Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 27, 2017

Barels at home in real estate, on dance floor

Kyle Barels, owner of Dance Tonight Chattanooga on Main Street, giving a dance lesson to Robert and Mia Younger of Ooltewah. - Photograph by Alex McMahan

The spicy notes of Latin music fill the studio at Dance Tonight Chattanooga as co-owner Kyle Barels settles into a table seat in the small kitchen, his perfect posture a testament to years of holding his upper body “in frame.”

In the next room, his high-energy business partner, Casey Haywood, is giving a salsa lesson as Barels talks about his dual role as a dance entrepreneur and Realtor with Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate Signature Brokers.

Born in Charlotte and raised in Chattanooga, the small-statured Barels was 11 years old when his sister, who was teaching hip-hop, talked him into trying her class. “I immediately fell in love,” says Barels, 30. “It was just fun. It was like there was no care in the world. It was just this freeing feeling and sense of accomplishment that I was lacking.”

Bitten by the bug, Barels branched into other styles – ballet, jazz, tap, modern – then started teaching and competing before deciding to pursue a career in dance. He loved the social aspect and the idea of working directly with people to help them achieve their goals.

In 2006, at age 19, he spotted a newspaper ad for a position at the local Fred Astaire Dance Studio. The headline read simply: “Real Men Can Dance.” Barels interviewed for the job as an instructor and was hired on the spot.

Thinking that ballroom couldn’t possibly be any tougher than the demands of the other styles he’d been teaching – generally, 90 minutes of stretching followed by five or six hours of classes a day – during his six-month training period he was surprised to discover that he was expected to work 10 hours a day, “minus a lunch with my face in a book and my body in front of a mirror.”

“I really enjoyed the fact that there were multiple styles to be focused on, so I wasn’t going to get bored,” Barels recalls. “While I was training so much, if I got a little bit worn out in one style, mentally, I could switch to another one and it would be a breath of fresh air. That’s why we strive so much on having people not be one-dance wonders because whenever you go out to dance, there’s going to be a variety of songs that come on.”

In addition to teaching couples and individuals how to rumba, foxtrot and cha-cha, Barels competed in some of the largest independent and franchised ballroom events in the nation, practicing 35 hours a week.

“I’m an extremely competitive person,” he admits. “I always have to be competing in some facet, with myself or with others, in a healthy way, of course. I’m not vindictive, but I do like to win. I appreciate the shows and everything like that, but I always enjoyed the adrenaline and the fire.”

Barels, who after six years at Fred Astaire was teaching as many as 50 lessons a week, never intended to own his own business. But in 2012, the Brainerd Village studio started having financial difficulties when the number of students dropped off.

“It can happen simply because ballroom is a luxury item,” Barels points out. “In my eyes, it’s definitely a necessity, but that’s just because I live, eat and breathe the benefits of what it offers. But it can ebb and flow simply because, typically, people who can afford to do this enjoy traveling as well.”

When the owners asked him and Haywood if they’d like to take over the franchise, they realized their personalities – Haywood is “an immediate ball of light in your face,” while Barels is more laidback and low-key – “complemented each other beautifully.” So, they bought the franchise and moved the studio to the former McKay Used Books building on Lee Highway.

From the beginning, the partners vowed to implement an open-door policy and break away from the elite reputation of ballroom franchises like Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray. “As a teacher, whenever I would see people unable to participate to the fullest of their desire, that always turned me off,” Barels says.

“I was like, ‘Never again. We will not have anyone leave here unless it’s by their choice.’”

In 2014, Barels and Haywood moved their studio to the Main Street arts district next to The Local Juicery, and two years later rebranded it under the Dance Tonight name.

“There are some people who don’t know who Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are, and that’s a darn shame,” Barels acknowledges.

“So, we wanted to have a name that was a little bit more universal and one that couldn’t potentially send anyone away because they thought it wasn’t for them. … It’s much smaller and it’s much more intimate, so we still have that franchised backing, and we have our brother and sister studios. But at the same time, it allows us to basically do what we want without having to adhere to any rules or regulations.”

While some studios cater to older students, Dance Tonight Chattanooga attracts a lot of young newcomers, partly because, Barels notes, “Whenever we have parties, whenever we have lessons, we’re very sociable, but we move constantly. If you come to a party, you’re going to dance.” Still, the majority of his students have been with him for the 11 years he’s been teaching.

Dancing, he says, can be a great relationship-builder as well as an indicator of problems at home. Barels sometimes finds himself in the role of counselor, reminding couples that it really does take two to tango, so to speak, and that life, like dancing, requires give-and-take. “I’ve had a lot of people come to me on the brink of divorce,” he recounts. “And I can safely say I’ve not lost a couple yet.”

Of all the dance styles, Argentine tango is Barels’ personal favorite because it encourages originality, doesn’t require a set timing, and nurtures communication between partners. This ability to genuinely connect with people, along with the thirst for a challenge, serves him well in his dance business as well as his latest venture, selling real estate with Signature Brokers.

“The housing market in Chattanooga is phenomenal,” he explains of his 2015 decision to become a Realtor and focus primarily on the sales side. “It’s stable, and we’re in an extreme seller’s market. Coming from a business perspective, it was time to pounce.”

Barels now spends most of his time listing, showing and selling homes but still teaches 30 to 35 dance lessons a week. Both require a lot of interaction with clients. So where does he find the energy?

“A lot of caffeine,” he jokes. “Seriously, it’s mental focus and purpose. I’m not trying to sound too philosophical, but it’s what I live by and what allows me to keep driving, and that’s having a purpose greater than myself.

“If you wake up every day and you’re trying to just make money or just go to work and clock in so you can clock out, then you’re going to burn out eventually or you’re not going to work to your full potential as a human being. Having a purpose greater than one’s self is vital.”

Barels is heavily involved in community fundraising work through both Dance Tonight Chattanooga and Signature Brokers. Each June, he and his staff present “Dancing with the Stars Chattanooga,” with proceeds going to the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults.

In the fall, the studio’s professionals compete in “Dare to Dance” on behalf of the Kidney Foundation. Barels also raises funds at the American Heart Association’s “Go Red” events. Through the real estate firm, he supports St. Jude Children’s Hospital and “Bras for a Cause,” which promotes breast cancer awareness. (Like the other good-natured male models, he wears a bra at the fashion shows.)

Despite the extreme physicality of dance instruction – or, more accurately, because of it – Barels works out at the gym several days a week. “My body is my instrument,” he says. “And my instrument needs to operate at its maximum potential.”

Helping people improve their lives step by step, whether it’s through dancing or moving to a new home, is Barels’ passion.

“I love dancing and I love ballroom and I love real estate. But it wouldn’t matter if I was digging ditches. I was blessed to learn, early on, that my purpose is to help people see the truth about themselves and be the best versions of themselves that they can be and constantly strive for that, and also to not live out of fear, but to live out of love. “That’s the most vital thing that I’ve learned and that I like to share with people.

“If we all spent more time trying to improve the quality of life of the people around us,” he adds, “it’d be a happier place.”