. Over time, the actions and words of my teachers have created a strong culture that the students have absorbed. My teens now realise that everyone is valued and loved regardless of their dance ability. They know they are held to high standards, and are reminded that the reason for this is we believe in them. We know they have so much to offer the world. They are empowered to explore and celebrate their unique gifts and talents and who they are, through dance.

So, I’m sorry if you wanted a simple checklist on how to retain your teens. Paint the lobby a bright colour, have a space for them to hang out, offer a movie night. Yes! Do all of that, but do all of that while looking deeper. The real reason your teen students will stay is how you nourish and value them in your day-to-day actions and through the words you say. It’s life-changing, for both them and you.    

By Jane Grech of Jane Grech Dance Centre. 

Jane Grech. Photo courtesy of Grech.Jane Grech is the founder and director of JG Creative, a South Australian company which operates Jane Grech Dance Centre, Pirouettes Dancewear and Adelaide Institute of Vocational Dance. An empowering leader, Jane’s businesses thrive from the power of a positive culture by design. Working with vision, her teams are a united and determined force. By embracing and enjoying challenges and celebrating success through having fun, her people are not only personally and professionally fulfilled, but her businesses greatest strength.  

Jane is the creator and founder of DanceStep, a unique training program that works in partnership with dance schools around the world to offer Assistant Teacher Training programs. Through her work Jane is empowering studio owners to grow young leaders who give back to their studio communities.  

Jane is an author and speaker on the topics of dance education, entrepreneurship and leadership. Passionate about encouraging, supporting and inspiring others Jane writes articles for Dance Informa Magazine and at her own blog, Dance Studio Success. Previous speaking engagements include Dance Teachers Unite, Come Together Dance Teachers Conference, ‘Exchange’ and Victorian Dance Festival. Jane shares her experiences with dance studio owners from around the world through her work as a Leadership and Studio Growth Coach with Dance Studio Owners Association.

Jane works part time in an effort to successfully navigate the challenges of combining a career with her greatest role, that of mum to Alana, Caitlin and Liam and wife to Brian.

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