There’s a moment near the end of the TEDx talk Andrea Simpson-Fowler gave in Whitehorse last year that explains in a nutshell what her life’s work is all about.
“Kids can become extraordinary people with unique skills, while learning how to build, how to share, how to create, how to engage, how to manage and contribute.”
It’s an awareness the owner of Leaping Feats Creative Danceworks says she acquired largely by accident, but wishes she’d known much earlier in life.
When Simpson-Fowler moved to the Yukon in 1981, there were few opportunities for the 11-year-old to pursue her passion for dancing — a far cry from the strong, supportive community she had enjoyed in Indiana.
By the age of 14, she was a sad, angry kid who felt she didn’t fit in, and came to school high on marijuana every day.
“Drugs were pretty prevalent,” she says. “There’s no clique or group of kids that doesn’t get exposed to smoking weed or drinking in the Yukon.”
With her parents’ support, she went to Toronto at 15 to study dance, but failed at it, in part because of a false sense of confidence she calls the “Yukon complex”.
“There’s a lot of kids who leave the Yukon and fail because they’re not prepared. Especially in things like dance, or music, or athletics,” she elaborates.
“They have these dreams, you know, and they get injured, or they can’t compare, so they feel worse, and they just stop.”
Two years later she went out again, this time to Kelowna, B.C. She failed again, and came home in the grip of alcohol and drug addiction.
When she was 19, her mother insisted that she leave home and get professional help.
“She started going to Al-Anon (a support group for families of alcoholics) a year before she had the guts to kick me out of the house,” Simpson-Fowler recounts. “She really used the tools she was learning at Al-Anon to keep me focused.
“Her tactic was to say no to sending money and say no to coming home, but continue to send the support I needed to be strong on my own.”
That support included passing on inspirational pictures, such as one showing the family’s Christmas cactus, which had died, then started blooming again.
“It was her way of saying, ‘You’re going to be fine.’”
In 1990, home from rehab, Simpson-Fowler began teaching at Northern Lights School of Dance, and discovered she loved it.
“We didn’t have enough teachers, so every time a dancer moved to town, I’d try to talk them into teaching.”
One of those she recruited was Mary Ann Annable-Roots, who had studied dance at the post-secondary level in Calgary.
“She had all these books about dance, and she was talking about how you could go to university and learn about dance. I didn’t even know you could do that.”
After getting a fine arts degree in dance from Simon Fraser University, Simpson-Fowler considered it “kind of a no-brainer” to open her own studio.
“When I was working at Northern Lights, I really built the numbers in that school just from doing, like, cool choreography,” she says. “So I knew I had the confidence of building the student body in a school at that time.”
From the outset, Leaping Feats has had a strong focus on developing both skills and attitudes that equip its students for success in life.
“When kids are struggling with identity, who they are, how they fit, something that can help them figure that out is having a passion. And I think that passion can develop through skill development.”
The school’s artistic aim, Simpson-Fowler says, is to develop dancers who are well-rounded, regardless of the genre they want to pursue.
“If they do the intensive programming, they’ll be good in ballet, they’ll be good in jazz, they’ll be good in contemporary, they’ll be good in the hip-hop street style,” she says.
“It’s just extra insurance. It’s our way of giving Yukoners a little boost of extra stuff, to help carry them through that transition of going to a bigger community.”
But Simpson-Fowler’s goals go beyond the rehearsal hall and the performing space.
One of the key lessons she has learned from 27 years of teaching is how well young people respond when they are challenged to take responsibility, to work collaboratively, to share their skills and respect the strengths of others.
The result, she said in her TEDx talk, is “confident, talented kids, supported by their community and supporting their community.”
That same philosophy led her to found the Heart of Riverdale Community Centre, which opened this spring.
Like Leaping Feats, she hopes it will be a place for people to pursue their interests, and then give back to others.
As she explained to her TEDx audience, the idea she wanted to share was all about community.
“It’s about the community that I needed when I was growing up,” she says. “It’s about the community that I have now and how that community gives me the confidence to share with you the recipe for dancing through life.”
You can see Simpson-Fowler’s TEDx talk, Dancing Through Life, on YouTube.