It’s Not Just Dance: Bri’s Dance Place Celebrates Life, Grief, Joy, & The Human Experience
The motto of Bri’s Dance Place in Merrillville, Indiana is “We don’t just teach dance, we teach life!” And owner Brianna Hairlson, winner of one of Merchant Maverick’s Opportunity Grants, knows a lot about both topics — in the past three years, she was laid off from a large tech company, had a baby, opened a dance studio, lost her mother, managed running a business during COVID, and had another baby (last week).
With a major in Business and a minor in Dance from Howard University, Brianna always knew she was going to combine her entrepreneurial talents with her passion for movement. Her dance studio is just one part of her business plan. Brianna’s Bump N’ Dance class for expecting or new moms is primed to find a mass audience. She is also available as a business consultant, and offers grant writing workshops to help other business owners find their voice.
Amid her busy schedule (with a toddler and a newborn), Brianna talked with us to tell us more about her business and her plans for the future.
Meet Grant Recipient Brianna Hairlson, Owner Of Bri’s Dance Place
Hello! Thank you for talking with me today! Let’s jump right in: Why this business? Why dance?
At age 7, I knew I wanted to do this. It was the end of the year talent show and I was in the 2nd grade — And this song by Kirk Franklin came out called “STOMP” and for us Christian kids who couldn’t listen to hip-hop, this was the hip-hop of our time. My friend and I organized rehearsals in our basements and then the whole school was there for the talent show. We did the dance. We got a standing ovation; and all the 5th graders were giving us high-5s. I knew I loved it.
That’s when I found out what a choreographer was. And then from there, the choir teacher had us come in and choreograph the moves to the choir concerts. At age seven, I knew dance was what I wanted to do.
And after that, how did your love of dance set the path for your future?
I got serious about pursuing dance when I got to Howard University. I was older by most standards where you have kids starting dance and ballet at 2, 3, 4 years old, and I’m 21-years-old. As a dance minor in those classes, it was really hard. I was a dance minor and business major — and I was taking 21 credits to finish my minor.
I originally auditioned to be a dance major and I was rejected for that program. So, I took two years off and I started to volunteer my time at a studio, and that volunteerism turned into a job. That experience and opportunity was when I knew I wanted to open a studio.
What happened between that time at Howard and now that brought you to where you are with Bri’s Dance Place?
Once I graduated, I went the corporate route. I was working for IBM for about five years while I was still volunteering dance and teaching. But I felt stagnant as a consultant, and I could feel it: This is not where I’m supposed to be. So, I enrolled in entrepreneurship school in October 2017 and by February 2018, that’s when I found out I was pregnant. Right after that, I found out I was laid off, too. That was when I decided to roll over into full-time entrepreneurship.
And I thought I should do pregnancy dance classes — no one is doing that! The women in my area are tired and not active…and no one is doing that. So, we started with the pop-up classes for pregnant women and new moms.
Then things got hard because it wasn’t consistent! I thought I was gonna go viral, Ellen was going to see my dance classes, but it didn’t work like that. That inconsistency, losing my good salary, and we had just built a house — I was fearful. But I knew the next step was to open a studio.
In 2019, I thought, okay — I can’t NOT do this anymore. I won a contest for 6 months of free retail space in the mall, but because I was fearful, I turned that free space down and looked for another corporate job. But then I went to a conference in California for dance that had already been planned, and so many things lined up.
I said, I have to pursue what’s in my heart. And as soon as I came back, I found the space for the studio.
But not at the mall!
No, not at the mall, which turned out to be a blessing. We had no way of knowing about COVID, but the malls were completely shut down. Here’s the story behind the place. While I was still in California, I started Googling places in Merrillville with 6 months free rent — because I had told God I wanted six months free rent. I saw this place on there, and then when I came back my realtor called and told me about the space, too, so I thought that is sign number two. And then the wire in my braces was poking me, and I tried calling my orthodontist but the number didn’t go through. Come to find out, the space was my old orthodontist office! It was the place I had just tried was to call. So, that was three confirmations.
And you converted the old orthodontist office into what you needed?
Yeah, the build-out process went great. It gave me the number of dance rooms I wanted, the reception area I wanted, a student lounge, a teacher’s lounge, three bathrooms, and storage space. I love it. It’s in a great location.
Tell me about the impact COVID had on your business.
We had only been open for about five months when the pandemic hit. We had grown already to 75 students by March 2020. But then I remember, it was March 17, and little by little parents started calling and dropping and dropping. There were so many uncertainties, and we had our recital outdoors in June and we ended with 34 students.
We had Zoom classes and I wanted to keep the same structure. So, we have three dance rooms with different classes — and I don’t know why I did that to myself — but we’d have three Zooms going at once. I wasn’t teaching those classes, but I was behind the scenes assisting with technology or a teacher whose WiFi is bad, and it was draining!
We didn’t change our pricing structure because we couldn’t afford to, and then I’m questioning myself if there’s enough value-added. Even then, I wasn’t meeting my bills… and during the time that the facility wasn’t being used, we got a giant utility bill. And I’m like no, this is crazy. I’m in tears talking to my landlord.
It was a trying time.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel?
We are very blessed! I Heart Radio promoted Black-owned businesses and we saw our enrollment increase. In March of this year, at that year anniversary of COVID, we had surpassed our number of 75 students. Right now, we have 95 students enrolled. And by August, we hope to be at 122 which is easily attainable. I also now have this whole other demographic of people looking for ways to get out and give their children a sense of normalcy, because people are looking for activities for their children.
What is something people don’t know about your business industry?
You don’t have to be a starving artist to work in the arts. There is both money to be made and systems in place so you can leave a lasting legacy. Art changes lives and we need to invest in the performing arts — and for people who aren’t capable of verbalizing their struggles to describe their pain, it can come out in music and in dance.
You don’t have to be a starving artist to work in the arts.
But also, I don’t think people know that there are people in this industry working to keep children happy, healthy, and safe, and not expose them to over-sexualization because exposure can have a lasting impact. We want to let kids be kids.
Okay, so, as a successful entrepreneur who do you go to for business advice?
I definitely have a few mentors. One of those is the guy who built our house, and I had him come out and see the studio while it was being built out. I can go to my husband, now that he can see this — because it was a leap of faith and he needed to process and see the vision. But really, I have really good girlfriends. They are going to tell me things from a place of love and logic about what’s working. My girlfriends are there to encourage me, pray with me when I’ve cried or when parents have gone off, when crazy things have happened, they have been the consistent people I go to.
I’ve also paid for coaching to invest in myself. Anything that will make me better as an entrepreneur.
Dreaming big…Ten years from now, where is Bri’s Dance Place? What do you see in your future?
I definitely see multiple locations. East Coast. South. West Coast. And Midwest. With a focus on age-appropriate choreography.
And I also see a non-profit arm that gives back.
I also see a franchise model for the new mom’s classes. Moms, who might need some extra income, can license out our choreography and start a Bump ‘N Dance in their area. Then we can get the chapters together — the Houston chapter and the San Diego chapter — virtually or in-person.
By then, ten years from now, the studios can be self-sufficient, and I can speak and coach. I want to inspire other dance studio owners that they can make a business out of this. And for all women to know that they can be a wife and a mom and have a business.
What are you most proud of about the dance studio?
I think that losing my mom and starting my Joy Workshops has been something I’m really proud of. The Joy Workshops were a way to help people deal with grief; teaching people how to grieve and grieve well, and give perspective, and we saw a lot of healing with the workshops. I feel like I used my pain and helped others through their season of grief. That set the foundation for what the studio is. When people come into Bri’s Dance Place, they feel love and acceptance, and warmth. It’s a place of positivity.
I feel like I used my pain and helped others through their season of grief.
I love that my business is a place where parents are proud to send their children.
Also, I’m proud of making it through the pandemic, and still being open! I mean, we were only open for five months and there were places open for longer that had to close their doors.
And what’s your biggest piece of advice for new business owners who are just starting out?
Pray! And don’t despise small beginnings.
Also, you have to be ready to pivot. Do the research, test the market before you invest a ton of money. I sent out surveys and did focus groups; I invested in my dream.
Don’t be quick to give up on your dreams. If it’s something inside of you, it’s going to work out, don’t give up, get some strategy, get some mentors. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. And I’m only at the beginning — we just started and are just scratching the surface.
If it’s something inside of you, it’s going to work out, don’t give up, get some strategy, get some mentors.
Think of the energy you put toward a job or your work — and that is energy going toward someone else’s dream. Don’t put that work into someone else’s goal, put that into your dream.
Find out more about Brianna’s unique take on dance on the Bri’s Dance Place website or follow her on Instagram. To enroll yourself or your child in a dance class at the studio, check out this summer’s schedule.
Learn more about the Merchant Maverick Opportunity Grants program and read about the other winners of this year’s grant for Black, Female Entrepreneurs.