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Faith in motion: Dancer inspires hope and unity in the community

Photo caption:Brianna Hairlson

For Brianna Hairlson, dance is not only the correlation of movement and self-expression but also a testament to her faith. It is also a way for her to pay homage to her Midwestern roots and to help create something beautiful in the lives of others.

For the past five years, the married mother of three and award-winning entrepreneur has operated Bri’s Dance Place. The studio located at 7891 Broadway has become a safe haven for children and teens as well as a performing arts hub for Lake County residents of all ages.

Bri’s Dance Place offers a variety of classes in hip hop, jazz, ballet, modern, tap, tumbling, dance therapy and fitness. It also features an array of nationally recognized programs for toddlers, seniors, boys, men, expectant mothers and new moms, called “Bump and Dance.”

In 2021, the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center named Hairlson its Young Entrepreneur of the Year. “We believe that dance is for all ages, stages and abilities, and we don’t just teach dance, we teach life,” Hairlson said, fresh off a recent recital. “When someone walks through our doors we want them to feel like they can accomplish their dreams.”

But like many small businesses across the country, the budding studio, which opened in 2018, took a major hit when federal and state governments forced closures during the coronavirus pandemic. No longer able to host in-person classes, Hairlson saw her enrollment plummet, along with revenue.

“Three months before the pandemic hit in March of 2020, my mother passed away,” Hairlson said. “This was a difficult time but I never thought about giving up. I couldn’t. I needed to keep the studio going in order to honor my mother who had been with me every step of the way. She died before ever stepping foot inside the studio.

“In January of that year I had been hosting joy-based dance workshops to help myself and others deal with grief and two months later the pandemic hit,” she said. “We went from 75 kids to half (of that number). I didn’t qualify for a PPP loan but was able to secure the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan. I was in a 3,800-square-foot building and I still had to pay rent and utilities. There was no ‘in case of COVID’ clause in my lease. My husband and I also had a growing family to support.

“So, I got PTSD from hosting all of the Zoom sessions,” she said, laughing. “Later I pivoted to after-school programs and eLearning for students; and when the state relaxed restrictions I rented the studio as an event space. I also used a muscle I developed in college by pursuing scholarships to launch an aggressive fundraising campaign,” she said. “It was hard work. God was faithful.”

Her perseverance paid off. By November 2020, Bri’s Dance Studio had secured more than $60,000 in grants. Since then, Hairlson has been awarded thousands of dollars in other awards, fellowships and won more than 30 honors. Grantees have included American Express, Spanks, Facebook, and Comcast RISE, which provided the business with a technology makeover. During the pandemic, superstar Beyoncé, in partnership with the NAACP, awarded Bri’s Place $10,000.

“God gives you glimpses of the future and glimmers of hope,” Hairlson told the Crusader. “I’m like, oh, this is, it’s time for my second business which is teaching people how to apply for grants. And so, I started doing that, working with other businesses and then taking my courses and I helped a lot of people and so I was making money doing that.”

Born and raised in Merrillville, Brianna’s love for dance ignited in her church at the age of seven. As one of three children born to Gary steel mill worker Ivan Ursery and her mother Cheryl Baker-Ursery, who worked in education, the dance protege attended local elementary and high schools before heading off to Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Inspired by alumni such as famed choreographer, actress, and director Debbie Allen, Brianna auditioned for Howard’s rigorous dance program but was unable to make the cut. “Even though I started dancing at age seven, I hadn’t had formal training and that program was extremely competitive. But I didn’t give up.”

Hairlson said she stayed focused on her goal and opted to major in business instead. But she also continued to pursue a spot in the dance program and was allowed to select it as a minor. Dance professors trained her by day in the techniques of Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham and Lester Horney, among others. In the afternoons, business professors broadened her perspective on finance, entrepreneurship and technology.

She graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s of science degree in business along with an energized creative vision.

“Howard was challenging at times,” she told the Crusader. “But I always stayed focused on my goal of one day opening a performing arts center back home. The experience taught me how to persevere in the face of rejection and to never give up on what’s in store for you. I had a dream of being a dancer—and more importantly of using the art form as a way to encourage and heal others.”

As fate would have it, Hairlson returned to Indiana and was soon offered a corporate job. At IBM. She worked for five years before being notified she was being laid off a month after learning she was pregnant with her first son. “Prior to that, I was feeling tired of working for IBM even though it was my dream job,” she explained. “I took it as a sign. I just felt like it was time to go. So, I had already enrolled in Joseph Business School, a faith-based program for entrepreneurs and so I poured myself into that.”

Joseph Business School is accredited by Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park, IL. Upon completion, Hairlson said she completed a business plan and found tapped into a community of successful entrepreneurs and business leaders to help shepherd her studio development. She believes because she was guided by spiritual principles, doors opened that otherwise would have remained closed.

“Faith is important to me,” she explained. “I grew up in the church and that’s where I developed a passion for dance and how to use the arts to express a love of God and humanity. I had spent five years in corporate America and I could have easily stayed there for decades, but dance was my calling.

“The way I found my (current) space, being able to finance the buildout on credit cards and with the help of the building’s owner—everything came together quickly,” she said. “I was disciplined in envisioning the sort of dance space I wanted for the community and then using what I learned at Howard and through the Joseph program, I put in the work to make it happen—it was like choreographing the life I wanted for myself.”

With another $5,000 loan from her sister, Bri’s Dance Studio opened for business and welcomed nearly 100 students through its doors in a matter of days.

She said, at its core, dance is a universal language that defies borders and barriers, bridging the gaps between diverse communities and fostering a sense of connection like no other art form. Whether it’s the exuberant dances from different African cultures, the graceful movements of ballet, or the expressive beats of hip-hop, the power of dance lies in its ability to touch hearts, evoke emotions, and inspire change.

For Hairlson she found style inspiration in the works of dancer Stephen “Twitch” Boss, who died tragically in December 2022; choreographer Fatima Robinson, who worked with Michael Jackson and Mary J. Blige; and Parris Goebel, who composes movements for Grammy Award-winning singer Rihanna. The late Dr. Cedric Oliver, pastor of Embassies of Christ, where Brianna goes to church, provided spiritual mentorship.

Beyond its cultural and spiritual significance, Hairlson says dance also offers myriad physical and mental benefits. It is a channel for self-expression, enabling individuals to articulate their innermost feelings and find catharsis.

In recent years, the power of dance has even extended to therapeutic realms. Hairlson started her expectant mother’s class while six months pregnant, pausing four days before giving birth. The program has gained national notoriety and she has been featured on local and national television programs.

Students primarily come from Merrillville, Gary and neighboring Chicago. Because many are economically disadvantaged, Hairlson works to keep tuition low. The lowest monthly costs for classes start at $50.

Brianna’s ambition to nurture young talent and foster a dance community has set her on an inspiring journey of determination. She is currently looking at expanding her studio into a multifunctional performing arts center. To support the project, she has launched a crowdfunding campaign on her website

“In my mind, I don’t want to do anything less than 10,000 square feet just because of how we’re growing,” she said. “It will have three large dance rooms, one with wood for tap and hip hop and stepping classes for adults. We’ll have a waiting room for parents, a nursing room for moms with changing tables, a party and game room for children, and a small black box theater for our smaller class performances.

“We’re in stage one right now and my lease is up in October so I know I should be in the building phase,” she said. “But I’m going to let God do what He can do first.”

Growing up amidst the rhythmic clang of steel mills in the neighboring city of Gary, Brianna’s father worked tirelessly to provide for his family. Watching her father’s unwavering dedication and relentless work ethic in the steel industry left an indelible impression on Brianna. It instilled in her a belief that dreams are not only worth pursuing but can be transformed into reality with faith, hope, and a relentless pursuit of one’s passion.

For Brianna, dance has always been a way to pay homage to her roots and to create something beautiful amidst the raw industrial landscape. From the streets of Merrillville to community centers, she embraced every opportunity to dance, weaving her father’s resilience into the very fabric of her movements.

Through the highs and lows of life, Brianna’s father has been her pillar of support. His encouraging words and stories of overcoming adversities in the steel industry have been a wellspring of inspiration, urging her to carve her path in the world of dance.

As her dream of owning a dance studio takes shape, Brianna credits her father’s unwavering support for the courage to pursue her ambitions. She envisions a space where the vibrant rhythm of dance will resonate with the steel spirit of her father’s hard work, creating an uplifting community for aspiring dancers in Merrillville.

With hope as her guiding light, Brianna’s dance studio will not only be a celebration of the art form she adores but a tribute to her father’s labor in the steel mills. As she works diligently to establish her dance sanctuary, the love for her father and the city of Gary will infuse every step she takes, creating an indomitable spirit that will uplift not just Merrillville, but all who cross the threshold of her dance studio.

As Brianna Hairlson’s dream takes flight, the fusion of steel and dance will echo through generations, reminding all that with determination, passion, and the support of loved ones, dreams can rise above the grittiest of challenges and shine brighter than the steel itself.

In the heart of inner-city Merrillville, Indiana, where dreams often face towering obstacles, one dance instructor’s story has become an awe-inspiring symphony of triumph. Meet Brianna Hairlson, an indomitable spirit whose journey through the vibrant world of dance in the inner city has exemplified the transformative power of perseverance, supported by the invaluable contribution of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

However, the road to her dreams was not without obstacles. When a sudden health challenge threatened to dim the light within Brianna, her dreams teetered on the edge of uncertainty. But it was during these trying times that the NEA stepped in, providing crucial support and resources to inner-city arts programs like the one Brianna was a part of. Thanks to their funding, the community dance studio where Brianna had first discovered her passion was able to provide her with the necessary rehabilitation and training, allowing her to rekindle her spirit and dance again.

With sheer determination, Brianna overcame her obstacles one step at a time, proving that the dance of the inner city was not merely about movements but an expression of resilience, fostered by the NEA’s commitment to promoting artistic excellence. Fueled by the stories of those who shared her journey, she channeled her experiences into her dance, infusing it with the authentic stories of her community.

As word of her remarkable journey spread, Brianna was invited to perform at inner-city dance showcases, where her powerful performances resonated with audiences from all walks of life. Her art transcended language and cultural barriers, uniting people under the universal language of dance, supported by the NEA’s vision to enrich the nation through the power of the arts.

In a triumphant crescendo, Brianna opened her own dance studio in the heart of the inner city, offering a haven for aspiring dancers with limited access to traditional training. Her studio became a beacon of hope, providing a nurturing space for talent to flourish and dreams to thrive, backed by the unwavering support of the NEA’s commitment to fostering diversity and inclusivity in the arts.

Today, Brianna Hairlson’s dance studio stands as a testament to the resilience and creativity that define the inner-city dance scene, powered by the belief that artistic expression can transform lives, a belief upheld by the NEA’s tireless efforts to empower artists like Brianna. Her story inspires generations to come, proving that in the midst of challenges, the city’s rhythm can fuel the fire of dreams, with passion, persistence, and the invaluable support of organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, the rhythm of triumph can reverberate far beyond the city’s borders.

Reporting made posssible by the Inland Foundation.

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