A few years shy of 40, I’ve been teaching dance classes since the “ripe” age of 15. That means, for over 20 years and more than half my life, I’ve worked as an instructor in more than a dozen different studios, institutions, and organizations.
If you had told me at the start that teaching dance is a challenging but rewarding way to make a living, that my students and their parents would keep me on my toes, I would have probably smiled politely and thought… “duh!” Hey, I was 15.
But looking back, I’ve realized there are things I never thought to think about when I set out on this path. All sunshine and lollipops? No, but there are definitely rainbows.
I don’t claim these observations as universal dance teacher truths but, for better or worse, I want to be real for a second about some of the unexpected ups, down, pros, and cons I’ve discovered during a relatively long career of teaching dance. So, here goes…
I Never Thought…
That I’d miss being the pupil.
Students show up and work. They sweat hard, they dance hard and, as a dance teacher, at some point I started to miss being a student. Well, maybe not the self-doubt or insecurities… But to dance for myself or to dance and not be in charge? Bliss.
That I’d spend so many hours (physically and mentally) on the job.
Class planning, choreographing, performances or competitions, and problem-solving everything from technical corrections to behavior take up hours of time outside of class. Then there’s the task of professional development and continuing education, the pseudo-celebrity of always running into people you know when off-duty, and the long/late hours working in the studio while everyone else is home for the day or out socializing. Plus, after talking with other dance teachers about their home lives I’ll mention that even if you’re prepared to wear your dance teacher hat almost constantly, friends or spouse or family may not always be. Something to think about.
That parent-wrangling would be such a massive part of what I do.
No matter how challenging or wonderful dance parents are, they require as much management, finesse, educating, care, and energy as my dance students. The moments when I’ve been unprepared or unable to embrace these facts have been the times when I felt most worn down or burnt-out by teaching dance.
That my students and their families would feel a certain ownership of me.
They are sometimes surprised to find out I have a life outside the studio, or are insulted when I’m not available 24/7 and yes, on occasion someone has felt that paying me means ownership or control over my decisions and methods. The flip side of this is that I’ve also been treated like family on holidays, during the birth of my kids, and even in times of struggle. A dance teacher has a large, extended family and all the joys and troubles that go with it.
That I feel a certain ownership of my students.
In striving to be a great dance teacher, I’ve invested great time and emotion and energy into each student even when my interaction with him/her lasts only a short time. As a result, many students have left a lasting impression on my own life and I have felt their successes and failures deeply, at times needing to remind myself they are not my own. The losses are hard too. When a former student of mine suddenly passed away 2 years ago, I genuinely mourned her loss. We were no longer close in proximity or even relationship but she was one of mine for a time, and that’s all it takes.
That hourly pay can be risky business.
There are short-term and long-term periods during which dance teachers are sometimes unable to work. My children were born in summer and I had a partner with whom I could juggle schedules. Even had that not been the case, loss of my income would have been felt but not detrimental, again because my partner’s job covered our living expenses. But not every dance teacher is in that situation or able to secure salaried employment, and being out of work (and therefore out of pay) due to pregnancy, or illness, or injury, or to care for a child or family member are circumstances all dance teachers are likely to face at some point. “No work = no pay’ is a harsh reality of the work in both planned and unforeseen situations.
That there are drawbacks to never holding a full-time job.
Benefits like health insurance, sick days, pensions, and disability/injury compensation may not be offered to part-time workers. Dance teachers have more flexibility in some areas – bringing children to work or choosing their schedule for example – but in the wake of health or life-changes, I’ve witnessed teachers struggle to add or transition to occupations that offer benefits or stability. Even if you have a full-time teaching load, your hours may not be considered full-time by law or by future employers. A series of part-time jobs on a job application can have a negative impact on gaining employment outside of dance. And despite published recognition of what dancers bring to the table as employees, not all employers are willing to test the theory that dancers are some of the smartest and hardest workers on the planet. When the only credits on your resumé are dance-related, employers in other fields may consider it a leap of faith to offer you the job above candidates with more traditional work experience. With that being said, dancers often DO make great employees and they’re tenacious enough to keep going after what they want despite the obstacles.
That I would continually be scrutinized.
Dance is often seen as something purely recreational or just for children so, when you are young, there’s little resistance to the notion of pursuing it. When I went from being a 20-something to 30-someting, I started to encounter those of the opinion that teaching dance is an occupation people grow out (or age out) of. But a dance teacher’s age isn’t the only thing under a microscope. Anything/everything is subject to analysis and review – weight, muscle tone, hair, makeup, attire, body art, skin-color, relationships, family, past mistakes, and more. Unfounded or not, fair or not, the level of scrutiny can be a challenging aspect of the job.
That some people will never see the value of what I do.
Whether it’s a parent, a student, another teacher, friends or members of my own family, I’ve found there are those who will never understand why dance matters – the purpose or usefulness of dance – those who will fail to respect my contributions to a class or to the community, who will diminish my work because it doesn’t align with their own notions about what dance or teaching is all about.
That some days I want to be anywhere, doing anything else and some days I wouldn’t be caught dead being anywhere, or doing anything else.
The spectrum of feelings I’ve had toward something about which I am so passionate has sometimes been surprising even to me. Love affairs can be that way.
That I’d forever be revising myself and my methods.
I have yet to figure out the best way of doing anything. I’m continuously learning, tweaking, and striving to do better. I knew that learning is ongoing but I thought at some point I’d feel like I had everything down to a science and in some things that’s true but the refining process of teaching is never done, just like dancing itself.
That uncomfortable tasks and conversations would often fall to me.
From bodily function and body odor to offering critique and evaluation of a student’s progress, there have been topics I’ve had to address and both literal and figurative messes I’ve had to clean up that have made me uncomfortable, if for no other reason than they made someone else uncomfortable. Being a dance teacher is never easy… or dull!
That my work could be someone’s lifeline.
I remember that, as a kid, dance felt like my lifeline. Despite this, I don’t think I ever put much thought at the start into how dance might be a lifeline for my own students. I didn’t anticipate that someday my class would be the only place a student feels he belongs, or that my encouragement would be the most positive part of a student’s week, or what simply showing up could mean to a dance student experiencing uncertainty and chaos at home. No, I’m not a doctor or nurse but my work and efforts HAVE been that kind of lifeline, not because of who I am or the way I teach but because dance is powerful – dance matters, it makes a difference and I’ve been blessed enough to witness that.
That’s why, despite the ups and downs, pros and cons of spending half a life or more teaching dance, I feel privileged to be part of this work.
Yes, I know some veteran teachers have decades on this newbie so, if you want to add your own observations, we’d love to read them in the comments.
If you’re just starting out or still considering making a life as a dance teacher, I hope you’ve found my list insightful. If you have questions or thoughts, we want you to share those too!
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world. Read Nichelle’s posts.