The Right To Make a Living

The Right to Make a Living
by Rhee Gold

There are many successful school owners across North America. Some are making an impressive paycheck each week. Many others are just squeezing by.

Often, we’re comfortable within the classroom but we tend to feel a little “on-edge” when it comes to collecting tuition or other fees owed by our clientele. Some school owners don’t want to create “waves” that could result in losing a student. Others are simply too shy. Or, deep down they don’t want to be perceived as “only after the money.” The result? A lot of school owners end their season with clients who have large balances and who sometimes make the decision that dance lessons aren’t a bill that they have to worry about.

Remember show business is two words. Never neglect the business side.  ~Melanie Hedden-Perron, Rising Star Performing Arts, Waterdown, Ontario

The following is based on a true story . . .

You’ve come to mid-season with three of your students’ accounts are several months overdue. You know the parents are having hard time financially. The child loves to dance and is very talented. You think to yourself: I don’t want to pressure anyone, so I’ll let it go a little while longer and I’ll hope for the best.

The next month ends with the same three accounts past due. But the amount has doubled. Each set of parents now owes for costumes, a convention fee that you laid out already, and the tights the children needed for class. You know this financial situation isn’t good for you or the families that owe the balance. Still you feel a little shy to make a phone call…you’re so nice and, of course, you don’t want to pressure anyone. You send the bills and, again, hope for the best.

No one from the school does follow-up on the bills (and neither does the parent). The next month-end, all the balances are still due and getting out of control. Finally, you get up the courage to make personal phone calls to the parents. After all it’s now a couple thousand dollars and you know you’re going to need that money to get through the summer.

The first call goes well. The dad answers and explains that he wasn’t aware. He apologizes and lets you know that he’s sending a check on Monday. You think, “That went well.” And now you have the confidence to make the next two calls.

The second call, your student answers the phone. You ask for her mom and she responds, “Hold on. I’ll get her!” The child comes back and tells you her mom is in the shower, but you overheard them talking in the background. You hang up knowing that the parent is trying to avoid you. She knows why you’re calling and she doesn’t have a solution.

The third call is everything you feared — and more. A very defensive and stressed-out mom turns the situation into your fault. Before long she starts to yell, “You charge too much for your lessons.” Then she adds, “Do you think you should be making so much money off of little children?” Followed by (the real kicker), “Why don’t you get a real job, like the rest of us!”

Meanwhile, you’re thinking to yourself, “I have sacrificed, my children have sacrificed and I’m working twenty-four/seven!” “What the bleep is this woman talking about?” Not only that, but you’ve given her child lots of extra time working on her solo, letting her use the studio to rehearse, offering her extra ballet classes and tons of other stuff! You’re hurt, the blood is boiling and you end up losing it with this mom. Things get out of control and one of you abruptly hangs up on the other.

You’re stressed out and you can’t get her comments out of your mind for days!

The next week the child doesn’t show up for class. You’re insecure about the whole situation, so you don’t call to find out what’s going on. Again, you hope for the best.

The next week you send another bill and wonder if the kid is ever coming back. The Mom finally calls the studio to tell your secretary that her daughter isn’t returning to your school and she adds, “You’re going to have to take me to court if you want your tuition, costume money, convention fees, etc.”

The balance due is well over a thousand dollars. Plus, a big chunk of the costume, convention, supplies, etc., is money you laid out for the child: It’s not just the lessons! Now you have to re-choreograph all the pieces that the child was in; now you have to get a lawyer or go to a collection agency to get your money back; and there’s this innocent little girl out there who wants to dance but can’t because her mom is irresponsible and both of the adults in the situation lost their cool.  Although you do have a right to collect your tuition and the mom knew what the financial commitment was when she registered her child, the situation is still a mess for everyone.

If you go through this kind of situation every year, for several years, there will come a time when you’re going to feel burn-out, unappreciated and not so enthusiastic about owning a school!

How do you fix it?

1) Start with confidence. Believe that you have a right to make a living at what you do. Know that you work just as hard, if not harder than the nine-to-five “normal” person does!

2) Avoid avoidance! When a parent’s account is overdue, it’s better for them (and for you) to address the

circumstance long before that balance gets out of hand.

3) Mail or email a professional bill the week before tuition is due. Don’t hand them out to your students. Half of those statements (or notices) never make it home. Most will land in the bottom of a smelly dance bag and no one ever sees them again.

4) Create school policies related to late tuition or balance dues and then stick to your policy.  Never allow a late account become more than two months overdue. If it happens without any previous arrangement between the parent and your school, someone from the school must call the parent to request that the student does not return to class until the balance is paid in full. This policy may seem harsh, but it would be the same for karate or pre-school, etc. Dance training is no different.

5) Don’t “front” your students by paying workshop or convention fees, competition fees, costumes, dance supplies, etc. Be organized and create a due date for all payments. That date should be one month prior to the event or the time you’re ordering costumes, etc. It then becomes policy that you don’t register the child for the event, or order the child’s costume until the parent has paid the appropriate fee. No questions asked.

6) All balance dues for the entire season must be paid in full before distribution of the costumes for the year-end performance or recital. You explain the “books are closed” for the season the day after the show and your accountant turns all balances due over to a collection agency.

I like to use the analogy that nobody goes into McDonald’s, orders a Big Mac, then tells the cashier they will pay for it next time they come in. The same should be true for dance lessons. Have a tuition deadline and stick to it! ~Mary Beth Dawson, Dance Etc., Kinston NC


  1. Nicolle Ament on April 3, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Thank you so much for this! I have the same experiences and I even have deadlines!!! I know I am not alone- It’s just unfortunate that we have to go though all of it!
    Thanks for all your words of wisdom and advise 🙂

  2. Koryn MacArthur on April 5, 2010 at 11:00 am

    That was a great read Rhee, thank you! Something that I would add as a solution is hiring an office manager who tracks the students and payments. I hired my office manager 8 years ago and it was one of the best things I have ever done. She also invoices the competitive team for costumes, entry fees, choroeography etc. This has allowed me to concentrate on the artistic side of what we do.

    I always look forward to reading your blogs. It is comforting to hear that we all experience the same challenges and are not “alone”.

    All my best to you!


  3. Eileen Herzog-BAzin on April 19, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Thank you for this factual and intuitive article. After 27 years of running a dance school, I feel this article is vital and a precise example of the “business side” of our profession. I learned a great deal from attending your seminar and chose to offer
    “incentives” for people to pay in advance or on time; these seemed to work because, as you pointed out, no one likes to be punished with late payments. I found this eliminated threatening your clientele about what will happen if they do not pay.

    In the long run, I don’t know what others experience, but I always assessed there was about a 10% float of clientele who enrolled annually and were either “not sincerely committed” to study (not the children, but the parents, of course,) OR there were people who “stopped coming without letting your know” because they could no longer pay or did not want to pay. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone. Secondly, the repercussions of going after delinquent payers often resulted in blasphemous gossip which affected my business; so being in a small environment, I made a conscious choice to “let it go”.

    I always wondered if I made a mistake here and asked myself whether it was worth my while to pursue lost monies. However, God always seemed to provide me with new clients to take the place of those that left. I just wanted my peace of mind. I guess there will ALWAYS be those irritating few who do not want to pay, but they always get replaced by others who will work with you and follow the rules.

  4. Joee Schapiro on April 26, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    The hardest business lesson is knowing when to tell the parents that until payment is brought up to date that their daughter can not continue in the studio. The door is always open for her to return and that I will miss her. 2 months is the max that i will carry a student. I do not order costumes or pay any additional fees until I have all the money in my account and their check has cleared. Over the past five years I have stated the financial rules and have not backed down. My store room is free of unpaid for costumes and sometimes I have to change choreography to fit the missing dancer. After 37 years of teaching, I sat down and tried to determine how much money I did not collect while students continued to take class and disappear after recital. It was a staggering $90,000.00. It is not the new parent, but the one that has been with you the longest that is the problem. New studio owners run the front office as a business. Ask yourself if you did not pay your electric bill on time how long would your lights stay on?

  5. free trial on May 7, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    good share, great article, very usefull for us…thank you

  6. Eveline Meahl on June 3, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I found your blog on facebook groups. I just added you to my MSN News Reader. Keep up the good work buddy! Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  7. John Breithaupt on June 17, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    This is an informative post, thanks a lot!

  8. vince delmonte on September 6, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Informative write up, bookmarked the blog with hopes to read more!

  9. craig ballantyne on September 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Helpful post, bookmarked your blog with hopes to read more!

  10. Violeta Millard on September 10, 2010 at 6:21 am

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

  11. Liz Markwart on April 25, 2011 at 9:45 am

    This blog has come at a very crucial time for me. I have been losing sleep over the financial side of my 4 year old dance studio. I love all the teaching, the choreo, the recital planning, but not the money side. I have started to realize that for every hour I spend away from my own 3 kids at home, I should be compensated for from the parents requesting things from me at the studio. It’s that conversation with the delinquent parent that is the biggest stresser.

  12. Stacey Meehan on April 25, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you for the encouraging articl, that we deserve to make a living. It’s so true that many people view our job as a fun time for us and the kids. I always say that “I’m not dancing around for my health during the classes!” It is a frame of mind for the studio owner. I am a business person and I have rent, light bills, teachers, water bills etc. It is not fair for the other students that do pay on time. I have tighted up on my late fees this year and it has definately helped! I let one student go without paying last year and same scenario, let her do the recital and I’m still out $900. That’s alot of money for my studio. It is about confindence and don’t let parents bully you!! Thank you for publishing this article!

  13. Miss Kathy on April 26, 2011 at 10:09 am

    I have always held the costumes for ransom, period, AMEN. You’d be amazed @ the number of people who “just don’t have it” & somehow magically come with their balances so their kids can perform in the shows. The best story EVER was the mom who couldn’t pay the studio because of the expenses they had building a new home!!! LOL!!!! Are you inviting the hardworking studio director for dinner maybe??? Great article, great advice, keep ’em coming!!!

  14. Shalyn on April 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I love this article. Education for children is definitely under appreciated in America (just a take a look at the salaries of our public school teachers) and parents will continue not to pay until you make them – #6 is the best solution. We don’t let people into costume week (where we also distribute their tickets) if their account isn’t clear. I also tell them that not having to worry about collecting money at the end of the year helps me to focus on putting on a great show.

  15. Kimi Benson on April 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I go through this every year about this time. I just don’t let the dancers perform in the recital. I also hired a billing company this year and it’s the best money I have ever spent in the 25 years I have owned a studio. They process the bills and send out statements for the accounts I turn over to them. People don’t like that other people even if it’s a billing company know what their debt is to the dance teacher. We do have the right to earn a living and when people do say get a real job they need to spend one night in the dance teachers shoes….LOL!

  16. Roderick on April 27, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Thank you for this word of advice.

    I’ve had this experience too.

    Roderick’s Dance School
    Where Real Movements Starts

  17. Fiona Donaldson on May 1, 2011 at 3:39 am

    What a great article! I have been running my dance school in Australia for almost 20 years and I now hire a couple of office staff. This way I don’t usually have to be the one to follow up overdue fees. As teachers, we have the emotional connection to our students and its always the parents that are the issue when it comes to payment of fees, and unfortunately its the student that ends up suffering. My secretary follows up fees twice per week. We charge overdue fees after 5 weeks of classes and suspension if the fees are not paid within a certain time frame. We also offer a couple of incentives to get the money in at the start of the school term, which really helps.
    I have found a huge improvement in the business side of things, however, there are alway a few every year that prove to be difficult! I recommend to anyone to make sure you have help with the collection of fees, even when your studio is small. I put off having a secretary for too many years, until finally I took the plunge. It prevented the usual end of year crisis of overdue fees and kept a consistent flow of money in the business weekly. One year I was out of pocket $20,000, now there is barely anything overdue. (I also recommend Rhee Gold’s book about how to run a successful dance studio).
    Thank you!