I’m super excited to introduce today’s guest to you all because she has had a huge direct impact on my dance journey. Please welcome to the blog, Briana Suakjian! She is the wife and pro dance partner of Kris Suakjian (a.k.a. Teacher!), and together they own and manage the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Laguna Hills, California. They took over their new studio literally weeks before the pandemic shut everything down. Despite possibly setting a record for worst timing ever (or perhaps the best, more on that later), Briana and Kris have successfully built a warm and welcoming dance home for their students. And yes, I may be just a bit biased.
Born to Dance
Briana has been dancing since she could walk and has trained in all of the major dance styles – ballet, tap, hip hop, jazz, modern/contemporary, and of course ballroom. Her impressive bio can be found summarized on the studio’s website:
Briana was brought up in Huntington Beach and fell in love with dancing at the age of 2 1/2 continuing her training in all traditional dance genres. Her extensive background as a principle ballerina for the Ballet Repertory Theatre along with performances in musical and contemporary productions earned her the title of Miss Teen Dance California and Miss Dance of Southern California. After completing her degree in dance, she continued to teach and choreograph, earning her students top awards and placements into major national ballet companies. Deciding to add to her highly versatile repertoire of dance, she continued her training in International Standard, Latin, and American Smooth and Rhythm ballroom dances leading to her 2010 United States and World Pro/Am Championship title wins in five divisions including the exclusive Open Smooth Championship. Since turning professional in 2011, she continues to compete, teach, and choreograph assisting in shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance”, and the stage production of “Where’s My Money”. With her dance partner and husband Kris Suakjian, Briana has placed as “Professional Open American Smooth” and “Showdance/Theatre Arts” finalist and winner in major national and international Dancesport competitions. As a dancer, competitor, teacher, and choreographer, her vast and versatile background in dance offers her students a unique blend of artistic, technical, and practical knowledge relatable to dancers of all ages and backgrounds in dance.https://www.fredastaire.com/laguna-hills/blog/team_member/briana-suakjian/
Briana first picked up ballroom dancing when she was a teenager after being persuaded by her mother that it would look good on her already impressive dance resume. She was on track in making dance her career, already signed with an agent, taking classes six days a week, and commuting up to LA for opportunities. She wasn’t necessarily interested in ballroom, certainly not in giving up her one free day a week. She did like to explore new dance styles however, so she conceded and started taking classes.
It should come as no surprise that once Briana started competing as a pro-am student, she dominated the competition floor. You’ll note in the bio above that she won National and World titles in five divisions. After that, Briana quickly turned professional in the ballroom world, while continuing to teach and choreograph in the mainstream dance world. Any ballroom dancers who think cross-training in other dance styles won’t help to improve their ballroom, take note.
I’ve honestly always been a little intimidated by Briana, more so when I was just starting out on my ballroom journey and my self-confidence was minimal. Here was a woman who was living the life I could only dream of! There wasn’t any dance she couldn’t do, and she did it all with an easy, confident smile. Of course, as I got to know her and my own confidence grew, intimidation turned into inspiration and appreciation.
While Briana may have made dancing look easy, she wasn’t immune to the struggles that we all face as dancers. During our chat, she reflected how training in ballet from such an early age and having that strict discipline brought a lot of benefits but there were also downsides. The pressure to be “perfect” is a heavy weight for anyone to carry, but especially a child. She began to rebel in high school (don’t we all?) and shared that she started to do whatever she could to do the opposite of what was expected of her, just to see what it felt like to not always be the perfect disciplined student. Hip hop and contemporary became saving graces for her, giving her the space to express the intense emotions she was grappling with.
Through these dark and challenging times though, Briana developed an inner strength that she learned how to tap into when she needed it. Looking back now, she also sees how going through low periods in her life has helped her appreciate the good times. She developed a greater self-awareness that helped her choose whether to let herself spiral downward when shit hit the fan or when something just didn’t work out the way she hoped, or to just let it go and keep moving.
You might think that the choice should always be to just let it go and move on. Briana learned that sometimes she needed to fall deep down into that pit of despair, at least temporarily, in order to feel the feels and then release them without judgment. For example, when a competition didn’t yield the results she hoped for or believed she deserved, she’d let herself go through the disappointment and frustration, and then take a step forward. Recognizing that she made it through those challenges and came out on the other side helped her grow that inner strength. The key was to let herself go through it without judgement.
Dreaming of Home
As a teacher, Briana cares immensely for her students. She’s mastered the mix of tough and encouraging. She won’t let you get away with mistakes, but she will also stick by your side and help you correct them. When I was competing, if Briana was there, I would always check in with her for feedback on how to improve in the next round.
Owning a dance studio was a long-term goal of both Briana and Kris separately and as a couple. Having their own dance space was like having a home away from home. It can be awkward to go into someone else’s dance home to spend time with your students, i.e., your dance family. You don’t have control over the entirety of your family’s experience in that space; therefore, you can’t always ensure that they have the best experience possible. You also don’t have complete freedom to create the experience you want for your students.
The Fred Astaire studio in Laguna Hills is not Briana’s first experience as a studio owner, however. You know that studio where her mother first brought her in to “dabble” in ballroom for the sake of her resume? The studio owner transferred ownership to Briana and her mother when circumstances with his family required him to return home to Korea and focus his attention there. It was a well-established studio with many famous names training there. Things were good for awhile, until a rainstorm took advantage of a leak in the roof and flooded the entire space. The damage was too extensive and too expensive to repair, so they decided to shut down permanently.
Fast forward to the end of 2019. Kris and Briana are married and have just welcomed their first-born son into the world. Before they knew they were going to be parents, they had been exploring franchise options under the Fred Astaire brand. Kris had gotten his start as a dance teacher in the Fred Astaire system, so it was a familiar space for him. Briana on the other hand had grown up dancing in independent studios. It was important to her that she have the freedom to create what she wanted without having to conform to someone else’s standards. So initially, she approached the idea of opening a franchise with a lot of skepticism.
The Year 2020
Kris and Briana knew another professional dance couple who owned a studio and ran the Los Angeles region for Fred Astaire. They invited them to a seminar where they got to see just what the franchise life had to offer them. Briana said she was blown away by what she saw and heard. After a few phone calls and conversations to ease her anxiety over some of the fine print, they finally signed on the dotted line and began scouting locations near their home to open their very own Fred Astaire dance studio.
Fate had another idea. While they had found a location that had fabulous potential, the owner of the Laguna Hills location was looking to get out of the business and move out of state. Kris and Briana received a phone call one night, asking if they would take over managing Laguna Hills. The studio was a smaller space and farther away than they originally wanted, but it was a great opportunity to get some hands-on learning experience of working in the Fred Astaire model without immediately taking on the risks of being an owner. So they agreed.
I think I had two, maybe three, lessons at the Laguna Hills studio before the pandemic shut everything down. The world turned upside down right as Kris and Briana started to build up and grow their new dance home. It all just stopped.
Briana recalls the exact moment that the pandemic directly impacted her life. She was teaching her kids at the Orange County School of the Arts when she got an email from the school, stating that they were shutting down.
While the world screeched to a halt, things were picking up speed behind the scenes. The owner of Laguna Hills wanted out, and Kris and Briana were presented with the opportunity to not just manage the studio but take ownership of it. On one hand, it was a fantastic opportunity to take over a studio that was already established vs. building their own from scratch. On the other hand, it did not match what Briana had dreamed of, so it was a difficult pill to swallow that instead of creating her own space, she’d have to adapt to an existing space. Still, she felt like the universe dropped this chance in their lap for a reason, so after much discussion, they decided to go all in.
Of course, there was still the pandemic, so making the actual transfer of ownership took longer than usual. In the meantime, they joined their students online for Zoom group classes and did their best to check in with everyone and keep their spirits up.
Between the pandemic, the huge loss of income because of the pandemic, the challenges that came with taking over Laguna Hills, and oh by the way, caring for a six-month old, I had to ask Briana how in the world she stayed sane and how she and Kris didn’t strangle each other at some point. She laughed and said she always tries to be honest and, in those especially trying moments, she’ll just say “I really want to kill you right now.”
Briana shared that both she and Kris always strive to be honest with each other in that way and they recognize that the crazy, sad and angry feelings are going to come. While those feelings are not something for the other person to fix, Briana said that they can rely on each other such that when one of them does feel like they are about to lose it and need to pull back to recover, the other will pick up the slack.
Briana reflected on other times too that having an outer support system was essential to keeping them on track and moving forward. When they were competing and getting caught up in the stress or drama, they had a long-time friend who was settled at home with a wife and kids. He was their home base cheerleader and provided his perspective of how amazing it was that they had the opportunity to travel to all of these different locations and pursue their dreams, even if it didn’t always go the way they wanted. A lawyer in the family helped them sort through all of the paperwork to take over the Laguna Hills studio. The Fred Astaire studio owner family was there to provide insight and valuable experience as they got their feet wet as franchise studio owners. I think that they felt support from their student family too, as we patiently waited for the doors to reopen.
In talking with Briana, it was clear that the combination of inner strength and outer support was the magic sauce that helped her accomplish so much in her life and survive so many trials. There are times when you have to be the one to pick yourself up or motivate yourself to show up for class and there are times when you just can’t do it alone and need the support of others.
With Briana being such a creative soul, I was curious how she envisioned the future for her dance studio and her own dance journey. Teaching students day in and day out, choreographing showcases, preparing for competitions…it can start to feel repetitive and stagnant after a few years. So how do you keep the passion alive and the creative juices flowing?
For Briana, it’s about looking at things differently. Sure, she’s always teaching, but she can add different flavors and themes to her teaching to keep both her and her students engaged. Her studio showcases don’t have to look like every other studio showcase. Why not think outside the box a little and see what they can come up with that still provides an opportunity for students to perform? Competitions are great goals, but not the only goal. Taking advantage of the Fred Astaire medal system gives more opportunity to set different goals and provides a way to track progress.
Ultimately, Briana wants to help each of her students figure out what goal is meant for them and discover a self-awareness through both the body and the mind. Like many professional dancers who didn’t have the greatest experience growing up in dance, she is determined to provide a safe space for her students to discover themselves and feel safe enough to stretch themselves, make mistakes, and grow as dancers. Giving back to her students is Briana’s driving force, so it’s ok if every day starts looking the same on the surface. When you look deeper, at all of the individual experiences of the students, you realize almost every day brings something new.