Interview with Rebecca Gentry, A Dancer of Many Talents

One of my favorite things about this blog continues to be the connections that I make with dancers and other creatives that would have never happened otherwise. Today’s interview is a result of one of those connections. Rebecca Gentry, professional ballroom dancer and owner of City Ballroom Dance Studio in Lancaster, PA, found The Girl with the Tree Tattoo on Instagram and reached out. We had a wonderful conversation a couple weeks ago and I’m happy to be able to share it with you today.

Please welcome to the blog, Rebecca Gentry!

Tap and Pointe

Rebecca has been dancing since she was about 5 years old. Her first style was tap, but like so many little girls, she really wanted to be a ballerina. She was dedicated to her dance journey and went as far as to major in dance in college. However, in her sophomore year, she up and quit.

I’m always interested to hear what makes a dancer quit dance. I’ve shared the stories of other dancers who left because of injury or because they discovered a new passion. Even though Rebecca claimed her reason would sound stupid or weird, I think it carries an important message to everyone who is pursuing a career in dance.

She said she got tired of going to dance class because she had to go.

Dance became work. Now, Rebecca wasn’t opposed to working hard to become a better dancer, but those feelings of obligation squashed the passion to the point that she started hating her days of classes and rehearsals. So she said goodbye.

Rebecca shared that she’s actually come back to ballet in recent years and is really enjoying the rediscovery of this part of her dance life. Just goes to show that the passion is never truly lost; it just gets buried under expectations and obligations that seemed important at the time.

Cha Cha and Waltz

Her ballroom journey began with her mother and stepfather. They had met at an Arthur Murray studio and married when Rebecca was a young teenager. They loved going dancing and brought Rebecca along for many social parties. Rebecca even had her 16th birthday party at the studio! If we knew then what we know now about ballroom, how many of us would have loved that?

When she decided to leave ballet, one of her roommates introduced her to the ballroom team at the university. Rebecca still loved to dance and she was already somewhat familiar with the ballroom dances, so she thought sure, why not! She ended up dancing with the team through the rest of her college career.

Going Pro

Rebecca’s professional dance career covers the entire spectrum of ballroom. After she graduated college, she taught at both Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire franchised studios and as an independent teacher. Her students range from social dancers to pro-am competitors. She’s also competed professionally in both American Rhythm and Smooth. She opened an independent dance studio with a former partner, and after that didn’t work out, Rebecca opened her own studio, City Ballroom, which has been welcoming dancers young and old for nearly 10 years!

I was curious what made Rebecca decide to become a ballroom dance teacher. It’s a very standard path for anyone who wants a career in ballroom dance, but there are many people who just fall into it because they needed a job and saw a “no experience required” advertisement. It’s after they start learning to dance and teach dance that they discover their passion for it.

Rebecca already had the dance experience and the passion. Fun fact: she was also a scientist (I think it’s so cool how many of us dancers also have a background in STEM!). Her college degree in the end was in mathematics and for a short period after graduation, she explored graduate school and a career path in epidemiology. Ultimately though, as much as she genuinely loved math, she decided that path wasn’t for her. She just couldn’t see herself working behind a desk for the rest of her life.

Upon her return home, she reached out to the Arthur Murray studio where she learned her first cha cha steps. Teaching wasn’t something she had done before or was particularly interested in, but she knew she loved dance and could share that with others.

Life has a funny way of guiding us down the paths we’re meant for, even when we’re positive we don’t want to go that way. Even though it wasn’t her original goal or desire, Rebecca found that she loved teaching. Rebecca also laughed as she recalled very clearly a time when she told her former partner that she never wanted to open her own studio. Obviously, she changed her mind about that as well!

Franchise vs. Independent

With her experience that covers practically every professional path you could take as a ballroom dance teacher in the U.S., I had to ask Rebecca if she would share her takeaways from working for a franchise, working independently, and ultimately working as a studio owner. Her past experiences, both positive and negative, have helped her build a successful business nearing its 10-year anniversary.

Rebecca remembered her struggles with the expectations of the franchises, especially when it came to sales. She never felt right pitching a large package of dance lessons to someone she had just met. She did hold onto some habits that she picked up around the franchises’ teaching methods that she found to be very effective for her and her students. So she’s carried those principles with her even as she’s adapted them to fit her personal teaching style.

Rebecca works on her own at City Ballroom, so her primary business is in private lessons. She enjoys teaching group classes as well, so she started to offer more of them in recent years. Until of course, Mr. Covid-19 came to town!

That darn Mr. Covid

Living and working through this pandemic is a testament to Rebecca’s ability to pivot and adapt quickly, and not give up when things get tough.

2020 started off great for City Ballroom. Rebecca’s calendar was full in January with new group classes, wedding couples, the usual private lessons as well as outside events. Then the virus shut everything down in her area toward the end of March.

Like the rest of the ballroom industry, Rebecca pivoted to the online world to continue teaching. While some teachers and studios have had a lot of success moving their classes online, it did not work well for Rebecca and her students. They just weren’t willing to go online for ballroom classes. She had mild success with other types of online dance classes, like ballet, tap and dance fitness. She also saw some success in offering video homework, in which she would record herself doing exercises that people could do at home on their own time. But overall, Rebecca said virtual has just not worked for her studio.

Learning to Teach in New Ways

Luckily, Rebecca was able to open again in June to resume in-person private lessons, but as of our interview, she was still under 50% of the pre-pandemic capacity.

Even though virtual hasn’t been a great option for her and her students, Rebecca said she has developed an appreciation for how the format has forced students and teachers to adapt. She is typically a very hands-on teacher. If something wasn’t working, she would just jump in and correct the student. However, even as she’s returned to some in-person teaching, she has mindfully limited the physical contact with her students. So it’s become a new challenge for her as a teacher to present information in a way that doesn’t require physical contact.

Being able to dance on your own is not only beneficial, it’s become necessary this year as physical distancing continues to be a standard method of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. For Rebecca, it’s also been an exciting opportunity to stretch and grow herself as she explores different ways of teaching her students. She admitted feeling like she had become “lazy” in her teaching style, and hearing her explain it, I think it’s something we all can experience in our careers.

You reach a point where you know what you’re doing and you’re great at what you do. Without realizing it, you can end up “stuck” there. You spend all of your time doing what you’re great at, which can leave little to no time for growth or expansion beyond that. As a dance teacher, Rebecca knew what worked for her students and never had a reason to change. Until 2020, that is.

Still More Dancing to Do

Rebecca has continued to offer new and different ways for people to dance safely through this pandemic like “Salsa in the Park”, an opportunity to learn some salsa moves outside in a local park, and a virtual dance fitness class specifically designed for people working from home to get up and move.

The Dance Collective

She has also been busy launching a new passion project called The Dance Collective, Lancaster’s first Ballroom and Latin competitive dance team for kids. A unique characteristic of this team is the kids will be dancing solo.

The idea had been germinating for awhile, but Rebecca credited the shutdown for pushing her to make it happen this year. The idea originated from two additional experiences in Rebecca’s life.

Did I mention that her dance career also includes teaching ballet, pointe and ballroom at a mainstream dance studio for 6-7 years? This woman has done it all! Unfortunately, teaching at that studio became a toxic experience for Rebecca after awhile, but her love for her dance kids kept her there longer.

More recently, Rebecca has also been a volunteer counselor at a camp for kids with skin disorders. She said being a counselor at the camp is incredibly challenging and stressful AND it’s also her favorite week of the year. The experience truly solidified how much she loves working with young people.

So a seedling sprouted in her brain about starting her own youth program. She wanted to be able to provide a safe and positive experience for young dancers. Her intention is to allow the kids on her team to explore movement, express themselves and have fun, while also giving them competitions to work toward as goals. Because we all know, and we too often forget, that there needs to be a balance between the work and the play in dance. When we do establish that balance, magic happens.

It was truly a pleasure getting to know Rebecca! I was impressed and inspired by how much she has done in her dance career and continues to do, even during a pandemic. Another great testimony to following your passion, wherever it may lead!

To check out what Rebecca and City Ballroom are up to today, please follow her at:

Facebook: City Ballroom and The Dance Collective
Instagram: @cityballroomlanc

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