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Ballet Is Beautiful - Danielle Clifford’s Secret to Everlasting Joy

~ Written by Danielle Lee-Hogervorst, Outreach Coordinator at Ballegro Player, Alumni of Arts Umbrella’s Graduate Program

Danielle Clifford is one-of-a-kind, no one can ever replace her.  Now 77, she still teaches multiple ballet classes on a weekly basis and still demonstrates each exercise full-out!  She turns and jumps, her brain is sharp, and she never fails to bring joy to everyone she encounters!

Along with Pam Rosa, over 30 years ago, in 1985, Danielle co-founded Harbour Dance Centre, a downtown Vancouver studio at the heart of the city’s dance scene. But before this, she had a long and successful career as a performer with ballet companies across Europe including touring as a principal dancer with the Grand Theatre de Nancy and as a soloist with the Nice Opera.  Over the past 10 years, Danielle has worked as ballet mistress at Anna Wyman Dance Company, and has been an adjudicator at competitions across British Columbia. 

The founder of Ballegro, Yawen, has accompanied for Danielle, as well as taken her class! She has only heard wonderful things about Danielle; dancers who have known Ms Clifford for over 20 years have experienced nothing but joy radiating from her! She has been described as having a contagious smile and positive energy, her love of teaching dance never failing to shine through.  As Yawen has personally experienced, if Ms Clifford notices a student feeling down, she will come up to you and whisper inspirational words to you to lift up your spirits and remind you why you dance!

I, Danielle Lee-Hogervorst, was fortunate enough to have had the chance to meet Danielle in person, and ask her to uncover her secrets to the forever joy and youthfulness she has found.

I know you mostly as the “Danielle Clifford who opened the legendary Harbour Dance Centre!” I am wondering if you can tell me a bit more about your life as a performer? You have been a constant source of joy and inspiration to everyone around you, and I am curious to know more about your expansive life journey!

Well, I did most of my performing with companies in Europe.  I began with a company in Vichy when I was 17 to replace another dancer...a short summer season, but very stressful as I had to learn how to be quick and learn all of the choreography on the spot!  I then joined the Grand Theatre de Nancy for three seasons; first in the Corps de Ballet, then Petit Sujet, and finally Grand Sujet. We had to do everything here! From dancing in the opera to the ballets, of course.  I got to travel extensively across Europe with GTdN, which was an amazing experience! In 1962, I joined Fantastic Danseurs, under the direction of Francoise Adret. Here, we went to Portugal and dance with some of the best from Youly Algaroff, Jean Babilee, and Erik Bruhn to Wladimir Skouratoff and Claire Sombert.  Of everything in my dancing career, this was the ultimate highlight for me, and I will never forget sitting in the audience and watching these stars perform!

When did your curiosity for teaching ballet begin?

I actually did not want to be a dance teacher for many years.  I just wanted to dance! Then I moved to Canada with my husband and first daughter in 1970.  I spoke no English and was taking classes at a local studio. The only company was in West Vancouver, and the gracious Norbert Vesak opened his door to me!  He was incredibly generous with me, and it was with him that I was introduced to the world outside of ballet, with the Cunningham technique! I love it! If he hadn’t left to work in New York, I would have loved to perform for him! 

From here, I was introduced to another small studio in North Vancouver, which was where I began teaching. And then there was no going back. 

I was part of a performance group called “Dance and Dancers.” When we travelled to different local schools and would take turns teaching, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it!  This is when I decided to open my first dance studio in North my house! This is how I met Pam Rosa, my partner in creating Harbour Dance Centre.  

Isn’t it crazy how you meet people and never know how much they will change the trajectory of your life and/or career?

Absolutely! Every person I met led me to my next experience, leading me to my next ‘connection,’ etc.! As for Pam, I would teach ballet classes at my studio, and then when I would go teach at other studios, she would teach jazz for me!  Later on, Gisa Cole and Jamie Zagoudakis asked me to join their school and company, Prism Dance Centre. We eventually parted, and, with Pam, we changed the name to Harbour Dance Centre. We were very close to Anna Wyman’s studios downtown, who had asked me to teach her company on Granville Street.  Eventually she could no longer afford the space, and Pam and I took over the location, and this is where we are to date! 

The most daunting thing about that space is opening the front door, and realizing your class warm up would be hiking those stairs! I am sure that keeps you in shape! And speaking of being in shape, I have heard that you are not only still teaching, but are also fully demonstrating as well! How do you do it? Do you have any tips on keeping your body healthy? 

Floor barre! Once I discovered this, my body became so much stronger!  I was, and still am, very blessed to have such a healthy and wholesome body!  When I was in my last years of performing in Europe, I performed Giselle six months pregnant! 

...You wake up every day and life goes on... What's the point of being sad, depressed and negative? Every morning when I open my eyes, I tell myself: "It's a beautiful day", and I choose to look at all things from their positive corner.

What was it that initially brought you to Canada? And how did you find your footing here?

I originally came over here during the French Revolution with my husband. At the time, there were too many strikes for my enjoyment, and my husband was going to lose his job. His family had moved to Canada 5 years prior, so we came in 1970. As mentioned earlier, I found a local studio to take class at, and, soon after, I got coaxed into teaching there.  I then started my own dance studio.

So you have been teaching for a long time, despite originally not being interested in it.  What continues to motivate you to return to the studio day after day, year after year?

I LOVE IT! And I wouldn’t have it any other way!!

I have heard only the sweetest remarks about you and your teaching style, and how you always light up the room.  How are you able to maintain such positivity always?

You have to.  If you are not positive, then you may as well quit. You are responsible for inspiring and pushing entire classes of dancers.  If you don’t have a positive attitude, how on Earth will your students?!

This is very true! I am wondering if you have any commonly used phrases or sayings that you find yourself repeating?

I have a t-shirt that says “VOILA!” because of an arm sequence I often do that ends with the arms opening down from 5th.  I often have to remind dancers to dance with the music, and to dance to the melody instead of counting.

This is so important, and so helpful to allowing the expression of one's self and personality within the movement!  Do you have any advice for young dancers who are transitioning into the professional world? Or for dancers entering auditions?

It is so must have a persevering mental fortitude!  You’ve got to work really hard. Do not give up, and do plenty of auditions! You must believe, give your soul, and really FEEL what you are doing! Lastly, always project yourself, the way you want to be received!

Danielle Clifford teaches regularly at Harbour Dance Centre.  Check out her teaching schedule and give yourself a fun ballet class! 
*Disclaimer: Risk of catching her contagious joy.

Above: photographs of Danielle Clifford dancing lead roles in different ballets. 
Tallulah Photo

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