STORY 1: There is no future in dance.

“There’s no future in dance”.  This horrible statement was made to my wife, Tonya, in her grade 11 year of high school.  Here is her story:

For as long as Tonya can remember, she has been a dancer.    ballet_shoesThis girl knew her passion at a very young age; her life was spent in the studio and on the stage.  At 7 years of age, she performed in the motion picture, Housekeeping.  She taught dance in her early teens to help pay for her dance fees (her mother also helped clean the studio).  She thrived at dance and was a provincial rep for a number of years which provided her the opportunity to showcase her talents alongside some of the best artists in British Columbia each year.  Along with dance, Tonya loved musical theatre; she was involved in musicals each year up until she graduated high school.

A few years ago, I asked my wife how often she was able to bring her passion and strength in dance into her schooling; she only remembered the one time in elementary school where she was encouraged to perform in front her peers.  Growing up, dance was all she knew; school was far from dance.  She did ‘well enough’ in school, struggled in certain areas, but excelled in the arts.

In grade 11, Tonya met with the school counselor to go over possible career paths.  All she had ever thought about was dance – teaching, choreographing, and performing.  The counselor was very blunt and told her that she should probably consider other options because a career in dance was likely not to happen.  She walked out of that office thinking that her best option would be in the field of secretarial/office management.  However, being the person she was, her thoughts shifted back to dance and she did not pay much attention to the counselor and thus, continued to perform and teach.  She soon realized that her dream also included owning and directing her own dance studio.

Let me catch you up on what she has done since then:

Following graduation, she worked as a teacher and began to audition for certain dance roles.  She landed roles in music videos, a major motion picture Center Stage: Turn it Up, as well as a place in the top 100 of So You Think You Can Dance Canada.  (She also taught hip hop classes at a certain high school which caught the eye of a certain high school PE teacher who may or may not have written this blog).

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

She spent 2 years going to school to complete her Royal Academy of Dance teaching program.  Tonya worked at a few different dance studios and in the summer of 2007, reached her dream goal and opened Kick It Up A Notch Academy of Dance.  Her philosophy as a teacher is much more than just teaching dance; she is a coach, a mentor, a friend, and a leader; she has inspired many dancers with her creative choreography and passionate teaching style.   With over 100 students at her studio along with passionate teachers, Tonya’s love for dance is spreading to young students every year.  I get emotional every year at the Year End Performance when her dancers showcase their unreal talents and love for their art.

What would have happened if she had listened to her counselor and her school’s recommendation?  Has Tonya excelled because of the education system or in spite of the education system?  How many students are pushed away from the arts and directed to focus on something that is a “real world skill” or “practical” skill?  Many of Tonya’s students give up their love of dance to ‘focus on their academics’ in school; university may be a great option for some but I often wonder how many great artists are leaving the field to enter one in which they may not have that same passion.

STORY 2: A Photographer Is Born… 25 years later.

I met Sarah Funk this past year on Twitter (we actually went to preschool together).  Since then, we have hired her a few times for professional photography sessions for my family.  Sarah is amazing at what she does and through our conversations, I realized that she has not always been provided with the opportunity to focus on her art. Here is her story:

Sarah’s interest in the arts started in dance when she began Highland Dancing at the age of 4.  Music was also a large part of her life growing up; she loved it and excelled at from age 8.   Her father always had a camera around; in fact, his camera from when she was a child is sitting in her home today.  She remembers picking up that camera on and off throughout growing up but did not take it seriously until after high school when something drove her to learn more about the art of photography.  At that time it was mostly just flowers and nature,  nothing serious.  Having children only fueled this passion for photography and she began to want to translate images in her head into a photograph.  From there, her passion has grown into a successful business based on one of the top photographers in the Fraser Valley, Silver Lamb Studios.

Thinking back, she can’t even recall what her school offered in terms of photography.  She does recall, that with art programs, they fell to electives and because you only had so many electives that sometimes, your art had to be left behind to pursue the academic courses.  It was made very clear to her by her school that she needed to complete and do well in academic classes to get into a University. She remembers it being a very pro-University environment.  In Grade 12, she actually took a music class, even though she did not get a credit for it (because she already had a “different art credit”); she took it because she loved it.

She went to University, because that’s what she was told you had to do after high school to get anywhere or get a good job.  It wasn’t pushed on her by her  parents but more from the education system.  At the time, she thought the RCMP was the career path for her and she was told a post-secondary education would give her an edge in the field.  She studied Criminology and although she enjoyed it, none of the possible career areas excited her.  So after receiving her Criminology diploma and leaving university, she worked in various retail jobs until she became a mother and stopped working outside of the home.  Only then was she provided with the opportunity to explore her interest in photography.  She began taking photos of her children and family; at that point she knew her

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

purpose, her passion – her love of photography had returned and has since grown into a key part of her life.

I am thankful for her love of photography, her art fills our homes with beautiful captured memories.

When I asked Sarah what advice she would give to a student interested in photography, she responded “I think I would tell the child to follow their passion.  Both my husband and I are prime examples of going to school for one thing and ended up in a totally different field.  I really believe that you can make a living from anything.  It makes a tremendous difference working when you are doing something you love.  I never ever thought that I would be able to say that.”

Sarah was directed into a field, away from her passion of the arts, by a system.  I am so thankful that she returned to her passions later in life but I often wonder how many people do not get this opportunity?  How many people disregard their passions for the arts because of a system that pushes people into a certain direction?  Is a university education the ideal option?  Why does “keeping your doors open” often mean focusing on academics?

In a system that is continually trying to just survive with shrinking budgets, how many arts courses are being cut?  If a child is in a small community and has a passion and talent for theatre but there are not enough students to run a program, what happens to this child’s strength?

Reading and listening to people like Sarah, my wife Tonya, as well as renown speaker Sir Ken Robinson makes me reflect on the academic hierarchy that is present in our education system.  Numeracy and literacy are very important skills for our students but at what point do we put too much emphasis on academics and lose sight of what is important for all our students?

I want my children and students to have the opportunity to be part of an education system that encourages them to follow their passions and lead a flourishing life and not one that directs them into a path determined by system hierarchy.

Thank you to Sarah Funk and Tonya Wejr for their stories.

If you have not seen this TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, by Sir Ken Robinson, it is well worth the 18 minutes.