Teaching dance always attracted Misty Lown — she was leading her own classes when she was 16, having started dancing at 3. But she thought dancing professionally was her true calling, and a dream that was within her grasp.
As a college student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Lown was accepted into a prestigious year-long training program with the acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City.
“I thought, ‘This is going to be my life,’” Lown said.
Before going to New York City, though, Lown went to Madison to see a performance by the Alvin Ailey troupe. “During their closing number, ‘Revelations,’ I had what I can only call a God-whisper on my heart that said, ‘What will you remember of this performance a week, a month or a year from now?’” Lown recalled. Then she thought of the impact she could have on her dance students, imparting both art and life lessons that they might well pass on to more students themselves.
“That was it for me,” Lown said. “I left that theater with tears streaming down my cheeks and knew the classroom would be my stage.”
Over time, Lown’s classroom grew. In 1998, barely into her 20s, she opened a dance studio, Misty’s Dance Unlimited, in a brand new building in Onalaska. Nine years later, she built a bigger home that now has 800 students. Then she launched an organization to help other dance studios that now reaches 60,000 students a week. Now she has an ever-more demanding schedule as an inspirational speaker on leadership and entrepreneurship.
And now Lown’s classroom is getting a lot bigger — again. In early July, Lown published a book called “One Small Yes: Small Decisions That Lead to Big Results” that in its first five days alone had more than 10,000 online e-book downloads on Amazon, hitting No. 5 on the list of most downloaded books during that period.
The book has an uplifting, empowering message, one that draws heavily on Lown’s own life in an effort to help people find their own calling — as she did.
“The message is centered on my belief that everybody was DNA-wired to do something great that only they can do. So you have a special calling in your life. It’s the great privilege and responsibility of life to figure that out and then start making small ‘yes’ choices in that direction,” Lown said. “If you can figure out, or at least ask the question — ‘What am I here for?’ — and then make an earnest ‘yes’ effort to move in that direction, I think that’s where people get a lot of joy out of life.”
“My parents were doers, they just made things happen,” Lown said of her childhood on La Crosse’s North Side. “We didn’t always have all the resources we might want ... but they made it happen.”
She recalled when she was about 11 and her father, Paul Averill, lost his job as a truck driver. He was the family’s sole breadwinner, but he insisted that rather than go on public assistance he was going to dig ditches for the railroad if he had to. “And he was 40, so my age,” Lown said. “And that left an indelible mark on me. It made me realize everything is figure-out-able.”
Her mother, Sandy Averill, had the same kind of can-do attitude, and Lown recalled that her parents were always quick to help anybody else who was going through a hard time. “I just think compassion is important. When you see somebody has a need, you need to act on that,” said Sandy, who has worked at MDU since it opened.
Lown saw her parents as great role models. “They were so giving and they just faced each challenge, they just kept saying ‘yes’ to the challenge of life, the daily grind of life,” Lown said. “If my dad was willing to go and dig ditches for me so we wouldn’t lose our house, by golly, I owe it to him to face the challenges in my life. And I tell that story to my kids.”
Her father did go to work on the railroad, but he put himself through railroad signal school and rose to the top of his field, the equivalent, Lown said, of going from the mailroom to a corner office on the top floor.
Starting dance lessons at Lorraine’s School of Dance when she was 3, Lown faced challenges of her own: asthma and a club foot. But the dancing helped her foot straighten out, Sandy said, and dance gave Misty a growing sense of confidence and helped develop her perseverance.
Lown proved to be a superlative dancer, and Paul Averill said he thought his daughter might end up a professional dancer. “She was just a bright kid. I knew that whatever she wanted to do, she’d succeed at it,” he said.
Misty the teacher
Lown was on track to become a Spanish teacher — her bachelor’s degree is in Spanish, and she earned a master’s degree in education from UW-L. But she knew that teaching dance was a way in which she could have more impact and more satisfaction.
“I got into the Spanish classroom, and I thought, ‘I could be turning cartwheels in here, and I don’t think the kids would be very interested,’” Lown said. “But when I go to the dance studio ... they can’t wait to hear what I have to say.”
At first, Lown taught most of the dance classes at Misty’s Dance Unlimited. But, as she attracted more students, she taught new teachers to lead classes. Kristina (Smaby) Schoh was one of the many dancers turned teachers, teaching when she was just 15.
Schoh, a Miss Wisconsin Pageant winner, recalled praying at night when she was 9 or 10 to wake up and “be Misty.”
“I so badly wanted to emulate her in every way — from a dancer to a teacher to a person,” she said.
But Schoh said Lown’s mentorship taught her she didn’t need to be someone else, just her best self, and that was a message Schoh and other MDU teachers passed on to their students.
“She’s unstoppable, invincible,” Schoh said of Lown. “Misty could have stopped at Misty’s Dance Unlimited and she would have been defined as successful. … It’s been really fun for me and empowering to see that you don’t ever have to stop.”
These days, Misty’s Dance Unlimited draws about 800 dancers every week, and MDU reaches another 600 area kids through community outreach, including classes at Boys & Girls Clubs branches, preschools, community events and more.
Five years ago, Lown started More Than Just Great Dancing, a company that provides member dance studios with a template that can help them emulate Misty’s Dance Unlimited.
“I was out speaking on the national circuits, writing for a national magazine, and people were just really interested in how we built what we did, and how we did it without losing our families, our minds, or compromising kids, because those are pretty common things to happen in the industry,” Lown said.
After five years, there are 164 affiliated dance schools in 34 states, Canada, Australia, Aruba and Dubai serving 60,000 young dancers every week. More Than Just Great Dancing has become a “very full-time job” for Lown, and she has 10 employees in the MTJGD enterprise, eight of them full-timers (including her sister, Alana Hess, nine years her junior).
Lown also has a reach beyond those 60,000 young dancers through an online magazine called More Than Dancers, which started a year ago. Last month, the site had 200,000 visitors (from more than 90 countries) with a million Facebook engagements, and More Than Dancers is among the top 10 most popular dance-related accounts on Twitter.
More Than Dancers is launching a new summer dance festival in the Twin Cities next year. It’s expected to draw 500 dancers, mostly from MTJGD-affiliated schools. Unlike most large gatherings of dancers, it’s not a competition. The emphasis will be on learning and not just about dance. There will be breakout sessions to help participants work out their paths in life after high school.
“Nobody’s done a dance festival that has this life- and college-planning focus, and I think that’s really necessary,” Lown said.
More than busy
Lown also regularly speaks on business development, creating “wow” experiences for clients, marketing, community service, work-life balance and other business and entrepreneurial topics. She recently returned from speaking at a convention of mortgage bankers in the Virgin Islands.
Lown also takes part in four or five Dance Revolution events a year as a performer and teacher — basically 2½-day Christian “dance conventions.”
All but two months this year have her traveling, but April and September on her calendar say “no speaking — family time.” Those months were strategically chosen, Lown said, for the beginning of school in the fall and for preparation for the annual MDU spring dance recitals, which draw thousands of spectators for multiple performances every year at Viterbo University’s Fine Arts Center.
Family time is important to Lown. She’s had an extended break from teaching dance classes to make more time for her husband, Mitch (her high school sweetheart at La Crosse Logan), and their daughter and four sons: 15-year-old Isabella, whom Lown says is an even stronger dancer than she was at that age; 13-year-old Mason, an avid water skier; 11-year-old Sam, a talented dancer and member of the MDU competitive hip-hop team; 9-year-old Max, who is into “all things sports, all the time”; and 7-year-old Benji, who loves music and science and is extremely inquisitive.
As busy as she is between her family and ever-growing enterprises, Lown makes it a point to find time for charitable work. Most notably, she started and led for seven years the annual Dancing With the La Crosse Stars fundraising event that raised $400,000 in those years for the American Red Cross — and she won top honors in the first one with her dance partner, UW-La Crosse Professor Robert Richardson.
She also started a free adaptive dance class for youths with disabilities, launched a dance education program at the Boys & Girls Clubs along with scholarships for 10 BGC members per year to take classes at MDU. And a grant program she helped start in 2011 has given $25,000 to area schools so far, with students writing their own proposals for grants of up to $250. MDU also gave more than $200,000 in cash and in-kind scholarships before starting the Chance to Dance Foundation three years ago.
And these are just the public things. Sandy Averill said her daughter does a lot of things anonymously, something confirmed by Mike Desmond, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater La Crosse.
“(The Lowns) as a couple seem to really understand the meaning of what we’re all called to do, which is to make a difference in other people’s lives, especially the most vulnerable,” Desmond said.
Now that all her children are in school full-time, she’s going to ease back into teaching at the studio for the first time in five years with an advanced ballet class on Tuesday nights.
“That’s my sweet spot, working with teenagers, because they are making those daily choices about who they are and what they stand for and what they want to be when they grow up,” she said.
After her early July trip to the book launch in Washington, D.C., coming back home to the chaos of a five-child household helped Lown put life into perspective again after the dizzying success of her book launch.
“You come home and they’re like, ‘Hey, welcome home, did you pick up milk?’” Lown said with a laugh. “My real life is very real, so it definitely keeps me grounded.”
Writing a book
Last fall, Lown started writing a book called “Eight Steps to a Better Dance Studio,” with the thought she could help more studio owners and teachers than she can reach through her More Than Just Great Dancing organization. She was an old hand at writing, having written about 50 stories for various publications over the years.
Lown was about halfway through writing it when she sat down with key members of her “team.” She had some doubts about where the book was going and wanted their advice.
Her core team members — there are about 15 between the dance studio and MTJGD — pressed her on what studio owners ask her when they ask her for advice.
“And they always ask, ‘How did you do it,’ and I always say, ‘Just take it one small yes at a time,’” Lown recalled. “Then we had this ‘a-ha’ moment as a team where it was like, well clearly I’m writing the wrong book.”
Lown enrolled in a three-month, online book writing course called Make a Difference through a publisher called Difference Press that focuses on publishing books meant to have an impact for good on readers. The course forced Lown to ask herself hard questions she hadn’t considered.
“You know, who is your ideal reader? Who is the audience? What is your purpose? Why are you doing this? We worked backwards through the outline, so it was really a reverse engineered process,” Lown explained. “They say the worst thing you can do when you want to write a book is to start writing. You have to build the structure.”
What Lown came up with had implications well beyond how to build a successful dance studio business. “This book is about creating a path between where you are and what you feel like you are called to do,” she said.
For the launch of the book, Lown and the six other authors in her class gathered at the publisher’s office in Washington, D.C., for a launch party on July 7, Lown’s 41st birthday. Difference Press launches books by offering free downloads on Amazon for five days. By the end of the launch, “One Small Yes” topped 10,000 downloads, by far the most of any of the 174 books published in the history of Difference Press.
Hitting the 10,000 mark was extra sweet for Lown because the publisher had offered a reward for hitting that: a $1,000 donation to Global Groundwork, the charitable initiative launched by Lown’s husband in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to establish a school in Port-au-Prince.
“She’s our superstar,” said Angela Lauria, the woman behind Difference Press and The Author Incubator, which put on the class Lown went through to write her book. “I think the reason why her message was so appealing is it was so doable. So many people have these big messages about living your dreams. … I think her message is so accessible.”
Lown was very happy about her book’s reception and the quantity of downloads. “We’ve had 90 five-star reviews, so I think it’s something people were glad they took the time to read,” she said.
As far as Lown’s mother is concerned, the book could not have been better. “I thought it was very inspiring,” she said. “She just has a wonderful gift in telling her story in a way that people see themselves in it and they can relate to it.”
Lown signed a publishing contract with Morgan James Publishing, which specializes in books on entrepreneurship. “Some of my heroes of the entrepreneurial world were published by Morgan James, so for me, that was an especially sweet thing,” she said.
For all the success of the book so far, Lown says she has tried to put that in perspective. “My real reward is what I learned through the process, another layer of can-do. I can do this, I can discipline myself to get this done, and I can apply that discipline to something else.”
Lown is quick to point out that the successful launch of the book, which will have a print edition that will be in Barnes & Noble stores next spring, went far beyond her own efforts. In addition to the editors and designers who helped get the book ready for publication after she had written it, there were also about 150 people on her launch team that read the book in advance and helped spread the word.
“Success means many things to many people, but to me it means giving credit where credit is due and never forgetting the people who helped you along the way,” Lown added. “I’ll talk about that as long as I have breath, and I think that’s really important to model to kids.”
One big yes
Lown certainly will never stop giving credit to Harold “Deak” Swanson, who gave Lown a big break and a big “yes” almost 20 years ago. In the fall of 1996, Lown won the Miss La Crosse/Oktoberfest Pageant, which she’d entered the year before and finished as second runner-up. Not winning was disappointing, but looking back now it was the best thing that could have happened. It put her on the same path as Swanson, a well-known builder who was named festmaster in 1996.
Spending so much time together at parades and other events, they grew close. Swanson soon learned that Lown’s dance students meant the world to her and that she had a big dream of having her own studio.
“One day,” Lown recalled, “he said, ‘I want to have breakfast with you at Marge’s.’ I said, ‘What time?’ And he said ‘5 o’clock.’ I said, ‘In the morning?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s when you have breakfast.’”
At breakfast, Swanson offered to build Lown a dance studio on Braund Street in Onalaska.
“He laid out a plan, and he gave me a job at his construction company, so I could save money for the things that would not be in the building but were still needed, a lot of other startup costs. He got up and shook my hand and said, ‘I’m going to build you that dance studio,’” Lown said. “I mean, I’m a kid, literally a 20-year-old kid from the North Side, and this guy takes a three-quarter-of-a-million-dollar gamble on me. No bank would’ve taken that chance on me, but Deak built me my first building on a handshake.”
It didn’t seem like a big gamble to Swanson.
“She had a plan. It was a good plan,” said Swanson, who after a year of Oktoberfest events saw Lown as family. “Her foundation was good, and that was what was important. … I just wanted to help her out because I had a lot of empathy for her.”
Swanson said he would have let the rent slide had Lown ever run into financial difficulties, but that never happened. Misty’s Dance Unlimited took off in 1998 and grew by leaps and bounds. Lown bought the building from Swanson. Then she bought land from him on 12th Avenue South in Onalaska to build a new studio, an 11,000-square-foot building that opened in 2007.
“She’s done extraordinarily well,” Swanson said. “She is so extremely focused on what she does. I am not amazed at all that she is so successful because she is so disciplined.”
At MDU dance recitals, Lown regularly tells the story of how Swanson helped her get started. Swanson had long known about these shout-outs and had avoided going to the recitals. He didn’t feel like he needed any kind of public recognition for his part in getting Lown started, especially in front of a full house in the Viterbo University Fine Arts Center, where MDU dance recitals are held these days, with six shows in a weekend.
But finally last year, Lown convinced Swanson to come. She had a plaque made and brought him up for a tribute and a hug.
“I was kind of embarrassed. I didn’t do it for the recognition,” Swanson said.
Embarrassment aside, it was an emotionally touching moment, he said. “I knew I had the daughter I never had.”
Having Swanson at the recital was emotional for Lown, too. “My favorite moment was after the show,” Lown recalled. “He comes by and he gave me this hug and he looks at me and says, ‘You done good, kid.’ And then he walked off, and I just started sobbing my eyes out. To hear him say I had done well with what he had entrusted to me — there could be no higher praise.”