THE JAM: CLT is a dance-inspired fitness company founded in 2016 and born out of Queen City DanceOut, a local company with a ten-year history of providing fitness classes in the Charlotte area. As they put it on their website, "We're not your great-aunt's Zumba class."
If you have been to one of their classes, then chances are that you're familiar with Erica Butler, the high-energy instructor showing you how to shake what your mama gave you and making you feel like Beyoncé. Erica has taught more than 1,000 dance fitness classes throughout the Charlotte area, and she sets herself apart with cutting-edge dance styles and continuously updated playlists.
We sat down to interview Erica and learn more about her and THE JAM: CLT as a whole. Ready to learn where the hell this woman gets all of her energy? Read on!
Erica Butler: Shante Kimpson is the band teacher at Sedgefield Middle, and she's been there for 12 years. She's been nominated for a Grammy twice, she's an amazing educator. Sedgefield is a Title I school. They don't have a booster program, they don't have a PTO, they don't have anything that would help them raise money for a program like the band program. And Shante had been such a loyal participant of mine. Over time, you'll find that we become real friends! I really got to know her very well, and I had always wanted to do a fundraiser for her, because every time I saw her she was buying clarinet reeds or a trumpet or something for those kids. She funds that band out of her pocket, and I always wanted to do something to help.
The minute that I decided to start my own company, I knew that I wanted to partner with her in some way that could help her. Even without knowing that I was going to have a space yet, I knew I wanted her band program to be the charity that we worked with most of the time. We wrote a proposal to her school and said, "If we become the booster for the band, and we let all of your teachers come for free, and everyone who works at the school come for free, can we use your space three nights a week?" Because the custodians were there anyway, so someone was already there, and it was just this unused space, and there was a need there that we could fill.
We know that these kids don't deserve any less than any other kid, so we're happy to be able to bring music into their lives with that band program. We're very happy about that relationship, and it's fun to watch all the teachers just come right over, or other people who work at the school, or even the football coach out there dancing!
EB: We reached out to Unknown last year because we did see (like Work For Your Beer did!) that there was a sort of symbiosis going on between workouts and breweries, because Charlotte is certainly a brewery town now. But I only saw yoga and other events like that going on, and I do have a niche in this market because I teach a little bit of a different class than a traditional "dance instructor." I teach a class that not everybody is familiar with. If you put me in a public place, generally I'm playing music that people really, really like, and doing dances that you want to do. So I was like, "We need to get somewhere more public!"
We actually really like Unknown's beer, so we were often here anyway, and Jess knew the guys here and said, "Could we do one thing here?" The first thing we did at Unknown was our Hops & Pop class last year, which was a tribute to all pop stars. It's been an awesome relationship with them. We're here once a month on a Saturday, then sometimes we'll be here on a Friday night, and we love that. Their whole motto at Unknown is "Live without boundaries," so we fit really well with them. When they found us and they were like, "It's these sort of raucous people, sort of loud, not really as zen as some of the other ones," the brewery just kind of knew we were going to be a great fit together.
EB: I started dancing before I was three years old, and I had to get special permission to start classes because you were supposed to be at least three. But I was almost three! And I was obsessed with it. I'm an only child, and my parents are sports addicts. They don't know anything about any dance. They really love music (I'm named after Eric Clapton). They had music playing around me all the time, and I was just always moving. So I got permission to start dance early, and I've been dancing literally ever since.
In college, I went out all the time, like everyone does, and I never gained any weight. Then once I got out of college and stopped going out and started acting like an actual adult, I put on weight (like a lot of people do, too). At some point, I was over 200 pounds, and I couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without feeling like I was going to die imminently.
This was the only thing that I knew: if I went back to loud music and just moving because I love it, then I would stick with it. So I started that about 10 years ago, then started teaching eight years ago.
EB: I started teaching with Queen City DanceOut eight years ago and had excellent mentors there. That was a great teaching community of about 20 instructors. We all really worked together and learned together. I brought a really different background than most people. Most people that do fitness and teach fitness come from a fitness background, but I didn't at all. I had never been to a gym in my life. I still don't go to the gym. So, I have a degree in Performance Studies from Chapel Hill. And it's like I'm taking this degree in performing and thinking, "I can just basically put on a show, make it fun to watch, make you want to do it with me, and then bring something really different to the market."
EB: Right now, I teach three different class formats for THE JAM: CLT that I created. On Mondays, I teach one called The Mega Mixtape, which is literally 90 minutes of every style of music you can possibly think of. We do everything from Frank Sinatra to Fetty Wop in one class. On Fridays, it's a 60-minute class called The Jam, which focuses more on R&B and hip-hop, which is a really great way to kick off your weekend.
I did get into some athletic conditioning, and I wanted to do something a little different to get my stamina up. So on Wednesdays, I created something called The Burnout, where we do half athletic conditioning and then we sort of recover with dance. In that one, you're doing burpees or mountain climbers, and right when you want to kill me, Beyoncé sort of saves you, because you can use dance as your recovery. It's a different spin, and I think for people that are intimidated by traditional gym environments or the more bootcamp style, this can give you that workout, but without the environment that might give you anxiety. A lot of people actually say that one is their favorite class because it challenges them!
EB: I would tell them that I am the only person in the room that needs to be able to dance. The only one. The rest of you can do WHATEVER you want. I just give you ideas. You will find, if you look around, I teach probably the most diverse class in this entire city. You can see every age, every shape, every size, every religion, every socioeconomic status... Everything you want to find is in this room. Everybody comes from a completely different place, but the one thing that brings them all together is that everybody really likes music and movement, and putting them together makes it easy.
I find that after one class with me, or after about three songs even, I see people relax and go, "Oh, no one's perfect. We aren't a group of dancers. We're a group of people who just like to move." It eventually frees you up to feel like you are Beyoncé at some point during class. I always found that if I give 100, they'll give 75, so I try and give 150 so you give 125. Whatever I'm doing, I think I sort of do it so hard that I give you permission to do whatever you want.
EB: It started, selfishly, that I needed this for my own body... and quickly turned into a completely different experience that has nothing to do with me. I've seen people lose hundreds of pounds, and I've seen people gain confidence in a way that, to me, is now my mission in life: to make people know that you're amazing being just who you are TODAY. And you can be even better tomorrow! But you're okay just the way you are today.