Teacher Voices
courtesy Gibbs

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.

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Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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Teacher Voices
Courtesy Hamilton

Five years ago, Chasta Hamilton appeared to have it all. Though she'd only opened her North Carolina–based studio, Stage Door Dance Productions, in 2009, Hamilton already had two locations in Raleigh and a total enrollment of 500-plus students, including a successful competition team of 55 members who participated in at least three competitions a year. But Hamilton couldn't shake the feeling that something was off.

"I was trying to offer a meaningful and empowering dance experience, and I wasn't sure that having a competition team was the best return on investment," she says. "If the kids were winning at competitions, then parents thought they were too good for our training. If they were losing, we weren't training them well enough. I wanted to stop placing so much emphasis on a third-party industry—one that I had no control over but could immediately impact the valuation of our studio."


Though the competition team was spending "a considerable amount," most of those dollars were being funneled out to third parties—competition and convention fees, higher-priced costumes, guest choreography fees—and weren't being invested back into her business. Plus, Hamilton says, "it's not sustainable to go from a 40-hour comp weekend and then try to bring your best self into a work week. You never see a CEO of a major corporation devoting so much time to a microbusiness."

So she told her staff that she was considering cutting the comp team and instead offering an intensive training program, with unique performance and bonding opportunities, for interested dancers. Their reaction was wary. "They said, 'I don't think we can walk away from this—this is what people know us for,'" remembers Hamilton.

Five years after her decision to dissolve her comp team, she's happy to report that her studio—and its intensive training program—is thriving. "Even now, in the midst of COVID, our training program is larger than our competition team ever was," she says. Hamilton recently released a book about her experience, Trash the Trophies, where she offers other studio owners advice on how to transform their competitive teams into intensive training programs like hers, with her own hindsight as a guide for pitfalls and successes.

How She Did It

Ahead of the 2015–16 school year, Hamilton and her staff met with every family on the competition team, one by one, to break the news about the dissolution of the team. "We told them that we completely understood if this change didn't work for them and they wanted to go somewhere else," she says. "And we had a lot of people leave, because they did want the competitive experience."

Of the 55 competition team students, only 13 opted to instead participate in Hamilton's new intensive training program. But Hamilton wasn't deterred. She focused on retaining the best parts of competition team life—the community and the collaboration—in her new program, and its requirements for participation reflect that. In addition to enrolling in regular dance classes, students must take at least three weeks' worth of the studio's summer intensive; fundraise for and perform in a philanthropic, studio-produced show; attend a retreat day; and take part in non-philanthropic studio performances, like the recital and the Raleigh Christmas parade. Dancers in the intensive training program pay a monthly membership fee and usually have the chance to travel for one bigger performance over the summer—in July 2021, for example, they're slated to dance at the Grand Ole Opry.

Hamilton experienced an immediate change after implementing the new program, though it wasn't one she'd necessarily expected: "While that program was rebuilding and finding its way, our overall studio enrollment increased by 25 percent," she says. "I think it's a huge testament to sticking with something—to having a vision. I really feel that if you take all of the resources that are going into that 10 percent of your studio and apply them to the overall brand and business, you can create something really amazing that everyone can buy into." Now, the intensive program accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Stage Door's total revenue.

A group of young women in shiny costumes and masks pose on an outdoor stage

Intensive program students at a film shoot this summer.

Courtesy Hamilton

The COVID-19 Takeaway

Trash the Trophies also has advice pertinent to operating a small business during a pandemic, as it turns out. "I was reading a final copy of the book in April," says Hamilton, "and it has 12 steps to go through anytime you're weighing a change or a decision. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I just used all the steps when we flipped the studio to digital in 48 hours!'" Steps include "preparing for the storm"—emotionally and strategically preparing for the transition you're about to undertake—and "owning your narrative," or building up the buy-in for any studio change by identifying and owning the meaning and messaging behind what you're implementing.

Hamilton says that the pandemic is actually a good time, believe it or not, to enact major changes at your studio—even ones as potentially polarizing as getting rid of your comp team. "Right now, the world is poised for any change imaginable," she says. "It's an easy market to say, 'This didn't work last spring, and we don't know what's in store, so let's try this.'"

The worst approach to our current situation, Hamilton says, is to just sit and wait. "The pivots are nonstop right now," she says. "You have to make decisions. Sometimes those decisions may have to be updated, or corrected or modified. But people need leaders who are optimistic, calm and continuing to move. When we start standing still, it's almost like we're moving backwards."

Teacher Voices
Photo courtesy Rhee Gold Company

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a shift in our community that is so impressive that the impact could last long into our future. Although required school closures have hit the dance education field hard, what if, when looking back on this time, we see that it's been an incredible renaissance for dance educators, studio owners and the young dancers in our charge?

How could that be, you ask?

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Teacher Voices
Getty Images

As many dance teachers begin another semester of virtual teaching, it is time to acknowledge the fact that virtual classes aren't actually accessible to all students.

When schools and studios launched their virtual dance programs at the beginning of the pandemic, many operated under the assumption that all their students would be able to take class online. But in reality, lack of access to technology and Wi-Fi is a major issue for many low-income students across the country, in many cases cutting them off from the classes and resources their peers can enjoy from home.


The Pew Research Center recently conducted a study about internet access during the pandemic and found that one student in five does not have access to a reliable computer or Wi-Fi connection. The research also demonstrated that students who lack accessibility not only tend to be of a lower socioeconomic status, they also tend to be people of color.

Dance teachers have a responsibility to ensure that the racial disparity already present in dance education isn't widened by this digital divide—and that all students can continue to learn safely throughout the pandemic.

First, don't make assumptions about what your students do and do not have access to. Yes, you may have previously seen a student who is not attending Zoom classes using a smartphone. But it is unfair to assume that the student has the data capabilities to stream a live class from home.

Be on the lookout for students who may feel uncomfortable reporting their lack of accessibility. This may manifest as missing class often, having their camera turned off, or frequently logging in and out of class due to a weak internet connection. When talking to your student about their accessibility issues, be sure that you address them from a place of concern rather than judgment or discipline.

To offer solutions to these students, teachers can channel the same creative adaptability they used to transition their classes online in the first place. For instance, if the dance studio where your students typically dance has strong Wi-Fi, could it be made available to those without internet at home (perhaps on a schedule to ensure social distancing)?

It may also be a matter of reconsidering the live virtual class. While some students may not have the convenience of Wi-Fi in the home, they may be able to get public access. The dancers could still receive materials if teachers create videos or other resources for them to download when they have internet access, and then engage with on their own time. But keep the videos short: The digital divide continues if teachers hinder students by having them download an hourlong dance class on public broadband.

In an ideal world, studios and schools with ample resources can bridge this gap in even more meaningful ways. At the Dance Institute of Washington in Washington, DC, 30 percent of students were issued hot spots and tablets to ensure they could access virtual classes. DIW also created an online resource center with recorded classes and community resources, such as housing and health documents, all in both English and Spanish.

Dance teachers should also be informed about programs and resources already established in their communities. For example, companies like Google, T-Mobile and Comcast have partnered with public school districts in some areas to provide students with personal hot spots or to create available hot spots within their communities.

No, closing the digital divide should not rest solely on the shoulders of dance teachers. But we should be responsible for not allowing existing inequities to deepen during this already difficult time. We need to continue to be creative in our digital teaching solutions while remaining aware of meeting the needs of all our dancers.

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