Carissa Laitinen-Kniss, Twisted Bodies
Photo by Michael Modecki
TWU Alumna Turns Dancing Dream into Studio Ownership Reality
“Training bodies intelligently,” sums up the teaching philosophy of Carissa Laitinen-Kniss (BFA '03), co-owner of the Twisted Bodies, a Pilates & yoga studio in Denton.
“I want to help people find their self-worth and leave classes at our studio feeling a little more empowered so they walk a little taller, smile and laugh more, and enjoy life fully,” said Laitinen-Kniss. “When we see that in our students, we know we’re serving our purpose, which is about much more than superficial aesthetics.”
Laitinen-Kniss started college at Texas Woman’s University when she was just 16 and earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts with an emphasis on dance, kinesiology and education in 2003. Five years later, she formed Twisted Bodies with her best friend, Khristen Pahler.
At first, they went to people’s homes as personal trainers. Then, they rented a small space in another studio before opening their own studio in 2013.
Twisted Bodies offers group classes as well as private individualized training sessions for people of all ages and physical abilities. They have helped young athletes, working professionals, stay-at-home moms, senior citizens, kids with special needs and corporate groups.
The business has grown much faster than Laitinen-Kniss ever expected. She and Pahler expanded Twisted Bodies just a year and a half after opening and have plans to expand again soon. In addition to their core dance, yoga and Pilates classes, they currently are the only studio in Denton offering aerial yoga, pole dancing, Pound! and acro-yoga classes.
Twisted Bodies conducts more than 100 classes and 40-plus private sessions each week, with a staff of 12 instructors. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, Twisted Pilates was selected as the best yoga studio in Denton and Denton County by readers of the Denton Record Chronicle. Laitinen-Kniss was also voted the best instructor.
Laitinen-Kniss said they have been asked to franchise their studio concept and expand to other markets, but their roots are planted firmly in Denton. She envisions growing the business by adding more services, such as hiring a licensed nutritionist to provide more health and wellness programs.
The TWU Difference
One of the biggest factors in her success as an entrepreneur was attending TWU, according to Laitinen-Kniss. “TWU offers a rigorous dance program, but it involves much more than producing people who can grace a stage. The program also teaches students everything that happens behind the scenes, along with enduring life lessons about taking advantage of opportunities, putting yourself out there and embracing risks to get ahead.”
As a child, Laitinen-Kniss knew she wanted to attend Texas Woman’s University. Her favorite dance teacher, who went to TWU, had an informative and caring approach to teaching. This helped Laitinen-Kniss appreciate not just the how but also the why of body movement and dancing techniques.
By the age of eight, Laitinen-Kniss was dancing semi-professionally with the Denton Civic Ballet and the Dallas Metropolitan Ballet. She participated in dance workshops with professional instructors who were TWU graduates. She also attended classes with professionals from Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and former prima ballerinas from the Russian Ballet Academy.
From Ballet to Body Work
Pilates and yoga have been part of Laitinen-Kniss’s development since her days as a young dancer. At TWU, dance majors are required to practice these techniques to improve their conditioning and coordination. The instructors also encourage students to get certified to teach these body work programs. Laitinen-Kniss completed both certifications during her senior year.
When she injured her back in college, she turned to yoga and Pilates to help her recover. She overcame most of the issues, but realized she had to adjust her dream of dancing professionally.
After completing her degree, Laitinen-Kniss taught dance, yoga and Pilates classes at area studios, hospitals and companies with wellness and fitness programs. Later, she took online classes and earned a master’s degree in education with teaching certification. She started teaching yoga to high school cheer, dance and football teams, and became a special education teacher at Argyle High School. Today, she maintains these commitments while also operating Twisted Bodies.
“I’m so proud of Carissa,” said Mary Williford-Shade, chair of the TWU dance department. “She has inspired other students by finding a way to be a working artist here in Denton, her hometown. From her example, students learn they can determine their own success in a place of their choice if they are creative enough.”
Even with her busy schedule, Laitinen-Kniss finds time to give back to the community. She and Pahler give military veterans free training to become certified yoga instructors through a partnership with TWU and the Yoga Alliance.
Supporting people and organizations she believes in is part of Laitinen-Kniss’ nature. Her loyalty to TWU also runs deep as an active alumna. When parents and prospective students ask Laitinen-Kniss about attending TWU, she responds quickly and emphatically: “Attending TWU would be the best decision they’d ever make.”
Her own success reflects the wisdom of that advice.