After a summer of uncertainty, Merritt’s dance studio is bustling once again.
Classes for every age from infant to senior are in full swing after their Sept. 2 startup.
“I just want this building to be alive with music and joy and movement, so we’re getting there,” dance instructor Lizette Nel said.
The road to enlivening the Olde Courthouse Arts Centre with dance wasn’t a smooth one.
In the spring, Nel was unexpectedly deported to South Africa after a bureaucratic debacle over her rate of pay.
The departure of Merritt’s sole ballet teacher meant the indefinite closure of the studio and suspension of all lessons.
Because Nel worked for $15 an hour instead of the $25 an hour she was recommended in a Labour Market Opinion when she moved to Merritt in late 2012, the federal department Service Canada launched an investigation into her work permit renewal application.
Service Canada investigates cases to prevent exploitation of foreign workers. However, Nel offered to work for the lower wage while the dance school’s enrolment picked up, and she was not being exploited by the Merritt Dance Society.
While Nel was back in South Africa, directors with the Merritt Dance Society kept the ball rolling to keep enrolment up with the hopes she’d be able to return in the fall.
“We weren’t guaranteed anything. We were just always thinking positive, that this would be the outcome, that there’d be classes in September,” Merritt Dance Society director Clare Anderson said.
“But so many people gave up their time and money and their efforts, and I haven’t seen a cause like that before.”
The efforts of the directors paid off, and to date, the dance studio has about 70 students.
That’s maintaining the enrolment level Nel worked to achieve from the original dozen students she’d had when she began working in Merritt.
The unusual situation around Nel’s deportation garnered media attention around Canada, which came as a surprise to her.
“We never asked for any of the media to come and give it exposure, it just happened,” Nel said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Anderson said the media attention was a good thing as it put pressure on people involved in the case to expedite Nel’s application to return to Canada.
Nel and her husband Herman returned to Canada in mid-August and no sooner were they back in Merritt than they were in the dance studio, giving it a fresh coat of paint and a thorough cleaning.
But there is a silver lining to all the trouble they went through — besides, of course, having the dance instructor back in Merritt.
Anderson said it taught the dance students and directors alike the importance of perseverance.
“When Lizette and Herman did have to leave, a lot of [the kids] were pretty crushed,” Anderson said. “Everyone was trying to be positive and say they’re coming back, but we didn’t really know when. So for them to see it happen, it’s the best case scenario: not only is she back, there’s more classes, we have a freshly painted studio, everyone’s willing to just go, go, go.”
Nel said she was amazed to see all the work the society and volunteers were doing during a time of such uncertainty as to the future of dance lessons in Merritt.
“Maybe they don’t realize it now, maybe when they’re grown-ups or sometime in future, they will carry with them some idea or some memory that if things go wrong, you can actually try to make a change and make a difference,” Nel said.
For now, Nel is ready to put the past behind her and follow the positive trajectory the local dance studio seems to be on.
“It’s no use wasting your energy on the past. It’s better now to use your energy on the future,” she said.
That future includes instruction assistance from her daughter, Vanessa van Rensburg, as well as a handful of new dance programs.
Spanish and jazz classes are new and are proving to be a hit, with enrolment about 30 between just those classes. In fact, the first 10-week
block of Spanish dance lessons is full and the society is planning for another one beginning in December.
As well, a new class for seniors with limited mobility is beginning on Oct. 5, which will take place at Trinity United Church and focus on liturgical movements.
The dance society also saw support in the form of a grant funded by four local people — three of whom donated a week’s worth of tips from their jobs.
That donation was divvied up by the dance society and distributed to students who would otherwise not be able to afford registration fees or dance costumes.
“It’s really special for me and Vanessa to see the kids’ faces in class — the ones that made use of this — their faces light up and it makes a difference,” Nel said. “And it’s not only about dancing, it’s about other things that they learn here as well.”
The society also accepts sponsorships from businesses for local people who wish to take dance lessons but can’t afford them. Families applying for grants from the Merritt Dance Society must go through an application process that shows they’re financially needy and includes a letter from the potential recipient to show why he or she is interested in dance.
Registrations are still open, and anyone wishing to join a dance class can call the studio at 378-9898.