Teacher Voices

There were plenty of reasons why we were happy to bid 2020 a not-so-fond farewell, but for tap dancers, the end of such a difficult year was the final curtain on a decade in which the art form experienced remarkable growth.

Over the past 10 years, The School at Jacob's Pillow launched its first-ever tap programs; companies such as Dorrance Dance and Caleb Teicher & Company emerged and produced award-winning work; Operation Tap became an important voice in online tap education; the American Tap Dance Foundation established its new home in Greenwich Village; The Kennedy Center presented its first full-length tap concert at one of their major venues; and so much more.

As the new year sees tap dance trying to maintain this positive momentum despite the ongoing restrictions of the pandemic, we invited several of the field's living legends to meet on Zoom and discuss how they perceive the current state of tap dance and tap education.

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Teacher Voices
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In 2001, young Chanel, a determined, ambitious, fiery, headstrong teenager, was about to begin her sophomore year at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, also known as the highly acclaimed "Fame" school. I was a great student, a promising young dancer and well-liked by my teachers and my peers. On paper, everything seemed in order. In reality, this picture-perfect image was fractured. There was a crack that I've attempted to hide, cover up and bury for nearly 20 years.

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Teacher Voices
courtesy Gibbs

Dance has taken Donovan Gibbs all over the world. He's danced with big names like Janet Jackson, Becky G, J Balvin and Rihanna, choreographed halftime shows for college bowl games in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, and taught at conventions and studios across Los Angeles.

So it's difficult to imagine that as a teenager, Gibbs was homeless for almost a year, living in his parents' dance studio. Not only did Gibbs overcome this hardship to become an acclaimed teacher, but he's now a LA-based business owner, bringing master teachers to studios across the country through his Bridge Training Program.

Dance Teacher spoke with Gibbs about his training program, his experience with homelessness and why he thinks hip-hop teachers need to focus on the basics.

The teachers that inspired his journey

"I took a class from Mia Michaels at The Pulse when I was 16. (It was also my very first dance convention.) During her class, she said 'When you're feeling the most uncomfortable is when you're growing the most,' and that has stuck with me ever since. She was the first person to light the flame."

During the same weekend, Brain Friedman taught a class, and as the dancers were headed to their lunch break, he caught up with Gibbs, asking his name and leaving him with a crucial piece of advice: "Keep going. Don't give up on this. I see something special in you." "That was the wind igniting the flame even more," says Gibbs, "and the earliest memory I have of what really sparked the interest of pursuing a career in dance."

Jalen Jet Turner, courtesy Gibbs

No sleep in the studio

A couple of months after attending his first convention, Gibbs' life took a sharp turn. Falling on hard times, his parents had to make the difficult decision to sell their home and car, and move into their studio—which was still in the process of being built.

"I graduated as a junior by doing extra classes in the morning and after school," he says. "I'd get back to the studio and help teach classes from about 5:30 to 10:00 at night, and then stay up until about 3 AM helping my dad with construction. That cycle repeated for about 10 months."

"It's a pro and a con because now I'm such a hard worker. I definitely feel like that stems from that pivotal moment in my life."

About his training program

Gibbs had always wanted to start a training program, but it wasn't until he met his now fiancé, former dancer Autumn Snow, that their dreams became a reality.

In 2017, they launched The Bridge Training Program, an in-studio dance intensive for studio owners that want to bring the industry feel directly to their studio.

Last year, they connected with studios in 4 different U.S. cities. "This year, we have 7 events, and for me, that speaks volumes because we're in the middle of a pandemic," says Gibbs.

How he structures class

"Repetitive. Instead of teaching you two 8-counts back to back, having you run through it a couple of times and then try it with music, I'll spend a whole 5 minutes on one certain groove, really drilling it into your head. That way you can get the movement, the way the body moves and the feeling instead of it just being about the counts," says Gibbs.

Gibbs teaches a variety of styles, but when it comes to hip-hop—which he's most well-known for—he believes "there's a lot of choreography being taught, but not a lot of breakdowns of the fundamentals. I feel like that's what a teacher's there for. To take you from the beginning, explain how it should feel, where it comes from. Then the students are better able to understand and translate that into their own movement."

Gibbs always makes sure to incorporate hip-hop technique during warm ups. "Whether we're using popping elements, locking elements, breakdancing or memphis jookin', I feel like it's important as a hip-hop instructor to throw in some of these styles."

Be More Media, courtesy Gibbs

Adapting to COVID-19

Within the first month of quarantine, Gibbs taught around 60 free online classes between Instagram Live and Zoom. The Bridge Training Program also held virtual classes for about 2 months. He still teaches classes and 1-on-1 private lessons online, including for his parents' studio.

"Recently, I started teaching weekly in-person classes to 6 to 8 year olds in a park. It's been really fun and I've enjoyed teaching kids on a regular basis like I did when I was back home," he adds.

For Gibbs, getting through COVID-19 has brought about a new "attitude of gratitude"—and a determination to continue facing any challenge head-on. "My whole life and life story in general has been nothing but perseverance," he says. "I'm up for the challenge."

Teacher Voices
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I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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Teacher Voices
Courtesy Hamilton

Five years ago, Chasta Hamilton appeared to have it all. Though she'd only opened her North Carolina–based studio, Stage Door Dance Productions, in 2009, Hamilton already had two locations in Raleigh and a total enrollment of 500-plus students, including a successful competition team of 55 members who participated in at least three competitions a year. But Hamilton couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.

"I was trying to offer a meaningful and empowering dance experience, and I wasn't sure that having a competition team was the best return on investment," she says. "If the kids were winning at competitions, then parents thought they were too good for our training. If they were losing, we weren't training them well enough. I wanted to stop placing so much emphasis on a third-party industry—one that I had no control over but could immediately impact the valuation of our studio."

Though the competition team was spending "a considerable amount," most of those dollars were being funneled out to third parties—competition and convention fees, higher-priced costumes, guest choreography fees—and weren't being invested back into her business. Plus, Hamilton says, "it's not sustainable to go from a 40-hour comp weekend and then try to bring your best self into a work week. You never see a CEO of a major corporation devoting so much time to a microbusiness."

So she told her staff that she was considering cutting the comp team and instead offering an intensive training program, with unique performance and bonding opportunities, for interested dancers. Their reaction was wary. "They said, 'I don't think we can walk away from this—this is what people know us for,'" remembers Hamilton.

Five years after her decision to dissolve her comp team, she's happy to report that her studio—and its intensive training program—is thriving. "Even now, in the midst of COVID, our training program is larger than our competition team ever was," she says. Hamilton recently released a book about her experience, Trash the Trophies, where she offers other studio owners advice on how to transform their competitive teams into intensive training programs like hers, with her own hindsight as a guide for pitfalls and successes.

How She Did It

Ahead of the 2015–16 school year, Hamilton and her staff met with every family on the competition team, one by one, to break the news about the dissolution of the team. "We told them that we completely understood if this change didn't work for them and they wanted to go somewhere else," she says. "And we had a lot of people leave, because they did want the competitive experience."

Of the 55 competition team students, only 13 opted to instead participate in Hamilton's new intensive training program. But Hamilton wasn't deterred. She focused on retaining the best parts of competition team life—the community and the collaboration—in her new program, and its requirements for participation reflect that. In addition to enrolling in regular dance classes, students must take at least three weeks' worth of the studio's summer intensive; fundraise for and perform in a philanthropic, studio-produced show; attend a retreat day; and take part in non-philanthropic studio performances, like the recital and the Raleigh Christmas parade. Dancers in the intensive training program pay a monthly membership fee and usually have the chance to travel for one bigger performance over the summer—in July 2021, for example, they're slated to dance at the Grand Ole Opry.

Hamilton experienced an immediate change after implementing the new program, though it wasn't one she'd necessarily expected: "While that program was rebuilding and finding its way, our overall studio enrollment increased by 25 percent," she says. "I think it's a huge testament to sticking with something—to having a vision. I really feel that if you take all of the resources that are going into that 10 percent of your studio and apply them to the overall brand and business, you can create something really amazing that everyone can buy into." Now, the intensive program accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Stage Door's total revenue.

A group of young women in shiny costumes and masks pose on an outdoor stage

Intensive program students at a film shoot this summer.

Courtesy Hamilton

The COVID-19 Takeaway

Trash the Trophies also has advice pertinent to operating a small business during a pandemic, as it turns out. "I was reading a final copy of the book in April," says Hamilton, "and it has 12 steps to go through anytime you're weighing a change or a decision. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I just used all the steps when we flipped the studio to digital in 48 hours!'" Steps include "preparing for the storm"—emotionally and strategically preparing for the transition you're about to undertake—and "owning your narrative," or building up the buy-in for any studio change by identifying and owning the meaning and messaging behind what you're implementing.

Hamilton says that the pandemic is actually a good time, believe it or not, to enact major changes at your studio—even ones as potentially polarizing as getting rid of your comp team. "Right now, the world is poised for any change imaginable," she says. "It's an easy market to say, 'This didn't work last spring, and we don't know what's in store, so let's try this.'"

The worst approach to our current situation, Hamilton says, is to just sit and wait. "The pivots are nonstop right now," she says. "You have to make decisions. Sometimes those decisions may have to be updated, or corrected or modified. But people need leaders who are optimistic, calm and continuing to move. When we start standing still, it's almost like we're moving backwards."

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