Foot Work

W hen Tia Russell and James Brockington decided to open a dance studio in 2013, they hit the pavement, leaving flyers on cars at “you name it, every event” in New Haven and Hamden, Brockington recalls. That summer, in addition to their full-time jobs, the couple ran a dance day camp for 28 students, charging just $200 for the full eight weeks. The following school year, they taught 62 students. From there, the studio leapt and bounded. By the time the pandemic hit in 2020, Tia Russell Dance Studio had about 450 students.

Though their numbers are down today, students still range in age from 18-month-olds who attend class with an adult to 70-somethings who have no youthful aspirations and just love to dance. TRDS offers classes in jazz, hip hop, West African, tap, lyrical, acro and Horton modern. Everyone is required to take ballet for a strong foundation.

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Hidden behind Amity Bowl just off Amity Road on Woodbridge’s tiny Hazel Terrace, with a second studio nearby, TRDS looks small from the outside, but inside, the 3,700-square-foot space unfurls. In the waiting area on a recent Thursday afternoon, a few younger students played before their classes began. Backpacks, sweaters and other school accoutrements were tucked into cubbies along one wall—a good sign that life is returning to normal, even though everyone is still masked up. Inside one studio with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on one wall and a set of ballet barres stored against the other, about a dozen high school-aged dancers gathered for jazz class. After stretching together, they queued up between colored lines taped on the matted floor to run through their jazz routine—an impressively complex series of twists, leaps, turns and kicks that ended with a split. Russell counted them in—5, 6, 7, 8—and ran the routine piece by piece, in small groups and then with the entire class.

“We’re big on making you feel good about what it is you’re doing [no matter] your level, your skill,” Russell says. That includes giving students the most professional experience possible. TRDS’s annual spring dance concert is staged at the Shubert Theatre, nearly filling the house three nights in a row. That crowd attests to the fact that the concert is not a traditional recital. Recent concerts, for example, have been large-scale productions of The Wiz and Circle of Life. Brockington points out that the same Shubert crew that works for professional shows produces the spring dance concerts. “So, I let our students know: Listen, you are amongst professionals,” he says. “That’s what we’re striving to do is to continue to put them in the best possible light.”

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Being treated like a professional also means learning to hear “no.” Russell and Brockington aim to prepare their dancers for the “real world” of the arts, where rejection is common. “These are also lessons that James and I have learned throughout our lives,” Russell says. “We heard a lot of nos,” Brockington agrees.

Both are New Haven natives and were dance students themselves when they first met at a local dance studio. Russell, who grew up in a family of dancers and musicians, studied at Dee Dee’s Dance Center. Later, she began auditioning for professional dance opportunities, taught at other studios, dabbled in choreography and tried running a female dance company for a year before she considered opening her own studio. Brockington enjoyed dance, too, but studied business in school. When she tentatively floated the idea of a studio, he was ready to take action. “He had more faith in me than I think I had in myself,” Russell says.

Today, with 22 years of teaching experience and eight years as a business owner, Russell says she’s “like a grandma teacher” to some of her students, whose parents she taught at other studios early on. Part of what keeps families coming back to TRDS, she and Brockington agree, isn’t just that they’re teaching dance skills; they’re teaching life skills. They often show up to support their students at school functions and family events, and they aim to get to know every child. “Even through the pandemic, we were able to learn a lot about our students and about some of the emotional issues that they experienced,” Russell says. “We’re really, really focused on the youth and on just being a light to them in some way.”

During the pandemic, when they couldn’t produce a stage show, Russell and Brockington produced a student film instead, titled This Is America?, and gave 18 screenings for students and their families at the Cinemark theater in North Haven. Now that the studio is back in action, post-pandemic pricing to encourage families to return or join is almost as big a bargain as that first summer camp was. Students under nine years old start with 30-minute classes; fees start at $45 a month for one class per week. Discounts are offered for additional classes and for siblings. Students over nine years old take 60-minute classes, starting at $65 a month for one class per week.

“We want them at the studio versus being home,” Brockington says of the discounted prices and Russell nods in agreement. “They just spent the whole year at home. We want them at the studio where they can embrace who they are.”

Tia Russell Dance Studio
17 Hazel Terr, Woodbridge (map)
(203) 389-7599 | [email protected]
www.trdstudio.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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