As a dancer and teacher myself, I can identify closely with both the instructors and the dancing community who have been deprived of the joys of dancing due to COVID-19. Ballroom dancing has a lot of variety, which keeps things interesting and pleases a variety of style preferences: from elegant and smooth to rhythmic and dynamic. It’s the best workout, in my opinion, because it makes use of many muscles, large and small (some you didn’t even know you had!—think soles of your feet and toes) while also incorporating a social aspect that makes it more of a fun experience than a gym workout. Beyond the positive physical results, ballroom dancing is a huge mental wellness element: the movement releases endorphins, and studies showed the positive impact on memory, but the true difference maker is the social interaction, the community built around it. That is definitely something that the pandemic disrupted and we all sorely missed. When lessons and parties ceased abruptly, we all suffered. Dance studios and instructors had to find alternate ways to support themselves and find creative ways to continue teaching.
As a part of the blog series on “Happiness Purveyors,” I talked with one of my teacher friends, Kris Hazard who is a dance instructor in Knoxville, Tennessee to get his perspective on things.
Kris’ love of the arts took him on a journey from Tennessee, across the US, and back. Since he was a child, Kris felt at home on the stage: he performed in music, theatre, dance, and film productions. He attended North Carolina School of Arts where he trained in classical ballet. He discovered his passion for teaching ballroom soon after high school, and founded a student ballroom dance club, “The Flight of the Phoenix,” which brought him a special leadership scholarship to Elon University, in North Carolina. Here, he continued to coach and grow the ballroom dance club while he obtained his BFA in Music Theatre. Kris made his way back to Knoxville, Tennessee where he teaches ballroom dance.
Some of Kris’ professional credits include: The Wizard of Oz; Broadway National Tour, Children of Eden at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse, Fred Astaire in Blowing Rock Stage Company’s Backwards in High Heels; The Musical Story of Ginger Rogers, The Smoky Mountain Opry, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and Dollywood and Opryland theme parks.
He has taught for Fred Astaire Dance Studios and “Dance With Me,” the company owned by Dancing With The Stars pros Tony Dovolani, and Max and Val Chmerkovsky.
Kris is a proud member of both Actor’s Equity Association (AEA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
Oana Harrison: Tell me about how you got started in the performing arts and dancing.
Kris Hazard: I’ve been involved in the arts since I was a kid. I have a bleeding disorder which makes me bruise easily, so instead of playing sports, I immersed myself into music and theatre, and was a paid actor at the age of 8. As a teenager, I became more serious about it and studied ballet in high school, then received a BFA in Music Theatre from Elon University in North Carolina.
OH: How did you discover ballroom dancing and teaching?
KH: I took a couple of years off between high school and college, and I travelled and performed around the country. During that time, I signed up to be a ballroom dance instructor. Since I enjoyed performing, I took a lot of my students to competitions. I got my own room in cool hotels like the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota—that was living the good life for a kid out of high school! It was going really well and I enjoyed very much. I realized I could easily continue and not go to college, so it was then or never. I auditioned for one school only, which was Elon University, and which was hard to get into. I got in! So, I left the ballroom dance teaching behind but founded a ballroom dance club while attending the university. I received a scholarship from the university for my side project; it was a scholarship in leadership which was awarded only to two freshmen each year. I started the club with classes I taught in a church basement. As the club grew to a 60+ student base, I moved it to the school’s premises. By my senior year, I had enough members to train competitive dancers. The club is still active today, 16 years later, so this is something I’m very proud of.
OH: Where did your art take you after college graduation?
KH: After college, I performed a lot: I was a comedian in Dolly Parton’s Stampede in South Carolina for a couple of years and had a lot of fun. I then worked at a theatre in Blowing Rock, NC where I did a show called Backwards in High Heels, which was about Ginger Rogers; I played Fred Astaire. I really enjoyed it as it combined my love for dancing and performing. The production was only in its second iteration, so I got to work closely with the writers and the director which really made for a more interesting experience.
I performed in the Smoky Mountain Opry in Pigeon Forge, then got a phone call from a friend of mine about an opportunity in NYC. My friend opened a new dance studio as a part of Dance With Me chain, owned by professional ballroom dancers Max and Val Chmerkovskiy and Tony Dovolani (from Dancing with the Stars). It was a great opportunity and a lot of fun, but things are very expensive in New York City, and the pay was not enough in the long run. I returned to Dolly’s Stampede, then worked at a dance studio in Atlanta while I auditioned for movies before moving back to Tennessee.
OH: It sounds like you had a busy time in your 20s, pursuing many aspects of your artistic education and background. How did you transition to being a full time ballroom dance instructor?
KH: Being in theatre is a gig by gig job, and there’s a lot of time in between gigs. Meanwhile, you have to fill that time and make a living, so I waited tables at an Italian restaurant and some BBQ places. I hated it; I was good at it but I wasn’t making that much money. As a server, you can have a good day, but you got a lot of bad days too. I always felt that something was missing. I missed dancing because it was something I am good at, it’s a part of my identity. I felt that was being just another server, instead of being what I needed to be: a well-respected dancer. I needed to be proud of who I was and what I was doing. Life is too short to do something that doesn’t make you happy. As I matured, I also needed more stability in my life.
Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.Ted Shaw—Pioneer of American Modern Dance
However, I had an unexpected challenge to deal with: I caught a strange unknown virus that caused cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that can lead to heart failure—basically my heart blew up like a balloon and I was really close to dying. So I had to take some time off, about a year. I was living at my parents’ house in Tennessee, not doing anything I loved, dealing with this strange disease. It was frustrating and I became depressed. When I started feeling a little better, I started going to Dance Tonight, a local ballroom dance studio, just to dance, because I missed it. That’s where I met Stephanie, a dance instructor, and asked her out. After a few months, she asked me why I didn’t come teach at the studio. She knew I was good at it and saw that I was kind of lost and needed a sense of purpose. So that got me started teaching again. Slowly, I felt better and got back into the groove of things. The studio and I were doing very well until COVID shut it down.
OH: How did you deal with the new challenge of yet another pesky disease? How did the pandemic change your business and plans for the future?
KH: The studio shutting down was the catalyst for Stephanie and me to go on our own. This is something we haven’t seriously considered before, but so far it is working very well for us.
When the studio closed suddenly with no plans to reopen, necessarily, I took my students to another studio in town temporarily. Our students are hopeful that a studio will reopen because they miss the social aspect, their friends and community. We looked at the local market overall and especially noticed that downtown Knoxville has changed a lot over the years, bringing a more diverse and happening demographic. It has become a socially active area, and people are more willing to try new activities, like ballroom. Twenty years ago, that was not the case. We saw a market that hasn’t been offered the opportunity to experience ballroom dancing (most studios are located in West Knoxville or surrounding towns), so we’ve decided to look into serving that market more. We are looking for a dedicated space downtown where we can generate interest and get the people involved in weekly events and ballroom dancing. As independent teachers, however, we don’t want to be limited by a certain location or space; we go to meet the demand wherever it is, we are staying flexible.
OH: Do you see an increase in demand for ballroom—especially with the threat of COVID going away? Do you see more people getting excited about it?
KH: Yes, so I have many students who have resurfaced—people I taught a while ago who are now getting in touch wanting to get back into dancing, people I haven’t heard from in a couple of years. There is suddenly a little renaissance happening. People are itching to get out and be social.
OH: Where do you get your energy and inspiration to keep going? What makes a good day for you when you feel like you had a successful day?
KH: Music is probably my favorite thing in life. As a kid, I sang in choir, played drums, and got to work a lot with music, got to really understand it; it was really fun for me. So getting to listen to music at work every day is great! Except we get to listen to the music even more in depth, because we have to choreograph to it.
Without music, life would be a mistake.Friedrich Nietzsche—German Philosopher
I love movement, I love the fact that dancing lets me explore different cultures, because each dance comes from a different culture. I don’t just listen to the beat but try to accentuate and recognize each dance for its history and cultural background; each dance is unique. History was one of my favorite topics in school; I used to read history for fun! So it’s great to be able to use my love for music, history, culture, and dance into what I do every day. But really, the biggest thing is that I get to talk to different people from all different walks of life that I never would have gotten to meet otherwise, and I get to know them well. Because I’m very confident in what I do, I know that during every single lesson the student will have at least one or two or three AHA moments, and that’s amazing! When your students feel like they are improving, when they feel a little more graceful, I don’t know, a little sexier, or for a guy if he feels just a little smoother or cooler, it’s a great thing. Working with couples, you start seeing them have fun and having flirty moments together, that’s awesome, that’s a good day for me. So really, that’s pretty much every day for me, when I teach. I live a pretty good life.
When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way.Wayne Dyer—American Phycologist, Motivational Speaker
OH: What do you think are some of the lessons you learned along the way, lessons for someone going in business for themselves?
KH: I think the most important thing is to deal with each client as a human being not just a customer. Get to know them, understand them enough to be able to give them what they want or need even if they are not saying it or don’t know what they want. It’s getting to know a person. I do some carpentry work on the side, little things but I have to ask the customer what they really want, ask follow-up questions to get specifics. If they say “I want a closet,” I ask “how many shelves, and how will you use it?” to really understand more of what they really want. So asking and listening are important to getting good results.
The other thing, which may apply more to the dance industry than others, is that your customer needs to feel different, transformed when they walk out. When I was a just getting started teaching, I was told me to always be light-hearted and make the customers laugh, just take them through the basics. But that just seemed forced and maybe even a little insulting to the customer. For me, I don’t care if they don’t learn a whole dance right away but the one thing that I make sure that they feel and understand is how to lead and follow. If they get that, if they feel that, that’s a game changer. That’s enough for them to want to come back because it’s a Whoa moment and it’s really cool.
Any job after a while can be tiring—and I have reached that point before, but look at it very differently now. I look at every lesson as something brand new and fresh. It’s a new person, a new personality, different needs; it keeps things interesting. As long as you’re interested, it’s an interesting job. If you’re no longer interested or passionate about what you do, it will not work out.
Different students have different abilities, so it’s exciting when some of the slower learners catch on and you see progress. I love to see my students excited about coming back again and again. When I was younger, I might have not had the patience but now I really appreciate everyone and I get joy from seeing their joy.
I am excited about the opportunities to get even more people involved in ballroom dancing and about the opportunity to have a fresh approach to what I can offer.
Dance is for everybody. I believe that dance came from the people and it should always be delivered back to the people.Alvin Ailey—Dancer, Director, Choreographer, Founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
If you are in the Knoxville area and want the joy of dancing in your life, give Kris a call at (865) 405-7661.
Listen to this interview as a podcast.