Polynesian dance instructor Josie de Baat was born and raised in Indonesia when it was a Dutch colony to an Indonesian father and a Dutch mother. The youngest of 11 children, Josie grew up without a lot of material possessions in a small village. Her father was a government official and Josie’s mother stayed home to look after a “large happy family.”
As a child, Josie loved to dance but her family could not afford lessons. Finally, when all her brothers and sisters had left home, and Josie was about 14, her parents found a bit of money and sent her to take lessons at a studio where she learned many types of dance, including Polynesian.
Then, in 1949, Indonesia gained its independence from the Netherlands and, over the next few years, all Josie’s older brothers and sisters left for either New Guinea or Holland. Josie and her parents, still in Indonesia, were preparing to relocate to New Guinea, when Josie took a part-time job as secretary at a Dutch import/export company to help her family with some moving expenses. A fellow employee was a young man, named Cor de Baat, who did the accounting and helped with translation. According to Josie, “he saw me, he put his mind on me and that was it! We got married when I was 17; my parents left for New Guinea, and I stuck around.”
Josie and Cor moved into the home her parents had lived in, and their first son was soon born.
“Times change so fast that we wanted to have children right away,” says Josie. “I wanted to understand them while they are growing up. I felt that if I was too old when my children got into their teens, I would have trouble understanding them.”
Following the birth of their son, the family moved to New Guinea where they settled in with Josie’s parents. Cor took a job working as a customs officer for the Dutch Government and during the day Josie raised the growing family, four more children arrived during those years. Every evening, Cor and Josie worked at their corner grocery store, until 1962, when the entire family moved to the Netherlands.
They sold the store and used the money to book passage on the last passenger boat to Europe. The voyage lasted one month and this family, who had only known life near the equator, arrived in the middle of a severe winter, where they were given shelter in a summer cottage. “I cried every day and I wanted to leave,” says Josie, “but I didn’t know where I could go. It was just too cold. Everything was rationed, so we only got the bare minimum of food, fuel, everything.”
After two years in the camp, they were allowed to move to a house in Doesburg where Cor learned to be a journeyman electrician and Josie worked a couple of hours a day in a factory sewing garments.
Finally, four years after arriving in Holland, the family made the move to Canada. Cor left first, got a job, settled down, and then sent for Josie and the children three months later. Vancouver was the only place they wanted to live, as they were tired of severe winter weather. After six months in a Vancouver rental, they bought a home in Burnaby for the tidy sum of $13,500. An older home, they renovated and still live there.
Once her youngest was off to school, Josie went to Vocational School for data processing before starting work at Woodwards. Years later, she applied for a job with another firm, but she was turned down because she had an accent.
“I got mad,” says Josie, “but I appreciated it because they were honest with me. Now, I can teach about honesty and discrimination because I have experienced it.”
After working at Woodwards for many years, Josie took a position as a hostess at a fitness club, something she really enjoyed because, as she says, “I like people. I enjoyed working with people.”
Along the way, Josie met up with a Hawaiian band that was mostly playing at golf clubs around the Lower Mainland. Josie would meet them at their shows, dance for 15 minutes and make $25, which was a good sum at the time. In 1972, she decided to start teaching Polynesian Dance in her basement with four students: her two daughters and two of their friends. What led her to do this was compassion and sympathy for the senior citizens she saw bunched together in homes and care facilities. “When I grew up all ages of the family lived together under one roof,” she says. ”I thought what I saw here was terrible. I thought that if we had a little dance group we could go to the homes and entertain them.”
Josie has never spent one cent on advertising her dance school, yet it kept growing. The message was spread by word of mouth and, before long, Josie was teaching many classes out of her home and even started teaching Polynesian Dance at various community centres and senior centres across the Lower Mainland. Her students range in age from three to 80-plus, and one senior dancer has been with her since the very first seniors dance class Josie taught. Josie says she loves to teach dance because, “it was and still is a hobby.”
Despite the fact she calls it a hobby, don’t think Josie doesn’t take her dance seriously. For many years, she went to Hawaii twice a year to study under the masters and learn new dances, which she could bring back to teach to her students. Once she felt she had learned enough she cut back the trips to once per year, a rate she still maintains.
Josie teaches more than dance, music and culture.
“I teach them the value of family,” she says. “If they don’t agree with me, they leave. You have to give of yourself and enjoy life without losing your morals. I have a good weekend when people enjoy the show we put on for them. I instill this in my kids. They don’t need to do bad things to enjoy life.”
Most of the dances she teaches come from Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand, though she also includes some from Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands. She teaches her students to sing as well because, “It is important that they learn what the dance means. It is the hardest part because some of the things that the people singing are thankful for in the songs are not in our culture. Such as rain. Good there, not here, in our point of view. But if they are with me long enough, they get it.”
Josie has always wanted to give back. Her dance school has performed one large fundraiser for each of the past 35 years, plus smaller shows, with the money going to various charities, including Children’s Hospital.
Josie says she is good friends with many of her former students and now three of them work for her teaching dance. Two other younger girls are in training. Her hope is that at least one of them will carry on her work one day. For as much as she loves doing it, even Josie admits, “I don’t know how many more years I can do this, but I will do it for as long as I can.”
For more information or to contact Josie, call 604-435-3489.
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