She makes it her practice to lead in the same way she would want to be led — never asking more of anyone than she herself is willing to give. —Callie Birdsall, president and CEO of the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, on Maria Ivanova
SOUTH SALT LAKE — Maria Ivanova needed a place to practice. In Utah in 2008, there were not many venues for her to choose from.
Salsa dancing largely had been overlooked by dance professionals in Salt Lake City where most dance studios offered modern, jazz or ballet classes, primarily for children.
Out of desperation, Ivanova and her then-husband leased a 3,000-square-foot, linoleum-floored, windowless printer shop in Salt Lake City to serve as their practice studio. They soon realized that they could fill the void of salsa dance studios in Salt Lake by opening a place of their own.
“We were crazy. We had like a $5,000 budget but a lot of enthusiasm to do this,” said Ivanova, who is originally from Russia and immigrated to America from Germany in 2001.
After a month and a half, they opened DF Dance Studios, which became a hit with local salsa dancers. The studio became a community for dancing and socializing.
Five years later, DF Dance Studios has moved to a larger location in South Salt Lake. It continues to thrive and recently earned Ivanova recognition from the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce as the city’s Businesswoman of the Year.
The award selects one businesswoman each year who is an outstanding leader in both their business and the community.
"Ivanova is passionate about what she does and brings intensity and enthusiasm to anything she focuses on," said Callie Birdsall, president and CEO of the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. "She makes it her practice to lead in the same way she would want to be led — never asking more of anyone than she herself is willing to give."
Ivanova was also recently named to serve as chairwoman for the Women in Business committee in South Salt Lake, and is consistently among the first to volunteer time and resources to fundraising endeavors in the city.
DF Dance Studios has grown from two instructors who taught five classes per week to 15 instructors who collectively teach more than 100 classes each week. Revenue has grown 300 percent from when they first opened their doors until now.
Bucking the trends
The success of this business during a down economy is rare but explainable, said Peter Philips, professor of economics at the University of Utah. With some exceptions, he said, small businesses tend to do better when they open during an economic upswing.
The gross domestic product is a clear measure of the American economy, he said. When the GDP grows, there are more business opportunities. When it shrinks, there are fewer.
He compared the economy to fishing. If fish aren’t biting, no matter how good a fisherman is, he is not likely to catch anything. Similarly, the business opportunity pond into which people fish is directly correlated with GDP growth; the United States’ GDP historically has fluctuated, and shows an overall decline, especially in recent years.
“Small businesses are facing a challenging environment because over the last 60 years on average, growth in the American economy has slowed. And slowing growth, all other things being equal, means more limited opportunities,” Philips said.
So how does he account for the success of a business like DF Dance Studios?
Luck, and an ability to fill a niche.
Like the kind of luck Ivanova had when she discovered salsa dancing and subsequently founded her studio.
Philips said businesses can create their own opportunities and success by watching for an upswing in the market and by filling specific niches.
Shortly after moving to the United States in 2001, Ivanova’s mom set her up on a blind date. She did not enjoy the Argentine tango class she and her date attended but was drawn to the music and dancing of the salsa class that followed.
However, because of her family’s deep roots in education, she knew that dance would never be a serious pursuit. She felt compelled to earn an advanced degree. When plans for a career in law fell through, she shifted her focus to anesthesiology, obtained a nursing degree and worked toward her residency.
While Ivanova was in nursing school, she aggressively pursued salsa dance as a hobby and taught classes at Salt Lake Community College, the University of Utah, and Utah Valley University to fund her education. There were few resources in Utah for salseras and salseros, so she attended workshops and festivals in Los Angeles, New York and Boston and learned Spanish to help her better understand the Latin culture, all while working as a registered nurse.
“It turned out that I really love teaching. And it turned out that, you know, people like how I teach.”
Ivanova remembers the exact moment when her priorities changed. It was while she was filling out the application for anesthesiology residency. Her schoolmate of five years asked her, “Why are you doing this?”
Although she thought dancing was fun, she said, anesthesiology offered her consistency.
“He said, ‘Well, as long as I’ve known you, the last five years, the only thing that’s been consistent is your dancing.’”
So Ivanova quit nursing and focused on dance.
“It’s difficult to just go for what you love, of course. It’s risky. But it’s true. That’s the only thing I’ve consistently always done and consistently always loved. So it just made sense, what he said.”
Ivanova’s passion for dance has spilled over to the success of DF Dance Studios.
Lindsey Nielson, an instructor at the studio and former student of Ivanova, said many dancers are attracted to the studio's atmosphere.
“There’s a very positive energy about the place,” Nielson said. “We have a very personal touch, I’d say. We get to know the students. We care individually about the students.”
The studio offers classes in ballroom and Latin, Argentine tango, salsa, swing and country, and employs instructors who are at the top of their fields. Instructor Carlos Gomez, who recently placed third in the World Salsa Summit, said he would not have chosen to work for DF if he did not know it was the best studio in town.
According to Philips, in addition to meeting a specific niche, successful businesses need to innovate in order to maintain growth. This means employing new technology or methods to meet the demands of a changing market.
DF Dance Studios is undergoing an expansion that will increase its size from 5,000 to 8,000 square feet. Ivanova plans to use the expansion as an event center that will allow them to host competitions and bring attention to the city’s salsa community she helped pioneer.
Ultimately, Ivanova would like DF Dance Studios to become a city center where people can experience art and music and take supplementary courses, such as Spanish language classes. As a step toward accomplishing this goal, the studio takes part in Salt Lake’s monthly art gallery strolls.
Her mother, Nina Ivanova, said Maria has loved art and music from a young age. She is pleased that her daughter is able to do what she loves.
“I’m very proud of her. It takes a lot of courage and strength when you have a big dream to follow it,” Nina Ivanova said.
Ivanova is quick to admit that the success of her business lies in the quality of her instructors and their shared passion for dance, something they try to share with all who enter their studio doors.
“I feel like to be good at anything, you have to love it,” she said. “You have to love it. You have to live it. It has to be you. You can’t fake it. “