Whether teaching or making dance, Tessandra Chavez delivers one consistent theme: versatility. Regarded by many as the pioneer of contemporary hip hop, her unique fusion style stems from the multifaceted dance training she received growing up in San Diego, with classical ballet, modern, tap, jazz and hip hop. At age 15 she formed the nonprofit dance company Unity Dance Ensemble, and she's since helped build the Debbie Allen Dance Academy's jazz program, choreographed for "So You Think You Can Dance" and won an Emmy for Outstanding Choreography in 2015 for her "Dancing with the Stars" piece performed by Julianne Hough and Derek Hough.
Dance Teacher: How can teachers help students who struggle to learn different styles?
Tessandra Chavez: Labels restrict dancers and keep them in their heads. And I see it all the time, the more trained dancer will take my class, and they freeze up on those more intricate hip-hop parts, and it's because they suddenly think, "Oh that's hip hop; that's not what I do," and so they block themselves. And the same goes in reverse for the hip-hop dancer. Dance is dance. We are not a "hip-hop dancer" or a "ballet dancer." We're dancers. If you open your students' minds in that way, they're going to be more capable and open to learning any style. Plus, dancers have to take classes they're not comfortable taking. Today's generation of dancers, I find, take classes they know they're good at or that are going to be filmed and put on YouTube. And I'm thinking, "Nooooo, you should probably be in that class you look awful in!" Teachers should encourage students to get out of their comfort zones, because that's when they grow.
DT: What was it like to work with Debbie Allen?
TC: I worked for Debbie Allen for six years at her academy. She was always an idol of mine. When she was on "Fame," I wanted to be her, so to work for her was an honor. She and I were always like kindred spirits—we're very alike in our approach to training dancers. I think part of the reason she hired me was because she saw herself in me a bit, because, as a teacher, I was very stern and strict and all about discipline and focus and being versatile as a dancer.
DT: What advice do you have for teachers?
TC: There's so much competition between local studios, and owners tend to enable and appease the students rather than enforce the old-school mentality of work your butt off and do what makes you uncomfortable: "You're required to take ballet" or "You're required to take tap." There's not a lot of "you have to" anymore because studios are worried about losing business. I'd love to see studio teachers across America encourage their students to do what makes them uncomfortable rather than give in to what the dancer wants.