Once upon a time, a dance teacher opened her own studio down the road from her former employer's school, taking advantage of her former teaching position to start her own studio. Sound familiar? This is an all too common story in the dance studio business and unfortunately, this is no fairy-tale.
We have all heard a version of this story or perhaps experienced it first-hand. Poaching students – direct or indirect solicitation of another's students – is a practice that mindlessly fragments and divides the dance community. In addition to poaching students, other subtle, but just as divisive, practices include: making negative remarks about other teachers / schools, misrepresentation of the self by making false, exaggerated, or ambiguous claims, and making disparaging comparisons or references about others.
What drives otherwise enterprising individuals to engage in business practices that burn bridges, sow the seeds of deceit, and model mindless behavior?
Darwin. You heard me – Darwin is to blame. Well, not really Darwin himself, but the misinterpretation of his theories into a business context is at the root of this dilemma. When the business world adopted the neo-Darwinian philosophy of "survival of the fittest", they unleashed a ready-made excuse for unethical action.
As a culture that witnessed the "cola wars" first hand, we picked up the idea that anything goes when it comes to business and marketing. Ethics and morals need not apply. "That's business" they say while defending their actions. They fail to see the big picture: to look mindfully at the situation. They unknowingly hurt the larger dance profession and therefore themselves. It is a case of one's right hand shooting one's left and thinking this is good.
What makes one feel justified in approaching the business of dance studios in this mindless manner?
At the root of the neo-Darwinian business approach is a sense of isolation and scarcity. These teachers believe that it is "them against the world" – or, more directly, "them against the other local studios / teachers." Add to this sense of isolation a sense of scarcity – that there are not enough students to go around – and you start to understand how one begins to rationalize why stealing students is necessary for survival. However, these twin concepts – isolation and scarcity – are illusions in the dance world.
Studios fighting over the same group of students create a negative atmosphere in the community. Parents sense this negativity and choose alternative activities for their children because they seem more wholesome: the potential young dancer takes up soccer. However, in a community where more than one dance school thrives without negativity, a greater number of students enjoy dance as an activity. This greater number of students translates down the road into a greater number of future dancers, dance teachers, and, most importantly, audience members. If dance studios stopped seeing each other so much as competitors and more as colleagues, the entire dance profession would benefit.
The solution starts as simply as making replacements: replacing mindless competition with mindful collegiality, mindless isolation with mindful interconnectedness, and mindless scarcity with mindful abundance. We must realize that the dance profession, from the smallest recreational dance class to the largest professional company, is interconnected. The entire web of the dance world is vitally linked.
For example, the dance community is rather small in comparison with the larger world of sports. There are many more children participating in sports than the arts. Rather than interpreting this as a reason to fight for resources, we should embrace a sense of abundance. There are more than enough potential students out there to sustain every school if we focus on bringing more students into dance rather than fighting over those already there. It is to the benefit of the dance profession at every level to include more of the non-dance world inside our walls rather than put up walls within our own.
So, how can we begin to break down the twin illusions of isolation and scarcity in the dance studio world and open our eyes to interconnectedness and abundance?
We need to base our actions and practices on ideals that reflect the dance world as a healthy and vibrant community rather than a dire and hopeless one that lends itself to mindless behavior. Adopting a code of ethics that reinforces a mindful and wholesome outlook will not just serve as guidelines, but also help promote a positive environment for those whom they effect.
Going forward, we all need to embrace a code of ethics that addresses these issues. The following list is nowhere near complete, but it is a place to start.
Business Ethics for the Mindful Dance Professional
In all professional and business relations, the dance professional shall exhibit respect, honesty, and integrity for themselves, clients, and colleagues.
A dance professional shall refrain from making negative remarks that may discredit, malign, or in any way cast reflection on the professional standing of another school / studio or teacher.
A dance professional shall refrain from making any disparaging references to, or disparaging comparisons with, the services of others
A dance professional shall refrain from publishing, or causing to be published, any notice, newspaper advertisement, or any other matter likely to damage or depreciate the reputation of any colleague.
A dance professional shall strict portray his or her qualifications or affiliations to the public especially in advertising material and avoid any ambiguity or exaggeration.
A dance professional shall refrain from portraying his or her qualifications or affiliations to the public in a way intended to deceive the uninitiated. For example: having danced a child role in the Nutcracker with a professional company and listing it as to portray having danced professionally with the company.
A dance professional shall refrain from directly soliciting business from another teacher or studio by approaching, in any manner the pupil, pupils or employees of another teacher and, for any reason at all, to try to induce them to join his / her school.
A dance professional shall refrain from indirectly soliciting business from another teacher or studio by making adverse criticism against other teachers' methods, by offering free coaching, by citing the advantages to be gained by the pupil from the change (eg offering roles / parts), or other similar methods.
With each of us taking responsibility for our own actions by embracing a mindful ethical base, we can co-create a healthier, connected, and abundant environment in the business of dance schools. Moreover, with all we have in common, we might just discover we make better friends than enemies.