It’s 10:15 a.m. Saturday morning and already time for the third ballet class of the day at The Citadel, in the heart of Regent Park.
Miss Portia, a.k.a. Portia Wade, dance instructor, provides directions to the children to set up barres for practice. Quietly and efficiently, they do, and move to their spots.
“First position,” she calls in a kind, but authoritative tone.
Man, she’s good. I’m tempted to move my feet into first position, while I’m just there to take pictures. Meanwhile the young students obey, looking straight ahead as they move their feet, even if they occasionally confuse left and right.
Miss Portia’s helpful and friendly assistant Sarah Holmes adjusts their feet with a professional touch. These students are being immersed in the internationally recognized American Ballet Theatre (ABT) system of classical instruction.
After barre practice, they rehearse to music from The Nutcracker. As the choreography becomes a little more complicated – and sometimes breaks down – their faces break into smiles and the occasional giggle.
The instructor points out one young student for her superb posture and how she is “smizing” – smiling with her eyes. The students are told to emanate that sparkle.
One dancer asks eagerly if they can do the stretching at the end of class. That stretching turns out to involve heavy core work, push-ups and sit-ups. But the kids love it.
“They’re so well-behaved,” I say to Miss Portia after class.
She smiles wryly, as if to say there’s room for improvement, but she agrees.
The belief in children’s potential – and the potential of these young people in particular – is the origin story of these ballet classes in Regent Park.
When the classes started in 2012, there was just one young student. Now there are 25, who attend one or more classes offered at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance through the week, including the five classes available every Saturday.
The centre serves as headquarters for the dance company Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. Beyond the company’s full-time dance productions, they are deeply involved in their community.
The ballet classes are free to any child in the neighbourhood. For students from outside Regent Park, they’re available on a sliding scale. Those parents who can afford to pay the full term fees do.
“About 80 per cent of the kids here take the classes on full scholarship,” says Laurence Lemieux, co-artistic director. “Some parents can afford tuition and that helps pay for the other students, but we have sponsorships and private donations, that’s how we work it.”
Daniels Corporation and TD Bank provide direct support. Canada’s National Ballet School also provides help, right down to offering leotards, ballet slippers and pointe shoes for The Citadel’s students.
Parents also swap the leotards and ballet slippers as their children grow. Some parents even join the dance company’s board to help out, like Catriona Ferguson, whose daughter Zoe is taking a pointe class with Portia Wade.
As a dancer and a parent, Ferguson says she wants to support the company and programs that expose kids to art forms like dance that they may not otherwise enjoy.
“There should be access to amazing things like this for everybody,” she says.
Lemieux says that ballet is an expensive hobby for most Canadians, but she wants others to enjoy it as she did as a child in Quebec, where her ballet classes were publicly funded by the province. That led to her pursuing her passion as a professional dancer.
“There aren’t the same opportunities here. Some parents can’t afford tuition. It should be accessible to all,” she says. “It’s financial, but it’s also social.”
To learn more, go to Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie’s website.