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How Britt Stewart Became the First Black Female Pro on “Dancing with the Stars”—Without Any Ballroom Training

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."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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