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