The Dancing With the Stars Economy

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For most of her adult life my wife has made her living as a professional dance competitor, instructor, competition judge, and dance studio owner. It was a profession and an industry that largely flew beneath most people’s radar screen, and it was economically cyclic, to say the least. Dance lessons were often the first discretionary purchase that people crossed off their list when money got tight. Still, she managed to tough it out through several recessions as a studio owner and coach.

Then a few folks across the pond in England opted to take a zany risk. Television producers looking for a replacement for a show called Come Dancing, which had grown outdated, combined the British passion for reality shows (far more intense and eccentric than our own) with the glitz of dance competitions by pairing celebrities with dance pros. I saw a few episodes of the first season of Strictly Come Dancing on a visit to England and thought it the wackiest show I’d ever seen. So wacky, in fact, that it became an international phenomenon, imported to 30 countries. So wacky, that most of our TV networks passed on the idea when the Brits pitched it to them, until ABC decided to give it a summer test run.

Now, after eight seasons of Dancing With The Stars and twenty-five million viewers an episode, the world of competitive dancing is no longer flying beneath the radar screen in the U.S., and no longer quite as economically cyclic as it once was. First the phones started ringing off the hook at studios. Then promoters started paying professional couples unheard of prices to perform. A touring company from the TV show fills arenas at ticket prices that are typical of Broadway musicals. Entries at the national championships ballooned to record numbers last year even amidst the meltdown on Wall Street. Instructors have rushed to open new studios and train teachers to meet the demand, and just when they catch up, a new season of DWTS, as it’s known in the industry, debuts and the cycle starts all over again.

All of this has happened entirely apart from the conversation we’re now having in Washington and in elite circles about the future of capitalism, bonuses, regulation, subsidies and taxation. You would be hard-pressed to find many dance establishments on the list of firms that receive loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. No politician—federal, state or local—is going to propose bailing out studios that go bust. There are no tax credits or deductions that subsidize ballroom lessons. Efforts to inject billions of taxpayer dollars into venture capital funds to jump-start entrepreneurship in the U.S. won’t matter one bit to competition organizers.

In this respect it’s still an industry that’s flying below the radar screen. But by that definition, so is most of the rest of the American economy. The poet W.H. Auden once observed that even when seemingly momentous events are taking place, “the dogs go on with their doggy life.” And so it is with the entrepreneurial economy right now. The dance studios go on with their dancing life. The new store-front accountant down the street scrambles to meet his deadlines. The talented guy who engineers custom-made kitchen cabinets isn’t holding his breadth hoping the fed’s mortgage bailout plan will somehow unlock new capital for home improvements.

In fact, ask the typical dance studio owner about government and the first thing he or she will probably tell you about are all the ways it makes life difficult: the building inspector who suddenly decides there’s something wrong with the ceiling in the studio that he’s seen a dozen times before but now deems a violation. The incessantly rising property taxes that eat up some of the incremental revenue you’ve earned from expanding. The state labor department that keeps trying to get you to pay unemployment insurance for that freelance instructor who shows up once a month to teach a random lesson—forcing you to tell the guy he can’t come to your place anymore because it isn’t worth the cost of hiring lawyers to fend off government.

It was just such headaches that helped prompt my wife to give up a few years ago her studio in New York City, maybe the toughest place to do business in America. There were simply too many other options and opportunities in the DWTS economy to keep slugging it out with government there—even in a business that is as much a passion as a job.

This is the reality of most of the economy. Beyond the hearing rooms of Congress, beyond the meeting rooms at Treasury, beyond the view of city halls and state capitals is the economy where people come up with wacky ideas, take risks, work hard, and rarely expect anything of government except that it do the basics well and leave them otherwise free to dance to their own beat.

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