Suzy Kaitman: Former ballerina leaps to entrepreneurial success

This profile is part of Slaying it: Vancouver's top young professionals, a blog series about the talented young people in Vancouver who are killing it every day. #SlayingItVanTopPros

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As 2017 draws to a close, Suzy Kaitman has a lot to smile about when thinking of how far she's come in the past year. Suzy is an athlete, teacher, coach, artist and entrepreneur. She’s the founder and owner of Ballet Lounge, a hip ballet studio where dancers of all levels and body types are welcome.

Classes are regularly taught to house and top 40 music. A few weeks ago, on a Saturday evening leading up to Christmas, Ballet Lounge was packed with dancers along with their friends and families, as Suzy hosted her first-ever Christmas showcase.

The dancers performed choreography from The Nutcracker. And while much attention was paid to the steps, technique and artistry of the pieces, the emphasis was on having fun. Some of the students had grown up dancing. Others were new to the world of dance. It doesn’t matter at Ballet Lounge. The studio’s purpose is to encourage people to enjoy dance, get fit and have an awesome time. A wonderful community has developed at this studio, and on the night of the showcase, the room was full of laughter and warm friendship. And Suzy couldn’t be happier, especially when considering her path here.

Dancers of all ages, abilities and past dance background are welcome at Ballet Lounge.

Dancers of all ages, abilities and past dance background are welcome at Ballet Lounge.

Suzy was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, where she began dancing at the age of three at the local studio, Freehouse Dance Plus. She eventually switched to The School of Alberta Ballet when she was in her teens. Upon high school graduation, she auditioned for and was accepted into the School of Alberta Ballet’s post-secondary training program, done in collaboration with the University of Calgary.

But after a couple of years, the brutality of the professional dance world took its toll. “Once I got into the program, I realized I didn’t have the right body type for professional ballet. And it’s hard to realize that when you’re so passionate about something,” remembers Suzy. “I knew realistically there would be no spots for me in the Alberta Ballet professional company because I didn’t fit the mold.”

After a couple of nervous breakdowns, Suzy made the decision to stop dancing. However, she had started working out at the gym while she was training as a dancer. And she began to hear the fitness world calling to her.

“I felt the fitness industry was so accepting, no matter what kind of body type you have. Anyone can be strong and beautiful.”

Suzy also discovered a new passion for entrepreneurship. She studied business and entrepreneurship classes while becoming a certified fitness trainer. Suzy began working as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Calgary’s Bow Valley Club. It was there that Suzy first came up with the concept that would eventually lead to her own business. She realized that many adults had an interest in doing a ballet-inspired class incorporating elements of body conditioning, done to sexy, fun music. Back then, she called her style of class, Dance Fusion.

Suzy with her students after a class.

Suzy with her students after a class.

“That was the moment where it clicked,” Suzy recalls. “I could still do ballet. And it’s to house music and for fitness. It was the perfect combination of everything I loved in one. And I felt so alive teaching the class. It was magical.”

Suzy eventually moved to Vancouver with her boyfriend. She had previously visited and had fallen in love with the city, especially the Yaletown area. When she first taught her Dance Fusion class at the YWCA in Vancouver, 50 people showed up for her first class. She quickly went from teaching one class a week to 17 at various community centres and gyms in the city.

Realizing that there was a market for this genre of fitness in Vancouver, Suzy started seriously considering opening her own studio. Then one evening, while having drinks with some of her clients, she mentioned her idea. “And one of my clients said, 'Have you thought of the name Ballet Lounge?' ”.

Realizing that was the perfect name for her studio, Suzy quickly Googled it to make sure no one was using it yet. The next day, she bought the domain name, called a lawyer to trademark it, and reserved the name on all social media sites.

Suzy found a space to rent in the central area of Granville and Drake, right beside the popular spin studio, Spin Society. But it wasn’t easy to open shop.

Suzy poses outside the future site of Ballet Lounge after securing the lease. 

Suzy poses outside the future site of Ballet Lounge after securing the lease. 

It took six months to finally obtain a building permit from the City of Vancouver – a process that Suzy says usually takes six weeks. She had planned to have renovations complete by January of 2016 so she could capitalize on the flurry of fitness resolutions that happen after the holidays. However, because of the building permit delay, she didn’t end up taking possession until January – and still needed to have renovations done.

“And my contractors completely took me for a ride. They overcharged me $40,000, so my project cost $100,000 instead of $60,000,” explains Suzy. “They said everything would take six weeks. It took them three months to complete the project – and they knew I was in a time crunch.”

“And there was even a moment where for two weeks they didn’t do anything in there. They said they ran out of money and couldn’t complete my project because they had three other projects happening. At that point I’d given them $70,000. So I had to get another loan to pay them. I was getting further and further into the hole.”

The contractors that Suzy hired overcharged her by $40,000 and took three months instead of six weeks. 

The contractors that Suzy hired overcharged her by $40,000 and took three months instead of six weeks. 

The workmanship was also lower than Suzy had expected, with many deficiencies. “They said I couldn’t afford the best trades even though they marked up all my fees 19% which is apparently really high. And I had to get a lawyer involved. The contractors must have thought I had unlimited funds, like a trust fund baby. But no, I took out all these loans myself. I’m not rich. I was going broke just for my dream. And so it was a nightmare.”

But Suzy fought and eventually got her studio open in April, 2016. She remembers, “I busted my ass when we opened those doors. The studio was open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. I ran my body into the ground teaching as many classes as possible.”

Eventually Suzy burnt herself out from physical and mental exhaustion, as well as from stress. Having delayed the opening of her studio by many months, Suzy had to pay rent for the months when she wasn’t able to teach classes. While her landlord was understanding enough not to demand rent for the pre-opening months, Suzy would eventually still need to pay for those months in the future. That, along with the extra cost of renovations eventually took its toll on her.

Dancers warm up inside Ballet Lounge.

Dancers warm up inside Ballet Lounge.

“I thought my life was over, I thought my dreams were over. When you’ve done everything you can to try to plan everything well and it’s still not working…it was the most depressing feeling ever.”

She reached out for help, including receiving support from a mentor she connected with when she received her business loan from Women’s Enterprise Centre. Her family also helped her get another loan so she could catch up on her rent.

But it wasn’t enough. As knowledgeable and supportive as her business mentor was, he didn’t come from a fitness or dance background and didn’t quite understand the industry. So Suzy signed up for a coaching program through Net Profit Explosion, an international company specializing in helping fitness professionals in entrepreneurship.

“They looked over my whole business and figured out what was wrong. They helped me create a membership which now produces guaranteed monthly revenue. I now wake up every morning knowing how much I’m making and everything else is extra,” notes Suzy. “They helped me duplicate myself by finding the right people to work for me. So now all the classes at Ballet Lounge are busy, not just mine because I found other people who are like me. Net Profit Explosion helped me transform my business.”

Now, Ballet Lounge is thriving. And Suzy’s resilience and determination to succeed has been so impressive that she won Net Profit Explosion’s Client of the Year award. In October, she was invited to the national conference in Orlando to share her story.

Suzy won Net Profit Explosion's Client of the Year award.

Suzy won Net Profit Explosion's Client of the Year award.

This past fall, Ballet Lounge was also awarded the recognition of Best Dance Studio, as part of The Georgia Straight’s Best of Vancouver awards. The studio’s supportive community means that Ballet Lounge can now also give back. As part of the Christmas showcase, Ballet Lounge recently raised over $1,000 to help a local family in need.

With Ballet Lounge successfully running, Suzy now occasionally has some downtime. She was recently able to plan a trip with her boyfriend to the Sunshine Coast to celebrate his birthday.

Suzy with her Ballet Lounge family.

Suzy with her Ballet Lounge family.

But Suzy never sits still for very long. She now has even bigger ambitions. “I definitely want to open up a couple more locations in Vancouver. And then I want to expand outside of B.C. I’m thinking California…perhaps Laguna Beach. And then New York and then maybe Miami. Places I want to travel to. I always dream big so we’ll just see where I land.”

To end 2017, Suzy received an amazing Christmas engagement ring from her long-time boyfriend. Suzy Kaitman will enter 2018 on a high note, ready to leap even higher than ever.

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Check out my blog series, Slaying It: Vancouver's Top Young Professionals to read about more young professionals who are making a name for themselves.