How Kirsten Russell Won The Capezio A.C.E. Awards

Russell's winning number, Islands. Photo by Joe Toreno

In 2015, Kirsten Russell's musical, lush, powerful choreography won her the Capezio A.C.E. Awards. Now, she's in demand as a visiting artist and choreographer at studios around the country. But her foray into dancemaking was actually a happy accident. Midway through her dance degree at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, she badly hurt her foot and thought it might be a sign she should stop dancing. “I was injured for a year," she says. “That was my lowest point." Instead, she took up choreographing. “Boot on my foot and all!" she says. Her time spent flexing her choreographic muscles paid off: When she walked away with first place in the A.C.E. Awards, it was only her second time entering the competition. After producing her own full-length show last year with her prize money, she's now focused on putting as much of her work as she can on film.

Russell (left) with her sister, Kayla. Photo by Jennifer Robertson Photography, courtesy of Russell

Training: CC & Co Dance Complex; University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Choreography: Won first place in the 2015 Capezio A.C.E. Awards competition and premiered a full-length show in 2016 at Dancerpalooza

Teaching: JUMP dance convention

Her process “Before I start any movement, I have to listen to the song over and over again until I see the entire piece in my head. That part can last hours or even days, depending on how much time I have. Unison choreography is my favorite thing about watching dance, so any unison work is choreographed a day before I begin actually setting the piece."

On musicality “I have the hardest time explaining how I deal with musicality while creating, but I think it comes to me because I had an incredible tap teacher, Emily Shoemaker. When I started choreographing, matching a move to every single count became really interesting to me—because of the speed and lack of transition that happens. I'm addicted to filling the smallest amount of music with the most movement possible to challenge myself."

The best part about winning the A.C.E. Awards “Being able to hire the dancers who were in my piece for my show. They basically started my career in the first place, so that made the experience even more unbelievable." DT

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
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After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

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