Photo courtesy of Scribe Media.
With the pandemic lingering much longer than anticipated, many dance studios have reimagined what their studios will look like once classes can return to normal. With many families experiencing the hardships of an economic downturn, some studios are wondering whether the competition circuit is the right fit for them — both monetarily and culturally.
Chasta Hamilton, owner and artistic director of Stage Door Dance Productions in Raleigh, North Carolina, gave her studio a makeover in 2015 and she hasn't looked back. Her new book, "Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul," chronicles the steps she took to buck tradition and foster a healthier studio environment for her students and fellow dance educators.
What did you notice about your students during the tail end of your competition years that started making you realize that maybe this isn't the best thing for everyone?
Honestly, it was the "I" over the team. Performing arts are collaborative, and what we were experiencing in competitive dance encouraged a very non-collaborative approach — people were more interested in their solos than their group routines. That's not what I want for my legacy. That was the gut punch that told me it was time to reinvent and figure out some new things.
What did you notice about yourself and the dance educators who were helping you get your competition teams ready?
It is just this unimaginable investment of resources, time, finances, travel. This isn't a way to live a life — no Forbes 500 company operates this way. There's no work-life balance. I was seeing the fatigue in the parents, the students, the staff and myself. I thought... What if we got to the heart of what makes this great and rediscover the happiness?
I would wake up, I would have tears in my eyes. I would be in Target breaking out in hives. It was so visceral. I think a lot of people think the competitive dance industry and the dance education industry are the same, but that's not true.
Good training should be good training. The reality of this competitive dance model as it currently exists — it's deregulated and it doesn't duplicate the working pieces of the industry either. If you're auditioning to be on Broadway, you don't get to show up with a solo in your best style that you've been working on for nine months. It didn't have the adaptability and resilience that the actual entertainment industry requires.
Did you get any pushback from the parents? Did you see your studio enrollment either dip or rise as a result?
When we made that decision, we met with every family within the competitive program, which at that time was around, 50-55 students, about 10% of our population. We met with each of them individually to tell them about the direction and culture shifts that we were going to be having in the upcoming year.
We reinvented into an intensive training program and went from 50-55 kids in that group to 13 kids, but our overall enrollment increased 25%. The craziest thing is that even in the pandemic period, our intensive training program is larger than our competitive team ever was.
When we did it in 2015-2016, we were swimming upstream. Hopefully, people are going to want to follow our lead into this new thing that we're creating. The time is right for a change. People expect change right now, so it's a great time to rethink and reconsider. Even for the competition circuit, it's a good time to reevaluate.
How have you seen your studio culture change?
It was very quiet in the aftermath because nobody says you're a game-changer right out of the gate. I think people were watching and curious about it. About two years into that program is when I started getting that good energy of parents being all-in as well as the staff and students. Every single year, we continue changing and elevating and growing so that we can keep making this program something that's a great value and ROI for our students.
What was the hardest adjustment for the studio?
We went back to a leotard base for our dress code. There's this culture that's been created with the bra tops and the booty shorts and we were just finding it to be a little distracting in the classrooms. What I've learned through all of it is that as long as you're communicating and explaining to people what you're doing and the reasons behind it, they'll get on board.
Are you seeing the positive results with your graduating students who go on to professional dance careers?
This is interesting. I think a year or two after we had stepped away from the competitive industry, I had a student book three Broadway shows and he was 12 years old at the time. This shows that strong technique is universal. It doesn't need that competition, and I'm not anti-competition by any means, but I believe that the competitions we participate in have to bring value and meaning to our goals.
How has your studio managed through the pandemic?
When we stepped out of competition, the two things that I said we needed to focus on were: community and collaboration. I think having those two pieces as our baseline has helped get us through this. It hasn't been easy and our numbers certainly aren't at a hundred percent, but this kept us going and still in the game.
What advice do you have for other studio owners and dance educators?
When we went out of the competition circuit, I forced myself to watch it for two years and observe and write out all the pros and cons. I think the process taught me to be confident in my decisions and in activating change. Sometimes I think it is easy for us to get paralyzed in the waiting game. Right now, I think it's more important than ever that we do not get stuck in the waiting game — we need to innovate quickly and we need to be on our toes and ready to pivot at a moment's notice. The information changes so frequently and crisis leadership is exhausting. You're not going to get to the other side if you're playing the waiting game.
That's the whole process that I followed since we extracted from the competitive dance industry, It's constant change. We weren't able to have a recital, so we did an outdoor film shoot. It's finding ways to continually innovate to keep bringing opportunities for community connection and collaboration in safe ways.
I think so often we get stuck in the idea of "this is a dance class." This is how we do it — we warm up, we go across the floor, we do a combo. When all of this happened, we decided to use this time to do things that we don't always get to. Let's do more leadership development. Let's talk about history. Let's talk about the physics of dance. Let's do spelling bees. Let's do performance-based projects, where the students would have to do set design and costuming as well. We take our knowledge and create a really meaningful experience that makes people say, "Wow, I can't believe my dance studio did that."
Chasta Hamilton's book, "Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul," is currently available on Amazon.