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Some people discover their passion later in life, and some fall into it from a young age. Ebony Grissett Delgado, the owner of Chatham Dance Connection, has been dancing her whole life, from her early days in dance competitions, to the dance team at UNC, to owning her own studio here in Chatham. We invite you to learn more about this talented dancer and small business owner!
Tell me about yourself.
I’m Carolina born and raised. I was raised in Brunswick County, in a town called Shallotte, near Holden Beach. I came this way when I went to college at UNC Chapel Hill. Once I graduated college, I stayed here — I love being here in central North Carolina. I had a baby, got married, had more babies. Together, my husband and I have six kids; he had two and I had one when we got married, and then we had three more together. They all have danced pretty much their whole lives. My oldest is 25 and lives in Raleigh. My 15-year-old dances at Northwood High School and is actually in one of the classes that I’m subbing for right now. I also have a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son, who both dance as well.
Have you always been a dancer?
Yes! I’ve always loved dance. While I was in college, I was on the dance team there, the High Kickin’ Heels, and in an African-American dance group called the OPEYO! dancers. I started working as a dance teacher in the late ‘90s at Brittany’s Dance Studio. I realized that dance was what I truly loved so I stuck with it.
Do you gravitate toward a certain style?
I do. Tap is my favorite. I love jazz as well. I love all styles of dance, but I think I’m most proficient in jazz and tap.
Have you ever competed in dance competitions?
I’ve mostly been a recreational dancer. I did some competitions growing up, but it was nothing like what it is now. We have a competition and performance team in our studio that we started when we finally got our own studio space, but we’re still considered like a recreational company because the dancers aren’t in there for six hours a day. We just don’t demand that of our kids. But if you love it, you love it. It’s hard to stop dancing when you truly love to dance.
Do you think dance has evolved since you started?
It’s definitely become more diverse. When I was growing up, I was often one of the few people of color in my dance classes. As I got older, more and more kids dropped out, and I was the only girl of color. So it has definitely become more diverse as more African-American kids are getting involved in dance. I also see more Spanish-speaking kids in this area getting more involved in dance. And boys, too–it’s become less of a stigma. And it’s become more publicized with social media and videos. I think it’s just become more accessible. Not that TikTok is my preferred version of what dance should be, but I think it’s just made it more accessible.
What are your thoughts on the way body image has changed in the dance world?
I think it has changed a lot. Even my own thoughts about body image through the years have evolved. When I was a young dancer, I was very slim. My metabolism has definitely changed in my thirties and forties. When I was younger and very slim, I always thought that’s what a dancer body should be. Although I must say, I did have a couple of girls who danced with me growing up who did not have that stereotypical lean dance body, and they were better dancers than I was. Now at our studio, we don’t have any teachers who have that stereotypical slenderized, long-limbs, ballet-dancer-type body. Most of them are my height–I’m 5-foot-3½ –and have womanly figures.
With our kids at the studio, I’ve never promoted that you have to be a certain size, a certain body shape, or a certain skin color–everybody can dance. I welcome everyone into the studio. We do talk about health and nutrition, but we never focus on your size, your height, your weight, your build, none of that. None of that is an issue. We have kids in our company who are all different sizes and weights and body types. It’s nothing that I ever talk about as far as what you should look like as a dancer. When we go to conventions and dance competitions, my kids get to see the vast array of dancer body sizes and shapes, which I think is awesome.
One year when we were at a convention, there was a young dancer who was in one of the hip hop classes that we do. She was a healthy-sized girl; she wasn’t that skinny, tiny type, and because of her dance ability and how hard she was going at that hip hop routine in a room full of hundreds of kids, the instructor sought her out and had her come forward to perform. I thought it was amazing because so often it is that little tiny girl with the long limbs who is singled out, but this time it was her, and she got to stand out for that moment. I applauded that teacher for recognizing the effort she was putting forth rather than her size. I thought that was pretty cool.
I’d like to go back to what you said briefly about boys in the studio. Have you seen a rise in boys joining the studio? How has that changed?
When boys come into our studio, I let them know that it’s just a normal thing. I don’t make them feel as if this is a girl’s thing that they’re trying to break into. I make it normal for everyone. To try to get more boys to come in, we have offered some boys’ hip hop classes and boys’ tap classes. But for the most part, they join the general population of the class. We just normalize it; it’s just a thing that people do who love dance and not necessarily a gender-specific sport or art form.
Have you ever had kids take dance classes to help them with their balance and coordination in other sports?
I had a high school student like that once, which made me super happy to know that he did not let that stigma about boys in dance keep him from letting dance help him with his other sport. He played football, and he came in and took some classes with us. It was only for a few months, and it definitely helped him with his balance and coordination on the football field. That was pretty cool. I wish I could figure out how to do that more.
Tell me a little bit about being a small business owner in Chatham County. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change.
Oh my goodness, yes. Being a business owner has had its ups and downs for me, especially right now. When I first started the studio, it was difficult just trying to find a spot that was affordable and had the right amount of space that we needed.
In 2008, we started off at Robin’s Nest, the daycare center in Pittsboro. They had an after-school program, and they allowed me to come in a couple of days a week and do some classes there. We stayed there for a couple of years, and then we ventured over Bella Donna, which was a small restaurant and a charter school. The classroom was in the back of the restaurant. We also worked out of Camp Royall. We bounced around quite a bit before we got our own established space. Eventually we opened up in the back of the old Piggly Wiggly shopping center. We started with that after-school program and built it up over the years to where we finally had enough students to establish our own space.
Also, when I first started out, there weren’t other dance studios in Pittsboro. There was only Candy Brooks, who operated out of the community house on Thompson Street. She was there for years and years. Since then, it has exploded, in terms of other dance studios and companies here. I had an advantage in the beginning because my studio was the only other option. I had lots of kids who started to come to me by word of mouth. Some of the kids who were with Candy wanted something different. She had been in business for well over 30 years. Some kids just wanted something new, something fresh. So the business grew pretty steadily for the first few years. Then Bravo Academy of Dance opened up in the North Chatham area, and then Seven Dance Center opened a few years back in downtown Pittsboro, and then Renner Dance in Cole Park. The most recent studio to open is Royal Grace, in the Chatham Downs shopping center. Then I had a friend, who started out with me at Chatham Dance Connection, open a studio in Siler City.
So the competition to keep up is intense. But my husband always said to me, “What’s for you is for you; the kids who love you and the kids who want what you offer will always be there.” And he was absolutely right. At first I was worried: With these new flashy studios, nobody’s going to want to come here with me to my old school to take dance classes. But we still had new kids come in and lots of kids stayed with us. So the need was obviously there, and the growth is going to continue with Chatham Park coming in and all the people who are going to come along with it. So as a business, we’ve been fine. There are plenty of kids in Chatham County who want to dance, and we have been able to still continue to grow.
I love teaching dance. It’s just stuck with me all these years from the time I was about five years old. I love teaching the little ones. I love giving them their first experience with dance. There’s a lot of fun for me, watching that love of dance that starts to develop when they’re small.
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
With COVID, things took a dive. That was a hard pill to swallow, and it still is. We’re still trying to come back after closing abruptly in March. One week we were in class, and then the next week I had to come to the studio and tell my teachers that that was it. We were not allowed to stay open, and we didn’t know when we’d be able to open again. I cried all the way there because at that point, we didn’t know what was in store. It was very scary. I had never done a Zoom class. I didn’t even know what Zoom was until one of my parents mentioned it to me. So all of a sudden we went through two weeks of trying to figure things out. How do we maintain? How do we hold on to our kids? How do we continue to do what we love?
At first, we started sending out videos, posting videos on Instagram, and posting videos on our Facebook page, hoping that kids would still tune in and still want to do a class. That wasn’t terribly successful. So I opened up a Zoom account and offered the Zoom option to parents to let them know we’re still here. At first there was a pretty good response, and most everybody was receptive. We probably had about 60 to 70% retention of kids through Zoom. Then the fatigue of doing that settled in, and attendance dwindled as we headed into summer, which is usually when we have camps, classes, and master classes. So that was pretty much it — there was no summer anything.
The physical studio was closed from March until September. It was hard for me to know that things were still uncertain. We finally opened again in September, but our enrollment had dropped significantly. There were a lot of parents who still weren’t ready to send their kids to the studio but also weren’t comfortable with the Zoom platform. So we lost a lot of students, even though we’ve done everything possible that we can — the students are in masks, the teachers are in masks, we do temperature checks, we do screening, we wipe down all the high-touch surfaces, and we keep the doors open for ventilation. And so far, so good–knock on wood–everything’s been fine.
If it’s okay, I’d like to ask you a non-dance question. In my research about you, I discovered a really interesting fact: you were a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. How did that come to be?
How funny that you found that! I have been watching Wheel of Fortune my whole life. I absolutely love it. When we’re at home, I solve all the puzzles. There’ll be a couple of letters up, and I’ll spit it out. My kids and my husband are always like, “How’d you know that?!” Now they’ve gotten to the point where they just tell me to be quiet.
There’s a bus that tours with Wheel of Fortune, and one year it came to Raleigh. My kids and my husband asked me to go, and I said no. But I did also say that if it ever came back again, I’d go. A year or so later, they were at the mall in Durham, so I went. You just filled out this little card, stood in line, and then put your card in the little bin. Then they spin the little wheel around and pull out names. I did not get chosen, but then they said they were doing another session a little bit later. The second time, my name was the first name they drew.
I didn’t win the round because they didn’t get back to me to solve it. But they said they’d contact me if they thought I was worthy of going to the next round where they did an interview with each contestant on stage to see how you interacted with the host. So a few weeks later, I got a notice saying they wanted me to come back for a second round. They did another round of games, and I won my round that time. Then we had to do this whole big test to compare how you do on camera. A couple of days later, I got an email asking me to fly out to LA in two weeks. This was about a year and a half ago. We agreed to go, knowing I’d probably never get a chance to do it again.
The only downside was that you had to pay your own way. But at least we’d get a trip to LA, and I’d get to meet Pat Sajak and Vanna White. They were going to tape six episodes that day, so our day started at 7 a.m. They taught us how to spin the wheel, we taped some commercials for the show, and we did little mini speed rounds just to see how we did on stage. We got to meet Vanna when we were getting our hair and makeup done. We didn’t meet Pat Sajak until we were on the air. I did not win the overall, but I did win one of the big rounds, and I won one of the speed rounds. So I got a decent haul. Some of it paid for the trip out there, but we were also able to pay rent for a month or two for the studio.
Last question, circling back to dancing: are all six of your kids dancers?
My two step-kids don’t dance, but all four of my biological kids dance. My son has been dancing since he was two years old. Out of all of my children, he’s the one who probably is the most passionate about it and loves it the most. Even my 25-year-old still dances. The daughter of one of my good friends opened a dance company in Charlotte and asked my daughter to come teach a masterclass. She also worked for a dance company and got to tour the nation. So she’s still in the world of dance; not as a daily thing, but she still loves it. She competed when she was dancing with me, and she danced all through high school at Northwood, which has a dance department.
They’ve all been dancing pretty much from the womb. Two weeks after I had my 15-year-old, I was dancing in a dance recital with our team. So yeah, from the womb, I danced them all right out.