Candid Conversation: Chasta Hamilton

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Chasta Hamilton lifts up others from life lessons learned on—and off—stage

Chasta Hamilton’s most striking feature is her smile. Wide and radiant, it emanates a joy that is contagious. At age 37, she has plenty of reasons to smile—she has already achieved what many take a lifetime to do. Not only was Hamilton a Park Scholar at North Carolina State University and director or choreographer of 35 community theater shows, she’s also a two-time book author, nonprofit founder and president, TEDx speaker and Goodmon Award recipient. The Triangle Business Journal named Hamilton to its prestigious “40 Under 40” list in 2014 and a “Future Star” in its 2016 “Women in Business Awards” feature. Many of these accolades are attributed to her work as founder and CEO of Stage Door Dance Productions, which she launched in 2009. The company now serves 700 students at its Brier Creek and Lake Boone Trail locations in Raleigh.

Everything was not always rosy for Hamilton. Born and bred in the eastern Tennessee town of Mohawk, she lost her father when she was only 2, and her mother seven years later from cancer. A divorce and miscarriage strained her adult life. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on her business, not long after she made the momentous decision to exit the wildly popular world of competitive dance. Yet Hamilton persevered. As part of the healing process, she wrote “Handle the Horrible,” in which she recounts not only the heartbreaks, but also the victories that keep her smiling.

You experienced loss at an early age. What was that like for you?

The loss of both of my parents in my childhood was horrible and very atypical. As a parent now, I’m realizing that was an exceptional circumstance. My mom’s sister, Cheryl, retired from the Air Force and moved back to Tennessee to finish raising me. The collective community of eastern Tennessee is a great example of the power of humanity. When I opened the studios, I wanted to bring metro sophistication alongside that hometown feel. That’s something the staff and I take very seriously: How can we make each person feel seen? That goes a long way.

How did being a Park Scholar at NCSU lead you to a career in dance?

I started a pursuit as a lawyer in college but realized it wasn’t my thing. I started dancing when I was 2—it’s always been a part of me. I was freelance teaching at different studios and choreographed musicals, but I wasn’t sure of the direction that it would take. In my senior year, I directed the Sightless Rhythm Tap Project at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind. I had gotten grant funding for it so I was able to buy the school tap shoes and put on a show. The joy that dance gave them showed me that I could take this art and we could change the world with it. So, in retrospect, it was that whisper of the entrepreneurial spirit.

You were 22 years old when you opened your studio. How did you have the confidence to do that at such a young age?

I was clearly overly confident. There was no question that we would fail. I taught at different studios, but there was nothing about any of them that truly felt like what I could create, and what I held close to my heart from my hometown. I loved those experiences, but it also taught me that I could carve my own space in the market, which I wasn’t very good at, at first. It was a learning process.

In your first book, “Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul,” you describe the reasons your studio exited competitive dance. What was the biggest motivator?

We competed from 2009–2015. We were successful but not hypercompetitive. If students were winning, they were leaving to be trained in a more competitive environment. If they were losing, they felt they weren’t being challenged enough. It made everything feel derailed.

We replaced our competitive team with an intensive training program. The dancers are learning to use their art for a greater purpose, and they perform throughout the year for the community. What I love about the program is our philanthropic benefit show, which we named last year as our “Movement & Meaning” show. The students fully produce it and earn money to get their routines into the show by fundraising. They have raised $70,000 since 2017 for a variety of nonprofits like Global H20, Me Fine Foundation, Frankie Lemmon School & Developmental Center, Comfort Zone Camp, Pretty In Pink Foundation and GiGi’s Playhouse. Everything we’ve donated toward represents some of our community’s story.

Tell us about your own nonprofit, Girls Geared For Greatness.

I founded Girls Geared For Greatness in 2018. It’s a training series designed to empower and inspire girls ages 7–18, locally and nationally. Initially an extension of Stage Door Dance Productions, it quickly gained momentum and is now its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This year, the Intensive Training Program Dancers at Stage Door Dance Productions are going to fundraise to build the Future is Female Fund at Girls Geared For Greatness, which will award enrichment grants so females can achieve their passion and pursuits. We do a lot of leadership training, but I wanted the impact to take action. This fundraising initiative will culminate with our benefit show on April 29 at Stewart Theatre at NCSU. We anticipate that we’re going to be able to start awarding grants toward the end of summer 2023.

Your second book, “Handle the Horrible: Change. Triage. Joy.” radiates positivity, especially for young women. Why did you decide to write it?

I wrote it as a coping mechanism during those darkest moments of the pandemic. As women, we hold back on our stories because they make us feel vulnerable, but our stories are our power. After experiencing so much loss, I realized that it’s better to lean into our truth. Especially because I work with female youth, I see that struggle of authenticity. The pressures [of social media and the pandemic] have really taken a toll on their mental wellness. This is a time to carve a better space in society. The helpers are emerging.

You recently took part in the State of the Girl event in Raleigh. What did you discover?

We had representatives from organizations like InterAct and Girls on the Run, and North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper came.

We had gathered letters from girls in middle and high schools in our community asking them, “What do you feel is the state of the girl?” and the responses were alarming. All of these issues about the gender gap, social media … It was a conversation about how can we, as adult leaders, take this knowledge and better lead our female youth. It was so empowering, and we’ll continue to do more.

Tell us about your family.

I’m married to John, who’s from Raleigh. Our son, Sebastian (“Bash”), was born in 2021 and we have a dog, Elvis.

What do you do to relax?

I enjoy traveling, but I’ve created this life that I really do love. It’s relaxing in itself.

You’ve accomplished so much. Do you have other goals?

My personal dream is to have a very peaceful, passionate, rewarding life. But my larger scheme dream is helping future leaders understand what they’re capable of. Right now, I’m sitting in the founder/CEO role but I’ve stepped back from teaching. I’d like to open up leadership opportunities for our staff who have been with us a long time. I want us to create great dancers, but above that I want to make sure we’re creating amazing humans. That’s going to last so much longer.

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