Topical Series: Money Makes The World Go ‘Round

Not one to shy away from a touchy issue, I’m going to dare to broach the subject of money in the context of ballroom.

Oh, there are group lessons you can find as inexpensive as $5, but if you are a competitive amateur student and ballroom junkie like me, private lessons with an experienced (and maybe even some less experienced) instructor can easily cost upwards of $75 a pop. Yes, there are some cheaper lessons out there….the lowest I’ve heard of is $60….but there is also the other end of the spectrum of $100 or even $125 per lesson. For a professional who is a champion or a pro on DWTS, they can probably charge whatever they want.

For someone who dances like me, ballroom rivals, and I think exceeds, the financial cost of a another expensive sport and hobby, golf.

No doubt about it, ballroom is an expensive pastime, but where does all that money go? Why are lessons so expensive? Why would anyone in their right mind (including me) pay upwards of $50 to dance for a mere minute-and-a-half in competition? Truly, it boggles the mind.

I want to tackle this topic in a sensitive way but I do think the questions are valid. Again, this is just my perspective, and I am sure there are many others. I am open to your commentary and feedback.

I guess I’ll start by explaining why I am willing to pay such a premium.

The most basic and personally compelling reason is because I enjoy doing it. But for someone new to dancing, or for someone just new to the ballroom world, even this valid reason may not be enough to justify the expense in some people’s minds.

I mean, all the ballet and jazz dancing I did in the past, though associated with a hefty price tag, still never approached the cost of ballroom. I attribute this to the fact that the classes were group, never private, and recitals were infrequent events. Even the costumes were less expensive, never being bedazzled with Swarvosky crystals.

But in ballroom, the way I dance, it is mostly private, one-on-one lessons. So part of the expense can be explained by this fact.

Next, I consider the extensive training and expertise and experience of my instructors. They, too, have poured literally thousands of hours and dollars into their own dance training. Their education, just like that of other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and pharmacists, is extensive and expensive! It’s just that their process looks different and doesn’t take place in a traditional college or university most of the time.

I have to say, that at the going rate, I consider Ivan’s rate to be a steal and I am more than happy to pay the monthly fee at Imperial for the group lessons with Inna. I have garnered great value from my money and time. So for me, even though I’m like, ugh! I wish things were less expensive overall, I am grateful to get such a comparative bargain. I feel like my ballroom dollars go a long way.

Also, I will mention one caveat here – there do exist different levels of experience and expertise when it comes to instructors. Some are worth more than they charge, and some charge more than they should! Certainly an important consideration on where to spend your money will be the level and experience of your instructor. The same $75 can buy you a varying degree of value! Make sure to do your due diligence and research your options before committing to an instructor – especially if you have to purchase a package that will entail multiple lessons with that same person.

Okay. So the process of becoming a professional dancer is expensive. Just like the process of becoming another traditionally recognized professional is.

But still, what about competing? Why is that an astronomically expensive prospect?

Okay well, on some level, that makes sense too.

First off the “daily fee” for an instructor.

I’ve heard variations from $180 to $25,000 per diem cost. Why? Well, because a dance teacher’s income is dependent upon lessons. If a person is gone say, from Thursday through Sunday, as most competition schedules would have you be, then an instructor misses out on all those lessons that would normally take place on those days. Which days do you suppose have the highest volume of lessons? Well, Thursday through the weekend, of course…that is when most people have spare time, right? And as for the variation in daily fees, that has to do with how highly ranked the professional is, how many lessons they generally conduct, and how much individual lessons cost….

For instance, in practical terms, let’s do some theoretical projections.

Say a person charges $75 per lesson and they teach 6 lessons a day…that’s $450 in lost income for each day they go to a comp.

If a person charges $100 per lesson, and teaches 10 lessons daily…that’s $1000 in lost income for each day they go to a comp.

So I, in theory, agree with the daily fee idea because it makes a bit of sense. However, as a student who bears that burden of making up the difference, I do find that it makes the decision to compete a bit harder.

I mean, to be able to afford an extra $1000 per day after also paying for airfare and hotel lodgings, not to mention $45 to $50 or perhaps even more per heat, and also considering the cost differential for scholarship rounds and solos…sheesh! It is a lot to take on. And that doesn’t even take into account purchasing or renting a dress or getting your hair and make-up done, the nails, the nylons, the shoes, the eyelashes, the spray tan.

And by the way, why are individual heats so costly? $50 per 1.5 minutes? WTH?

From what I understand, the cost is made up of two fees: the fee for the competition, and the fee for the instructor. The fee for the competition is usually around $35 to $40 and then the fee from the instructor can range from $15 to $25 or maybe even more, depending on the caliber of the instructor. So this means that one dance could cost $45 to $70 or more.

I honestly don’t know the exact rationale behind these charges, but I’m sure the cost associated with the competition covers the sunk costs: hotel space being used, the DJ, the staff, the adjudicators, etc., which can’t be cheap!

But no one really breaks down all the fees, usually. I think what normally happens is that students are presented with a lump sum. Some instructors may split the costs of housing and lodging and transportation between students if more than one goes, but I think it is possible that they could still charge separate daily fees, or also divide that cost up and share it among multiple students. But even so, it is pretty rare to know the details of the total bill.

And of course then there are the packages at the comp. Packages cover nights in the hotel, some meals, and tickets into the ballroom sessions. So even before you dance, there is a basic fee just to be present. Then it gets more expensive the more you dance.

By looking at the bill, as a student, you may then wonder at the cost and ponder why, if you are paying so much, your instructor isn’t a millionaire, already? I mean, most professionals can’t demand $75 or more for less than an hour! That is significantly more than I make as a pharmacist!

I certainly don’t have all the answers here….but here are my thoughts and guesses. First, maybe the instructor is making a good living. They have what we students want and are willing to pay for. But the volume of lessons can vary considerably. People move, or get injured, or only take lessons to prepare for their wedding. People switch instructors. The turnover in students can be very high. An instructor’s schedule may not be completely booked solid. Even at $100 per lesson, if a pro only teaches a few lessons a week, it could be hard to make ends meet.

Next, most pros are going to want to continue to hone their craft. This means they have to pay to be a student! Whether through videos or workshops or coachings, they must pay, often at an even higher premiums for high-level coaches than students pay, to participate. For especially well known coaches, this may also include hosting the coach locally – paying all traveling and lodging expenses plus showing the coach a good time.

Then, if the pro competes professionally, they have to pay the entry fees at the comp. I have no idea the pricing on that, but just like we amateurs, they have to have the clothes, and hair, etc. plus, they generally compete more frequently than students. They have to hoof it week in and week out. They have to pay all the costs associated with competing and if no students participate, they bear all that financial burden alone. Also, they must continually change their image. It may be okay to wear a dress a few times but no more than that. The pros have to maintain the illusion of effortless glamour and grandeur and this means new dresses, different hair styling, and a different “look” to keep things exciting.

I personally own just one dress and it cost more than my wedding gown. To imagine having to obtain a new dress every few months, with all it’s fringe and crystals and sequins, is a daunting prospect.

It makes me wonder if there is still a hidden agenda to keep ballroom “exclusive” meaning that only those in the upper classes can participate in it. I’m just sayin’ that ballroom dancing is not very accessible to the general public, the hoi paloi if you will. And that, I personally believe, is a shame.

I wish ballroom were more available and accessible to anyone who had an interest regardless of their socio-economic standing.

I suppose that if a person were truly and deeply motivated, they’d find a way to participate in this sport – however, the price of playing, even at a novice level, makes the chances of someone casually engaging in this particular craft pretty darn slim. And that is too bad. I’d like to see people have more options and access, at least at the beginning levels so they could discover if this was something they’d want to pursue. (For the purposes of this discussion we are only considering competitive ballroom. Yes, there are less expensive ways to dance such as doing Amateur only events or social dancing or taking classes at the local community college. For many people this works great. But for others we want that competitive experience.)

So anyways, competitive pro/am ballroom isn’t for the person without some expendable income. I personally just accept that this is the price to play as a participant in the ballroom game. Whether I agree with the fees, or not, to do this particular activity, I must pay in dollars what I must pay. I mean, every moment is a choice and every choice has prices and benefits. I guess, for me, the benefits outweigh the prices, even at $75 or more per 45 minutes. If you’ve read my blog you’ll probably be able to see the value I’ve garnered from my interactions and many times there is no dollar amount that could possibly be assigned to what I have gained.

So what is your take on the sensitive issue of money in ballroom? How does it affect your decisions to participate in various activities? Do you think it is worth the cost?

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9 thoughts on “Topical Series: Money Makes The World Go ‘Round

  1. Toni says:

    Stefanie, thank you so much for writing on this issue. I think the subject of money is often mysterious in our industry. As a professional, here are a few comments from my perspective:
    Per day charges for competitions are a fairly recent concept. I believe many professionals started to do this to avoid the “mystery” behind competition pricing. I can tell my student the per heat charges and package charge, my fee doesn’t change. This allows the student to manipulate that final price tag by adding or eliminating heats to fit thier budget and vision of the experience.
    Competing as a professional is very expensive. You are correct in that we are constantly expected to have new dresses and coach with top coaches whom, I assure you, charge much more than we do. It would be great to have students who compete every other weekend, but that doesn’t usually happen, so travel is a large expense as well.
    Lastly, I’d like to speak to our educational background. We do not have a standardized certification system here in the US. You want to call yourself a professional, charge whatever you want, you’re free to do so. It is VERY important to check out instructors and their background to be sure you are getting the best instruction available. In our studio, all four of us have danced since we were toddlers (litereally)! That’s over 20 years experience each. We have all competed professionally as well. This coupled with our passion for emparting our knowlege to others puts us in a certain price range. I had to pay a lawyer recently with 3-4 years specialized schooling, paid him $350/hr. Yikes, right!
    Hope my perspective shines a little light from the other side ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • loveablestef says:

      Toni! Thanks so much for your valuable and insightful perspective. Total yikes for that lawyer… next time tell him he can have one dance lesson for every hour he works for you….you’re worth it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. As someone who is very new to ballroom dancing with a teacher whose rate is on the upper end of the range that you mention, I am okay with the cost. He has a depth of knowledge and technical skill set that supports his rate. When I paid for my first set of lessons, I was feeling the sticker shock, but then I realized he was charging the same rate that I charged as a high-end, private LSAT prep tutor. One-on-one time is going to be expensive in any context. (Granted, I always felt guilty that my company billed me out at such a high rate.) I get a lot out of my lessons and feel they are worth the price.

    I don’t feel the same way about competition costs. For the price of my dress, hair, makeup, tanning, shoes, video, studio administration fee, studio team jacket, teacher per diem, competition and teacher heat fees, ballroom admission ticket, and parking at the competition, I got relatively little value compared to the value I get from a single lesson. Now, maybe this is because I care less about performance experience because I have had my fill of performance experience in another genre of dance. Sure, the competition was fun; but when I think of the number of lessons I could get with the money I spent on the comp, I tend to think I would have rather spent the money on lessons. Perhaps this will change as I become a more proficient dancer, but the competition experience left me feeling fleeced. (Would love to know how much the organizers make from hosting the event.)

    I think student showcase are a great alternative if the expense of a competition is out of reach.

    • loveablestef says:

      Paragon, I think you make a good point that a showcase can be a nice alternative to a competition for the opportunity to perform and show of all your hard work. Also, generally at showcases, you are surrounded by friends and family who may or may not come to an actual competion. At a showcase, you get the have the entire floor to yourself (unless, of course, you are doing a group number) and you get to the be the center for attention.

      At a competition, you pit yourself against other dancers. Some may like this idea, some may not. To me it adds an extra level of excitement (and also potential embarassment and dismay) to see how I stack up to others. Yes, ballroom can be a totally insular journey, and perhaps some would argue that you should only compare yourself to yourself, but for me, I love being around that competition energy. I love interacting with others, cheering them on, seeing how others dance, and being inspired. I also have a competitive streak….just ask my husband!

      It would be very interesting to know how much the owners of a competition make, as you mention, but I probably will never know! That isn’t the kind of thing people generally disclose.

      Competition will be for some people and not for others, and that’s okay. There’s room in the ballroom world for all types!

      • Great points all around ๐Ÿ™‚ And despite that I feel better about spending on lessons than a comp, I am looking forward to the next one. Just like we learn to make the most of our lessons over time, I think I will get more out of comps over time too.

  3. Aurora says:

    Another great topic, Stefanie!

    As the owner of a small business, as well as a consumer of items from other small business owners, I would agree that it’s often difficult to understand why lessons and comps cost so much–and you’ve touched on many of the things that are involved, but I thought I’d add in a few more, to help “demystify”.

    Let’s take it as a given that the small business owner/dance instructor has specialized training, and that deserves to be compensated…but more than that…

    * the ongoing expense of teaching tools/cost of doing business
    –the cost of studio ownership/rental
    –music–need to keep it fresh!
    –shoes
    –dance appropriate clothing (no, not talking about costumes–just clothes that you can MOVE in, wear all day in comfort AND look professional!)
    –cleaning supplies for the studio, if owned, otherwise, someone to clean;
    –floor maintenance, including repairs and refinishing
    –computers (assume they’re being replaced every 3-5 years)
    –specialized business software, including accounting and scheduling software (higher priced, since they’re niche oriented)
    –website design, hosting and maintenance
    –utilities (literally, keeping the lights on and the studio temperate)
    –business insurance (in a business like a dance studio, I would imagine this is considerably higher than in something like a photography studio!)
    –costs of building maintenance–lots of people using your bathroom all day = greater chance of plumbing emergencies!
    –office supplies
    –stereo equipment
    –furniture – office, and for guests
    –gimmicks to make them stand out–ie, fresh flowers every day, snacks and water for studio members, etc
    –telephone (businesses pay a higher rate than residential)
    –advertising
    –marketing (including hiring a graphic designer, if need be)
    –travel to and from local events to get and keep your name out there
    –professional fees (associations, certifications, competitions, teaching credentials, etc)
    –an accountant
    –unemployment tax (and remember…even though the self-employed have to pay unemployment tax, they don’t GET any unemployment, if they’re out of work!)
    –social security – both the part you pay–AND the part your employer pays, for those who aren’t self-employed!
    –health insurance (higher cost for them…and probably a high deductible, so they need to set aside money for that deductible)
    –possibly additional employees–who need to be paid whether there are students or not, and who may or may not be W2 (in which case, there are even more costs for them to cover)

    And that’s before they’ve even DONE anything–gotten so much as a single student–they still have all those expenses just to exist as a viable business.

    THEN…they still have to pay themselves a living wage….and yet, their income is variable and unpredictable–so they need to charge more, so that it all averages out to be enough to cover expenses, plus their salary.

    Not only do students come and go…but even though most studios have 24 hour cancellation policies, the truth is, you probably can’t book a slot with only 24 hours notice–which pretty much means that every time a student cancels a lesson, they’re costing the studio the amount of their lesson.

    Worse–you have regular students–people who book multiple lessons a week–who go on vacation…or get sick (I remember only too well when a student who took 10 lessons a week at my old studio, broke an arm and was out for several weeks–and then was in chemo for some time soon after. That student caused the studio to lose a lot of money–through no fault of her own!)

    The reality is that most small business owners who seem to be so expensive, are often making minimum wage or less, when their expenses are broken down. It’s really only the very successful ones, and those who are charging more, who are actually making a decent wage.

    I teach Photoshop privately, from time to time–in my home–and charge a very low $50 an hour for it–but I actually GET all of that–I’m not running a business, or relying on it for my main source of income. On the other hand, a basic 1-2 hour portrait session with me will run $150 (this is far too low, actually), which seems to break down into a higher hourly rate, but in reality, doesn’t even cover my time properly, because of all the other expenses I have. (I’m pretty much betting that the client will love their images so much that I wind up with a substantial order, as THAT’S where I actually begin to make a profit.)

    I can’t breakdown everything that goes into comps…but the bottom line is, any successful business involves many unseen expenses like the ones I listed above–and I’m sure that comps aren’t much different. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Probably WAY more than anyone wants to know…but I think educating the consumer is one of the things small business owners need to do to survive in an increasingly global economy! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Stef–you hit another home run!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • loveablestef says:

      Aurora, I found your comments really insightful and interesting. People who haven’t owned a business, like me, there are things on that list that make total sense but that I hadn’t thought of. Thank you for sharing your valuable perspective and your continued support of the blog!

  4. […] Stefanie, in a recent post about the cost of ballroom, asked the following: By looking at the bill [for a competition], as a student, you may then wonder at the cost and ponder why, if you are paying so much, your instructor isnโ€™t a millionaire, already? I mean, most professionals canโ€™t demand $75 or more for less than an hour! That is significantly more than I make as a pharmacist! […]

  5. Marian Condon says:

    Everyone- I could not agree more that Ballroom is an extremely expensive pastime. I dance at a franchised studio and take one private lesson a week at $135 a pop. However, for that $$, I also get to take 3 group lessons, and attend the Friday party (at which all the instructors dance with me). Some students take as few as 1 lesson a month and can still go to the group sessions and the parties. Regardless of lesson-frequency, however, everyone must commit to taking however many lessons their program calls for – usually around 50) and either pony up that entire nut in advance, or make monthly payments. The good news is that one can easily get one’s $$ back if one decides to quit. I think a franchised studio is the best option for me because I don’t have a partner. Few of the married or partnered guys ask me to dance, so I must rely on the instructors, who are a lot of fun. I like almost all of them a lot, and am as crazy about my own instructor, TCH. What I know for sure (shades of Oprah) is that dancing is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life and that it has vastly improved said life. If I had to, I would give up quite a few of my other indulgences in order to be able to keep on dancinโ€™; I guess I’m addicted. TCH told me the studio once had a student who sold his blood to afford lessons – my kinda guy.
    Re competition: I’ve only participated in one showcase, and oh, yeah, that was expensive. Right now, I’m sorta luke warm about comp, likely because I don’t dance well yet. Love those dresses, though; at Showcase, I tried on (but did not buy) a $5K number that looked perfect on me. I’ve lost 50 lbs. since I started dancing (and running and not eating) and am thrilled to finally be able to slide into something slinky. Does anyone have any advice as to where to get a dress (rental would be OK) that is reasonably priced? Has anyone had experience with the Chinese companies? Iโ€™m reluctant to order something I can’t return if I don’t like it or it doesn’t fit right.

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