Left: A screenshot from World of Dance's studio franchise website, from before this language was taken down. Right: Dance teacher Jessica Miracle's response to the marketing campaign.

Last Thursday night, studio owner and author Chasta Hamilton posted the following message and accompanying screenshot in The New Dance Teacher Network Facebook group.

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Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Gabe Stone Shayer, American Ballet Theatre's newest soloist, has long been a standout onstage. But the 27-year-old dancer—the first African-American male to graduate from Russia's Bolshoi Ballet Academy—is also branching out into choreography and spearheading a flurry of creative projects. Shayer has big ideas for ballet's future. "I want to be the person who facilitates the idea of possibility in this historically exclusive world," he told us in our December/January digital cover story. "And I want to present the possibility of success through my own story."

Now you have a chance to ask Shayer about his training and career, his advice on navigating a path in ballet, his recent work with Alicia Keys, his thoughts on diversity in dance and more. Click here to register for free with your questions. Then tune in for an exclusive conversation and Q&A with Gabe Stone Shayer on Thursday, January 21, at 7 pm Eastern.

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Othella Dallas, one of the last living early members of the Katherine Dunham Company, passed away from lung cancer on November 28 at a nursing home outside of Basel, Switzerland. She was 95. A celebrated dancer, teacher, and jazz and blues musician, Dallas' studio in Basel is considered to be the only school in Europe to teach pure Dunham technique. Dallas continued performing and teaching well into her 90s; until the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, she was leading classes three days a week.

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Alex Stone, courtesy Stewart

You may know Britt Stewart as the first Black female pro in "Dancing with the Stars" history. But what you may not know is that this fan favorite didn't have any formal ballroom training until just four years ago.

Stewart trained as a competition dancer at Artistic Fusion Dance Academy in Colorado before moving to Los Angeles, where she's had the kind of career most commercial dancers only dream of: We're talking all three of the High School Musical movies, Teen Beach Movie, "Glee," multiple major awards shows, and backup dancing for stars like Janet Jackson and Katy Perry.

By the time the "DWTS" Troupe opportunity fell in her lap she was confident she had ticked everything off her commercial-dance bucket list. "I was craving a new challenge," she says. "And, boy, did I get it."

Stewart describes joining the "DWTS" Troupe in 2016 as totally serendipitous. "I was in rehearsal for Disneyland's 60th anniversary when Derek Hough and Mandy Moore saw me dance," she says. "They got me an audition for the Troupe and six months later I was on the show without any formal ballroom training." (The Troupe is a group of professional dancers who performed on "DWTS" but were not paired with celebrities to compete. Troupe has not been part of the show for the past two seasons.)

She has since thrown herself into the ballroom world, training and competing professionally, and finally earning herself the highly coveted role of pro on Season 29 of the series. "Becoming a pro has been a dream of mine ever since I joined Troupe," she says. "It's the opposite of anything I have ever done before, and I am totally obsessed with it."

Here, Stewart reflects on her training journey and the dance educators who have shaped her.

The most helpful correction she's ever received:

"Kenny Ortega used to tell me that it's all about the story, and to maintain an inner dialogue. Don't do choreography just to do choreography, but have something behind it so there's authenticity to what you're dancing."

On her dance-training turning point:

"Taking ballet as a young girl. My dance teacher didn't want me to fit a stereotype. Back then in the comp world, Black girls were known for great tap solos and being really good at hip hop. Even though I was skilled at tap, she pushed me to be really good at other things, as well. So, I started doing ballet and Pilates privates, and it changed my training. At competitions, judges would say I was a great performer but that I needed to work on my technique. I still remember the first time I got a note saying I had really good technique. My hard work had actually paid off."

On the worst advice she's ever gotten:

"When I was 8 years old, I was standing out in my competition number, and the judges kept pointing out the little girl in yellow. Instead of celebrating the fact that I was standing out, my teacher told me to hold myself back to fit in with the group. Thankfully, I was young enough that I wasn't too self-conscious yet, and was able to break out of that mindset shortly after when my mom and other teachers told me to just go for it."

On her most influential teacher:

"Jenny Jarnot took me out of my mold, and told me I could be amazing and that she saw potential in me. She shaped me into who I am. To this day she sends me inspirational quotes, and we talk all the time. I'm so grateful to be connected to this amazing, strong woman who is passionate about me and so giving."

On choosing a career over college:

"I got accepted to Loyola Marymount University. I've always loved school, but I always knew I wanted to dance. My parents are educated businesspeople who felt college was really important. So, I ended up going to LMU. I only made it a semester and a half when Kenny Ortega called and said they were making a third High School Musical movie and that I needed to be part of it. So, I left school and filmed the third movie, and after that I got an agent. I don't like not finishing things. I went back and forth about returning to school, but my parents finally said, 'God is clearly presenting these opportunities—the door is wide open to your dance career.' I haven't stopped dancing since."

Kyle and Amanda Preiser. Photo courtesy Alpha Dance Convention

It took a few years to get a "yes" after Kyle Preiser first approached Judy Rice with a proposal to start a dance convention. Rice, associate professor of dance at the University of Michigan, had for 20 years traveled most weekends (with Co. Dance, Artists Simply Human and other conventions) to teach ballet to competition-studio dancers. She was taking a break, she told him.

The two had first met at the Artists Simply Human Nationals, where Preiser and his wife and business partner, Amanda, brought a group to perform from Fusion Dance Force, their studio with two locations on Long Island, New York. Rice was impressed. "Their choreography was through-the-roof amazing," she says. "Richly layered, smart, well coached—and age-appropriate." She began to work with the Fusion Dance Force students and teach ballet at their summer intensive.

But after a three-year absence from the convention scene, Rice realized how much she missed it, and she longed for the professional stimulation she had enjoyed with her faculty colleagues. So in 2019, she and Preiser decided to launch Alpha Dance Convention.

They realize that the convention marketplace is already well populated with events. But they are convinced their approach will set them apart, that there is an appetite among studio owners for a return to education-first events, where long-term relationships are built and nurtured. "We don't want to approach the business with making money leading the way," he says. "All of our decisions are based on education first."

A redheaded convention assistant wearing yellow sneakers, blue shorts, a black graphic sweatshirt and a mask jumps on a stage, with convention attendees dancing behind her

Courtesy Alpha Dance Convention

Alpha Dance Convention launched with a modest plan: produce four events in 2020, each with an enrollment of 200; raise funds for one year of operation; book a profit by year three. But just as things were getting off the ground, COVID-19 and the resulting shutdown hit. Rice and Preiser watched with alarm as the entire convention and competition industry canceled events. And yet they remained optimistic. They had some time—the first event wasn't scheduled until October. And they felt their smaller size could be an advantage—they could make Alpha events safer. "We said we'll still make it happen," says Preiser. "We'll learn through this process."

Here's how they got Alpha Dance Convention off the ground, and how they are getting through the pandemic so far.

Education First

The Alpha faculty roster may not include household dance names. But that's because their priority is hiring faculty members who align with Alpha's teaching philosophy, rather than filling their roster with big names. Faculty members include Dee Tomasetta, who has worked with Mia Michaels as a performer and associate choreographer and dance captain on Finding Neverland's first national tour; Hallie Toland, who was swing for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway; and Ryan Vettel, who Rice knew as a tap dancer and teaching assistant for Co. Dance. "I've watched him working with kids," she says. "With these three, it's their hearts. Even though they're young, they're true educators." The current faculty roster includes eight instructors plus Rice and the Preisers.

Instead of driving enrollment through big names, as many other popular conventions do, Alpha seeks to leverage the relationships Rice has built with studio owners over her many years of teaching. Those personal connections, Rice hopes, will result in loyal clientele who return year after year.

A young white masked man stands on a tap board on a convention stage, wearing tap shoes and all black, and holds a microphone

Ryan Vettel. Courtesy Alpha Dance Convention

Alpha's goal is to start small, with around 200 dancers per event, and grow slowly, with an enrollment of 400 to 500, which is half the size of typical events. "We do not believe an 800-to-1,000–person event can be effectively run the same as a 400-to-500–person event," says Preiser. They don't want participants to become mere numbers on a spreadsheet: Preiser cites an experience at an unnamed event where, before his dancers had a chance to take their bow, the next routine was introduced in order to fit as many as possible into a 12-hour day.

They plan to add two to three events a year, with 12 events being "a changing point," he says. "Once we reach that number, we will need to see if things still align with our mission. If we decide to host more events, then our first course of action will be to lay the additional foundation needed to stay true to our mission."

How It's Going So Far

As we know only too well, the pandemic was spiking in October and Alpha had to cancel its long-anticipated first event. Toronto was also called off when the Canadian border closed. Not to be defeated, Alpha pivoted to in-studio events, where small faculty groups replicate a modified convention schedule privately. Three studios signed up to bring Alpha faculty to their locations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky. "These are people I've known for a really long time," says Rice. "Kids know the protocol and where to space themselves. It makes me feel comfortable. It's a way to connect with our community."

When we spoke in November, Alpha was set to have its first in-person public event the weekend before Thanksgiving, in Orlando. Registrations were at 60 participants, somewhat less than the projected break-even number of 100 and far short of the conservative target of 200. Yet in Preiser's thinking, there remained good reason to hold the event even at this lower enrollment. He worked with the hotel and vendors to modify the budget and was now looking at Orlando as a trial run for a much larger event, planned for January in New Jersey, that has already exceeded registration expectations. The New Jersey event is big enough to bring Alpha back to break-even for the year, he says.

A masked mother and daughter check in at the registration table

Courtesy Alpha Dance Convention

Orlando would also play a valuable role in Alpha's marketing scheme. Because of the pandemic, Preiser has had to slash his marketing budget and for now relies primarily on word of mouth, including social media. Orlando would provide valuable testimony from satisfied customers to help spread the word, as well as promotional photography and video footage of the Alpha faculty in action. "That's the biggest struggle through COVID. How do you market with little money and little revenue coming in?" he says. "This event is going to help us succeed down the line."

Yet with news of Washington state and Michigan initiating more stringent closure levels, it was a nail-biter of a week. Preiser worried that Florida might shut down during the few days before the event. But, ultimately, the Orlando convention went off without a hitch. With 30 dancers in each room, Alpha had space for larger dance squares (8 feet by 8 feet versus the standard 6), and they increased staff by two to ensure proper social distancing and mask compliance. Best of all, because the event was small, dancers benefited from extra attention, including in-depth faculty critiques in class.

"I never want to start a business in a pandemic again," says Preiser, noting the many hours of meetings required were easily double what would normally be necessary. "Everything changed every two weeks, and we had to talk about it all over again." That slowed down other activities, like, for instance, learning the back-end system for registration. "In the past 30 days, we're learning the system that should have been accomplished four to five months ago," he says. "Instead, we were talking about how to space people out."

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