Topical Series #3: I’m A Free Agent

Ooohhh, I’m a bit nervous writing this post, but I think it is a very important subject that is not often talked about. It kind of relates to my previous post about when learning to dance that you make sure you find an instructor that can teach in a way that you can understand and process. And if it’s not working out, to feel free to move on to a different instructor who can suit your needs. Sometimes that can be a little tricky. One of those situations where it is easier said, than done.

The topic I’m talking about is whether or not as a dance student we are free agents, at liberty to dance with whichever instructor we desire and the sometimes-weird possessiveness that the instructor or studio may exhibit for his/her/its students.

When it all boils down, I personally believe that I am the customer, I am the one paying to learn, and I should be able to go wherever I want to do that.

However, it actually isn’t as black and white as that. It isn’t as easy to navigate as one might think.

Hopefully you can avoid some of the difficulties I’ll mention by doing “dancer-views” before settling on a particular instructor. I plan to write a post later on about how to go about the process of finding and selecting an instructor, so I’ll leave that for another time. However, even if you do your due diligence, it may not always be possible to stay with your current instructor indefinitely. Life happens. I’m with my third instructor, and in both previous cases, there were life events that pushed that change along.

But for now (and for what I hope is a long, long time to come) as you know from the blog, my primary instructor is Ivan, who is an independent dance instructor. He is my #1. Any place I go to take group classes or whatever (unless it is just social dancing or I’m not there enough for it to matter and it’s none of their business) is aware of my instructor. Conversely, Ivan is aware that I take group classes at Inna’s studio, and I often inform him if I go social dancing as well, out of courtesy.

With Ivan, he has made it clear that if I want to dance with other instructors for ballroom, then I need to not dance with him. Coaching would be a different situation, or a lesson with Marietta or Nona as a one time deal for styling or something would be fine too, and he’d know about it.

But if I want to learn something that he doesn’t have expertise in, like West Coast Swing, or Argentine Tango, then I just have to tell him my desire and he’d be cool with that. That is the arrangement we have set up. But the point is, we had a conversation about it. At no point did I go behind his back and do things. I wouldn’t want to risk losing him as an instructor. We have this agreement set up and I respect it.

Somehow, however, I’ve managed to be dancing at like three different places (sometimes more), but this is not, from what I’ve heard, the “norm” when it comes to ballroom dancing. And if you are going to go that road, it is extremely, extremely important to be respectful of the professionals at each location, as well as their students, and the relationships between them. It is extremely, extremely important to be upfront and clear on what relationship you have to each place you dance. Otherwise, things can get very messy, very quickly!

From my past personal experience, and from that of others who have shared with me, some teachers and studios can become almost possessive of their students. I can even understand it, to a point. They want to protect their business and that only makes sense. However, I feel like it comes from a scarcity mindset – the idea that the instructor or studio has to keep the student away from any other dance influences for fear that the new or different dance instructor or class may “steal” the student away is focused on a fear of losing something. From my perspective, it isn’t possible to steal a student. If you are providing the value a student is looking for, they won’t go anywhere, no matter how many “other” group classes they take, or instructors they are exposed to. This would be an abundant mindset.

If a student leaves, that is some feedback for you. Dare to ask the questions about why the person left and work to amend the area of weakness. Sadly, many professionals and studios don’t see it that way. They see it as a cut-throat business and rivalries with bad-blood can exist, especially if a student is particularly bad about “studio-hopping.” (You have to know that some people just cannot be pleased, no matter what!)

But the fact is, some of the studios just don’t offer everything a person might be looking for. Not everyone offers Lindy Hop, or ballet. If I can’t get those at my primary studio, and I want them, I should be at liberty to go elsewhere to find them. My primary studio can always take that as feedback and grow such areas if they so desire. But to prevent me, threaten me, or guilt me into not doing more dancing if I have that desire, I feel is poor behavior. To allow myself to let any threat, or guilt deter me from what I really want is not okay either.

However, there is really something to be said for sticking with one instructor or studio when its good for you, even if it is tough. Sometimes there are issues to work through, even if you adore your instructor. I’ve had a lesson or two with Ivan where we had to get clear on a few things and it wasn’t necessarily comfortable. But I’d choose being uncomfortable and having open, honest communication, than to lose a fab instructor any day of the week. That is just me.

Again, as mentioned in a previous post, there isn’t necessarily one “right” way, the be-all and end-all way of dancing. That means that each instructor you learn from will give you some similar information, and some very different information than others. This can be very confusing and muddle the clarity of your dancing. A person has to be careful of not always thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It might be very green right where you are. Sticking it out with your instructor may be the best choice you ever make. Also, if you do decide to receive instruction from multiple sources, be aware that you may need to filter some of the information and make sure that you apply those things that will best serve you while leaving the rest behind. This will take discernment on your part.

If the time does come when you feel the need to change instructors, I’d encourage you to do it in as clean, clear, and honest manner as possible. Although some people just stop taking lessons, not only can this strain your relationship with the instructor and the studio, but it steals the opportunity for the instructor or studio to respond to your issue, and even if the issue can’t be amended, it robs them of the feedback you could provide so they don’t recreate the same pitfall with another student.

So, to answer the primary question of this post, am I a free agent? Yes…and no. Yes, because I take classes at a variety of places that I feel will enhance and enrich my dancing. But no, because I am very clear that Ivan is my primary ballroom instructor and I’m not going anywhere else for that. I mean, the entire relationship is built on trust. You can’t have trust if you are not engaging in open, honest communication or going behind someone’s back. I guarantee it will show up in your dancing.

What about you? Do you only dance with one instructor at one location? Why? How does that work for you? Or do you dance a lot of places? What positive or negative experiences can you share around that? What advice would you give someone who was considering dancing more than one place or changing instructors? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


14 thoughts on “Topical Series #3: I’m A Free Agent

  1. ghadaboulos says:

    I have so many comments for this, but have to run to the gym :), good job!!

  2. Ivonne says:

    This is a great topic. I consider the studio where I take my private lessons, my “home-base studio” for ballroom. I am very happy with my instructors there, and the quality of my lessons and level of personal attention not just from the instructors but from the whole “family” at the studio. And even though I have met and “dancer-viewed” other instructors outside of that studio in preparation for when my current instructor goes away for the summer, I was happy to meet another instructor at the same studio with whom I feel a good connection (for dancing and as a person). I met another instructor befor meeting him, and I was ready to make the decision to go with him instead, outside of my studio because he is AWESOME in every way. But I won’t lie that I felt relieved when I met and danced with the new instructor at my studio for the first time, because I feel really good at my home-base and wanted to continue coming there. I love my current instructor but the people/studio as a whole are the other part of what keeps me coming back to it.

    That being said, there is something that I can’t get at my studio, that I really like and want to learn more of, and yes, that’s LIndy Hop, which you metnioned in your blog post. This just isn’t something they offer. Sure any instructor could probably teach me the basic steps there, but they don’t “live” lindy hop the way my lindy instructors (who go to several studios around town and also teach at their home) do. If they came and taught a once-a week class, or even the progressive Sunday series I’m currently attending with them, at my home studio I would be thrilled! My current dance needs/wants would all be met under one roof!

    And I do take group dance or style/technique classes here and there around town sporadically (salsa, west coast swing, ballet, burlesque), more for social reasons than anything else. I am a social person who loves to spend time with friends and meet new people. I also love “new and different” and scratch that itch once in a while by taking a class at another studio, or meeting a friend where *they* like to go, to spend time with the friend – like working out together at this gym vs. that gym. But my day-to-day, you-know-where-to-find-me studio, remains the same!

    Incidentally, a new tiny studio opened a few blocks from my house, and they teach flamenco! I’m curious. I might sign up and try some of that too!

  3. As an instructor, I think it’s totally fine if students want to take lessons multiple places. But I do really appreciate it when my students give me a heads up about what they’re doing and why, for a couple reasons: (1) So I can make sure that the plan I have for their dancing still corresponds with what they want, (2) So I can relate their other dancing to what we’re doing in the ballroom, and (3) Because it’s a small pond, kids – I don’t appreciate looking like an idiot in front of other instructors when I find out from them that they are teaching students who work with me.

    The flip side of this is that there are multiple kinds of students, at various levels of expertise. For some people, who really know what they’re doing, and how to filter and correlate the information they’re getting, I say go ahead and go nuts. But for more less experienced students, sometimes it’s difficult – I had a guy once who was step-happy, and always wanted to learn new patterns. He went out and did social dance classes (salsa, bachata) someplace else, and learned a ton of patterns, and about six months later reported back to me that he realized he couldn’t actually lead any of those patterns because his leading skills and his frame were not up to par.

    Moral of the story: sometimes what you want to learn and what you need to learn are totally different things. If you have an instructor you like and respect, and who respects you (and your time and money), then you should be able to have an open and honest conversation about that. If you can’t…well, that’s a problem. Start looking for another teacher.

    • loveablestef says:

      Against the line of dance, you make an excellent point about what a student may want to learn versus what we need to learn. I really appreciate your input and perspective as an instructor. And I agree with you that especially when you are beginning it is probably advantageous to stick with one instructor, at least until you have a firm grasp of the basics.

      I had an instructor in the past who didn’t want me to go elsewhere for any dancing. Obviously I am not with him anymore. But I ran into one of his students at a West Coast Swing party once after I left. She commented that it was such a bummer he was so close minded about learning elsewhere. He berated her in the past when she asked about things she had learned so she felt like she could never tell him if she went anywhere, what she wanted to work on. She was sad about it.

      I am glad there are more open minded instructors out there like you, but I totally agree…open, honest communication is paramount! If that can’t happen, as it couldn’t with that particular instructor, then it May be time to look elsewhere.

  4. My personal belief is, good dancing is good dancing is good dancing. Until you are at such a high level that there are serious technical distinctions between different approaches (e.g. you are competitive with the top 100 in the world), it doesn’t make any difference. You will get something out of studying with any teacher.

    It’s also true that we forget sometimes what we are or are not ready to learn. I hear students say all the time, “well, why didn’t you tell me that before?!” and the answer is, you weren’t ready to deal with that particular information yet. I can’t teach you calculus until you can multiply.

    The dance business is tough; instructors can get really territorial about their student base and are afraid to lose them (because paying your rent is a nice thing to be able to do). It makes people a little crazy sometimes. But I really believe that if you teach the best way you can and respect and value your students, they will study with you no matter how many other teachers they visit. And if they don’t, at least you did the best you could for them, and you can feel positive about the dancing you did teach.

    • loveablestef says:

      True that! I always learn something from any teacher I encounter…and other students, for that matter. That same instructor who was weird about dancing elsewhere was also very against students “teaching” students. While I understand that in some cases it can be “the blind leading the blind” in other cases more experienced dance students have valuable things to share. Again, discernment is important.

      Also, to your point about when students ask their instructor why they were never told a particular detail in the past, sometimes, when I’ve asked that same question, the response is, “I have told you that before!” “Ohhhhhh.” I just didn’t have the ears to hear it before that moment. I wasn’t ready to receive that particular tidbit even when it was shared! And yes, there are more layers to dancing than an onion. Understanding is when we arrive at the same place again and know it for the first time. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the “core” of basics like swing and sway, hip motion, proper foot mechanics, and the like. Learning to dance is like jumping down the rabbit hole. It can go as deep and as far as we let it.

      One case in particular comes to mind. Ivan had instructed me to push forward on a particular step. He had told me this at the time, unbeknownst to me, because my weight was on my heels. At a certain point the issue was corrected because I was always thinking about driving forward on that step. Then one day he told me to do the opposite! What? I thought. The rules had changed. But he explained his reasoning and it made sense. I had to over-correct my problem and once that had been accomplished, we got back to a “middle way” with that step. Good instructors really do have a plan for improving our dancing. I have to trust there is a method to their seeming madness. And sometimes what we think is “right” is only a step along the way to where we will ultimately arrive.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments! I love my readers!

  5. Aurora says:

    What an interesting topic!!!!

    To be honest, I’d never really thought about this before…because my partner and I were dancing anywhere and everywhere, within a month or so of our starting dancing, actually…so, although we had a single instructor for our private sessions, we also attended practice parties at other studios regularly, and attended weekly lessons with three different university ballroom teams–which were sometimes taught by the members of the team, and sometimes by professional instructors from around town.

    MIT, especially, had a lovely 4 hours or so of dance every weekend, with a beginning lesson usually taught by the MIT BD team members…followed by an intermediate lesson (also MIT BD team taught) of whatever was beginning, the previous week–and then, best of all–an advanced session taught by someone from a local studio–of whatever dance was intermediate, the week before.

    Oh…and we also signed up for “specialty” lessons, like Argentine tango or Lindy hop, or West Coast swing, at studios that specialized in those dance (ugh–learning lindy from a ballroom instructor is NOT the way to go, usually!!!), when we wanted to learn them, as well.

    Kari was ALWAYS our ballroom instructor–and when he and his wife left Fred Astaire–and opened their own studio–we followed him there, but he knew of our “promiscuous” dance ways, and didn’t mind. πŸ˜‰

    I think that if I’d wanted to become a much higher level Latin dancer, then Kari would’ve recommended someone else to me, since his specialty was unquestionably smooth–but I was never dancing at a level for it to matter.

    I will say, though, that Kari did not care for our learning from the students at the various universities–because he said we picked up too many bad habits…and we, in turn, pretty much ignored any technique suggestions we got elsewhere, and stuck to learning new steps–which we used social dancing, not in the studio, so much.

    Every now and then we’d pick up something new, that he hadn’t seen before–usually something from the Lindy crowd–and he’d quiz us on it–and then explain what we would have to do to get away with it in a ballroom comp…but mostly, he just ignored what we did elsewhere.

    Now that you’ve brought this up, though–when I find myself in the market for an instructor again, I’ll certainly keep all the excellent advice here in mind! Thanks! πŸ™‚

    • loveablestef says:

      Yep – learning dances like Lindy or West Coast (WCS) is not, I think, best done from ballroom-only trained instructors. I had a very interesting experience with this one. My ballroom instructor “taught me” WCS. We pefromed it at a competition. Another instructor at our table and I struck up a conversation (this was with the instructor who was posessive and I think he shot daggers with his eyes at the poor man but I digress). Anyways, the instructor was kind enough to tell me that he noticed that I felt the music and that I should check out WCS. He said he had lots of friends in that community and that the “Westies” were very fun, friendly, and welcoming.

      He had gotten into WCS after a “Westie” saw him dance WCS at a competition and asked him if he was mocking the dance. He was so taken aback by the comment he went to a WCS lesson to find out what the person meant. If you’ve ever seen WCS in ballroom as opposed to that at WCS party then you’ll know…they don’t really look anything alike. “True” WCS is much sultrier, sexier, smoother, and cooler.

      Anyways, he really got into the dance and although ballroom lessons paid the bills, he and his professional partner were climbing the ranks in the world of WCS.

      He mentioned to me that they had champions in WCS of every shape and size because what was valued in that dance was musicality and connection, moreso than being a particular size or shape. It intrigued me and I eventually did go check it out.

      Also interesting that Kari ignored what you learned elsewhere! But I’m glad he was open minded for you and that you had such great experiences hopping around.


      • Aurora says:

        I think that people tend to lump partner dances together with ballroom–particularly Argentine tango (because, well, there’s TANGO in it) and all hundreds of swing variations (because, um, SWING, right?)–but really, ballroom is a pretty limited, prescribed set of dances, taught in a very particular style.

        A ballroom instructor may know the steps of WCS or Argentine tango, or Lindy hop–but a ballet or jazz dancer may know the steps of the waltz–but that doesn’t mean they understand how to do it properly! (Which isn’t to say that CAN’T know those dances–just that they’re as different as, say, ballroom and ballet.)

        So yeah, it’s really most likely best to go someplace that specializes in other types of dance–unless your instructor does them on the side. Pro ballroom dancers (as opposed to just social ones) tend to look a little silly, when they try to do something as low and loose as Savoy-style Lindy–what one of my partners and I used to call “goofy-footing”. (Our style of Lindy was more Hollywood style–closer to the ballroom we were more used to. ;)) (Here’s a GREAT link to some “goofy-footing”–done really, really well: )

        Incidentally–I agree about WCS, and that crowd and their attitude–although I’d say I’ve pretty much seen that attitude with any swing/lindy crowd I’ve been with, as well–very friendly, democratic, and accepting with regards to size, shape, and skill level. Just look at Frankie Manning–still teaching workshops, hanging with the Lindy crowd and dancing his brains out at 94:

        And yes, WCS is just as smooth as silk, when done well–really, really lovely! πŸ™‚

  6. Paragon2Pieces says:

    My studio’s waiver and release provides that students agree not to take classes with any of the studio’s teachers outside of the studio. This is meant to protect the studio’s revenue stream and I believe it’s likely enforceable against the teacher (assuming the teacher has otherwise signed a non-compete with the studio, assuming the teacher/studio are located in a state where non-competes are legally enforceable against employees), but I am hard-pressed to conclude that it would be enforceable against the student (notwithstanding that, the studio could refuse service to the student on an ongoing basis). Anyhow, I know this isn’t the issue that Stefanie was driving at, but it was an interesting to provision to find in the waiver and release nonetheless.

    To Stefanie’s point, I have been considering taking additional classes outside of my studio. A friend from high school is a professional with her own studio in an adjoining county. Her studio would never become my primary studio because it’s too much of a drive, but I would love to stop by for the occassional weekend workshop. I don’t feel bad about this and I don’t think my studio would dissuade me.

    Within my studio, I’ve taken individual lessons with four different teachers at various points in time. It’s clear that there are some stylistic differences, but I can keep that straight. The real benefit, to me, is that each has a very different communication style. One is not consistently better at communicating to me than the other, but sometimes I just need to hear the same idea expressed a few different ways for it to really click. Among those teachers is a female teacher who also has a ballet background–she has been a great help with reprogramming some of my ballet-based dance default settings… she speaks my language, if you will, so it’s really nice to have her in the mix.

  7. I can’t believe I missed this post!! I just had this conversation with a friend from my studio last night!! I am running out the door –must be something in this post about the timing when it’s read LOL- but will read it and comment tonight – can’t wait!! Also will forward to my friend!
    Hugs!! I have lots to say as well.

  8. I loved what everyone had to say and agree with most of it. I dance at a chain studio – and love it. I’ve been there for 7 years – and have an amazing instructor, the community in the studio (as others have described) is like a family, and it’s great. At my studio, is it an “unwritten rule” that you don’t take anywhere else. Of course you would never be told that, but there are subtle undertones – nothing mean -but they definitely don’t want you dancing anywhere else. In some ways I completely understand and respect that – we represent income to them – in many way – lessons, comps, parties, coachings, referrals, etc. They don’t want to lose that or have it end up elsewhere. But then I feel that they should go out of their way to provide superior customer service and meet all the customer needs if they want all the customer’s time and money and commitment.

    The challenge is that from a learner’s perspective, there are reasons why I want to take elsewhere from time to time (not permanently). One is that some of the styles I want to try (as others have said) are not readily available at my studio ( Argentine Tango for example). Not just is it not available, but if it was, the pricing would be much higher because of the chain contract, etc. For example, I just took a 4 week intro class very inexpensively and enjoyed it. I wouldn’t necessarily do more – but it was nice to try it out. On the other hand -I’m glad I didn’t have to use lessons from my contract to try this as it would have cost me a lot more.

    Another reason I like to take at another studio is ( again as others have said) the ability to hear and learn things differently from different people. I get that once in a while when we have outside coaches – but that is at great expense. It is nice to take a few lessons with a different instructor to hear things presented differently – sometimes it clicks that way.
    Also – for me – I do primarily Standard – and there are not as many people who dance Standard at my studio – so at other studios, I have the ability to dance with several other people and that makes me a better dancer. I’m not sure how “good” I am becoming when the only person I can dance with is my instructor 😦
    But the challenge in all of this is that going to another studio is seen as threatening to our studio. Being open and honest about it can come across as threatening. It is better to just keep your choices to yourself.
    Right now (and for quite a while – to avoid hassles) I’m just sticking to my own studio as I’m prepping for my showcase and barely have any time – but there have been times when I wish it was as simple and open and accepting as Stef describes. I think it should be.

    Sometimes I describe it to friends who don’t dance that it’s like being in a relationship with a guy ( without the sex or the dating! LOL) but it’s essentially a commited relationship – I see this guy two or three times a week, and if I go elsewhere to dance it’s like I’m cheating on him. But as my friends remind me – I don’t pay the guys I date!! LOL πŸ™‚ Seriously – my downfall is that I have to remind myself it is a business relationship and I am the customer – it is ok for me to go to other places if I choose. Who knows – maybe after this post I’ll get inspired to be brave and branch out.

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