Editor’s Note: Welcome to La Jolla Light’s “People in the Neighborhood” series, which shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile through “People in the Neighborhood,” send the lead via e-mail to email@example.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.
Susie Nguyen Grafte moved to La Jolla in 2003, and five years ago started one of the most beloved dance academies in town, Ooh La La, located at 7467 Cuvier St. The native of Monterey, California is a whirl of energy and ideas, and at age 38, said she feels like a 25-year-old.
A resident of Bird Rock, Susie is married to a French national, Damien Grafte, who co-owns the dance academy, and they have a 2-year-old son, Jaden.
Describe your upbringing.
“I was raised in a very strict Vietnamese, household in America. It wasn’t about me, and I think that’s what makes me appreciate everyone and be compassionate to other people. Nowadays there’s a lot of right-away gratification, with smartphones and technology. I want to raise my child more in the Vietnamese or French style.”
When did your passion for dance start?
“When I went to school, I loved watching people dance. I wanted to be on stage, but it didn’t happen until I went to high school. Then I ended up being on the cheer dance team, and after that, I decided I wanted to always dance, and pretty much left my home at age 14 to dance. Ever since then, I’ve been dancing.”
What do you like about dancing?
“It’s my release, my sanity, everything. It socialized me, made me confident. I almost cry thinking about it because it was such an emotional time growing up for me.”
What type of dance do you like best?
“I love ballet — the discipline, the lengthening, the music, the core — I love everything about it. I love burlesque because it’s sexier, but my favorite is salsa. That’s what really got me to quit my job. At age 25, when all my friends were getting married, I wanted to start a business, travel and dance salsa. Salsa is so lively and vibrant that it just makes you happy.”
How did you come to start Ooh La La?
“After I graduated from SDSU with a major in International Business, I got a job doing international business. I was able to travel back and forth and get to know all different cultures. From there, I quit, moved to San Diego, worked at Xerox, became the No. 1 sales representative for five years in a row, and then I said, ‘no more.’ I was missing passion. So I started teaching dance classes at La Jolla YMCA. I used to walk by this space, which was an old rug shop. It went out of business, and it was on the market for lease for a long time. Finally, I begged the owner to let me have the space. I remodeled it into a dance studio.”
How do you handle being a mother and a business owner?
“As a mom, you want to stay home all day and play with your child, but when you also run a business, you have to find balance. My husband puts me in that balance, he holds me accountable. The French are very strict and efficient with their time, so there’s family time, there’s work time.”
What’s you hope for the future?
“I was thinking about opening up another studio locally, Coronado or Del Mar. I want to make sure that this one is solid and running, even without me, before we expand or franchise out. And making sure it still represents the high quality of the name behind it. I developed it organically, from the ground up, and there’s something for everyone. In my personal life, I’d love to have another baby. It’s a lot of work, but I’d love to have a baby girl. I’m patient, I hear 45 is the new 35!”
What would you like people to know about you that they don’t?
“I’m a world citizen. I embrace all cultures. I want to live a happy life and share it with everyone else. Before I started dancing, I was such a shy, timid person, a Vietnamese conservative girl. Being able to share and dance with kids and adults is such a dream. I’m very appreciative of that and for La Jolla to give me this opportunity.”