Kim McSwain Is on a Mission to Change Dancers' Lives

After 14 years teaching on the convention circuit, Kim McSwain's known for her positivity. And in 2017, she started a dance education and consulting agency to offer personalized training for dance studios. Through Changing Lives, she and a network of 10 experts advise on faculty training, studio-business management and consultation, parent education classes, curriculum development, choreography and private lessons for teachers and more.

McSwain is particularly known for her work with the "littles," the 5-and-under dancers, having begun as an assistant teacher in the preschool room of her local studio at age 19. Combining her own dance background (her resumé includes dancing for Britney Spears and *NSYNC) and her genuine love of children, McSwain went from assisting classes to running the studio's performance and competition teams.

"It was better than anything I'd ever felt dancing professionally," she says. "I never looked back. I always tell my faculty that their class can either light up a kid's world or it can add to the darkness most kids are already dealing with. There's nothing in-between—so let's light up their lives."

Dance Teacher: You describe your consulting practice as a studio makeover for owners who've lost their love of teaching. What are some ways you've helped them turn things around?

Kim McSwain: We help them remember why they started their studio in the first place. My faculty comes in as artists in residence and provide teachers with music and syllabus ideas for their classes. I don't just bring in good choreographers, but incredible role models who are there to change kids' lives.

DT: What's something you do to help these studios build their teenage students' confidence?

KM: I do "I am" exercises. I make the dancers stand in a straight line with their hands behind their backs and say something nice about themselves at the beginning, middle and end of class. At first, they're insecure and want to cover themselves up, by the middle they are feeling a little more confident and by the end it's a complete transformation. It's miraculous! Their eyes light up, they cry, they hug and they give each other compliments. We create a judge-free space, and they become different people.

DT: What direction do you give teachers working with young dancers?

KM: It takes a special person to teach littles—you've got to put on a show. We're in a customer-service industry and those 5-year-olds don't care about where their passé is. Give them their corrections with songs, games, stories and contests. I bring a whole bag of goodies with unicorn tails, treats and stickers. Control the room. If they start to get out of hand, stop it immediately. If I have a kid who wants to be disruptive, I redirect the attention of the room to someone who isn't. I'll say, "Oh! You know who I am looking at, dancers? Suzie in the back! You come right down to my row of awesome, Suzie. You're doing such a good job being focused." Then all of the other dancers want to make it to the row of awesome, too.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

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Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

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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.

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