A life devoted to dance

September 2023

A dance studio owner must have the skills of a dancer, teacher, and entrepreneur all at once. Amelia Jackson (1904 - 1990) was one such rare talent. She led a community of dancers for over 70 years; this feat of longevity has been eclipsed only by rival Fort William studio maven Fay Gleeson’s ongoing legacy.

For thousands of young girls and boys, some of the strongest memories of childhood are of the times they spent after school at one of the dance studios in Thunder Bay. Amelia Jackson’s was one of the first, and she named her studio the “Dance Centre of Northwestern Ontario”—a serious name for a very serious studio.

Born in Port Arthur in 1904, Amelia was one of seven children born in the wake of the biggest boom time for the city. She learned ballet during the Great War from Thunder Bay’s first serious dance teacher, Grace Ensworth (born 1894), who moved from England to the Lakehead. She married Maurice Jackson in 1929. Her husband was a passionate entrepreneur and musician, and together they organized a music shop, dance studio, “Kiltie Band”, “Fort William Girls Military Band”, and the “Great Lakes Girls’ Orchestra”. At the height of the Great Depression, they toured in a bus with a twenty-piece band across Canada and the Northern USA.

On V-J Day, at 11:00, 14 August 1945, one of the largest crowds ever to assemble gathered at the CPR depot, the Times-News reported. “Led by the Fort William Girls’ Military Band, the veterans were given a rousing reception by the throngs in attendance. The train, made up of five coaches, had many stretcher cases aboard. Everyone aboard, however, were in high spirits as they had received word of the Japanese surrender while the train stopped for ten minutes at Schreiber… the throngs in attendance, still celebrating the Japanese (surrender), cheered the veterans lustily and the boys declared it was one of the finest welcomes they had ever received since they boarded the train.”

After WWII, Amelia’s side of the business, involving serious dance instruction, began to flourish. The musical side of their lively business lost prominence and may have ended entirely after Maurice tragically died in 1957. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Jackson began to rely heavily on a young man, a promising young dancer from Atikokan, Don McKinnon. Don became a Royal Academy of Dance (RAD)-certified ballet teacher and her second-in-command at the studio. Together they taught ballet, jazz, tap, and other styles, bringing famous dancers such as Al Gilbert of Hollywood, California to administer exams at the end of each semester.

Another devoted student was Leslie Almgren (nee Niro), who joined Don on Saturdays to practice at Vickers Heights Community Centre in the 1950s. Barbara Towell’s mother accompanied them on the piano. The most successful student from this era was Rosalie Brake (Dicks), who danced with the National Ballet of Canada.

The 1970s were a prosperous and memorable time at the close-knit studio for many current residents of Thunder Bay. The studio was “very strict yet rewarding,” according to former student Karen Peltonen. Mrs. Jackson had a faculty of eight in those days, which included Don McKinnon, Barbara Ann Munson, Mary Evans, Marg Hadland, Leslie Almgren, and Leslie Hunt.

“I loved my ballet classes with Amelia. She was strict and exacting, expecting her students to do their best but alway had a warm smile to greet us,” recalled former 1970s student Stacey Cham-Klein.

During this time, she must have had an intense rivalry with fellow Ensworth pupil, Sylvia Horn (1914-2005), a tap specialist 10 years her junior and organizer of the 1956-1972 Chapples Department Store Christmas dance shows. Her other competition in this era included Anna Pozihun (1929-2006), baton specialist Ethel Markall, and Gleeson. Mrs. Jackson differentiated her studio by offering the highest level of difficulty and intensity of ballet, tap, and jazz instruction possible.

Mrs. Jackson continued to teach into her old age at her studio, which by the 1980s was located at 912 Donald Street East.

Mrs. Jackson died in December of 1990 at the age 86. “Her passing was quite a blow to the studio,” recalled former student and teacher Manuela Michelizzi. “We were all in shock.The studio was taken over by Leslie Almgren in the interim and her daughter Gina Almgren (born 1967) took over shortly thereafter.”

Leslie and Gina rallied the studio and continued to run it for nine additional seasons. Gina, mentored by Al Gilbert, “revolutionized the studio,” recalled Michelizzi.

In the 1990s, the studio’s dancers trained in the Cecchetti method by elite teachers Carol Giddings of the UK and ballet mistress Chiara Richmond, dominating ballet categories in competitions across the U.S. Gina choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the March 1995 Nordic World Ski Championships in Thunder Bay.

Following this, with Chiara she produced and directed high-profile Nutcracker performances at the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium each Christmas from 1996 to 1999. The staff from this era included Michelizzi, Natalie Doyle, Kerri Gammond, Karen Kruger, Heather Syvitski, Cathy Wazinski, Shannon Creedon, Amanda Cervi, and Tina Viera.

After Gilbert’s final exams on April 26, 2000, and the May 2000 end-of-season recital, Gina, then aged 32, sent a letter to her students explaining that she had decided to close the studio and pursue her career in California, where she spent many summers over the years. “The closure of the studio came as a complete shock,” recalled Michelizzi. “I personally had a very hard time accepting it and grieved the loss of the studio.”

Linda Kearns, who began dance at age 7 with Mrs. Jackson and now at Brandon School of Dance, states that “it was Amelia who instilled in her not only the love of dance, but the discipline and work ethic needed not only in the world of dance but in life in general. Amelia encouraged a love of teaching, performing, and choreographing.” The legacy of Amelia Jackson and her fellow teachers lives on in the thousands of students who learned the pleasure of dance, and how to be disciplined in the pursuit of excellence.

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