By Helena Oliviero
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ofelia de La Valette was slogging it out on a treadmill when she heard funky music in the distance.
She jumped off the treadmill and followed the music pulsating inside a cardio funk dance class. She stood in the back of the class and watched the dancers in awe.
Sure, they were working up a sweat. But they were also swinging their hips, smiling and looking like they were having way too much fun for exercise.
It was in that moment, back in the early ’90s, when de La Valette discovered a love for dance. She was 34, had recently given birth to her second child and was struggling to shed 25 pounds of pregnancy weight. She joined the next class. Timid at first, unsure whether she belonged in a dance class, she decided to go for it.
She was hooked. It was fun, helped her get fit, made her happy.
Within a couple of years, she found a dance studio and enrolled in as many as 12 classes a week, modern dance, jazz, ballet and hip-hop.
She was a beginner but determined. One of her instructors pulled her aside one day and told her: “You missed your calling. Had you started training younger, you would have become a successful dancer.”
About dance, Ofelia de La Valette said: “It transformed me: It rejuvenated me.”
De La Valette didn’t miss her calling. It just came later in life. In 2004, de La Valette closed her insurance business and opened Dance 101, a dance studio for adults in Atlanta. She was 46, one month shy of turning 47.
De La Valette is one of 60 women (and the only one from Georgia) featured in Marlo Thomas’ new book, “It Ain’t Over … Till It’s Over!” (Simon & Schuster, $27). The book is a collection of stories about women who reinvented themselves, and in many cases, at over age 40, and in surprising ways.
It includes the story of a music teacher from California who, at the age of 56, decided to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a painter (even though she’d never picked up a paintbrush before); Natasha Coleman, a 35-year-old sales rep from Panama City, Fla., who lost well over 200 pounds after she was humiliated when she couldn’t fit into her first-class seat on a flight.
And then there’s 43-year-old Veronica Bosgraaf of Michigan, whose 6-year-old daughter, after visiting a petting zoo, announced she was now a vegetarian. Bosgraaf’s desire to make healthy, tasty and vegetarian foods led her to inventing the nutritional snack the Pure Bar.
Dance 101, located in the Toco Hill neighborhood of Atlanta, caters to adults with little to no formal dance training (but also offers classes for students who are coming back to dance or are seeking more challenging classes).
With the feel of a SoHo loft and featuring Moroccan pillows and cozy seating areas and fresh-cut sunflowers, the dance studio offers 110-plus classes, they include the classical dances such as ballet, tap and jazz but also a diverse mix of styles including salsa, hip-hop and Bollywood, many classes mixing simple dance steps with a high-intensity aerobic workout.
On a recent afternoon with de La Valette, pretty, poised and relaxed in her lovely dance studio, it’s hard to imagine how many challenges she faced getting her dream up and running. She is now 57.
She candidly talks about being gripped by fear the night before teaching her first dance class at the age of 44. It was a beginner’s jazz class, at Emory University.
“I had a meltdown, crying, panicking. What if people find out I am an impostor, that I have only been dancing for nine years? I didn’t see myself as a teacher. I saw myself as a student,” she said.
But as soon as de La Valette turned on a No Doubt song on the CD player and started teaching the class, clad in her black yoga pants, jazz sneakers, and her signature shirt around her waist and wavy hair down, she felt confident.
“I discovered I was very qualified to teach that Emory class. It was because I learned to dance as an adult that I knew how to teach adults how to move in a way that adults could learn how … I could break down the steps, like a pirouette, and I could teach them in a way that they could discover they can dance, too.”
One night after class in late 2003, five of her students cornered her in the parking lot: There have to be more adults like us who are new to dance. They urged her to open a dance studio for adults, and the group of five, including a lawyer, an IT guy and a marketing guru, offered to help.
Within months, she closed her insurance business and opened Dance 101.
“My family thought I was crazy, but I jumped in and worked 12 to 14 hours a day teaching 17 dance classes a week,” she said. “I was thrown into the deep end, and it was like are you going to sink or swim?”
Today, Dance 101 has more than 20,000 registered students and 40 instructors. She recently opened a second location in suburban Alpharetta, north of Atlanta.
On a recent afternoon, a gaggle of dancers raved about de La Valette and her dance studio.
“I have a dance background 1,000 years ago,” said Ann Coppage, who is 57 and takes ballet, hip-hop and dancer’s stretch classes.
“And for some reason, after I got married and had kids, I didn’t think I should do it anymore … I have been coming to dance classes here for six years. Here I am dripping in sweat, but it’s also therapy for me.”
SOME WORDS OF INSPIRATION
Reinvention requires a leap of faith. And in order to take a leap of faith, Ofelia de La Valette believes certain self-truths (or self-beliefs) must be present.
1. Your life doesn’t happen to you. It happens because of you.
2. Reinvention typically requires support from friends and family. Others will believe in you to the extent that you believe in yourself.
3. Opportunity appears only when you are looking.
4. Fear is a necessary component of accomplishment. You will never achieve anything really great without it.
5. Success rewards us. Mistakes teach us.