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Conversations with Leah Mariner

Today we’d like to introduce you to Leah Mariner.

Hi Leah, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start, maybe you can share some of your backstory with our readers?
Dance has been a part of my life since I was three years old. I grew up in the dance studio, competing and performing. It was always my happy place. After college, I planned to move to the DC area to pursue my teaching career but didn’t want to give up my passion of dance. I auditioned for the Washington Wizards NBA dance team and earned a spot on the team. I performed for all the home basketball games for three seasons, had the opportunity to travel and perform internationally, participated in numerous promotional events, and gained lifelong friends.

It was an amazing experience, but after three years, I knew it was my time to “retire” from professional dancing and hang up my poms. I took a year off of dancing, and there was a huge void in my life. Dance was a part of my identity, and I needed to get back to my happy place. There were limited options for dance classes for adults in the DMV, and after trying some out, I still didn’t feel a sense of community that dance had always given me. I decided that with my professional background in teaching and my passion for dance, I could fill that void of fun, challenging, and community-based adult dance classes that was so needed in the DMV area. I found a studio in Arlington, VA to rent out on a weekly basis, and in the fall of 2016, I created AVA Dance Company.

We started out very small. I taught two classes every Wednesday, and I felt lucky to have five dancers in attendance! I began having guest instructors come in to also teach dance classes and our community began to grow. After a few years, we began to offer six different classes on three different days of the week. We had dozens of instructors teaching a variety of dance styles and hundreds of dancers taking our classes. In 2019, we had our first performance showcase where dancers learned routines and performed in front of a crowd of friends, family, and community members. It was a dream come true to see how far AVA Dance Company had come! In 2020, we were preparing for a second show when the pandemic hit. After months of rehearsals and preparation, it was all cut short only a few weeks before the big show. After several postponements, we ultimately had to cancel our 2020 showcase.

After a difficult year, we are now back to offering five dance classes a week and are finally getting our dance community back in the studio! The positive energy of our dancers is at an all-time high and we are so grateful to continue offering our classes to the DMV dance community. Our talented instructors continue to bring the highest caliber dance instruction every week, and our dancers continue to grow, and more importantly, have fun! We will be celebrating five years in business this fall, and we are so excited to see what the future holds for AVA Dance Company and our dance family here in the DMV.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
I didn’t have any experience building or running a business, but I knew I loved dancing, I loved teaching, and I wasn’t going to let myself fail. As soon as I signed a rental agreement with the dance studio, I created a free website and reached out to every dancer I knew in the DMV. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but I quickly became the company’s CEO, marketing director, web designer, social media manager, creative director, choreographer and instructor, photographer, videographer, accountant, business administrator, customer service representative, and many other titles, all without any experience.

Throughout the first year, I worked tirelessly to build a brand I was proud of and continued to reach out to the DMV dance community to build a network and get dancers into the studio. I tried to prepare amazing choreography for every class, provide quality instruction to every dancer, and get to know every dancer who walked in our doors. It was definitely discouraging at times when I put so much passion, time, and energy into building the dance company and still not getting the turnout I was hoping for. But I didn’t give up. I continued to persevere and did everything I could to build the dance community I was longing for and provide dance classes I knew I would want to take as an adult dancer here in the DMV. After a few years of learning and perseverance, our classes were full of eager dancers, and the positive energy in our studio was unmatched. I am so proud of how far we’ve come and see AVA Dance Company start from nothing and become what it is today.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I love providing adult dancers an outlet to continue to share their passion for dance in a fun and inclusive environment. Just because you turn a certain age, have a career, or move to a new city, doesn’t mean that you have to give up your hobbies and passions. Oftentimes, unless you continue to dance professionally, a lot of people who grew up dancing have it fall out of their life due to lack of opportunity to take classes. I knew it was so important to me to keep dance in my life, and I was sure that others must’ve felt the same way as I did.

As a dancer and choreographer, I specialize in teaching jazz, hip hop, heels, contemporary, and technique classes. With my background in professional NBA dancing, I also specialize in pro-cheer/pro-dance style choreography. I love that AVA Dance Company welcomes a variety of dancers – complete beginners, experienced dancers who want to continue to keep dance in their lives, or dancers who want to train to be on a professional dance team.

Something that sets us apart from other dance studios in the area is that our classes are taught by current or former professional dancers, many of who dance for DC-based NBA or NFL teams. This gives our dancers a chance to learn from some of the best local talents in the industry. Additionally, we change our instructor and class lineup every month. We are always offering new styles with new choreographers to continue to provide a variety of exciting classes to our community.

As a small business, it’s important to me that we stand out from other larger dance studios in the area. I want to make sure that our dancers always feel welcome and can continue to dance in a safe, positive environment. We offer a judgment-free zone where our dancers cheer each other on and support each other’s growth. I make it a priority to know each dancer’s name when they come to take a class and make sure their time in class was enjoyable. I’m so proud of the inclusive community we created and the dance family we now have here in the DMV!

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
I learned a few lessons from the COVID-19 crisis. The first thing I learned as a small business owner was the importance of flexibility and resiliency. COVID-19 was something that no business owner was prepared for. As a dance company owner and having to completely shut down our studio’s classes, I had no idea how our dance company was going to survive. We went from having sold-out classes every week to then having to abruptly shut down without knowing when we could reopen. After a few weeks of canceled classes, we knew we had to pivot and create a new model to give our community the outlet to dance. We started offering virtual dance classes online. Myself and my instructors logged in to zoom from our homes to provide the same welcoming, positive energy we provided in the studio to our dancers.

We offered these virtual classes on a “pay what you can” basis since we knew our community was struggling and we wanted to continue to be a sense of joy to them during this time. In the summer of 2020, we were able to begin holding limited capacity outdoor dance classes, practicing social distancing. It wasn’t until August of 2020 that we were able to welcome our dancers back into the studio, with several COVID-19 protocols in place, of course. One of the biggest struggles was the studio that we had rented from was now closed due to the pandemic. We found other studios in the dance and fitness community to rent from and began slowly welcoming our dancers back to dancing in person. It was great to be back in the studio, but with the uncertainty around COVID-19 and the limited capacity we put in place, our classes weren’t filling up. Throughout this last year, as the world began to heal, we were able to offer and fill more classes. We are grateful for the dedicated dance community that stuck with us through the pandemic and are happy to be working back towards a sense of normalcy!

Another important lesson for me personally was the importance of having an outlet for expression and self-care. Once we continued our classes online, I quickly learned that while we were all cooped up alone in our homes, our dance community was more important than ever. I was sitting in front of my computer screen more than ever before, and I saw how important it was to get up and move my body, allow myself to laugh, dance, and feel connected to other passionate people!

Pricing:

  • Single Studio Dance Class: $22
  • Single Outdoor Dance Class: $12
  • 5 Dance Class Pass: $100

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Erin Hill

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