Performance Dance

Among the earliest records of dance classes in Newfoundland and Labrador are newspaper advertisements for social dance classes in St. John's. The local newspaper, The Public Ledger, on 29 May 1857, carried an advertisement for "Dancing Deportment and Calisthenics." Mr. A. Ash offered both men and women day and night classes in the popular dances of the time. It was these social dance classes, offered by Mr. Ash and others, which presented the first organized dance classes in the province.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Charles Henry Danielle, an American, moved to the province and opened a dance school (as well as a number of hotels and restaurants). An eccentric figure, Danielle would often hold balls in his Octagon Place outside of St. John's, usually costumed, to show off his pupils. On Wednesday, 29 January 1862, such a ball was held, and the invitation called the event a "Grand Exhibition of Graceful and Scientific Operatic Dancing."

These early days of social dance classes gave rise to the dance schools of the province. Around 1927 the Pushie brothers opened a short-lived dancing school on Duckworth Street in St. John's, where they taught ballroom dancing. In 1938, a school offering a wide range of dance styles opened in the city. Mercedes Galway, trained in New York, began to offer dance classes at Mercy Convent in St. John's. She offered instruction in ballet, tap, pointe, and acrobatics. The school flourished until 1963, successively run by Galway's sisters. Bishop Spencer College followed suit and began to offer dance classes, taught by Hilda Brinton.

Since then dance schools, at first appearing in small numbers, some short-lived, others succeeding for many years, have become a well-established part of the St. John's performing arts scene. Among the earlier schools that have had a lasting impact are those of Judy Fagan and Phyllis Angel, with whom many of the dance teachers now established in St. John's studied. Outside of the city dance schools have also been established by Sybil Barret in Botwood, in 1965, as well as others in Mount Pearl, Conception Bay South, Port aux Basques, Brigus, and numerous other places.

Even though there are schools available throughout the province, St. John's has retained its position as the centre of performance dance. Today ballet, jazz, pointe, tap, modern, Latin, social, country line, and new dance are among the varieties of dance taught within the province. The recitals and concerts, held throughout the year, attest to the talent and capability of the province's teachers and students.

Dance schools are not the only product of the growing interest exhibited in dance by people in the province. St. John's now boasts its own performing dance theatre, in the form of Kittiwake Dance Theatre. There are also several new dance groups, such as Louder Than Words and Neighbourhood Dance Works, which perform throughout the year. The capital city even has its own dance teacher training program. Judy Knee, an established dance teacher in her own right in St. John's, opened a teacher training school in 1992, when she saw the difficulty of finding trained teachers to assist in already established schools.

The province's interest in dance means that it has become a destination for numerous touring companies, such as the Toronto Dance Theatre, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, The National Ballet, the Alberta Ballet, Danny Grossman, Desrosiers, and Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal. This provides the audiences of the province with an opportunity to see a variety of dance forms performed by professional dancers. Many of these touring companies also offer dance workshops to local students.

With the local opportunities to study dance, it is hardly surprising that the province has produced a number of talented performers, teachers and choreographers. Some of these individuals have chosen to stay and foster the dance community within the province, while others have pursued their careers in a wide variety of places. Students from Newfoundland and Labrador have studied at The National Ballet School, The Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, Quinte Dance Centre, as well as other schools. There are also professional dancers from the province pursuing their careers in various locales. Some work as independent dancers, while others are associated with established dance companies.

© 1998, G. Elton

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