What could convince someone to buy a business that revolves around close personal contact right in the middle of a pandemic?
For a trio of North Shore dancers, it was keeping the memory of their beloved matriarch alive and thriving throughout these challenging times that compelled them to take a huge leap at the height of the COVID-19 crisis.
For many years Sonia Ellis ran North Vancouver’s Seymour Dance as a kind of second home for hundreds of aspiring dancers, a dance school that was so much more than a school for the students who came there all hours of the day to learn and grow and laugh in a shared safe space. Marissa Heaven, Lauren Overholt and Katie Gillett were three of those dancers who started at Seymour Dance as toddlers and stayed on because of the powerful connections they all formed with Ellis.
“She was always happy, supportive, warm, creative,” said Heaven. “Nothing ever held her back. Somehow, in her heart, she had room to love every single one of her students.”
That’s why there were broken hearts all over the North Shore when Ellis died of brain cancer in late 2018. She was 44 years old.
As Ellis fell ill and lost her ability to run the school, Heaven, Overholt and Gillett, all under the age of 34, stepped up to help lead Seymour Dance down the same path Ellis had started on.
“Sonia, she’s our family, we love her,” said Heaven. “That studio was her life dream. She put everything into it, and it meant the world to her. … Then as her disease progressed, our roles kind of changed or became a lot more serious, just as her illness did too.”
The death of their leader – who at various times was like a sister or mother or best friend to all of the dancers – shook them to their cores.
“Handling Sonia’s illness, and eventually her passing, was very difficult,” said Heaven. “It really rocked the ship.”
But as the days went on, the three friends pulled together to steer the ship back to calmer waters. After Ellis died, ownership of the school went to her mother Marylou, who also was devoted to keeping the studio going in Sonia’s honour but was not able to manage the rigours of the day-to-day grind. The three friends kept on running the show, and last month the trio made it official, banding together to purchase the school from Sonia’s mother. The three new owners have now split the lead roles at the school with Heaven becoming studio director, Overholt artistic director and Gillett operations director. The timing was by no means perfect.
“Recovering from a pandemic, it’s going to be challenging for everyone,” said Heaven. “The days have been long. … But Sonia needed us. We love her, she’s our family, she needed us and we showed up.”
Now the school, like so many other organizations that run programming for large groups, is in the process of planning and preparing for a fall season that will be unlike anything they’ve ever seen due to COVID-19 concerns and protocols. Seymour Dance is offering a variety of options for students in the fall, including physically distanced in-studio sessions with each student assigned a square to dance in. They’re also bringing in a host of other precautions such as face shields for all instructors, new sanitation stations and extra cleaning staff to sanitize the studios after every class.
“We are putting in every effort to make sure that that space is safe and we’re going to keep following health and safety measures and preventing anyone from getting sick,” said Heaven. “It’s all about keeping the families and the kids and the community safe.”
Even with the extra precautions, Heaven knows that some families will opt not to send their kids to the school, so they are providing online feeds of every class they offer so that students can follow along at home.
“If families don’t feel safe to come back yet or they’re sick or they have a vulnerable family member, then we’re going to be streaming all of those classes live on Zoom so they can just dance from home, but still see all their friends,” said Heaven, adding that they’ve had a wide range of responses from families about the fall dance season.
“Families are in just such different places,” she said. “Some are just eager to take their kids out and get them back to activities and get them back to some kind of structured living. And there’s other families that are in a different circumstance and feel like they don’t want to go back to things until there’s a vaccine, although we have no idea when that will be. So trying to find a way to encourage families to come back in any capacity, just keep everyone connected, is something that we’ve really been working on.”
In the long term, the new owners are hoping to expand the school’s programming and potentially move to a new larger location, once the “new normal” is figured out and enrolment numbers come back to where they were.
“Before COVID we were definitely at capacity, operating seven days a week, full classes,” said Heaven. “Now we’re just kind of picking up the pieces and rebuilding hopefully to where we were at in order to be able to move forward to bigger projects.”
Wherever they end up, the new owners know that they all have been set on the right path by the woman who was there when they all first set foot on a dance floor. None of those three-year-olds in tights could have imagined they’d end up here some 20+ years later.
“This was never part of our original plans,” said Heaven. “We were hoping to work under Sonia forever, and a curveball was thrown our way. … We’re grateful to her for showing us how to do it and what to do, and for setting up such a successful business in the first place.”
Sonia may not be there in person, but her spirit will live on in Seymour Dance. She’ll be featured prominently in concert programs, and there will be annual scholarships, created by Sonia’s mother, given out in Sonia’s name.
“She was just this bright light that won’t be replaced,” said Heaven. “A huge thing for all of us is to uphold Sonia’s legacy. That studio is how she keeps living.”