There’s a dance studio tucked in a strip mall in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where magic happens five days a week. At first glance, Elite Formation Studio of Dance may seem like a typical dance studio, with kids as young as 4 and adults well past their mid-life crises joining lessons in ballet, jazz, tap, and hip-hop.
Dance studio owner says ‘the thing that aggravates you the most is the thing that you’re destined to change.’
But the studio offers much more than dance lessons. It’s one of the few dance studios in the region that’s owned and operated by an African-American entrepreneur. Its owner, Chequena Morris-Hall, is passionate about providing boys and girls of color mentors and ongoing nudges to be great not just in dance but in everything they do.
The studio has become a gathering place for families in Sterling, Virginia. It hosts Bible studies, book clubs, holiday events and birthday parties, among other things.
Morris-Hall, who grew up in the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia, said she craved a strong mentor as a kid. If she didn’t feel like taking on a new challenge or trying something new, her parents didn’t push her.
“They didn’t know, you’ve got to press the olive down to get the oil, you have to dig up dirt to get the diamond. You have to press in order for the purpose to come out,” she said. “So that’s my goal is to press these parents, and these children, because purpose is on the other side of that.”
A long road
Several years ago, Morris-Hall seemed like the most unlikely person to open a dance studio. She worked long hours at a prestigious government job. She and her husband sent their kids to private school. Morris-Hall had a master’s degree and was considering earning a PhD.
“I was never satisfied. I just kept striving for more,” she said. “My friend at work heard me go on about all this stuff that I was unhappy about, and she said ‘you need Jesus.’ … When I saw the peace that she had no matter what was going on, I was like, I have to have some of that.”
She finally attended the friend’s church, and the pastor’s message changed the direction of her life. “He said your destiny has always been written. There’s nothing you can do to add to it or take away from it, you just have to walk in it. That completely changed my life,” she said.
With that, she quit her job. Shortly after, she found out she was pregnant with her third child, just as her two oldest turned 7 and 9. “I thought we were done [having kids], but here I was with no money and another baby on the way.”
But, she adds, God continued to provide. Just as it looked impossible that she and her husband would make the mortgage, a friend called them to say she needed a place to rent. She took over the mortgage, and the family moved in with Morris-Hall’s mother in Loudoun County, Virginia. “I always knew of God like he was a neighbor, but that’s when I got to really know him because I saw what he was capable of.”
Pushed to bring change
As Morris-Hall and her family settled into their new home, she enrolled her 7-year-old daughter, Morgan, in a dance studio. Morgan was the only non-white student in the class. Morris-Hall said the ballet was fine, the jazz dancing was fine, but the hip-hop was wrong.
“The hip-hop was Britney Spears. Britney’s great, but that’s not hip-hop,” Morris-Hall said.
The next year was worse. The girls danced to TLC’s “Creep,” complete with the spray-painted jumpsuits. “It was so painful for me to watch, it was stereotypical…I cried every time I saw her perform,” she said. “I’d read something that the thing that aggravates you the most is the thing that you’re destined to change.”
Sitting in the parking lot of that dance studio, Morris-Hall started Elite Formation Studio of Dance. She called dance instructors throughout the region, and took the $40 in her bank account to rent space for an open house, which led to more and more families who wanted to be involved. Before long, Elite Formation had 50 students.
‘I want a different experience for my daughter’
Jachelle Joseph’s daughter, then 4 years old, was one of the first students at Elite Formation. Joseph grew up dancing, and was always the only minority in the class. “It was something that was never a thought, because it was something that always had been,” she said.
But, as she grew older, she noticed that she felt often like an outsider, even though her instructors and fellow students treated her well. For example, she had a tough time finding tights that were her skin color. And the instructors asked the girls to wear their hair in a bun for performances, but Joseph’s hair didn’t neatly go in a bun.
“I want a different experience for my daughter. I want her to be able to know that she’s not the only one — she has others that look like her outside of our family,” Joseph said.
The studio also teaches African dance, something Joseph wasn’t introduced to until college. “I think it’s important to open children’s minds up to their background, their history, earlier rather than later, like it was for me,” she said. “What Chequena has done is amazing. The studio is really diverse, with all kinds of students from different backgrounds.”
What started as an idea in the parking lot of another dance studio has grown to be a sought-after space for families in Northern Virginia. More than 300 people packed Elite Formation Studio of Dance’s most recent recital (pre-COVID-19), and now Morris-Hall is looking to the future.
Her dream is to open a performing arts school, where students can pursue their creative passions. “I believe the arts and a strong community are the best teachers. It’s really important for my kids to know that they don’t have to do certain things to be great — they were born complete. Instead of searching, going to miserable jobs, being around people who are miserable, I want them to wake up in the morning and do what they love, whatever that might be.”