We are delighted to feature Chasta Hamilton in our occasional In the Spotlight blog series. Chasta, founder and owner of Stage Door Dance Productions in Raleigh, joined CYT as the choreographer for our 2015 summer musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and she has since worked on five other CYT shows.
Chasta, 35, made a radical change in her business — and in her life — by leaving the competitive dance world in 2015. She outlines what motivated her to make this profound decision and how she reshaped her studio for young dancers in her new book, “Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul,” released Aug. 11.
CYT recently talked with Chasta via Zoom for a Q&A about the dance world, her connection with CYT and how the book was born. Below are edited excerpts of that conversation.
Tell us about your dance background. How did you get started, and what drew you to dance?
I started dancing when I was 2 [in the small community of Mohawk in eastern Tennessee]. My father had just died, and I think my mom was looking for activities and socialization for me. It was like a satellite program, kind of in this dingy warehouse, which would be completely unacceptable by dance education standards of today. They would roll out this rubber foam for the mat, it was really basic. But I just loved it, I loved it so much, and I loved dance recitals.
I loved the process, I loved the performance, I loved meeting people, being with my friends. It just brought this incredible amount of joy into my upbringing, which was laced with trauma and challenges. And it just kind of kept the focus on this really beautiful art. I think that’s why I’ve felt so compelled to stay in this field, because it gave so much to me when I needed something extra.
How did you start your studio, Stage Door Dance Productions?
I started teaching and choreographing in college, and I really enjoyed it. When I graduated in December 2007 I was living the freelance life, and then by the summer I thought, “This is something I could do.” After starting a dance program at a country club, I thought, “I think I could build a program on my own.” That fall I decided I would just go full in and started planning, getting the lease, the vision, the marketing, and then we opened in June of 2009.
What motivated you to write the book?
In 2018, I was speaking at a conference, and it was my first time back in a large, dance-industry gathering after extracting myself away from it. In my keynote I had just briefly mentioned how we had stepped away from competition, and another studio owner stopped me in the hall, and she said, “Can I take some time to talk to you?” And I said, “Yes,” and we sat down, and she had tears in her eyes. She said, “I so admire what you’ve done, but I don’t think I can make it happen in my community.” And I was like, “Yes, you actually can.”
I didn’t get her contact info but thought that if this could actually help people in an industry that is in a downward spiral and just getting worse by the year, and needs to be reinvented because it can’t even fully function — it just seemed like a conversation that was ready to be had, and with age I’ve just found that I’m more comfortable in talking about parts of my story that maybe I wasn’t before. That was the moment where I was like, “I should do this.” After outlining it, I did most of the writing between August and December 2019.
For whom did you write the book?
Dance studio owners, dance moms and anyone with a child, really, or anyone feeling like their life is falling apart. The message is truly overarching. It’s set to dance, but it could be cross-applied to anything.
How and when did you move into stage choreography?
It was always something that I wanted to do, and I did a little in college. Then with opening the studio, my focus was there for the first four or five years. Then I had the opportunity to choreograph “Aida” at Athens Drive in 2013, and I loved it so much. I cried so hard when it closed, because I thought, “I’m never going to direct or choreograph anything again, and this was so wonderful.” Then I did, like, 35 things in the next five year-period.
With CYT, you’ve worked on five summer musicals and one winter play. How did you become involved with CYT?
CYT came into my life in 2015 with “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” I had just choreographed “Rent” with the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, and an assistant director working with CYT suggested it would be a good fit for me.
What I love most about Nikki and CYT is the standard of excellence, because that’s very much like my brand and how I operate: How can we create really meaningful, empowering experiences? That’s important for the kids that participate.
In your book, you talk about the role of dance in storytelling. What kinds of stories can dance uniquely tell, and how?
It really comes back to empathy, and this is what I tell my staff in our trainings all the time. What we have to focus on — yes, we’re teaching dance, and yes, we’re teaching choreography — but let’s focus on the humanistic component. Even if a person isn’t ready to do a triple pirouette, let’s give them movement that’s going to empower and inspire who they are, so that whether we’re setting a specific story with a narrative, or even if they’re just discovering something about themselves, which is going to help them gain empathy and understanding toward others, the heart of it really is that humanistic component.
And how can choreography help tell a specific story within a musical or play?
Who doesn’t want to just bust into dance when something really exciting or frustrating or tragic happens? It’s just a great way to show a spectrum of emotions. I always think of dance and storytelling as words on paper, or relationships on paper, or an existence that is imaginatively transitioned to expressive movement. And that was one of my big problems with the competitive industry — it was becoming so non-creative. When we lose the creativity, we lose the art. When we can just focus on dance, for the sake of the person, the sake of the story, the sake of the performing art, it elevates.
Even though you have “trashed the trophies” and totally transformed the model of what a dance studio can be, there is still a performance-based aspect to choreographing for the theater. Can you talk a bit about how you work with young people to steer them away from what you call an “addiction to accolades” but still prepare them for public performance?
The first year [after the studio transitioned], I remember the kids being like, “So we’re not doing dance competitions anymore?” And I said, “No, we’re not doing dance competitions. We’re here to be competitive at life. And life doesn’t give you a trophy on any given day. You have to be intrinsically motivated to know that you are putting your best self forth in anything you do, whether that’s onstage in your dance, or walking into a college interview. Whatever you do, do it at a level of excellence and do it really well.” It took two or three years for that to become this really strong cultural shift. Now that culture is more vibrant and more needed now than ever.
In general, how can children benefit from participating in dance or any of the performing arts?
The list is endless, truly. Time management, organization, communication skills, empathy, understanding, responsibility, accountability, confidence. An understanding of self as it relates to a collective, as a whole.
My dog [Elvis, a Scottish terrier] was Toto in CYT’s “The Wizard of Oz” last summer, and he even benefited. He was so confident, so happy. It’s the community, too, of coming together and achieving a goal as one. Children really do need to participate in healthy programs, and CYT’s model fits that bill, above and beyond.
In telling the story of how you transitioned away from a competition-based studio model, you outline steps that others can take to make radical change. You even incorporate dance words such as “pivot” and say, “Figure out where you stand and where you want to go,” which sounds like a stage direction. To do this, you note the need to identify core values. How can you help children identify core values through dance and theater?
We hashed out four words, because accessibility is good — you don’t want your values to be so complicated that you give people a headache when they see them. We picked four words to make sure everything is funneling through them: technique, performance, community and character, all working toward the overall common goal. We said we needed to keep it simple, to hold ourselves accountable and to also be able to communicate this expectation, which will also set boundaries.
Last year we had a bullying situation, where we had to ask a student to leave, but the boundaries were so very clearly set, and the expectations, and there was a breach of that. The important thing is that the kids get it, too, because if I have to bring them into my office, I can say, “Do you think this action fits under technique, performance, community and most certainly character?” It’s a rubric they can understand.
The book’s subtitle is “How to Win Without Losing Your Soul,” and you say that “winning does not come in the shape of a trophy or medal. Rather, it is being able to recognize the journey we choose to live and the ability and awareness to be grateful for it.” With this reframing of what “competitive” means, what kind of feedback do you get from Stage Door or CYT alumni about their experiences with you and those programs?
The greatest thing is the can-do attitude. They know if they are going to be working on something with me, we’re going to push it to the furthest capability possible. It’s going to feel challenging, and we’re going to grow through the process. I’m so adamant that if you’re not growing you’re standing still, and standing still is basically moving backward. Because if you’re standing still, someone else is passing you, and you’re not growing. My number one thing when I’m working on anything is that there’s some level of growth. I think that’s why I work so well with a company like CYT, because it’s a very growth-oriented process. That’s the heart of anything truly meaningful, that we’re growing through it. But it’s a process.
You are clearly committed to helping others beyond Stage Door through your nonprofit, Girls Geared for Greatness. CYT just staged a successful, covid-friendly benefit concert in July that was rooted in peer-to-peer fundraising. Tell us a little about your nonprofit, and the importance of teaching young people about philanthropy.
What we realized is that, yes, we do dance, but with the competition piece removed we also had so much more bandwidth to do more, so with the humanistic component as a focus, we looked at how we could continue to elevate it, even beyond the studio. That’s where Girls Geared for Greatness was born, as a way to focus on the lives that we have in front of us, to say, “You are already geared for greatness, it’s in you, but let’s have skills, let’s have opportunities, so that we can continue to cultivate and pull that out, beyond the dance steps.”
Your book reads like a “how to” manual for reinvention in general, for anyone, and in any field. The epilogue was written just after the pandemic landed. What was that reinvention like for Stage Door and your students and parents?
It took 48 hours to get the full program digital, from March 14 to March 16, and June was a mix [of online and in-person programs]. Pretty much everything I did with taking ourselves out of competition and rebranding, we did in a much faster timeline. Just going through that process of a major change helped us prepare for changes that we basically have had to make on a weekly basis since March.
There have been so many arts organizations sitting still, and that concerns me, watching, waiting, hoping [the pandemic] disappears. I don’t think that’s sustainable. There’s no way that Stage Door Dance is going to stop. We didn’t even take a spring break, we haven’t paused since Christmas break. We’re here, we’re going. The arts are so important. We need to be reminded of what the arts are and how they impact our society.
In the epilogue you write, “History will not forget how we reacted during this time.” How can dance and performing arts continue to help young folks navigate the pandemic and cultivate the “passionate optimism” that you say is necessary for difficult transitions?
They have to focus on their realm of change. It’s so easy to get distracted at the bigger and the beyond. Focus on what you can, because you do have an audience, and you do have people you can impact, and I think the crisis in general can be very overwhelming.
This question can paralyze people from what they do actually have and the opportunities they have right in front of them to make really meaningful change and movement. We can do hard things, and it’s important to maintain optimism, and also understand that optimism is not necessarily positivity. You can still be really grumpy and have bad days but be optimistic about the outcome.
Keep listening to your inner voice, because in the early [stages of major change] there’s a lot of external influence of what people think and how they would do it, and as a person that kind of learned the hard way, it’s easy to bend over backward to avoid conflict. There is going to be a formative period that doesn’t feel great.
Change isn’t going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not right, and it doesn’t need to take away the value or the meaning of making that shift when it’s right for who you are and what you do.
Carolina Youth Theatre (CYT)
Carolina Youth Theatre is a community theater focused on providing theater arts education and performance opportunities to students across the Triangle.