The white-framed motivational messages Kelly Connors displays in the lobby of her barre studio are reflective of the young wife and mom’s life. Be Brave, one proclaims. Start Today, Begin Anew, says another. The largest – She is clothed with strength and dignity and laughs without fear of the future – is a message that particularly resonates with Kelly.
When the toned 37-year-old walks through the doors of her studio, she feels happy, relaxed, calm, and energized. “Exercise is such a stress relief,” she says. “I want other people to experience that too.”
She knows what it’s like to need that type of escape. Five years ago she learned that her husband, David, had Stage 1 colorectal cancer. She started her business with her family and the future in mind, hoping for the best. “When you get a cancer diagnosis, you feel helpless,” she says. “It feels good doing something positive that is helping others and paving a path for this family.”
The inspirational sayings stand out against a wall bathed in the soothing color of the ocean mist. Two glass chandeliers hang above the lobby, which feeds into the mirrored studio. Kelly wanted to create a serene, tranquil atmosphere for the small lobby of her company, Pulse Barre Studio in the Rutland Commons Shopping Center in Mechanicsville.
She opened the studio last June. “I don’t think I ever dreamed I could open my own business,” she says. “The reason we did this is because it’s something I absolutely love and am passionate about.”
David helped his wife finish out the space. The two met at James Madison University, moved to Richmond in 2001 for David’s job at an IT staffing firm, and married in 2003.
Kelly, who had been a dancer all her life, embarked on a career teaching Spanish at Godwin and Deep Run High Schools. When the couple’s daughter, Adeline, was born seven years ago, Kelly took a year off to stay at home. That’s when she began taking Stroller Strides classes. “We met at parks and would work out with the kids in their strollers,” she says, noting that later she taught Stroller Strides classes and also a boot-camp style fitness class for women called Body Back.
Susan Parikh, who works at the barre studio, met Kelly in those Stroller Strides days. “Kelly welcomed me and eased me into this new routine,” she says. “Her positive energy permeated her sessions and mothers pushed themselves to do a little more than what they thought possible.”
At her studio, Kelly continues to provide “motivation to her clients,” Parikh adds. “Whether it is a kind word, a distraction from the current intense workout or a simple smile, she pushes her clients to become the best individuals they can be. An extra rep seems doable when she provides her calm, reassuring encouragement.”
Kelly took her first barre class in 2012 and began teaching the popular system that uses the elements of Pilates, yoga, and ballet for a full-body, low-impact, high-intensity workout a year later.
Kristie Chamberlain began taking barre classes at Pulse when it opened and appreciates the fact that Kelly is never judgmental with her students. “She accepts that everyone has their own level and limits and so she wants you to reach that and to create new goals when you meet your first ones. She will push you if you want it and that is awesome, but she isn’t pushy and that is rare,” Chamberlain says.
She finds Kelly to be strong and beautiful inside and out. She admires her “compassion, her strength, and how grounded she is, no matter what she encounters personally or professionally,” she says. “She is always at her best, ready to give you everything she can.”
Her husband David’s cancer diagnosis in January 2011 was totally unexpected. He got the news after going in for a routine procedure. “I knew right away that something wasn’t right by the way my doctor was looking at me, and then he explained that they did not do the procedure because they found a large tumor and advanced treatment was required,” he says. “The word ‘cancer’ was the last thing I was expecting to hear from my doctor.”
Absolutely floored after hearing the diagnosis, he remembers thinking, How can a 32-year-old with a perfect health history have cancer? He didn’t know how he was going to explain it to Kelly. “The worst question going through my head was ‘will my daughter even remember me?’” he says, noting that Adeline was only two years old at the time. “It almost felt like a light switch was turned off inside me. I only had five minutes to become emotional by myself before pulling it together and putting on a game face to meet up with my wife and daughter in the consultation room.”
Kelly was stunned by the news. “I felt like I was having a surreal experience. I told myself, this isn’t happening to us,” she says.
David’s doctor was very optimistic that the cancer could be treated. That it was non-terminal. “At this point, I convinced myself that I would do everything the doctors told me and that everything would be okay in the end,” David says. “I have had to deal with adversity at different times in my life and this was just another challenge to overcome.”
He and Kelly sat down in the early stages of the diagnosis and agreed that there would not be any woe-is-me moments. “The last thing we wanted to get caught up in were self-pity parties,” David, now thirty-seven, says. “We had to be stronger than that for Adeline.”
After David’s surgery to remove the tumor in May 2011, the couple’s lives began to return to normalcy. The pathology report showed no signs of cancer remaining in David’s colon. He was, however, required to have routine CT scans every six months to make sure he was still cancer free.
The first scan was scheduled for that November, right before Thanksgiving. That’s when the couple learned that the cancer had spread to both of David’s lungs. Kelly was fifteen weeks pregnant with the couple’s son, Matthew, at the time. “In just ten months, I went from Stage 1 to Stage 4,” David says. “I thought, here we go again, and this is going to be a lot more difficult than I originally thought. I also accepted that this was going to be something I was going to have to live with the rest of my life. Unfortunately, my cancer had some fight of its own, and I was told that I would be on chemo indefinitely.”
The diagnosis was gut-wrenching for Kelly. “I felt sick to my stomach,” she says.
Albeit devastating, the cancer has made the couple’s marriage much stronger. “Kelly and I often say that we make the perfect team because we are always encouraging each other and when times get tough, we’re there to pick each other up,” David says. “Cancer isn’t going to negatively affect our family or dictate the way we go about our lives. But it has made us realize that nothing in life is guaranteed and that we should make an effort to cherish the time we have together.”
In the last few years the family has taken vacations to the Walt Disney World Resort and the Bahamas. Kelly and David have also travelled to Mexico and Jamaica. Adeline has grown up around the diagnosis and deals with her father’s illness well, just like her father, Kelly says. “He handles it with incredible grace and strength. He is amazing. Everyone he knows is in awe of how he handles this. No one that didn’t know would ever know,” says Kelly. “You can let it get the best of you, let yourself get consumed with it, or you can do your best to enjoy the good things and push through the bad.”
Kelly’s attitude at the studio reflects her positive take on life. “She strives to give her clients the best workout around, all the while being giddy and happy the entire time,” says instructor April Wells. “You can see her happiness when people come in and while she’s teaching. She’s infectious. She has created a bond with those who take her classes and for us working for her. I think all of us want her to succeed.”
The classes that Kelly provides are important because she’s not just teaching barre, Wells adds. “She’s started a community of strong, caring women. I think people come into class not knowing her story and they see this beautiful, insanely strong person. Then they hear the struggles she’s facing with her family and she inspires them just like she inspires me.”
Kelly doesn’t dwell on the negatives in life, and she teaches that philosophy to her students. She encourages students to “give it their all and to leave whatever struggles they have at the door and just do their best,” Wells says. “Bottom line – Kelly is a great boss. I feel like I’ve gained a sister.”
One of Kelly’s goals is to help improve the lives of women and she’s doing just that. “I cannot count the number of times when someone has said that Kelly has pushed her and helped her to rediscover who she is,” says Parikh. “Kelly has shown women how to be strong, beautiful, and confident, which is not an easy task. Her calm demeanor and limitless energy provide a great role model.”
Last month, David had surgery on his right lung – his third lung surgery. The surgeries are to remove tumors with the hope of being cancer free once again. “The thought of not having chemo treatments scheduled for an extended period of time is a peaceful one,” he says. “Long-term, my goals consist of helping to grow Kelly’s business, traveling to Ireland and Scotland with our immediate and extended family, and simply living the life I was born to live.”
In the past year, David has seen Kelly excel at everything she has taken on with her business. The business experience she lacked, David possessed. “I can’t tell you how many times I told her to trust me and that it would be difficult at first, but you’ll thank me later,” he says. “I had to remind Kelly about all the times she was hesitant or nervous about doing something and how she laughed about it afterwards. Neither of us had opened a business before, but together we had all of the necessary parts to make the business successful.”
He remembers when he first met his wife. She was tough on herself, “her own worst critic,” he says. “She has always had the drive, but the confidence seemed to lag behind. I think the last few years have been great for her self-development. Six years ago, the idea of running her own business would have probably knocked her to the floor. But with everything she has been through in the last five years, I don’t think there is anything that would intimidate her.
David hails Kelly as a goal-driven woman who has the ability to inspire others. “Words can’t describe my wife,” he says. “You have to share a moment with her to see how beautiful of a person she is inside and out. I truly feel that there was a plan for us to meet, because I can’t imagine my life without her. She is an incredible mother and wife and she always thinks of others before herself.”
Kelly is determined not to let David’s cancer diagnosis take over the family’s life. One thing she has learned is that she is stronger than she ever thought she was. She is continually impressed with David’s strength and how he handles things. “I knew I married someone amazing,” she says. The best part is “having him by my side.”