Tessandra Chavez Wants Teachers to Bring Back This Old-School Mentality

Chavez currently teaches at RADIX, a national dance convention. Photo courtesy of Chavez

Whether teaching or making dance, Tessandra Chavez delivers one consistent theme: versatility. Regarded by many as the pioneer of contemporary hip hop, her unique fusion style stems from the multifaceted dance training she received growing up in San Diego, with classical ballet, modern, tap, jazz and hip hop. At age 15 she formed the nonprofit dance company Unity Dance Ensemble, and she's since helped build the Debbie Allen Dance Academy's jazz program, choreographed for "So You Think You Can Dance" and won an Emmy for Outstanding Choreography in 2015 for her "Dancing with the Stars" piece performed by Julianne Hough and Derek Hough.

Dance Teacher: How can teachers help students who struggle to learn different styles?

Tessandra Chavez: Labels restrict dancers and keep them in their heads. And I see it all the time, the more trained dancer will take my class, and they freeze up on those more intricate hip-hop parts, and it's because they suddenly think, "Oh that's hip hop; that's not what I do," and so they block themselves. And the same goes in reverse for the hip-hop dancer. Dance is dance. We are not a "hip-hop dancer" or a "ballet dancer." We're dancers. If you open your students' minds in that way, they're going to be more capable and open to learning any style. Plus, dancers have to take classes they're not comfortable taking. Today's generation of dancers, I find, take classes they know they're good at or that are going to be filmed and put on YouTube. And I'm thinking, "Nooooo, you should probably be in that class you look awful in!" Teachers should encourage students to get out of their comfort zones, because that's when they grow.

DT: What was it like to work with Debbie Allen?

TC: I worked for Debbie Allen for six years at her academy. She was always an idol of mine. When she was on "Fame," I wanted to be her, so to work for her was an honor. She and I were always like kindred spirits—we're very alike in our approach to training dancers. I think part of the reason she hired me was because she saw herself in me a bit, because, as a teacher, I was very stern and strict and all about discipline and focus and being versatile as a dancer.

DT: What advice do you have for teachers?

TC: There's so much competition between local studios, and owners tend to enable and appease the students rather than enforce the old-school mentality of work your butt off and do what makes you uncomfortable: "You're required to take ballet" or "You're required to take tap." There's not a lot of "you have to" anymore because studios are worried about losing business. I'd love to see studio teachers across America encourage their students to do what makes them uncomfortable rather than give in to what the dancer wants.

Teachers Trending
Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy. Photo courtesy Dance With Me

Listening to Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy riff together makes it crystal-clear why each has mastered the art of partnering in the ballroom—they've long been doing this dance in real life as brothers and business partners.

Along with their "Dancing with the Stars" pedigree (and a combined three mirror-ball trophies between them), Maks and Val (and their father, Sasha) also run Dance With Me, a dance company hosting six ProAm Dancesport competitions annually and running 14 brick-and-mortar studio locations across the U.S.

Last year, the pair launched an online component, Dance & Co. The online video platform offers beginner through advanced instruction in not only ballroom but an array of other styles, as well as dance fitness classes from HIIT to yoga to strength training. "DWTS" fans will recognize such familiar faces as Peta Murgatroyd, Jenna Johnson, Sharna Burgess and Emma Slater, along with Maks and Val themselves.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis

In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.

"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."

As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.