When Passions Change – An Interview with the Founders of Dancing Ox Coffee

Last time, I wrote about how this ballroom dance thing is so much more than a hobby for a lot of us. It’s a passion. We take it just as seriously as any other commitment in our lives. We practice our steps under our cubicle desk at work and down grocery store aisles. We use all of our vacation time on competitions. The dance studio is our second home.

But what happens if we start to feel…less than passionate about ballroom dancing? What if the experience starts to lose its sparkle? What if something else begins to have a stronger pull?

The people I want to introduce to you today experienced just that. JP and Lauren are the founders of Dancing Ox Coffee Roasters. They are retired professional ballroom dancers who reached a point in their careers when the rhinestones just didn’t shine as brightly as they once did. They ended up trading those stones for coffee beans, and as you can see from their smiles, they couldn’t be happier.

First, there was dance.

While Lauren and JP are partners in Life and business, they were never dance partners. JP had started dancing ballroom when he was 10 years old, growing up in Russia. He said he first started because of a red robot. His neighbor friend had come home one day with this red robot that walked and talked, and JP learned that he got it as a prize at a dance competition. So he signed up for dance classes because he wanted a red robot too! Of course, the passion for dance carried him much further than the desire for a new toy.

After moving to the U.S. when he was 19, JP became a professional ballroom dancer and won several titles including US National Rising Star Latin Champion, US National Rising Star Smooth Champion, and US National 9-Dance Champion. It was after he stopped competing professionally in 2016 and focused solely on teaching students that he realized he didn’t have a passion for it anymore. He still loved to dance, but teaching didn’t light that passion fire in him. He yearned for something that would challenge him more creatively.

Lauren started dancing ballroom at 15 years old and started her competitive career as a student. She competed on the collegiate circuit and even moved to England for a year, so she could study with some of the great ballroom dance coaches. She knew this was what she wanted to do with her life. She transitioned to the professional circuit after college, competing in first Latin and then Rhythm. During her professional career, she was a two-time US National Mambo Champion, a World Salsa Champion, and a Fred Astaire US Latin Champion. As Lauren put it during our interview, she ate, slept and breathed dance.

Similar to JP’s experience, it was after Lauren retired from competing professionally that a light bulb came on. She had been practicing all day every day and going to a competition or a performance almost every weekend. She loved taking what she learned in lessons and applying it on the competition floor. But without that driver, she felt a void in her life. Like JP, she still loved dancing but she needed something more to challenge her.

Trading rhinestones for coffee beans

The transition to coffee roasting as their new passion and profession was triggered by a trip to Costa Rica. Both JP and Lauren loved coffee and would actively seek out different and unique brands of coffee roasters. They decided that they wanted to learn how to roast their own coffee and started envisioning being able to travel to coffee farms and learn how the beans were grown and harvested.

Suddenly, they were students again and feeling a renewed energy! Here was the creative challenge they were missing at the end of their ballroom dance careers. Similar to dance, coffee roasting requires a combination of following the established rules and adding your own creative spin. It’s a science and an art.

Even though I’m a tea person (and the only person in my immediate family who doesn’t drink coffee), I had so much fun listening to Lauren and JP talk about learning all of the intricacies of coffee roasting. They lit up during our interview as they talked about experimenting with the different variables in the roasting process to produce a better tasting coffee.

The business side of things

I was curious what made them go the extra step to take coffee roasting from a passion to a business. Several aspects about the coffee industry appealed to them. First, it was a much bigger industry. Only a very small percentage of people in the world dance ballroom, and as a teacher, you’re left with an even smaller percentage of people who can afford to take lessons with you.

There was also longevity to think about. Lauren said when she looked at her peers within the ballroom world and then outside the ballroom world, she saw how people in a non-dance career could work to a certain age, retire, and then be free to do whatever they wanted with the rest of their life. Ballroom dancers on the other hand almost couldn’t retire. If they didn’t teach, they didn’t get paid. There was no built-in pension or 401k.

The possibilities were scary to think about. Both JP and Lauren had suffered injuries before and had not been able to teach for a week, which meant there was no income coming in. There was also the harsh reality that hot, young dancers were retiring off of the competitive circuit and going into teaching full-time every year, drawing students away from the older teachers.

Coffee was a passion that they could continue to learn about and build a business around without major physical strain on their bodies. They could take a sick day and still earn a living. They could also reach a bigger audience. As these two retired dancers imagined what the rest of their lives would look like, coffee roasting not only fulfilled their desire for a creative challenge, it felt like a more secure option because they weren’t the product anymore.

Their dance experience has still proven very valuable in their new venture. As we all know, dance requires a lot of discipline and hard work. Those skills translate easily to any other area of Life. They haven’t been discouraged by any mistakes and failures because they have the knowledge and experience that all they need to do is go back and try again, and eventually they’ll get it right.

They’ve found it also helps their business to be comfortable “performing” in front of people and have the ability to make others feel comfortable around them. Dancers have a natural charisma and part of performing is welcoming the audience into your space. Lauren and JP have been able to use these skills learned as ballroom dancers to introduce more people to their coffee.

Once a dancer, always a dancer

Their passion for dance never really went away, and as JP said in the interview, dance will always be part of who they are. So they could never leave it behind entirely. JP did try at first though. He didn’t want people to know they were former ballroom dancers because he thought they wouldn’t take them seriously. The name of their brand was originally just Ox Coffee Roasters. That lasted about a month until they realized they were just another coffee roaster with nothing particularly special to make them stand out. In addition to adding “Dancing” to their name, they started to expand the types of coffee roasts that they offered, giving them dance names like Milonga and Promenade.

Dance has also become a great promotional tool. JP and Lauren have held events at local restaurants or breweries where they will teach a social dance like swing or salsa, and then after, they talk to people about their coffee brand and hand out samples. Lauren thinks they’re probably even more passionate now about dance because they don’t have the pressure of being a professional competitor. They dance because they love it, and that’s it. Once a dancer, always a dancer!

About the coffee itself

I wanted to include a review of the coffee itself in this interview, but since I’m not a coffee drinker, I enlisted the help of my father, a bona fide coffee snob. He sampled two of the Dancing Ox Coffee blends and had this to say about them:

Promenade: Smooth, refreshing and with a flavor that tasted like “nuts” but not specifically walnuts or cashews or hazelnuts, etc. The impression that quickly came upon me was “morning at a campsite near a river or lake, a breeze present, acorns, and aspen leaves dancing back and forth in the wind”. The smoothness was maintained throughout the entire cup, and there was never any bitterness, bite or after-taste with this Medium Roast.

El Valor: Also smooth but more forward and a bit stronger compared to Promenade. Flavors here were distinct —- mostly almond and dark chocolate (but without any sugar!). Similar to Promenade, smoothness was maintained throughout the entire cup, and there was never any bitterness, bite or after-taste as those flavors danced around my palate.

I’ll also add that he ordered more coffee after our interview!

Advice for passionate dancers

To finish off the interview, I asked JP and Lauren for any advice they had for my readers who have found their passion in competitive ProAm ballroom dance. Ballroom is our creative challenge and outlet/escape from the 9 to 5 job, but as I’ve written before, stress and pressure can start to creep in.

They offered that the top priority should be to enjoy yourself. We spend the money, we do the work. Competitions are times to let go and enjoy your dancing to the fullest extent. JP added that when you express yourself and dance your heart out, that also comes off as a more authentic and enjoyable performance for the judges to witness. There’s no escaping the hard work and the practice that needs to come first, but you’re always going to come up against people who are better than you at some point. So the only person you can truly be in competition with is yourself. Lauren suggested that knowing that should give you some freedom to just be yourself on the dance floor because it doesn’t really matter who else is out there.

JP and Lauren also wanted to encourage all dancers out there to not restrict themselves in the ways they share their love of dance. In the ballroom world, you have the traditional roles of ProAm student, teacher, and studio owner, for example, but there are so many more ways to embrace your dance passion, like writing about it like I do, or roasting coffee and sharing samples of it while showing people a few fun salsa steps like JP and Lauren do. We are artists, so really, we are only limited by our own creative imaginations!

I hope you enjoyed getting to know these two passionate dancers! It was a pleasure for me to get to know them and learn how their passion and creativity brought them into a new chapter in their lives. Their story has also made me think about how else I could introduce dance into people’s lives in ways I haven’t considered yet.

If you’re a coffee drinker, please check out their website and order a few samples!


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