From Personal Journey to Brand: The dance 101 story

 

Ofelia de la Valette was in the gym, fighting off some post-pregnancy pounds. Hard work, but then she knows plenty about work. What she didn’t know, that day at the gym, was that she was about to experience something that would change her life.

Born in Havana, Cuba, de la Valette moved to America with her family at the age of 3 to escape Fidel Castro’s regime. Though her father came from a wealthy tobacco-farming family, the de la Valettes struggled after emigrating. As an adult, in the business world, de la Valette worked her way up from selling insurance to heading her own insurance company, de la Valette & Associates, which gave her the stability we call the American dream: home ownership and enough money to support her two children, Paulina and Erik. Yet achieving another dream was on the horizon for 34-year-old de la Valette: building a business that encompassed not only work but passion.

“The idea, from the start, was to offer dance classes to adults only, on a drop-in basis.”

That day in the gym, her epiphany came with the pounding rhythm of a dance fitness class. Peering into the mirrored room, de la Valette saw lean bodies gleaming with sweat as they swayed and turned, stepped and shimmied, led by an instructor yelling out steps. Drawn to the rhythmic pulse, the communal spirit, and the sheer joy of movement, de la Valette stepped off the treadmill and into the studio.

Initially intimidated by the sea of Spandex and experienced dancers around her, she soon found herself tapping into the ease and joy of a natural mover. Dancing returned her to the simple joy of her youth, reminding her of childhood moments spent learning to salsa dance in the living room with her brother. On the other hand, dancing as an adult was an experience that would shape her professionally as well as personally.

De la Valette threw herself into dance with her typical work ethic; ten years later, she had learned enough to teach an adult beginning jazz class at Emory University. Her students were enthusiastic. One day some of them stopped her in the parking lot after class. “There needs to be a studio devoted to people like us who want to learn how to dance as adults” one of them said. “We think you should open it, and we want to help you.”

Her students’ interest planted the seed for Dance 101, the Atlanta studio that de la Valette left her insurance firm to open in 2004 with only a handful of students, and herself as an instructor. “The uniqueness of Dance 101 has a lot to do with the uniqueness of my personal journey,” she says. "I fell in love with dance as an adult. I started off taking dance fitness classes at a gym (because that was all that was available to me), but as I progressed and got better at it, I became hungry to advance into more technical dance classes. I found a local dance studio that offered adult classes, but all the classes there were too advanced for me at the time. I struggled and wished there were classes I could take that were designed for someone like me: new to dance late in life but eager to learn. When I started teaching for Evening at Emory, I taught the level of class I wish I could have taken when I transitioned from dance fitness to Jazz." The idea of dance 101, from the start, was to offer classes to adult lovers of dance, on a drop-in basis - so they could come whenever convenient. But it seemed a venture doomed to fail.

“The dance community in Atlanta did not initially support the studio. They saw me as a beginner student. I did not have an impressive resume. I did not have a glamorous performing career,” she recalls. It was not easy going, and at age 46, de la Valette was teaching 17 classes a week on her own, a phase of her life she likes to refer to as “two Advil and a Red Bull” because that is how she made it through such a physically grueling schedule.

Yet she was not entirely alone. The students from Emory made good on their promise—not only were they her first students, they volunteered their expertise in all aspects of setting up a business. Lynn Wood, an attorney, helped de la Valette with the process of incorporating Dance 101. Will Day, a IT professional and photographer, designed a website. Business storyteller Kate Yandoh Harris cooked up tempting class descriptions. Melanie Wernick came up with a business plan, and Kathleen Plate took on bookkeeping.

The “Fabulous Five,” as de la Valette calls them, worked the front desk, distributed flyers, and recruited teachers, enabling Dance 101 to grow for a year before the school needed to hire its first employee. Now it has a second location in Alpharetta, Georgia, and more than 23,000 registered students, some 5,500 of whom pop and lock, pirouette, salsa, and more each month.

Not one to conform, Ofelia chose to supplement technique classes with a broad and unusual mix of classes that place emphasis on achieving physical fitness while drawing on the pop cultural appeal of dance, giving them such imaginative names as King of Hearts, Jukebox 101, Serpentine and A-Town Funk. "Many dance 101 members start off in dance fitness classes, but they get really good over time and naturally want to move into higher level classes - just like I did" she says. "My journey from dance fitness to high level dance may have been unique to me at the time, but now it is the trajectory of thousands of our members."

“Her epiphany came with the pounding rhythm of a dance fitness class.”

The variety of classes at dance 101 is a result of the way she recruits teachers. “We hire teachers not to teach what we think they should teach, but what they are passionate about,” de la Valette says. “So if a teacher comes to us wanting to teach a reggae-inspired contemporary ballet class, if that’s what their passion is, what comes naturally to them, and can teach it well, that’s what we'll hire them to teach. We do this because we believe the greatest experience a student can have is to learn from someone who is passionate about what they are teaching. There are many ways to move to music and every one of them is not only great exercise but also a means to an end. Dance is a journey. The body becomes what the body does with regularity. Dancers are made, not born - and at any age. It's one thing to exercise to get your heart rate up, but it's another experience entirely when you are also learning to do things you never thought possible, developing coordination, becoming flexible and more graceful in how you move."

If you follow Dance 101 on social media, you'll see banners designed to draw attention to new classes, crafted in a style that projects an image of the class, whether it is an elegant dancer in a tutu posed classically for Ballet Variations or a line of joyous women in bright tunics for a class called Caribbean Calypso. Course descriptions market each genre to an audience that may be more enthusiastic about than familiar with dance. “Gain a large inventory of hip-hop moves while burning massive calories and having a great time,” reads the description for Mash It Up, a beginning hip-hop class that promises that the moves the students will learn will “translate directly to the club.” “Ballet is the new yoga,” reads the description of Ballet Fit. “Ballet is transformational. You may break only a light sweat, but its physical effects are tremendous.”

The payoff for the studio has been positive in terms of numbers. “The reality is that, in the world at large, there are more people who don’t have dance training than do,” says de la Valette. “It might be 100,000 to 1. But dance 101 is changing that. We call our members "Artistic Athletes" because that's what they are. Dance is art as well as fitness. It's not an either/or equation. Dancers are phenomenal athletes and they become that way because of how much they enjoy the process of learning. Dance is something our members look forward to - not a chore to check off their to-do list. And because we are introducing so many people to dance as adults, this enables us to offer more advanced classes to adult drop-ins who have studied ballet for 20 years. We offer classes for everyone, at every level and that is what makes dance 101 so unique."

As Dance 101 has grown, it has also received much publicity including being recognized as one of the top ten dance studios in the country by Billboard Magazine (March 2017). In 2014, Ofelia's journey to become a dancer and opening dance 101 was chronicled in a book written by Marlo Thomas called "It Ain't Over... Till it's Over: Reinventing Your Life and Realizing Your Dreams-- at Any Age"" (Simon Schuster, pp 56-60).  This exposure has gone hand in hand with celebrity master classes by teachers as diverse as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearsal director Matthew Rushing, Michael Jackson choreographer Thomas Payne, Bollywood choreographer Longinus Fernandes, and music video choreographer Ryan Heffington, who taught in residency at dance 101 while he was in town filming the acclaimed motion picture Baby Driver in 2017.

Yet, despite its success, Dance 101 is not finished growing. De la Valette’s motives remain unchanged. “When I opened Dance 101 in 2004, my mantra was ‘If you build it, they will come’—without knowing if there was really a market for this,” she says. Soon after opening, “it felt like we had awakened a sleeping giant". "There are so many people out there who want to dance and now they have a place to go and thrive. Dance is phenomenal exercise that transforms the body and mind. I watch students whittle down, achieving a long, lean dancer's body because dance is a great workout, and because it's enjoyable, students do it regularly - which is the key to permanent and transformative change. The effects that dance can have on self image are substantial. ”

Further cementing dance 101's uniqueness, the studio stages three performances every year, giving members the opportunity of experiencing the performing aspect of dance. Students are encouraged to sign up to perform (auditions are not required) and the end result are sold out shows that inspire audiences of all ages.

With it's beautiful aesthetic and welcoming staff, dance 101 is truly a gem of a studio. Now joined by her adult children, Paulina and Erik, de La Valette has created a one of a kind studio that celebrates all forms of dance, where friendships are made, lives are changed and the beauty of dance is expressed by those who may not otherwise have had the opportunity. The sleeping giant has indeed awakened.

From its modest beginnings as a dream in the imagination of de La Valette and her "Fabulous Five",  and into the lives and hearts of thousands of dreamers who now call themselves dancers,  dance 101 is a place were dreams are exercised everyday and in many different ways. For anyone fortunate enough to walk through the door, this studio is a playground where adults of all ages and abilities can dance through life. 


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Excerpted from the article "Bright Biz Idea: From Personal Journey to Brand" written by Irene Hsiao and featured in the December 2015 issue of dance studio life Magazine

https://www.dancestudiolife.com/december-2015-bright-biz-idea-from-personal-journey-to-brand/