By Robin Sutton Anders
Five, Six, Seven, Eight…
It all started with a T-shirt, says Lynchburg’s Theo Coates, a 33-year-old dancer who’s passionate about fitness. “I’d been teaching dance classes at the YMCA for eight years, and one of my students came up after a class and said she’d love a ‘Dancing with Theo’ T-shirt.”
Theo had some made, and his first order sold out immediately. That’s when the dancer-turned-teacher with a positive and uplifting “you-can-do-it” mantra really knew his brand resonated with people. Before long, he was teaching his cardiofunk classes all over town—sometimes 35 in one week.
2020 gave him an opportunity to take a break and scale back, and today, Theo teaches six times a week at the YMCA—a pool version of his dance class—and two more classes at the Vibe Studio.
“The beauty of my classes is that they aren’t just dance classes, but fitness classes, too,” Theo says. “For me, there’s a spark of joy when a person gets the steps, especially if they might not have believed in themselves or if they doubted they had the ability. Then three to six months later, they come back and tell me they’ve lost 20 pounds. My biggest success story is a woman who lost 78 pounds taking my classes.”
Before he moved to Lynchburg to be closer to family, Theo trained at the University of Maryland and in Washington, D.C. He likes Lynchburg because of the opportunities it presents to artists, not to mention its close-knit community. “I always tell people: Lynchburg is a great place to build your talent. There are a lot of gems here, like Mr. Keith Lee’s Dance Theater of Lynchburg, very much a New York-level studio,” he says.
“I’ve gone to a lot of bigger cities, and taking classes there is great but you can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Here, there is a strong sense of community. We’re all connected, and you can tell everyone—artists in theater and dance and fitness—is keen on working together,” Theo says. “I love that I can be close to home and still do what I love and make an impact.”
When potential students see the Dancing with Theo logo associated with a fitness class, they know what they’re going to get. “The first thing is quality,” he says. “I’ve had extensive training and have been dancing for 20 years; I’ve been a performer for 20 years—modeling, singing, dancing, all of it.”
Theo spends a lot of time on choreography, thinking about the rise and fall of the music and his script so that it’s easy for his students to understand what he’s saying and to follow along. “The dance moves build on each other in a way that’s not only fun, but achieves results. You’ll want to come back,” he says.
Most importantly, Theo’s students feel supported. Even in big classes, he makes it a point to connect with each student before, during, or after class. “Even if I’m just catching your eye and encouraging you through a hard moment. I want you to know you’ve got it; you can do it.”
Theo asks one thing of his students: “I want you to come in here and uplift each other,” he says. In Dancing with Theo classes, it’s not about who’s the best, who has the steps, who’s the most fit. “I couldn’t care less about all that,” he says. “Maybe you had a long day at work and you need some stress relief. I just want you to have fun. I love dance. I just want more people to dance.”
Robin Sutton Anders is a Greensboro, N.C.-based writer and the managing editor of Verdant Word Communications.