PORT McNEILL — “Oh, my,” Alexandra Southgate said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Preparing for their lunch break during a recent weeklong dance seminar, fellow members of the Portside Academy of Performing Arts turned to see Southgate watching a large black bear lumber past the bank of windows fronting their new Port McNeill studio.
With a flurry of activity and shrieks from some of the younger girls, the dancers scrambled for cell phones, pocket cameras and, in one case, an iPad, and rushed to the windows to get photos of the bruin.
Call it a room with a view.
After four years of a nomadic existence that has taken them from the local arena to the “Old School” community centre, the young dancers in Alana Collins’s Portside Academy have a shiny, new home of their own in a converted warehouse building on Cedar Street.
Dominated by the two rows of six, 4×6-foot windows, a high, vaulted ceiling, and boasting a sprung laminated floor with approximately 1,800 square feet of dancing space, the new studio is bright and roomy with an office, a changeroom, washroom and storage for costumes and props.
“The kids needed a change room; I needed an office and storage space,” said Collins, who opened the school in the late summer of 2007. “And you just work better in your own space; you can be more flexible.”
Portside Academy offers instruction in ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop and musical theatre. The school has held a spring recital for the past four years and has presented the Nutcracker ballet before Christmas the past three years. Students also attend competitions and dance clinics down-Island and have access to testing through the Association of International Dance Teachers.
Collins opened her studio four years ago in the Image Room, a multi-purpose space on the mezzanine level of Chilton Regional Arena. As a dance space, it had the advantages of a built-in wall of mirrors, a barre on the opposite wall and a central location where much of the community gathered. But Collins was never able to personalize the space with photos or posters and had to haul her stereo and other equipment in and out for every lesson.
“When you’re paying by the hour, you’re limited to those hours,” she said. “Here, I can put their trophies and plaques up, put up inspiring pictures, or pictures of the kids. It’s a personal space.”
After her third season at the Image Room, Collins was approached by Jon Lok, who showed her the unused warehouse portion of his building on Cedar Street, which includes another business and upper-floor apartments. The two worked together to design the studio’s look and commence construction, while Collins moved Portside Academy temporarily into the Old School building where dancers practiced in a classroom and the gymnasium.
“It was nice to have a say in the development (of the studio),” Collins said. “We picked out the floor together, the office dimensions, the colour scheme. We wanted a space that we’d be able to grow from. We would like to be able to build on this.”
Collins, who leases the space from Lok, said it could also be rented to other groups in the community, for fitness classes, art shows, theatre rehearsal and other events.
The students got their first look at the new studio following the dance school’s fourth annual Stars of Tomorrow recital in May. And the early reviews are raves.
“I would say the best thing is the windows,” said Karina Cann, a senior dancer who donated a microwave for use in the facility. “That, and the floor. Now you don’t have sore joints and you feel a lot better after dancing.”
Juli Martell of Port Alberni, one of three visiting choreographers brought in by Collins for the school’s recent Dance Intensive Seminar, was impressed.
“This is a beautiful space,” she said. “It’s so bright and lovely with the large windows. It’s rare to find a studio with this much space.”
Collins, born Alana Tortorelli at Vernon Camp near Woss, grew up figure skating and dancing in Courtenay. She moved to Toronto to attend the National Ballet School’s teacher training program while also performing in professional and amateur dance productions. Returning to Vancouver Island in 1996, she taught dance in and around the Comox Valley for several more years before moving to Port McNeill in 2006 with husband Mike Collins and their children, Estella and Avory.
She initially helped Elizabeth Kines instruct members of the Port McNeill Figure Skating Club and mulled the idea of starting a dance school. Her timing couldn’t have been better, as local dance instructor Kendra Hall had temporarily closed her home-based dance studio to take maternity leave, and longtime Port Alice teacher Leann Farrell retired and closed her Rainbow School of Dance.
“It was very fluky,” said Collins. “When we moved here, I didn’t even know if there would be enough interest to make it work here.”
Several members of her current senior class came over after training with Farrell in Port Alice and are now in their fourth building in five years.
“I really like it here,” said Dawn Briscoe, one of those well-traveled dancers. “It’s nice to have our own home to dance in.”