This year, Jersey Tap Fest turns 10. By the time you’re hearing this, I will actually be in day 2 of the 10th annual celebration of JTF.
I want to celebrate by sharing 10 years of lessons learned, challenges I overcame, changes made, biggest mistakes and more.
Stick around because I’ll start by sharing the challenges I’ve experienced over the years and how I overcame them. I’ll also talk about changes I’ve made and why. But I’ll finish up with the extra fun stuff, and those are my biggest mistakes. And I share those in hopes that it will save you some time and money to not repeat them.
So! Let’s get started with some challenges.
The secret to production is how quickly you can put out fires. If you can put out a fire so fast, that no one even notices it was an issue, than you’re winning as a producer.
Every year was always something and like I said, the faster you can put out the fire, the stronger of a producer you are. But, sometimes the challenges you come across aren’t literal obstacles to overcome, but they’re the people that you come across.
Being taken advantage of
I would hire artists who would demand to be paid more money at the last minute, claiming they never signed a contract. Demanding to be paid cash at the last minute, again, claiming they never signed a contract. Literally, the contract in my hand and they’d say, “I know that’s my signature but I don’t remember that”.
Artists going rogue and not showing up to their class time, literally, blowing off their class, and expecting to be paid the same amount they were promised as if they had taught all the classes they were contracted to.
I had a theatre one time try and overcharge me an extra $2,000 simply because I didn’t provide their union crew with Coca-Cola. Literally, I gave them pizza and water, they didn’t work the entire show because I brought in my own crew. And they claimed it was a breach of contract because it was water and not coke, and water isn’t a real meal. I fought that, and did not pay it, but they sure tried it.
In terms of challenges, every year had a challenge. There were never a Jersey Tap Fest gone easy year. But, the whole being taken advantage of thing, that stopped by about year 5 due to a combination of things. Being older - developing an ability to clearly communicate and stand my ground - hiring people based on their human character alongside their artistry, and not solely their artistry.
As I became more involved with the Lindy Hop circuit, it inspired me to try new things. They have events that are pretty similar to tap festivals. And they’re always inspired to try something new. And I’m not talking little changes, I’m talking big, HUGE, program format changes. And they were fearless about it. So it inspired me to go big and make some big changes, and the easiest place to start making those changes for me, was in the show.
So the following year, I offered two shows. My publicist was pushing for me to offer more performances to encourage press to review the event. And at that time, I was in a mood where I wanted to focus more on the artistry of the performances than the classes. So I saw it as a win win, and went for it. I presented my show Soul Walk, and the second performance was the faculty concert. But, I changed from the traditional faculty concert format to inviting 3 companies to a 15-20 minute work and youth companies performing in between. The faculty show was cool, but it didn’t entirely come out the way I was hoping it would. It felt a little choppy. If I were to do it again, maybe I’d throw out some sort of theme that I’d want them all to loosely tie together with. So with these two shows on the same weekend, what ended up happening was a lot of people picked one show or the other. They didn’t attend both. In hindsight, I would have offered a package ticket deal. Something like $30/show, or $40 for both. Something that would have financially encouraged them to attend both. However, I’m not certain how that would’ve worked out administratively.
Now the year before I did this two show split thing, I made a rule that no one was allowed to be on stage by themselves. No more solos. I was sick of what I call the solo parade. My definition of the solo parade is when it’s back to back to back to back solo, and it just becomes increasingly faster, more intense, heavier hitting footwork. It’s like everyone feels the pressure of comparison and gives into it, throwing music to the wind and subconsciously trying to outdo each other. So to prevent that, I told everyone that they had to share the stage with someone. I didn’t care who. It could be another faculty member, it could be a spoken word artist, violinist, didn’t matter to me, but no solos.
I liked what came out of that, but it wasn’t as tight as I wanted, so the following year was the two show split, and then the year after that, instead I went on to curate it more by grouping people together. If you are an event producer and you choose to do something like this, you’ve gotta know how much thought was truly put into it. I was able to pair people together that I knew would work in terms of personality, but also in terms of convenience. I would put people together based on whether or not they had worked together, so I knew they would have a basis of material to pull from. Karen - Jeff - Kyle from NJTAP did a piece together. Lisa - Claudia - Me did a piece together, we worked in the Sophisticated Ladies, but I was also in Lisa’s Tap Phonics group for a while. And this came out to be really nice. Anthony Morigerato and Ayodele did a piece together, and they had recently done a video together and some live performance together through Operation Tap. So it worked out beautifully and I really enjoyed this type of show format. It felt more connected, more like a full-length concert and less like a tap festival recital.
No matter what changes I did to the show - it was always a 75-90 minute show at most. If it hit 90 minutes, it’s because we had an intermission. We never, ever did a 2-3 hour show. That’s ridiculous.
Other changes I’ve also tried out over the years… I also scrapped our panel discussions. The format of a panel discussion is pretty set across the board at festivals. It can often be in brunch format, the day after the show, so everyone’s super tired and not in the mood to really talk no matter how much orange juice and doughnuts you give them. Everyone would go down the line and give their story about how they started dancing. And it just got old after so many years. Many of the people who attended JTF attended for 3-7 consecutive years depending on their age. More people than not, had already heard these stories. Weird things would come out of the panel discussions too, like people’s insecurities. I think it’s specifically because there were SO many people on the panel, sometimes up to 15. Someone would ask a question about how did you know when you wanted to become a tap dancer, and it would turn into a weird pissing contest of who could name drop bigger, what awards they’ve won, and they wouldn’t really answer the question. Again, it was giving into that comparisonitis. So I changed to a more intimate Tap Talks, where I would bring together 2 or 3 artists that I knew would talk shop well together. We didn’t do background, we didn’t talk about when we first started dancing, we just started answering questions right out the gate. And the questions were beautiful, man. My students who were there would often kick it off with deep stuff. And the discussions that came out were beautiful. You can hear some of it, in episodes XYZ.
Year ten and I’m still making big changes. This year, instead of hosting over 200 tap dancers and 20 some faculty with a 4-day event and live concert, I put out a call for 20 high level teenage and adult tap dancers. I’ll be hosting them for a 5 Day event at my studio, Grooves Unlimited Dance Studio, with 3 other artists. This is an entirely different program. Many people thought it was an additional program, but no, this was the entire program offering. It’s a tap festival format that I haven’t really seen before. I’m SUPER excited about it. But I’ll wait to tell you more about it in a future episode when I have a chance to reflect on it when it’s all wrapped.
I share my biggest mistakes with you in hopes that you don’t have to go through them. These are lessons that I learned the hard way and a lot of these lessons are life lessons across the board. They’re not specific to tap festivals only. They apply to many aspects of life. So here we go… my biggest mistakes in the 10 years of JTF...
Not hiring help soon enough
I truly was convinced that no one could do the tasks that needed to be done as well as me. This is a challenge that a lot of entrepreneurs come up against. And I’ll say flat out, it’s just stupid. It’s both your ego and your heart talking. Your heart truly wants everything to go well and be done perfectly, and your ego steps in and says, I’m number one. No one can do it better than me.
I had interns since year one, I always had interns because I was an intern at tap festivals when I was a kid, so I knew it was important. But I wasn’t letting them take on as much as I should have. Over time, I loosened the reigns, and I started to delegate. Then with time and an increase of money, I started hiring people to help with the event, and so on.
I had to transition from doer, to leader, in order to grow and sustain the growth in my business. And I had to be willing to invest financially into paying for help, before the registration dollars even rolled in. So what was my biggest mistake, forced me to start hiring help and growing my team, and that was one of the smartest moves I ever made.
Accepting volunteer help
Free help is not free. It comes at a cost. Maybe not financial, but it could be the cost of your sanity, your well being, your safety or your friendship with that person. Don’t do it! No matter how tempting it is, do NOT accept free help. I don’t consider interns to be free help because they’re working in exchange for a specific amount of money in class dollars, and I always made sure to protect their class time. There are a lot of festivals where people work like 100 hours, and dance about 5. I don’t play that. My interns get their class time, because like I said before, I was an intern so I’m empathetic to their situation. I’m talking about friends just straight up offering free help - to design the postcard - film the show - manage social media - whatever it is - just say no thank you, or get your wallet out and compensate them for it. Because when you pay someone to do work for you, it’s a transaction. You do this for me, I give you money. And the transaction is complete. There’s no, “remember when I did you that favor?” or “yeah, I didn’t get around to it yet…” So no matter how tempting it is to accept free help, just pass.
Not taking care of myself
I used to run myself into the ground with this event. I would be sick for about 10 days after it finished. No voice - head cold - you name it. One year, I caught a terrible terrible flu, and it was the year we had that 2 show weekend. I wanted to die on stage. One of the reasons I hired an MC for the show for many years was simply because I couldn’t talk on stage, I had no voice.
So in time, I learned to take care of myself. I didn’t hang out late at night with everyone. It broke my heart because that’s one of my favorite parts of a tap festival, the hangs. But, it’s not teh same when you’re the director, so I learned my lesson. I’d make the dinner reservations for everyone to hang each night, go with everyone, get everything settled, and then I’d order my food to go, eat it in the hotel room, shower and go straight to bed. I literally had a timer set. I would shoot for 8 hours of sleep, but come hell or high water, I needed a minimum of 6, or I was guaranteed to get sick.
I also learned to meal prep for the week. To be honest with you, I owe this one to my mom. For the last few years of JTF, she would prep food for me in little containers that I could easily walk around with. And she would just put them in my hands while I worked throughout the week. She wouldn’t ask if I was hungry or if I ate. She just put the food in my hand with a water bottle, and I’d eat while working. This way no one had to wait for me to look at a menu to order, wait for the deli to deliver the sandwich. I could eat healthy food throughout the day.
So yeah, you’ve gotta take care of yourself. If the director gets sick and falls apart, that’s not good for anyone.
Hiring people for their big name
When you first start out, the only way to attract people to your event is based on your guest artists. You’ve gotta bring in names that people want to study with. But not everyone who has a big name is a kind person. So I had a number of really challenging years specifically because of the energy that certain artists brought with them. But, the beautiful thing, is that in time, you build your own name as a producer. And people learn that events produced and directed by you, have a certain vibe, they come at a certain price point, a certain quality of experience. That trustworthy reputation allows you to bring in the underdogs, bring in the people who aren’t as popular but who are truly fantastic, beautiful artists and beautiful people inside and out who are deserving of the opportunity. My biggest mistake was not realizing and harnessing this trust sooner, and for that reason, I put up with a lot of crap for a lot of years. But remember, trust takes time to build, and it often requires a near flawless record. Just because you’ve been producing for 10 years doesn’t mean people trust you, you have to provide them with the quality of experience that they’re seeking to experience for a number of years, and then the trust is earned.
Not being able to say no
This was really in the early years. I was a kid. I was 17 years old. And I was so excited to have this event and I was telling people about it and I couldn’t believe how many people said “Hillary, I’d love to be a part of your festival”. I was in awe, because they wanted to be a part of MY thing. Well, it was young, and ignorant. Of course they wanted to be a part of it, it was a paying gig. So I said yes, to SO many people. My faculty during my first year was like 20 some people, it was crazy. If you’re ever starting an event off in your first year, please, do yourself a favor and keep the faculty small. I lost SO much money that year, not just because it was my first year and you should give yourself about 3 years to break even on your artistic business adventure, but I lost this money simply because I went too big. So, start small - be small and mighty - then scale.
My Biggest Takeaways
All in all, I’m so thankful for what the last ten years have given me. I’ve crossed paths with so many people over the years because of Jersey Tap Fest, new friends, mentors, students. So many beautiful relationships. Jersey Tap Fest gave me a foundation for my career as a touring tap dance artist. It was an outlet for my personal expression - an outlet for me to celebrate and give back to the tap dance community that I grew up in. Jersey Tap Fest gave me these 10 years of life lessons. And for that, I’m filled with gratitude.
My biggest takeaways from doing this over the last ten years,
If you don’t see an event… create it…
Create the changes you wish to see in the world, starting in your own community. If you don’t see something that you feel belongs in the world, an event, a business, a service, whatever it is, create it. Don’t wait for someone else to create it, definitely don’t wait for someone to give you permission (or money, ‘cause that’s definitely not happening).
Invest in your own dreams. Invest your time, money, thoughts, into your dreams.
Grow a team. We’ve heard that team work makes the dream work - and it’s true. Because you truly can’t do anything alone. So grow your team and surround yourself with people who are on the same mission as you, and spend that time together uplifting each other and your community.
Take those lessons learned every year and RUN with them. Document them - analyze them - make changes - learn the next round of lessons, and repeat the process.
Over all, and you guys know I’m a huge advocate of this, having an entrepreneurial spirit in the artistic community is important, especially in the younger arts generation. The joy I’ve experienced, the lessons learned, the education I’ve received, the people I’ve met… I wish an opportunity like this on everyone. I wouldn’t be who I am today without this experience.