by STACY THOMAS & photos by ANTONIO PANTOJA
Spend five minutes with Todd Sharp, and you’ll walk away knowing exactly who he is and where he stands.
“I’m an exacting coach,” said Sharp, head coach of the Floyd Central High School Dazzlers and University of Louisville Ladybirds, both national championship dance teams. “Some years are easier than others. There is no secret. There is absolutely nothing special. I decide to win. (And when it comes to being on his teams), it’s my way or the highway, but because we live in America, you are free to leave at any time.”
Yes, Sharp can be imposing and intimidating and demanding and – you get the idea.
But inside those first five minutes with him, you’ll also discover a wickedly funny and fiercely passionate person whose driving motivation is to help the young women he coaches excel in ways they’d never dreamed.
“I tell my girls: This is your time. You are not married, you are not yet mothers … you have this small window of time for yourself – to be an athlete and a performer. Seize this time for yourself and spend the rest of your life a champion.”
For the past 22 years, Sharp has been head coach of the Dazzlers. For the latter 15 of those 22 years, he has simultaneously served as head coach of the Ladybirds dance team as well as spirit coordinator for UofL. Under the guidance of Sharp, the Dazzlers have earned 24 state and national championships. In fact, his team of high school athletes have been both nationally and internationally recognized and televised more than any other high school team. The Ladybirds have earned 15 national championships, 13 of which have been under the reign of Coach Sharp.
“I find the process of coaching stressful, but I also love the process of coaching,” he said. “I have a competitive personality. I think I must be crazy to do it this long. The average career span for a coach is three seasons for high school and five years for college.”
While his career statistics alone prove him to be somewhat of an oddity in his field, his commitment and determination ensure he continues to remain on top.
“Todd didn’t just wake up one day as the most successful coach in his industry. He decided he was going to be the most successful coach in his industry,” said Patrick Mahoney, strength and conditioning coach for the Ladybirds and the Dazzlers, and a personal trainer at ProFormance Fitness in Louisville.
Mahoney met Sharp six years ago when the coach sought help getting in shape. Shortly after, Sharp asked Mahoney if he would start working with both of his teams on their strength and conditioning.
“We quickly became close friends. … He was actually the best man in my wedding,” Mahoney said. “Todd introduced me to my wife Rachel, who was a former Ladybird. He has become a big part of my life.”
Mahoney has witnessed Sharp’s continued success and credits some of it to his “ability to connect with each one of his athletes. … He genuinely cares and wants success for them. If you are able to make it through one of Todd’s programs, then you are that much more prepared for the real world. You should consider yourself lucky to be coached by Todd Sharp. For those of us fortunate enough to have him as a friend, we consider ourselves lucky too.”
‘A Gentle Tyrant’
Sharp, who is now 47, began his career at age 25. A native of Floyds Knobs, he graduated from Floyd Central, specializing – unsurprisingly – in musical theatre and was naturally drawn to the arts.
“I knew someone that helped coach the Dazzlers. I was approached to help them with a routine. This originally was supposed to be a one-time thing,” Sharp recalled. “Eventually, a position opened up, and it was suggested that I apply, and the rest is history. I thought maybe I would coach for a year or two. Twenty years later, this is one of the greatest things that has happened to me. I think it keeps me young,” he laughed.
It’s also allowed Sharp to finally find a place where he feels like he belongs.
“I have never quite fit in anywhere. Coaching became a home to me and my soul,” Sharp said. “It is the only thing in my life that I have felt that I’m good at. Coaching has been the greatest burden and one of the greatest joys in my life. … That moment in the Disney Fieldhouse in front of 20,000 people – televised to the nation and they announce our team as the National Champions – is a wonderful moment.”
That’s a moment Sharp has experienced multiple times, but he never forgets what the converse feels like.
In those sparse years when his teams have not won a title, the guilt he experiences is overwhelming. “It’s my biggest fear … that my team feels that all of the hard work they put in wasn’t worth it. For myself, it haunts me that I did not beat my own record.”
For others, Sharp’s successes remain at the forefront when they think of him.
“He’s the master. I can’t imagine a national championship under anyone else. He won 10 straight! That’s unheard of,” said Janie Whaley, Floyd Central High School principal. “If you watch the Dazzlers, you know why they are some of the best athletes in the school. Todd is a gentle tyrant, a perfectionist. He has a standard and sets the bar high. He works 12 months out of the year and never stops. His success is contagious. It has encouraged others to be more successful.”
‘Success in Many Forms’
“Planet Dance was born out of necessity as a practice and training space,” said Sharp. “I needed consistent and frequent practice space for my team of athletes. My girls work and train hard. They are not merely dancers, they are athletes. I thought if the football and basketball teams had their own regular practice space, my team deserved one too.” (And practice they do, sometimes as much as five days per week, and in the summer months, too.)
Planet Dance All-Stars is now a competition dance studio for students ages 3 years to collegiate. The studio also trains dancers for Highland Hills Middle School in Georgetown and is the permanent training home for the Dazzlers and the Ladybirds.
Charlotte Ipsan and her husband, Rob, are Sharp’s business partners at the studio. She met Sharp 13 years ago at Polly’s Freeze in Edwardsville.
“I was standing in line to get ice cream with my then 3-year-old, and Todd starts his pitch. He knew of me as a former Floyd Central Dazzler and asked where my daughter, Emrie, went to dance,” Ipsan recalled. Shortly thereafter, I found myself with Emrie registering for the Mini All-Star team at Planet Dance. I was mesmerized by Todd’s unprecedented passion and uncanny ability to create successful dancers with or without physical talent.”
A couple of years after their initial meeting, Sharp faced some tough business decisions, one of which was to potentially close Planet Dance. Sharp approached the Ipsans to brainstorm options. Less than 30 days later, they were business partners.
“People questioned our combination of amazing dance coach (Sharp) plus neonatal nurse practitioner and health care administrator (Ipsan), but Todd, my husband and I all agreed on one thing: success comes in many forms at Planet Dance. We recognize and stress the importance of teamwork, confidence and personal development.”
Ipsan’s daughter, Emrie, now 16, is in her third year as a Dazzler, and has been on the Planet Dance All-Star team since the age of 3. Sharp has been her coach for the last 13 years.
“Todd’s ability to take any dancer who has passion, drive and work ethic and transform them into a fierce competitor with the utmost regard for team dynamics and compassion is absolutely magical. He knows how hard to push, when to push, and exactly how to push individuals to get the absolute best out of each student,” Charlotte Ipsan said. “There is never a moment that you question his style. Plus, he is the funniest human being I know.”
Friendships with people like the Ipsans aren’t unusual for Sharp.
“Some of the greatest friendships I have are the parents of students I have coached through the years,” he said. “Some have multiple daughters come through my programs. As our relationships have developed, they have become more like a family to me. I’ve helped raise some of these kids. I’m often with them five days a week plus weekends.”
A third of the way through his career with the Dazzlers, Sharp was approached by the University of Louisville and asked to coach the Ladybirds.
“I was extremely blessed and lucky to have been offered a job at a university locally,” said Sharp. “Most of my counterparts moved to other states for collegiate positions. Some of them (are) my former students.”
In addition to his coaching duties, Sharp is also UofL’s spirit coordinator – he organizes games and schedules social appearances and monitors grades for the Ladybirds. (“Unlike other coaches, I do not have paid assistants,” said Sharp. Our schedule is crazy, but when someone calls who is batting leukemia and they want the Ladybirds to visit their hospital room, I can’t say no. I try not to ever say no.”)
“Todd’s love of UofL and our spirit teams transcends his career,” said Christine Simatacolos, senior associate athletic director.
“He is one of the most caring people I know. He is a coach and a friend 24/7. He is always working, thinking and dreaming about his program and how it can be the best,” Simatacolos said. He is also constantly developing relationships with his athletes, parents and administrators. He could not have accomplished what he has without the support system he has created. Todd works hard but makes it fun. Everyone around him senses his energy and spunk and wants to be a part of it. UofL is fortunate to have him as an ambassador of our athletic department and university.”
‘More Rewards, Challenges’
So what does it take to be coached by Sharp?
Anyone can have an opportunity to make his teams, Sharp said, and rarely is anyone cut from tryouts. “We are hard enough on each other in this world, it is not hard to make my teams.”
But making a team and staying on a team are two different things.
If you want to learn, get coached and have the grades to make it, you will have no trouble in Coach Sharp’s program, but this does not mean it will be easy.
“I believe in accountability. If a girl does not look her best or perform her best, we all lose. There is no justice like team justice. I tell my team and their families in the very beginning, this will be the hardest thing you have ever done. This experience on my team will be physically, mentally, emotionally and financially hard,” he said. “I have zero tolerance for fighting – this goes for parents, too. The tail will not wag the dog. This team is not a democracy; it’s a dictatorship. I want girls on my teams that have the passion, raw talent and desire to be there.”
Although the Dazzlers and the Ladybirds are both iconic programs, “Every year the dynamic changes,” Sharp said. “I set my intentions and standards high and build it from the ground up – every year. But, I do not ask of my team more than I am willing to do myself.”
Over the last decade, Sharp has felt a shift in his coaching. “When I was 25, I felt it was easier for the team to relate to me. We were closer in age. Every year, this job becomes more rewarding and more challenging. I have a coach and a trainer now. Working out has definitely raised both my credibility and my expectations. I think I am a better coach now at 47 than I was at 27. I love coaching, and the kids crave having a coach.”
They also appreciate Sharp’s willingness to go to the mat for each and every one of them, provided they respond by working hard.
“I am a champion of women,” he said. “I make the girls train in strength and conditioning. I am very controlling about their personal appearance. These girls are beautiful inside and out. People are quick to diminish them because of their appearance. My girls are very smart, good girls who graduate with phenomenal GPAs.”
Sharp continued, “Here we are in this small pocket of Indiana, we are perennial champions. No one is more athletic than this team. No one can out jump this team. This team from Southern Indiana won in the hip-hop division. It’s pretty incredible to think about, really. People that say we are just dancers and not athletes have never watched us, either one of my teams. The Ladybirds have been on ESPN. They have the stamina and speed of any sport. We are the perfect combination of art and sport.”
‘Personal Toll, Gain’
In the last two years, his spirit program has not been the only thing Sharp has re-built from the ground up. After 24 years of marriage and two sons (Cameron, 22; Colin, 19), he and his wife Lisa divorced.
“I don’t know a head coach whose personal relationships have not been incredibly challenging,” said Sharp. “This is a lifestyle-driven profession that can be detrimental to personal relationships. … This lifestyle is not for everyone.”
Now single, Sharp describes himself as affectionate, emotional and co-dependent and said his biggest fear is not meeting someone, although he’s still not quite ready to do so yet.
“I not dating anyone exclusively. I don’t want to be disrespectful to Lisa, my children or my 24 years and seven months of marriage,” said Sharp. “In fact, I did not even consider dating sooner than two years after the divorce. In this community, I think the same is expected of me. Lisa and I still make decisions about everything together, and I’m not doing that to my kids. I’m a work in progress. I have a lot to offer. I hope to find love in the future. It sounds cliché, but life has a way of going where it is supposed to go.”
Sharp is a grandfather now to Chase, 22 months, and Charlotte, who’s 1 month old. “Being a grandfather has changed me a lot. The girls probably say I’m still rough, but I think the experience has made me more compassionate. I’m pretty happy now.”
While dating is on the backburner, Sharp has recently started a love affair of sorts with the city of New Albany. “It has been a slow movement, but I am excited about the changes and new businesses. I love River City Winery, The Exchange Pub + Kitchen and Dress & Dwell.”
A Southern Indiana boy at heart, Sharp also frequents the Frankfort Avenue/Crescent Hill neighborhood in Louisville. A self-proclaimed foodie who loves to cook, Sharp enjoys strolling the neighborhood for coffee or new restaurants with friends.
He also spends his down time with his grandkids and dog. And, Sharp finds solace in working out. “Don’t get me wrong, I still like my Mellow Mushroom pizza and beer, but if I go one day without my workout, I feel off.”
Sharp used to focus on the negative and found himself unable to let go of things easily. He has since learned that letting go is one thing that you can control.
‘A Forest of Supporters’
Male dance and spirit coaches are rare in Southern Indiana, but they’re common on the west coast. In fact, the two national dance coaches with the most wins are both male (one of those being Sharp). But his success hasn’t always shut down naysayers.
“I used to let negative comments about my team of myself bother me,” Sharp said. “I simply re-focused my energy. I was looking past a forest of supporters to get to the few negative people in the back. I’ve heard it all. So have my sons when they were in school and Dad was a spirit coach.
“I’m driven hard enough that I’m not looking for respect or acceptance,” Sharp said. “I’ve learned that surrounding yourself with the right people is everything.”
For many, one of those right people continues to be Sharp.
“Todd has reached the peak of Everest in his profession, but still coaches with a chip on his shoulder” like he has something to prove, said Floyd Central High School Athletic Director Jeff Cerqueira. “He is supportive of other coaches, even when they are not always supportive of his program. That’s impressive and humbling.”
Additionally, “Todd’s devotion to his athletes and programs is commendable. He has had several opportunities to take other positions for more money but has chosen to stay home,” Cerqueira said. “Todd is a lot like Geno Auriemma, (head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team). Not all of the coaches like him, but they respect him. The only difference is that Geno gets the best talent in the country, but Todd just outcoaches everyone.”
Brittany Wright danced under Coach Sharp for five years. She is still very involved in his programs.
“Todd is unique, not because he is a 40-something-year-old man who coaches a high school pom team in the middle of a cornfield town. He is unique because he is honest. He doesn’t sugar coat anything – EVER. He sets expectations and sticks to them. He is insanely consistent and the parents and dancers know the standard that Todd will hold them to.
He will not hesitate to scream in your face and tell you how it is or what you are doing wrong, but he will also never hesitate to be there for you when you need him – not just in a coaching aspect.
Todd will come and pick you up if you have a flat tire, pay to get it fixed if you can’t afford it and make sure you get home safe. He’s the guy you can talk to when you have just had a bad break up. He knows when to turn the switch on and off. The girls have a HEALTHY fear of Todd. He can make you bawl your eyes out and have you laughing in the next 5 minutes. I have seen him turn a not-so-great dancer into a front row, front and center girl.
Todd has a drive as a coach that goes beyond what I have ever witnessed in our industry. He is able to pull the best out of his girls. I think it’s safe to say that they live to make him proud.”
Lauren Strobel danced under Coach Sharp all through high school as a Floyd Central Dazzler and through college as a University of Louisville Ladybird. She hails from Southern Indiana and is now a dental hygienist.
“Todd is fiercely loyal. I have known him for 8 years and he always puts in 110 percent. Todd has been my coach since I was a skinny, scared, naïve, sophomore in high school. I walked into the Dazzler tryouts with my hair in a tight bun and worn-down ballet shoes. I was intimidated and ill-prepared to say the least, but I had a strong background in ballet. I had heard stories about the world famous Dazzler coach and his pom and hip hop team. I was interested in being involved. After the tryouts, I remember my parents being supportive but worried that I would not make the team. However, Todd saw something in me. I felt extremely fortunate to be asked to be a part of Todd’s JV pom team. Less than a year later, I was a national champion.
Todd made us believe in ourselves. He inspired us to be better, jump higher, turn tighter and stay in sync. It was a full-time job, but very rewarding. In high school we would practice daily for 3 to 4 hours a day. In college as a Ladybird, we practiced late night – 8:30 to 11 p.m. 3 to 4 times per week. On the weekends we would go to competitions; during the summer we would go to dance camp.
Todd taught us that nothing worth having comes easy, and this still comes to mind daily. ‘Faith without work is dead.’ – James 2:17
Todd talked about this Bible verse at practice one afternoon. You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk? You can say that you are good, but are you really going to work towards it? This will always be my favorite.
At UofL I was taking 18 to 20 hours in the dental hygiene program. I spent many late nights studying and going to practice. There were many times I felt like giving up and changing my major. Todd was always supportive. On many occasions I called him just to vent and he was always willing to listen. He allowed me to miss an occasional practice so I could study, for which I am forever grateful. At the end of my senior year, I was unable to dance at the national competition because I had to take my dental hygiene board exam. I was heartbroken. It was very tough for me to sit out at practice. At the end of the semester, I received an award at the University Athletic Department Awards program. Todd presented the award to me and I was extremely honored. I have since graduated from dental hygiene school and now work full-time. Todd has taught me so much about life, dance, happiness and working towards a common goal. It was a privilege to be one of his Ladybirds. I was lucky enough to travel all over the country to dance at games and tournaments. Together, (we) won five 5 National Championships along the way.