Dance Teacher Resources

Studio Owner: How to keep your teachers engaged

Australian dance teacher conference by VDF
Vitality Dance Teacher Day by VDF at the Victoria Pavilion, Melbourne Showgrounds. Photo Belinda Strodder

As the school year begins and we focus again on students and learning outcomes, there is another cohort for whom the ‘first day back’ is perhaps even more important. Teachers. 

Having been a teacher/trainer myself, I can confirm that fronting a class and dealing with students, parents and the often complex landscape of compliance can be a uniquely taxing task. It has its obvious rewards, but they can come at a steep mental and emotional cost. 

In the dance world, savvy studio operators will have their eye on this. Supporting and inspiring, keeping their teaching staff connected and feeling valued, is mission critical in an industry largely made up of small, independent, privately run schools.

“I regularly say, it would not be possible to be who we are, where we are, and do what we do without the support and commitment of our teachers,” says Jen Dalton, owner/director of Sydney-based Jigsaw Dance Studio. 

Having run the school for 30 years, she has seen various trends and traumas (pandemics included) sweep through the industry, but she has not lost sight of her business’s key human capital. “The most important thing is to ensure they know how valued they are. I know each of their ‘love languages’ and try to incorporate this into regular action.”

Jen Dalton, owner/director of Jigsaw Dance Studio and Dance Teacher Central.

For Dalton, this has included surprising one of her teachers by pre-paying for a hairdressing appointment. “But some of my teachers simply need regular verbal reassurance and praise. Easy, right? Because that’s their love language. These acts are small, but so impactful to the person receiving it.”

Likewise, Jasmina Stefkovski from the Melbourne Academy of the Arts (and the Australian National Youth Ballet), is keen to acknowledge the central role of teachers. “[They] are the backbone of all arts, as they’re the ones who assist students to achieve their goals and grow into artists. It’s imperative they feel respected, appreciated and honoured, and that they’re able to extend themselves within the school.” 

However, for all the T&D, Christmas lunches and complimentary haircuts, there is also a core reality at play. Studios are businesses. They sell a promise and there is an undeniable weight of expectation. The challenge, for owners and teachers alike, is finding the right blend of ‘staying on message’ and leveraging individual passion and creativity.

From their Kirrawee studio just south of Botany Bay, Sarah Boulter and Lisa Bowner from Ev & Bow try to navigate this by insisting on what they call currency. As Boulter explains, “The majority of our staff are still dancing or choreographing professionally.”

As such, they are active artists, and this informs the studio’s approach. “Lisa and I really try to allow our teachers complete free range in their choreography and even their classes, because we believe in their vision and expertise. Of course, we discuss what we’re all teaching so we don’t cross over. However, we would never tell somebody to use a certain type of music or teach in a particular way.”   

Over at Jigsaw Dance Studio, Dalton employs a slightly different approach. “I have clear expectations and guidelines that I expect my team to follow,” she declares. “Some of these include appropriate music choice, age-appropriate choreography, physical and emotional safety requirements for our dancers,et cetera. As long as these are adhered to, I allow the teachers to choose their own music and choreography and add their own creative flair.”

For the more ballet-focused Melbourne Academy of the Arts, where the Russian Vaganova method is in the DNA, there is an understandable emphasis on teachers being able to deliver within a well-defined framework. Stefkovski is clear on this, before adding, “We support creative freedom, and we employ people that we trust to make the right decisions with the student in mind.”

Yet, even in the traditional ballet universe, things change. In the dance itself and in the way it is taught. As Stefkovski observes, “Art is fluid, and thus we as humans need to be able to flow with it and not against it.”

As such, evolving approaches to things like injury prevention, body image and mental health are increasingly a part of the teacher’s remit.

For Ev & Bow, with their preference for working artists, “the staff are so current they continue to inspire themselves through their external work and engagements.” The flow on for students is easy to see, most notably in the school’s off-shoot youth and junior company, where rehearsal process and performance outcome ensure an emphasis on fluid approaches and contemporary vitality.

Whereas Boulter and Bowner seek to blur the artist/teacher line, Dalton from Jigsaw leverages her lifelong experience in a more formulated fashion. The author of Teaching Dance Beyond The Steps and the creator of the Dance Studio Empire podcast, she is more deliberate in her efforts to keep staff and studio up to date. 

“I’ve written a comprehensive teacher training program, which I update regularly,” Dalton explains. “I also find conferences and workshops beneficial, and a great opportunity to network and share industry updates. My team and I meet three to four times a year, and sometimes we workshop new programs or have guest speakers. I encourage my teachers to keep a look-out for courses or programs that interest them and will pay for them to attend, if suitable.”

It can hardly be surprising that approaches here vary. The dance studio industry is not monolithic, and teachers, students and parents have different expectations and, as Dalton would attest, their own love languages. 

“The role of dance teachers and the influence they have on the future of our students extends far beyond what goes on in the classroom,” Dalton contends. “They are mentors, counsellors and role models, and they have the privilege of inspiring the next generation of dancers to be the best they can.”

Meanwhile, from her Melbourne studio, Stefkovski says what we might expect of someone immersed in ballet. “Balance,” she states unambiguously. “A successful outcome needs a harmonious balance between staff, students and parents.”

What is clear is that keeping good teachers engaged and energised is not a ‘set and forget’ task. Teaching is a human art, a deeply psychological, often emotional and technical practise. For studio operators like Stefkovski, Dalton, and Boulter and Bowner from Ev & Bow, the art is to juggle personalities, bottom lines and the physical rigour of dance in a way that delivers for everyone involved. 

With a new teaching year upon us, the pursuit of that balance will doubtless occupy the attentions of owners, teachers and dancers alike. (Thinking back to my own teaching days, I take a deep breath and wish them luck.) 

With so much to do to prepare studios for the start of the year, getting the teaching team focussed on growth and development might be a way down the list. Never fear, VDF’s Vitality Teacher Day does the hard work of planning for you. Inspirational guest speakers, advice from leading experts, hands-on workshops and networking are all wrapped as one VITAL day of professional development on Friday 14 April in Melbourne. VDF’s well established Teacher Day is a fantastic team building activity connecting your teachers to one another and others in the industry, all the while enjoying exquisite catering and a buzzing Dance Market. Every Teacher Day ticket also includes access to all VDF weekend classes – over 30 to choose from!  Find out more at Energetiks VDF Vitality Teacher Day.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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