I’d like you all to meet Samantha Stout! She is a professional ballroom dancer and teacher based in Utah. She is the owner of Love.Live.Dance, LLC and host of the podcast Ballroom Chat.
She invited me to be a guest on her podcast a few weeks ago. The episode aired last week (you can also watch it on YouTube). I returned the favor and asked her to share her story here. Samantha has experienced both the pro-am student and teacher sides of competitive ballroom dance, which gives her a unique perspective on our art/sport.
Dance has been a pretty consistent part of Samantha’s life. She took ballet, jazz and tap through most of her youth. Ballroom dance was something Samantha had wanted to do, after growing up watching those classic Hollywood movies with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Her college had a ballroom dance team, but she didn’t sign up initially.
During an activities fair for incoming freshmen, she met a recruiter for the team and her interest and enthusiasm was met with a harsh “don’t bother signing up if you’re not planning on going pro.” Damn man, way to kill the dream! Luckily, that guy was laid off and Samantha got a second opportunity when a friend invited her to check out an “intro to ballroom” class.
Once she was introduced to ballroom dance, she was all in. She competed on the collegiate team until she graduated and then signed up for an internship program at a dance studio where she was able to compete as a pro-am student and learn how to teach ballroom at the same time (side note: her experience predates the current NDCA rules that specify pro-am dancers may not teach or perform).
Teacher Vs. Student Roles
After college, Samantha did bow to society’s expectations briefly by getting a “real” job with a steady paycheck and a retirement plan. The full-time day job helped her pay for her dance lessons while she taught part-time on the side.
I was so curious to hear about her parallel experiences of training and teaching. One thing that helped her mentally separate the two (as in, “today I’m the teacher in the room” vs “today I’m the student”) was the fact that she was training at a different studio than where she was teaching private lessons. In addition, the studio where she trained had her teaching group classes, in which she was introduced as a “student teacher.” This label helped set other students’ expectations at an appropriate level, and Samantha observed that it seemed to also make it easier for the other students to come to her with questions. She was more on their level, so they felt less intimidated and more comfortable being open with her about their struggles.
Samantha continued to juggle a day job, dance training, and dance teaching until her husband got a work opportunity in Utah. It was too good to pass up, so they moved from the East Coast to Salt Lake City, one of the ballroom dance meccas of the U.S. This move also triggered Samantha to finally decide to turn professional and teach dance full-time.
An interesting thing to note about Samantha’s dance journey is that she never trained or taught at any of the franchised studios. The internship that started her on her dance career path was at an independent studio and she taught at another independent studio in Salt Lake City before finally striking out entirely on her own.
Dealing with Imposter Syndrome
Every dancer, from newcomers to World Champions, has to face imposter syndrome at some point. I asked Samantha about her experience with it, especially in her beginning years when she was both student and teacher. She confessed that she still has to deal with it today.
Instead of letting it slow or stop her, Samantha uses that uncomfortable feeling as a driving force to never stop growing as a dancer and instructor. While she started out teaching primarily social dancers and wedding couples, with whom you don’t need to advance beyond the Bronze section of the syllabus, she now works with several competitive pro-am students. As they advance, she ensures that she is also advancing her own knowledge.
She’s learned that it’s ok to have humility. She views it as a positive thing to reach out to another coach for input and feedback on what she’s teaching her students. The last thing she wants to do is create some kind of barrier so that her students can’t outpace her. So while she continues her own training in order to support her students’ dance journeys for as long as possible, she also sees success in reaching a point when she has to tell her student that she’s taken them as far as she can and it’s time to move onto a different coach. Reaching that point means she’s done her job well.
Samantha’s magic formula for dealing with imposter syndrome is a special mix of “fake it til you make it” and “it’s ok to ask for help” with a generous splash of support from her hubby. You have to be confident in what you do know and humble enough to recognize what you still have to learn. Being in Utah, Samantha is surrounded by professional dancers with multiple national and world titles, so the resources are abundant if and when she finds herself dancing into unfamiliar territory.
Never Stop Learning
She admits that it is a mental battle for someone working to make a career of teaching dance who doesn’t have all of the fancy and shiny titles. It’s easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond. Again, she turns the potential negative into a positive by using it as motivation to work toward certifications that enhance and broaden her knowledge of ballroom dance and the movement behind it.
I love Samantha’s thirst for knowledge, but I had to wonder what keeps her going on those tough days when her experience and knowledge seem to pale in comparison to those around her.
Something else Samantha has learned is to have faith in the universe. Through her life, there have been multiple points when she has turned away from dance for one reason or another, but always another opportunity appeared to call her back. As long as those open doors keep presenting themselves, she feels that she would be a fool to not walk through them.
Being a teacher at heart, she also lives for the everyday small successes that her students experience. She loves witnessing those lightbulb moments when suddenly, everything clicks and her student “gets it.” To quote Samantha, it’s amazing!
The idea for the podcast Ballroom Chat came from a desire to pick the brains of other professionals in the industry. Samantha was curious to find out what common threads existed, if any. She also wanted to have a platform where you could have the conversations that weren’t normally spoken out loud.
You may be getting a sense of why Samantha and I loved chatting with each other.
The arrival of the pandemic and the subsequent shutdown provided the time and space to put this idea into action. It started off simply – Samantha called up fellow instructors whom she hadn’t seen in awhile on Zoom and they just chatted about their dance journeys. She was finding that she was really enjoying these conversations and so she started reaching out to more dancers.
A turning point came when she interviewed Tony Nunez. The conversation went deep into important issues like diversity and inclusion in the ballroom industry, and Samantha realized that this podcast wasn’t just about her shooting the breeze with other dancers. It was about giving other dancers a chance to be heard.
She sensed a larger responsibility to provide a space for other dancers to share their story and then ask the questions that would further the conversation in a meaningful way. It was both exciting and terrifying!
Of course, not everyone is comfortable diving deep. Even as an interviewee encouraging my interviewer to ask the tough questions, they still stick to the surface stuff. Which is ok! But I’m also grateful for people like Samantha who see the opportunity to learn and grow by exploring those deeper, and yes, sometimes scary, waters.
Ballroom Politics – Yep, we went there.
After talking on the podcast about the various “curtains” put in place throughout the ballroom industry in order to maintain the fantasy experience for students, and how my tattoo may or may not have shaken things up when it came to my competitive experience, I wanted to dive more into pro-am competitions and the effect of the perception (real or not) that something other than dance skill determines results. Thank you, Samantha, for going there with me.
Back in February, I wrote a post called Is it worth competing if the game is rigged? Normally, I avoid dance politics, gossip and the like as much as possible because they only serve as distractions. But, as I wrote, when these things start to affect my fellow dancers to the point that they question whether they want to continue competing, it’s worth addressing.
While we as students may be wondering why we didn’t place or why someone else placed higher than us, our instructors can find themselves stuck in a place where there is a perception that they need to “play the game” or their students may not get the placements they deserve.
Samantha and I both agreed that it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not – it’s the perception that can be the most damaging. Since I first started competing, I always thought it was a little weird that the people who are judging the competitions are also coaches and studio owners. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?, I thought.
The problem is no matter how much a judge may insist that they only judge based on the dancing they see on the floor on that day and not on who they’re coaching the next morning or which instructor brought them the most students the week before, the perception is there because they are coaching before and after the competition. They kind of have to! You can’t make a living on judging fees. That exchange of money automatically creates a perceived bias.
I asked Samantha if she’s seen this perception impact her students at all. Her newcomer/bronze students just getting into competition remain blissfully unaware. If they don’t place as well as they were hoping, they just believe that they need to work harder and try to do better next time.
I myself work to keep my mindset here as well. Whether unfair bias exists or not, I have to focus on what I can control, which means training hard and dancing my best. Ironically, even if I wanted to, my financial limitations prevent me from “playing the game.”
Samantha has observed that the gamesmanship comes into play more at the Silver level as students start to feel coachings or introductions to certain people are more important. Pressure from this perception that there is a game to play also weighs heavy on the instructors because of the idea that if a judge has no idea who you are, they’re not going to look at your student. I’ve personally also had someone comment to me that a certain teacher’s students never placed well at competitions because some of the more prominent judges didn’t like the teacher.
Samantha and I both sincerely hope that all of these perceptions are 100% false, but because they are so prevalent throughout the ballroom world, instructors have to decide if it’s worth the risk of their students not doing well, not because their dancing needs improvement, but because their instructor didn’t rub the right elbows.
During this conversation, I was struck by the weight of this burden that I didn’t fully realize my pro partner is carrying. As a teacher, Samantha feels a strong responsibility toward her students to do everything in her power to help them succeed. That includes growing her own knowledge as a dancer, but also making sure her name gets out there. Because if there is even a chance that it would impact her students, Samantha doesn’t want it to be a negative impact.
Get ready for an “awww” moment, guys, because I had to ask Samantha, as a genuine person who honestly loves dance and loves teaching, how does she cope with all of these vague perceptions of bias and backroom deals and tit for tat. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all of that and not coming out incredibly cynical.
Samantha said that it’s her students that keep her grounded.
With all of the many hats she wears as part of being a professional ballroom dance instructor, she is still able to find joy in being a dancer and excitement and challenge in being a teacher. As long as those two things remain at the center of everything else she does, she’s good.
Regarding the politics of bringing in judges to give coachings, Samantha made an excellent point – you’re still getting 45 minutes with some of the best and brightest in the industry! A different perspective is always valuable, even if it turns out to not be a good fit for you. So maybe we can just enjoy the access that we have to these voices of experience, and not worry about how our access will be perceived.
We spent a good chunk of our time together talking about the competitive side of ballroom. Samantha pointed out that there are so many other ways for ballroom dance to be a part of people’s lives. She has a number of students who are social dancers and like to use a private lesson as their date night. She also teaches wedding couples who are looking to create a personal, magical moment on the dance floor at their reception.
Samantha worries that our industry does a disservice to itself by catering so much to the competitive aspect. That sport side of ballroom can start to overshadow the art side. At its most basic, ballroom dance is two people communicating through physical touch and telling a story. That alone is so powerful and can be exactly what someone needs, without the added stress of competition.
Dance as an art is a playground and if you’re not open to playing, you’re missing part of the point.Samantha Stout
I think we can all agree that dance is a powerful metaphor for Life. Whether it’s learning how to better communicate through lead and follow or learning how to be more supportive by working on your frame, the analogies are endless. Samantha has shifted her teaching more into this realm, so she is not only teaching her students how to dance, she is able to use dance as a vehicle to provide for Life needs as well. She wants to encourage everyone to embrace the play.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out the podcast Ballroom Chat and show Samantha some love on her social media pages: