Exploring SuperShag - Chris Johnston

Ballroom Chat: Episode #46April 07, 2021

Chris Johnston discusses his early dance career and how music and organizing parties became his passion in the industry. Chris and Samantha discuss the ups and downs of building a career in ballroom dance, the importance of recording and remembering our history, and where he sees the future of dancesport heading.

Chris Johnston is the co-owner and founder of SuperShag dance studios and SuperShag video production. He's also a world-class adjudicator and the co-organizer for both the Caribbean Dancesport Classic and DBDC in Boston. He's a host for several different video programs as part of Dance Beat magazine, including Approach the Bar, Cheeky Chat, and Comp Crawl.

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Episode Transcript

Our transcripts are automatically generated from our audio podcast with only small modifications for readability. Since the transcripts are automatically generated from our podcast conversation, they will contain errors.

Samantha: Welcome back to another episode of Ballroom Chat, the podcast dedicated to sharing the dance journey. I'm your host, Samantha with Love Live Dance. Today. I'm joined by Chris Johnston. He is the co-owner and founder of Super Shag dance studios and Super Shag video production. He's also a world-class adjudicator and the co-organizer for both the Caribbean Dancesport Classic and DBDC in Boston. He's a host for several different video programs as part of Dance Beat magazine, including Approach the Bar, Cheeky Chat, and Comp Crawl. So please enjoy my conversation with Chris Johnston. Well, thank you Chris so much for being a guest on today's episode.

Chris: My pleasure.

Samantha: And I guess for those that are, that are tuning in on YouTube, we'll say cheers as well. You are one of the few evening guests that I've had because of the time difference with the East coast and mountain time zone. So we can be a little bit more relaxed tonight, which is always fun.

Chris: Okay.

Samantha: I imagine that there are not many people that are listening to my podcast that don't already know who you are, but just in case how did you get into ballroom dancing and how did the start of your dance journey begin?

Chris: So I started dancing from when I was 10 in Northern Ireland and I, I as most 10 year olds in Norther Ireland, play soccer or football, but for our American audience, we will say soccer. I had absolutely no interest in dancing, but my younger brother and sister who are twins and are four years younger than I am. They, they started dancing and then they were sort of, they started with group classes.

Then they started doing private lessons. We lived 25 miles south of Belfast. So I was only 10 and I was sort of dragged along with them. So one of the guys I played football with at school, his sister started and he actually came to my front door one night and said, all right, she needs to dance with somebody, you're already there, dance with her. I wasn't really too happy about that. Anyhow, I started dancing. I was absolutely useless. My little brother who was six, always beat me. So I don't know why I stayed, but that was the start of the journey.

Samantha: So what did end up keeping you in then? What, what was that motivating factor to continue through with it?

Chris: Ah, there were a lot of girls.

Samantha: Fair enough.

Chris: Seemed good enough.

Samantha: That, that is an answer that we get a lot from the gentleman, which is, you know, at least it's truthful. If that, if that's the motivation to get people in the door and to keep them around. We'll take it, we'll take it. But obviously at some point then it changes from an amateur career and kind of competition and training to an actual career career. Professional pro am you go on to open your own studio and obviously the production company.

So what was kind of the journey that made you decide that this was a career path that you wanted to continue with?

Chris: Well, basically what happened, I didn't really, I was totally useless at it at the beginning. And then when I was 13, I switched partners. Basically never lost another competition in Ireland. So we won the junior championships three times. We were in the final of Blackpool junior. And then we won the amateur, the open amateur when we were 16 as well.

So there was a coach from England who had spoken to my parents a lady called Margaret Redmond. And she had said that when the time was right, she would like me to come over and train with her in Liverpool. I actually lived with her and her husband for 12 years. So anyhow, I'm now in Liverpool I'm living with Margaret and her husband. And I danced with a young girl called Nicola Cranshaw who was no better known as Nicki Nordin or Nicola Nordin. So we were in the Blackpool final, International final, UK final European finalists. We won the US Open did pretty well. So as amateurs and then we split up. Oh, actually the interesting thing about two weeks ago, there is somebody who's putting dance videos up on YouTube at the moment. Old ones, and he had reached 1989.

That was a last, that was the last year I danced with Nicki. So we're like third in the United Kingdom and then some German, some German Cup. So it was that was, that was fun to see, really nostalgic. But anyhow, I ended up going and dancing in Finland for a year and a half with a lady called Helena Ahti. Now, Helena is the Len Goodman of Dancing with the Stars in Finland. And in fact, she is a huge star in Finland. And always has been when we, when I first danced with her, every major newspaper, a magazine did an interview with us. Simply because she was just the most famous dancer, even though she wasn't the one that won everything, she was absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous person, gorgeous looking, and I danced with her for a year and a half, she then decided to marry her boyfriend and I'm stuck because I'm 28, I've left school when I was 17.

That's a whole other story. I really didn't know what it was going to do. So I got a chance to come and work for Fred Astaire's in Boston.

Samantha: Okay.

Chris: So that's how I got to, got to be over here.

Samantha: Gotcha. And I, I had listened to an interview that you did with Michael Johnson for the Online Ballroom Congress a couple of years ago. And you had mentioned at the time that you really appreciated that franchises like Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray had kind of created this pathway to make teaching ballroom dancing, competing in ballroom dance, a viable career. What about those systems or what about that idea for you was so impactful to kind of decide that this really is a decent way to make a living and longevity has a longevity to it that maybe other studios weren't creating an opportunity for.

Chris: Well so the first thing was in Europe, it's very different because it isn't really, it's much more like a, a mom and pop business. It's like a small corner, corner store. So there really is no business. You know, the customers don't really matter. It's all about the teacher customer service doesn't exist unless Margaret Redmond's involved, and then it's totally through the roof. But just coming here, I've been put in an environment where there was an actual business structure was like, wow, that's I'm being told that I had to call and confirm all my lessons the night before.

And I'm like, what do you mean? Why do I have to confirm them? They've booked them. So it was very nice to be told, well, you're just the same as having a massage or, you know, having a haircut, you are just a commodity. You're no big star. So that was a bit that's a bit of a knockdown. But yeah. The problem is, I'd say Fred Astaire said, Arthur Murrays, there still is not a career path for kids.

So it's, it's really tough when you look at how many really good young American kids, they get to 18, 19, and it's like, guess what? I'm going to be a doctor.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: And they get out of ballroom dancing. So

Samantha: yeah, that's, it's actually interesting that you bring that up because that was a point of conversation that we had with Christine Bar Noël. Kind of in a similar vein that, you know, the, the traditional career options for competitive dancers in the US, we kind of see as either you can teach until you drop, you can open up a studio, which comes with its own pros and cons, or you can be a coach and an adjudicator, but that can feel very limiting and restraining if, you are second in the world or third in the world, and you aren't competing at a point to get a national title to your name. So we kind of had the conversation of, well, you can make your own career path that is within the ballroom world, but different.

I see Super Shag is kind of exactly what you did is just created an opportunity for yourself and then built a business around it. So, so do you see that as a departure from kind of the traditional career? Or do you see that as it was completely part of part and parcel with being a ballroom dancer and it just happened to take on a life of its own?

Chris: Okay. So the first thing, once again, go back to Fred Astaire's. Even though I left the organization without that first little bit of structure, I would not have had a clue what I was doing. However, when I was dancing actually doing extremely well. I really was more interested in the parties and the music. So I had a real education about playing music and running parties at different competitions in Europe. So when I came over here, I actually discovered that it wasn't the dancing. It was the parties. So Super Shag actually started as a company that ran parties, that's what it's called. It's actually called Super Shag, Super Shag productions and dance studios because we hosted events.

And of course, then, you know, our students, they had this great social life. And I also saw that because of Fred Astaires. Like, you know, I obviously danced in Blackpool quite a lot. And to be honest, we used to laugh at the Americans coming over on these trips with their students. It's like, that's, that's a real fantasy world. And now I go back to Blackpool and I go, Oh no, no, no, no, no. This is the real world. You're actually the fantasy world. Because once again, you've got all these great kids in Europe, and, what's in their future? You know, if you look at it nowadays, had many ex world professional champions are now dancing pro-am.

Okay. So that is not a sad reflection on the art. That is a really sad reflection on the sport because the sport does not support the sports people.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: So.

Samantha: Do you think that that is a result of kind of splitting the idea of ballroom dancing into two camps where you have this competitive athletic sport nature, and then you have the business of ballroom dance and very rarely do we talk about the in between? Or do you think it's a marketing issue where, you know, we're, we're not encouraging former world champions to dip their toe into the pro am world because it's not seen as competing on the same level as when they were competing for their, for their titles?

Chris: You don't have to increase it anymore. They're doing it because, I'm sorry, but the thing that drives ballroom dancing are the pro-ams, I don't honestly they don't give a about who the world champion is. It's like, they, you know, obviously they'll be very nice to you if you're the word champion, but nobody knows who these world champions are.

Samantha: Yeah,

Chris: it, its and there just is no interest. Dancing with the stars.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: I don't know what to say. It's like really bad pro-am, ah, really bad pro-am. But that's the only thing that people are interested in.

Samantha: Well, and it's flashy.

Chris: They're not interest in who the world

Samantha: Yeah. It's, it's that reality TV, right? You w you want to see the fancy dresses. You want to see the flashy moves and lifts and tricks, and you want to hear about the drama behind the scenes. It's not thinking about years and years of doing the Rumba basic in front of a coach that you know, is berating you the entire time. That's not the experience that Pro-Am dancers wants to think about or experience for themselves. They want, we want that kind of Cinderella Prince charming veneer on everything.

Chris: Hmm. Well, that's not real life, but there you go.

Samantha: Yeah. Well, so, so talk to me a little bit about your, your mindset or your experience of kind of setting of selling this idea of ballroom as a fantasy or ballroom as a party atmosphere to Pro-Am students. What hurdles did you run into? What successes did you find? What was kind of your experience through that process of selling ballroom as a business.

Chris: Well, there's a whole lot of different aspects. You really, the one thing that maybe ended some studios is that they do sell it as a business to their pro-am students. And they don't what they don't want to know its a, you know, a business.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: They want to think it just, it just just happens. Like, just like I got a real shock the first time I went to a chiropractors and I thought this was this really holistic experience, but all they did was try to sell me 10 sessions. I'm like, ah, uninterested, you know? So there's different ways. It's what we, the, the hard thing is selling it to the real world. Once the students are there, it's like, obviously you create a social life for them. And if it's real as well. So what's Super Shag was, it took the best parts of Fred Astaire's, but then added, a real life element to it. Because we started to run parties in bars and clubs. So it wasn't just the studio party because Fred Astaire's, and Arthur Murrays do an unbelievable job of creating this very safe atmosphere where you could go out and dance, but you know, that's not real life. So when we started throwing the parties in real venues, not in our studio that give, you know, it, wasn't just going to the studio for the night, even though our, both of our Super Shag studios look like nightclubs. So we're lucky that we're in areas where there are a lot of restaurants and bars, so people actually can come or they could go to a restaurant or go to a bar, come to the studio, then go back to a bar again afterwards.

You know? So it's would say it's just a life, a lifestyle thing and if you, if you think about it, being in the dance world, you just think that everybody parties, sorry, nowadays, the kids don't party at all. Hey, don't do anything apart from dance. But when I was growing up the party, it was pretty you know, pretty major thing to do. And then to come here and just, you know, the type of people that you mix with are very serious, but they want to have fun, but maybe they don't necessarily know how to do it without getting arrested so they can come the Super Shag and they will get arrested.

Samantha: There you go. Yeah. Well,

Chris: selling it, as I say, selling it to, like going to a restaurant or a bar, and telling them that, well, we're going to run a ballroom night, ballroom dancing night. They look at you as if you're stupid. Dancing with the Stars has helped because now it's a little bit more in everybody's awareness, but in the old days it was like, cause like everything else, well, what numbers can you bring us? How many people can you bring us?

So that was a bit difficult. But then when they saw the set up that we brought in, it was just like any other DJ coming in, only we went a little bit more because we brought, you know, lights, screens, and this was like, back in the nineties when people weren't doing that thing, you know, we'd play videos on windows on walls, whatever any. So it was great. It was just like, it's just like having a big party all the time.

Samantha: And I think that's so important too, to make it connect to people's lived experience. Right. It, I feel like there's this misconception, that ballroom is very, and it can be very prim and proper and very old school and very classic, but.

That's not the music that we're currently listening to on the radio. So I feel like bringing in a generation of couples and social dance students, we have to kind of bridge the gap to say, okay, no, if you go out to your local country Western bar and you hear Thomas Rhett on, well, congratulations, you're doing a nightclub two-step or an international Rumba.

Here are the basics, here let's go. Or if you know Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran are on the radio, well, maybe it's a salsa this time. So let's, let's teach you a basic salsa. I think it's very unique, like you said, that you partnered with restaurants and bars and that you kind of have this nightclub atmosphere to make it feel like the type of venue that people are going to go out and actually dance with their partner for fun. It makes it really connect to their actual lived experience in their life.

Chris: Yeah. So the other thing was that I, I always had a huge interest of music. So like, so I've got a nice story about Bulgaria. That's the Bulgaria, I think it was 19, Oh, 1989, beginning of 89, maybe or '88 at that point, I was doing Latin and ballroom, but I always hated ballroom dancing, cause it was like you know, to think I had to put on tail suits and yet I wore tuxedos all the time, not this year, but last year, sorry, 2019.

I was never out of tuxedo, but anyhow, on the way, flying out to Bulgaria, Michael Jackson just brought out the Bad album.

Samantha: Okay.

Chris: And it was huge in Britain. I could remember watching MTV for the, they did the Bad video. They brought that out the night before you could get hold of this stuff. So I was in Heathrow, Airport, rushed in, got the cass, the cassette, you know, cause I had my little Sony walkman, at that time, and everything.

So I get to Bulgaria. and, we danced the Latin and we won the Latin. That's that's cool. Then we're supposed to dance ballroom the next night. So I went to the organizer. I said, you know, can I just do a show? And he goes, no, you're dancing the comp. I said, but I really think you should let me do a show. And he said, look, this is all being televised.

I said, Oh then you definitely want me to do a show. So he went and got the PR the, the producer or he took me to the producer. So I, he had the old cassette players and everything. So I just said, okay, boom. I said, can you play this? They start, they play Bad. Then they played, I think I Can't Stop Loving You or something. I said, okay. How about I let, I let you borrow my cassette tomorrow night and I'll do two, two dances instead of dancing the comp, we'll do a show. And this producer nearly cut my arm off because Jackson had actually done a concert in West Berlin, and that sort of was one of the things that started the wall coming down. So the kids were actually trying to get Michael Jackson music.

And they couldn't, obviously at that time they couldn't get it. So it was about 18,000 people at this event and we did the show and it was just like, as soon as the first thing for Bad came up, it's just like the audience just erupted. I could have left at that point. I didn't have to dance or anything, but I did my two dances. So there was a guy called Kym Rygal and Kym was the world amateur standard champion. And he was in the final of the pro, but obviously this is 1988 or 87. So most people would have no idea who Kym Rygal was, which tells us a little bit about the state of our sport. So I said that either he was a good friend of mine. I said, okay, we're going to do a double show tomorrow night, and, we worked out where he could dance Foxtrot while I danced Rumba and he could dance Tango while I danced Cha-Cha.

So we had to have a police escort out of that hall. Cause the place just went crazy. It was like, wow. So this is the power of music. So this is leading on to coming over here because, when I started working in Fred Astaire's one of the things I didn't quite agree with was that they had a cassette that played, and it played 20 songs all day, every day.

And maybe at the party, they changed it. So I wasn't wasn't too happy about that. So I changed the whole music thing. And when we went to these restaurants and bars, we only danced to popular music. Blackpool was not allowed.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: So there was, there was no Hugo Strasser or any of the, whatever they were dancing to at that, at that time, it was all popular music. So that's what made it a bit easier as well, because people would actually come just to listen to the music as well.

Samantha: Yeah. And if you get people sitting at the bar that are listening to the music and enjoying it and they see a couple that's dancing, and go, Oh, that looks like fun. Well, there you have a great opportunity to make a new customer out of it, out of the whole experience.

Chris: Well, I D, I just had a rather interesting experience very recently because the old Ritz hotel in Boston back in the day, back in the nineties, they had this fantastic I don't know what you would call it, this glass structure of the roof. And they had music, they had jazz, and a little dance floor. And the restaurant was not the main Ritz restaurant, but you would still, people would get dressed up and it was, it was, it was a destination because even if you couldn't dance, there were people who went that could dance. So anyhow, the Ritz became the Taj. I never was in the Taj, and now it is being reopened. They've spent $140 million renovating it uh

And I got, I was able to go and see the new Ritz. So of course I want to see what's up on the roof because, they put a nice marble floor in. I spoke to her, I said, did you ever think that maybe one of the draws that would get people here is the fact that they can sit all around here, and there are people who will be up doing something so you could drink and you could be entertained. If they're good, you're entertained. If they're really awful, you're entertained.

So it doesn't really matter. So I said, you missed a hell of an opportunity there. And just everything that they're done, it's beautiful, but there is nothing, not one of their rooms is set up that you really could put a nice dance floor in and do something

Samantha: Well, that's baffling too, because you would think that at least somewhere they would be thinking about renting it out to weddings or events or creating an opportunity for a rental market in some way, shape or form. And you would want a dance floor or at least the ability to put a dance floor down in those scenarios.

Chris: I, They will get dance floors in, but it's like they haven't, they didn't consult any party planners. Let's put it that way because they could have done a lot more. That would have been very, you know, easy.

They, yeah, I just, I looked up, it was like, yeah, I won't be coming back here. Nice hotel though.

Samantha: Right. Thinking about kind of this idea of dancing to Bad and the interplay between music and the dance. It leads me to also think about the constant struggle between moving the sport or word while also recognizing, acknowledging and respecting the history you mentioned.

There is a dancer who to your point, name has already escaped my brain who is not in our collective consciousness at this point. So, where do you kind of find the balance point between wanting to keep with modern music, wanting to progress the dance forward as we, as a society move forward, but also still acknowledge and respect the history and kind of where we came from.

Chris: Did I pay you to ask me that question?

Samantha: Not yet.

Chris: When we were just chatting a little bit earlier, I told you about our event in Boston.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: So it's, it's an interesting event because it was actually started by a couple who I taught for their wedding. Who were, who were in basically the guys has a production company, and his wife at the time she was in party planning or a little bit more than that, but party planning, conventions, that sort of thing. So they came, approached me and said, why don't we do this comp? Cause it, one day was when the one day comps started. Said, well, we don't do anything about it, but we can run events. So it would be perfect to marry it with you.

I said, that's great. So one of the things that they said was like, okay, how do we find out anything about the history of dancing? And I'm like with great difficulty.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: Okay. So one of the things that Super Shag also so did apart from running the parties is that we started taking at the very beginning taking line-up photographs because you couldn't find out what happened at a competition until Dance Beat came out at the end of the month. And I'm like, so even as a kid, I had a subscription to Dance News, which is the British version of Dance Beat, and, once a month, it would come, you would find out what had happened at the different comps. So I think we were the first people to start putting results online, but we did it with a photograph so that people could actually see who they were.

And then from there we moved into videos. So like, when we, when Super Shag go to a comp, and we're running the party for them. We're also videoing every major finalist, now when I say major finalists, that'll be the top amateurs, it'll be the professionals, and, every Pro-Am scholarship.

Because the pro-ams don't get an awful lot of recommendation, but they will see a 25 second video. If they're in a final for scholarship, they will see the video. So these guys who approached me said like, you're actually doing something about the history. I'm like, yeah. I said, but that's just because I want to know, I, that was purely selfish.

I want to know what the results were. So they said, okay, are there lifetime achievement awards? And I said, yeah, there are. I said, what happens is at the middle of the comp, it stopped for 10 minutes. There may be a five minute video and somebody walks out, we give it a trophy. They walk off. And the people who matter, the pro-ams, have no idea what that is.

Samantha: Nope.

Chris: So they said, all right, our lifetime achievement award is going to be a dinner. So Frank, he as I say he has his own production company. He works up for some very big clients like CVS, Hancock. So he knows what he's doing. So he will fly to different competitions. Once we pick the person we're going to honor, we do actually ask them who, give us 10 people that, that we should talk to about you. So they get the choice, you know, just make sure that they haven't fallen out with anybody. So, you know, dancing is dancing. So Frank goes here, produced, he interviews them and then puts together this like 15 to 25 minute video which goes back and tells you about this person's life. And he said that was very, very important because without history we can't move forward

Because you don't know where you've come from. There's, you know, like once again, if you look at soccer, soccer is especially soccer from Britain because they, they have got it so, well all the time they're showing old, old games at, Oh, they're talking to old players just to keep, you know, and some of these old players now, who didn't make that much money when they were playing and like the sixties, early seventies, they're now on the TV all the time, you know so it uh, we need, we need history. So,

Samantha: yeah. Well, and, and to your point, I, I liked the fact that you mentioned, you know, you can't move forward unless you know, where you've come from. I feel like we run the risk of trying to reinvent the wheel without understanding why it failed or succeeded in the past.

You know, we, we constantly try to do the same thing over and over and over again, expecting a different result, but not understanding why we're getting the same one. Do you, do you see an area of our industry where it would, it would have been nice 10, 15, 20 years ago to start recording either the process or the winners or something about customer management or the pro-am experience that we've now lost out on the potential ability to move forward because we don't have that, that past history.

Chris: I, well, I could talk about all of those things that you just mentioned, but necessarily not necessarily to do with history, but I just think it's really bad for the kids that come through. Like, okay, I am a soccer fanatic, so I can talk about who was playing for Chelsea in 1974. Okay. There's just this thing. And you know, the kids don't even know who the World Champion was two years ago.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: And they don't care. That's the other thing it's like, they don't seem to care. And the pro-ams, care about themselves. So it doesn't matter. It's just, you know.

Samantha: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's interesting. I don't know it it's to your point, the youth competitors or amateur competitors don't necessarily know the names of the top professionals from two years or three years or four years ago. But they're all watching their YouTube videos, copying their routines. So they know what it, what the winner looked like, but they don't necessarily know the name or the history associated with that person.

Chris: Yeah. Like, but once again, it's, you know, you should be able to go back 30 years. Okay. Like, look at golf, look at golf. Like we're still talking about Arnold Palmer. Yeah. It's you know, Ben Hogan, you know, it's like, it's, we just do not have that grasp to take it to a bigger audience. And then obviously the way the comps are set up. They're not set up in a viewer friendly way.

Samantha: Right.

Chris: But that's a whole other story that is a whole other story,

Samantha: but, but it's an important one to talk about or at least briefly touch on. You're right. I think if you look at something like football, or if you look at something like golf or baseball it's easy to track the history because you only have so many events throughout the course of the year, and we know which ones are the professional level events and which one are the minor leagues.

And then which one are the local sports team. So it's a little bit easier to become a fan of the sport and follow the sport in the progress. I feel like ballroom dance, we're running into a potential cascade point where we have five events in the U S on any given weekend, plus the UK events, plus the European events, plus the Japanese events there, you know, constantly going on. So it's harder to track who's at what event, which ones matter, which one, or which ones are for fun and, and who is moving up or down the leaderboard as a result.

Chris: Well, it's really easy. You either look at Dance Beat or go to the Super Shag site and you see which events really matter. And by the way, I should have said, obviously, our other partner in our comp in Boston is Diddio Barrera you know, co-owner of Dance Beat.

So he, once again, like this was sort of a marriage made in heaven because he was like, yeah, we need history. You know, so like even Dance Beat now is not doing as much as they probably nobody could do anything last year, but it's not doing as much as they used to be. But Dance Beat was the only other place that you could really, you know find out.

But then once again, if you look at Super Shag and you look at Dance Beat, we could only do what we were doing because we were also doing other stuff when we went to events. So how many, there are some well-intended amateurs who can write really well and do it. But you know, at the end of the day, if you, if, if you cannot make money doing something then you're not gonna, it's not going to happen.

So organizers don't want to pay, to have a reporter there talking about the their event. So it's, it's, it's a huge, huge problem how we move past that. And you just mentioned, you know, like all the events everywhere, all over the place. Well, I tell you what, if there's five competitions in the US in Europe there'll be about 10,000 football games. So it's and people will know because of the history and it means something to them. So

I need another drink.

Samantha: Hey, it's me again, jumping into the midpoint of today's episode to remind you about Ballroom Box. I've mentioned in past episodes that we partner with Ballroom Box to help support the podcast and their spring box was just recently sent out. It's absolutely fantastic, one of my favorites thus far. If you've not already picked up a subscription, please use the code BallroomChat at checkout to save at 10% on your first box. And part of those proceeds, like I said, go towards supporting the podcast. You can find out more using the link in the description box below.

I have a question, but I'm trying to figure out the best way to pose it or to, to ask it, which is, and I feel like it's come up in the past where the line between sport, performance art, passion and hobby is within the dance industry. Because you have the history of sport, you have the stylings and progress of performing arts, and then you have at least in the US and the growth of Pro-Am globally, this kind of passive hobby, where people come in and they enjoy it, but then they go on to other things, or it becomes more of a creative pursuit, which pushes them in the art. It creates an athletic opportunity, it pushes them into the sport. So how do you kind of see them, the melding and blending of those three areas?

Chris: So within the, within our little circle, obviously some people say it's an art. Some people say it's a sport. The problem is the general public don't consider it an art and the general public don't consider it a sport.

The other example, DBDC 2019. So we had Ricardo and Yulia dancing the competition, not doing a show actually dancing the comp. And Nino and Andrew. Okay. So you've got two out of the top six of the world there. I think it was $55 to get it. Now people would bitch and moan at by $55 to get in. The same people would spend $145 or $150 to go and see Boston ballet. I don't know anything about ballet, but I do think Boston ballet is the Ricardo or the Nina and Andrew of what they do. But they don't, they, they don't, they don't complain about that. So as I say, we can't sell, so we can't sell ourselves as an art. Okay. Because it's just not the interest to go and watch it. Oh, it's like, it's not there.

Now we get onto the sport. So I think now it is a sport because everything has been so could you use the word regulated? That's maybe not quite the right thing that if we run a competition, we have to have a certain size of floor. We have to dance to certain types of music. Okay. This bump, bump, bump. So basically they're setting down rules for everything to the point where it's like. I look at all these kids and they're unbelievable. Like they could do things that I would hurt myself dreaming about. It's you know.

But they're all the same. There's very few of them that are different and that's because they have to have they're florr that's 40 by 60. They have to have their Quickstep or whatever. That's whatever many beats. So there's no individuality. It's just like so I do think, I think it has become a sport, but once again, the general public don't look at this as a sport. Like even, so if you look break down and say, is it the next Olympics?

Samantha: Right.

Chris: Well, WDSF. you know, the Amateur Dancesport Federation. Okay. Look where they put all their money, break-dancing and then but, when you look at what those kids can do. If gymnastics can be an Olympic sport, that's an Olympic sport on steroids, you know, so but it got knocked back and there was a lot of ballroom dancers who were knocking it, and I'm like, come on, just accept it.

You're never going to have ballroom dancing in the Olympics, but let's, let's give break-dancing a round of applause.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: And I think the next one that may go into the Olympics is Salsa dancing because there's an audience for it.

Samantha: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I guess the argument could be made that ballroom dancing is in the Olympics, but it's on ice with couples figure skating or ice dancing. Since there's, there's kind of a meshing between what, what we do on the ballroom floor and what they do at ice. But yeah, to your point I would say either let's bring back the Lindy community or let's really get behind the salsa community, because those are gonna be the two that I think make it as a, as an Olympic event before the Foxtrot does. And I love the Foxtrot, but it's not, it's not perceived as a sport or an athletic endeavor in the same way that something like breakdancing is or something like ice skating or figure skating is.

Chris: So now, now I want to, I want to two comment. The first one about the Lindy community, and then the other one about bringing ballroom dancing into the Olympics. So we basically got our big break running. Parties or clubs because of the Lindy explosion in the nineties. Okay. We just happened to be, I was out on a Saturday night with some of our teachers at a jazz club. We didn't like the band downstairs and they had recorded music upstairs at a really cool bar.

So we went up there and there was a dance floor and we started dancing. and, the, they were playing old sort of Lindy music anyhow. They asked us to come, and would we be interested in doing one Sunday night a month? So we ran our first one. So they asked us to come back and do it every Saturday night.

So that was right at the beginning of the Lindy, we asked, they asked us to run a swing night. So we, we ran it. The problem was that explosion had nothing to do with dancing. That was a rebellion of kids about how they could dress,

Now, there is a Lindy community, but it's, it's not accepted either, but for about three months, three or four months, Lindy in Boston, because all of these kids who were schlepping around in their jeans and t-shirts, come Friday and Saturday night, they put their suits on, they got dressed up, they could wear hats, but none of them could dance.

None of these kids could dance. So you went to, there was a huge club called the Roxy in Boston, and we had a little Friday night event. and, we actually did, there's a school called Emerson, Emerson college. I think they do a lot of communications and stuff. So there was a whole group from Emerson who came to our Lindy night. Well, once again, they came because they could dress up and it was sort of rebelling against everything. Just like, if you look at the bands, all those Lindy bands at the beginning or ska or punk bands. So they were always rebelling against everything. Okay. But then you went to the Roxy and it was packed and you had not the really cool people out there dancing. The really good people were all standingin their suits.

So it died, it died. So that was my first thing about the Lindy community. And I actually did, it was funny because I actually started dancing Lindy, and was second in some really big competition in New York that was televised all over the place. And, Linda Wakefield said that we should have won, but the US Champion was there. So. And the TV program was following him around. So he had to win.

Samantha: That's

Chris: all good.

Samantha: Yeah. That's a discussion for a different day.

Chris: Oh, that's totally a discussion for a different day. There is one style that could break through, Smooth.

Because when you actually listen to the music, that they're dancing to that covers everything. And, you know, like once again, the outfits are a little bit bizarre, but if you had a series on TV where they actually wore outfits that suited the music that they were dancing to, I think that could be really interesting and you look that is, that does seem to be the growth area. It's all about the music. It's like, absolutely fantastic. But there, you know, you've got to, I think they need to change the name of Viennese Waltz, because there is nothing Viennese about it anymore. And It's just, it is brilliant.

Samantha: Yeah. I, I'm a Smoothie at heart. I adore the direction that Smooth is going. It's funny that you, you kind of call out the fact that it's not Viennese, it losing its tie to what we think of as Viennese Waltz from a standard perspective. And I have to agree. I thoroughly enjoy dancing, Viennese waltz as a smooth dancer. I hate watching it occasionally because it feels chaotic when you have eight couples that are on the floor, all moving incredibly quickly in completely broken hold. They're emoting and expressing, and they're doing tricks and turns and it's like, what's going on?

But it's gorgeous to dance.

Chris: Well, actually blood and gore is good for TV. So if they are doing the Viennese Waltz, you know, and there's a bit of you know, argy, bargy, as we would say I think that would, could be good for viewers.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: I would encourage that.

Samantha: So if smooth is moving in a direction that we think can move with the times, that can gather interest from the public, that can kind of capture an interest in a potentially new market or in a larger market for the ballroom dance community. What can something like Latin or rhythm do to update with the times? Cause I feel like standard, standard's place is really to kind of keep that tradition to keep that history to kind of keep a nod to the past so we know where we came from. But rhythm and Latin, I feel like are kind of still trying to figure out exactly what they are ultimately going to be.

Chris: Hmm.

Samantha: You disagree with that? And I want to hear why you disagree with that.

Chris: Oh, no, I. Look for a while. I was like, I was looking at international latin, and there is no way I would invite my friends to see it international latin dance competition. It is so bizarre. I'm like, okay, what does this got to do with Latin dancing? Now, obviously you go back and you look at Walter Laird, the world professional Latin Champion in 1969. That had nothing to do with Latin dancing either.

It's just now, everybody could, you know, jump up twirl around three times, go down into the splits while the girl stands there at applauds. So

Samantha: yeah,

Chris: but I, I just do find it a little bit bizarre. Rhythm dancing, I'm not, I'm not, I'm just not sure. I love Rhythm dancing because it's I think you could get a lot of technique into it, but that if you don't try to do it at the competition, you can still go out and dance, but the Latins dancing it's like, okay, what's, what's the purpose of this? And once again, I'm talking about these kids who are absolutely brilliant, but it's like if you're sitting at a bar in South Boston and a Latin dance competition comes on, it's like, okay, then what's the other channel?

Samantha: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and, and again, if we look at kind of the sustainable business model, at least in the US and you're dealing with Pro-Am students that are interested in competing, I'm not saying that you can't get the same hip action from a Samba in a 70 year old that you can in a, in a 15 year old, but it, it looks dramatically different. So from a Pro-Am experience, too I feel like there's an argument to say that what we're doing in Latin, as far as the athleticism of it, doesn't necessarily translate well to the social dance experience or to the older Pro-Am competitor experience.

Chris: Nope. As I say these guys are atheletes

Samantha: yeah.

Chris: But the other thing is the, when you look at the rhythm division, all right. So once again, having gotten myself involved with every community in Boston. At one point Salsa becamse, you know, almost mainstream, and they started running the Boston professional salsa championships. Well, every year a ballroom couple would win it because, when it comes to competitions, they know how to look better.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: So yet, if you go, you go into a club and you see a ballroom couple and you'd like, can we get the bouncers to get those two idiots out of here right now? But at a competition, it's just, it does look better. So like rhythm is. Like, is it supposed to be that athletic?

Samantha: Well, I think that goes back to the idea of, you know, what is, what is reality and what is fantasy. You know, is, is the lived experiences, the reality of the industry that we should be striving to find a formula that works at the bar and at the nightclub, or are we wanting to push this competitive aspect? Because at a certain point, those two paths diverge, and it becomes less and less connected how you got from competition to social or from social to competitive.

Chris: So once again you go, well, what, which direction do you want it to go? Like the first thing that has to happen is that dancing has to be run by business people. If, it's again, let's go back to soccer in England. Okay. The guy that runs the premier league makes seven and a half million dollars a year. Most of the people who run dancing do it as a

Samantha: passion project,

Chris: side job, a hobby. Yeah. And you know, once again, let's be a little bit controversial, in America, you know, Brian McDonald has his critics. I have a, Brian McDonald gets things done. You may not agree with him, but if he says something's going to happen, something happens. And this guy isn't pulling in $5 million a year. You know so, it's a, we need to, things will just got to keep going on the way they're going. Unless money talks. Okay. So we have to find a way to, to take it mainstream that everybody can make money out of this. And that includes the dancers because you know. When the golfers do pro-am, they're doing it for charity.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: So somebody will pay a million dollars to play with Tiger Woods and Tiger goes, give me that, ah, no, you're not get that check Tiger here. That's going to some charity. Here, world champions, are doing it because they have to cause it just, as I say this, the sport does not support them. So that's a hell of a, you know, I think we could talk here until 2022 about that last question you basically asked. There's no, there's no answer to it.

Samantha: Yeah. Yeah. It's a conversation a, the constant struggle in my household about where the passion and love of the activity ends and where the ability to make this a financially viable career path begins. And how do you balance the two? How do you find the way to navigate between the two? Can the two interact in a positive way and what is the pathway to create for not only myself, but for the people behind me? That's why I really wanted to talk to you about, you know, what your perspective on that is and how you kind of see yourself within the industry with Super Shag. Because I think it's a, it's a tough line to walk as like, I care about the dance and, and the enjoyment of the passion of movement, but I also have bills to pay.

And how do we find those two interacting with each other? And do you have to sacrifice part of the art, the competitive, the athleticism in order to make it a viable business option?

Chris: No, you just have to sacrifice your own life. So Super Shag is a bit it's, it's an interesting experiment because okay, 2019, we had six teachers, who made six figures. That's not bad working for a studio.

Samantha: How many hours were they teaching and how many students did they have going to competitions?

Chris: Well, we have a lot. So at that point we had about a 130 competitive students, but then, how can I put this? We charge the same for a competition entry as it is for a lesson. So that's what the studio was based on that if you can afford to have a lesson then you could afford to come and dance a competition. So you hear these horror things like, Hey, look, I had some really, really fantastic pro-am students. So I must admit there were sometimes, you know, one year at Ohio, I had three pro-am open winners, Which is pretty good. and, You know, there was some guy who just wanded onto the floor and I'm going ok, he's made four or five times more than I have with one student. And they've not won,

So I feel that at Super Shag, the teachers do a lot, but because of our price set up, they could end up going with 10 students. Like, you know, even if you look at this virtual stuff, so we've done the last three comps we've done we've been the top studio. It's like, we're not ripping anybody off so they can do two, two competitions for the price of a lesson. Or to competition entries for the price of the lesson. So it's so it's tough. And obviously, a lot of our teachers have been with us for a long, long time. And there is, you know, there is a point where they have to go and do something else.

Sometimes they do it right the way they leave us. Sometimes they do it wrong, but that's, you know, that's just the way, the way it is, but the teachers are expected to do everything. And it was like, I was said about Keith and Diddio with Dance Beat they had, they couldn't afford to have Dance Beat if they hadn't the been DJ'ing the competition as well.

Samantha: Right.

Chris: So when we go to a comp, okay. Then the teachers are asked to video, they're asked to take photographs. We don't ask them to help run the parties because that's Tibor and I do that. But we do expect them to do it and they can. Like the big problem is I am not that optimistic about pro-am getting bigger, because what I've seen in sort of Europe is that it is aimed at the very top end of the market.

So I don't see that many people who are teachers, you're a coming and dancing with three or four students let alone one student. And obviously they are getting, make it a very good livelihood. But the problem is those students now expect to win. And, not everybody can win. So it's a very short-sighted thing.

We're not going to talk about politics here, but I always call it the people socialist Republic of Super Shag. Because really, it doesn't matter what we have maybe billionaires and we have people who are secretaries. Not that being a secretary is a bad job, but it's like, there's a huge difference. And yet they can all go dance a competition. But that doesn't happen. That's that's, that's not the way that it's, that it works.

Samantha: Do you, so with all of that said, before we wrap up for today, do you see a viable future for Pro-Am from a competitive end of the world? Or do you think that it's going to have its hay-day and then as a, as prices increase, as travel becomes more tricky, as there are more events, so priorities become a little bit more split, that Pro-Am, as a competitive experience is going to start to slow down and focusing more on in studio events or in studio culture will become more of a priority for instructors and dancers?

Chris: Well once again, that's like a double ended question. It's gotta be interesting to see what happens. You know, what comps competitions actually do. I actually think there's gotta be a boom In competitions once they get going again, because there are a lot of people who have not been affected by COVID

Sure dance teachers have, but a lot of our students have not, are, those would be the students who would be go to comps anyway. So I think in the short term, we could see a real, because like, you know, you've been cooped up for a year, so, and you haven't been spending any money, so why not go to a competition? It's like the unfortunate thing is, is the teachers take advantage of that, which would be understandable.

They start putting up their prices. So everything goes, as I say about how inclusive, can you make it? You know, so as long as you can, you know, take somebody to a competition, and they do 5 entries. It's like one of the reasons why I sort of didn't like Fred Astaire's was because it was a competition in Boston and I could bring 40 students, but they all had to sign up on a $5,000 package.

And at that point I was like, yeah, but I'm going to entertain them. I don't get anything out of that $5,000. So why can't we just come with the entries and actually make it a decent competition. No expenses, no nothing. But unfortunately, a lot of the kids come over, and, maybe they go to a franchise studio. They don't get petted off. So they really struggle. Or they sort of go to a independent studio or they get one student who's willing to fly them first class around the world do stuff, and then all of a sudden, you know,

so it's this really hard balance. All the time. How do you make it that not everybody will be able to dance.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: Okay. And one of the interesting things for us at Super Shag was that the studio actually, we opened it at the January, 2002. The first year that we broke even was 2008. Remember when there was a big crash, it was a huge crash. What happened was that our private lessons went up and our group classes went down. Because the $10 group classes, that was the sector of the community that really got hurt.

Samantha: Right.

Chris: And the sector that was able to afford private lessons, they were okay. They still kept, kept going. So,

Samantha: so, so wait back up for a second so that I, so that I make sure that I'm hearing this properly. So you opened your doors in 2002, you said, the first year that you were profitable was 2008.

Chris: Correct.

Samantha: See, this is the kind of stuff like maybe not, maybe not for this podcast, but future, future episodes. I feel like there is not enough discussed maybe with maybe it doesn't filter down to the younger generation of dance instructors and, and dance business people, but I'm listening to that and I'm going, that means that you were investing with a hope and a prayer for six years, that this business was going to turn a profit for you. And that is just.

Chris: Well, basically what happened was I had a small studio, which I was teaching out of. and, I was just working all the time, so I really wasn't, I wasn't spending and money. And all the money was going into keeping the big studio open. I actually didn't go to the big Super Shag studio with that much. So it was just like, keep popping it, pop, pop, pop, pop, it's you know, I would, I would be really, really wealthy if I'd been able to invest the money that I be at teaching by myself. Actually really well off, you know, cause we were talking the early, the early two thousands Like I was teaching 60 to 70 lessons every week and running two parties. But once again, it was cheaper than basically everywhere else. Like even now Super Shag is I think it's probably the cheapest proper studio in Boston. So, but I always thought I want numbers. I had seen another great thing about Fred Astaire's was that we got to see the we got to see the numbers that all the studios did. And when some of the studios, you know, one student was 60% of the money that they grossed. It's like, Oh,

Samantha: that's a scary place to be in.

Chris: That's a really scary place. So, so it's okay while you're doing it, but then cause invariably, that that's, that student will go.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: So it's an interesting business to be in.

Samantha: Very much so. And I feel, yeah, again, I, I feel like there's not enough communal discussion about the ins and outs. And how do you set your pricing? How do you identify your niche in the market? How do you discover, you know, if you're going to prioritize socials or group classes, how much outreach do you do? How, how much reinvestment in your business do you do?

And then from a student perspective, like we're having these discussions did your students at the time for those six years know that you were just reinvesting and reinvesting and reinvesting and you weren't living this lavish lifestyle that they all imagined that we all live?

Chris: No, they had no idea, but you know, it's, it's just one of those, one of those things, like the real problem is that there is no like, who can we really go and talk to about business? Who could we go and talk to about a career path? Because all the associations they're interested in dancing.

Samantha: Well I feel like if you will allow it, there might be more conversations to be had at a later date. But I want to be very respectful of your time for tonight. So anything that you want to leave our listeners on any final words of wisdom for this episode that you want to leave people with?

Chris: Yes. A lot of people call me, and now they call our manager to say, okay, why is Super Sag being successful? And all I say is, well, I really would like to treat people the way I want to be treated.

And I'll leave you with a little story about that we did have, this is a while ago different companies would call us and say, we're having a Christmas party or something. Can you come and do a performance? Can you come teach a class? Whatever, whatever, whatever. So we just had a couple working for us at, I think they were, they were runners up at like, USDC Rising Star Latin.

That's, that's pretty good. So this company, you know, said at, I quoted them a price, which was not outrageous. Okay. But it, you know, it was low four figures to come and do something. So I said, and they were like, nah. Well, I said, how about this? How about I come and bring the world's pro-am Champion, and they were like sold.

Samantha: because they don't know the difference.

Chris: I rest my points, my'lord.

Samantha: Yeah.

Chris: They have no idea. No idea. They wanted the world pro-am Champion, not the guys who were runners up at the actually I think it was the Rising Star at Ohio, which is still a really good co you know?

Samantha: Yeah, yeah. Inside the ballroom industry. Those are credentials outside of the ballroom industry. No one cares.

Chris: Doesn't matter.

Samantha: Yep. Well, thank you, Chris so much for being a guest on today's podcast.

Chris: Hmm. I hope this doesn't get you shut down.

Samantha: No, I think you're okay. I think it's okay.

Chris: Oh that's alright.

Samantha: Thank you. Once again, to Chris for being a guest on today's podcast, if you would like to find out more about Super Shag dance studios or any of their upcoming events, you can use the links in the description box below as always.

I'm your host, Samantha with Love Live Dance. You can find the podcast versions of these episodes at ballroomchat.com and you can follow us across social media at Ballroom Chat. If you've not already done, so please do make sure that you hit the subscribe button and turn on the notification bell so, you know, every single time we post a new episode.

As always stay safe, the positive, so we hope to see you again very soon.