Dance has taken Donovan Gibbs all over the world. He's danced with big names like Janet Jackson, Becky G, J Balvin and Rihanna, choreographed halftime shows for college bowl games in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, and taught at conventions and studios across Los Angeles.
So it's difficult to imagine that as a teenager, Gibbs was homeless for almost a year, living in his parents' dance studio. Not only did Gibbs overcome this hardship to become an acclaimed teacher, but he's now a LA-based business owner, bringing master teachers to studios across the country through his Bridge Training Program.
Dance Teacher spoke with Gibbs about his training program, his experience with homelessness and why he thinks hip-hop teachers need to focus on the basics.
The teachers that inspired his journey
"I took a class from Mia Michaels at The Pulse when I was 16. (It was also my very first dance convention.) During her class, she said 'When you're feeling the most uncomfortable is when you're growing the most,' and that has stuck with me ever since. She was the first person to light the flame."
During the same weekend, Brain Friedman taught a class, and as the dancers were headed to their lunch break, he caught up with Gibbs, asking his name and leaving him with a crucial piece of advice: "Keep going. Don't give up on this. I see something special in you." "That was the wind igniting the flame even more," says Gibbs, "and the earliest memory I have of what really sparked the interest of pursuing a career in dance."
Jalen Jet Turner, courtesy Gibbs
No sleep in the studio
A couple of months after attending his first convention, Gibbs' life took a sharp turn. Falling on hard times, his parents had to make the difficult decision to sell their home and car, and move into their studio—which was still in the process of being built.
"I graduated as a junior by doing extra classes in the morning and after school," he says. "I'd get back to the studio and help teach classes from about 5:30 to 10:00 at night, and then stay up until about 3 AM helping my dad with construction. That cycle repeated for about 10 months."
"It's a pro and a con because now I'm such a hard worker. I definitely feel like that stems from that pivotal moment in my life."
About his training program
Gibbs had always wanted to start a training program, but it wasn't until he met his now fiancé, former dancer Autumn Snow, that their dreams became a reality.
In 2017, they launched The Bridge Training Program, an in-studio dance intensive for studio owners that want to bring the industry feel directly to their studio.
Last year, they connected with studios in 4 different U.S. cities. "This year, we have 7 events, and for me, that speaks volumes because we're in the middle of a pandemic," says Gibbs.
How he structures class
"Repetitive. Instead of teaching you two 8-counts back to back, having you run through it a couple of times and then try it with music, I'll spend a whole 5 minutes on one certain groove, really drilling it into your head. That way you can get the movement, the way the body moves and the feeling instead of it just being about the counts," says Gibbs.
Gibbs teaches a variety of styles, but when it comes to hip-hop—which he's most well-known for—he believes "there's a lot of choreography being taught, but not a lot of breakdowns of the fundamentals. I feel like that's what a teacher's there for. To take you from the beginning, explain how it should feel, where it comes from. Then the students are better able to understand and translate that into their own movement."
Gibbs always makes sure to incorporate hip-hop technique during warm ups. "Whether we're using popping elements, locking elements, breakdancing or memphis jookin', I feel like it's important as a hip-hop instructor to throw in some of these styles."
Be More Media, courtesy Gibbs
Adapting to COVID-19
Within the first month of quarantine, Gibbs taught around 60 free online classes between Instagram Live and Zoom. The Bridge Training Program also held virtual classes for about 2 months. He still teaches classes and 1-on-1 private lessons online, including for his parents' studio.
"Recently, I started teaching weekly in-person classes to 6 to 8 year olds in a park. It's been really fun and I've enjoyed teaching kids on a regular basis like I did when I was back home," he adds.
For Gibbs, getting through COVID-19 has brought about a new "attitude of gratitude"—and a determination to continue facing any challenge head-on. "My whole life and life story in general has been nothing but perseverance," he says. "I'm up for the challenge."