Chasta Hamilton: “Put some elbow grease in it”

Multiple times, I’ve had people tell me that I am cut out for crisis. I’m not sure that’s a compliment, but I get through it by practicing gratitude over grump, opportunity over an obstacle, and faith over fear. At this point, I’ve navigated a number of transitions, and I’d love to focus on inspiring more […]

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Multiple times, I’ve had people tell me that I am cut out for crisis. I’m not sure that’s a compliment, but I get through it by practicing gratitude over grump, opportunity over an obstacle, and faith over fear. At this point, I’ve navigated a number of transitions, and I’d love to focus on inspiring more action in re: to change management on a global scale.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chasta Hamilton.

Chasta is the owner/artistic director of Stage Door Dance Productions, and founder of the nonprofit Girls Geared For Greatness. She’s also the author of the book Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul.

Chasta is on a mission to disrupt the broken world of competitive dance, where biased scoring, skimpy costumes, and toxic rivalries are the additional line items on a bill that already exceeds thousands of dollars. Chasta spent six years sending student dancers into that ruthless environment — until she got to a point when the trophies didn’t represent success or victory. They represented hurt, stress, toxicity, and anxiety.

So she took a rebellious and disruptive step, bucked tradition, and reinvented her studio to focus on values like passion and purpose, not empty awards. She’s showing that disrupting the dance industry can mean a healthier relationship with competition, empowerment, and success.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you so much for including me in this amazing category!

Dance has always been in my blood. I started dancing when I was 2 years old, so this art is literally the thread of my being. I love it so much, and I always have.

When I started thinking about a career, specifically when I received a full academic scholarship to NC State University as a Park Scholar, I immediately assumed dance would have to shift to the back burner. Are scholars also artists? In 2003, arts and entrepreneurship weren’t encouraged like it is now. So, I decided that I’d do something more serious, like being a lawyer. I figured I could go to law school, practice, and open a studio when I turned 35 (the age I am now).

My sophomore year of undergrad I received an internship at the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office. I spent the summer researching how to pull pseudoephedrine off the shelves to help combat the increasing methamphetamine issue in our state. It was important work, but I was bored and didn’t find it to be super fulfilling. I sat at a computer from 9 am-5 pm, and at 5 pm, I’d race out the door and head to the dance studio.

That opportunity was huge for me because it opened my eyes to my purpose and my passion. Immediately after I graduated, I decided to take a huge leap of faith and begin the pursuit of opening my own studio. I’m glad I ended up building ballet barres instead of taking the bar exam.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

There’s almost an unstated checklist of things you accomplish as a dance studio owner in the secular extracurricular market: open your business, build your student base, prove your training capability via dance competitions and student accolades, and keep the machine rolling.

We did all of those things, and yet, when we were “winning” dance competitions, it felt completely counterintuitive to the business model and brand I envisioned. With time and strategy, I knew we could reinvent the dance education model to focus on well-rounded, meaningful training that produced amazing dancers and exceptional humans. So, I decided to “trash the trophies” and leave the competitive dance industry behind.

During the programming shift, there was a lot of loneliness and vulnerability. There were ruined relationships. I stepped out of the spotlight to focus on the work in front of me, and when I started reintroducing myself, I was nervous. Would people still accept my credibility after such an extreme shift and rebranding?

One day in the midst of the craziness, I vividly remember walking through a store and seeing a platter with the quote: “may the bridges I burn light the way”.

Change and disruption isn’t easy, but it is worth it. Now, years outside of the change, the confidence lies in the creation of this new model and experience. I see happy, healthy, and positive teachers and students. Our dancers are smart and focused- they can literally achieve they can imagine. And, I finally feel like our brand is rooted in something new, exciting, and true to what I always imagined and envisioned.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Wow, I don’t even know where to begin. Anybody that is deemed a success doesn’t get to where they’re going without an entire lifetime of mentors and challengers. I learn an equal amount from the people that say “yes, you can” as well as the people that say “no, you cannot”.

At the core of my gratitude are the women that raised me: my mom, my aunt, and my granny. When you have the experience of raising a child (me) that loses her dad at age 2 and her mom at age 9, it can’t be easy to instill a “normal childhood” and beliefs system. And, yet, I was never taught that I should do anything other than work hard and own my place in society. I am so grateful for that.

My other mentors have ranged from teachers to business people to my dance instructors. I am constantly inspired by people that have a drive for excellence and the tenacity to find a better way to elevate their field.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Put some elbow grease in it.”- Cheryl Bueck, my aunt

I used to hear this all the time in relation to my household chores, but it is amazing how applicable it is to life. Whether I am chasing a dream, setting a goal, finding motivation or solving a problem, “elbow grease” (mental and physical) is usually required.

“Owning a small business is like drinking from a fire hydrant.”- Chuck Millsaps, my father-in-law

The first time I heard Chuck say this I thought it was the funniest, mainly because it’s true. Every day in small business is full of surprises, dilemmas, challenges, and accomplishments. Chuck works in the outdoor retail industry, so it is also nice to know that small business transcends industries and shares so many commonalities.

#TooBlessedToBeStressed- John Millsaps, my husband

Immediately after our exit from the competitive dance industry, I had a couple of rough years that I optimistically labeled as my personal renaissance. On one particularly rough day, John texted me to remember that we are #TooBlessedToBeStressed, and it’s true. With focus and prioritization, we can keep our eye on the things that matter: love, time, relationships, and solution oriented action over worry.

How are you going to shake things up next?

A year or so after exiting the competitive dance industry, my friend Mike Cedar said “I can’t wait to see what you do next.” That text terrified me. I’d already done so much! Then, I launched a non-profit, Girls Geared For Greatness, wrote my book, and navigated my small business’s survival in the pandemic (which included a 48-hour switch to digital programming, a movie shoot instead of a traditional recital, and the addition of academic enrichment programs to our 2020–2021 season).

Multiple times, I’ve had people tell me that I am cut out for crisis. I’m not sure that’s a compliment, but I get through it by practicing gratitude over grump, opportunity over an obstacle, and faith over fear. At this point, I’ve navigated a number of transitions, and I’d love to focus on inspiring more action in re: to change management on a global scale.

For fun, side projects, I can’t wait to return to directing and choreographing shows- my eyes will always be set on Broadway or the West End. And, my husband and I have a few ideas for musicals in the works.

A second book isn’t out of the question either.

But, for today, I’ll continue pushing towards excellence with the things that are within my control and right in front of me. I really and truly love what I do, and I am grateful for each and every opportunity.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed- it’s a tiny book of gut-punching quotes. For anyone navigating change, this is a great resource. I picked it up at Anthropologie in January 2017, and I have leaned in and identified with its messaging more times than I can begin to count.

I also adore the Dolly Parton’s America podcast. She and I are both from Tennessee, and I admire her intense commitment to serving as a uniter versus divider through her position of leadership.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We have to help girls realize that they are GEARED for greatness. It is IN their being and within their reach. As a society, we have to make sure we are listening to the needs and stories of our female youth and providing supportive, safe environments for them to discover and activate their inner voice.

I want the female leaders of our future to feel motivated to lead, compelled to serve their communities, excited to innovate, and unafraid of societal standards. Just because something was one way doesn’t mean that it can’t change in the future.

We can be that change, and by launching the non-profit Girls Geared For Greatness, it is a small step in the right direction. There’s so much work to be done, though, and I feel super passionate about sharing my story and using my influence to make a difference.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This quote has been credited to a number of people, and I love it. Each day, I roll out of bed and get going. For the past decade, it has reminded me to keep hustling, evolving, and creating meaningful disruption in my field:

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle- when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

How can our readers follow you online?


Instagram: @chastahamilton

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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