As a dance teacher and a competition judge, Chasta Hamilton made a career in the competitive dance industry that was full of accolades, but she soon realized that while she and her dancers reeled in trophies, their victories were hollow. Gone were the camaraderie and the joy.
So Chasta gave up competitions all together and reinvented her business to focus on what matters most. Her new book, Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul, tells the story of Chasta’s own journey and offers a pathway for more dance studios to follow in her footsteps.
Our conversation taught me a lot about the toxic cost of steep competition and the huge benefits that can come from letting it go.
Emily Gindlesparger: Today, I’m joined by Chasta Hamilton. It is such a pleasure to talk to you about your book.
Chasta Hamilton: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited about the book and I’m so happy to be here today.
Emily Gindlesparger: I want to start by giving listeners a bit of background about the expertise that brought you to understand that this book was so needed.
Chasta Hamilton: Yeah, it’s a combination, it’s a mixture. I believe so strongly in well-rounded everything–training approach, thought philosophy–looking at everything from every angle to try to get to the root of the solution. I think that comes from growing up as an only child. I was very creative, I was imaginative, I had a very unusual childhood. In high school, the arts were always so special to me, but I was always so curious about other things.
I went to college, and I thought I was going to be an attorney. I decided not to be, I decided to stick with the arts but all of these experiences have kind of compounded into what I do in being an owner and artistic director of a dance studio. It’s also made me constantly question, “Why does this have to be that way?” Or, if something can be better, why are we not thinking about how we can make it better? Or, if something is not working for us, why are we not asking how can we make this work for us and for our community?
I think it’s the culmination of all of these experiences from childhood, to adolescence, to college, to adulthood coming together, that gave me the strength and the courage to make this decision in 2015 to exit the competitive dance industry and say, “How can I best lead my community?”
Guided by True Values
Emily Gindlesparger: I’m so struck by the universal message behind your book, which is about the dance community specifically, but, really, it’s about how to run an authentic business that’s guided by true values, as opposed to being guided by outside validation. Of course, it makes sense that all of the experiences from childhood on–your whole self would be relevant to that entire journey. I think it’s so great that you decided to be vulnerable about that in your book.
Chasta Hamilton: Even outside of professional, it’s something that once I did it professionally and became a little more vulnerable, and a little more true to who I am, and what I want to represent, and how I want to shape and create my legacy, I found it trickling over personally as well. I think there’s just this universal messaging. What do we do when our narrative is slightly off track, and how do we make it better? Whether that’s in relationships, or whether it’s digging through our careers, or navigating societal expectations when they are resistant to our true purpose.
These are all just really pressing questions and sometimes we tip-toe away from them instead of leaning into them. When we start leaning into them, I think that’s when really exciting things start happening.
Emily Gindlesparger: It’s scary too, right? Because sometimes leaning into what we really want and need causes us to lean away from what we’re used to and what we knew.
Chasta Hamilton: My gosh, it’s terrifying. It’s waking up and having that pit in the stomach feeling, but I will say that fear of pushing forward, towards maybe more rightness and away from wrongness, is so much more uplifting than the gut feeling of helplessness, or tears, or feeling trapped. There’s no alternative solution.
There’s fear in all of it and I think that we can either embrace or resist chaos and change. But it’s when we embrace it that we tend to become stronger and more confident. With each experience, we can do it more and more, and be better. Then we become better in our personal relationships, we become better in our careers, and we just create this overall synergistic purpose and place in society.
Emily Gindlesparger: Who knew that a book about dance could teach us so much about ourselves. Well, anyone in the arts knows that it’s possible.
Chasta Hamilton: Yes. You know, I was speaking at a luncheon in February, and this was one of the last things that I did before everything was canceled for a very long period of time. They were asking, “What is one of the things that you can take away from the arts?” And I said, “You know, we have lost the art of listening and empathy.”
But, when we’re in an artistic experience, whether it’s looking at a painting or sitting in a quiet theater for two and a half hours, all we do is focus on someone else’s story, and through that process and that experience, we gain empathy, which helps us also have this self-realization of who we are and how we can best contribute to society. Sometimes I don’t think people realize and understand the magnitude of their place within our society.
Emily Gindlesparger: I love the moment that kicks off the introduction of your book, where a dancer that you’ve worked with wins an award, they are called to the stage, there are all these accolades, and everyone is celebrating, and then they call you up to give the dancer a hug, and you just look around and wonder, “What are we doing here, was any of this worth it?”
You started to question your role in the competitive dance industry. Do you think that the dancers you worked with felt the same way?
Chasta Hamilton: Man, you know, even in just hearing you say that story out loud almost gives me a visceral reaction. I can still feel the moment and being there and, I will say, I’m not sure the dancers that were of that period have recognized the scheme or these feelings, but what I had noticed is people that are my age, mid-30s, that I speak to you about this, that maybe have participated in competitions at some point, they say, “Dance was great and we loved the community, the camaraderie, the art, and getting to perform,” but they all say, “That competitive experience just kind of made us feel icky.”
I think there’s something that happens with maturity and recognizing why, the question of why, why are we doing this, why is this where we’re placing the return on investment, and is it the best use of our time, our energy, our resources? I think that comes with maturity because, like many of the kids that I’ve traveled with, and had an opportunity to do things with, when you’re a child, and you’re participating, and you’re with your friends, and you’re jumping into the swimming pool at hotels at night, and going to fun restaurants, it is a fun experience.
But the thing that I realized as I navigated through all this, is it those experiences can be duplicated in other ways that could be even more meaningful and have a stronger ROI.
As an educator, it’s not our job and it’s not our goal for any student–I think this goes for educators across all avenues–we never want a student to feel lesser than, or incapable. When a dancer is defining their worth by a deregulated industry and placement, and feeling as though they’re not good enough, as an educator, that is a really hard pill to swallow.
Because we pour our hearts into making sure that these children are reaching their greatest capabilities. When you’re learning, I’m not sure that’s the time for you to also feel torn down, because that also hinders growth. Or, if you’re winning, do you have a mentality of you’ve arrived, and the work doesn’t exist? Because I think we all know in any career and anything that we do, the work never stops. The most successful continue to be lifelong students, as well.
There are these two flip sides that are very unproductive for general success in life and that was the root of the observations that I made that signaled a change had to be made.
Emily Gindlesparger: I think one of the biggest gut punches in the book is when you describe winning a different award, the champion of champions award, and you turned to a girlfriend next to you, and you ask if winning dance competitions will eventually feel better and she just says, “Do you want me to tell you that it will?”
Chasta Hamilton: I know, right? Man, I can still see what I was wearing that night too. Summer in 2014, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was shaken for that to be the response, because are we participating because society says this is what we do? Or, it’s become a construct of our industry? When you are shifting away from a construct, it can be very challenging. But, you know, half a decade out of it, the only regret I have is that I wish I had been confident enough to make these moves sooner.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, before you made the transition, what did you want winning to feel like? What did you want it to mean to you?
Chasta Hamilton: Winning is a really weird thing for me. I did an interview in the fall. The interviewer asked, “How does it feel to be so successful?” Success and winning are labels, they are validations. That is a societal construct. I actually stumbled upon this graduation speech by Matthew McConaughey the other day. I think it’s from December 2019. The messaging was very the “trash the trophies” vibe. He was saying, “When we’re looking for happiness as a result of something beyond our control, we’re not living our lives for joy. We’re living our lives with the hope of a result that we have no control over.”
I think winning, to me, is saying, “I am creating the best program that I possibly can for the community that I have created and developed.” Fighting for that, going to bat for them, innovating when we have to change and pivot, and staying fully committed to that mentality of, “Are we doing the best that we can every single day?”
Emily Gindlesparger: How did you see this trophy culture and winning culture negatively affecting the dancers you worked with?
Chasta Hamilton: I started seeing negativity within the group. Maybe one child was winning more, or a child felt like they were too good to dance with other students, or a child would only want to do a solo because they didn’t feel like they were growing enough through the group experiences.
I saw that divisiveness trickle into the parent culture as well. And then it became, secret lessons with instructors, or moving to different states for new choreography, and the communication, the collaboration, and the true necessity of a team was completely nonexistent.
That to me, that was the detriment and it was very sad.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, especially thinking in terms of an artist or a collaboration, and new ideas, and that generative community is such a huge part of creating something meaningful. It sounds like a lot of that got sucked right out.
Chasta Hamilton: It did, it was so disappointing and, as we’ve kind of evolved and faced through these five years, the question has become more about leadership styles. I was disappointed in myself during this time because, as a leader, I felt like I had misled and misrepresented what I had hoped to create.
When that happens, do you just sit in complacency and stagnation? Or do you say, “Let’s figure out how we can change this and make it better?” I’m so glad I did because I’m not sure this is an industry that I could have stayed in, in the way I was living it in 2014 and 2015. Now, there’s nowhere else I would rather be.
I truly love and I’m so passionate about what I do. I just wonder if, so often, it’s easier for us to ignore our discontent and just push it on the back burner, and how much happier we could all be, maybe if we just took these tiny steps to improve the world around us?
Emily Gindlesparger: Give us a glimpse of what your business, what your studio, looks like now that you’ve divorced yourself from that original culture, and created your own?
Chasta Hamilton: Yeah, it is a work in progress. I certainly do not want to come across as it was easy or it happened overnight, that was not the case at all. We kind of had a rebuilding period that was probably about two years where we were forming this new culture. Most of the children that were more interested in the competitive culture went elsewhere, and we had staff leave.
But what also happened is this all-in mindset of, “Let’s do this, let’s figure out who we are, let’s make this the best it can possibly be.” To see the staff jelling like that and then that trickling into our students and their families. Year by year, we could see this excitement building because we were creating and inviting people to our tribe, that truly aligned with our mission.
Initially, when we first made the big change, we didn’t have as many in our intensive training program, but we did see our general enrollment increasing about 25%, which is a great number. We were like, “Okay, we’re on to something, this is good.” And then, the intensive training programs started growing, we had the benefit shows, which it has been great to work with different organizations and let the children use their art for that. That has been truly great.
I think each step in coming to terms about why I decided to leave, each step on the other side has been equally important in realizing who we are, what we do, why we do it. We found four pillars that we align ourselves with–technique, performance, community, and character.
We always want our programming to tie back into those four things. Now we have this collective and I love being at the studio, the children support each other. I see them giving each other cards, I see them invested in each other’s lives. It’s nice. It’s this little piece of utopia and some days, I’ll look at it and I’ll see what’s happening and it’s hard to believe where we were then to where we are now.
Emily Gindlesparger: During that rebuilding period, I’m curious, what was going on in your own internal state? In your book, you write that making big changes like this can cause you to second guess yourself and cause other people to question your beliefs. I’m wondering how you navigate all of that?
Chasta Hamilton: So, I will say when the change happened, there was a lot of emptiness, a lot of loneliness, because people truly fear change. Some friendships and relationships went to the wayside. I think what helps you navigate it is focus. I feel that’s even more affirmed after our experience with the pandemic, is honing in on your center of focus, the things that are within your control, the people that stand by you, and that are willing to move with you, and go with you through this process.
I think that’s bigger than this book, what life is all about. I think this is just an example in my life of how that played out.
Emily Gindlesparger: In the introduction, you write that it was difficult to write the book, in part because you tend to look only forward and that in some aspects it was difficult to look back at the past. Tell me a little bit about what that was like?
Chasta Hamilton: It was really hard, because often–they say this when you are working in therapy–things that you gloss over, moments of your life that maybe aren’t the best, or that you don’t want to remember the most are the most painful. Now that we have email there is actually a digital thread representing those years. I went back and I combed through emails, from 2008 to 2015, just because I wanted to make sure that I was capturing the best snapshot of this period of time, and the dialogue, the discussions. It was almost an out of body experience to revisit this tremendous amount of discontent and hurt.
I was trying to be a unifier but my leadership skills weren’t in the right place as I was trying to navigate it, and it did take this radical change for me to be able to take a stand and say, “Hey this is who we are and this is what we do, and it may not be what is commonplace in the dance studio industry, but this is what works for us.”
I will say that in going through all of the dialogue and discussions, revisiting some of those moments, there is also healing that takes place. I found it to be a really healthy experience now that I am past the production process of the book.
I am really glad that I revisited it because I feel like it is something that I pushed away and going back to it has been very cathartic for me.
Developing as a Leader
Emily Gindlesparger: What are some of the milestones you experienced as you developed as a leader during those times?
Chasta Hamilton: A better sense of listening, hearing people, taking feedback, but also understanding that, if their feedback is pushing me to compromise my beliefs, that it is okay to set boundaries. I think boundaries are hugely important. I am still a work in progress on my boundary-setting because I am really bad about sometimes sending a late-night email, or not logging off soon enough, but in a bigger sense of fundamentally where you stand.
Hearing people and understanding them, and if they are not on the same page as you, it is okay to part ways and that doesn’t have to be negative. When you are so confident in who you are, and if someone else is so confident in who they are, and if you are not confidently on the same page, it is okay to go separate ways. Taking the emotion out of that and hearing people and hearing their stories, that’s what I found.
Also, in doing more listening, I recognized that most of our clients aren’t interested in a hyper-competitive environment. They want their children to learn dance and to learn it well, but they also want them to have skills that are going to last them long into their lives. Whether they are pursuing an engineering career, or they want to be a doctor, or if they want to be a teacher, the skills that you can learn in dance can help you with anything.
When we re-focused, and worked on the messaging, worked on listening, and worked on connecting and collaborating, those are the ways that I feel I have strengthened my leadership. I think, universal leadership advice is listening–not listening and oscillating–because I think a lot of times people listen but don’t take action. Listening and figuring out if there is action to be taken, and if there is action to be taken, actually doing it and following through with it. I think that is really important.
Emily Gindlesparger: This may be a difficult question to answer, but were there any hard-won ways that you learned that particular lesson?
Chasta Hamilton: Yes, so the hardest lesson was trying to please everyone. That was the summary of everything that I was thinking through and trying to say, but I was trying to be too much of a people pleaser because I was so fearful of losing these clients, even though I wasn’t able to confidently recognize how culturally misaligned we were at the time. So, they would come, and they would say, “This is what we want,” and I would bend and comply to that, even though it was actually against my values and my principles for the program that I had hoped to build.
There is this point where the give and take, when the pushing is just pushing too much, and eventually, you evolve into a program or a person that maybe you don’t want to be, and that is not the best representation of yourself. So, it was recognizing that that need to please everyone was so contrary to actually taking a stand, and creating something that I really believed in.
That has also been one of the most exciting things on the other side of it is seeing that, with leadership and conviction, you can create a culture and a following that is fundamentally aligned with what you want to represent.
Emily Gindlesparger: It is weirdly relieving to hear that it took a while to learn that lesson because I think so many of us have this experience of doubting ourselves, of not holding the boundaries that we need to hold. It really just takes so much practice to get there, to a place where we are fully aligned.
Chasta Hamilton: It takes so much practice. When I opened the businesses, I was out of college. I was 22 years old. When you are in your 20s and you are dealing with parents, I never wanted it to be that I didn’t know. I wanted to be confident, but I think I felt back then that confidence would come from the assimilation of everyone’s ideas and opinions.
I was listening to other voices more than I was listening to my own and that is what I would encourage everyone to be very cautious of. It’s not turning down the volume of your own voice and turning up the volume on other people’s voices.
Emily Gindlesparger: That is such a poignant lesson, especially all of the different roles that you played in this industry. You come with such stacked credentials that it seems like, if it was possible to get that kind of self-confidence from accolades alone, you would have been the person to get it. That seems like the driving force behind this idea of trashing the trophies–they’re just not going to get you there.
Chasta Hamilton: Yeah, they are just not. There’s been so much creative innovation over the last four months as people have navigated the pandemic and nobody is giving them a trophy. Everybody is so focused on everything they have to do. Those characteristics of adaptability and resilience, and the things that push us forward, we don’t get trophies for those. But we want to be at 100% in those areas because that is what is going to make us the best possible person that we can be.
Those lessons can be formed in other ways. I am not anti-competition at all. That’s what I always want people to understand. In the years after we left, students would say, “We don’t do dance competitions,” and I would say, “Yeah, we don’t do dance competitions anymore but what we are doing is working towards being more competitive in life.” I think there is no trophy for that, but it is so meaningful.
Emily Gindlesparger: This is slightly off track, but I was really struck by what you wrote about judging competitions, and how there isn’t even a rubric for dance competitions. That just blows me away.
Chasta Hamilton: So each of them kind of creates their own, but there is no standardization. It is a deregulated industry and so that can be very challenging to explain to a parent who is looking for tangible results, because maybe they also participate in soccer or ice skating or gymnastics, things that have very streamlined processes for competing. Then you get into the conversation that dance is also an art. So, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and how do you say this person’s opinion is the right one when you have three people sitting on a panel?
It is just very complicated, and I do think there are opportunities in the industry for collaborative performance that maybe strips away this scoring. At the end of the day, if it is deregulated, if you are winning an event here and not winning an event there, what does it even truly mean?
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah it is interesting because we have models of awards in other kinds of industries, like in the movie industry, for example. You’ve got the Golden Globes and you’ve got the Academy Awards, and we all know that those are just judges picking the art that they want to highlight the most in that particular time, which is different from saying, “Okay, well we are going to put a 100 point score on this, and somehow distinguish between someone who is performing at a 97 versus a 98.”
Chasta Hamilton: Exactly, it is hard to understand. Our parents have a hard time understanding it, and they are financing it, and I understand their difficulty. I understand their demand for results because if you are putting money towards something you want to see a return on investment. But beyond that, developmentally, what about the children?
How can they process that and begin to understand that when we are in a society that has a lot of constructs, with schools, with grades, it is very complicated, and it is so blurred and so grey, that I ultimately realized that I could not have this third party that I had no control over placing evaluations on my business?
Emily Gindlesparger: And at the same time, the moments that you celebrated were different from the moments that were celebrated in the competition circuit. I was so struck by the story you tell of going to a competition, and the ceremony has not begun yet, and one of the dancers that you worked with is on stage just goofing around, performing for her family and friends, and the effect that that had on the people who watched her, even though she wasn’t performing for the scoring or for an award.
I just loved that moment as such a symbol of how you are re-centering yourself and your business around what mattered and what effect you wanted to create.
Chasta Hamilton: I tell one story in the book, but it was a story that I saw play out time and time again. Before big award ceremonies, they would have hula-hoop contests or the dads would come up and do a cartwheel contest, or cha-cha slide, just an opportunity to dance for the joy of movement. That is when people would cheer and they would love dance so much. They would love the studio. They would be taking pictures and sharing them, patting each other in the back.
It was truly a jubilant moment, and then the awards would start and the entire mood would shift. Not even just one person not, “This group won, and we didn’t,” but, “This person of our tribe won and this person didn’t,” with won being in quotation marks as what that meant on any given day.
There would be so much sadness, frustration, disappointment, and anger and it never felt right that we were spending our weekends having so many negative emotions tied to them.
Emily Gindlesparger: Not to mention tens of thousands of dollars. The money is astronomical.
Chasta Hamilton: So much money. I mean, there is something to be said to having schedules where families still have an opportunity to enjoy a meal together, or where a family vacation isn’t tied to the extracurricular. I feel like our society was going so fast for a while that it became the expectation that what you do has to be all entertainment. I knew why I was hitting the brakes and saying, you know there’s more. Do well in school, explore the other activity that you want to explore. Take that trip to Europe or to California.
It is so great to see these students digging into their passions and supporting them in the fact that they can be passionate about more than just dance. In that process of discovery, a lot of them are finding that their number one passion is dance, but I am so glad that they have the opportunity and the support to feel like they can get there through being a part of our program.
Never Stop Evolving
Emily Gindlesparger: Well Chasta, thank you so much. It has been so incredible to talk to you about this book. I am so glad you wrote it and that you are a model for how to really re-engage with this art form and the joy of it in this way. It’s so beautiful.
If you could leave us with one to two takeaways for listeners to consider from your book and from your story, what do you want them to know?
Chasta Hamilton: So first off, I would say never stop evolving. I think when we start standing still is when we should be feeling very nervous. So, keep moving, keep pushing and I feel like we have done that every single day since we made that move. It’s been so rewarding, and I see it happening in our staff and in our students. I talk about this in the book, as I was coming out of the loneliness and the vulnerability, and questioning whether this move was right, I talk about when we found our tagline of “Be More, Stage Door.”
That “be more” mentality transcends to dance studio because it is how we are being the best version of ourselves and pouring that into the things that we truly care about. So, I think we keep moving, I think we focus on what we can, and we keep pouring the best versions of who we are into the people, and the things that we care about, that bring joy into our lives, and that we keep pouring joy into their lives.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much and the book again is called, Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you?