How to Sustain a Nearly 40-Year-Old Competition Dance Studio Empire
March 22, 2021

Tawney Giles knows how to make competition magic. As the daughter of Southern Strutt founder Nancy Giles, she grew up learning from the best. Now, as co-director of the school, she’s helping guide this 39-year-old South Carolina dance studio into the future with some values from the past: technique, camaraderie and hard work.

At 18 years old, Giles graduated from her life of training, competing and attending conventions to move to Los Angeles to pursue a professional career in the entertainment industry. She kick-started her career by attending the then-Tremaine Dance Studio’s scholarship program, and for the following eight years she danced in commercials, TV shows and in the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes.

Once satisfied with her performance career, Giles made the move back to Southern Strutt, where she started teaching under her mother’s tutelage. She’s been there, shaping young artists, for the 15 years since.

When it comes to a teaching philosophy, Giles prioritizes hard work. “At the beginning of each year, I have my students write ‘You get what you work for, not what you wish for’ down in their journals,” she says. “There are some dancers who are talented because they were born that way, while others aren’t—yet they rise above. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

That philosophy translates into a major focus on technique. “We train year-round, and fill their schedules with all disciplines,” she says. Competition dances are only rehearsed on the weekends or run once at the end of classes during the week. Their primary focus is ballet and jazz technique, flexibility, acrobatics and strength/conditioning.

Giles also prioritizes shaping gracious humans out of her competition dancers. Though they compete to win, Giles says she teaches her dancers that they will also lose from time to time. “There will be times when you did your best, but someone else was stronger, or the judges didn’t like your song that day,” she says. “You simply will not win all the time, but losing can be used as a tool to make you better. It can push you to work harder.”

Photo courtesy Giles

Giles sets an expectation for tactful responses to competition outcomes with her students early in the year. If a student is found to be pouting or behaving poorly at a competition, they will sit out the next competition as a lesson. “Kids don’t automatically know how to lose or win,” she says. “They have to be taught. You need to talk to them about being gracious.”

Here, Giles shares her favorite teaching tips and tools—plus her go-tos outside of the studio.

Her go-to teaching attire:

“Everything Athleta because it’s all so comfortable, fits me well, and I love the way it looks. I also always have Nike Air Max on my feet.”

Favorite props for class:

“I use ankle weights, TheraBands, yoga blocks and stall bars when I teach. We usually just get them from T.J. Maxx.”

How she creates camaraderie within her teams:

“It’s really all the extra stuff outside of rehearsal that makes your studio a family unit. For example, our Mother’s Club puts on four or five big events for the competition dancers each year. That includes a big and little sister program, and a celebration in our parking lot with pumpkins and games at Halloween. They also do a big Christmas party, and they get together to do dinner nights with Olive Garden and movies.”

Favorite afternoon energy boost:

“I like to have a Juice Plus+ protein shake with kale, frozen berries and flaxseed, along with some sort of small sandwich or salad.”

Her daily breakfast:

“An açai bowl or oatmeal with fruit.”

On managing anxious parents:

“At the beginning of our dance year, we have a parent meeting and my mom lays out her expectations. She makes it clear they’re always welcome to meet with us to discuss any concern, but there is a 24-hour waiting policy: If a situation comes up, we ask that they wait 24 hours to be sure it really is something worth discussing. We’ve found that taking the time to calm down can really solve a lot of problems. Then, if they still feel they need to talk, we set up a time to speak candidly and work through it.”

Most-loved nondance hobbies:

“I love to scrapbook and journal because it de-stresses me and calms me. I like to bake and cook for the same reason. I love new recipes and delivering goodies. I also love the beach because it’s peaceful and calming.”

Exercise obsession:

“I love CrossFit because it’s always different. Every class changes and hits different parts of the body. I also love that it both works cardio and builds muscle.”

Unwinding must-dos:

“The best way for me to relax at the end of a long day is to take a hot bubble bath, lay on the couch, turn on the TV, and just be a normal person for an hour and a half. I love crime TV, like Dateline and 20/20. As crazy as it sounds, that calms me down.”

The items she never leaves home without:

“I never leave without a water bottle, a GoMacro power bar, my computer for teaching and an essential-oils de-stress roller from Young Living.”

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