The sign read "Walk In and Dance Out." Janice Stevens used to drive past the Royal Towers Hotel in New Westminster back in the mid-1980s and, every time she did, she noticed the sign, which belonged to a business called Dance City. It caught and held her attention until she decided to throw caution to the wind and sign up for an introductory ballroom dance lesson.
"I looked at it and thought, my gosh, that is something I'd like to try."
This decision would have a significant and lasting impact on her life.
"I took it and I loved it. I loved the way they taught the men to lead and the ladies to follow," says Janice. "Each dance was challenging to learn. I had never taken formal dance lessons before."
Janice enjoyed the dance classes so much she signed up for more and continued dancing there until the company closed its doors a few years later. In the last session of lessons, a representative from the New Westminster school board came down to see if they could find a teacher for their night school program; Janice wound up being hired as the assistant instructor. She stayed with them as the class moved from the high school cafeteria to a gymnasium in an elementary school. From there, Janice started working at Centennial Community Centre and Century House in New Westminster.
Searching for something since she left home at 16, Janice found it in dance, and she hadn't even known she'd been looking. She already had a career and worked as a registered nurse at Vancouver General Hospital. On the side, she worked as a fitness instructor.
Once Janice started teaching dance, she quickly gave up the fitness classes. "Fitness became boring after I taught ballroom," she says. "The moves were repetitive and not near as interesting."
Born in Dawson Creek in 1957, Janice headed for Prince George after she finished Grade 11. The middle child in a family with three daughters, Janice grew up in a household full of music.
"I was part of a musical family," she says. "We would host parties at Christmas and other special occasions, and both of my parents were part of the music, Dad playing the guitar, Mom singing. My Dad's brother played the banjo and they went at it, playing the goofiest of songs. Everybody just joined in."
The main activity in Dawson Creek was outdoor skating, though Janice also recalls one other special memory, which would echo in her later life choices: "My mom used to stay up late into the [night] watching those old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. I would sneak out of my room and watch those shows from my hiding place, until I got caught and sent back to bed. I just loved watching those shows. I loved seeing the chorus lines of women kicking together and all the patterns they would form while they danced."
Janice's mother stayed home to raise her daughters. "Mom is a very creative person. I think her creativity rubbed off on me, and it really blossomed after her kids grew up. Then she started to do what she loved."
After Grade 11, Janice soon found herself in a Prince George employment office, taking an assessment test. "One thing that came up as a possible career choice was nursing, and I thought, 'I could do that.' If it had come out saying I could be a ballroom dance teacher, I would have said forget it."
Janice signed up for night school to finish her Grade 12 before obtaining her Licensed Practical Nursing diploma from the College of the Caledonia. She went to work at Prince George Regional Hospital and stayed until 1982 when she realized that LPNs were out pricing themselves. "The LPNs were getting as much as the Registered Nurses, and because we are getting paid too much, I could see they would replace us with RNs."
At the time, a nursing access program existed, which allowed people to move up from LPN to RN in 18 months. Janice moved back home and, while taking the course, one of her part-time jobs saw her working as the oldest employee at the Dawson Creek McDonald's - at the grand old age of 26!
In 1984, the freshly graduated RN packed up her worldly belongings and moved to New Westminster. "I drove down in a Fiero GT, which I had bought from a great salesman, my father," says Janice.
After a brief search, she located a rental house, which she shared with three roommates. She found work right away at the Royal Columbian, but was unsatisfied with her career choice. "I went into nursing so that I could teach people how to be healthy as they could be, and to give them information about how to have quality of life," she says. "What I didn't realize until I got into it is that nursing is not that. There is very little time for teaching. For me, there was just not enough job satisfaction. I am a compassionate, sympathetic person, but I can only do the best I can within the system. If I had to do it over again, I would go into some sort of health teaching."
Though she stayed with nursing, eventually accepting a position at Vancouver General Hospital, Janice also signed up to learn how to be a fitness instructor at the Burnaby YMCA. Soon, she was teaching a variety of classes at the Burnaby Y and for Burnaby Parks and Recreation, including courses on cardiac care, pre-and post-natal fitness and others.
When Janice was learning to dance, she became involved in an abusive relationship that ended badly. She considers this a turning point in her life. "I was one of the first people helped by the domestic violence response team in New Westminster," she says. "Later, I got involved in that, and spoke many times at Justice Institute about my experience. I often spoke to people who wanted to join the victim's assistance team. I spoke to them and told them how I felt they could best help others by not judging them. Speaking was cathartic. It helped take away the shame of how I felt and reinforced that I wasn't the only one in that situation." Janice did these talks for years, until she became too busy and had to give them up.
In 1991, Janice's daughter was born, so she took a job at St. Mary's Hospital in New Westminster, where she stayed until the hospital closed in 2004. But while she continued working as a nurse, Janice discovered she had a passion for teaching ballroom dance.
"At first, I struggled with how to get the information to my students so that they could do the dance. When they get it, this light of recognition goes on in their faces," she says. "When they start the lesson they can't do anything, but by the time they finish they can do a waltz. Every couple I teach, I try to find the best way possible to teach them. I teach couples who are getting married, and are so nervous. They are thinking they can't do this. After a couple of hours, they see this is a skill they can learn."
Janice gives much of the credit to her husband, a man she met through a mutual friend. "One of my students wanted me to go for coffee with this guy," she says. "He was a gift from God. We hit it off right away. He had to jump through hoops, no swear words or anything. We dated for two years before we got married. He had a good job working as a salesman, but he gave up his job to work running the studio, doing the books, and looking after all the details."
Janice never intended to teach ballroom dance for a living.
"It started out with the night school program and people just kept asking for lessons. I went to the Spanish Cultural Centre and rented space from them."
They relocated a few times before settling into their current space on Front Street, which had previously been a nightclub. At first, Janice wasn't too sure about the location and building. "When we walked in, I was positive we could not turn it into a dance studio. The whole inside of the building was red; it was horrible. I put my faith in my husband, though, and he did it. When new students come in now they say, 'Oh wow, it's beautiful!'"
In the beginning, the studio offered a session that featured four or five classes. Currently, there are over 60 dance classes to choose from, and Janice has hired several instructors to help her teach the various dances.
Janice is having the time of her life, and gets no greater satisfaction than in helping someone learn how to dance. "I feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment when I teach someone to dance. Each person or couple that comes in arrives with their own unique sense of learning style. I love the challenge of capturing their talent and teaching them the very best I can," she says.
Finally, Janice has found her true calling.
SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER - April 2009
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