Let Your Choice Be Guided By Collective Wisdom

So I had a thought pop into my head that I decided to talk about this week. There were two things that brought this idea into existence, one being something that my coach said, and the other being a topic that someone I follow online has written about a few times recently. I had been trying to decide if there was a plausible connection between the ideas of these two men, so much so that one day at work while I was having a conversation with a vendor over email I was also having a conversation with my competitive dance partner over text message to sound out my thoughts. When I got home that evening, I deleted my previous outline for this week’s post and started a new outline because of all the thoughts bouncing around in my brain.

For those of you who don’t know, I started dancing a long time ago at this point. Since I’ve been keeping this site going for over five years now, and I’ve been dancing longer than I’ve been posting here, that means it’s been a really long time. Back when I started down this path of ballroom dancing, I began at what would be considered a franchise studio. No, it wasn’t THAT franchise studio… and probably not the other franchise that you’re guessing now either, but some other place. The franchise studio was where I cut my teeth on the basics, participated in my first dance competitions and showcases, and made friends.

Do you remember when I danced here? Pepperidge Farm remembers…

Somewhere along the way, myself and a bunch of people who danced at this franchise studio with me decided to go to a ballroom dance party we heard about at some other non-franchise studio, and we had a good time. Then we started to take a few group classes at some independent studios around the area, then we got into private lessons, and before I knew it I had completely left the franchise umbrella and had become a member of the independent studio world.

I did a couple of competitions outside the franchise studio environment just after leaving, but since I was essentially still a franchise-trained dancer, the competitions went terribly. So I gave up competing for a while and focused on dancing for fun and occasionally doing showcase numbers to perform in front of an audience. Many years later, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse from the man who has become my dance coach, and that offer pulled me and my amateur partner (who I was still taking lessons with because it is much cheaper for us to split the cost) back into the world of ballroom competitions. With this new coach’s guidance, competing has not been terrible, so I have stuck with it, and even had some minor success.

My dance coach knows a lot about dance and movement, having competed and won events at the highest echelons of the ballroom dance world up until his retirement from competing professionally a couple of years ago. At one of my recent coaching sessions, while I was dancing I had to stop to let another couple dance past me. My coach was watching them as they moved, and told my competitive partner and I that he knew who the other couple’s instructor was, and that this instructor was teaching them incorrect things. He said that if they continued practicing these things wrong as they worked on competing, someone like him would have to spend years trying to undo these incorrect habits before they would have a chance at winning at a real competition.

It was them!

What he told me next is what inspired this whole train of thought. He told me that in the highest levels of ballroom competition, whether in Amateur, Pro/Am or Professional, there is one way to dance correctly. There are many ways to train a student to get to that correct level of technique he said, but the end result will always be the same. If you are not doing that correct technique, you are going to lose during the competition to someone who is able to do the technique correctly.

After hearing that comment from my coach, and then seeing someone else write about being a franchise dance studio student recently, I thought to myself, “Is it possible for a person at a franchise studio to learn that correct way of dancing that my coach was talking about? Is the franchise method of teaching students a path that would actually get a student there?”

There are definitely some advantages that I see to the franchise model of dancing, especially for people who are just starting out. Because people are usually buying a package of some kind from the franchise studio, which normally contains a mixture of group classes and private lessons and such, they generally tend to show up more frequently so that they can get their money’s worth. This is a great way to meet other dancers around your level, make friends, and feel connected to the studio. Having friends to talk with whenever you go out dancing definitely makes people want to stick around.

On top of that, in order to keep people buying these packages, the franchise studios also tend to teach all their new students the basics in everything. Trying to learn more dance styles definitely equals more classes and lessons required to feel competent. I should know, because that is how I learned the basic figures in almost every dance style that I know today.

But the question of whether you could ever get to that ‘correct’ way of dancing when studying at a franchise is hard to actually figure out. There are a number of disadvantages that a franchise studio has that work against you. One of the big ones that I had personally experienced is that the teachers at the franchise studio don’t tend to stick around for long. It’s hard for a student to ever learn to dance correctly if they are taught by a teacher who hasn’t been dancing long enough to learn to dance correctly themselves, and then stuck with it beyond that to learn to teach the correct techniques to someone else.

For example, I was in group classes while at the franchise where a new instructor who had been dancing for less time than I had was teaching the class, and they were trying to explain the technique for the step they were doing… but they were doing it wrong. I mentioned it to the teacher, only to be told that I was the one that  must have learned it wrong somehow. The next week, in the same class, suddenly the teacher is teaching the technique the way I had mentioned it the week prior. Huh, I guess I hadn’t learned it wrong after all.

The other disadvantage is that the franchise world tends to be very insular, and thus protective of how their staff teaches the students. The teachers you meet there are teaching you the franchise approved syllabus and techniques for each style, and you are only given options to compete in franchise-sanctioned competitions, while being judged by (usually) franchise-trained adjudicators. With all those pieces in play, you will normally get really high marks for dancing the way your instructor does. I was certainly a victim of this when I danced in franchise competitions. No matter how poorly I thought I did in a heat, when I got my results back I never really received a bad score.

That model certainly had the effect of building up my inner dance confidence, making me think that I was a much better dancer than I actually was. My belief in that skill level came crashing down after the first time I tried to compete outside of the franchise world, and the results I got back were utterly atrocious. I spent some time thinking about things after getting those results back, and I remember asking myself why the franchise competition judges weren’t honest about how well I actually danced in the results that they gave me. Sure, logically I understood that giving students a bad score is not the best business practice to keep the students spending money, but if they had been honest with the scores and the feedback, perhaps I could have focused on improving more rather than believing that I was already pretty good.

So, with those ideas in mind, is it possible for a student at a franchise studio to learn how to dance well enough to compete on the national or international stage, outside of the confines of the franchise? Could the franchise instructors train you to dance, as my current dance coach says, in the ‘correct’ way to be a challenger at an outside competition?

Looking back on my own time in the franchise world, I would have to say my answer is “Yes, but…” There are some real issues that come to mind when I compare the way that I was taught to dance at the franchise location versus how I am being trained now. One simple example is the syllabus. The franchise where I was studying decided that they wanted to make up their own version of the syllabus to teach the students. While I was there, I was convinced that I had achieved franchise-level Silver status in some dance styles, but once outside the franchise I found that the standard syllabus used by everyone else was very different. I could have been easily invigilated by trying to dance figures that were not part of the syllabus in my closed competition routines.

But the big item that I believe would have held me back, and which probably holds back a lot of other students, is the instructors. If the instructors at the franchise are a ever-rotating class of characters, many of whom are just starting out in the world of ballroom dancing themselves, I don’t think they would have had the knowledge and experience to help me improve once I graduated beyond a certain point. While the franchise owners seemed to be highly trained competitors who had been able to make a name for themselves, they were rarely around, so it was hard to get time with them to look at issues that were beyond the skill level of the average instructor at the location.

In just the year and a half that I took lessons at the franchise location, I can think of nine different instructors who taught there. Nine, with three being the most instructors on staff at any time that I can remember. My competitive partner remembered two others that I didn’t know, though I’m pretty sure one of those had just left the studio before I started. That’s a lot of turnover! A couple of the instructors that I remember actually started off as students at the studio after I started, and moved up to being instructors. Even after going through the intensive instructor training course that the franchise studio offered, I still knew more of the figures and dance styles than they did, simply because I had been doing it longer than they had.

Looking back in hindsight with the experiences I have with my dance coaches now, I can see that unless I somehow managed to get on the franchise owner’s student roster to work with them regularly, I would have plateaued at the franchise. Sure, they could have kept showing me new figures or completely new dance styles for a while, but technically I would have hit the limit on what my instructor knew, probably multiple times if my instructor was replaced on more than one occasion. And since the franchise owner’s owned multiple studios in surrounding cities, and their ‘home’ studio was not the one where I regularly took lessons, getting on their student roster would have also meant I would have had to travel to meet them when they had time for me.

(Not that I don’t do an excessive amount of traveling to different studios now… I freely admit to spending a large amount of time behind the windshield of my car now that I am outside the franchise world to meet with specific instructors. So there’s always the possibility that, given the opportunity, I might have done the same had I stayed in the franchise world.)

Would those studio owners have been able to make me into a viable national and international competitor? Maybe. They certainly could have taken me quite a ways beyond what the regular instructors at my former home studio were able to. I have seen some of those regular instructors in recent months. They left the franchise world to begin teaching ballroom dancing independently, and I am able to watch them knowing what I know now. I used to think they were really good back when they were teaching classes that I was taking. Now that I am being coached by someone who was a recent world champion, I can see all the things that these instructors are doing wrong because my coach had to take the time to break me of the same habits. It makes me wonder if I would think the same thing if I saw the franchise owners dancing nowadays.

A large part of me is glad that I started out in the franchise system. The way their business model is built seems to have perfected the system that can give almost everybody the tools to get on the floor and dance. Whether you want to look competent when you go out to a club, or you are preparing for your first wedding dance, the franchise dance studios can get you there. If I had started out dancing in the ballroom dancing world outside of the franchise system, I have serious doubts that I would have the extensive knowledge that I have today which covers the basics in pretty much all dance styles I encounter.

But I think that if I had stuck around in the franchise system, it would take me many, many more years (and quite a bit more money spent) before I would have been able to achieve the same level of technical skill I have now. My current coach wants me to dance a certain way as quickly as possible. When I go out to compete and adjudicators are judging me, I am a representation of his teaching. Since my coach seems to know all of the ballroom adjudicators personally, they could point things out to him if they catch one of his students dancing poorly, and I don’t think he wants that.

I knew I could reach Silver Fox eventually!

In the franchise world, I always got the impression that their goal was to get me to continue buying the monthly package deal. If I didn’t pick new skills and techniques up quickly, that was OK because I bought a package for the next month and the instructors could continue to work with me to get it right. I didn’t get pulled into the office at the studio to discuss my plans for learning and practice, like I do know. I only got pulled into the office to discuss buying more lessons, or signing up for the next dance event the franchise was hosting.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have a background in business, so I understand the motivations and the need to remain profitable as a business entity. In a model such as this, where the product that you are selling is not something tangible that your customers can take home and put on a shelf, you need the customers to want to continue coming back month after month. The franchise model seems best suited for doing that by providing a more-or-less family atmosphere at the studio, where all the employees are working on making the studio an inviting place to be and the students can all become friends because the package deals they buy get them to all show up for every class and party together.

The independent instructor model seems best suited for offering a results-driven approach. You go to lessons to see your instructor, not to chat with your friends. The instructor trains you to compete in an upcoming competition, or perform in an upcoming showcase, or helps you put together a wedding dance. If things go well at the competition or showcase, you are more likely to come back than if you do poorly. Better instructors who have more championship titles to their name, or more students who have championship titles, or who have performed or choreographed routines for popular shows, those instructors can charge higher premiums for their time because they have proof that what they know can get you there.

Maybe when people talk to me about dancing and ask about taking lessons, the first thing I should do is find out if the person is looking to take up dancing as a way to have fun and meet people, or if they are really driven by results. I can recommend places for people to take lessons all over the area where I live, both franchise and independent. If my coach is right, and the end result of learning to dance ballroom styles correctly is the same, perhaps the choice of where to dance comes down to whether you want to take the scenic path and travel with friends, or the more direct route.

Anyway, those are the thoughts I couldn’t get out of my head this week. Hopefully they make sense to anyone reading this. Please don’t think that I am advocating for people to be either for or against dancing at franchise locations or with independent instructors. In the end, it doesn’t matter where you learned to dance, because we can all hang out together on the dancefloor of life.

4 thoughts on “Let Your Choice Be Guided By Collective Wisdom

  1. I also started at a franchise and I left when my instructor did (I still work with the same instructor). I agree there are some advantages to the franchise system and it served me well for almost 2 years, but I did not like the franchise competitions and I was limited in how much progress I was allowed to do. However, if my instructor had stayed, so would I. In the end it was more about clicking well with the instructor than the franchise. I was asked (almost expected) to work with other instructors while there, but after a small disaster with one I put my foot down and refused to dance with any other instructor.

    I think every franchise experience is different in the end. We do have some strong franchise dance studios that produce strong pro/am dancers with strong pros at non-franchise competitions, but there is usually much more to the story than ‘growing up’ all the way through the franchise.

    1. See, your franchise sounds a lot more open than the one I was a member of. We were never even given the option to try and compete or perform showcase numbers at events that were not run by the franchise. In fact, when my franchise instructor found out that some of us had been visiting dance parties at independent studios, I was told to be careful because independent studios were inherently untrustworthy. Go figure…

      That’s just my experience though. I have certainly been to ballroom events where groups from a franchise (a group of instructors and students even!) have attended, so obviously not every franchise or franchise location adheres to the insular creed. And I do think that it’s possible, had I stayed at the franchise, that I could have improved as a dancer greatly. I just think that they would have strung out the process as long as possible, and having to change instructors frequently would have obviously made the process longer as well.

      1. The outside events were still ‘sanctioned’ by the franchise, they just weren’t run or closed to the franchise. I also was told similar messages about avoiding outside studios.

  2. I’d totally agree that the best choice for where to dance is based on why you want to dance. Not to get too down on the Franchise as I know one pro/am couple that competed outside that world and did very well. But she was dancing with the Studio Owner who was quite an accomplished dancer. That’s about the only way you can be guaranteed stability at a Franchise.

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