Teachers Trending

How This Former Baseball Player Became a Favorite at Dance Schools Across the Country

Ray Garcia Photography, courtesy Rutledge

Chris Rutledge's professional dance career was one big, happy accident.

The Alabama native was raised an athlete, with aspirations of a professional baseball career. When that dream didn't pan out at the age of 18, he was devastated.

Thankfully, fate stepped in. His mother lived in Sheffield, Alabama, across the street from Valley School of Dance studio owner, Lisa Lyndon, who was going through a difficult time of her own. Rutledge's mother asked him to check on Lyndon in the evenings after his shift ended at a nearby restaurant. "I would knock on her door and we would talk about dance," Rutledge says. "That was how it started for me."


Soon, Rutledge was spending his evenings at Valley School of Dance a half-mile down the road. He took class with Lyndon's young students for nine months before he was introduced to the competition and convention scene with Co. Dance (the Paula Abdul co-founded convention). There, he was approached for his first professional gig, an act at the then newly opened Disney Adventure theme park.

Since then, Rutledge's 20-year dancing and teaching career has included touring internationally with tap group 10 Foot 5; creating his own company, The F.Y.V. Group; and teaching and judging at national conventions/competitions like Thunderstruck, StarQuest and Spotlight.

Like most dance teachers' opportunities, most of Rutledge's dried up last spring: Spotlight and other conventions/competitions stopped touring, and EDGE Performing Arts Center, where he had a regular teaching slot, went virtual and has closed its doors until further notice. Thankfully, Rutledge qualified for relief money that kept him afloat (along with other private and virtual teaching opportunities) until unexpected employment fell into his lap.

At the end of June, Columbia Performing Arts Centre in Columbia, Missouri, asked him to take over their tap program. By August he'd made the move across the country from Los Angeles to Missouri. "I've always been the guy who comes in for choreo and workshop, then leaves," Rutledge says. "This is a new mindset for me, evolving into one of those people who has the real opportunity to sculpt what kids can and should do."

Because Rutledge's dance background is fairly unconventional, he has faced new challenges in this traditional training environment. "I'm not one of those teachers who excels with 5-year-olds," he says. "Bless those people who do. I'm learning the best ways to teach all levels. I'm breaking myself down so that I can build everyone else up."

We talked to Rutledge about how he unwinds, his favorite teaching tools for tap, and the dance attire he can't live without.

How he prepares for class:

"I'm big on lights and sensory stuff, so I prep my classroom by turning on a string of lights, and a diffuser with some scents like Wild Watermelon or Beautiful Day. I like to set a vibe—then sanitize the room."

His go-to teaching attire:

"I like fun-patterned, sporty shorts, and I usually wear a black shirt because I'm a sweaty mess. For tap shoes, I've got a guy who does custom work for me. His name is Matt and he works at Dancing Fair in Minnesota. He's just a nice guy making quality shoes for dancers all over the world. Oh, and I did just order a pair of J-Sams (Jason Samuels Smith Professional Tap Shoe)."

His favorite breakfast:

"I like a cup of Hawaiian hazelnut coffee with vanilla silk creamer. Oh, and a breakfast burrito is always on the menu."

His teaching mission statement:

"My three emphases are clarity, vibe (or feeling) and performance. That's what I'm looking to instill in this first year. We have to be clear with what we're saying; we have to be certain about what phrasing is."

How he unwinds:

"For a lot of creatives, it's hard to relax in the normal way. For us, there's no clock-out. Even if your body isn't stretching or dancing, your head is in a creative space. Relaxation for me comes from something dumb, like playing Mario Kart with my homies online. Since moving to Missouri, I'm now able to use driving as a relaxation tool. Who would have thought? Unlike L.A., traffic here is four cars on a highway. I'm like, 'You're so cute!'"

The item he never leaves home without:

"Tap shoes!"

His guilty pleasure:

"Hi-Chews. How dare they come individually wrapped!"

His go-to dance video:

"There is a clip of Jason Samuels Smith at an ASH that is one of the craziest things ever. What he was doing on marley that day—he went off! When kids are tired of drilling shuffle steps, I can let them watch that video to see what they are building up to. I say, 'Here is the reason we're doing this.'"

The food he can't live without:

"Hamburgers"

His ideal day off:

"A walk around the park with my wife and dog, pickle ball and a breakfast burrito. We just moved in, so we'd likely spend some time organizing our life. Then we'd play cornhole and watch the sunset to finish off the night."

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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