This Dancer's Tribute to a Loved One Has Stayed With This Teacher for 15 Years

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I'm standing in a dark theater wing on a Saturday in March doing the usual—emceeing at my dance competition and watching countless young ladies in baby-doll chiffon dresses with rhinestone-choker necklaces dance about love gone wrong.

And next up: a 12-year-old without a professional costume or makeup, obviously a novice, and she's looking pretty ordinary. She takes the stage. I look out at her for a moment and figure she's got about two minutes left, so I do something like take a sip of water or tie my shoe or look down at my notes. For some reason, I glance back out at her and...BAM! That child is dancing like there's no tomorrow. What's up with her? I can't look away as she works herself into whirling, pulsating vapor. What she lacks in technique, she is more than making up for in...gosh, what is that? Guttural, undulating, raw, razor-sharp intent.

Something washes over me, and I begin to connect the dots.


Her dance ends, and she is running offstage straight toward me. I somehow have the presence of mind to open my arms, and she falls into them sobbing and wraps herself around me, like she can no longer hold her own weight. I'm supposed to go out and announce the next dance, but I can't move with her in my arms, so I just hold her. In a few minutes, her mom shows up backstage, peels her away from me and carries her off.

I look at my paperwork and see her name is Lydia, and the name of her dance is For Shelly. Her mom finds me later that day to apologize on Lydia's behalf. She explains that Lydia and her cousin Shelly were both hospitalized on the same day with a mystery illness. Lydia survived. Shelly didn't.

I've seen many a dancer perform a tribute to a loved one, but never quite like that. Not even close. Lydia choreographed that for Shelly and needed a place to dance it. So, there she was, at a dance competition. Talk about a lamb among...can I say it? Well, no. I'll let you fill in that blank.

I never saw Lydia again. She must be in her late 20s now. I think of her so often, send off a little prayer to her, tell her she has so enriched my life and that I have never again seen anyone dance with that kind of power and dedication and strength of spirit. And I so very often whisper a thank-you to Shelly for standing in the wings with me that day and making me look back up.

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Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy. Photo courtesy Dance With Me

Listening to Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy riff together makes it crystal-clear why each has mastered the art of partnering in the ballroom—they've long been doing this dance in real life as brothers and business partners.

Along with their "Dancing with the Stars" pedigree (and a combined three mirror-ball trophies between them), Maks and Val (and their father, Sasha) also run Dance With Me, a dance company hosting six ProAm Dancesport competitions annually and running 14 brick-and-mortar studio locations across the U.S.

Last year, the pair launched an online component, Dance & Co. The online video platform offers beginner through advanced instruction in not only ballroom but an array of other styles, as well as dance fitness classes from HIIT to yoga to strength training. "DWTS" fans will recognize such familiar faces as Peta Murgatroyd, Jenna Johnson, Sharna Burgess and Emma Slater, along with Maks and Val themselves.

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@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis

In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.

"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."

As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.

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Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

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