How to keep your dance business happy and healthy when your co-workers are also your relatives
You can’t say that Robin Kooyenga didn’t know what she was in for. Growing up, she recalls being “surrounded 24/7” by the whirlwind of activity that is New Jersey’s Kaye-Lynn Dance Studio, which her mother, Jackie Lynn, founded back in 1955. Kooyenga now says that observing Jackie Lynn over the years was the best possible preparation for taking over the studio one day, which she now runs alongside her own daughter, Jasi Lynn.
Kaye-Lynn Dance Studio is hardly the only dance business run by multiple generations of the same family. But working with folks you’re related to isn’t always simple, to say the least. Here, three legacy dance businesses spill the secrets that keep them happy together, both at home and at work.
Running a family business means keeping a close eye out for signs of nepotism and favoritism. Molly Ellis, COO of Footlights Dance & Theatre Boutique in Maryland, was intensely conscious of this when she first started working under then-boyfriend (now husband) Joe Ellis and future mother-in-law Joy Ellis. “I wasn’t given a break because of my relationship with Joe,” Molly says, “and I didn’t want one. I worked really hard to prove my worth in a short amount of time because I felt more pressure than anyone else.”
Not only should family members be known to work just as hard as (if not harder than) nonfamily employees, they also shouldn’t get any free passes. Kooyenga says that on occasion, she’ll ask Jasi: “Would you ask any other boss that?” This kind of check-in habit can be helpful if you’re unsure at any given moment whether you’re acting as a parent (or sibling or spouse), or as a supervisor/direct report.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Joanne Chapman (of the Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Ontario, Canada) says the best thing about working with husband Barry Carroll and daughters Jessie and Dana Chapman-Carroll is the deep level of trust she places in her family. Beware, though, of letting that sense of comfort bring entrenched family roles into professional situations. “The biggest thing I’ve had to learn is to honor my daughters’ opinions and not instinctively write them off,” Chapman says.
Keep Family Spats Private
Chapman adds that the family’s baseline familiarity with each other can sometimes lead to shorter emotional fuses when professional matters get heated. So dancers and their families don’t accidentally witness a family spat, keep any interactions that could turn emotional to private locations only—and in-person to lower the chance of miscommunications or misunderstandings.
Leave Work at Work
If work–life balance has gotten harder in recent years, that effect doubles when it comes to family businesses. “It’s too easy for us to spend an entire night hashing out the workday or fall into work conversations when we get together for family gatherings,” Ellis says. To keep shop talk to a disciplined minimum, you and any colleagues you live with will have to hold each other accountable.
Beyond gently calling one another out when talk of work goes beyond a few minutes, Chapman and Jasi Lynn both recommend scheduling in more time spent around nondance family and friends. Building an outside-of-work support system forces even the most obsessive dance entrepreneur to recharge by not thinking or talking about the business for a few hours.
Prioritize Strong Relationships
Going into business with family members can accentuate what’s already good or bad about your relationships with them. For Ellis, that turned out for the best: “Footlights has brought us three closer, and given me an invaluable connection to Joy that I’m fortunate to have,” she says. “Not many people can say they love their in-laws, and even fewer can say they enjoy working with them.”
The trio keeps things enjoyable by ensuring consensus is reached before making any business decision—no going over anyone’s head or behind anyone’s back. “The best formula for us has been to try to understand each other and come up with a plan we can all get on board with,” Ellis says.
If your familial relationships are complicated now or have been strained in the past, it may be wisest to avoid working together until those issues are resolved, with or without professional help (like that of a therapist). “Working together as a family brings in new challenges and new points of conflict,” Chapman says. “We’ve been pretty blessed in that we’re all equally invested in the studio. It would be tough, and resentments would build, if one of us weren’t all in.”
Helen Hope teaches dance and has written for Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.