This season, the ballet classes that I teach at two very different health clubs excite me. They’re getting good! I’ve made similar attempts at various clubs over the years, but never with this sense of steady success. Having come late to dance myself, I empathize with adult Beginners.
I enjoy the analysis and explanation of technique, and that “Ah-ha!” moment that lights up a student’s face when a new concept dawns.
Sure, teaching the fundamentals, the same thing over and over again every week, tries my patience. However, it’s only tedious when I arrive at the studio with plans to set a beautiful step sequence that is beyond the capacity of most of those people who happened to join me that day.
How does an instructor let go of their own expectations?
Beginners require a specific format, different from the intermediate students who are already familiar with basic vocabulary. The new folks progress best with a syllabus set in advance that maximizes repetition; and they need breaks to relax their minds; whereas the experienced dancers benefit from the opposite– a sustained focus. In health clubs, they all attend the same class together.
What do you recommend?
However ignoble it may be for a teacher to think of himself this way, ours is a cult of personality. New business, class attendance and private clientele, are best advanced through personal contact. You’ve got to get yourself out there.
I like thinking of my life in blocks of seasons. Perhaps that’s a remnant of my landscape gardening years — just me and a pick-up truck, and sometimes a hunky assistant from the club where I was also employed as a fitness trainer. Planning by season is not just a useful metaphor for a gardener! Less essential for a teacher’s business, the seasons are still romantic and full of ritual. I change the stations of my exercise circuit class on the equinox and solstice; because that dance with the rhythm of the surrounding world somehow blesses the success of all arrangements.
My spring networking effort was going out for after-class drinks with dance students, and organizing group field trips to the Opera House to see the San Francisco Ballet.
Last summer, my self-promotion attempt was to attend a figure drawing salon at an art gallery in my neighborhood, ($20 for 3 hours of live models, meal of appetizers and beer and wine!). I still had to be assertively social. Artists don’t talk much while they work; but , between poses, the appetizer table is ripe with potential introductions, “What do you do?” By participating in the group activity, I didn’t need to push or be disingenuous.
What group activities have intrinsic value to you?
Satisfaction comes from committing to the activities that bring you joy, even if you don’t capture any new business. I like to make such social plans a quarter in advance.
Have you any suggestions?
When I last taught the Tuesday night dance class at the Club, I had only one student, and she was 15 minutes late. I left the club depressed and discouraged. There were other indications that my popularity there had waned. My picture and profile had disappeared from the Pilates staff wall display. My last attempt to produce a Performance Project there failed to generate minimal enrollment, and had to be cancelled. All my suggestions for innovative class formats were ignored.
I have a pattern of continuing to offer my expertise where it is no longer wanted, of overstaying my welcome.
How do you know when it’s time to move on?
I’ve worked for all the major, upscale health clubs in San Francisco. Dissatisfaction forces me to take a second look at the professional teaching terrain and my own, underlying desires. I want to belong to a team, to feel myself part of a faculty. Can I still make that happen in an environment where I’ve become obsolete? The challenge is to find a purposeful alternative in which I believe that I have a clear, creative and collaborative opportunity.
What do you recommend?
I can’t be the only dance teacher working in a health club because his first love won’t pay the rent. In a gym of course, fitness comes first; art second. There, fitness is defined by market forces; and what I want to offer most is not on-trend. The same goes for martial artists, gymnasts, former team sport athletes, yogis — we each hold our own isolated dream, absent our peers in a health club setting as we operate in an environment that does not share our personal priorities.
I revelled in the week that I spent as Ballet Master at a professional dance school last summer; but in the end I lost money doing it. The dance school enrolled only a handful of well-trained teenagers and a dozen amateur adults. The health club, on the other hand, has over 4,000 members.
How do you overcome the resulting mediocrity?
The challenge for a specialist teacher is boredom, as repetition demands that we always teach and stick to the basics, the rudiments of our craft, ever the same. One must calm a rising anxiety about one’s unfulfilled potential. It’s exhausting.
What do you recommend?
A health club member was upset with me this morning, for using the club’s main studio to train one of my private clients (one of her fellow members). I don’t recall having a prior altercation with the woman; and I was surprised by the venom and distain that she voiced for me. “I’ll report you!” she shrieked.
Years ago I would have been personally offended, worried that I might get in trouble with management; and I would have tried to smooth things over. Not today. With my decades of experience comes blissful indifference. “You’re welcome to talk to my supervisor, the Director of Group Exercise” I shrugged, “She knows that I’m using this space, and in fact pays me to do so.” I wasn’t rude or combative. After all, the dispute was really between the two members — not my problem.
How much time and effort should a staff teacher devote to peace keeping?
Conflict resolution, making everybody happy, is a great gift, and one that I happen to have in abundance. As the Pilates Department Coordinator at that same club, I often found myself in the role of mediator. Back then it was part of my job responsibilities. Not today.
Now, at my OWN studio, Volition Fitness, I’ve an entirely different perspective. My partner and I each have a couple of prima donna clients. When the two are forced to share the space, they’re like hissing cats. We take great pains to keep their appointments at separate hours.
How do you handle disputes among clients?
Attendance in my performance choreography class plummeted. I thought that I might recruit the dancers from my other classes. However, when I tell students in my other classes that I’m preparing a dance for an as yet undetermined performance, I see rows of polite smiles, but not more bodies in rehearsal. So I try another route. Instead of trying to drum up enthusiasm for my envisioned project, I ask my prospective participants to offer a stage of their own, “Do any of you have a favorite charity for whom we might perform?”
Perhaps this approach can work with my fellow teachers as well. One of them may provide a venue. That requires that I compromise. My two best collaborators weren’t moved to follow my indoor/outdoor, weekend long dance camp suggestion; but they proposed that we gather together to host another in-studio dance-sampler/open house day. I reluctantly threw-in my support behind the idea, “taking one for the team”, because the offer and the initiative arose from them.
I don’t like admitting that all the best ideas for us aren’t mine! For me, it’s an uncomfortable position. I am accustomed to being the Boss; but I’m not the one doing the hard, physical work of dancing the steps, or enrolling enough participants to justify the expensive of production.
How do you make something while relinquishing control of it?
It’s not enough just to listen. Once I ask for suggestions, I’m obligated to apply the answers.
At this moment, as the result of a last minute cancellation by one of my fitness clients, I’m being paid almost $100 to eat breakfast.
To charge or not to charge, is always a moral conundrum. In this particular case, the client didn’t show because he had to manage a business opportunity; but the client who cancelled just prior to him reported an illness as his excuse. Do I charge them both?
I have every client sign a liability waiver that includes a separate section in bold type agreeing to give me 24 hours notice of cancellation. I accept notice the night before an early morning appointment as sufficient, even though it’s technically less than 24 hours; and whenever I fail to give 24 hour notice, by way of apology, I give the disappointed client a free session. However, I don’t inform a late canceling client that I’m charging them for their missed appointment. I simply deduct the session from their pre-paid package.
Therein lies the reason for offering volume discounts for the purchase of session packages. The decision to charge, as well as payment, is in my hands. I maintain control of my business and my time.
What constitutes a true emergency, justifying a lapse of 24 notice of cancellation?
It’s a judgement call on a case by case basis. Some clients have frequent emergencies. Others are regularly late to sessions. In those cases, I smile and accept their excuses, “Of course…”‘; but I end the session at the appointed time, even if I have free time following the session. Keeping those boundaries clear is its own kind of training.
What do you think?
Regarding my job as Fitness Trainer, I like to disrupt the stereotypic image of a jock by saying, “It’s not really about the push ups”; meaning that the physical education is the least significant aspect of the workout.
I’ve been training Jennifer for as long as I’ve know my partner, 15 years now; and I bet that in some ways I know Jennifer better than I know my mate. Sure, my client has physical fitness goals, some functional and some cosmetic, and a history of orthopedic injury extensive enough to fill a medical journal; but “exercise instruction” doesn’t begin to describe our weekly hour together. I am the chief witness to her life. As the weeks and the years roll by, I see Jennifer rejoice in romantic vacations and dreadful fights, workplace honors as well as frustrating dissatisfaction, financial worries, the death of her parents.
What is the primary benefit provided by a fitness coach?
When a client arrives for a session, I know the important touch stones of that person’s existence. Of course I ask how the diet has been maintained that week, and about the status of the prior week’s reported aches and bodily concerns. Then we get down to business, “How is that law suit progressing?” “Are you still angry at your daughter?” I hear things that no one else knows about that person.
It’s an honor to hold someone’s trust and confidence. It’s also a responsibility. When I observe one of my clients behaving poorly towards other people in their life, or stuck in an obsolete and less than optimal behavioral pattern, I feel obligated to say something.
What do you recommend?
Working out while instructing
It can be fun, supportive and motivating for the trainee, when their fitness coach to drops down next to them and matches them in a series of push ups or crunches…Team work! In fact, in the health club setting, cardio-dance students expect the teacher to cue the entire class by providing a continuous, visual demonstration. However, in performance training classes, where technical improvement is the aim of the class, the teacher must step aside and let the students take center stage.
When is it in the student’s best interest for the teacher to watch rather than do?
Emphasizing his role as observer means that the teacher never gets the thorough warmup that he’s provided his students; and that’s tough on the teacher’s body; for by the middle of class, the students are ready to turn and jump; but the teacher is still stiff and unprepared to demonstrate athletic movement sequences full-out. He’s spent the preceding 30-45 minutes observing and correcting others.
Next month I’m starting a new class, and changing the format of an existing one to combine the two cuing styles. I’m looking forward to the workout; but wondering when and how much to dance/demonstrate, and how much to stand aside and cheerlead from the back of the studio.
How would you implement your best teaching practice?
I have two early morning clients and three more this evening; but today my 9:00 – 5:00 is free — a life of leisure?Sometimes, but the variability can be confusing. My empty hours are often unpredictable, anxious and unwelcome. In dance, community theater, and fitness training, Saturday is a work day. Most of us movement teachers dedicate Saturdays to class and rehearsal. Except for very rare, two-day workshops, I decline to work Sundays. A full weekend however, is the exception, expensive (because it is unpaid), and demanding a surprising degree of advance planning.
Is a balanced life best achieved by small doses of time-off through the year, or by one, annual grand vacation?
Although I’d prefer to live in a more rural setting, I am locked into operating my business and living in San Francisco. This is “everyone’s favorite city” for good reason; and I am well aware of my good fortune. Still, I dream about scheduling one weekend a month to enjoy this place or to get out of town. That means saying No to money and opportunity, and risking the ire of health club directors who frown upon classes frequently substituted.
What do you do to balance your work and play?