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:
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:
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."