When Noel Hanley was a little girl growing up in Brandon, Miss., she used to push all the furniture in the living room back against the walls so she could dance. She dreamed of having her own studio one day.
Now the lifelong ballerina has opened Sway Downtown, a new yoga studio at 10 S. Conception St., between Conti and Dauphin streets in downtown Mobile – complete with a brand-new, 1,400-square-foot studio with a 14-foot ceiling.
Noel majored in dance at the University of Alabama, where she met her now-husband, Stewart Hanley. She danced professionally with the Alabama Ballet dance company in Birmingham and taught ballet as a faculty member at Samford University and Birmingham Dance Theater. She also danced with two modern companies, Sanspointe and Southern Danceworks.
After she and Stewart married, the couple moved to Mobile, his hometown, and she started working with Mobile Ballet as principal dancer, working her way up to ballet mistress and associate director of the ballet school.
Meanwhile, Noel had discovered yoga. "Yoga was really good for me, especially when I quit dancing full-time," she says. "I needed the movement and the stretching."
She became certified as an instructor and introduced it to her students at Mobile Ballet. In addition to the physical challenges and rewards of yoga, she has found that it complements ballet training in other ways, such as "trying to be better than you were yesterday," as well as "letting go and breathing."
Yoga made a profound impact on Noel’s life. "I found that I came to love myself more," she says. She decided it was time to open her own yoga studio.
After completing her 200-hour Yoga Alliance teacher training course at Kindness Yoga in Denver – she’s also certified in Progressing Ballet Technique – she started looking at possible locations in downtown Mobile. When she peeked in to the space on South Conception Street and saw the exposed brick wall, she was sold.
"I wanted it to feel cozy, and for everyone to feel welcome," she says – regardless of their level of experience.
The lobby is furnished like a living room, and a set of turquoise doors leads into the spacious studio. In the back are restrooms, changing rooms and storage space. In November, she plans to start displaying the work of local artists on the studio’s walls. Her friend Lauren Woods, a dancer and artist who designed Sway’s logo, is helping her organize the art project.
The studio itself doesn’t have mirrors. "This is about your journey, and what your body feels like," she says. "This is your practice. I’m just guiding you along. Everyone’s bodies are different, and that’s okay."
Noel named the studio "Sway Downtown" after brainstorming words related to dance and movement. "That one kept popping up," she says. "We sway back and forth in dance, yoga and breathing."
In addition to vinyasa and gentle yoga classes, Noel teaches classes for adults in "true classical ballet," in which she works with students on technique and alignment. She emphasizes that Sway is not as intimidating as a "super-intense dance studio" might be. Everyone, no matter their skill level, is encouraged to "find their inner ballerina." Private lessons are also available.
Sway is also offering classes for children as young as 2 years old, as well as family classes for adults and kids. Eventually, Noel wants to host special events in the space and rent it out for ballerina birthday parties.
For now, Noel is teaching several classes per day. She plans to add teachers, and different classes, as membership grows.
Conception Street seems to be poised for a rebirth, with two new businesses, a rolled ice-cream shop and a diner, under construction next door. "We have a ton of walking traffic," she says. "We’re walking distance for a lot of people."
Since opening on Oct. 9, she’s already had out-of-town visitors stop by to check out the studio. One woman from Belgium who was staying at a nearby hotel took three classes while she was in town. Noel offers a special rate to tourists.
Downtown Mobile was the only place she even considered opening her new studio. "I wanted to be part of the new growth of Mobile," she says. "It’s such a cool little city. It’s a cute, quaint, funky town that has its own vibe. I’m excited to be part of it."
For more information, go to www.swaydowntown.com.