Citizens of the Month: Hanne Larsen and Melanie Zrihen

Once a month, I will feature a citizen (or two) among us who has in some way made a major commitment to this neighborhood – its people, places or both. There’s no formula for what qualifies someone as the Citizen of the Month; I can just say that you will know her when you see her. Also, this is not a news story. There’s no reason to run this now, or next month or next year. That’s part of the point. The Citizen of the Month has most likely been serving Tribeca in one form or another for a while, and likely will for a long time into the future as well.

The portrait photography is by Claudine Williams. The photos of the dancers below are by Hannah Marchetto from this year’s recitals.

There can’t be a much more local local business than one that hatched in the 2s classroom of The Park Preschool and incubated in the yard of PS 234, as the kids lined up for Thea’s K/1. That’s how it started for Downtown Dance Factory in 2008; with its recitals in June at BMCC, the studio closed out its 10th year.

Hanne Larsen came to the states in 2005 with three kids in tow (a fourth would be born here), leaving behind The Jazz Factory – the business she founded as a 23-year-old in 1993. Melanie Zrihen was an MBA from University of Toronto and a management consultant whose middle child ended up in a preschool class with Hanne’s third. That’s when they got talking. (I can’t help but note with a chuckle: both women are Tribeca Citizens, but not U.S. citizens. Take that, DT.)

It started as a joke between them at first, which they would roll out regularly, born out of the usual “what did you do before you were a mom” conversation. Then they had breakfast at Pain Quotidien and it got serious. By 2008 Hanne was single, had sold her business in Australia and was looking for her next chapter; Melanie put together a business plan.

“I remember thinking, ‘Are we really going to do this?’” said Hanne.

They knew what they wanted: a business where they could use their skills, but still be able to raise their own children. To know not just the dancers but their families as well. And to do it here, since they had already put down roots in Tribeca. Their goal that first year was 50 dancers; they started the semester with 150, ended the second semester with 220 and opened year two with 550. Their first studio was one room downstairs at Tribeca Health & Fitness.

Melanie listed her cell phone on the website as the business phone. She soon had to give that up. (She still remembers the very first call: from the mother of Summer McKnight, one of DDF’s first tutu tots.) Now they are up to 1,300 kids from 1,000 families – all in all that’s 2,550 enrollments. They have 38 employees, five of whom are full time.

For a time they thought about expanding to another neighborhood, but were soon reminded – as they scouted locations on the UES – that they would lose a lot of what they loved about the business.

“Our goal was not to build an empire but to do what we love and be a place where our own kids could come and do their homework or come by if they forgot their keys. We wanted to be a part of our community – we wanted to be here for our own kids and also for all the other kids,” says Melanie. All 6,000 of them, and counting.

Some kids take as many as 15 classes a week and go to four travel competitions a year, meaning DDF is their second home and the kids in their classes are their closest friends. Their parents spend a LOT of time there as well, and as a result have formed lasting bonds of their own, sometimes, I have observed in IG postings, over coffee mugs of wine smuggled into the wings of theaters around the tri-state area.

There’s a driving commitment Hanne and Melanie have to their young dancers (they both can get a bit teary when they talk about them) that is now being proven by the kids’ accomplishments: acceptances at elite dance programs, hundreds of individual and group awards at regional competitions; and next year there will be 11 DDF dancers at LaGuardia High School.

So what’s next? “In the same way we did not have a long-term plan going in, we don’t have a long-term plan now,” says Melanie, though they did just sign a new 10-year lease. Never say never, she says, but there are no big plans afoot. Well, maybe just one more floor…





  1. “There’s no formula for what qualifies someone as the Citizen of the Month; I can just say that you will know HER when you see HER.”

    Does this mean Jim Smithers will never be Citizen of the Month?

  2. Over nearly 5 years I have done grandmother duties in taking a grandson to DDF lessons or seeing concert productions after a long cross Pacific flight. Oh I am so proud of you two young ladies. And Hanne you do Australia proud . Those dance events help me get over the jetlag…the talent brought out of the young ones, the self confidence their accomplishments gives them, your attention to detail in production that makes the kids feel good about themselves. Definate Role models ladies.

  3. Fantastic profile on two amazing business women with huge hearts! They are the best roll models for our kids and DDF has had such a profoundly positive influence on my daughter’s life. The most important part of the business is the care and integrity these two ladies bring to work every day. I am very grateful.

  4. Kudos to these two amazing entrepreneurs and moms!!! I can’t think of anyone who deserves this more!! I’ve had both my girls at DDF since tututots and have always been blown away with how awesome the programs are at DDF, but even more awesome are the teachers and staff. As professional as everything is there is always a sense of warmth about everything they do.

    Huge congratulations to you both!!!

  5. 33years ago when my daughter was last in a tutu I thought when Marleen Pennison left we’d never see a really child oriented dance program in Tribeca . DDF clearly fills that bill and delightfully so. Congratulations to all.