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Implied in the Contract

December 16, 2011

Most swing dance instructors technically only charge for instruction. The price varies, but overwhelmingly hours of instruction is the basis for pay. However, there are certainly “implied” tasks often affiliated with being a swing dance instructor.

When hired for a weekend, an instructor might be expected to do all of the following: go to several social dances, dance with students, do video notebooks of our classes, dress up nicely for at least one of the dances, perform demos and choreographed pieces, and judge contests. Many instructors have differing opinions about each of these tasks and whether or not they feel it’s just to expect it of them.

This essay is an attempt to explore those implied tasks as well as the many different opinions on these matters. (Though I am an instructor, and in particular an instructor with his own opinions on these matters, I tried very hard to keep this piece unbiased. So, my own little fine print: The views expressed in this essay are not necessarily the author’s own.)

Social Dancing in General

Almost every weekend event we teach at has at least two nights of dancing, often three and even four. If an instructor were to go to an event, and refuse to go out social dancing because it “wasn’t in their contract,” then I suspect they’d find themselves without work after a few months. This, by far, I think, is the most implied addendum to a hiring a teacher: “You will teach classes and go to the social dances.”

I don’t know of any instructors who have a huge problem with this. All of us know we are expected to go to the dance, and almost all of us go. Sometimes, because of fatigue or the fact that they’ve danced the last three weekends in a row, instructors will ask to get to the dance late and/or leave early. Most organizers don’t have a problem with this, provided the instructors show their faces for a couple of hours, and I think it also helps the instructors teach better the next day. For instance, I often tend to take things fairly easy on Friday nights, dance a little harder on Saturday nights, and go all out on Sundays, when I don’t have to worry about getting up in the morning to teach. I’ve noted many other instructors do the same.

However, I have heard of clashes brought about by special circumstances. One instructor I know was teaching at a weekend far away from home and got food poisoning. The story goes she was expected to go to the dance to apologize for not being able to social dance. To them, it was implied that her being at the weekend meant she would also be at the dances. Period. However, this was a unique happening.

Social Dancing with Students

A very important distinction to make is the difference between being expected to go to a dance versus being expected to dance with and ask students to dance. Mostly, it’s in the asking that’s the difference. You’ve all probably seen a range of actions from instructors. Some instructors show up and dance with one person eight songs in a row. Others show up, drink, and talk, and don’t dance much. Some ask students to dance; others might not ask students to dance but are happy to dance with them all night long if asked themselves. And very, very few will turn students down.

This expectation is particularly different from many of the others we’ll discuss because it doesn’t just involve something the organizer is expecting—it is something the student body is, if not expecting, at least greatly hoping for. (Occasionally, one will even expect it: I overheard someone at a workshop dance one time lamenting how rude it was that an instructor hadn’t asked them to dance.) Obviously, there are many instructors who don’t mind asking students to dance at all. Other instructors are more than happy to dance with students, however, they feel the students have some responsibility in asking them to dance—in short, if people want a dance with someone, even an instructor, they should ask for it.

Behind this issue are several philosophies. One is that you, the instructor, are always an instructor, and therefore you should dance with your students, if not just to be nice, then at least to show yourself as an asset to a dance weekend. Another philosophy is that once you get to the dance, you are no longer a paid-by-the-hour instructor but just a dancer like everyone else, so therefore you shouldn’t be expected to do anything. (I also know several follower instructors who told me they prefer the “old school” philosophy of having leaders ask them to dance.)

These are just differing opinions on the matter, and each in their own way has logic behind it. This one, overall, is probably something more for instructors to think about than organizers, and consider how it affects them, their happiness with their job, and their careers.

Dressing Up

Some instructors simply like dressing up swanky to dance. Others prefer jeans and a t-shirt. Some will dress in jeans and a t-shirt for a DJ, and swanky for a live band. Almost every instructor I know would be happy to dress up swanky on at least one night if an organizer mentions it to them ahead of time. “By the way, Saturday night is kind of a big dance for us and people are expected to dress up. Would you mind?” is a perfectly reasonable thing for an organizer to ask, many teachers feel.

Now, there’s dressing up, and then there are theme nights. Some camps and events have theme nights, often involving Hawaiian shirts. If an organizer expects their instructors to dress up for theme nights, they should mention it when they talk about contracts. Some instructors are happy to do so; some would prefer to just dress up in their normal dancing clothes. Some are traveling from other places and might not have room in their suitcase for a costume, or spare change to buy one. However, asking them about it way before hand is a sure way to know how they feel about it, and gives them plenty of time to plan an outfit if they choose to dress up.

Judging

Some camps ask you to judge only a comp or two, others expect you to judge many. And only recently have the non-competition weekend camps (those that aren’t ILHC, etc.) started offering to pay people for judging competitions.

The simple fact is that competitions take time. Three 20 minute competitions take up at least an hour of an instructor’s time, time that could be spent relaxing or teaching privates. (And that’s ignoring the fact that competitions rarely take that little time—there are also judge’s meetings, score tabulating, waiting for them to start twenty minutes late, etc.) What’s more, and is important to many things in this discussion, is that an instructor’s time in a weekend is of much greater value to the instructor than it normally would be. That’s because an instructor is working classes, social dancing, and additionals like competitions, performances, etc.—a moment of free time in a 12 or 13-hour workday is worth a great deal.

Though many weekends don’t pay for judging, some swing camps offer small fees per judges per contest.

Level Testing

I was at one camp where the organizer chose only “the most dependable people” to run the level test in the morning. And so it was that I and four other instructors had to run a level test at 8:30 a.m. while the apparently undependable instructors got to sleep in until 10, not run a level test, and therefore stay out later the night before, when the dancing and spirit was at its highest. We were not paid for it.

Though the organizer meant to compliment us by calling us “dependable,” you can imagine that the compliment failed to do its job. At a large camp, a level test is often an hour of an instructor’s time that requires the instructor’s attention and expertise. Many instructors feel that, therefore, they should be paid for it. How much, though can vary. Some think private lesson rates, perhaps some think full teaching rates, some may just put it at a low fee.

At smaller camps, level tests are often quick and not as taxing, and instructors may or may not ask to be paid for doing them. However, I’ve talked with several organizers who’ve had instructors come up to them and say “I was not notified I’d be expected to do a level test, and you’re not paying me for the time.” So organizers, be aware that this could happen.

Demonstrations/Performances

Demos are, on paper, great for everyone: teachers get a chance to exhibit, students get a chance to be inspired, and organizers have an added attraction for the weekend.

However, not all instructors will agree to do them if they have not been told before hand. Some instructors get nervous when they perform, and that’s an added anxiety to a night of social dancing and relaxing after classes. More specifically, a few instructors I know simply don’t like doing demos because they don’t dance their best in performance situations, and so they feel they are doing themselves and the camp a disservice by trying to perform. (It’s important, I think, for the scene to remember that incredible teachers aren’t necessarily incredible performers, and vice versa.) Other instructors might simply be annoyed because the demos/performances were not explicitly asked for or offered to be paid for when the contracts were being agreed to. But, there are a great many instructors who are more than happy to do demos and performances at a moment’s notice.

Video Notebooks

Sometimes it’s implied that instructors will do video notebooks for DVDs for free. Many instructors are now, however, adding payment for video notebooks into their contracts.

The logic is that —aside from the time it takes to do them— promoters make money from the DVDs because of the instructors’ material that is on the DVDs, and yet, instructors are not paid any royalties, if you will, for the creative material they put on the DVD.

Many instructors now charge around $40 for doing video notebooks for DVDs. If there is no DVD being made, most instructors do video notebooks for their classes free of charge.

Conclusion

When I first told my mother I was going to become a full time swing dancer, I quelled her anxiety by saying that I was often paid $100 to $150 an hour for teaching.

But that’s not really an accurate expression of any swing dancer’s salary. First of all, let’s add 5 or so hours of social dancing, not to mention the couple of hours getting to and from the dances and other venues. Add another couple of hours for getting prepared for those dances, as well as the airport traveling as a whole, which can easily add up to 12 hours or more per weekend. Now add the time spent planning classes, choreographing routines to perform, judging contests. All of these things the teacher has to do but is not paid for. After all of these factors are in, a weekend where a couple get’s paid $1000 to teach is not $125 for 8 hours of instruction. It’s really $25 an hour for forty (almost non-stop) hours of their time.

Trust me, I’m not complaining about my job; I LOVE it, and it makes me extremely happy. And I do love doing almost all parts of it that don’t involve waiting in airport lines—Kate and I love performing, we love social dancing, we love teaching, etc. However, there are occasionally times when we feel like we’re being taken advantage of—like when we’re asked to judge ten competitions in a weekend without any compensation for our time, for instance.

I wrote this piece mainly just to point out how implied clauses exist throughout the modern teaching community. Often they are not a big deal, however sometimes they are ways for organizers to take advantage of dancers by expecting them to do a lot of extra work for free. And, on the other hand, the unspoken nature of the demands means teachers technically have a reason for showing up at a weekend and refusing to do anything that isn’t teaching.

The super easy, fix-it-all alternative is for everyone to make their implied contracts explicit. If an organizer expects performances, judging, and social dancing out of their instructors, they could ask for such things when first approaching the couple for their rates. The same thing for an instructor: When an instructor gives their rates, they need to express what those rates will cover. It’s an easy way for everyone to know what’s expected, and for everyone to have a leg to stand on if someone doesn’t live up to their end of the deal.Then no fine print is necessary.

By the way… Thank you, thank you, thank you, organizers, for all your hard work. You make our jobs possible.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

Michael Gamble, one of the organizers and founders of Lindy Focus, had this to say following the publishing of this article. I wanted to include it here.

This stuff is changing, and fast. Though the general outline here will no doubt hold true for a while, the details (“*most* teachers are willing to do this”, etc) are changing from year to year, and very strongly in the direction of explicitness and thoroughly itemized compensation. And for what it’s worth, I think this is the right direction.

On another side (not necessarily “the” other side), I’d like to point out that not all instructors are comfortable, eager, or even ABLE to interact on this professional of a level. There are definitely some who prefer a less formal agreement, who chafe at spelling out their needs, and who, let’s face it, do not like to write emails. (That was not a euphemism for “they aren’t very timely in their responses” — some actually don’t like it and can get surly and/or increase their demands if pressured to respond to a request) This is perhaps doubly true of many musicians.
So with those things in mind, I often find myself trying to figure out “at what level” each staff member operates, and try to meet them there, for practical reasons.

Though in the end, I think those pushing for increased clarity will and should eventually win the day…

29 Comments leave one →
  1. Freddie permalink
    December 16, 2011 8:43 am

    “[A] weekend where a couple get’s paid $1000 to teach is not $125 for 8 hours of instruction. It’s really $25 an hour for forty (almost non-stop) hours of their time.”

    This is something really important that I think most swing dancers doesn’t really think about.

  2. Philippe permalink
    December 16, 2011 9:41 am

    Hi Bobby, you are 200% right. Hope to see you soon. Hugs to you and Kate,
    Philippe (in Berlin)

  3. Susan Manke permalink
    December 16, 2011 4:38 pm

    A very important subject matter that needed to be addressed. Thanks for enlightening the swing dance communities about what’s involved in being an instructor. I think so many people just think about the money aspect when planning an event and don’t consider how much time the instructors give, not only at the event, but in prepping as well. Kudos to all of you for what you do.

  4. Yossef permalink
    December 16, 2011 7:35 pm

    My hourly rate suffers from a similar diminishing effect. It’s partly from the time it takes to find new work, but mostly from all these non-billable hours.

    Thank you very much for “The super easy, fix-it-all alternative is for everyone to make their implied contracts explicit.” Contract negotiations are important to me in my business life, and I’m trying to do the same when it comes to dance-related work as well. And learning lessons along the way. Just because I don’t do it for a living doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be professional about it.

  5. reetpleat permalink
    December 17, 2011 12:56 am

    I agree it should be discussed and in writing, or at least discussed and shaken hands on. Two factors not mentioned are, any up and coming swing teachers would be wise to give as much as they can, especially in their now communities. But this does not mean they should be taken advantage of by promoters. Other question though, is, are promoters or organizers making a lot of money or not/ If it is kind of a non profit thing, then expecting a lot from the teachers for not so much money is more forgivable. Especially if the promoters are giving a lot of their time for low money. But if the organizers want to make a big profit on the backs of the teachers, that is bad.

  6. December 17, 2011 1:15 am

    “When an instructor gives their rates, they need to express what those rates will cover.”

    That’s really smart. Are instructors starting to do this more now? I hope so. Happy teachers are better than overworked teachers.

  7. Alain Wong permalink
    December 17, 2011 1:21 am

    Great post, Bobby, for both teachers and organizers.

  8. Michael Gamble permalink
    December 18, 2011 3:56 pm

    Yes, absolutely. Two things I’ll just throw in here:

    1) This stuff is changing, and fast. Though the general outline here will no doubt hold true for a while, the details (“*most* teachers are willing to do this”, etc) are changing from year to year, and very strongly in the direction of explicitness and thoroughly itemized compensation. And for what it’s worth, I think this is the right direction.

    2) On another side (not necessarily “the” other side), I’d like to point out that not all instructors are comfortable, eager, or even ABLE to interact on this professional of a level. There are definitely some who prefer a less formal agreement, who chafe at spelling out their needs, and who, let’s face it, do not like to write emails. (That was not a euphemism for “they aren’t very timely in their responses” — some actually don’t like it and can get surly and/or increase their demands if pressured to respond to a request) This is perhaps doubly true of many musicians.

    So with those things in mind, I often find myself trying to figure out “at what level” each staff member operates, and try to meet them there, for practical reasons. Though in the end, I think those pushing for increased clarity will and should eventually win the day…

    • Bobby permalink*
      December 18, 2011 4:31 pm

      Great input , Michael.

  9. Brad permalink
    December 19, 2011 9:11 pm

    “Most swing dance instructors technically only charge for instruction.” Why? Almost every Camp, Weekend Workshop, or Events that I can think of are marketed to include accompanying social dances, performances, and contests. The only exception that comes to mind is when a local studio hosts out-of-town instructors and advertises their classes purely as workshops, and even breaks down pricing based on them. To me, this is the only scenario that makes sense for an instructor to be compensated purely for their amount of time taught – and even then I still hope to see those same instructors out socially and dancing with those that attended their classes.

    Social Dancing Generally:
    Personally, this is the largest “implied” expectation of instructors associated with any Event. Their presence, and equally their absence, is so noticeable on the dancefloor as they really can affect the entire energy of an evening. It spreads to dancers around them, and to also to dancers waiting with anticipation for a chance to share a song with them. The Jam Circles are better. The Shim Sham or other line dances are more fun. The music is even better. They can influence the energy of the band, their song choices, and even moods of musicians with their appreciation, responsiveness to the band, and musicality. The attendance throughout the night is better: whether it be due to others waiting for a chance to dance with the instructors or being content to watch them while sitting out a dance. Like stars of a Broadway play, the presence of professionals can make the whole evening much more enjoyable and when they don’t come out, come late or leave early, the evening can be more like an unenergetic production of understudies.

    Social Dancing with Students:
    Perhaps this expectation stems more from students, but a good promoter/organizer should absolutely encourage this. Frequently students recall their favorite or most memorable moment from an event being an awesome social dance with a professional. Moreover at an extended Camp, an instructor can tailor their classes or material based on their experiences social dancing with students. Equally, it’s always fun to have a pattern or concept from class happen in a social dance, and no one else can do this better than the teaching instructor. It also helps reinforce, or at minimum recalls, material which can be overwhelming and otherwise forgotten by students after so much instruction.

    Entire volumes could be written on the etiquette of dancing with professionals at an event or socially. “In short, if people want a dance with someone, even an instructor, they should ask for it.” While there certainly are various philosophies on asking, this approach places the burden of asking on the student. It can be intimidating to ask a more advanced dancer for a dance even under the best conditions and no one wants to feel like they’re pestering someone else. Just like anyone else, a professional can indicate their willingness to be approached and ideally students should respect that. Perhaps the teacher would always say yes to a request if asked, but if they’ve danced the last three songs with their professional partner next to the band, then they aren’t accessible to most novice students.

    “This one, overall, is probably something more for instructors to think about than organizers…” Thinking more on it, I’m not sure I’d want a contract to require instructors dancing ‘X amount of time with students during a dance.’ Sure I want to dance with a professional but I also want them to want to dance with me rather than being obligated to do so. Regardless of gender, it’s always nice to have a more advanced dancer ask you to dance. Promoters might include Open Jack & Jill Competitions with the teachers or an Instructor-Student Snowball Jam in the agreement but mandating “sympathy dances with students” doesn’t seem like a good idea, and perhaps difficult to enforce.

    Dressing Up:
    This issue seems fairly insignificant compared to the others and no more burdensome than a promoter telling attendees about a 20’s or 50’s themed night. I suppose if you’re dry cleaning an extravagant flapper dress or zoot suit regularly that there’s an additional cost, but still appears to be a relatively minor in contributing to the overall success of an event.

    Judging & Level Testing:
    This one seems like a no brainer to me. Both the promoter and instructor know well in advance that there will be competitions or a level test on the schedule. These take time – time that the instructor could instead use relaxing or perhaps teaching a private lesson. If they use the same expertise judging for an hour as they do teaching for an hour, why should they be compensated for one and not the other? At a competition heavy event, this would seem to be worth making an explicit part of the agreement involving a substantial amount of time. And students being in the proper level can contribute greatly to classes being successful or frustrating.

    Demos / Performances:
    This one I think depends on the type of performance. Are the instructors doing a demo at a dance to help promote their upcoming workshops and introduce themselves to the local scene or are they working on new and extensive choreography as a showcase performance to entertain the crowd? In the latter case, or when they’re doing multiple performances say during each set break, then this too should be compensated.

    Video Notebooks:
    If the event is selling the video notebook, it’s only fair to pay instructors for adding their taught material to it.

    Any of these terms can and should be made explicit in the agreement by teachers, more so if they feel they’ve been taken advantage of in the past. I’m far more likely to return to an event where the professionals both want, and are excited to be, out social dancing. Organizers who try to demand too much of their time at the expense of instructors having less energy or willingness to actually dance reduce the likelihood of me returning to their camp or workshops.

  10. December 19, 2011 10:40 pm

    If only public school teachers could be paid for the thousands of hours they spend preparing class material and the hundreds of hours they commute to and from their jobs, not to mention the parent-teacher conferences they are required to hold but aren’t compensated for….

    • December 20, 2011 12:53 pm

      Though most public school teachers are in a salaried position, and like any full time employment usually involves little extras that aren’t billed for by the hour. A swing teacher is a contractor, and therefore is billed directly by the time put into the job they are contracted for. Besides, I don’t think Bobby is suggesting that a swing teacher gets paid specifically for their prep, he’s just accounting that it takes a lot of time!

      This is not to say that I don’t think the prep time for teachers in a school is any different to a dance teacher, but more that perhaps prep time is included in their salary not an itemised rate.

    • December 20, 2011 5:44 pm

      I agree with you Abagail. There are many, many unpaid hours involved in being a teacher. there are also many, many unpaid hours involved in being an organizer/administrator of dance events and school programs. Long live the Arts!!!!

  11. December 19, 2011 10:41 pm

    Sorry – it didn’t post my name. Above comment is from Abigail Browning.

  12. Abigail permalink
    December 20, 2011 5:37 pm

    Very true. Thank you for the thoughtful response.

  13. Bobby permalink*
    December 20, 2011 5:52 pm

    I think something was missing form my blog, so I added it at the bottom:

    A thank you to all the organizers, who make our jobs possible, and keep the scene growing and inspired.

  14. January 4, 2012 5:25 am

    Keeping social dances unpaid is probably a good idea, since paying for that could get weird. But I guess a smart organizer would hire people who are friendly with students and who love dancing with new people.

    But then, students should have the presence of mind to understand that there are plenty of non-instructors who are awesome dancers, too. These days I’m totally fine not dancing with my teachers since I get enjoyment out of dancing with just about anyone. Lots of times, I just want to go dance with my friends and make some new ones along the way, and I expect it’s the same for lots of people, teachers included. It’s no secret why a lot of the teachers are friends–they wind up teaching at lots of events together (which means they hang out a lot), they started dancing together a while back (so they’ve all known each other for years), and they learn from each other at dances.

    Good stuff to think about, especially for those of us who aren’t teachers.

  15. January 13, 2012 6:42 am

    Thanks Bobby for the great essay. Very well written with lots of important things for novice organizers to think about and reminders of things experienced organizers should consider.

  16. January 30, 2012 4:58 pm

    Managing expectations is extremely important, and I find that this piece is great at setting the context of those expectations. Event organizers need to consider the demands they place on their instructors, including both time in front of students and the time away from students. If there’s an area I’d like to hear more on, it’s instructor expectations from organizers:
    — How much time do you need between classes and dances?
    — How much time for meals?
    — Start/End times for classes?
    — What sort of logistical support? Transportation, schedules, meals, etc

    ====

    To these ends, I wonder, would it help to establish a general Dance Instructor Contract for our social scenes?

    I envision a simple contract that has the above items, check boxes if the item is expected to be performed by the instructor, along with rates and additional comments.
    While, it is true that we [organizers and instructors] prefer hand-shake agreements, it works well only until one party feels mistreated by the other. Then the disputes about expectations and agreements arise.

    ~ Shawn

  17. thegirlroaming permalink
    March 13, 2012 12:26 am

    Wow! This is really helpful! I’ll definitely keep this in mind when planning our club’s next workshop.

  18. January 26, 2013 2:18 pm

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    Quick idea…. more images and video clips in future articles.

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  22. June 14, 2014 4:56 am

    This was very eye opening and informative read. I aspire to possibly travel and instruct at some point at least around my current state (Texas) and Mid south/Mid west region if not Nationally. It’s always nice to get an inside view on how something works that you could easily get blindsided on in the future.

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