The Raven’s Cry stage brimmed with dancers of all ages and the audience thrilled to original works in an annual Celebration of Dance show. The year was 1998 and it would be the last of the shows for a while for lack of funds, not for lack of interest. The program had been put together by veteran dancers, Paul and Nicola Blakey among them, who were members of the newly formed Sunshine Coast Dance Society (SCDS).
“We wanted to have a dance organization that was separate from but included the many dance schools on the Coast,” Paul said.
In 2018 the organization is now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
In the early 1990s the Blakeys found that teacher Lucy Ennis was holding a dance school, Penny Hudson of Dance Works was teaching and Dominique Hutchinson had started a small school in her home. Interest in the art of dance was high. Together with dancers Lois Smith and Verity Purdy and with Smith’s friend Frank Lewis, the group incorporated the Dance Society in 1993. Maggie Guzzi became involved in the early years and later Katherine Denham, both of whom are still active in performing or teaching on the Coast.
The late Lois Smith was a former prima ballerina in the prestigious National Ballet of Canada, and she was a mentor to young ballerinas. Her dance career was legendary, earning her the Order of Canada in 1980, and her influence on the Sunshine Coast dance community was considerable. The late Verity Purdy, a graduate of the Royal Academy, had performed ballet in New York’s Radio City music hall and had danced her way through the war as part of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.
Paul and Nicola had met in 1967 when they both danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. After Winnipeg, they moved on together to Germany where Paul was a guest artist and Nicola was a soloist with a German opera company. After 19 years in England and a two-year effort to establish their own dance school in Vancouver, they moved to the Coast and worked on the Celebration of Dance as an annual Christmas tradition for the new society.
“It wasn’t all ballet,” Nicola said. “We held auditions and some who applied had never danced before.” They recall that it attracted a fringe of people who were working through their personal problems using dance.
“I remember one angst-filled dance with a knife where the person had a complete breakdown on stage,” Paul said. Others tried out something new, learning a few dance steps for the first time, often with the support of Purdy who was still dancing into her 70s.
“We tried to give everyone an opportunity to work at a professional level,” Paul said. He considered that the amateur talent was often as good as the pros, but they hadn’t worked hard enough or weren’t strong enough. “We took them a little bit further.”
It was also a chance for local dancers to choreograph their own original pieces. Paul choreographed one of the show’s popular pieces that featured a hockey game. “It was the year after the Canucks had gone to the Stanley Cup,” he recalls. Ballet it was not – it was a high-energy dance performance conducted not in traditional ballet tutus but in hockey jerseys. “The Canucks gave us the jerseys,” he said. “We had to buy the New York ones.”
Maggie Guzzi recalls her favourite piece that she choreographed was called Twirks in which her performing partner was a chair and she moved to the music of Mozart. “It’s about the funny ways that people can be in powerful situations,” she said.
Another popular fun piece was called Underworld in which dancers wore underwear outside their costumes. These entertaining dance shows brought in new audience to the theatre and solidified the enjoyment of dance on the Coast for its performers.
“We really like dancing,” Paul said, “but we dislike all the garbage we have to go through to be part of the dance world.” He referred to the grubbing for grant funding dollars and competition with other dance schools. On the Sunshine Coast they could return to the fun side, the supportive side, and encourage others to enjoy the art.
After nine years, the leadership of the society was turned over to Guzzi and she presided over the SCDS dance residency programs that were held at first at the Heritage Playhouse and are now offered in collaboration with the Sechelt Arts Festival.
When the society foundered for a few years, Diana Robertson came on board. “It was her mastermind of marketing that really saved the society,” Guzzi said.
Today, the SCDS offers an annual scholarship program in the name of founder Lois Smith. Dance performances continue at the Raven’s Cry Theatre, often with special shows from Vancouver’s Source Dance Company. The Society will be hosting a ten-day dance residency project in September that will present the talent and teachings of international contemporary dance artists Jay Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget of Kokoro Dance. This multi-cultural dance project will include a community workshop and a performance opportunity Oct. 4, 5 and 6 during the Sechelt Arts Festival.