Students from 11 Calgary high schools preparing for the East Side Dance Festival

After a two year pandemic pause, a group of Forest Lawn high school dance students are pumped up to perform live.

The music is blaring in the dance studio at Forest Lawn High School where 19 students are moving in unison rehearsing one of their pieces. They hold their final pose for a beat catching their breath. They’ll practice it a number of times before the East Side Dance Festival that takes place May 6th.

Kelsey McMahon-Stoker is the dance teacher and says the pandemic put a halt to in person events and everyone is looking forward to finally performing in front of a live audience.

“For a lot of us it’s been a three year journey that’s finally coming together to be on this big stage with all of our friends and our family supporting us,” she said. “So it’s really exciting and something to celebrate.”

The schools involved in the festival are All Saints, Forest Lawn, Father Lacombe, Lester B. Pearson, Crossing Park, James Fowler, Nelson Mandela, St. Francis, and Our Lady of the Rockies, Bowness and Ian Bazalgette.

The East Side Dance Festival Society was formed in 2013 with four schools on the east side of Calgary. Society co-chair Kelly Brownlee says now there are participants from all quadrants and both school boards.

“There are some bumps in terms of our collaboration between the Calgary Catholic boards and then the public board because the policies are a bit different and the way they do things are a bit different,” said Brownlee. “But we’ve found a way through and they’re incredibly supportive of our work so that makes it easier as well.”


When this year’s festival was in the planning stages organizers didn’t know what kind of public health restrictions would be in place so they decided to bring in local videographers to record the dancers in case there wasn’t a live performance. Eugenio Hipolito worked with students from six schools to shoot and produce the videos.

“Oh, it’s incredible, I mean you see all different levels, but the fact some haven’t worked in front of the camera before, some have so you see the comfort level,” he said. “It’s all about just having fun honestly, that’s truly what it was and to see the smiles on their faces, it’s been quite satisfying this year.”

Organizers say the festival is committed to creating an inclusive community where diversity and creativity come together to inspire life-long learning that is celebrated through the art of dance.

“It’s a big part of our mandate that we remove barriers from kids from pursuing their passion in dance,” said Brownlee. “Whether that’s through a lack of training, studio training, or financial difficulties, we’re really passionate about that.”

This year the society reached out to Karina Valleau who teaches at Sister Gloria School in Garden River near Wood Buffalo National Park where the first language of the students is Cree.

“The kids love to dance, they love music and we are in a really remote community,” she said. “It’s two and a half hours on a dirt road east of High Level and we’re at the end of the road so a lot of these kids have never left the community.”

Valleau wants to bring a dance program to the school.

“They make their own TikTok videos and that’s how I kind of realized oh, they’re dancing all the time in the in the hallways and watching these TikTok videos,” she said.

The East Side Dance Festival Society hosts workshops and more than 30 of them have been recorded during the pandemic. Now they have the ability to share them with Valleau.

“I’m so thankful to everyone at East Side Dance Festival, it’s so generous of them to include us,” said Valleau. “It’s really exciting and to (the students) Calgary is this big dream, this big city that they’ve never been to and just to be able to connect with professional dance teachers as well, because they’ve never had that kind of opportunity before.”

The festival takes place May 6 at the University of Calgary Theatre. Learn more here:

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