Like many dancers, when Lauren Schelfhaudt and Jean Paul retired from professional ballroom dancing in 2016, they felt lost. "There was this huge void," says Schelfhaudt.
But after over 20 years of dancing, plus United States and World Championship titles, reality shows, and high-profile choreography gigs (and Paul's special claim to fame, as "the guy who makes Bradley Cooper look bad" in Silver Linings Playbook), teaching just didn't fill the void. "I got to the point where it wasn't giving me that creative outlet," says Paul.
When the pair (who are life and business partners but were never dance partners—they competed against one another) took a post-retirement trip to Costa Rica, they were ready to restart their lives. They found inspiration in an expected place: A visit to a coffee farm.
Though they had no experience in coffee roasting or business, they began building their own coffee company. In 2018, the duo officially launched Dancing Ox Coffee Roasters, where they create dance-inspired blends out of their headquarters in Belmont, North Carolina.
We talked to Schelfhaudt and Paul about how their dance background makes them better coffee roasters, and why coffee is an art form all its own:
On Becoming Students Again
Part of why Schelfhaudt and Paul didn't find fulfillment in teaching was because they felt like their learning had stopped. "We got to the point where I could show up at any event, teach a class, and there would be no question that I couldn't answer," says Schelfhaudt.
With coffee, they had to start from square one. Schelfhaudt recalls early in their business making blends that were too light for the typical coffee drinker, and asking a mentor where espresso beans come from (espresso is just a darker roast, not a different type of bean).
Being a student again "has put a fire under our feet," says Schelfhaudt.
How Gene Kelly Inspired Their Logo
Schelfhaudt and Paul knew that they'd want to incorporate dance into their business as much as possible. So when the time came to create a logo, Paul turned to a dance great. "I took a picture of Gene Kelly, put him in a tailsuit, and used an ox's head with a top hat on it," says Paul. "Because our ox is classy, he's going to the ball."
Why an ox? "It stands for our crossing," says Paul. "We found each other in this vast sea of people." And the ox represents persistence, says Schelfhaudt, which they related to as dancers and entrepreneurs.
How Dance Makes Them Better Businesspeople
Paul says that, first and foremost, their dance background has given them discipline, which has helped as they've faced strict deadlines and taken a detail-oriented approach to their business.
But dance has also been a powerful selling tool for Dancing Ox. "We're the only roasters who are professional ballroom dancers," says Schelfhaudt. "When our background comes up, people are blown away. People connect with your personality first, and then with your talent, whether it's dancing or coffee. They are experiencing us first, and then they decide to pick up the cup and try the coffee. It's our way to break into the coffee world and surprise people that it's not just fluff, that the coffee tastes good, too."
How They Incorporate Dance
"We've been in the dance industry for 20 years and we've been the product," says Schelfhaudt. "Now we have a product, and we are trying to incorporate dance as part of each company experience."
So far, that means events where customers can taste coffee and take salsa lessons, and incorporating dance into the tasting notes for each of their blends. Some blends even have dance names: The Milonga, a medium dark roast with a distinct rich taste, is named after the Argentine social dance, typically danced late into the night. The coffee is meant to be "something that will help you take on the challenge of dancing at midnight," says Paul.
Or the Relevé blend, a light, bright roast. "It's very uplifting," says Schelfhaudt.
What's Next for Dancing Ox
Dancing Ox is currently available for sale online, and at a variety of restaurants, bars, cafes and stores around the country. They also have an upcoming collaboration with a brewery to make limited-edition coffee-flavored beer.
A coffee shop isn't out of the question, but for now they're focusing on building a strong national presence, and positioning themselves as a lifestyle brand as well as a coffee brand.
"I'm thinking about enrolling in a coffee roasting competition," says Paul. "Maybe next year when I'm really good. I'm good, but when I'm really good."
Their Advice for Retiring Dancers
For Schelfhaudt and Paul, finding a creative second career meant venturing outside the arts—and they encourage other dancers to think bigger about their post-dance life. "We're wired a little differently," Schelfhaudt says. "We get our energy from the people and the light, and when that goes away, you don't have to settle for anything. You should always try to find your creative outlet; there's always a way."