Taking the lead one dance step at a time
Szewai Lee has always had a passion for growth and change. Perhaps that’s what pushed her to open Duet Dance Studio, which offers ballroom dance lessons, wedding dance instruction, and private dance parties. Located in West Bucktown, her studio instantly makes you feel at home with warm lighting, friendly staff, and photos and thank you cards from clients featured on the walls.
Szewai’s journey to opening her own studio began at age four when she took her first ballet class. It sparked a passion for dance and an affinity towards her teacher, and she was immediately certain that she wanted to teach dance one day. Years later, she began studying dance at Columbia College Chicago, 7,778 miles away from her home: “I feel like where I grew up in Hong Kong is very crowded, very packed. Not only do you feel limited physically, but also mentally. In the United states and Chicago, there’s so much more room to grow and breathe.”
After graduating, Szewai taught ballroom dance at studios with rigid business operations. She felt that they lacked a personal element, a sense of “sharing the joy of dance.” Instead of accepting the norm, she decided to open up a dance studio with a partner in 2008. Like most entrepreneurs, Szewai had a tough time getting her partnership started.
She had to rent and teach at multiple locations, including a carpeted space at a church. Despite these less than ideal circumstances, she was gaining a growing group of loyal students that followed her no matter where she taught. With the support from both her students and loved ones, in 2013 Szewai was finally able to open Duet Dance Studio, a business of her own. “[As a woman], I feel it’s empowering to have your own business. To control your own life, to hire people that you love to work with, to make something that is meaningful to you and your students.” At the moment, Duet Dance Studio has a team of all-female dance instructors. “When I first started my business I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I need male instructors because… in ballroom dance you need a leader and a follower, and, traditionally, it’s always male leads and female follows.’ But, it doesn’t have to be like this anymore.” Every team member at Duet knows how to lead and follow, so lessons are not only just as effective as those taught by male instructors, but they also make a statement: “In group classes sometimes we even tell students, ‘We don’t have to follow the rules anymore. Anyone who wants to lead can lead, and if you want to follow, you can follow.’”
At Duet, clients get to explore outside of traditionally gendered dance roles while their ballroom abilities bloom. “It’s amazing to see someone go from square one to mastering a routine and performing at our showcase. It’s what I’m most passionate about.” One of her favorite memories at Duet Dance Studio involves two clients that grew not only as individual dancers, but as partners in a relationship. “[On their first date], they took a lesson and were so fun and memorable because they came in with costumes. They took some lessons afterwards, and maybe after a year or two, he calls me and says, ‘Hey Szewai, I want to take another lesson because I want to propose to her.’ He wanted me to design the lesson to help him get on his knee. It was the best.”
Whether Szewai is focusing on her studio’s growth or clients’ skill growth, she has never shied away from change and improvement: “Challenges, they’re always there, but you need them to get better at what you do. Without them, it’s boring, static. I want to be moving, continuing. So, when [Duet] is busy, that’s great, but when business is slow, that’s also great. It inspires me to go, ‘Okay, what can I do next?’”