Updated: Jul 11
“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” a personal mantra that’s led Brenna Kuhn along an amazing, difficult, but beautiful path to starting a business fueled by community and her passion for dance — this is her story.
Brenna Kuhn’s career as a professional dancer took her all over the world before landing her a place in the creative community of Austin. Here, she joined the Tapestry dance company, where she was a principal dancer for nine incredible years. Brenna took a much-needed break from her love of dance, but was led right back to it with a new vision; she was inspired to start her own business. In 2017 she opened the Art Beat Dance Center. She saw a need for a dance studio that doubled as a community space, a safe and nurturing environment where both children and adults from the greater Austin community could come together for high-quality dance education from teachers with real-world experience to share with their students. In her efforts to bring people together, she also created the Art Beat Foundation to support their nonprofit programs. The foundation brings their specialty dance and movement classes to assisted living facilities, support groups, and awareness events. The Art Beat Dance Center and Art Beat Foundation partner with Capitol of Texas Team Survivor and the Breast Cancer Resource Center to offer free classes for people during and after cancer treatment. They also work with Power for Parkinson's to provide free exercise classes for people living with Parkinson's and their caregivers.
Brenna’s passion for people and dance really shines bright through her work and also her charity initiatives. She credits the teachers that came before her, gracious enough to share their experiences and knowledge, as her biggest inspiration. She started dancing at five years old when her mother enrolled her in a class where they learned tap from instructional Al Gilbert records. At age twelve, she began learning under Lloyd Storey at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, an experience she says changed her world. Starting when he was also twelve years old, Lloyd Storey was a protege of the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, known as the father of tap dance. Mr. Storey, as she affectionately refers to him, was also a social worker in Detroit and taught her the value of bringing people together through dance and accepting everyone for who they are. Other teachers she trained with over the years continued to build on that legacy. His class took place on the basement stage with no mirrors and a live piano played by Johnny Allen, who received a Grammy Award for his arrangement of "Theme from Shaft". Brenna left her first class with Mr. Storey, very different from her previous training, feeling discouraged and out of place. However, she was convinced to return after encouragement from her mother, who gave her the mantra that helped her push through her anxiety then and since: feel the fear and do it anyway. The class ended up opening her eyes to a whole new world of tap dance that was about rhythm, syncopation, and jazz music. It was an environment where everyone was accepted; you didn't have to be a certain size, shape, or age. Through that, she had incredible experiences – performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, street corner block parties, and in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts, performing in and experiencing all of the regions of the city. She also performed at the Apollo theater, and thanks to their scholarship program, she was able to do all of this on a scholarship sponsored by Mitch Albom, a famous author from that region.
She began her college career at Michigan State before transferring to the University of New Mexico. There, she danced with the Bill Evans dance company. He was one of her instructors at the university and invited her to join his professional company, where she did tap dance and modern dance, touring around New Mexico.
A modern dance icon, Bill Evans is still an important role model and mentor to Brenna. After graduating college, she moved to Chicago, one of the biggest hubs of tap dance companies. There, she joined Especially Tap Chicago, one of the oldest and longest-running tap dance companies in the city. She and her then dance partner, Mark Yonally, formed Chicago Tap Theatre, a dance company rooted in creating storytelling with tap dance – a newer concept at the time. After a couple of years in Chicago, she was asked to move to Austin to join the Tapestry dance company. She describes her time with Tapestry as living the dream, touring all over the world and being mentored by people like Dianne Walker and Sarah Petronio, “they've been so giving and so generous with their time and energy to share their legacies with me.”
Those experiences helped shape her path and got her to where she, the Art Beat Dance Center, and the Art Beat Foundation are today. That’s not to say it was easy; she described having a small business during the Covid-19 pandemic as probably the most challenging thing she’s ever been through. They had only been open for two and a half years at that point, but were able to hold on and come back stronger and better than ever, thanks to the community that they’d built. They were able to offer virtual classes, but Brenna acknowledged that this didn't work for everyone as some people don't learn as well that way or don't have a space in their homes to tap dance. They tried to make the transition smoother by selling and lending out squares from their portable dance floor or helping dancers locate alternatives and creating tutorials for home classes, but even the families that these alternatives didn't work for were still supporting them and came back when it was safe to open because they believed in them and what they were creating. “I couldn't believe it,” Brenna said as she reflected on the experience, “I was blown away, and it was so beautiful to see how much support we had after those two and a half years that we had built this beautiful community."
There were many other obstacles on the path to becoming a business owner, the biggest of which was being taken seriously as a woman in business, especially while she negotiated a commercial lease and built the space. She faced “struggle after struggle” with the construction, causing them to open six weeks late, which was a major setback for a dance studio that follows the school year. There were additional construction problems that lasted six months after they opened, but they eventually got to a good place. Unfortunately, Covid hit soon after, and enrollment dropped to just 40 students during the lockdown. Just as they were getting back on their feet and reopening with Covid precautions, it was time to renegotiate their lease – which was doubling in price. She then had two months to find a new space, build it out, and move in. During this time both she and her manager got Covid, but her community came to the rescue. They volunteered, painting and cleaning, and one of her dance dads was even her general contractor for the project, and they were able to open — a true testament to that community spirit she’d inspired.
“I couldn't do what I have done without them. I don’t know where I’d be without my community. They're absolutely incredible, and they continue to show up.”
Everything they did in the new space, from the color choices on the walls and the inclusive dressing rooms to the dedicated areas for clients to do homework, work, and socialize, encourages everyone to come in and try dance. “Everything is designed with a community center feel.”
She has many dreams for the future of the Art Beat Dance Center and Art Beat Foundation, to remove barriers and make dance accessible to everyone. Brenna is currently working with the Dianne Walker foundation to expand their programming for tap dance preservation by building a living and virtual archive, a sort of library, to make central Texas a home for tap dance preservation. They’re also looking to build their own dance center in the next few years, including a theater for performances and create performance opportunities for other local arts organizations. They currently rent out local high schools due to the lack of midsize theaters. The ability to provide this space would expand their reach into the community and help them better serve underprivileged populations with their scholarship program, cancer survivorship program, dance for seniors program, and dance for Parkinson's program and provide more classes for those communities.
Dance was always the thing that always brought Brenna Kuhn joy. No matter what else she was struggling with, she always knew that she could go into her dance class and get lost in the music and movement. It wasn't about being the best but rather being her best. She continues to encourage everyone to be their best selves and provides performance opportunities to go out into the community and spread joy through dance. In her own words, “There is not a single thing in the world I would rather be doing, it is the most fulfilling work in the world.“