Class act

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>The accomplished Highland dancer, Angela McKinnon, had her first dance lesson in Cape Breton at the age of nine and now owns and operates a thriving dance school in Pine Grove.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>McKinnon dancers pose in front of Stirling Castle, in Scotland, after a special performance there on August 18. The dancers were in Scotland for 11 days, performing and competing at a number of Highland Games and the World Highland Dance Championships in Dunoon. Shown, left to right:Megan VanderWal, Rachel Fougere, Lily Matheson-Wood, Zoe Mosher, Abbie Smeltzer.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>McKinnon Dance Primary 4 and 5 dance class pictured during one of their lessons in September with helper teacher Megan VanderWal. Shown left to right: Charlotte Downton, Adriana Palao, Beatrice Poole-Dicks, Ellie Davidson, Eadlin Fraser, Isabella Bryson, Skye Ross, AJ (Andrea) Brosha and Megan VanderWal.</p>

With its demanding physical exertion, Highland dancing is no walk in the park.

But Angela McKinnon of Pine Grove is managing to pirouette successfully through a life program that sees her as the owner, instructor and choreographer of a thriving Highland dance school, as well as full-time French teacher at Bridgewater's Centre scolaire de la Rive-Sud, a wife, and a mother of two young children.

"I have a consistent 50 students every year. I have waiting lists every year, and I don't advertise because I don't have enough hours in the day with my own two children, and my work.

"But I love it. I absolutely love it," she told LighthouseNOW.

McKinnon leaves her day job at the French school in Pine Grove for the studio at her family home, laces up her gillies, and works well into the evening teaching young girls, and a few young boys.

The French teacher says her dance school is "honestly" another full-time job, "between the hours of teaching and the administration work - e-mails with parents, accounting, preparing for competitions, hosting competitions."

That's in addition to her volunteer work with Scot Dance Nova Scotia and hosting the selection meet, or provincials.

"I'm full out, all the time."

But she wouldn't have it any other way. She's equally devoted to her French students as well.

McKinnon grew up in Cape Breton and quickly fell in love with Highland dancing and Scottish culture.

"I knew that when I was nine years old - my first dance class I knew - 'That's what I'm going to do with my life.'"

She was happy to choose a career in teaching, knowing that she loved working with children and believing it would coincide well with having a dance school.

After graduating from Université Sainte-Anne in Clare in 2007, after teaching dancing to help pay for her education, she and her fiancé decided to settle on the South Shore, "because there wasn't any Highland dancing in the area."

She was offered a position to teach French at Bridgewater Junior-Senior High School, and had successfully auditioned to be on Team Canada for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

She and her then fiancé, who is now her husband, had just four or five weeks to find a home and advertise for dance classes.

"And then I was off to Scotland for a month."

While abroad, she fielded e-mails from people interested in signing up their children.

"Which amazed me because I thought there might not be interest," she admits.

From the get-go, McKinnon Dance had about 30 students.

"We did really well, right off the bat."

The young couple set up a studio in the old home they bought in Bridgewater, but the school quickly outgrew the space.

"And eventually we decided we need a proper studio with a proper floor."

They bought land in Pine Grove, and built a home and a self-contained studio.

"It has, what I would say, one of the best dance floors that you can get in North America," suggests McKinnon.

The O'mara sprung floor, which comes from the U.S., features a base of multiple layers of foam, followed by plywood and hardwood.

Highland dance in particular requires a distinct level of stamina and power as well as technique and timing.

McKinnon says the flooring is "excellent" for the longevity of the dancers' joints, as well as acoustics.

"Mirrors and bars. Everything you need for a good studio," were added in the construction, which also had location in its favour.

"Dancers from Lunenburg, Liverpool, Mahone Bay, they can all get here."

McKinnon Dance takes students four years and older, and families may spend anywhere from $500 to $2,000 a year enrolling their children.

Often the Highland dancers are gearing up for national and international competitions.

"Some of my dancers come in the evening between three and four times a week," says McKinnon.

In the heavy competitive season, it's sometimes five.

So far this year, she had dancers at the Canadian championship in Calgary, the Scottish Open Championship in Scotland, and ScotDance Canada's North American conference in St. Catherine's, Ontario.

McKinnon herself has a long list of dance credits to her name.

In 2003, while in university, she was chosen as the Nova Scotia Dancer for the Jeux du Canada Games in Bathurst, New Brunswick.

A year later, she was contacted by the Canadian Embassy of Indonesia to perform at an International Seafood Festival. After her trip to Indonesia, she traveled to Scotland where she competed and took home a gold medal.

During her six summers working for the Gaelic College in Cape Breton, she performed with renowned Celtic musicians, including bagpiper Alasdair Gillies. She also taught Highland dance for the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts at their Vermont location.

McKinnon received her members certification from the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance in the fall of 2010, and competed at the World Highland Dance Championships in Cowal Scotland in August 2011.

In 2013, she completed her Masters Degree in Education at Mount Saint Vincent University.

In addition to Highland dancing, her school offers a rythmics class featuring a variety of styles including lyrical, hip hop, African and Charleston.

"We kind of fuse them with Highland at times."

It was necessary for the business to expand beyond just Highland dancing.

With the development of different TV shows such as Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, "I think a lot of dancers would have become bored with just the Highland dancing," she says.

In any case, expanding styles helps expand her market.

However, even though McKinnon is confident the business could stand on its own, McKinnon has no intention of stretching the enterprise too much at this stage. "I could, but I wouldn't right now," she says.

Not as long as her children, who are six and eight, are still young. and she still very much enjoys teaching French.

There are only so many hours in a day, even for the dancing dynamo.

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