Episode 84: Dawn Walters Interview
[Motivational Intro Music]
Chelsea: Hi, it’s Dr. Chelsea. I am going back in my archives a bit today and sharing an interview from 2020 with the amazing Dawn Walters of The University of Kentucky Dance Team. Dawn was a UK cheerleader and dancer, and she started coaching UK in 2009. She has a long list of accomplishments including national titles, starting her own all-star gym, judging for top competitions, and, of course, just impacting so many young lives through her program at The University of Kentucky.
I decided to share this today because Dawn’s approach to coaching is so relatable and refreshing, and she just has such genuine advice and, really, a superpower as a coach. We talk about opening the door for more dancers of different genres and backgrounds to join a big university program, and she really led us behind the curtain and shared how she runs practices, how she cleans her routines, and even how her coaching style has changed. She was really open with me when we got into some of the hard stuff and we talked about addressing race in the dance team industry and protecting yourself as a coach from that one angry parent who could tear it all down.
I hope this brings you a dose of motivation and inspiration today as we head into competition season. It’s a beautiful interview. So here’s my conversation with Dawn Walters.
[Motivational Intro Music]
Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and a dance team coach turned sports psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
[Motivational Intro Music]
1:53 – Team Culture
Chelsea: Talk to me a little bit about team culture. You have super talented dancers on your team but yet you have to get these talented dancers to care and fight and not be entitled.
Dawn: Yeah, and I think what we do is — I’m not sure if there are any other or how many other dance programs that are out there that have as many kids as I normally do, you know?
Dawn: When I got the job, they said, “Okay, yeah, you have the blue squad and the white squad,” and I kind of went, “Oh, okay, so I’m — all right. Okay so I have two teams?”
Dawn: Yes, you know, so I was like okay. So I knew as far as that that the teams that I wanted to come through, first of all, they're very separate, and I said I’m not gonna do that. I want to be able to do something that, I said, really gives more kids an opportunity. Would it have been easier to probably do one nice-sized team and that’s it? Yeah, but it’s like, first of all, you have to think about how you’re Title IX and all that, too if you’re a girl’s team and men's team but I really wanted to get as many kids in that could be involved in something just to give them that opportunity, you know?
Dawn: And that’s how I started, and it ended up just to where that’s how we work, and some people are extremely talented on the jazz-based side, some come from pom backgrounds, some come from hip-hop programs, and I wanted that to kind of be okay to get as many in because, of course, our main thing — and I still tell them now and they know — our main job is for game-day performance. That’s what we’re here for. All the rest is just fun icing on the cake (extra stuff that we can do to compete and all that). But our main thing is being there for game day.
So I really just wanted to foster that. Let’s get in, and let’s build this up. This is what we’re looking for but if you can get out there and have a blast and do these games and have that whole fun overall buy-in for what you need to do, then we can maybe build upon that. By starting that so early on and just really pushing the awareness — 'cause, you know, a lot of people still weren’t even necessarily aware of camps — not camps but of UK Dance Team and things ‘cause back then is when I started doing my camps and I started doing the video bypasses. It’s pretty funny now to look back and I see all of the other schools and universities that offer something when kids come to their camps. I was like, “Yeah, I started that!”
Dawn: “I started that. I started that,” because I just wanted people to be aware. And, early on, (probably maybe my third year into coaching) I had a parent come up to me and say, “Thank you so much for giving my daughter a dream,” and I was like oh, cool.
Dawn: That was huge. That was huge, and she said, “My daughter’s a dancer, and she now wants to be a UK dancer.” That hit me and has always stuck with me, and I thought, “That’s pretty cool,” you know?
Dawn: And if I can keep that for the kids (not just a personal thing for me when she said that) but just to go, wow, that’s pretty neat that she’s telling me that now her daughter has that dream.
Dawn: And if I can offer that — and that’s kind of what pushed me and just to kinda keep it going on that level and just say, “Hey, let’s just bring the kids in that can do it, and then we’ll go from there,” and now it’s to this place of where we’re more a hip-hop base but huge game-day based.
Dawn: And I love it! You know, and I was a little nervous this year ‘cause I went out and said, “Hey, we’re changing things a little bit.” We have a more hip-hop based and game-day based performance team and changed up my tryouts a little bit and everything, and I wasn't sure how that was gonna do.
Dawn: But, more than ever, even once COVID hit and we’re like, “You’ve gotta send in tapes, you’ve gotta do whatever, this is how we’re doing it,” we still had almost 100 people that wanted to do it — so it was like, wow — that made it on through. Well, actually, we got it down to almost 90 people actually tried out.
Dawn: And so, that’s always exciting when you can kind of get it to that and then know, wow, there are enough people here that want to do this — not necessarily here but that want to do what we’re doing, and they were so excited. There were so many people that I ended up hearing from, too, that said, “I’m not necessarily ballet-trained. I am more into that hip-hop, and I’ve taken this avenue, and I’ve always known that I couldn't try out at another dance team.” And so, they were very open and so excited because now I’ve opened the gates for even more kids to try out because some of those things that we might have been saying you still needed to have (even though we maybe didn't use it at competitions and things), now it was like, “Mm, that’s not even on the score sheet.”
Dawn: And so, now people are like, “Oh, my gosh. Thank you for giving me a place that I can now try out for at the collegiate level, you know?
Dawn: So that was a really neat feeling, too, to be able to kind of just open it up to get as many kids involved.
7:52 – Dawn’s Two Teams: The White Squad and The Blue Squad
Chelsea: That’s awesome. So do your two teams share game day? Do they divide? What does that look like?
Dawn: So, basically, what we do — I have 42 kids. This was the first year I was able to actually get it on down a little bit. There for a little bit they were like, “Okay,” because at one time I had 55 kids.
Chelsea: Oh, wow!
Dawn: So each year I keep trying to — it was our goal to get it to 40 about 5 years ago. Well, that, of course, never happened but I’m like, okay, I’m just gonna keep making it tighter. So what I do is, basically, I consider the UK Dance Team that’s everybody. So they're all put in one big thing.
Dawn: But I have my white squad, they do women’s basketball and men’s football, and then my blue squad does men’s basketball and football.
Dawn: When we go places and when we do everything, it’s usually the whole group. If we do — even like with football, beforehand, we need to get —
Chelsea: Alumni —
Chelsea: Yeah. Okay.
Dawn: We’re a big mushed up group.
Dawn: All of our community service projects are for anybody. For nationals it’s anybody.
Dawn: Because, really, when we pick the team, we’re looking at kids that can go out there and that have overall talent that may not be game-ready. We may say you know what? This is a really strong dancer in this style but when they're doing their game things maybe they're not as strong.
Dawn: Or maybe they're just lacking a little something and they've got to learn this. Well, what I have loved is, in the past, when I first took over the team, I had been told that there was only, like, one girl that had ever been on white squad that actually made blue the next year. And I’m like —
Dawn: Well, that’s crazy! I want this to be my theatre program!
Chelsea: Right, yeah! That’s how I envision that.
Dawn: I want this to — yeah, and it has been wonderful because every year I usually have eight or nine (sometimes I’ve had more when I've had bigger senior classes) that have moved up from white squad right into blue.
Dawn: And, yes, we still will take freshmen, but it now has turned into a really heavy group of my white that moves up. And each year for nationals, I’ve always had people from my white squad that may not have been game-day ready but they were talented in the things that we do for competition.
Dawn: But I’m like, “No, it’s equal.” All of that’s equal so whoever’s ready for competition — so that keeps them excited too because then they know that they still have that opportunity, and I have kids that have said, “I just want to stay on white squad,” so it’s not the —
Chelsea: It’s not the highest, yeah.
Dawn: Yeah, so I love that as well that it’s kind of across the board, yeah.
Chelsea: I can see that. I mean, I think game day (in SEC especially) is a whole thing that, that in and of itself, is a dream.
Dawn: Exactly. Exactly. So that’s very awesome for us to be able to have.
Dawn: Women’s basketball is great. Men’s basketball is great. Football is great. Everything in that whole atmosphere.
Chelsea: Yes, right.
Dawn: So that’s the positive side of all of this.
Chelsea: That’s cool. Okay.
Chelsea: Coaches always want me to ask about nuts and bolts stuff.
Chelsea: Like we were saying, they're looking for the magic pill, and every time I’m like, “There isn't one.
Dawn: Yes, there isn't one.
11:23 – How Dawn Runs Team Practice
Chelsea: But it’s helpful for them to hear. So, anyway, talk to me about typical practice. How do you run things for your team?
Dawn: Okay. So, first of all, the one thing that we do (that I have noticed that a few teams now have started going to, too) is we have 5:45 AM practices.
Dawn: Okay? That’s mainly two huge reasons. Well, actually probably three. Okay, the first main reason is when you have that many kids (when I have 50 kids, let’s say, around about 50 as the average), I’ve got to find a great time that they can all meet. So they can all meet early morning ‘cause some might need to work, some might need to have other class schedules, might have to take night classes, whatever.
So we started having early morning practices at the very beginning. I think maybe that first year I might have done them at a different time. I’m not sure. But early on I’m like, “Let’s do this super early.” And so, they all come in and what we do is we try to request that, “Hey, if you don't have to take an 8:00 AM class. Don’t take one,” (so usually my upperclassmen) 'cause then they’d have to leave a little early.
Dawn: So, on Mondays and Wednesdays, we come right on in. Now, at the beginning of the season we all have these high hopes as a coach that, “Oh, we’re gonna drill everything. We’re gonna go through and we’re gonna do pirouettes and we’re gonna do jumps and then we’re gonna do our tricks, and this is all after we stretch. But this is in the big combo of stretching, and we do all of that. Then, we get to do the game-day stuff. Well, once season starts.
Dawn: “Oh, my gosh, we only have time and we’ve gotta get this many dances together so, you know, stretch and let’s get going.”
Dawn: So, then, things kind of change but on a great early-on practice at the beginning of the season we would start our regular stretch and we do group stretches so I have a couple kids that are leaders in our stretch. I put the music on, they do the stuff, they’re trying to wake up, but I don't usually have to worry about them texting and checking their things because it’s early in the morning.
Chelsea: Right. There’s no talking. [Laughs]
Dawn: Exactly, and the other thing is that’s great about the morning practice is we can go in and, you know what, the parking lot is empty.
Chelsea: Yes, and in a big university, that matters.
Dawn: At a big university that matters! So when I drive in every morning I might be a little tired but I’m like, “Yes! I have a parking space!” So we do that but then that also means that you have to let them out on time, too, because the kids are there ‘cause they start checking right at the time, too.
Dawn: So I have to make sure that I can’t drag those practices out. So that’s there, and the other main reason is that’s a time that we can actually use our gym. Some of the other teams come at 7:00, but we’re like this is when we can get in here and no one else is here and we have a place to practice because, unlike some other places, we don't have an actual dance room or a dance whatever. So we practice in Memorial Coliseum, and that’s where my office is but we’re (most of the times) able to use the big gym or, if not, I can usually go into the women’s practice gym and if something’s going on with that then I’m usually approved to go into the men’s practice gym. So that helps on that.
But we’ll do our regular stretch. We go through our turns, our jumps. Tricks, we just try to do those sometimes to kinda get that going. Then, we get started right on our performance, whatever we need to do for the next game that’s coming up.
So, what I normally do is we teach the routines. The kids do that whether it’s a camp routine or whatever. I had some really good choreographers the past few years so it’s always neat to let them do a routine.
Dawn: They’re always like, “Yes! This is my vision! This was my thing.”
Dawn: So we’ll practice on that. And so, once they learn that routine, I’ll give them a practice or two or I’ll say, ”Hey, at the next practice, be ready ‘cause I want to watch it.” So they’ll come out. They’ll do it. They break up in their groups (so white squad will go out there, maybe blue squad’s on the side), and I’ll watch it, and, lots of times, I’ll record it. And then, I’ll have blue, they get out there, they do it, and whatever. Then, I’ll go back and (either from just watching them and also using my video) see who has that dance and who’s ready. And it does create a lot of extra work on my half. Some kids will say, “Oh, my gosh. I get nervous when you do that.” I’m like this is the thing, though. I want to be able to have — not necessarily my top dancers — every coach knows, “Okay, hip-hop: who are your three strongest kids?” Every coach knows, you know? In pom, who are your three strongest? In jazz, who are your three strongest. But, you know, there are dances that are out there within that genre that are a different style whether it’s more aggressive hip-hop or whether it’s cutesy girly hip-hop or whatever. I want to be able to get the best kids for that style for that dance.
Dawn: You know, some kids shine more when they’ve got that fun music and it’s just old school music. I mean, they light up. So that allows me the chance to put the best kids that shine on that one routine to get the formations for that. So I don't really necessarily have to worry about, oh, the same kids are in front or the same people — or the kids don't go, “Well, here I am in the same formation back here,” ‘cause it might be a dance that is totally up their alley and I’m like, “Uh, yes!” It also gives me a chance — sometimes, coaches, we can get a little stagnant, and we know the ones that can do it and not necessarily because we’re trying to do this because of time, because whatever. This forces you to watch all of your kids all of the time so you get to see those kids that, all of a sudden, start to blossom that maybe they weren't the best to begin the season but at the end of the season when they come out there and they have to do a dance, and I’m like, “Whoa! Girlfriend, all right. You are front and center!”
Chelsea: Absolutely! Yeah.
Dawn: You know? You are right there because I’m livin’ through this routine right now with you.
Dawn: So I do that, and, like I said, it does cause a lot of extra things of when I have to go home and I do that on the outside and will watch, and then I’ll go ahead and make the formations, but I also allow my kids, too, especially if they’ve made up a routine or if they’ve been at the camp and they did the camp — let’s say we come back from EDA camp and it’s a camp routine, I will get those people that actually went to that group dance. They're in change of giving me the formations because they remember, “Oh this one –,”
Chelsea: They know how it works.
Dawn: And I’ve always videoed it. Yes, of how it worked, and they’ll do it, and then I plug those in and I put the people in. So that kind of gives them a chance. And I usually will (the kids that performed that dance) try to give them some great positions, too, so that everybody knows, hey, I’m gonna get this, and this was my dance that I got to learn at camp then. So I’m gonna shine.
So I really try to do that, and I have found that that really works. That works really well especially for those teams that feel like, “Oh, coach has a favorite, and they're front and center all the time.” Well, they know, and it’s also for my kids. It keeps them going because there are some of my kids that they may come in and not really know a dance that are my seniors that, you know what? They didn't really pay attention. They're like, “Ah, we’ll get this next week.”
Dawn: And I’m like, “Mm, yeah, you didn't look very good on this one so here you are in this formation.” They're probably like, “Whoa!” And I’m like, “Hey, I meant there.”
Chelsea: Yeah, if you don't get it together, right?
19:27 – Dawn’s Cleaning Style
Dawn: Yeah, I meant there. So, we’ll do that, and then I clean. My kids will always say, “Oh, my gosh,” when I’m gonna go in there and clean. That’s my, I think, not necessarily claim to fame but I am a cleaner. I will make sure that things are clean 'cause I’m old school, you know?
Chelsea: That was on the list to ask you was, “How do you clean because your stuff…” [Laughs]
Dawn: I am old school clean, clean, clean, and some of the kids are just like, “Uh…,” and I’m like, “Y’all, I’m sorry. I can't just overlook those things.”
Dawn: I said, “I want it to be the same.” And even right now our newbies are learning their diddies, and we do that video which we always do, and then they set them up, and with my assistant coach, we break them up, and we clean ‘em, and we kind of go, “No, your broken wrist,” or, “When you're standing there, and your thumbs are like this out to the sides. nuh-huh, I don't want to see thumbs. I hate thumbs. Get those thumbs in.”
Dawn: And then people are like, “Well, I have poms.” Not always. You never know.
Dawn: And when we don't have poms, your hands better be clean by your sides, and it’s nice and tight.
Chelsea: Yep. I hate when the fingers drift and cup the butt in the back.
Dawn: Ah, yes! Yes, exactly, yes!
Chelsea: It makes me crazy!
Dawn: Yes, yeah! So I’m like, no, this is here, and this is where this is, and, yes, you can tell between old school — candle sticks and buckets. So a lot of the, “Okay, oh, my gosh.” So people go, “Oh, god, y’all. She is all about that.” And so, I will usually spend a practice or two cleaning.
So I know that, at one time, I remember talking to coaches, and they would say, “Oh, we learn a dance in one practice, and then we do formations the next practice and clean a little bit and we’re ready to perform at that time, and they give themselves a week.
Dawn: Noo. Nah.
Dawn: No. I have more time. Yeah, so I’m like, “Yeah, it takes me longer,” but we also (knock on wood) are normally so ahead of schedule because I’m a big planner, though, too, and I’m like which dances are we gonna do where? What are we gonna do when? And what crowd is this gonna probably be?
Dawn: I mean, I do put a lot of thought into a lot of those things just that the kids kind of go, “Well, it’s this one, and we just want to do that,” and I’m like, “No. We’ve still kinda gotta think what type of crowd and what’s gonna be fun and what venue or whatever.” So I try to be a few weeks ahead of schedule just in case something happens. So we’re usually pretty good on that, but they know I spend a lot of time on that.
Then, what I will also do is I will video tape. Once I give them formations I’ll say, “Okay, now, let me see it.” Then, if I need to switch a few people I’ll do it right then, and then we’ll do it again and, usually, I’ll video it. There are times when I’ll go back and I’ll clean it for them already and upload it back on, and then they’ve gotta watch it. I do a lot of that at nationals and I’ll pick it or other times where I’ll say, “Hey, guys. This was pretty good here but you’ve got to watch this,” and then they see it so they're able to watch themselves. And then there are lots of times I’ll give them homework and go, “Uh, watch this and tell me what you need to work on and what did you see right there.”
So, it gets to a point where each year we’re kind of, at the beginning of the year, going, “Phew, okay.”
Dawn: Phew, let’s get going. But then they pick it up, and kids are usually so excited, and they do listen, you know? That’s the thing is you kind of sometimes think that when you get these college kids in and they're divas and have been the best from their things and they're coming in, I’m very honest (especially when we have our little camps) like, “Hey, you know, you’ve got to take that crown off before you walk into our doors at UK because everybody is in that position.” And they are usually very receptive to listen and to learn those things. You know, it’s a lot of things that, yeah, you might have done pom and you might have been on a national all-star pom team, but they might not have cleaned some of these things as well, you know? Or you might have been at a competition that was mainly still in the pom category that was big on your turns and your technical skills as opposed to your pom technique.
Dawn: You know, so, for the most part, they're very open, and it’s so — like I said, we do these videos now. And, actually, I have a few girls — my assistant and I were like, “Ah! We didn't finish those last five girls each so we need to do to clean their [INDISCERNIBLE].” We’ve got to go in there and do that this week, so that’s what I’ll probably be doing later on today or tomorrow.
Dawn: But then after that and they hear it and they're with everybody and they're like, “Oh, okay, I get it. I get it. And this is a big deal and this is that,” and they just learn the ways so then they're usually gung ho and normally come through, and then I can hear the same people going back and going, “Ah, you need to do this. You need to close your thumbs up.”
Dawn: “Uh, yeah, that T was not level,” and it’s funny. I’m like, yep, those are the things I got on you about your first year here.
Dawn: It’s really neat, then, to see them evolve and stuff. So, yeah, and then we’ll end up the practice — anything new, then we usually will start teaching a part of something. So that’s kind of how we stack that in. So they’ll get out and they’ll start teaching another routine or going over anything. When we first start with football, it’s always that we’ve forgotten stuff. We will think that we have everything down, and we do it, and sure enough, those first three or four games are like, “Ah, we totally forgot to teach you guys this,” or, “We totally forgot to go with whatever.”
25:15 – Go with the Flow!
So my big thing and the kids will always say is I’m like, “Y’all, we go with the flow.”
Dawn: We’re not gonna get stressed about stuff. Go with the flow. And if you were to ask my kids what does Dawn say all the time? They’d be like, “Go with the flow.” I’m like, y’all, you never know what type of — we’ll think, “Oh, we’re gonna go into this community service and we’re gonna have a stage and all of you can fit,” and you go in and go, okay, now that was a five-foot stage. Three people were up there, and I’m like, “Y’all, turn around. Just get on the floor. We just go with the flow.”
So that’s kind of cool, too. Some of these kids, now, that come in are so wired. You can normally tell that a lot of dancers over the years, they're ether, “Oh my gosh, I’m really stressed about this,” and if you know your questioner people, you're like this is my question girl over here. She will — [Clap Sounds] and a lot of time I’m like, “Y’all, you just kinda have to go with the flow.” We can teach as much, and I’m a planner too, but 90% of the time, things are gonna be thrown in there that we didn't even expect, and you just go with the flow.
Dawn: And we’ll work on it the next time we’re together. We’re trying to figure it out, right? “Okay, write this down.” So I’m like you just clap and smile. I said when in doubt, you just clap and you smile, and that’s just kind of how you go in. Everybody will eventually see and go, oh, we didn't teach them that sideline that we’re just all doing.
So that’s, you know, one of the things that you just kind of — oh, and then we join up and we do our little pep out. Every year we have a certain little pep-out saying that we say, and we do that in our big circle, we peace out, and then they run to their cars to make sure they don't get a ticket, and we go on with our day.
Chelsea: [Laughs] Oh, my gosh.
Dawn: So that’s kinda how our practices go.
27:01 – You Cannot Treat All Your Dancers the Same
Dawn: That’s the other thing is in coaching that I think gets misconstrued sometimes when everyone says, “Oh, you’ve got to treat everyone the same and be fair,” it’s like, not necessarily. Be fair but, honestly, to have a team, you just cannot treat everyone the same. You have to know your kids. I know that there’s one kid over here that they're like, “Coach, you’ve got to be right there going, ‘5, 6, 7, 8,’” and make count and be right there to make me go,” and then other ones are like, “You say this, and that’s gonna make me upset.”
Dawn: I know my coaching style has changed so much. My kids go, “You are such a pushover now!”
Dawn: And my old school kids are like, “Ah!” And I’m like, you know, the kids coming in are —
Chelsea: They're different.
Dawn: They're different kids, and the days when we could say and do stuff and really kind of get on kids and do stuff, those days are not around anymore because parenting style has changed. So it’s kind of obvious that you're gonna get kids that have been parented completely different than us old folks that, back in the day they're like you have to evolve, and I feel like I am so much more — which I always have been that coach that really goes to that next level which I feel like a lot of female coaches do anyways. We kind of take over that mother role which you have to do at college. When you have kids that are 100,000 miles away from their parents, and they get sick, and you need to dote on them a little bit and send them that extra text or two. “Hey, how're you feeling? Is there anything I can do?” Then you have to tell the kids, “Hey, go over to this person.” In our Facebook group we do a lot of, “Hey, pray for this kid right now ‘cause they just lost their grandmother.” We do a lot of that type of thing.
We started back our bible study group, you know? That’s something that is different. They do it themselves, but it was really strong the first few years and on up into things, but the past couple of years someone would maybe say, “Hey, let’s start a group or whatever,” but this time I brought it up to them, but I also brought up that we’re gonna do some racial things, we’re gonna talk. We’re gonna do some of those types of things when we get together, and if we don't get together, we’re gonna do some Zoom things. But I said we’re gonna do that ‘cause people do ask me. They say, “With that many girls, how do you keep it?” For the most part they really do all love each other, and we’re that family group but it’s 'cause you kind of have to take over some of those things especially when these kids come from all over and their families aren’t right there with them. We are their family bases, and I always used to say your best friends are gonna be the people in your weddings, they're gonna be the people you can count on later on. You're meeting them right now. They're gonna be your people later on in life.
So I really always try to continue to cultivate that type of atmosphere, but, like I said, you bring that to that. You just can't coach everyone the same. I did pull my Black girls together on a text with everything and was like, “How are you all doing? How are you guys feeling?” And so, it’s not that I just treat everybody and go, “Well, that doesn't involve everybody so I’m not gonna do it.” I’m like, no, I need to know what things are out there in a time right now where you're not with your friends that would come and love you and give some stuff. How are you handling this stuff. We’ve had some good little texts, and they were appreciative of that, of me reaching out.
You know, I just feel like if you can go in there and coach and just do what you feel in your heart and don't be afraid of some things, and I know some things are hard and challenging and stuff, and some things aren't always right. You know, you have some kids who are still mad at you for whatever reasons. I went through a tough year of that a few years back, and it, to this day, hurts my heart. But those things are gonna happen and from that, maybe other things come. Like from the investigation where they're like, “Oh, you're doing a great job on some of these other things.”
Dawn: So you just kind of have to take that and just kind of hang in there and know that it’s gonna be some tough times, but in the end, if it’s meant to be for you to do this (that this is your life thing) that you’ve got to do it. It’s the talent. If God gave you that talent, then it’s your responsibility to do it, and if God gave you that talent to be a coach, we kinda gotta do it ‘cause these kids —
Chelsea: They need it.
Dawn: They need it. You just gotta be able to hopefully do what you can do.
Dawn: And go from there.
32:10 – What Dawn Would Like to See Change in Our Dance World
Chelsea: I want to ask you, with that, so if there’s something that you would like to see, what would you want other coaches to do or what would you like to see change in our dance world?
Dawn: Some things are already starting to change. It’s been so exciting because just the one thing that we brought up about maybe taking off the appearance things of we’re coaches that filled in that box, and we’ve all been there. We all go for hairocracy, we’ve kind of got to do this and what’s the right thing and what should we do, you know? And I know the one thing I had to do early on was with the tights. You do hear, “Oh, they all need to be the same color,” and whatever.
Dawn: I remember then going back and looking at The Rockettes, and I think I even used that example on that call because I went, “Surely, there’s just something that doesn't feel right to me.”
Dawn: I’m thinking would I like to wear ang go, my legs — I look ashy as a Black person with that.
Dawn: And how comfortable would I feel? And then to find out that they don't do it, I was like, “Wow! We can do that!” But I remember asking myself ‘cause knowing, “If we compete, you’ve got to look the same. Everybody has to do this same thing,” and I’m hoping that with that call and with things that are out there now, that coaches will feel okay that even if they don't understand right now and if they're like I don't know, that then they open it up and say, “Let’s have this talk.”
My administration already said, “We’re gonna kinda need to do a talk because maybe we’ve had some things in that we want to be out there,” concerning hair.
Dawn: When you tell your kids, “Oh, everybody has to have a high ponytail tomorrow at the game,” well, there are Black girls that have tracks in and then have a weave because they wanted a weave or whatever. When you pull your hair up, you can't because your tracks are gonna be showing, and I used to be, “Ah, we’re gonna do this” Well, I have to be laxed, and I’ve always kind of been laxed as far as saying, “Hey, as long as you look cute out there –,” you know?
Dawn: And some people say, “Do you have to have straight hair or do you have to have curly hair or whatever?” Thank goodness early on I’m like, “You do you. You just don't come out there looking crazy with bright red hair when I saw you yesterday and your hair was blonde or whatever. Nothing that just draws direct attention straight to you to where people are kind of there. I’m pretty easy going, and I say, “Give me a heads up. Just check.” I had a girl the other day that said, “I want to have bangs,” and I said okay. I’m like, “Just don't cut them too short ‘cause I had bangs and I had them too short and I wasn't very cute for a while.”
Dawn: ‘Til they grew out.
Chelsea: That’s hard to fix! Yeah.
Dawn: Yeah, exactly. That’s a hard thing to fix. So I’m hoping that coaches will now step back and go, “Wow, okay, I was being so strict on that,” and not to be mean but just for sake of going everybody has to wear their hair in a ponytail and in a bun and whatever. But, for us, what came from that call is we were able to go to that next level and go to the competition level and say, “Let’s not require that.”
Dawn: Let’s take that pressure off of those coaches that go, “But I have to or I’m gonna get a point taken off ‘cause everybody’s hair wasn't this way.” And for us to feel like y'all, it’s okay, I hope that some of those things that we were so picky about (and the competitions that were picky about it and then coaches are picky about it because we are clean and we want our kids to look the same) we’ll relax. It felt like I had to have a weave or I had to do this to my hair because otherwise I wouldn't have made the team or I wouldn't have been able to do things or whatever. Hopefully, those things go there. That’s what I really hoped that the dialogue and the communication would be there so then your kids of color and your Black kids would feel like, “Wow. I’m accepted,” that maybe even kids will feel okay going, “Hey, is there something I’ve done?”
That’s what I actually told my kids. I said that’s what we’re gonna talk about. Are there some things that maybe you had no idea you were doing or saying that really offended your girl over here that you love to death. You just didn't know that by saying some things that you didn't know is a tough spot.
Dawn: So, hopefully, those lines of communication now —
Chelsea: I think it’s so —
Dawn: Hopefully more of that is going on.
Chelsea: And I think I’ve seen that, too, of just on the white woman side feeling like I can’t ask or I can…
Chelsea: You know? Same, I think I’ve always thought the big educational piece for me, personally, was the difference between ally and advocate, and that shift for me was —
Chelsea: Now, I think a lot of us are doing this. Like, how have I never felt that? I don't know I’ve always — but that doesn't make me an advocate in a true way. Yeah.
Dawn: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. Actually speaking up, yeah.
37:30 – Dawn’s Biggest Challenge as a Coach
Chelsea: Yeah. Shifting gears a little bit, will you talk about what’s been your biggest challenge being a coach? What do you think? A lesson you’ve learned or overcome?
Dawn: I do, kind of how I touched on the fact of that year when I did have that tough year of when I had some kids that I had no idea that (I guess for better lack of words) did not like me or were still mad because of some things that they did not get to do or for whatever reason had harbored such negativity, I guess, towards me. That kind of opened my eyes to things because, one, when you go into things (and this is what I found to be so hard now), you have to cover yourself more than I would normally — you know, we do peer reviews. We do a peer review thing where your peers, the kids review the other kids, and we’ve been doing that all along. And it is a big thing because you have to know that this is a team and that you have to be able to work well with your team members and things.
But I have learned now that being that person that vocalizes for one from what’s there and telling that other person that sometimes that can be misconstrued, and that every conversation that you have at this level, it’s sad to say, but I always have my assistant coach on there. This is the thing. I heard from so many coaches during that time of when that was such a hard time for me and that was going on that said, “Oh, that’s how I got fired,” or, “That’s what happened – I had that one parent of a kid that was upset and that came back and said all of these things,” or whatever. It’s just something that can kind of be misconstrued or can kind of get turned into whatever and that you’ve got to have something else back you, whether that’s that another person was on that phone line when you said this, and then they took it in and took it a whole different way and it got thrown out, I’m like, “I never said that!”
Chelsea: Right. That’s not what…
Dawn: And, “That’s not what I said!” That is definitely the hardest thing. That has made me feel like that sometimes your trustings and the things that you think that you're doing and you have the best intentions, that you just have to watch all of that, and it’s sad because I feel like there are so many things that before I can talk or before you write something you’re like how are they gonna take this?
Dawn: You know? And so, I feel like your communication nowadays, you really have to just make sure that you’re covered and that the things — you know, I’m a verbal person, as you can tell.
Dawn: I like to talk. I like to do things. But I have even had to change around some things to where I maybe would text it or type it or something like, “You know what, you do need to give me a call because I need to–,” and I will make sure the other coach is there, but just even your infliction and how that’s done because there are so many things that you can read into a text or a thing there. So, I think that you almost have to give even more time and it takes more time. Things that you would maybe just say, and you know that you're not saying it wrong, but you've got to now rethink it in your head, and maybe even say it to the other coach. “Is this okay if I say this,” or go to your administration. “Is it okay if I write this?” That’s a struggle. That is a thing that — there are times even when you kinda go, “Is coaching –,” and I know I’ve said this. When that all happened that year that I thought it’s time for me. I don't need to be coaching anymore.
Dawn: And I honestly was at that point and just was like it’s not worth it. I have too much on the line of my credibility and how I am, and it takes one thing to get things turned around. And the next thing you know, you’ve lost your job or your credibility, and I think so many of us coaches, that’s what we pride ourselves on because that’s why we coach. It’s because we love it, and we’re not out there to be mean and to do the wrong things. That’s not why we do this. We do it for the love and the passion and to help kids. So I think even those of us that seem so tough and have a tough exterior, those things are even more painful for us. When you’re just like, wow, I thought I handled that great, and I thought I was doing this to help this and that completely turned around and, wow.
Dawn: Look at where I am from that.
Dawn: So, absolutely. Absolutely.
42:41 – Dawn’s Favorite Memory as a Coach
Chelsea: Awesome. Do you have a favorite memory as a coach?
Dawn: Oh, man.
Chelsea: You’ve got a lot of amazing…
Dawn: Oh, my gosh, yeah. You know, I don't know. Let me use one that was just very recent. It was a nationals memory, and it was we fell all over the floor during prelims.
Dawn: A big thing, and that thing was supposed to go around the circle, and you couldn't even see what was supposed to happen. And we knew we could do it and had done it, and that night, we didn't change it. And it wasn't one of those things — 'cause I know in my mind I kind of — you know, as a coach you go, ‘God, do we take that out and just go ahead and change it,” or, “Do we keep it and do you do what –,” and we talked to the kids a bit, but it was one of those where you just kind of follow your gut sometimes you just go [Sighs]. Gotta kinda follow that, and those kids worked that out.
That next day, they got up there and they hit it with beautiful leaps. We didn't win. We didn't win her, but they did it, and they felt so good because this was partner stuff. This wasn't an individual thing. This was something that if one part didn't work then the whole thing kind of didn't which was even more reason why I kinda got — but let’s teach them that sometimes you just go out there, and it’s not all about winning ‘cause we fall again, we fall again.
Dawn: But if you work — and then just knowing that we trusted them…
Dawn: It was such a cool, fuzzy, inside moment when it all hit and when they did that, and they were like, “Wow, y’all, we did it!” Those are the type of moments — and I have several of those. You have the ones where you're just like, “Y’all, just do the best you can and have so much fun,” and you had so much fun as a coach watching going, “I don't care what place we get. I just had a blast watching that,” and we had that moment! It was kinda like last year. I was like that was fun and I loved it and that’s there. And so, those moments, I think, have been some of my favorite. And I know I have so many other ones!
45:07 – Dawn’s Advice for Coaches
Chelsea: All right, last question. Any last piece of advice you would give coaches? What do you either wish you knew starting out or…?
Dawn: I really would say when the going gets tough to honestly try your best to hang in there because as long as one member has taken something positive and has left your practice feeling like, wow, and you uplifted at least one person, that means that’s what you were there to do. That was your purpose, and, yeah, it gets tough, and there are so many times that we just want to quit and that we see this is how it’s gonna be in the future or it’s, “We need to just do this,” and really sit back and think about it. Look for those couple of shining moments. They may be small, and they may be kind of where you’ve got to dig for them and you've gotta go, “I’ve really gotta look ‘cause everything’s telling me it’s time to leave,” or, “I need to do this,” or whatever, to just think about that and then know that, hey, it’s not about just being a coach because I had to think of that too. Early on, I’m kind of like, well, is that just coaching? I’m a coach.
Dawn: And then that hit me. I’m like, you know, that title, there’s a whole lot involved in that. You're not just a coach. If that’s your God-given talent, if that’s your purpose…
Dawn: We’ve kinda gotta do it. We’ve gotta use that. I know that was not necessarily summing it up into one thing.
Chelsea: That’s okay! [Laughs]
Dawn: Just try to just always follow your heart and do the right thing by all of your kids. And, usually, from there things will work out.
Chelsea: Ah, I love that.
Dawn: And just go.
Chelsea: Well, thank you, Dawn. This has been so much fun!
Dawn: Absolutely. Thank you! Thank you.
[Motivational Outro Music]