DanceStudioOwners.com Teleseminar Suzanne Gerety: Hello, everyone. This is Suzanne Blake Gerety from DanceStudioOwner.com. I have a great topic today for our Members Only Teleseminar called How to Handle Favoritism, Cattiness, and the Diva Syndrome at Your Dance Studio. We are joined by Kathy Blake, my mother and co-founder of DanceStudioOwner.com, a 36-year veteran studio owner and also by Ginny Hall. Ginny, go ahead and introduce yourself, your daughter, and your ballet experience. Ginny Hall: I live in Raleigh, North Carolina. My daughter is 14; she had her birthday on December 8th. She has been taking ballet since she was four years old. She is very serious about becoming a professional ballet dancer. She is in a pre-professional ballet program training five to six days a week and she also regularly performs as an understudy with Carolina Ballet, the professional company here in town. She is very serious about ballet. Suzanne: Say a little about where this topic came from and how we have touched upon this. Anyone who is joining us on the call is in the right place. This is the DanceStudioOwner.com Members Only Teleseminar. We will just give a little background, Jenny. I will ask if there are any questions because, if you have taken the time to be on this call today, we want to make sure we answer your question. Jenny, go ahead and share about how this came about. Ginny: We changed studios this year. We went to a new studio and they offered my daughter a full scholarship. Immediately upon arriving at the studio, they gave her the principle part in their fall production which produced a lot of sour grapes among the dancers who had been there longer than she had been. There was a lot of sniping; a lot of gossiping; there was talk of things being posted on peoples’ Facebook pages, critical or otherwise. No one was ever identified as having done it, but all the dancers were called in one day and told that they should not be posting negative things on their Facebook pages. I sort of made a mention of this on Twitter where Suzanne and I are connected as followers on Twitter and it has turned out to be a pretty interesting topic in which a lot of people shared input. Suzanne: Kathy Blake is here on the call, as well. I want to say welcome to all the people who have just joined us. You are in the right place with the DanceStudioOwner.com Members Only Teleseminar. Before we dig deeper into this topic, I want to say that our studio is not immune to this. We have had issues before. Does anyone have a question which you really want to ask before we get started? You are welcome to do so. Everyone is being very shy, but you will have a chance at the end to ask questions. Jenny, your daughter is obviously very talented based on what you shared. Kathy, we decided to talk about this subject because it happens in our studio, too. Do you want to share some of your thoughts? Kathy Blake: Sure. First of all, I think it is very important to understand that feeling happy about someone else’s success when you want the same job, the same position, the same level of accomplishment is not always a very easy thing to do. The nature of our business is competitive as a context from which we work. Even if we are competing with ourselves and against a standard of excellence, there is a standard out there in the world that says you have to be able to do X, Y, and Z to even get ready to audition for a professional company. Once you audition for a company, the competition within the company is rather ruthless. It really is about the survival of the fittest. What are we stuck with? The fact of the matter is that only the best and brightest really make a career in this line of work as a dancer. We are also faced with the very difficult positions of being educators, moms, dads, and trainers of people who are very fragile in a psychological and emotional standpoint. We are developing people’s characters, attitudes, and psyches while at the same time trying to develop, at quite a young age, the necessary skills to even be able to think of competing in this very real world of dance. I think it is a real Catch 22. Kids are by nature critical, comparative, and so on. I have a Master’s Degree in Psychology and it has not helped me one bit to deal with these very real problems. We have body envy; we have talent envy. Then the new kid comes on the block and there is an assumption that everybody works their way up the ladder. It is not that way. You do not just get a part because you have been at a studio for ten years. Somebody comes in who is more talented and the fact of the matter is that this is a very difficult part of a studio. I think, in some ways, we cannot stop people from being angry at somebody else’s success or being envious of somebody else’s success. Kids will be this way over mundane, stupid little things let alone getting a part as the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Suzanne: You bring up a good point, Kathy. We could talk long and hard about how this issue will not go away, but I do think there are some things we do at our studio. Kathy: This is going to happen. Now what do we do with it to keep it under damage control at some point? I think what you said, Jenny, about the director of your studio, this person called the kids together and said, “Listen, guys, this is not okay to do this.” All you can really do is monitor, look at the behavior, and help kids. This is where we are dealing with the development of their character. Help them to understand that this is not helping them achieve their goals nor is it helping anyone else. Suzanne: I am going to take a step back and say that there are some real things we spoke about concerning how we handle this. Let’s set the framework. We are mid-season for most of our members in the Northern Hemisphere. We do have many Australian members who are completing their year. We are mid-year right now and we are up against the issue of perhaps some burnout from the stress of this time of year. I would say most of this comes around our more advanced students; the student who have the demands of middle school and high school. They are involved in many activities and they are overextended. They are kids doing kid things. You are running your dance team, your dance competition team, your dance company or whatever you call it. One of the things we did at our studio, Kathy, was to create a Dance Company Code of Ethics. Ginny: That is a good idea. Suzanne: We have it posted on the Web site, if anyone wants to use it. Kathy: We have it on the wall in the studio. Suzanne, read the core values that we adhere to as professionals and pre-professionals. Suzanne: One of the things is taking these girls and sitting them down. We talked about the expectations. What are we doing this for? What is the purpose and mission behind being in the dance company? What does that mean? The last thing kids want to do is follow rules. Getting them to adhere to a dress code is painful. However, you can get behind a code of ethics. You can use the one on the Web site as a member; you can modify it; you can have your team create their own. There is a Mission Statement: “To have our dancers achieve new levels of artistry and performance beyond what is possible in their regular class work; to train and empower students to be pre-professional level with a competitive edge who may consider dance as a major or minor in college; to make possible a young dancer’s dream to pursue a career in theater, dance performance, or as a dance educator.” Then there are values. There are values under integrity, leadership, responsibility, professionalism, and character. The dancers are given this code and they are essentially agreeing to it. Kathy: We have a paragraph about each one of them. Perhaps, Suzanne, you could just pick one of them and read it. It would not take that long and it might really help our listeners. Suzanne: Absolutely. The one that jumped out at me was about leadership. We talk about this issue of cattiness and favoritism. The leadership paragraph says, “To be given the privilege of setting an example, serving the people we are leading, and being an inspiration to others in our dance studio community.” It is like raising the bar and having them agree to it. Other ideas around this would be to have the team sign a poster board that is displayed. Perhaps it is everyone agrees to a consequence. Jenny, you brought up a great example. I have dealt with Facebook in this way. My husband speaks professionally; he travels all over the country speaking to middle school and high school kids. This is real for them. For me and many of our listeners, in high school it was like passing notes. This is real for them. They are on Facebook; they have text messaging. So- and-so said this and so-and-so posted that. It is a real thing. Perhaps you want to add a portion in there about how we will treat each other in the world of cyberspace. What is the consequence if that behavior does not work out? The Code of Ethics is one great way to rally your dancers, your dance team, or your dance company around great behavior. It is about rising above the cattiness. Kathy: We have an agreement with our company members. We want the dance company to exemplify the ideals that we feel are going to serve them best in the professional community one day, whether in their college community or in a performing community. In our agreement, if a student is found to be misbehaving relative to our Code of Ethics, they will be called into a conference with at least one parent present. If they are three times held accountable for real infractions of expected behavior in our studio, they will be taken out of the company. Ginny: I think that is very valuable. It is important for studio owners to confront issues like this because they will not go away. Kathy: They will not go away. Ginny: However, I find that many studio owners are very reluctant to confront. It may be due to financial reasons because they are afraid to lose a student if they confront it. It may be for personal reasons that they just do not want to get into it. I think it is critical. Kathy: I have had my times in my life when I did not have the courage or fortitude to do that. I was so afraid of disgruntling a parent or a student, losing the income, and so on. It is a fear-based mentality. Then I realized that if I say I get up every day to give students the opportunity to not only love dancing, get quality training, and prepare them for the world of dance and/or the world at large simply because of being a part of our dance studio, then I am actually falling short of my own integrity. If I do not have the courage to train people how to be good people as well as good dancers, they will never make it. They just will not make it and I realized that I could not afford to be lax in that area anymore. Suzanne: Jenny, next I want to bring up the conversation around the parent. I will put my Mom hat on here because we have a system in place for that. If there is anyone on the call with a question to ask or a comment to throw out, please do. What do you do with regard to the parent? Kathy, we can talk about this. There has to be a system in place. At the dance studio, we have a rule about gossip. Gossip happens everywhere in every type of business, but it can really run rampant at a dance studio. There are things like, “So-and-so got the part. So-and-so missed class and she is still performing. I thought we had to go to rehearsal!” Kathy, do you want to say a little about the policy to stop gossip and the Parent Concern Form system? Kathy: We have a teacher and a parent rule. My teachers are all instructed that if they get wind of somebody being disgruntled or talking about this and that, then I am to be informed about it so I can confront it. I have a rule: We all come to work every day to ensure each others’ success. I use this as my model and my context from which I make all decisions. Every mom and dad wants their child to be successful and happy. I want all of my employees and customers to be successful and happy. If something is going to be a poison that will affect this, I will go after it like a mother bear protecting her cub. If I see any one of my teachers not doing and saying whatever it will take to have their colleagues be successful or to have me be successful or a student to be successful, they need to come to the person who can do something about it. The essential way to eliminate gossip is this: If something is being said — for instance, a mom says something to a teacher — and they know that I am the one who can do something about it, their responsibility is to report it to me or to say to me, “Mrs. Smith spoke to me the other day. She is very upset that Sarah did not get a major role.” My job is not to say, “Oh, I cannot believe Mrs. Smith! It is always that way, isn’t it?” and to gossip back. Do you see? Instead, I call Mrs. Smith and say, “I would like to have a conference with you. One of my teachers told me that you are upset.” First of all, she is going to know that whatever she says to my teachers comes back to me. My teacher has the responsibility to say to the parent, “I will speak to Kathy about that.” When you do this, you instantly stop gossip. They know that it will go to the person who can actually make a difference in that area. I just found out, for instance, that somebody was saying something about me to another employee rather than to me. Right away, I take aggressive action on that. I say, “You know, the rule here is that you do not talk to one of your colleagues if you are upset with me. Who are you supposed to talk to when you are upset with me?” The person said, “I’m supposed to talk to you.” I said, “Yes, and if I find out you have done this again, you will be terminated.” It sounds really harsh, but doesn’t everybody want to come into a workplace where people really enjoy and appreciate each other? I can complain about my U.S. government all I want, but unless I get involved in politics or write to my senator or become active in some lobbying group, I am not going to make a difference. Suzanne: Jenny, you brought up a great point. You are the mom who is involved with a studio. You do not want to put your daughter in a situation where she is worried that you are going to embarrass her or say something to the teacher. Ginny: They are at that age of embarrassment, too. It does not take much for me to embarrass her. Suzanne: You shared that your daughter was given the lead role and then she was not given a lead role. The hard part is knowing if you should say something or not say something. When do you speak up? What do you go through as a mom at this point that you worry about with regard to communicating with the studio owner? Ginny: I have told me daughter, “You and I were both surprised when you were given that principle role in the fall. I told you when we came to this studio is that you were new and no matter how good you are, you should not expect to be given a lead part. You will have to work your way up. “When you were given a lead part, it was shocking. Now we are getting what we expected and I think you are just going to have to pay your dues.” I am trying to view it for what it was. It truly was shocking that they gave her the lead part right off the bat. I did not expect them to do that and I do not think she has the right to expect anything, actually. I can only imagine the amount of grief that these studio owners took for doing that. On one hand, I am disappointed for her, but on the other hand, she is only 14 and a half and she will live through it. I understand why they are doing what they are doing and it is important. It is not a professional ballet company and, as studio owners, they do have to think about the well-being of their business. The reality is that there are people who feel like, “My daughter has been here since she was five. Why are you giving all the good stuff to this new kid?” As a parent, I think it is very, very hard because you want the best for your child and you want your child to be happy. By the same token, you have to be a little bigger than that. Suzanne: You say so much of what we think about, and yet you are torn. Kathy, there is the favoritism piece which is what you were just talking about there. Is there a way around that? Like you said, as a studio owner you probably have to determine it piece by piece. We had a situation, Kathy, for the spring show’s kids coming up when some of those kids did not make parts. Kathy: I think it is almost impossible for people to be disappointed “well.” When people are disappointed, they are disappointed. They are usually going to make somebody else wrong for it. It is very difficult to deal with disappointment, so we try to talk to each student who does not make a part. I had one kid who was sulking after they did not make two auditions. They auditioned for two different roles and they did not make either one of them. The student was heartbroken and then they started acting out in class and being negative, so I had to have a conference with the mom and the child. I said, “You know, I really understand that this was heartbreaking for you. You tried very hard, but the fact of the matter is that no matter how hard you work, there has to be a certain level of skill. No matter how hard you try to get into MIT, you have to make the grade to be accepted.” Sometimes, it just means sitting down with the child and acknowledging their disappointment. I said, “You need to decide whether you are willing to take it to the next level. Are you willing to do the work and to push yourself and fight through your discouragement? We are here to support you and to help you succeed. However, we also have a responsibility to tell you the truth.” It comes down to the personal communication and being able to be with people who are frustrated. Talk to a studio owner, talk to a parent, and acknowledge, “I understand. This is difficult for us. This is not always about fairness or everybody getting a chance at something. We have to train our children that in the competitive world of dance it is about who does it best.” Programs such as So You Think You Can Dance? are good for studio owners because they helps kids to see that no matter how hard a child works, no matter how much dedication they have, they do not always get the response and the results that they want. Suzanne: That is good. With some studios, dance competition or dance company stuff is nonexistent. With others it is much more dominant. There is a spectrum of this that people can hit on and I think this is the big take-away from this call. Whatever the level of skill of your dancers in advanced levels or of your company or competition team, create some sort of agreement outlining the standard of how they will conduct themselves as leaders in the dance community which is your studio. You can take our Code of Ethics off of the Web site and modify it. Kathy: How about training your students and parents to deal with disappointment? Do you remember, Suzanne, when you did not get into your first competition? Suzanne: I admit it! I was really disappointed. Kathy: I thought the world was going to end right there because you had an expectation that was not met. You felt you deserved it, and when we feel deserving because we have worked hard at something and other people do not share that opinion, it is heartbreaking. Suzanne: Exactly. The other point involves the parent communication lines of stopping the gossip. Jenny, it is like you said. The studio owners are so stretched to begin. We shared in a past seminar that problems are not something to run from; they are actually something to uncover as an opportunity for growth. If there is an upset parent, there would be some sort of communication form. We have a Parent-Student Concern form on the Web site. You can use it. Have some sort or protocol with your teachers to bring up whatever it is because it can be handled. In this case, practice makes perfect. The more you deal with angry, upset parents, the better you get at it. Hopefully, you can put more things into place so you will not have to handle it as much. As a final point, let’s talk about the “diva syndrome” and how it can “affect” the studio. Kathy, we have had it happen. Kathy: Oh, my goodness! Because we love our children, we want to constantly encourage them and we tell them how great they are doing and how hard they are working. Those parents who are willing to spend the time and money to give their child the kind of education it takes in the private sector to become a dancer are constantly championing their children to success. The child is always hearing how great they are and how great they are doing and we want our children to have confidence. However, sometimes divas are created along the way where they have a much too high opinion of themselves. Where does one develop confidence, fortitude, and perseverance to the extent that when we to do not make an audition or are not given a part, we keep believing in ourselves? How do you train a dancer to work hard, give their best, believe in themselves, to persevere and so on, and yet not think so highly of themselves to where they have an exaggerated ego? It becomes ego versus character that is being developed. My feeling is that a strong character and the ability to face what it takes to become extraordinary and excellent in what you do are the things we want to find our way to. To just build ego and that attitude of “you’re great, you can do it” is not going to help anybody stand up against the tides of time. Essentially, a real diva is one who has earned the right to be in the center of the stage. It is actually too bad that we have watered-down the word “diva” because a true diva is one who has worked so hard that the excellence is so paramount and so extraordinary that they get to be the prima ballerina or the operatic soprano. We really want to develop great dancers, but as dance educators and moms and dads we need to know that in tandem with that we have to also develop great people. A great dancer who cannot cope with disappointment, who cannot deal with the stresses of the limelight and the demands of a rehearsal schedule that is daunting, will never have a fulfilling, satisfying career with people throwing roses at her feet. It is a tough row to hoe. The diva syndrome is when the ego is running the show versus the character and spirit of a person. I wish I could present a formula, one, two, three, for achieving this, but I think it starts by realizing the difference between a great dancer or being a great person who dances. Suzanne: Right, but here is the question, Kathy. We deal with the reality of real examples, so let’s give a real example. What does that look like in your dance studio when it is time for the studio owner to have the red warning flag announce, “This is causing problems”? Kathy: I had to have a four-hour conference last year. One Saturday morning I had to come into the studio at 8:00 A.M. It took the parents until noon to tell me how ruthless, horrible, awful, and terrible I was; how I had ruined their child’s life because she was singled out in class. I had destroyed her spirit and on and on. We were trying to take this very talented young woman and prepare her for the real world of dance and the parents saw it as destroying her. Suzanne: Perhaps you have a talented dance. Jenny, maybe you have come across this or seen it. It can really suck the energy out of you as a studio owner because you are doing nothing but answering messages and e-mails. They question everything you do. Kathy: They also give you dirty looks when you walk through the waiting room. Suzanne: This can really, really hurt the spirit of the dance team, the studio itself, and the faculty and staff. For the studio owners, it is a very delicate balancing act to keep the parents happy and to be in communication with them. At what point do you say, “This is not good for us”? Kathy, like you said, perhaps that four-hour meeting was the last straw. Sometimes you have to say, “Our studio is not the best place for your child’s dance training. Perhaps we can recommend a studio that would fulfill that.” Is that correct? Ginny: I have actually seen that at the studio we moved to this year. They actually released a girl from her contract prior to our arrival. They did release her from her company contract due to issues like the ones you are discussing. Kathy: It is about practicing tough love. Number one, we want to stay in business. We want to train dancers who have a chance at fulfilling their dream. We want to be people who are admired and respected in our community and we want to be great parents. There are multiple things going on here. I think it will take the spirit of a tough studio owner and a mom or dad who are willing to confront issues that we know are not going to serve our children well over time. It might be holding them accountable to a value system; teaching them about being gracious in the face of disappointment; teaching them to persevere; teaching them that while it is good to feel confident about themselves, it is also important to know that at times they might not feel good on their way to realizing their dream. It is having the courage to confront issues as they arise, to do it in a loving, sensitive manner, and I think overall being willing to have empowering conversations with folks like you perhaps did, Jenny, with the people who are training your daughter to understand that maybe she will have to work her way up. You did not say that you did this, but perhaps it is meeting with the studio owner and saying, “You know, we were so thrilled that my daughter got this role. We did not have that expectation and I understand that you probably got some fallout about it. We just want you to know that we are here and we enjoy the work you are doing.” You establish a relationship. I work very hard along with my teachers to make sure parents know that we care, not just about them but about their children. When we really care about bringing people forward into the world of dance who are great people and great dancers, we can make the right decisions all along the way. Suzanne: Does anyone on the call have any questions or issues to bring up that we did not cover on the call? Kathy: Jenny, did you have anything you wanted to say to wrap up the call? Ginny: I like the idea of involving parents in some of these issues, particularly with Facebook and the intimidation and so on. Many times as parents we think our children are our sweet, little babies and we do not actually know what they are up to. I respect that relationship between the studio owner and the student. I guess it depends on how egregious the offense is, but as a parent, if my daughter had been up to some of this stuff, I would want to know about it. I think confronting the child personally is important, but I think involving the parent is important, as well. Suzanne: Absolutely. We never meet with a student unless the parent is present. Ginny: Okay. Kathy: We also do not speak to teenagers unless there are at least two adults present in any conversation, other than a casual ending of a class where the student voices a concern. We have found that whatever we say is not what they hear. Suzanne: Exactly; you are speaking Greek. Ginny: I think that is great advice. Suzanne: With regard to the social media, we recommend that studio owners give an outlet for social media communication by means of a fan page on Facebook, if at all possible. This is a public place for their dancers to at least feel like they are interacting with their studio by means of something that is professionally handled and managed. With anything there can be issues. It is free to set up, but it takes a little time to learn. This way you can say, “Okay, to our students who are all hip and online, we can communicate with you that way,” rather than leaving things open to side conversations with faculty and the concern of where the relationship ends. Social media is not going away. If anything, it is growing. The kids can at least interact that way. Of course, you cannot prevent conversations that happen outside of this, but fostering team spirit within your studio and helping them grow as leaders is important. Kathy: That’s right. To wrap it up, I would ask our listeners to think about what I just said. I always have two staff members present at any meeting. It might be the teacher with me or the teacher with my assistant director, along with the parent or the student. Sometimes we need to meet with the parent only. I have found that a conversation between two people, especially when there is an issue at hand, occurs as if it is a confrontation, no matter what the intention is of the director or the teacher. With two adults, it starts to feel like a conference, a collaboration, and a conversation about the issue. There is a sense of freedom to hear it from more than one perspective or two perspectives pitted against each other. My final contribution would be to say that as you face gossiping issues or the diva syndrome, know that you are going to have to face it as a community, not just as my right against your wrong or my should against your shouldn’t. We are a community of parents, dance educators, and students and we want to have a place where everyone feels honored, valued, and heard. Suzanne: Thank you so much, Jenny, for being on this call today. Ginny: Thank you for inviting me. Suzanne: I feel so very lucky to have connected with you. Kathy: We wish your daughter continued success. Suzanne: Exactly, it sounds great. For all of our members and listeners, this is Suzanne Blake Gerety with DanceStudioOwner.com. We appreciate your time and we hope you got something great out of this call today. Thanks so much.
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