"You know how you feel really awkward in certain situations?" Alisha Thompson asks. "Dance shouldn’t be one of those."
While that may be easier said than done for those who view the slightest shoulder shimmy or hip shake with trepidation and intense self-consciousness, At Your Beat – the studio where 24-year-old Alisha teaches alongside fellow dance pros Jess Kouao, 28, and Windy Tsoi, 24 – is determined to get everyone moving in an empowering environment free from insecurities, negativity and competitiveness. The aim isn’t to create the next Janet Jackson or even the next Taylor Swift; AYB simply wants to give students what Alisha calls a "safe space where you can feel whatever you want to feel and that’s okay."
The low-stakes, pro-fun vibe at AYB – which has three London branches as well as a Brooklyn satellite – helps students let loose, foster friendships, build confidence and essentially #DoYou.
"You’re not going to learn one routine and go on tour with Beyoncé tomorrow," Alisha, who has been with the studio for one year, says. "It’s not about that. It’s about the confidence that it can give you and the friends that you can make – and just not being stressed."
Jess, a three-year AYB veteran who started dancing at age 11 in her home country of Italy, agrees.
"It’s a studio for everyone – not just professional dancers," she says. "This is what I love. We are teaching people – especially women, because the majority of our students are women – who really want to learn to dance, but just for fun. When you go to a class that’s just for professional dancers, there is more competition – who looks better, who is cooler, who is on the front line? AYB has more of a family atmosphere. We are supporting each other – and getting even more improvements from our students because there is no jealousy at all."
As professional dancers, the three women are no strangers to the pressures of the industry and the sometimes cut-throat nature of auditions. Windy appreciates AYB’s "welcoming" environment all the more because of negative experiences in her native Hong Kong.
"I’m only 5'2" but in Hong Kong I was considered too tall and muscular," she says. "They wanted girls who were skinny and light-skinned. But here it’s so different. Some castings will ask for [dancers with] curly hair or certain body types, but at AYB there are all sorts of body types – curvy, muscular – and even students are invited to come to shoots."
After two years at the studio, Windy now takes a more relaxed view of auditions. "It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a job," she says. "If it’s meant to be yours, you’ll get it."
Alisha has similarly learned to turn missed opportunities into motivation and is passionate about supporting her peers rather than stewing in jealousy or self-doubt.
"I love when my friends get jobs because I see how hard they’ve worked," she says. "You see the people around you striving for the same thing and as soon as they get it, it makes you even more motivated to be like, 'This is possible, because my friend’s doing it'. And then they’re successful, you’re successful, and everyone’s happy about it rather than getting really upset... [Failure] won’t last forever. You just can’t really give up; you can’t let those low times defeat you because when you feel really good, it’s so worth the struggle."
As someone who has battled her own confidence issues, Alisha says she’s more "sensitive" to making students feel at ease. That could mean dimming the lights, repeating moves until they stick, being approachable, making herself available after class for questions and friendly banter, and generally ensuring that "I’m not put on a pedestal because I’m a teacher and you’re a student – we’re all the same."
Jess, meanwhile, swears by keeping her classes light, fun and open to self-expression.
"I always say to my students, dance is good for your soul," the dancehall specialist says. "It’s more than just thinking about a workout; it’s something that’s really good for you inside."
For Windy, the simplest turn of phrase can help students push past their self-doubt.
"I tell them, 'Don’t say you’re not good at it – say you’re just not that good at it right now, but you’re getting better'," she explains.
It’s paid off. Each instructor has drawn inspiration from her students, whether it’s seeing someone go from pure nerves in class one to begging for a solo by class five, or appreciating the commitment it takes to be open to new experiences and skills.
"It’s me teaching them, but at the same time I’m learning from them," says Jess. "We get inspired by them because they’re strong women, often with important jobs, and they are coming here no matter what. They just want to dance and have fun. It’s so important to try to learn something new."
And what would dance be without a power anthem and a killer outfit? Alisha currently has Tinashe's "Me So Bad" on repeat, and calls her go-to look of jogging bottoms paired with a baggy T-shirt tucked into her sports bra at the back "sexy but also groovy and cool". A sucker for Cardi B and Rihanna, Windy likes sports bras that show off her musculature – and Jess can relate.
"I always wear leggings, PUMA trainers and a crop top," says Jess, who has a soft spot for Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies". "Always crop tops. When you are teaching with the mirror in front of you, the students need to see how our bodies are moving. It's better to have something that is showing your body. But I also think that my body is made to wear crop tops all the time [laughs]."
What does the future hold, beyond continuing to empower dance novices at AYB? Alisha’s "ultimate goal" is to go on a major arena tour. Windy is inspired by the career of New Zealand-born dancer and choreographer Parris Goebel, who has balanced high-profile projects like Ciara’s "Level Up" video with charity work. And for Jess…who knows?
"To be honest, with the experience that I’ve been having in London – especially since I joined At Your Beat – I cannot ask for more," she says. "When you have a role that inspires other people, you cannot be, 'Okay, I've done this, I did that'. I’m teaching at the best studio in London. I do videos. Two months ago I choreographed a video for the World Cup with Will Smith – which I would never dream about because I wouldn’t even think [it was possible].
"That’s why I’m not really planning. Of course I would love to go on tour with Beyoncé, but you never know in life. Maybe something even better than your dream can happen. There is always something bigger coming. Life is always giving you opportunities – just stay positive, stay real, and work hard."