Families plead with city to continue funding dance school

Families in a low-income neighbourhood of Ottawa are pleading with the city to continue funding a popular dance program that may have become a victim of its own success.

The program, called Fierce Dance Factor, offers ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop and lyrical dance lessons at the Michele Heights Community Centre in the Britannia neighbourhood, and has been around in one form or another for more than a decade.

It's still run by city staff and heavily subsidized by the parks and recreation department, but that's about to change.

Too competitive

According to a statement to CBC attributed to Dan Chenier, the city's general manager of recreation, cultural and family services, program coordinators were advised more than a year ago that the subsidies would end once the current dance season is up in June.

We are telling these vulnerable yet talented youth that they are not important enough to invest in. - Shannon Luknowsky, parent

The reason, according to Chenier, is that Fierce Dance Factor, which began as a recreational program aimed at families who could not otherwise afford dance lessons, has become too competitive. 

"Over the years, it has evolved from a primarily recreational program to include a competitive dance program that is more reflective of the offerings a private or commercial dance school," Chenier wrote.

According to Chenier, participants are now required to try out before they can register, purchase costumes and attend out of town competitions.

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School should separate, city says

As well, the program is failing to generate enough revenue through fees, costing the city $26,000 last year.

"The City is proposing that the competitive dance component operate as a separate dance school and that the costs associated with this program be paid through participant fees," Chenier wrote.

"This measure will allow the City to properly refocus the Michele Heights Community Centre budget to meet the community's needs,"

There are currently about 75 families whose children are enrolled in the program. Many are asking the city to reconsider.

"We never thought we could get into something like this. It was subsidized, so my mom was able to enroll us," said Joan Edouard Williams, who joined the program when she was seven, and recently returned as a teacher.

"It has been like a second home to us." 

Edouard Williams has organized a petition asking the city to continue funding the program.

Costs overblown, families say

Families involved in the program say the cost of costumes and travel is far less than the city is making out: instructors spend hours bedazzling inexpensive outfits, and on a recent trip to Montreal, students were given the option of returning home the day of the competition to avoid an overnight stay.

Shannon Luknowsky, a mother of three, said the program has brought together families from across the socio-economic spectrum.

"This is one of the few places that I have seen in our community where kids from from both sides come together and are part of a community," she said. 

Luknowsky worries some of those families will be able to continue with a privatized program, while others will not.

"We are telling these vulnerable yet talented youth that they are not important enough to invest in."

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'It's allowed her to shine'

Kimberly Ledoux said she's one of those parents who couldn't have afforded private lessons. Ledoux said her daughter was recently accepted to Canterbury High School. 

"It's allowed her to shine," Ledoux said.

Low-income families are currently expected to pay one-quarter of the cost of lessons. A competitive jazz class, for example, costs $240 per year.

"I feel like it opens so many more doors and so many more opportunities, especially because competitive is a lot more expensive than just recreational for those families with children who are struggling financially," said Ivy Zhang, 13, who's currently enrolled in the program.

Staff with Fierce Dance Factor declined to speak with CBC.