BY DALE COOPER

On April 1, 1989, the papers were signed and Northern Dance Phrase became the tenant of a little studio space at 211 Black Street. This was the birth of Northern Lights School of Dance (NLSD). The name was changed to the latter shortly after the lease was signed.

I feel privileged to write this article about the school as we proudly celebrate 20 years of high-quality dance instruction of national standards and memorable performances and as we honour the enormous contributions of its teachers, board and students, past and present, to the dance community of Whitehorse.

Northern Dance Phrase was a society formed by the dance teachers in the community at the time. Yes, there were ballet classes in the 70s, thanks to Barb Phillip’s Dance School and, later, the Starlight School of Ballet with Stella Martin.

Carol Mullin had her dance school where she taught ballet, jazz, tap and highland. I came on the scene in 1982 and later had my own dance school called Gotta Dance. Lana Beebe (Lana Dowie) taught tap and Bonnie Boyd (Hazel Buffalo Robe) introduced modern to the community.

Northern Dance Phrase was created in order to bring the dance community together. It was done with the best of intentions, but still remained a little disjointed in its function as a dance school. Through the perseverance of Stella Martin, the Black Street studio and NLSD became a reality.

For five years, classes were taught at the little Black Street studio. Many hours of construction and installation of the dance floor, mirrors and barres turned the 25-by-40-foot space into a dance studio.

The sprung floor was made with two by fours, on flat, with tire treads underneath for the “spring”. The late Dereen Hildebrand painted the first sign over the entrance. I was living in Dawson City at the time, so I missed the early days of the studio.

I was busy raising kids and teaching dance classes at the old arena in Dawson and in the activity room at Robert Service School. Stella Martin, Bonnie Boyd and Andrea Simpson (Simpson-Fowler) were the first instructors at NLSD.

The school moved to the Guild Hall in 1995. It had outgrown the tiny Black Street studio space and has actually outgrown the current space, too.

Under the artistic direction of Deborah Lemaire, NLSD has earned the title, “The North’s premiere dance institution”.

After retiring from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Deborah moved up to Whitehorse. She began teaching in 1995 and became the artistic director in 1998. She has been a mentor to many dancers over the years, including my own daughter.

We have many dancers who have been accepted to summer dance programs at such renowned schools as the National Ballet School, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and Alberta Ballet.

NLSD has been performing publicly since its inception in 1989. The school is noted for the public-minded spirit of its work. Every year, the classic Nutcracker Ballet is staged, giving the community a chance to see this popular and traditional show.

We have students who have become professional entertainers in the dance, theatre and music world. We couldn’t be more proud of them, but we are proud of all of our dancers, whether they have aspirations to continue on with dance careers or they just have fun in class.

Dance is good for the soul and it is a good discipline for “young people of all ages”.

Over the years, NLSD has put on a number of ballets, at the Yukon Arts Centre, including Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and Cinderella. This has given local children an opportunity to perform onstage and to learn about well-known ballets from the world of dance.

This year’s ballet performance will be Coppélia.

Coppélia, or The Girl With the Emerald Eyes, was first produced in 1870 at the Paris Opera to a commissioned score by Leo Delibes and choreographed by Arthur St. Leon. It is the story of a beautiful life-sized doll, Coppélia, created by an old inventor and toy-maker, Dr. Coppélius.

The infatuation of Swanilda’s fiancé, Franz, towards Coppélia, and Swanilda’s jealousy of the doll, bring a series of comic antics that have the town and Dr. Coppélius in an uproar. As in so many fairy tales, all ends well when Franz realizes that Coppélia is only a doll and gladly gives his heart to Swanilda. She is delighted and accepts. The ballet is great fun.

It is amazing to think that a community that started out with a few dozen dance students now has about 600 dancers.

When I reminisce about the early years, I personally have to thank the small group of dance teachers who had a dream; and I have to thank the many who have contributed to our dance school over the years: the teachers, the parents, the board of directors, the costumers, the many volunteers and the dancers themselves.

Happy Anniversary, NLSD! Here’s to 20 years of growth and to many more years of creativity, dance expertise, enjoyment and a shared passion from dancer and teacher alike.

Coppélia and Showtime 2009 will run Friday and Saturday, May 8 and 9, at 7 p.m. with a Saturday matinée at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at Arts Underground and the Yukon Arts Centre box office.