by Robert Hartwell
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, about 504 miles away from the theatre district in New York City. My first dance teacher was Ms. Kirstie Spadie.
I walked into Kirstie’s studio for the very first time when I was nine years old. I told her I wanted to be on Broadway by the time I was twenty-eight. She smiled and told me, “We’re going to make sure that happens by the time you’re twenty-three.”
At twenty-three, right on the dot, as Kirstie had predicted, I made my Broadway debut. She flew up from Raleigh to be there, and… of course, we both cried.
Kirstie is one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, and she’s part of my life to this day. She taught me how to dance with correct technique. She helped me get into a top BFA college program, which helped launch my career. But on a deeper and more important level, she taught me the importance of simply showing up and doing the work with heart. She taught me that a positive attitude, punctuality, professionalism, and a kind, generous spirit are qualities that will unlock so many doors in life.
It was Kirstie, in fact, who first encouraged me to start teaching, and then later, to start running my own company. Before I joined the Dreamgirls National Tour out of college, when I off-handedly mentioned that I might want to start teaching “a few classes here and there” for kids, she strongly urged me to do it.
She told me, “Robert, if you’re going to teach, here’s what you must do. You will treat every single student with dignity and respect. You will look each person in the eye. You will show them that they are safe in your classroom. It doesn’t matter if they’re headed for Broadway or not. Your job is to make sure that each student walks out of your class feeling a little more confident than before, feeling a little more possibility and hope.”
I promised her I would do that. I never forgot what she told me. Her words echo in my ears and follow me around everywhere I go.
For the last two years, I’ve been the Founder and Artistic Director of a company called The Broadway Collective. We have dance, voice, and acting classes for students, ages 10-20, who aspire to be on Broadway. We have online classes, a summer program in NYC, and we do an annual tour offering day-long classes in 12 cities around the country.
With all these different programs, we reach a lot of kids in a lot of different locations. And every single week, often at 2am or 3am in the morning, I get emails from students telling me, “My dance teacher asked me what I’ve been eating all summer. She says I’m too heavy and I’m freaking out…” or telling me, “The bullying at school is becoming unbearable. I don’t know what to do.”
These emails break my heart. Kids these days are dealing with so much stress and pain. Bullies at school. Bullies online. Pressure at school. Pressure at home. Self-imposed pressure and perfectionism, too. The ever-looming threat of school shootings. And in the midst of all this, your hormones are haywire and your body is changing into something you don’t recognize anymore. There’s almost nowhere that feels safe. Even your own body feels like a stranger. It’s a lot for a sweet, tender kid or teenager to carry on their shoulders.
And so, when a kid steps into my classroom — whether it’s our virtual classroom online, or a traditional studio with four walls and a mirror — right away, I want that child to know, “For the time that you’re here… You are safe. You belong. You are welcome. You are family. Come as you are. I don’t care if you can if you’ve been the lead in your school musical… or if you’re the best singer in your state… or if you’re destined for Broadway… or not. All I care about is… You made it here. You showed up. So let’s grow. Let’s move and sing and act and discover and sweat and shake off some stress and try new things and make something beautiful dreams come true together.”
I have the best job in the world, because I get to watch transformations happen every single day, and I get to touch people’s lives in the same way that Kirstie touched mine. I get to pay it forward.
I often watch students come into the classroom looking defeated — sometimes with their eyes down and glued to their phone, shoulders slumped, hoodie sweater zipped up. And then I watch that same student leave with a little bit of their shine back — feeling just a little more confident than before, feeling like their goals and dreams are achievable, whatever those dreams may be.
To see that moment — and every teacher knows the exact moment I’m talking about — when a little spark ignites in a student’s eyes, and they stand up a little straighter, or they raise their hand in the air and speak up for the first time, and you can see their inner confidence tank go from half-empty to full — I live for that moment.
That’s what Kirstie taught me… and that’s why I teach.