Sonia Ellis struck a delicate balance, instilling both happiness and a hard work ethic in her dance students, who will be forever grateful.
“She was just a really, really nurturing person. She was supportive. She was funny. She made dance fun,” says Arianna Elsworth, 16, of her late mentor.
When Ellis was Elsworth’s age, she moved from Edmonton to the Seymour area with her mom Marylou who supported her daughter’s dream to elevate her dancing ability.
Eventually, Ellis would nimbly guide others down the same path.
In the mid-1990s, Ellis landed at Seymour Dance, formally known as Seymour Heights Dance School, and made an indelible mark on the studio – vaulting from student to teacher to award-winning choreographer.
A natural step for Ellis was to take over the reins when former Seymour Dance owner Brenda Lorenz hung up her ballet slippers.
The students gravitated toward Ellis’s humble approach – a rare find inside dance studios, according to Seymour Dance junior artistic director Lauren Overholt.
When she was in high school, Overholt spent half her summer in the studio with Ellis, who was the eloquent architect behind each of her students’ solos.
Seymour Dance is located a few steps from Windsor Secondary. Overholt would walk by the studio and see Ellis was already inside by quarter past seven in the morning. Classes didn't start until 4 p.m. That’s how dedicated Ellis was to her students, attests Overholt.
The door was always open at Seymour Dance, and students would take Ellis up on the offer if they were feeling bullied at school and needed a friend.
“She made this space safe,” says Overholt.
To this day, the Seymour Dance door is always open at noon.
Overholt has fond memories of Ellis taking her and other members of the Seymour Dance family for lunch at the nearby golf course or out for sushi “like every other week.”
They were all fixtures in the studio until 9:30 in the evening, energized by the power of movement.
As Overholt explains, Ellis operated the dance studio with a refreshing approach. Students were never forced to wear a crop-top, ensuring everyone could dance freely. Ellis also went above and beyond, says Overholt, to make space for male dancers, offering free classes to support them.
Ellis cultivated a relationship with the high school next door and, together with teacher Marissa Heaven, was instrumental in bringing in a dance academy for Windsor students. With Ellis at the helm, enrolment at Seymour Dance doubled from 200 to 400 students.
Venice Dang developed a penchant for jazz dance shortly after arriving at the studio at the age of five.
“(Sonia) really influenced my love of that style. She was a coach and a trainer but she was also a mother, says Dang, who had not yet experienced real loss until December.
Ellis never took a sick day, until she was diagnosed with brain cancer a year and a half ago. Those around Ellis during that time say she carried herself with grace through treatment, and never lost sight of her passion.
“The day she got out of the first brain surgery, the first place she came was here,” says Overholt. “
The second to last rehearsal before her students were to perform The Nutcracker was one of the last times Ellis knew she would step foot in the Seymour Dance studio. She stayed for six hours.
Seats were reserved in the wheelchair section of Centennial Theatre for Ellis on Dec. 9, to watch what had become a holiday tradition for Seymour Dance for 24 years.
“But when it got close to the show it became apparent that wasn’t going to be possible for her,” recalls Overholt.
A video production company foot the bill to live stream The Nutcracker performance from the theatre into Ellis’s hospice room, so she could see her dancers twirl one last time.
“She said, ‘200 stars out of five’ – so I think it was pretty good,” says Overholt.
“In that time she said, ‘I’m so lucky for all of you.’ And she kept saying that, and saying that. She always felt lucky to have all of us, when really it was us who were lucky to have her.”
On Dec. 18, Ellis passed away surrounded by family, at the age of 44. While Ellis didn’t have biological children, she had 400 students who she loved like a mother.
The Seymour Dance Facebook page was flooded with messages after the sad news broke.
“My sincerest condolences to Marylou and the rest of Sonia’s family. You raised a magnificent woman and she helped me raise my two daughters. I will forever be grateful to Sonia for the kindness, love and devotion she brought to the dance students and the community. You leave behind a legacy of strong, creative kind young women. Rest in Peace dearest Sonia,” read one poignant message.
Most of the cards and letters delivered to Marylou during the past few weeks underscore her daughter's unwavering support for her students, and thank her for being a wonderful mentor.
"Many mention how she has shown them to be a better person and inspired them to do the best they can be in whatever they choose to do," says Marylou. "She always believed in everyone. Sonia believed everyone should have the opportunity to experience the joy of dance. Didn’t matter what shape or size somebody was or if they had physical or mental challenges, her studio was all inclusive."
Ellis has left the Seymour Dance studio in her mother's hands to continue fostering a love of dance in young people for years to come.
"I have every intention to to continue to keep Sonia’s dream alive," says Marylou. "I know I cannot replace Sonia but I will try to duplicate what she has done. I will endeavour to keep the same loving, warm and joyful school she has left behind keeping true to her mission statement of the school."
A celebration is planned for Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. at Kay Meek Theatre to honour Ellis’s graceful life and legacy.
Multiple generations of many North Shore dance families brought up with Ellis’s guidance are expected to attend. Some of her former students will perform Ellis's original choreography during the event.
In lieu of flowers, organizers are requesting donations for two dance scholarships set up in Ellis’s name.