At age 19, Ru Fitzhenry opened her first dance studio.

At age 45 she lost EVERYTHING.

But a lioness doesn’t go down without a fight.

Inspiration. Motivation. Hope. You’ll find it all here…

SteppingOUT pupils

SteppingOUT Academy of Dance in Wellington, South Africa, is a dance studio specialising in modern, tap, jazz and hip hop, as well as Pilates. Its principal, Ruanda Fitzhenry, is an international choreographer, teacher and dancer extraordinaire.

I met this South African fireball twenty-odd years ago, and I can say with 95% certainty that she is a vampire. That’s the only explanation for the incredible volume of accomplishments in her life (she obviously doesn’t sleep), as well as her ridiculously ageless face. (Jealous? Me? Never!)

Seriously, though, I love this woman. A loyal friend, a beautiful soul, and a fabulous Joy volcano! By the time you’ve finished reading Ru’s story, I bet you will be inspired. I know I am.

 

Ruanda Fitzhenry

Ru, have you always felt passionate about dance?

It’s complicated… I started with ballet classes at age three because I was so severely pigeon-toed, I struggled walking. (Most people are unaware of all the benefits of dance. Besides the obvious pros, e.g. confidence building, it can also fix a number of body problems. Hence anatomy and corrective work being two of the major subjects when studying dance.) So, ja…..it was just something I always did.

It took me closing my studio and stopping dance completely when my son was almost two years old for me to realise it’s actually who I am. It’s my blood, my air… It’s what keeps my soul alive. Needless to say, this ‘break from dance’ didn’t last long.

When did you become an entrepreneur?

When I was nineteen, I moved from Port Elizabeth to the Western Cape to open my own dance studio, and to study dance. I’d heard there was only one dance studio in Stellenbosch, so I decided that would be a good place to open up. Even though I only knew one person in the whole town and nobody knew who I was. Yoh! Nineteen and fearless!

How scary was the plunge into self-employment?

Nineteen and fearless, doll. There was no thought of failure, consequences or even success. I just jumped in and knew I would love it as I got to dance my own choreography. And remember: no drama queen is complete without her stage.

Were your start-up costs affordable?

I’ve been fortunate in that student fees, shows and end-of-year functions have always covered all costs.

Was your age a hurdle?

Only at the beginning, when I first opened. It’s pretty natural for that line of respect to be a little vague when your child’s dance teacher is only nineteen.

What was your lightbulb moment?

No lightbulb… I’m blond (giggle). For all the really big things in my life I just had a brain fart for a few seconds and then immediately set about following it through. Nineteen and fearless.

How long did it take you to fully qualify as a dance teacher?

I am internationally qualified, so I first had to finish all my dance exams, which took ten years, and then I studied for three years.

Boys who Dance

I Am Woman! I Am Queen!

Boys who Dance

I Am Woman! I Am Queen!

How scary was the plunge into self-employment?

Nineteen and fearless, doll. There was no thought of failure, consequences or even success. I just jumped in and knew I would love it as I got to dance my own choreography. And remember: no drama queen is complete without her stage.

Were your start-up costs affordable?

I’ve been fortunate in that student fees, shows and end-of-year functions have always covered all costs.

Was your age a hurdle?

Only at the beginning, when I first opened. It’s pretty natural for that line of respect to be a little vague when your child’s dance teacher is only nineteen.

What was your lightbulb moment?

No lightbulb… I’m blond (giggle). For all the really big things in my life I just had a brain fart for a few seconds and then immediately set about following it through. Nineteen and fearless.

How long did it take you to fully qualify as a dance teacher?

I am internationally qualified, so I first had to finish all my dance exams, which took ten years, and then I studied for three years.

Ruanda

How Do I Find Time? That’s God’s Job.

Having become an entrepreneur at such a young age, were you motivated to start up any other businesses?

Ooooh, doll! I am woman! I am queen! I conquer every brain fart I have with a vengeance. I should probably also mention I’m a hyperactive Gemini. So yes, whilst owning my dance studio I constantly took on new challenges. My ex-husband was a builder and they had this three-ton truck just lying around. So I took that truck and started a rubble removal company. I had four trucks within two months.

I also started my own kiddies clothing range: KangaRU Clothing. And I had a pottery business as well. And then there was the time I met someone who was importing stock from Bali — and the next thing I knew, I had opened a shop. Oh! I’ve just remembered: I had another little business called The Perfect Hostess, where I would stage parties and personally do all the catering.

I did all of this whilst teaching fulltime and studying. Did I mention that I’m a little crazy?

Do you run SteppingOUT alone or do you have help?

My life partner (aka love of my life) runs the business side of things. This is incredibly important as it’s so hard to play bad cop when you’re the one building a relationship with parents and students.

Where & how do you promote your business?

Our website does most of the work (and we’re on Facebook), but word of mouth in our small dorpie (town) spreads like wildfire.

Do you currently run another business alongside your dance academy? And what about your other roles in life? How do you find time to do everything?  

Oh yes. I’ve been staging events and booking gigs for my muso friends since I was twenty. And I’m a mommy and homemaker, life partner, friend, child of God, cook, fur mommy, daughter, sister… and all of my dancers are my ‘kids’ (I’m their other mommy). Also, I’ve always been passionate about my charity work and would stand making pancakes in the middle of town to either raise money for all the street kids or feed them.

How do I find time? That’s God’s job. He never gives me anything I can’t handle. Though I’m pretty sure He spends a lot of His time rolling His eyes at me as I keep Him very busy. Well, the way I see it, He made me like this so now He gets to deal with it, LOL.

Ruanda Dancer
Ruanda Dancer

Do you run SteppingOUT alone or do you have help?

My life partner (aka love of my life) runs the business side of things. This is incredibly important as it’s so hard to play bad cop when you’re the one building a relationship with parents and students.

Where & how do you promote your business?

Our website does most of the work (and we’re on Facebook), but word of mouth in our small dorpie (town) spreads like wildfire.

Do you currently run another business alongside your dance academy? And what about your other roles in life? How do you find time to do everything?  

Oh yes. I’ve been staging events and booking gigs for my muso friends since I was twenty. And I’m a mommy and homemaker, life partner, friend, child of God, cook, fur mommy, daughter, sister… and all of my dancers are my ‘kids’ (I’m their other mommy). Also, I’ve always been passionate about my charity work and would stand making pancakes in the middle of town to either raise money for all the street kids or feed them.

How do I find time? That’s God’s job. He never gives me anything I can’t handle. Though I’m pretty sure He spends a lot of His time rolling His eyes at me as I keep Him very busy. Well, the way I see it, He made me like this so now He gets to deal with it, LOL.

red dress dancer

Tell us about your setbacks — your lowest moments.

I had just moved to Wellington with no intention of opening up my studio again…

Let me go back a few steps. I got divorced, and became a single mommy with a business. Looking back now I can finally see that it was challenging and heartbreaking. At the time I was in overdrive and just did what I had to do, with no thought or acknowledgement of what I was going through.

Around the same time, I snapped both Achilles tendons. Just like that, life changed. I went from an incredible high — from successful business owner, international choreographer, and lecturer at an arts college, qualifying pupils in dance — to the lowest of lows. My business took a huge knock and all my contracts got cancelled. No more international choreography gigs, no more college, and my pupils started dwindling.

I then found myself in an abusive relationship with a narcissistic alcoholic. I could write a whole book about this as you will fall over if you knew how many women go through this. Yes: even strong, independent women like me.

At forty-five, I ended up losing my home, my car, my job… EVERYTHING.

Then I met my deksel (my ‘lid’), my love, and moved to Wellington. And here’s the truth, as strange as it might sound. Opening a new dance studio in Wellington was nowhere in my plans. It all seems like a blur. God did what He does best and He did it all!

You know, doll, throughout my life God has given me a lot of slaps on the wrist — but I would just carry on under my own steam. The way I see it: He needed to allow something radical to happen to me, so He could bring me back to Him and make me start listening! And I will always be grateful for that.

What would you have done differently, if anything?

I would have got help for anxiety and depression instead of dismissing it and packing it away deep inside a cupboard. Because it affects every aspect of your life, including your business.

Who or what gave you the strength to climb out of that valley and overcome the challenges you faced?

The support of an incredible family, child, and friends, as well as Bible study and counselling. And then I started pet sitting and taking doggos for walks. They helped heal my heart and that’s how I met my fur child, Lacey. She literally saved my life.

Who has been your greatest support?

Hands down, my dad and my family, as well as friends who have been in my life for donkey’s years, and my son.

Ru onstage
Ru onstage

What would you have done differently, if anything?

I would have got help for anxiety and depression instead of dismissing it and packing it away deep inside a cupboard. Because it affects every aspect of your life, including your business.

Who or what gave you the strength to climb out of that valley and overcome the challenges you faced?

The support of an incredible family, child, and friends, as well as Bible study and counselling. And then I started pet sitting and taking doggos for walks. They helped heal my heart and that’s how I met my fur child, Lacey. She literally saved my life.

Who has been your greatest support?

Hands down, my dad and my family, as well as friends who have been in my life for donkey’s years, and my son.

Not Quite Burlesque

How did COVID-19 affect your business, and what did you do to adapt?

COVID forced us to think outside the box. Get closer to the people and things that matter. Be creative. And it gave us a klap (smack) against the head to wake up to all the blessings we were taking for granted.

My new dance studio in Wellington was only open for one month when lockdown happened. And ja, God took care of us right through! I started teaching classes online, and some pupils still paid their fees during lockdown, enabling us to keep up with our rent payments.

And where are we now? Growing constantly, and already practically at full capacity and needing bigger premises. We are now also in the process of opening our drama, singing and music division.

Tell us about your career highlights.

Yoh doll, I’m getting on now; I have a lifetime of highlights. But if I had to pick just one, I think co-choreographing the Opening Ceremony of the African Cup of Nations in Ghana was definitely a memorable moment. Working with a cast of 4,700 was certainly a new experience.

Besides that, I would have to include absolutely every time I got the opportunity to perform on stage with my dancers: from the Artscape Theatre to The Baxter (both well-known, high-profile theatres in Cape Town), and every venue in between. I loved every single moment! And I got to share the stage with my son. Huge highlight!

Who is your greatest inspiration?

Ooooh, doll! If you’re going to get me going on Bob Fosse and my two dance teachers, Ellen Bunting and Brigitte Reeve Taylor, then you must know it’s going to be a long night! Let’s just say they made me the dancer, teacher and choreographer I am.

Not Burlesque

You Cannot Keep Everybody Happy.

Not Burlesque

You Cannot Keep Everybody Happy.

Tell us about your career highlights.

Yoh doll, I’m getting on now; I have a lifetime of highlights. But if I had to pick just one, I think co-choreographing the Opening Ceremony of the African Cup of Nations in Ghana was definitely a memorable moment. Working with a cast of 4,700 was certainly a new experience.

Besides that, I would have to include absolutely every time I got the opportunity to perform on stage with my dancers: from the Artscape Theatre to The Baxter (both well-known, high-profile theatres in Cape Town), and every venue in between. I loved every single moment! And I got to share the stage with my son. Huge highlight!

Who is your greatest inspiration?

Ooooh, doll! If you’re going to get me going on Bob Fosse and my two dance teachers, Ellen Bunting and Brigitte Reeve Taylor, then you must know it’s going to be a long night! Let’s just say they made me the dancer, teacher and choreographer I am.

Dancer pose

Best nugget of advice you’ve been given?

Let go and let God!

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Do what YOU want to do! Know it’s going to take hard work, passion and a sense of humour. It’s up to you how much work you put in, and that will impact directly on your success. (Wine helps too, LOL.)

Oh, and enjoy your bad days. Cry and own that moment. How are you going to know how good the good days are if you don’t go through the bad ones?

Steepest learning curve?

Jeepers, you really ask the difficult questions, neh? Realising I cannot keep everyone happy; it’s impossible. I have to keep reminding myself that even though my dance pupils are incredibly important to me, they will come and go. I have to stay true to myself and my child and family. They are the most important.

What advice would you give to those who are striving to keep people happy?

Best have another glass of wine, haha! Seriously, though, keep reminding yourself: You cannot keep everybody happy! You’re only human. No one person is the same. Embrace others and just stay true to yourself.

What are your future plans?

World domination, of course. Pfft. (Wink wink.)

Friends Forever
Friends Forever

What advice would you give to those who are striving to keep people happy?

Best have another glass of wine, haha! Seriously, though, keep reminding yourself: You cannot keep everybody happy! You’re only human. No one person is the same. Embrace others and just stay true to yourself.

What are your future plans?

World domination, of course. Pfft. (Wink wink.)

Ruanda, I believe we’ve only skirted around the edge of your life story, and I would love to hear more. Sadly, our time has run out. Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to add?

You know, I was this little five-year-old, blond, curly-haired tomboy with bruises all the way up to her knees, singing Hopelessly Devoted To You on the roundabout and introducing myself to everyone as Sandy… I was obsessed (still am) with Grease, and convinced I was going to marry Superman. My life plan did not include divorce, miscarriages, cancer threats, polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, two snapped Achilles and losing everything I’d worked so hard for, and, at 45, having to start again from scratch. But how blessed am I? God gave me the opportunity to restart my life with a clean slate. And then, on top of that, He finally gave me my superman and my dream life.

 

Well, I don’t know about my readers, Ru, but I will be the first to buy your book, if you ever decide to write one. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. What an inspiration you are!

Tweetable TAKEAWAYS:

THERE’S NO SHAME IN GETTING HELP WITH MENTAL HEALTH.

TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED. YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT LIFE COULD THROW AT YOU.

YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO KEEP EVERYONE HAPPY. BE TRUE TO YOURSELF.

LET GO & LET GOD.

FOLLOW YOUR DREAM & WORK YOUR PASSION.

YOUR DREAM IS GOING TO TAKE HARD WORK & PASSION TO BECOME REALITY. (A SENSE OF HUMOUR HELPS.) 

 

FYI…

I don’t receive any reward/commission for promoting any of the businesses on my blog. I just want to inspire & motivate as many people as possible to fulfil their purpose & potential.

 

If any other key points stood out for you, or you just want to let me know what you thought about this interview, feel free to comment below.

NEXT WEEK on The Hopeaholic blog . . .

Inspiration. Motivation. Joy. Another uplifting post to help you through the daily grind.

If you subscribe to my weekly news blurb (it’s brief, honest!) you’ll be in the know. wink

15 Comments

  1. Melanie Hatjigiannakis

    What a wonderful story, for such a wonderful woman/Lioness 😁🌸

    Reply
    • Vanessa Stevenson

      Absolutely, Melanie! Thank you so much for your comment. xx

      Reply
    • Ru Fitzhenry

      We are all lionesses doll. It’s there inside of us 🙂

      Reply
  2. DanL Pienaar

    Truly Inspirational.

    Passionately and Persistently Pursuing the Promise of Purpose, no matter what…

    Main takeaway – LET GO & LET GOD

    Reply
    • Vanessa Stevenson

      Thank you, Dan! Your thoughtful comments are greatly appreciated. 🙂

      Reply
    • Ru Fitzhenry

      Absolutely looooove this! Yoh

      Reply
  3. Sam Anderson

    Absolutely love it!! Thank you and it is inspirational indeed!!! 🙌🏼🙌🏼🙌🏼

    Reply
    • Vanessa Stevenson

      Thank you so much for your comment, Sam! So glad it touched your heart. 🙂 xx

      Reply
      • Mark Pile

        Wow amazing story, inspiring. A lesson in no such thing as can’t. Love this Blog. Keeping going Vanessa.

        LET GO & LET GOD, live it

        Reply
        • Vanessa Stevenson

          Thank you, Mark! Appreciate your kind comment. Absolutely.

          Reply
  4. Kim Taylor

    Amazing and inspiring- Ru is most definitely a true friend and brilliant choreographer!!!

    Reply
    • Vanessa Stevenson

      That she is, Kim! Thank you for your kind & lovely comment. 🙂 xx

      Reply
  5. Brigitte Reeve Taylor

    Beautiful article.
    Live your best life Ru and remember you always do what you love & love what you do!

    Reply
    • Vanessa Stevenson

      Thank you for your encouraging comment, Brigitte — much appreciated! xx

      Reply

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