An Interview with Fred Astaire Dance Studio’s Co-National Dance Director
On a recent vacation with his partner, Stephen Knight listened as his friends at the end of the trip complained about having to return to work once they got home. “Someone turned to me and said, ‘How come you’re not saying anything?’ I said, ‘I’m ready to go back to work. I love work. I’m the luckiest guy in the world that I have a career that enables me to spread so much happiness.’”
Stephen started with our company in 1977, rising through the ranks from dance instructor and professional dancer to studio owner, judge, coach and then the Fred Astaire National Dance Board. He says he’ll teach from a wheelchair when he’s old if he has to, he loves it that much.
“I love getting up in the morning and changing people’s lives,” he says. “I see the excitement. I see how they feel better about themselves, laugh more, smile more, engage with more people, and I always say I will never retire. The product of dance lessons builds self-esteem, feeling good, it’s a good cardio workout, and dancers use their brains, build balance and coordination.”
He’s seen students who were taking medicine for diabetes or high blood pressure after a year of dancing no longer need their medication at all. He sees students who come in hunched over within a year standing tall and confident.
Stephen believes dancing can reverse aging. “It’s the only product in the world that continues to increase in value.”
Overseeing all regional and studio dance directors, Stephen guides our instructors nationwide on dance instruction. “We’re in charge of the product and the service,” he says.
Stephen gushes about the Fred Astaire approach to dance instruction, calling it “the country club of ballroom dancing as far as instruction goes.”
Fred Astaire uses the Trophy System of dance instruction, Stephen explains. Social dancers not only learn to dance; they can dance with the characteristics of the dance, using the techniques, he attests.
“There are many dancers out there who simply know the steps. We bring the feeling into what it means to dance,” Stephen explains.
Fred Astaire’s Trophy System consists of bronze, silver and gold levels of social dancing. Students move through the levels, learning at a quick rate because of their level of commitment.
Instructors chart student progress. A national dance council of more than 50 members keeps the curriculum current and oversees instructor training.
Learning to dance is “about having good rise and fall, understanding what sway is, being able to be rhythmical, knowing the difference between time and rhythm, building partner skills,” Stephen says. “All these things make a good dancer.”
“Because dancing is an intangible product, we really concentrate on making sure the student feels the difference, that they feel graceful when they dance the waltz, powerful and strong when they dance a tango, have the sensuous rhythm of a beautiful rumba.”
It’s imperative, says Stephen, to use your body to express the music.
Of course, it takes time to develop this, but once you possess the feeling of dancing, you have it for life.
And dance does wonders, he says.
“We bring the romance back into couples that have been married 25-30 years, empty-nesters, all of a sudden looking at each other and saying, ‘Wow how did we get to this place.’ We ignite that spark again, they’re holding hands, kissing, in their arms, the romance is back. The number of people who came to me and said ‘You saved our marriage because we didn’t know each other anymore…’”
Stephen relays that there have been widows and widowers who come to him after taking up dancing and saying dancing saved their lives. “They come in and feel so alone and lost after losing a spouse, and thanks to dance, they feel safe and excited. There is something to get up in the morning for, they’re doing it for themselves, all positive good health and wellness.”
When Stephen started in the 1970s, it was mostly seniors who danced. Today people of all ages and life stages come into the studio.
“We have millennials dancing with a baby boomer,” Stephen says. “We know the generations are totally different. Dancing connects everybod. I call coming into the studio Adult Disneyland, it’s a place now more than ever where people can escape the stress and tension of normal life. They find that they’re so much better for everything else. Because they take that time to energize themselves.”
Stephen’s approach to dance instruction is to really get to know students.
“I find out everything about them from birth – siblings, schools attended, what they do in their spare time, career … the more I know about them, the more I can personalize training.”
But what’s more important, says Stephen, is that he gets students to believe in the possibility that they can dance and dance well.
“I get them feeling. Once we get there, the magic just runs.”
When he started with the company at 17, Stephen was drawn to the excitement and the glamour of dance. As time evolved, he became more excited about learning the stories of the people who came to dance. His energy went into helping other people change their lives.
How, you might ask?
Recent college grads come in, scared about entering the work force, frustrated at not being able to find a job. When Stephen guides them in dance lessons, they gain confidence and positivity and before you know it, they’re different in job interviews, and receiving offers for jobs.
Single adults come in, looking to meet someone but not interested in the bar scene or online dating. They have fun at the group lessons, studio parties, and before you know it, they’ve met someone because they started feeling good and happy.
“The beauty of Fred Astaire is that we have the ability to hone in on exactly what the students’ wants and needs are; it’s our job to deliver,” Stephen says.
“In my opinion, this product, bar none, can enrich lives, can change lives…there is no better medicine than dancing,” says Stephen.