Teacher Voices

How Axing Her Comp Team Paid Off for This Studio Owner

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."

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

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Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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