When the artistic director at a Chicago dance company told Justin Sears-Watson that he lacked fire, he thought his boss was joking. But the comment wasn’t followed by a punch line.
Incredulous, he thought: “Do you know how I’ve lived? Do you know what I had to do to get to this place?”
Years after receiving that feedback early in his career, it’s that fire – the emotion, the heart and love for dance – that Sears-Watson, a company member with Dance Kaleidoscope, displays every time he takes the stage.
What audiences don’t see, however, are the layers of emotional heaviness he sheds with each leap, turn and bow.
“As an artist, people see you perform and think that you have everything together. They think that everything is going wonderfully,” he says. “Dance literally saved my life.”
The Evansville native credits the art form with helping him overcome the emotional pain of being homeless as a child; the physical pain of going without food; the psychological pain of being teased because he was poor; and the deep heartache he felt when, at age 10, he and his three brothers (including his twin) were taken away from their mother and placed in foster care.
- Courtesy Justin-Sears Waston
Justin Sears-Watson is a company member with Dance Kaleidoscope. The Evansville native opened Phoenix Rising Dance Studios in November 2015.
“My mother, who was an addict, basically called CPS on herself,” he recalls.
Today, Sears-Watson is using dance to help save others.
In November 2015, he opened Phoenix Rising Dance Studios with his husband and business partner, Will Sears-Watson.
Tucked into a strip mall between a nail salon and an insurance company in the 7800 block of West Michigan Road, the colorful 6,200-square-foot studio offers classes – group and private – in ballet (including pointe), modern, jazz, tap, hip-hop/street, and musical theater for students of all levels, as well as competition teams in all dance styles through its youth performance company PRD Talent.
Although focused on spreading the love of dance to children, Phoenix Rising offers classes for adults and provides rehearsal space for dance companies without a permanent home. Currently Crossroads Dance Indy and Kenyetta Dance Company are two local companies renting rehearsal space inside the studios.
On any given day – or night – you can see dancers perfecting technique or working on pieces through the large picture window at the front of the building. That the window isn’t covered is not accidental.
Inside are state-of-the-art Harlequin marley dance floors, colorful studios, a parent lounge with an observation widow to one of the inner studios, and an area for staff and students to relax between classes or grab a quick bite to eat. They’ve spared no expense.
On a recent December evening, Vanessa Owens (co-founder and managing director of Kenyetta) was working on a tap routine with students of various ages; Justin was teaching a private class; and a group of young ladies were taking ballet with instructor Paige Robinson.
- Courtesy Phoenix Rising Dance Studios
Vanessa Owens (left) owner of Kenyetta Dance Company teaches a tap class at Phoenix Rising Dance Studios, which offers rehearsal space for local dance companies.
The front door chimed consistently as families came in to see what was going on inside – many interested in enrolling their children in classes. While others, youths and adults, dropped in to take one of the many open classes offered throughout the week.
“I’ve seen people drive past and slam on their breaks to see what we’re doing,” says Will.
Justin and Will say opening the studio was a complete act of faith, but most of Justin’s life has been the same.
“I believe in take a leap and the net will appear,” says Justin. “Some people believe in having the knowledge, then strategizing, planning and executing. We tend to execute and then figure it out.”
Unlike many dancers, Justin’s career didn’t begin in a dance class. A former musical theater kid in high school and college (his foster mom allowed him and his brothers to participate in extra-curricular activities), he knew he loved to dance but spent most of his time singing and acting. He took his first dance class during his sophomore or junior year in high school.
It wasn’t until age 25 that he decided to take the leap full-time.
“I was working at a Sprint store in retail and said, ‘I gotta dance. If I don’t do this now I’m going to wake up and say what have I done with my life?'”
- Courtesy Phoenix Rising Dance Studios
Justin Sears-Watson (center) teaches a group of students at the studio he opened in November 2015. Phoenix Rising Dance Studios is located on the city’s west side.
With $600 in savings, he attended Jazz Dance World Congress, hosted by Giordano Dance Chicago, and was offered a scholarship on the spot.
Despite living in foster care from ages 10 to 18, Justin stayed in contact with his biological mother, who eventually was able to see him perform professionally. The excitement was bittersweet.
“My biological mom passed away in 2005. She actually passed away a couple of days after seeing me dance for the first time in Chicago with Giordano,” says Justin, fighting back tears. Just like so many other times in his life, he used dance to push through the pain.
Justin has performed with several professional dance companies throughout his career. However, he’s spent the last four years with Dance Kaleidoscope, under the instruction of Artistic Director David Hochoy.
Justin credits Hochoy with helping him dig deeper.
“Coming here and dancing with DK and David Hochoy has pushed me a lot,” he says. “Dancing under David’s tutelage, I have learned about myself in ways that I didn’t know that dance [could teach me].”
It’s that same level of layer-peeling Justin says youths will receive at Phoenix Rising, which he describes as a studio that celebrates and embraces diversity.
Together Justin Sears-Watson (left) and his husband Will Sears-Watson (right) opened Phoenix Rising Dance Studios in November 2015. Justin is a professional dancer with Indianapolis-based Dance Kaleidoscope.
Justin and Will developed the studio as a place where children of all races and backgrounds can learn and grow in the art of dance. They are actively trying to break the stereotype that dance (especially ballet) is “only” for girls by offering enrollment discounts for boys and employing several male instructors. They offer multiple classes for students of all ages (including adults), and are developing a scholarship model to provide underprivileged students with the opportunity to take classes.
“Diversity breeds diversity, so there is a conscious decision in the diversity of our students and why we have so many male instructors,” says Will. “When you have two guys - one black, one white - who own a business, we are going to attract both. We have people come in all the time that tell us that there’s nothing around here like this.
“We’re not building a studio of exclusion. It’s about inclusion.”
Ultimately, says Justin, the goal is to turn Phoenix Rising into a performing arts facility where dance, music, art and theater are offered in one location.
For now, dance is the main mission.
- Courtesy Cheryl Mann
Justin Sears-Watson was a company member with Thodos Dance Chicago from 2009 to 2011.
“When I’m dancing, it’s the moment that I’m actually being. Period,” says Justin. “You’re not full of thoughts or problem solving, you are physically, emotionally and spiritually being, and I think dance is the only art that allows you to do that. I love it; it’s joy.”
It’s that feeling of being – the ability to let go, to be confident and bold - that he wants to pass on to children through the art of dance. He sees Phoenix Rising as the vehicle, and his way of serving a greater cause.
“If someone could have just started me in dance earlier, I could have done a ton of things. But I don’t have regrets; I’ve had a great life,” he says. “I’ve danced with three great companies, I’ve gotten to tour, and DK is wonderful. So, for me, it’s about the kids. If I can change a child’s life, that’s the greatest thing in the world.”