Studio Owner Christy Curtis Shares the Secret to Her Success

Curtis (center) with Jason Parsons and Lauren Adams. "I've asked why guest artists keep coming back, and they tell me they get a lot from my students," says Curtis. Photo by Jennifer Robertson

Christy Curtis had been teaching advanced-level jazz in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area for nearly 20 years when she decided to open her own studio. After careful consideration, the five-foot dynamo took a leap and, in 2005, opened CC & Co. Dance Complex. In the first year, Curtis enrolled about 75 students—the majority of whom were advanced dancers—and as her fledgling business grew to include preschool, elementary and high school classes in all styles, she looked to others for guidance. She hired a business manager and often picked the brains of close friends and mentors. "The best advice I've received," she says, "is that if you're not the best at something, find someone who is and ask for help."

Her strategy has worked. During the last 13 years, CC & Co. Dance Complex has expanded to 1,000 students, including three competitive companies, and Curtis boasts an impressive list of former students. To name just a few: Noelle Marsh, 2015 Capezio A.C.E. Award winner and "So You Think You Can Dance" Top 10 finalist; Martha Nichols, New York City Dance Alliance faculty member; original Hamilton cast member Ariana DeBose; and Patrick Cook, who has performed with Paula Abdul and Taylor Swift. In addition to 25 faculty members (8 are full-time), CC & Co. Dance Complex welcomes 30 guest artists each year to teach master classes and choreograph numbers for the students; the studio's 2017 summer dance intensive included workshops by such stars as Sonya Tayeh, Travis Wall and tap master Ayodele Casel. Curtis' students regularly take top honors at competitions, and, in 2014, four of her dancers were profiled in Dance Spirit magazine's video reality show, "The Road to Nationals." Some of Curtis' students even performed during Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation tour.

Curtis with students of her 2017 summer intensive. Guest artists included Sonya Tayeh, Travis Wall, Hefa Tuita, Robert Green and Ayodele Casel. Photo by Jennifer Robertson

What's Curtis' secret? Setting the bar high, taking risks and adapting when necessary. "I follow the needs of my students," says the petite blonde, whose upbeat presence consistently inspires her staff, students and dance-teacher colleagues, "and avoid getting stuck in hard-and-fast guidelines or rules. A studio has to be an evolving, shifting organism."

Frank Hatchett's Guiding Influence

Curtis grew up studying dance, including at East Carolina University and North Carolina State University, yet she says her biggest influence came from legendary teacher Frank Hatchett, whom she first met in the late 1980s at a competition. "I completely gravitated to his street-jazz style," she says. "I continued to study from him in New York whenever I could." She was also his assistant at various events, including the first Jazz Dance World Congress. Hatchett even helped her choose her path after college.

"I knew a professional career wasn't something I wanted to pursue. I felt there were so many obstacles—my height, my weight and not having a steady income. Teaching was what I was most passionate about, and I had been thinking of moving to New York to teach with Frank. But after many discussions, he helped me realize staying in North Carolina was better for me." Curtis explains that she was more interested in working with kids and watching them grow over time—not teaching in a large open-class studio setting, in which students are more likely to drop in. "Frank was the person who completely molded my career."

Jason Parsons, First Guest Artist

It was while watching Jason Parsons' class at Star Systems Nationals more than 20 years ago that Curtis was inspired to invite guest artists to work with her students and choreograph for them. "He was a great teacher, and his choreography was so innovative, especially for the competition/convention scene back then. I was drawn to it, and I asked if he'd lead a workshop," Curtis says. "And that's the thing—I've never been afraid of simply asking someone I admire to come and teach. What's the worst they could say? No?"

Parsons agreed, returned often and, in Curtis' words, helped CC & Co. Dance Complex blossom. "He set the bar for the level of excellence he expected from my dancers," she says. "And we had to rise to that." After that she invited other big names she met on the circuit, including Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo, Mandy Moore, even Mia Michaels. Curtis says she was one of the first in the region to host guest artists at the studio, and dancers would flock to the sessions. (She remembers Denise Wall bringing a young Travis to a workshop or two all the way from Virginia Beach.) As a result, "it's opened a lot of doors for my kids," Curtis says. "On the other hand, I've asked why the guest artists keep coming back, and they tell me they get a lot from my students."

"I feel so rewarded by anyone who walks through the door and gains a spark of interest and a creative voice," says Curtis. Photo by Jennifer Robertson

Choreographer Martha Nichols (who trained with Curtis starting at age 9) has worked with CC & Co. students. "The kids are so versatile, and it's a fun and safe space for a choreographer to try out new material," she says. "I can throw anything at them, and they just go for it." That eagerness, Nichols believes, stems from the studio owner's passionate and encouraging personality. "Christy has a desire to consistently be a student herself. Some studio owners find a formula for what works and stick with it. But Christy doesn't rely on formulas. She goes with what feels right in the moment. She can read a room, connect to her students emotionally and nurture them on both artistic and human levels. And because of that, their artistry flourishes."

It's Not All About the Stars

CC & Co. alumna Sarah Pippin says that while her exposure to guest artists made her an adaptable and more dynamic, open-minded dancer, CC & Co. offers much more. Now in her second year at The Juilliard School, Pippin says dancers also gain self-confidence and a strong work ethic while at CC & Co.—"traits that benefit us in our everyday lives," she says. "Christy's success doesn't come from the number of trophies her students win. Instead, she's created a studio where any kid, no matter her future goals, can celebrate the joy of dance."

A humble Curtis, however, is the first to admit that wasn't always the case. "Early on my thinking was that my students had to be really serious about dance," she says. "But I've changed. I feel so rewarded by anyone who walks through the door and gains a spark of interest and a creative voice—even if that student only stays for a year. I've come to understand what movement and the arts can do for everyone, what it can do for our health and happiness."

In part, Curtis credits Steve Kopcsak, her husband and a detective with the Raleigh police, for this mental switch. "He was with me when I opened the studio," she says. "In the beginning, he wasn't super-interested in dance. But now, my students would rather have him around than me. He's their biggest supporter. I think having guest artists stay at our house—and just generally being so immersed in dance—has opened him up artistically. He sees dance through new eyes." If her husband can be so moved and changed by experiencing the artform, Curtis says, anyone can.

Making Every Dancer Count

Over time, Curtis' inclusive outlook became a boon to her business. "I had been losing students. If kids didn't make the competition company, they'd go elsewhere," she says. After consulting close friends and Atlanta-based studio owners Dani Rosenberg and Becca Moore of Rhythm Dance Center ("We feed off each other and often take working vacations," she says), Curtis came up with a plan: She would establish two additional companies to accommodate students of various needs and goals. "Now we have three competitive tracks: Core, the most advanced, full-time company; Fusion, a company for less serious, part-time dancers; and Rising Stars, students who typically only take one class a week per discipline. The system works. Students find their level at which they can excel."

Still, there are always new challenges. In recent months, Curtis has been reevaluating her policies about competition Nationals. Unlike many competitive studios, CC & Co. does not require company dancers to attend the season-culminating events. "During the school year, our teams work strongly together. But in the summers, some dancers want to head to ballet intensives, or attend programs at The Ailey School or at Hubbard Street, for example, while others might be title holders and want to do Nationals. And that's OK. It's about what gets each student stronger as an individual," she says. On the other hand, she admits, "it can be hard to get the groups back together in the fall. Sure, they all come back with amazing information that they share with one another, but it can be difficult to bond as a team and form a cohesive unit." For now, the Nationals-optional policy is working, but whether it will in the future depends on the students. She'll reevaluate as necessary, she says. "Sometimes, you just have to change the rules."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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