I first heard about Handful while teaching dance classes at Diva Den Studio. Many of the experienced instructors were already fans of their bras, but I was working a day job and teaching dance was a side hustle, so I wasn’t able to afford the latest, greatest gear. Jennifer, the CEO of Handful, told me she heard from the owner that I was quite a Handful (a compliment for sure!) and gifted me my first Handful bra to wear at a Girls Night Out event. I was sold on the fit when I realized I did not want to take it off and fell in love with the brand because their authentic mission to support women is everything I stand for. I soon became a brand amBADASSador and was so proud to rock Handful activewear as a dance instructor and in my 9-5 work life in the tile industry. How I got from slinging tile to selling bras is actually a very straight line that makes sense only in retrospect.
My father is a tile installer by trade and my very first job at age 16 was setting tile during the summers with him. This gave me exposure to the home-building business and for a while I thought I wanted to be a builder in new construction, knowing it would be a challenge to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. I went off to college with this goal in mind and gravitated toward a degree in interior design and used my summer experiences with my dad to get a job at a high end tile showroom, working while in college and becoming an expert in installing, materials, and tile design.
Juggling school and work wasn’t easy, and I took my studies very seriously and started spending a lot of time in the computer lab, eating unhealthy food on the go, drinking energy drinks to stay awake, and not doing anything active after years of my youth devoted to basketball and lacrosse. My body eventually hit a wall and broke, shutting down to the point that I had to be hospitalized for a week. They thought I had Crohn’s Disease, and I found myself in such excruciating pain that I had to drop out of school and stop working in order to focus on completely rebuilding my immune system. This healing crisis forced me to change everything in my life and start over.
When I was finally well enough to leave the house, I took a job working at the front desk at 24 Hour Fitness, and I would watch people going into Zumba classes and thought that you had to be a dancer to take that class. I was certainly too intimidated to even try. My then boyfriend (who eventually became my husband) grew up around the dance world because his mom owned a kids’ dance studio. She was offering a free Zumba class and begged me to go. I was basically dragged to my first class, still feeling weak and unwell, and it was only because it was the one adult class at a kids’ dance studio that I even considered attending. The class started and within ten minutes, I knew it was my thing, saying to myself, “I am going to do this!”
I was never truly passionate about any instrument or sport that I played, but something about the ability to learn the dance steps with no one telling me I was doing anything wrong, the instructor throwing in freestyle to spice up the basic routines, and the encouragement to add my own inspired movements, lead me to find my happy-active! Immediately after class, I talked to the instructor and learned about the teacher trainings and quickly became a Zumba-holic, on fire for the classes and seeking out the most challenging classes, my feet hurting from learning new moves and developing new muscles. Six months went by, and I signed up for a Zumba training and became a licensed instructor, but I didn’t start teaching right away because I still needed to work on my confidence. I continued to take classes as a student even though I was certified to teach, and my mom got us a membership to LA Fitness so I could focus on my new passion for dance that was restoring my health and bringing me back to life. It goes without saying that I was getting into the best shape of my life, shedding 30 pounds just by moving with joy and purpose.
I got the confidence to approach the manager at LA Fitness and asked about teaching a class, and she hired me! I was 23 at this time but looked even younger and was still learning how to relate to people and build a following. I took three different gym jobs around town and would pray for 5 people to come to class. I would maybe get one or two, but I would still dance like it was a full class. I kept working hard and letting my love for dance shine through and eventually got hired at a brand new Crunch Fitness. I was an instructor at their grand opening and from that point on, my classes were sold out. At Crunch you were handed a card when you checked in and then you had to stand in line before class started. I would roll in to see a line of people waiting to mark their spot in class. I was still struggling with confidence and felt like an imposter at times, unable to make eye contact or talk to people before class. It wasn’t until the music started that I could let my guard down and be my whole self instead. To this day, I still have moments when a class is full and everyone is staring at me and the butterflies and fear kick in. I know that some people will love me and some won’t, but you always have to give everything you have when you are up on that stage.
During my blossoming love affair with dance, I was also maintaining a long distance relationship with the man who would become my husband. After he completed his time in the Navy, we found ourselves reunited with the responsibilities of jobs and a house and a long future of adulting ahead of us. His aunt and uncle had been living on St. Croix for years, so on a whim we called them to see if we might be able to move there ourselves and experience life abroad together. They said yes, and I decided that I wanted to ask Kelson to marry me. I proposed very spontaneously with no ring—he said yes! We got married six weeks later, bought one way tickets to St. Croix, said good bye to our families, and committed to a life of adventure together. Life on the island meant anything was possible, but dancing and teaching a lot was what I was drawn to do.
My students at Crunch were devastated that I was leaving and asked me if I would video routines for them to dance to at home. This was the way I accidentally became a viral YouTube star under the name Vicious Vanilla Spice. We used my mother-in-law’s dance studio and started filming routines, and I was one of the first instructors to put Zumba routines up, and the followers started rolling in. From St. Croix, I saw the videos go from 230 views to 230,000 views, and now some of them have 17 million views! St. Croix turned out to be a 6 month adventure and though life was a beach every day, both Kelson and I were ready to go back home to Portland.
The first videos I made before going to St. Croix were professionally filmed through a classmate at the Art Institute of Portland, but I couldn’t afford to pay him to make more, so I taught myself to film and edit videos while working at Diva Den Studio, uploading a video a month for the last few years. I will always be grateful to the Zumba format for giving me my start as a dance instructor, but I found myself gravitating more toward hip hop and Top 40 music that didn’t fit into the required 70% Latin music format of Zumba. Diva Den Studio gave me the freedom to invent my own class that would encourage students to dance from the inside out. I called my own format, Dance Party Hustle with the tag line, “when in doubt, dance it out!”
I spent a lot time dreaming up the Dance Party Hustle name. Dance whether you are a dancer or not, and dance without rules. Party was about creating a club atmosphere, and that came from Zumba, “join the party.” Hustle had always meant get down the court, get down the field for me, because of the sports I played growing up. But I always had to hustle in life to achieve my goals. I have a wonderful supportive family, but I needed to make it on my own, and I want to encourage others to hustle to make your dreams come true. I’ve been teaching at Diva Den Studio exclusively for over 5 years, and the all-women community has helped me grow as an instructor and to test boundaries, be more sexy, less straight up fitness-based, and more about the primal love of moving to a beat. I do love throwing a girl party, and my 13 year old self would dig my classes the way I adored Britney Spears! Watching the students at Diva Den Studio become more confident in their freestyle moments, letting go and feeling the joy is what I live for. I’m not telling them what to do, but I’m creating a space where they have permission to dance. I wasn’t a dancer growing up, didn’t have formal training, so I will never let that stop anyone who wants to join the party and come dance with me.
And this brings me full circle to Handful, and my dream of having a day job that is in alignment with my passion. Over the last 4 years, I’ve been working hard in the tile industry as an outside sales rep and sales manager, and over time have had to scale back my dancing to only teaching one class a week. It was killing my soul. At work one day, at five months pregnant, I absolutely hit a wall, only thinking of hanging on to make it to maternity leave. That very same day, I got a call from Jennifer, thanking me for a birthday post I had made for her on Facebook. She mentioned having to let her right hand employee go and trying to find time to focus on hiring the right person for an internal sales position. The wheels started turning in my head and in my heart. Could this be the manifestation of all my hopes and dreams, a way to live my passion for supporting women, a yearning to dance more and work in the fitness world, the ability to do it in the Portland, OR, area at a living wage? Jennifer was describing the job, and all I was thinking was swap the product for the brand, and I have learned all the skills necessary to support her in bra sales from my work in tile sales. But my pregnancy…who would want to hire someone who would be going on maternity leave so soon?
The answer is Handful, a company of women who support other women, no matter what life throws their way! I am so proud to be a part of this team and to be embarking on a new chapter of life, finally living my passion in ALL aspects of my life. Tatom is such a lucky baby who will have so many amazing aunties to welcome him!