Implied in the Contract
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…