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Kim McSwain Is Beloved on the Convention Circuit

Photo by John Burcham

Miss Kim leads class at Kelli Wilkins' Club Dance studio in Phoenix."Whether I'm in a room of 40 or 400 kids, I'm going to find a way to make a difference in some way, shape, or form," says Kim McSwain about the inspirational, upbeat teaching style that's become her calling card with students and teachers alike. "Anyone who knows me knows how strongly I feel about changing kids' lives."


The 40-year old teacher has become a staple on the convention circuit during her 13 years with Break the Floor, most recently on faculty of NUVO; and her workshops at the Dance Teacher Summit are standing room-only. Though she teaches everything from jazz funk to technique to musical theatre, all of her classes are equal parts movement and motivation—which leaves a lasting impression.

“Parents write me that their children who were bullied now feel ready to take on the world," she says. “I get a lot of that type of feedback—like 'I didn't feel fat in your class' or 'I quit doing drugs.' I've heard every heartwarming story you can imagine—that's what keeps me going."

Making Connections

In the fast-paced convention setting where hundreds of students come through each weekend, it can be a challenge to forge meaningful connections. But that's exactly what McSwain prides herself on doing. “Working as a convention teacher versus being in the studio is a whole different ballgame," she says. “I go in with the mindset of, 'How can I make sure every single child in this room leaves being inspired?'"

Photo by John Burcham

McSwain visits Club Dance monthly to work with dancers. Her secret is to find common ground—even when the room is filled with vastly different dance abilities, appearances and personal backgrounds. "All kids have different learning curves, and the second they shut down, you need to keep them engaged," says McSwain. "It's about leaving them challenged without feeling defeated."

Her “back to basics" style of choreography is specifically designed to resonate with dancers across the spectrum. She levels the playing field by gravitating to the underdog rather than the best dancers in the room: “When they see what I praise, it becomes a generous, open environment."

She also changes her approach markedly depending on the audience. McSwain jokes that her partner of 12 years says she has a “split personality" when switching between mini and teen classes—and, for her, that's the mark of a job done right. “I believe in finding a way to relate to every age and every level," she says. “I change my voice, the music, and the tempo for each age division to see immediate results."

When Kelli Wilkins, owner of Club Dance Studio in Phoenix observed this chameleon-like ability at NUVO, she invited McSwain into her studio for a regular monthly guest residency. “She will find a way to touch every single kid in the classroom, whether with a correction or a compliment," says Wilkins, who has now been working with McSwain for four years. “Every single kid leaves feeling like Miss Kim loves them, and for me as a studio owner, that's priceless."

Setting a Vision

Had McSwain not become a dance teacher, she could have been a life coach. She often uses journaling exercises to help students pinpoint their goals, strengths, and dreams. One of her favorite prompts is, “You've just left your convention but you forgot your dance bag. When you go back for it, you hear all of the teachers talking about you. What would they be saying that would make you feel like a million bucks?"

Goal-setting is another integral part of her classes, usually relating to personal development rather than achieving new dance skills. Photos courtesy of Break the Floor

"The most important thing we as dance teachers are doing is trying to affect these lives in a positive manner," says McSwain. "We're not just training successful dancers, but successful people who will go on and do great things with the excellence you've instilled in them."

For “goal of the week" she might suggest the dancers commit to not saying anything negative for seven days. Or she'll encourage them to design their own bigger-picture vision for “how to be a better person and change the world."

One thing that helps her connect is an openness about her own trials and tribulations. “I set the tone immediately by letting them know there is nothing different about us other than that I'm much older. And I'm honest about the insecurities I had as a teenager," she says.

No stranger to adversity, McSwain lost her first husband in a military jet collision and later suffered a crippling injury that almost ended her dance career. “My life hasn't been perfect by any means—they see where I'm at now, and it's only by the grace of God."

Next Steps

McSwain announced in May that she would be leaving the convention circuit to begin a studio consulting practice. She plans to expand on the guest residencies and master classes she's been doing the past five years alongside her convention work. She will train not only students, but also their teachers, working with them to set an ongoing curriculum. For certain clients, McSwain may return on a monthly basis (as she had done at Club Dance) as part of an overall “studio makeover."

“I enjoyed every second of working at conventions, but I didn't get to see progress," she says. “Now I'm able to go back month to month and see the improvement in children and the smiles on their faces. And if I can mentor a teacher who has 300 kids, I'm touching even more people that way."

Among other ideas, she has plans for a series of parent-friendly “Elite Training" workshops around the Dallas area. It's all part of an effort to stay closer to home, aka Plano, Texas, where she resides with her partner Matt and daughters Bella and Charli Grace. “I read The Happiness Project last year before I turned 40 and thought about what I would change," she says. “I was only getting about three to four hours of sleep a night, and I was home only four weekends out of the year. I knew I needed to slow down a bit."

It's hard to picture this dynamo slowing down much, but her new business will allow her to spend more time with her family and deepen her impact on the dance world—her two sweet spots. “The more I've focused on what I can do for others," she says, “the more I've found the joy in every day," she says.

Photo by John Burcham

Maximizing Mini Time

Kim McSwain has a secret for resonating with dancers in the mini's room: she's become fluent in kidspeak. “I get down on their level," she says about her favorite age group. Here are a few of her tried-and-true tips for reaching the under-10 crowd:

Hit the right note. Using popular music is a great way to incentivize and energize young dancers. Along with using Kidz Bop songs to ensure appropriate lyrics, McSwain enlists her 9-year-old daughter, Bella, to make custom playlists for her classes.

Add whimsical touches. McSwain makes class memorable by passing out friendship bracelets and carrying around smelly markers. “I'll take the marker out and write 'I love you' on their hands when they do something awesome," she says.

Make the basics more accessible. McSwain is a big proponent of proper progression, so she spends a lot of time focusing on body alignment and placement—not always the most kid-friendly topics. To establish common ground, she turns her instructions into silly songs and funny analogies (like telling dancers to picture “a cat named Jack Stanley" hiding under their feet during relevés). Her favorite song goes like this: “My shoulders are down and out/and my ribs are always closed/I've got my belly to my spine, my tailbone down, and a smile is on my face. Uh-huh!"

It all comes down to one three-letter word: f-u-n. “The best thing you can do is let every bit of pride out and have the most fun you've ever had with a group of kids," she says. “I'm pretty much a walking circus act."

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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