Kelly took me to my first class at Hustle and Flow in the summer of 2014. It was a “buti yoga” class, which meant nothing to me at the time, and Kelly was intentionally vague about what to expect. We got there, laid yoga mats on the floor, and before I knew it, the ten other women in the class and I attempted to follow Carla, the instructor, as she began to bounce, belly dance, twerk, and do yoga.
In that first class, and in many since, I laughed at what Carla was asking me to do—I didn’t think my hips or butt or body could possibly move that way. It was also so hard I imagined my arms would fall off. But, I felt intense gratitude for a strategically motivational 90s hip hop track and left high and happy on shaky legs. I kept coming back.
There’s something special going on at Hustle and Flow. I’ve learned a lot there, about taking myself less seriously, about the power of my body, and about what it means to support and admire other women. Steph Harmon is the owner and Carla Hopkins is the studio manager; they both teach classes. They’ve had such a profound impact on my life in Portland that I couldn’t wait to talk to them about how they built the studio. After interviewing them, I see that their friendship and professional relationship sets the tone for everything that happens in the space. Their teachers and students rise to a standard they created—one that is supportive, accepting, and focused on what feels good.
We talked outside the studio on a windy summer evening. The iPhone recording of our interview is filled with laughter and cheerful interruptions from students. Steph and Carla sat next to each other at a picnic table and talked with me about friendship, being yourself, and their workflow—which includes sending scandalous pictures via Facebook messenger.
Where and when and how did your relationship begin?
Carla: Steph came to the first class I ever taught in Portland and was not into it.
Stephanie: That’s not true!
Carla: I think you just weren’t sure what to expect.
Stephanie: I was just like, what the fuck is this? But I kept coming back.
How did you end up running the business together?
Carla: Stephanie wanted to have a dance studio forever, that was her dream growing up. I didn’t have any dreams. I was the least ambitious person ever; I was content doing whatever I was doing.
Stephanie: The studio wouldn’t have happened without her. Here’s the sequence of events: I started coming to Carla’s class and that made me want to get certified in buti. Then I started teaching and then we started looking for studios together. We were just gonna teach buti. I was going to stay with my job but teach on the side and rent a space, not even call it a business, which was silly. Then our friend Kara started talking about selling her business, Bhakti in Motion.
"The whole time, no matter how much resistance (and there was definitely a lot of resistance), Stephanie had a really clear vision."
Carla: Stephanie had the drive to do it, had the money, had everything.
Stephanie: This is a one woman venture. However, I need Carla’s support. So that’s the sequence of events. Here we are!
Carla: The whole time, no matter how much resistance (and there was definitely a lot of resistance), Stephanie had a really clear vision. She had in her mind what she wanted and I don’t know that I knew all the details but I trusted Stephanie.
How do you explain your relationship to other people?
Stephanie: We’re definitely friends first, above all else. We have a few ways to describe our relationship. One is our friendship and one is the business relationship where Carla is the studio manager and I’m the owner. But, and I’ve told her this before, she’s more like my emotional manager. I’m the anxious one. I can run anything by her at any time and she can bring me back to balance. I usually don’t talk much about Carla as my studio manager, I usually talk about her as my friend.
Carla: I feel like our relationship is definitely more of a friendship. I almost forget about the business aspect. I couldn’t do what I’m doing without Stephanie, and not even in a codependent way. We developed what we are doing because we had each other’s support--we’re mutual muses.
How do you work together and what does your process look like?
Stephanie: Our process is pretty funny, if you want to call this a process. We communicate every single day. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of messages between us since we first met, but especially in the past year. It goes between shit talking, hilarious and disgusting pictures and memes...
Carla: at two in the morning…
Stephanie: ...luckily my phone’s on silent. And then we’ll send each other the random, “oh, what do you think about this?” And then we’ll go back and forth and we don’t always agree.
Carla: And sometimes it’s completely made up and it ends up being a great idea. Or I’ll say something and you’ll think I’m serious but I’m not and then it works.
Stephanie: Sometimes I will go to her house and sit down and try to have a meeting but it usually is just me and her laying in her bed and taking notes hoping something…
Carla: ...Or you take notes for me.
Stephanie: Yeah, I take notes and then I give them to her. It’s really funny.
Carla: It probably wouldn’t work with a different sort of personality. I think because we’re both so solid in who we are and if something isn’t working we’ll let each other know. Our personalities are complementary and our strengths complement each other and it works.
Stephanie: I’m a control freak so I’ll do everything but I’ll bounce everything off of her to get her feedback. Carla puts in the most time, even more than me, doing social media stuff. That alone is what I need. I need somebody to pick up my slack and she totally does that. But our process is basically me either freaking out at her and her calming me down or me coming up with an idea. We really, really love what we do but we’re not sitting down together saying, “What should we do today?” We both have our own process. She plans her classes differently than I do, we don’t do that together. The business though, I wouldn’t do it if she wasn’t here. It wouldn’t be worth it to me.
Carla: Right now we’re tapped into the creative aspect of things and I think if we took that energy and were more controlling about things, or trying to do things the way we thought it should be done, it would kill the creativity.
"We developed what we are doing because we had each other's support—we're mutual muses."
How do your values play into your work?
Carla: What comes first and foremost is creating a fun and supportive space for women and the freedom to move your body. We work out but we both just enjoy moving and it’s something we’ve both done our entire lives. It’s important to us. And we don’t adhere to any strict protocol of movement. I think we both do that naturally.
Stephanie: I agree. We don’t want this place to be anything like any other place, so people can let their freak flag fly. We’re trying to give people permission--especially women--to come in and feel free through their movement. Let’s laugh and sweat and just have fun. We want to be creative. We want to do things that are different. We want people to enjoy that and come in and express themselves. I think we do have the same values and that’s why it works so well.
I tell all the instructors that I don’t want them to teach the way other teachers do. I don’t want there to be a script. I want their classes to be completely their own creative outlet. Grace for example, she just turned 20 or something. This is the first time she’s taught dance. I don’t give a shit that she’s never taught anywhere else. She’s the most incredible dancer. I want Carla to bring her belly dance background into any class she teaches. And she came up with Abs and ASSana and Slow Grind and that’s what I want instructors to bring; everyone has their own style. I don’t look for training hours, who did you study under, that doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher.
Carla: We encourage everyone to be themselves. There’s not a lot of places where you can be you.
What are the ways that conflict or jealousy play a role in your relationship?
Stephanie: I don’t feel jealousy. I feel support and if I ever have an issue I’m not scared to talk to her.
Carla: It’s not jealousy I feel, it’s admiration and appreciation. Recognizing things in Stephanie that I would want to aspire to.
Stephanie: Likewise. Mutual admiration society.
Carla: I think often times in relationships with women when we’re originally attracted to each it has the jealous vibe to it. You notice someone and you’re like, “Whoa, she’s really awesome.” There’s the comparison of what does she have that I don’t have.
Stephanie: I actually want to retract my statement. I am jealous of Carla. I’m jealous of her body, I’m jealous of the way it moves, but I love it. I can appreciate it. It’s a little bit of jealousy but not in a negative way.
What do you gain from the relationship?
Stephanie and Carla: Everything.
Stephanie: I wouldn't do this without Carla, our relationship is everything. We keep each other going and wanting to move forward. It's not going to get stagnant if we're doing this together.
Stephanie Harmon's mission at Hustle and Flow is to create a fun, empowering, expressive space where all who walk in feel a connection to the space and to each other, where students and teachers not only find peace of mind, but also let go of what they think a class should look like. She's interested in letting her instructors take what they have learned and morph it into their own unique style, whether it's the music they play or the sequence of moves or the mixture of technique. We are a light hearted bunch, filled with love and respect for each other. We take what we do very seriously, but we also have the most fun!
Drawing from her life of dance, especially ecstatic, dancehall, African, hip-hop, latin and tribal fusion belly dance, and over 15 years of practicing yoga and advanced Pilates training, Carla Hopkins infuses her classes with sensuous and sinewy strength within a primal flow. Enjoy the benefits of ancient movements of the divine feminine; shimmies, undulations, serpentines and controlled isolations of the hips, pelvis and chest.