December 2015 | Bright Biz Idea | From Personal Journey to Brand

All photos by David Rams Photography

Ofelia de la Valette left a career with an insurance agency at age 46 to open Dance 101, an adults-only studio that today has 23,000 registered students.
All photos by David Rams Photography

Drop-in classes for adults blend fitness, fun, and a fiery need to dance

By Irene Hsiao

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 became destitute 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. 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 classes to adults only, on a drop-in basis.

That day in the gym, her epiphany came with the pounding rhythm of a cardio-funk 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.

Broadway tap teacher Barry Thomas and other faculty members are encouraged to teach subjects and styles they are passionate about.

Broadway tap teacher Barry Thomas and other faculty members are encouraged to teach subjects and styles they are passionate about.

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; eight 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’s got to be a place for people who just want to dance for whatever reason,” one of them said. “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. The idea, from the start, was to offer classes to adults only, on a drop-in basis. It seemed a venture doomed to fail.

“The dance community in Atlanta did not support the studio. They saw me as a beginner student. I did not have this 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.”

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 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.

Dance 101's extensive schedule ranges from fitness-based fare to classes that fuse traditional techniques to master classes by top choreographers.

Dance 101’s extensive schedule ranges from fitness-based fare to classes that fuse traditional techniques to master classes by top choreographers.

The “Fabulous Five,” as de la Valette calls them, worked the front desk, distributed flyers, and recruited teachers, allowing 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.

Though the early courses offered primarily consisted of technique classes such as jazz, hip-hop, and ballet, de la Valette found that an adults-only studio needed something more to succeed. Noting that many studios are financially supported by their children’s programs, de la Valette found an alternate way to remain solvent: a heavy incorporation of dance fitness courses.

Yet she’s not one to conform. She chose to supplement the 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 Club Cardio, Delirio, Body Shock, Press Play, and Madd-X.

Her epiphany came with the pounding rhythm of a cardio-funk class.

That variety is a result of the way she recruits teachers. “[Dance 101] hires teachers not to teach what we think they should teach, but what they are passionate about,” de la Valette says. “So if the teacher comes to me and wants to teach a reggae-style contemporary ballet class, if that’s what her passion is and what comes naturally to her, that’s what we’re going to have her teach.”

Class names like Desir80s, taught by Desiree Nathanson, have pop culture appeal.

Class names like Desir80s, taught by Desiree Nathanson, have pop culture appeal.

On the Dance 101 website, the home page for each studio features 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 or to your next party.” “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 can’t dance or don’t have dance training than do,” says de la Valette. “It might be 100,000 to 1. Unless you offer classes for people who want to dance because it makes them happy, you’re not going to be able to support a studio that offers advanced classes to adult drop-ins who have studied ballet for 20 years. We had to tip the scale to include dance fitness in order to offer technical classes and advanced classes.”

As Dance 101 has grown, it has also been seen on TV in programs such as So You Think You Can Dance, attention that de la Valette connects to her insistence that instructors at the studio “teach their passion” rather than fill a particular curricular need. The exposure has gone hand in hand with master classes by teachers as diverse as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearsal director Matthew Rushing, Bollywood choreographer Longinus Fernandes, and music video choreographer Ryan Heffington.

[Dance 101] hires teachers not to teach what we think they should teach, but what they are passionate about.Ofelia de la Valette

Yet, despite its success, Dance 101 is not finished growing. De la Valette’s latest plans for development alter the model on which she has built her business—she intends to grow a brand that extends beyond two bustling studios, by licensing and creating certification programs for particular classes. That goal sends her in a direction that looks like other trends that have gained large followings in the dance fitness industry, such as Zumba.

De la Valette’s motives remain unchanged, however. “When I opened Dance 101 12 years ago, my mantra was ‘If you build it, they will come’—without knowing if there was really a market for this,” she says. “It felt like we had awakened a sleeping giant. There are so many people out there who want to dance.”

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Irene Hsiao is a San Francisco Bay Area–based writer, dancer, and photographer. Her book, Letter from Taipei, was published in 2014 and her short film, Mad Rush, was screened at the 2015 Tiny Dance Film Festival.