An interview with Katie Byrd
Director of the Wilmette Center for the Arts (formerly Wilmette Center for Dance) in Wilmette, IL
|Quick facts on Katie Byrd|
|Give a few descriptions that illustrate your personality.||I like to be the entertainer, I kind of treat every room as a stage. I’m always passionate, and I always want to talk about what I care about a lot, especially with dance.|
|What is the biggest “no-no” for a student to do in your class?||Talk back. I like children who like to learn.|
|What is your favorite form of hydration?||Water and milk. My students can’t believe that. On competition mornings they’re like, “are you drinking a glass of milk right now?”|
|What stretch feels great on your body?||When I wake up in the morning I’m really into splits. I like being able to have that moment. That for me is my my important go-to thing.|
|Fill in the blank, (mad libs- style):||When I dance I feel joy. Teaching is everything. A good class is exciting. My love for bling is almost as strong as my love for the performing arts!|
|If a student walks away having learned just one thing from you, what would you want that one thing to be?||The passion. The biggest thing that I’m all about is just loving dance and being taken over by it. Not even necessarily performing but [also] seeing a show, the art of the whole thing.|
Allegro Dance Boutique: How many years of dance training have you had?
Katie Byrd: 21 years of training and teaching.
ADB: What styles have you studied?
KB: Ballet mostly, and jazz, hip hop, tap and lyrical.
ADB: Do you have a favorite style?
KB: To teach: jazz. It’s such a fun class to teach. As a performer I’m torn between ballet & lyrical.
ADB: How many years have you been teaching dance?
KB: This is my 9th year.
ADB: What styles do you currently teach?
KB: Ballet, hip hop, jazz, lyrical (which is new this year) and 2 classes of younger tappers. [Byrd also currently teaches ballet at Le Ballet Petite in Chicago.]
ADB: What are the essential items that never leave your dance bag?
KB: I always carry a huge thing of hair ties for students who never bring them to put their hair up, and I seem to always have a rhinestone hair clip for competions. Plus ice packs for myself as well as every kind of dance shoe; you never know what you’re going to need sometimes.
ADB: Do you have a favorite teaching outfit?
KB: Usually black jazz pants and something from the studio, like a logo tank top. Something with the dancers’ names on the back to show them how much I enjoy being with them. That and some kind of lace that I usually incorporate into my outfit, like lacy sweaters and shrugs that I layer on top of the tank.
ADB: How would you describe your teaching method/philosophy?
KB: To [encourage them to] not think from a place of “no”. To think, I’ll try it and I’m going to pay attention until I get it right. [To approach it from] I know we’re not quite ready for this yet but we’ll be there, so lets work on it and take it slow and we’ll get it. I’ll throw something in unexpectedly that they wouldn’t think of to get the “what?…” face. And then I say, well we’re going to do that because you can, just try it. I always try to encourage them: “don’t be afraid to mess up.” It doesn’t have to be perfect when you’re just learning, I just want them to do it. I want them to say “I did this lift”, “I did this turn into this leap”, I just “did it”.
ADB: What is special to you about the Chicago dance community?
KB: It’s been my home forever. I’ve always lived and performed in Chicago. I trained at Le Ballet Petite, Joel Hall and Ressurection High School. I consider myself a “Chicago teacher” since I’ve been very influenced by this area by training here. [There’s also] so many dance events [here] and everyone seems to be connected even though Chicago is a huge community. The dance community is small, but it feels like one big dance family.
ADB: Do you have a favorite age group to teach?
KB: I really like the 7th and 8th grade age group. You find the ones that really have that passion for dance and really want to work, work, work. It’s fun to see them really falling in love with the art, and that’s the group I see that in the most.
ADB: What would your students say your best quality is?
KB: I’m entertaining. [For example] for ballet, I’ll have my “ballet mistress” accent for them. I’ll “entertain” them into learning the proper technique.
ADB: Give an example of a moment when you, as a teacher, were most proud.
KB: For me one of the biggest accomplishments is just watching a dance come together. Last year, a dance that I coached at Le Ballet Petite that always fell apart finally came together, and everyone knew they finally did it and they were all so happy. I was so happy the hard work paid off.
ADB: Name a performance you have attended that took your breath away.
KB: ABT’s Romeo & Juliet. I got to see them in NYC and it was the first time I’d seen Romeo & Juliet in person. It had always been my favorite ballet and the opportunity to see it live (and I had really good seats too) was just mesmerizing. For my holiday classes we always watch Romeo & Juliet; the way that particular ballet hits the music, you can’t put it into words.
ADB: What’s your response to a student with a “can’t-do” attitude?
KB: I’ll work with them and make them do it, and I’ll tell them that “can’t” is not a word that belongs in this classroom. One of my classes jokes that it’s a swear word in the classroom, and I joke that I’ll put a swear word jar in that room for students who use the word without trying first.
ADB: How do you challenge your students mentally? How do you challenge them physically?
KB: I tend to be a fast talker, especially when teaching choreography. I like to give them an entire combo without demonstrating, especially in ballet lingo, and see if they can do the combo properly. Some struggle with that but others like the challenge, to see if they can get every facing, every arm. Physically, abs! A strong center means a strong dancer. I also like to push my dancers who are already flexible. I want to push each person to their personal best, because each one is so different. I have one student [right now] that’s working on splits and one that’s working on feet, and they’re best friends and challenge each other in that way too. I also have my infamous “song o leaps”. It’s something that all my students love/hate. I pick one leap (usually grand jete) and will make the students do leaps in a figure 8 pattern to a 5 minute version of the can-can song. I find that it not only helps their leaps but it pushes their endurance and its entertaining all at the same time.
ADB: If you weren’t teaching dance, what other field could you see yourself involved in?
KB: I actually went to college for criminal justice and had the intention of being a police oficer. When I received the opportunity to teach full time, when it came down to it, I couldn’t leave dance. My students will say “Officer Byrd is here!” They like to call me that now sometimes. I’ll see what happens. I could see myself doing that, but I would look more for careers in the dance field to stay connected and do that first.
ADB: What are your thoughts on improvisation?
KB: I do utilize it, especially in my older advanced hip hop. I think it’s important. I’ll often ask the students to incorporate their own movement into the choreography, and I strive to push them away from cheesey poses and [instead] come up with something that fits the song.
ADB: What is the best thing about being Wilmette Center for the Arts’ new Director?
KB: Bringing in lots of new staff, showing them the kids we have and the program we’re building and being able to be more hands on with that. Also introducing them to the team girls and watching [the new teachers] set pieces. As a teacher there too, the best thing is the performance opportunities that [the students] get. We’re a park district and for whatever reason, people think we’re not going to have a large dance program. But the building has a nice theater, 2 performances a year [a year end recital as well as the January Winter Silouhettes Dance Concert, featuring the Jr. & Sr. Companies of the Dance Force team, the top 2 levels of each genre and invited professional guest performers), plus chances to compete. We’re breaking the stereotypical park district idea. The best thing is working there and breaking that stereotype everyday. Those kids get to perform just as much, and the teachers are just as qualified.
The Wilmette Center for the Arts will feature “Holiday Nutcracker Dance Parties” on December 1 and December 15 from 4-5:15pm. Dancers and non dancers are invited to hear the story of the Nutcracker, learn a dance, meet the Sugar Plum Fairy in her tutu and pointe shoes and enjoy a light snack. One party is for ages 4-6, another for grades 1-3.
See the Winter Silouettes Dance Concert Saturday, January 19 at 4pm & 7pm at the Wilmette Community Rec Center Theatre.