Sometimes it takes two to tango when mapping out big career or business moves, and a new wave of dance-centric coaches is helping dancers do just that.
A 27-year-old, mid-ranking soloist dancer seeking insights on how to progress within the European company she was a member of. A 50-something dance teacher learning how to navigate the freelance life after steady employment with a dance school for two decades. A budding dance entrepreneur who needed help narrowing down “a million ideas” on how to navigate their dance transition.
What do they all have in common? They’ve all sought out the help of coach Matz Skoog, who specializes in professional and leadership development for creative people and performers. On the heels of his own significant experience as a former artistic director and international ballet dancer, Skoog wants to pave the way for others in the dance world to achieve longevity and satisfaction as their careers evolve.
“I just turned 65 and I’ve been in the business since age 8—my creative path has been a long and varied journey,” says Skoog. “I wanted to help another generation of artists coming out of the ranks to be better prepared than I had been.”
Skoog is part of a new wave of coaches who are calling on their own insights and backgrounds as former professional dancers to support others still in the field. Spanning business, life and leadership coaching, these dance-centric coaches are equipped to address a wide variety of challenges, from crises of confidence and ambitious career moves to designing new dance programs.
“Coaching isn’t just about giving advice—that’s more the job of a mentor or consultant,” says Kirsten Kemp, who offers high-performance mindset coaching for pre-professional and professional ballet dancers. “What a real coach does is to ask insightful and strategic questions to help [the client] become resourceful in understanding themselves and coming to their own answers.”
Talking the Talk
For potential clients, it can be a huge draw to know that a coach has walked far more than a mile in their (dance) shoes. In Kemp’s case, she has worked both as a professional dancer for the Oklahoma City Ballet and as a classical ballet instructor, but she established her mindset coaching practice after a knee injury sidelined her in 2018. She says it was during her training at Houston Ballet Academy that she first became attuned to the high prevalence of low self-esteem and performance anxiety among dancers.
“There were enormous amounts of pressure, and most of us felt unprepared to handle it,” recalls Kemp. “They would bring in a sports psychologist every other week, but over time, I started to wonder why we don’t have support that is specific to dancers. Ballet is a very specific culture with weird rules and norms, and traditional therapists often don’t understand that world or offer applicable advice.”
As for Skoog, the need for more leadership development for dancers in career transition became blatantly clear when he found himself in that position. Having been a member of the Royal Swedish Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Rambert Dance Company, and a principal dancer for the English National Ballet (among others), Skoog entered uncharted territory when he was appointed artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1996 and, later, artistic director of English National Ballet from 2001 to 2005.
“I was in positions of leadership and responsibility without any real preparation and training for that sort of thing; it was assumed because I had a successful dance career that I would be a good artistic director,” shares Skoog, who began coaching in 2006. “While I was good artistically, I was lacking many skills when it came to leadership and management. [Dancing] can be a very self-centered existence—[necessitating] focus on your body and well-being. In a leadership position, you have to look outside and beyond yourself and assume responsibility for everyone around you. It can be quite a hard adjustment and mindset shift for dancers to make.”
As a certified executive coach, Skoog now helps narrow those gaps for others, leading them through a deep dive into their goals, challenges and necessary growth areas. He typically works one-on-one with up to 15 clients at a time, offering six-session packages as well as bespoke options after an initial free consultation. “We look at three primary themes: What do you want? What do you need to do to get what you want? What’s stopping you?” says Skoog. “Once clients know what they want, it’s a matter of putting the steps and strategies and accountability into place.”
Making the Leap
Erin Pompa (Pride) found herself asking these hard questions on her own road to becoming an online dance entrepreneur. For 14 years, Pompa ran the dance department at her alma mater, Paterson, NJ–based Rosa L. Parks High School of Fine and Performing Arts, but after a decade she found her motivation waning. “When I first started working there, I loved it, so when I realized I wanted to do something different, it broke my heart and disrupted everything around me,” says Pompa.
Today, Pompa says she has found her purpose as the creator and leader of Dancepreneur Academy, a coaching program that helps dance entrepreneurs design a group program in their area of specialty. Some of the clients Pompa has worked with to date include a Fulbright scholar who created a group program meshing dance, travel and Peruvian heritage; and a studio owner who now helps birthing bodies continue their movement practice throughout pregnancy and childbirth.
As part of the six-month, $6,500 coaching cohort, Pompa includes one-on-one calls, group calls, and opportunities to connect with guest experts (such as finance and legal). Together she and her clients work through a three-step process that covers setting a solid foundation for the dance business, identifying program outcomes and ideal customers, and creating a proven process that will guarantee results for participants. “We often lack confidence because we lack information, so I empower the artists I work with to learn how to run a healthy, sustainable business,” says Pompa, who is also the creator of the Dance Boss podcast.
Like Pompa, Kemp has also made her mark as a coach by developing signature coaching programs, though hers are rooted in one-on-one coaching. Currently, she offers “The Confident Dancer” (a four-month program geared toward helping ballet dancers overcome mental blocks) and “Career Clarity” (a six-session package for dancers in transition). Along with the one-on-one sessions, clients also receive access to a resource library, custom journaling prompts, and video courses. “My goal is to help dancers facilitate better understanding of themselves and make empowered decisions,” says Kemp.
Though the coaching industry has exploded in recent years as the second-fastest-growing industry in the U.S., coaches specializing in the dance field are still somewhat rare. According to Skoog, helping potential clients understand what a coach does—and does not do—is paramount.
“The word ‘coaching’ has a very particular connotation within the dance world, and people might think more of sports coaches who train or instruct,” says Skoog. “I’m more of a facilitator who helps clients take ownership of their development. Once they take that ownership, they’re more likely to be intrinsically motivated and successful.”
Jen Jones Donatelli is a Cleveland-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and Dance Retailer News, and she is the former managing editor of CheerProfessional magazine.