Carlson’s School of Dance – “Mrs. C” by D. Gwen Carlson-Redcliffe, RAD Life Member
The Carlson’s School of Dance is deeply rooted in Duncan in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Its history began in 1954. My mother, Margaret Carlson (nee Dendoff) has been referred to by Chris Sherlock (Special to the Citizen newspaper) as the “Cowichan Valley’s matriarch of dance” at the time of her sudden passing on August 17, 1997.
And that is when I, her daughter, rejoined Carlson’s School of Dance, commuting from Vancouver to become the owner and artistic director from the summer of 1997 to the fall of 2000.
I appreciated the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the dance studio world; the camaraderie, classes, festivals, exams in RAD Ballet, AIDT Tap, Modern and Hip Hop and ISTD Modern and Tap, performances and annual dance recitals. I had encouraging support from Carlson’s teachers, studio secretaries, assistants, students and their families. Carlson’s continued to offer a friendly, safe, and inspiring environment for our students and teachers. A special thank you to Debbie Halusiak who had joined Carlson’s in the fall season of 1982 to her last year with the recital of June 1998. (She currently owns the Westshore Dance Studios in Victoria).
I had made a career change in the fall of 1982, from teaching ballet, tap, and jazz with my mom to become a Registered Massage Therapist and Registered Clinical Counsellor in Vancouver. I retired from my practice in 2014 but not from dance. I thoroughly enjoy taking ballet, tap and jazz classes at Carlson’s.
And the dance goes on. In 2000, a dream came true with the building of a new dance studio at the Cowichan Community Center. At [my mother’s] Celebration of Life, Mayor Mike Coleman said: “It’s not just her past contribution that she has made to her community, but through her inspiration, the importance of dance education for children in the future has been well established.”
That being said, I present a short history of an amazing woman my mother, fondly remembered as Mrs. C, who continues to inspire me and the Carlson’s School of Dance family.
Born in Nanaimo, June 4, 1925 (on Vancouver Island, B.C. Canada).
The interview by Ann Anderson from the Cowichan Leader, October 20, 1976, re-tells my mom’s reminiscence of her early childhood and dance. “Marg Carlson’s mother May, who had been a student at the Royal College of Music (London), stimulated her daughter’s apparent interest in the classics by playing them on the piano just before her little one fell asleep in the evening, and enrolled her in dancing classes at the Malaspina Hotel (Nanaimo) when she was five.”
This YouTube video is of Mrs. C’s remembrance of her first studio visit. Her parents bronzed her first pair of ballet shoes.
“One of the clearest memories of my childhood is flitting around in dance costumes in my parent’s large living room,” said Mrs. Carlson who produced her first home recital in a friend’s basement when she was 11. “We made curtains on a machine, printed out programs with a tiny printing press, and even stuck gold stars on the closets we used as dressing rooms,” she said with a nostalgic smile.”
A newspaper clipping from the Nanaimo Free Press reports the Upper Island Festival celebrating their 50th anniversary in 1978 and includes a photo taken of my mom as she was a successful entrant in 1936.
1937 to 1939 Margaret commuted by ferry to Vancouver to train under dancer June Roper. During that time she auditioned for Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo but was not selected to stay with the company.
“At age 14 she realized her family could not send her to far-away dance schools for intense training”, (quoted from Passages by reporter Patrick Murphy). Margaret later studied with instructor Grace McDonald who had moved to Nanaimo, until she was 17.
She married my Dad, her childhood sweetheart Allen Carlson on September 8, 1943. After serving in the navy during WW2, Dad had finished his B.A. degree at U.B.C. in Vancouver. In 1950, with my brother Richard almost six (November 14, 1944) and after my sister was born in Vancouver on June 17, they moved to the Cowichan Valley. He taught from 1950-1988 at the Cowichan Senior High School and had become head of the math department. I was born on March 11, 1953, and in the fall of 1954, with her friend Irene Thorton, she opened the Duncan Studio of Dancing. My brother Richard performed the tarantella in the first recital in 1956, Mrs. C is on the left and Irene on the right. In my research through the collection of dance recital programs and newspaper clippings, I read “Thorton decided to follow other pursuits” for the upcoming season of 1962. (Reporter Chris Sherlock)
1957 was the first year my big sister Merrilee and I performed. I was a Dew Drop and she was in Baby Dolls and Teddy Bears. Even though my brother and sister didn’t continue taking classes they were always helping out behind the scenes with Dad.
In the summer of 1962, Mrs. C attended the Banff School of Fine Arts for eight weeks and trained with instructors Gwenth Lloyd, who formed the Royal Winnipeg Ballet with Betty Farrally and David Yeddeau, and also Jazz with Eva von Gencsy who, with the nucleus of dancers from her school in 1962, formed Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal in 1972 with Genevieve Salbaing and Eddy Toussaint.
Mrs. C took her Royal Academy of Dance teacher’s training in Victoria with Wynne Shaw and had entered students for their ballet examinations starting in 1964. We had to go to Victoria to Vivian Briggs’ studio for the RAD examiner Joy Bury. I received Highly Commended for my Grade II Exam. 1974 was the first year there were enough students (24) to hold the Children’s RAD exams at Carlson’s School. 1985 was the first year students were entered for the RAD Major Exams.
Mrs. C considered herself a “workshop freak”. She attended revisions for the RAD syllabus as well as dance workshops locally and in Portland, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Guest teachers were invited to summer schools at the studio. Students were always encouraged to benefit from new experiences. In March of ‘97 as the guest of Norma Baisley (who retired in 2017 as AIDT board member), she visited the Association of International Dance Teachers headquarters in South Africa. Ballet and theater performances were seen in London, New York and in Russia. She loved Italy’s sculpture and architecture. I’ve inherited a cabinet full of dance figurines.
Never losing her love for learning at age 50 she attended University of Victoria Fine Arts Faculty from 1975-1977. In 1975 I remember my brother and I were also registering for classes. As a mature student in the Theatre Program she served as costume wardrobe mistress for postgraduate plays and performed in Days of the Commune by Bertolt Brecht. Mrs. C continued to teach dance classes at the studio!
Both my Dad and Mom had been involved with our local drama and musical theatre groups for many years. “Al” directed plays, my mom choreographed.
In my farewell letter to Carlson’s in 2000:
“As I remember growing up life at home was like an open house/cultural centre. The studio that my Dad had built upstairs was used to teach dance, elocution and piano lessons. There were musical and drama club rehearsals and my brother’s rock and roll band The Phantoms would practice. There was also production of costumes and set designs. During the early years, even though she would hold classes in the upstairs studio and in nearby communities, she’d always make something like a casserole for us. I can remember her saying “Just put the casserole in the oven for about 40 minutes at 350 degrees.”
In the newspapers reporting on my mom’s Celebration of Life, names of two dancers who trained at Carlson’s were mentioned in their professional careers in dance. Aaron Watkins is presently the Artistic Director of the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden. He performed in the annual dance recitals from 1980 to 1983. 1983 was the same year he represented Cowichan at the BC Festival in Vancouver and successfully auditioned and was selected to the National Ballet School. Although his main interest was tap at Carlson’s, you can see in this photo he began to take an interest in ballet. The second photo is of Mrs. C and Aaron, taken at his bruncheon party, October 7, 1989.
Susan Gaudreau who also studied at Carlson’s from 1981-1987 performed in the annual dance recitals and was successful at the dance festivals. In 1985 Susan was one of the first students to do the RAD Major Exams. Company involvements include Les Ballet Jazz du Montreal, Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios and Ez Danza.
Mrs. C performed and promoted classes for adults in ballet, tap, and jazz. Adult classes continue to this day and many perform in festivals and recitals. Students in the adult ballet class have continued with their RAD exams. A single class may have two or three generations dancing together.
By the year 2000, I had great confidence that under the stewardship of the new owners – who were also teachers at Carlson’s, Reija Best, Pam Hicks, Kim Robb and Joyce Scott – with their combined expertise, qualities of leadership, innovation, integrity and commitment to child-centred education, would ensure Carlson’s School of Dance a successful and sustainable entry into our 21st century. Catch up on the latest information about the school in 2020.
I would also like to congratulate the Royal Academy of Dance on its 100th anniversary, for keeping dance vibrant in the 21st century lit with memories from the past.