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Schools With Staying Power | Cameron School of Dance

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73 years of giving to the community

By Maureen Keleher

In this age of Facebook, Yelp, and constant communication through texting, tweets, and Internet chats, 73-year-old Cameron School of Dance credits its success to something less tech-y: its close-knit town of Greenfield Park, a suburb of Montreal, Quebec, and loyal reviews from its generations of families.

Lorna Wallace (second from right) in 1944 with her Legs n’ Airs dance troupe, which she founded to entertain troops during World War II. (Photo courtesy Cameron School of Dance)

“The Cameron School of Dance does advertise, but quite seriously, we don’t have to,” says director and owner Cheri Cameron, daughter of the late Lorna Wallace Cameron, the school’s founder. “We’re now teaching the grandchildren of the women my mum taught. Word of mouth keeps people coming back.”

Cheri and her daughter, Shena Cameron-Prihoda, describe Lorna as a cheerful and personable woman who was honored to work with Greenfield Park’s children. Shena, the school’s assistant director, credits her grandmother with never forgetting the names of her students, even after she had retired from teaching at age 75.

“She just had a knack, and it always impressed me,” says Shena. “It would take her some time if it was someone she hadn’t seen in many years. She would talk to them and within two or three minutes she would say, ‘How is Susie?’ It would just click all of a sudden.”

Lorna, described by Cheri as an “old hoofer—her feet were always tapping,” had a celebrity-like status in her small town. And she constantly found time to stop for a conversation.

“When I was young, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Nana remembers everybody,’ ” says Shena. “It was so frustrating going shopping with her. She would tell my grandfather we were just going out for milk and we would come back three hours later because people wanted to talk to her.”

The individual connections Lorna created with her community seem to have paid off. The Cameron School’s enrollment is at its capacity with a roster of 260 students in a town with a population of 17,084. Dancers range in age from 3 to 50, and the school boasts quality instruction in ballet, jazz, tap, and Highland dance, plus three competition teams and a teacher-training program. Six advanced dancers have been with the school for more than 20 years, either still dancing or teaching, and another 15 have been there for more than 15 years.

The third-generation family business remains true to its founder’s philosophy of encouraging a love of dance in its students, coupled with quality instruction. Cheri and Shena have embraced the new directions in the dance world and in their growing community with the additions of hip-hop, musical theater, contemporary, Irish dance, Zumba, and yoga. All 12 of the teachers are professional dance instructors who are certified through the British Association of Teachers of Dancing.

Old traditions continue to go hand-in-hand with newer ones. The school’s beloved “Lollipop Train,” a playful end-of-class ritual begun by Lorna, in which young students form a human “choo-choo train” with a lollipop reward for their good work, keeps Lorna’s spirit alive. Cheri and Shena have taken Lorna’s advice to “listen to the young” by allowing the older students to make suggestions on how to improve the school. For example, they have adapted to changing times by making the school relevant to today’s dance scene (through classes offered and ways of communicating with families) and given those outside of the Cameron family the chance to teach.

Interested students have the opportunity to choreograph for the school’s holiday demonstration show, an in-house, internal choreography competition and class demonstration that uses no costumes or stage lighting. Those who want to explore teaching can do so once they’re 13. These students, who have typically been at the school for more than eight years and train in multiple dance disciplines, start as teaching interns and work their way up to becoming assistants and student teachers.

 “I always thought of the studio as a safe place to be yourself,” says Amy Blackmore, a faculty member who danced at the school for more than 25 years. “It’s not just a dance school; it’s a community that you’re welcomed to.”

Outside of the school, dancers and their families celebrate together. Karen Pilkington, a former student whose daughter now dances at the school, has many memories with the Cameron family. “Cheri and Shena have been there for every major milestone in my life, including my wedding, and they were shoulders to lean on when my grandfather passed away.”

“I think parents keep bringing their children back because they’re not just a number,” says Shena. “Everybody knows us so well, and we know them so well. It’s definitely that personal aspect that keeps them coming back.”

Lorna’s parents, John and Helen Wallace, immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1906, eventually settling in the “green fields” of Quebec that came to be known as Greenfield Park. In 1908, John Wallace built the fifth house in the newly settled area.

“I always thought of the studio as a safe place to be yourself. It’s not just a dance school; it’s a community that you’re welcomed to.” —teacher Amy Blackmore

Lorna Wallace was born in 1913 and started dancing when she was 11, taking private lessons from a retired professional dancer. She later studied tap and other styles of dance. The local children knew Lorna could dance and eventually asked her if she could give them dance lessons. Cheri says Lorna had never considered teaching but decided to give it a try.

In 1933, at the age of 20, Lorna held her first class, for five children, in her living room. She didn’t charge for these early ballet and tap classes until a suggestion was made that she charge a nickel. According to Cheri, Lorna wasn’t interested in teaching for profit and the children were encouraged to attend her classes regardless of finances.

Lorna taught more of Greenfield Park’s children by helping choreograph dances for variety shows at local churches. Within a few years, her classes had outgrown her living room. In 1938 she moved her classes to a church hall and officially created Lorna Wallace School of Dance. Classes were held in local church halls and gyms for about 60 years, until the school started renting studio space in 1999.

In addition to the school, Lorna started her own troupe, called “Legs n’ Airs,” in 1942, when a few of Lorna’s students, plus some dancers in Montreal, wanted to support the war effort. Lorna sought out a pianist from Montreal to practice with them and invited other local dancers to join the troupe. According to Cheri, Legs n’ Airs traveled to all the air force bases in Quebec during World War II, entertaining the soldiers with rumbas, can-cans, Broadway-style tap, and line dances.

When Lorna married Lindsay Cameron in 1946, he asked her to stop performing for the troops because he was going overseas with the Canadian Air Force. The newly wedded dance teacher changed the name of her school to Lorna Wallace Cameron School of Dance, and it later became simply Cameron School of Dance.

Community service was important to Lorna, who volunteered her time to teach dance classes each week at a foster home for children with special needs. Her goal was to prove that children with physical and developmental disabilities could learn skills such as dance. Lorna eventually invited many of those children to take classes at her school, offering to help pay for their tuition and costumes for the spring performance.

The money raised from this show has always been donated to needy organizations, including the foster home. “We still think children helping children is the best thing to do with show money,” says Cheri. The school has donated more than $850,000 to Shriners Hospitals for Children–Montreal to offset the costs of surgery and other care for children and families in need. The school has also donated to Meals on Wheels, the SPCA, and other local organizations.

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Cheri and Shena are proud to continue Lorna’s tradition of providing dance classes to children regardless of their families’ finances. Working in jobs outside of the school has made this possible. A former certified athletic therapist and certified strength and conditioning coach, Shena now works full-time as a manager of health management consultants on top of spending evenings and weekends at the studio. Cheri is now retired, but also used to work full-time outside of the studio.

 “We believe that every child should have the opportunity to dance, so we just jump in and help them,” says Cheri.

“Shena and Cheri are very generous people,” says teacher Amy Blackmore. “The school’s and the Cameron family’s impact on the community is huge. I think they’ve nurtured generations and generations of dancers who aren’t just dancers. They’re good people who are taught to care for others and each other.”

 

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August 2014
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