The scam that is “dance school”

I never thought that I’d do it. It was something that other, pushy, competive stage parents do. Enroll my daughter in dance class, that is. But her strong innate desire to move her body to music, and especially to do it with other kids, and especially in front of an audience, was just too great. And with the popularity of So You Think You Can Dance, it was inevitable. For years, we hesitated for several reasons (which you will see below). But this year, we took the plunge. No ballet, was our only strict rule (too hard on the body, and we just could never bring ourselves to encourage our daughter to prance around in a fluffy tutu). She wanted hip hop, so we thought, that’s at least not too bad. It’s fast, funky, and the costumes would involve no tulle. Of course, dance school turned out to be everything that we thought it would be.

Choosing a dance school was done not without research, I might add. For years, I’d heard from other parents (mostly moms, really, because dads seldom burden themselves with thoughts of classes, costumes, fees and the like) about the whole industry of dance schools and dance classes for kids. Be forewarned, they said; besides the damage that can be done to a girl’s body after years of dance (I have one friend, who, at the age of 30, said that her legs, hips, and back were never the same after five years of ballet, and she now requires chiropractic care almost every day), there are other pitfalls. Namely:

1) Girls are often dolled up in too much make-up and gawdy, skimpy costumes that would make many grandmas cringe.

2) Speaking of costumes, they’re expensive, and like ugly bridesmaid dresses, will never see the outside of the closet after their initial donning.

3) Speaking of expensive, one-use costumes, parents are not allowed to make their own. Even if you went to the Fashion Institute of Milan and can copy any costume they put in front of you, with one hand tied behind your sewing machine, you are still not allowed to sew it yourself. Period. You must pay a costume fee and purchase the costume prescribed by the school, from their dictated source. (You’ll see why below.)

4) Some dance schools may make you pay the whole fee up front, or a deposit, either of which may be non-refundable. This means that if your child decides after just one class that she doesn’t like the course, you lose your money. This is what happened to another friend of mine, who had signed her daughter up for ballet, but then changed her mind over the $700+ fee before classes had even started, and lost her non-refundable $400.

5) Finally, watch out for the other, hidden fees. Even if they’re not hidden, they’re onerous.

This last point is the one that is still particularly sore with me, even weeks after the fact, and the worst added fee of all was the dance recital ticket prices. I had heard that most dance schools, even after charging you fees for classes and costumes, will still charge you an admission fee to see the dance recital. That’s right. You’ve paid for your child to take dance classes, and if you’d like to see what she’s been doing all year, you’d best pay up again. There are very, very few dance classes that do not charge you to watch your children dance. Included among these were my 3-year-old son’s hip hop class, run through the presumably non-profit municipal recreational department, and performed in the same small gym where he practiced his kiddie moves every week; and a small, private dance class run by a teacher who did not own her own school, but rented a studio space to teach the art of dance, purely because she loved dance, and not for huge profit. (The latter dance class was so popular, and space so limited, that the mom who told me about it coyly declined to give me any contact information, despite some prodding, for fear that space in that class would be so limited that her own daughter might not get in again.)

But to get back to the point of recital tickets: I had asked friends and called around to see which dance school had the least gouging prices. Around our place, among the higher fees quoted were $17 per person (yes, even the little brother sitting on daddy’s lap pays) to the recital, plus a “stage rental fee”, plus a $100 costume fee. This place that we finally settled on quoted no stage rental cost, only a $50 costume fee, and what they said would be a reasonable ticket price to cover the cost of renting the school auditorium. The ticket price, as it turned out was still $12 per person. Not as much as other dance school ticket prices, but just enough to make our friends hesitate to pay $36 just to see our daughter dance for four minutes, and see some other people’s 3-year-olds freeze in introductory highland dance.

The only good news was that my daughter’s costume, being for a hip hop dance, is wearable again in everyday life. I do have to admit, though, that for our $50, we merely got a white tank top ($6), track shorts ($6), shrug cardigan ($12), white baseball cap ($5), and clip-on faux-hair extensions (dollar store). Yup, the school didn’t even bother to take off the price tags. I can only surmise that the difference between what we paid, and the actual cost, went towards “alterations”, or, as another mom told me, to subsidize the costumes and lessons of the competitive dance students—the real money-makers for dance schools.

So, we did it once in my life, to see what it was about, but won’t be doing it again. Our daughter still expresses a desire to dance, but I will be trying my darndest next year to find that elusive dance teacher who doesn’t charge the costume and recital ticket fees. Until then, our daughter seems pretty content to just watch videos on YouTube, choreograph herself, and dance for an audience of four.