These common posts in online dance teacher forums say it all: studio owners are conflicted about making money. In hallway conversations at studio owner conventions, owners engage in Olympic-level mental gymnastics regarding tuition structures or business strategies: anything to figure out how to make a living without feeling—or appearing—greedy.
While some owners need to be better educated on business tactics, the real mud is deeper. Fundamentally many of us feel an invisible pressure: we must forgo financial success since our livelihood involves the higher purposes of serving children and art. In fact, quite the opposite is true: the higher the calling, the more urgent the need for the best resources available. We need to find a way to reconcile our misgivings with our mission. We need permission to make more money than is necessary—to be profitable.
In the 1851 novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (inspiration for the opera La Bohème and the musical Rent), Henri Murger wrote about four artists so devoted to their calling that they would voluntarily live in poverty and allocate any disposable income to their art. This romantic (but ultimately false) cliché of the “starving artist” prevails even today. Some creative professionals never thought about money (because they were training in their art), some were taught that financial abundance conflicts with artistic vision (the Murger trope), and some simply don’t understand the value of their work.
What is the real value of time spent on dance training, yoga practice, or music appreciation? Who decides what art is truly worth—the artist or the audience? How can price and value coexist successfully? There is general unease among creative professionals—dance teachers included!—when it comes to pricing work appropriately, raising fees when necessary, and collecting debts.
Can you—or even, should you?—get artistic and financial fulfillment from the same job? Dance studio owners answering “yes” are unapologetic about throwing away old limiting myths and using savvy financial decisions to benefit their businesses, families, their communities, and their art.
Profitability as security—and service
Building a secure financial foundation for her Moves & Motions School of Dance in New York over 34 years allowed owner Jodi Fera to quickly overcome challenges when significant flooding from Hurricane Ida damaged all three of her locations. Having her day-to-day expenses covered with money to spare meant that Jodi had the financial flexibility to respond without delay, address the damage, and get back to serving her clients. Yet, when starting her business, it had taken Jodi time to overcome entrepreneurial guilt.
“There was a time I felt very guilty, but I finally gave myself permission to be paid for the quality work that I do,” she says. “I have paid off properties; put four children through college. We live a fulfilling life with a good balance of work and leisure.” What keeps her guilt at bay? Designing a program that guarantees great value and using her secure finances to give back.
Giving back also matters to Carrie Smith. With profits from her studio, The Dance Corner in Killingworth, Connecticut, Carrie produces two charitable concerts a year with 100 percent of proceeds benefiting a local children’s hospital, and youth and family organizations. The studio funds both productions fully—a feat that would be impossible with too-narrow profit margins. Students get an extra performing opportunity and a good lesson in the importance of using their gifts and talents to help others.
Profitability as opportunity
In Wylie, Texas, teaching dance isn’t considered a “real” job. (Sound familiar?) Marisa Mailhes of Red Door Dance Academy wants to change that perception. By focusing on her studio’s profitability, she transforms job offerings into career opportunities. “I want my staff to work in an environment that allows the flexibility needed to start families and gives them the ability to continue to grow in their passion for reaching young people through dance” while also paying their bills and making a good living, she says.
Her benefit? “Creating stable jobs for people increases staff retention, which only strengthens the business, which has a return to my employees,” Marisa says. “Instead of a vicious cycle, it’s a profitable one.
Profitability as legacy
Going into her 22nd season, Alicia Knopps knows a thing or two about longevity. Alicia realized her dream when, still a student, she opened her Diamond School of Dance in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Many tough lessons of business ownership followed. Living at her parents’ house as a young owner, Alicia was blissfully ignorant of the financial side of the business and worked herself to the bone doing everything from scrubbing the floors in the morning to fulfilling data entry on the weekends. She remembers these years as “all heart and zero best business practices,” and admits that she cried almost constantly. Every communication with parents was a minefield of self-doubt, and her disorganization led to costly mistakes like missed costume orders and panicked trips to Walmart.
Realizing how much she thrives on striving for and achieving excellence, it became clear to Alicia that there would be no excellence without help, and help costs money. She hired several key staff and never looked back. “Now I can go the extra mile without worrying; I can bonus an employee, I can give a refund to a dissatisfied client. The better I do, the better I can do for everyone in my life. Focusing on finance has snowballed into benefiting not only my family with financial freedom and the ability to live the life of our dreams, but also our dance community by giving us the opportunity to build a brand-new performing arts center, put money into educational opportunities, and provide full-time careers in the arts for our instructors.”
Alicia also sees her path as a model for her students—no matter their eventual career. “Success is not something to be embarrassed about. I used to be afraid of anyone knowing I was successful until I realized that I’m a role model for hundreds of kids. I’m showing them what a hard-working mom can accomplish,” Alicia says. “What parent wouldn’t want their child to watch someone thrive and accomplish their dreams?”
Profit is an essential part of business
Profit is an essential part of business Profit can sometimes seem like unnecessary extra money. Vanessa Terrell changed her mind about that after undertaking repair work at her The Pointe School of Dance, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, studio. One line item on the repair company’s estimate was “overhead and profit.” That figure was 18 percent of the total project cost.
With this new mindset, Vanessa fixed pricing at the studio that was not working, and surprisingly “had fewer difficult conversations with parents about finances.” She focused on two plans of action which helped steer the narrative toward value instead of price: she continued to make improvements to the facility and investments in the staff which were apparent to clients, and she aligned pricing with the average in her market so she was no longer perceived as the “cheap” studio in the area. Shifting her brand focus away from the discount-shoppers helped Vanessa (and her clientele) see the studio in a whole new light.
“Businesses must be profitable to continue, to grow, to invest in their staff and community. It’s a necessity,” she says, “not an excess.”
The famous tagline from Rent—”No day but today”—is a romantic notion, but let’s face it: focusing on today barely pays the bills and doesn’t leave anything for tomorrow. What does the tomorrow of your dreams look like? Realize that your beautiful vision of tomorrow will take resources—and don’t let entrepreneurial guilt stand in your way.
Still not sure? to let go of guilt:
Separate yourself from the business. Your clients are paying a business for a service. Consider it an equal and fair exchange—because it is. “Once I separated from the responsibility of accounts receivable,” Jodi could see that her clients were “paying the business—they weren’t necessarily paying me, the person.”
Find little ways to make big changes. Sunita Joshi of Hudson Conservatory in Hudson, Ohio, advises: “Don’t do everything all at once. Have a three-to-five year goal of where you want/need to be and plan a couple of changes each year that will affect different clients. Your time is worth money and you can’t give 100 percent to your business if you are not making money.”
Focus on the studio’s mission. Carrie ponders whether her prices help or hinder her mission, makes adjustments, then “find(s) a way to give families evidence of value by adding special events or programming. “Show that what you do matters and is an investment in their kids,” she says.
Be confident. Build a studio that parents will rave about and don’t worry about the price. “I tell people we are well worth every penny when they complain,” Alicia says, “and then they agree and stop complaining.”