Danielle Hamilton holds the back of a chair, her foot poised, as she shows a group of pre-teen girls how to perform a pas de basque.
In the background, an iPad plays traditional bagpipe music while Danielle softly but firmly explains the proper technique. If the four girls cannot successfully complete the moves, they will not be able to place at a looming competition.
Welcome to Danielle’s Highland Dance Academy.
The academy is in her home, in a walkout basement. Upon entering, there is a small mudroom, adjacent to a spacious dance floor. The walls are decorated with plaques, trophies and awards. Two large mirrors fill a wall in the front of the class and on the side.
At the back of the room is a winding staircase that leads up to the main level of Danielle’s house. Her two elderly dogs serve as enthusiastic greeters for anyone who enters the studio.
As each girl takes their place to perform a jig, Danielle takes a seat at the front. She asks each dancer how they are doing at school, and they update her on their lives. One student had three tests earlier that day. Before class is in full swing, the students and teacher are joking around and laughing but, as class starts, the giggles quiet down and seriousness pervades the room.
“One and two and three and four,” Danielle counts the steps, each girl dancing to the beat. Danielle corrects mistakes, admonishes younger ones when they aren’t paying attention and praises when they excel.
“We have a rule here. When a girl places in a competition, we all win.” says Danielle. The girls nod in agreement.
Danielle has been dancing since age four. She started because her mother had always admired Highland dance. Little did Danielle know that it would become her life.
In an interview, reminisced. Each memory she describes is tied to time spent dancing with friends at recitals, competitions and tattoos. By the time she was a teenager she was dancing almost everyday.
Taught by one of the best Canadian Highland Dance teachers, Danielle was a member of the Ena Sutton Highland Dancers of Winnipeg. The dance school was formed in 1965 and Danielle was one of the first to join, something she found out from a friend years later.
It was through this dance group that Danielle performed for Olympic athletes in 1976 in Montreal. She was at the height of her dance career, then it came crashing down.
“Chuck asked me if I told you about the Olympics. But you didn’t ask me, so I didn’t tell you,” she says, lightly laughing.
Danielle saved the Olympic story for another visit.
At 17, she and seven other dancers flew to Montreal to dance at the Olympics. The Ena Sutton Highland Dancers were joined by Polish, Ukrainian and Indigenous dancers. She was one of 80 to perform and was surrounded by some of the most talented athletes in the world.
At the Olympic Village, the dancers had to wait in a security line for hours. Four years prior, at the Munich Olympic Village, eight Palestinian terrorists killed two members of the Israeli team and captured nine as hostages. All the hostages, five of the terrorists and one police officer were killed. Security has been heightened since to avoid tragedies.
Danielle shared lodging, dining and the stage with top athletes. One was a 14 year old Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci — the first gymnast to receive a perfect score of 10.0 at the Olympics.
“I got right near Nadia Comaneci and she was carrying her dolls. She was just a little girl,” says Danielle.
Danielle performed on the centre stage, the same stage Olympians used for their competitions. Athletes sat together in groups watching the performance made just for them.
A few months later, Danielle’s dance career was changed forever. Hit by a car, she spent a year in and out of hospital. Suddenly, she was not able to dance at the same level that she was used to.
But she didn’t cut her ties to her passion.
Many years later, Danielle opened up her home dance studio. She now teaches almost every day of the week, offering weekly classes and private lessons.
“I’m very proud of all my dancers. I’m proud of how happy they are, how hard they work, and how they feel that this is their happy place.”