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Dance icon fondly remembered

The final curtain has closed for a grande dame of Prince George dance. Before the multiple dance studios and private teachers of today, there was one. Sonia Fabian was the first in modern memory to have a full-service dance facility in this city.
Sonia Fabian poses with a group of her dancers and the trophies they won at a dance competition in this undated handout photo. The founder of the Prince George Dance Festival coached many local dancers over three decades.

The final curtain has closed for a grande dame of Prince George dance.

Before the multiple dance studios and private teachers of today, there was one. Sonia Fabian was the first in modern memory to have a full-service dance facility in this city. Many of her students went on to become professionals, some of whom have their own teaching facilities now.

She also founded the now thriving Prince George Dance Festival (she did the same in North Battleford, Sask.) and played a big role in the development of the festivals in Quesnel and Prince Rupert.

Fabian passed away July 12 in Saskatchewan where she had retired to be near her sister Maureen. She was laid to rest last week.

She and Maureen co-founded the Martin School of Dance prior to Fabian moving to Prince George and it, too, grew into a celebrated arts venture to this day.

Fabian began teaching in Prince George in 1974 after briefly trying out Calgary and spending a few years in Saskatoon.

She closed the Prince George studio in 1995, giving way to Odyssey Dance Centre operated by her former student Sandy Stewart and Enchainement Dance Centre operated by Judy Russell who was once a new dancer in town whose first stop was to meet the resident teacher.

On paper, they were head-to-head competitors. Behind the scenes, Fabian and Russell shared a bond of respect. Russell said it was Fabian's raw honesty - that the incoming young dancer was beyond the veteran teacher's capabilities - that inspired Russell to start Enchainement in the first place.

"The competition between us was tough, at times, but I was also learning from her all the time, and she taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned," said Russell. "It was early on, I was young, I was new to the business world, I was struggling with trying to keep everybody happy at the studio, and Sonia was on the phone with me as I had a little meltdown in my bedroom. She told me your students will grow up and leave you and that's how it's supposed to be, but if you don't keep your focus on what's important in life, your family will leave you too. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment, it stuck with me forever, and I will always be grateful for that gift she gave me, that gift of insight and knowledge on things I just couldn't see. I needed her, and she was there."

Kristen Helfrich became one of the city's most formidable dancers of the 1990s and 2000s and along the way added choreographer to her package of skills. Helfrich got her start at five years old in Fabian's tap class.

When Helfrich eventually moved on to the more comprehensive lessons available at Russell's studio, Fabian not only gave her her blessing, she fed students to Helfrich to help get her teaching career underway.

What Helfrich didn't get to take with her was Tu-Tu.

Fabian's little dog (there were more than one, but Tu-Tu was the unofficial studio mascot) was as much a part of a dancer's experience there as the formal instruction.

"I actually learned to pick my feet up because I was always worried about the dogs. You never knew when they were down around your feet," Helfrich said.

Christina Iliopulos was another who started out as a small tapper with Fabian's studio then went on to be a highly decorated tap dancer. She, too, quickly recalled Fabian's ever present shihtzu.

"Sonia Fabian was who really jump-started my long obsession with dance," Iliopulos said. "I will forever thank her for encouraging me to continue my tap career as she was the base of my technique and is who pushed my abilities to the max. After her dance studio closed, I continued dancing with Sandy Stewart who also danced and taught at Sonia's studio and our 'Sonia Fabian family' stayed together for years where our friendships and our love of dance grew stronger. I chose dance over any other sport because I loved it so much and I will always be grateful for what Sonia was to me: my mentor."

Shauna Stewart Douglas has lived and worked as far away as Australia in the dance world, all starting at Fabian's studio which Douglas called a home away from home for her and many of the kids who learned there.

"She was a matriarch. She's in all my memories," she said, taking a moment to weep. "And when you look back, she always looked the same, no matter how old we got. She had such an impact on so many, and we've been all around the world doing this. I know I've talked to my four-year-old daughter about all that, the things Mrs. Fabian taught to us. So much of it was bigger picture lessons, transferable to anything you do, just a fabric of your thinking. I'm so grateful."

Douglas said the lessons started out in a small studio, but she was about three years old so couldn't remember the details, only that when they moved to a warehouse-sized studio the place seemed cavernous "and there was Mrs. Fabian way down at the far end, always with a ring of smoke around her head because those were the days when people smoked."

Fabian also imprinted other lessons and, said Douglas, those were ones that shaped them all into their respective adulthood. Travel (Fabian took a troupe to perform at the Plaza of Nations at Expo 86 in Vancouver, for example) was a big one.

"I think it was really important that she encouraged us to go to other teachers for some things, to take summer courses, to go elsewhere for dance experiences from a variety of people and places. That meant a lot to her and she instilled that in us, and it really was important. She was wise that way."

Two of her students have become busy teachers and choreographers in Ontario. Genevieve Merkel and Shiona Jackson both left Prince George to study performance at Ryerson Polytechnic University and both run their own facilities in the Toronto area today.

"In the early '70s the Ward family brought Sonia Fabian to P.G. From Saskatchewan," said Merkel. "She worked for them at Early Bird Lumber (Fabian was also a skilled bookkeeper) and started the Sonia Fabian Dance Studio in her basement. My sister was one of her first students and I can remember watching her and wanting to dance. Mrs. Fabian would let me sit with her at the beginning of class and do some of the warm up. When I was finally able to take my own class, I refused to dance with the little kids, I wanted to dance with the big kids. I spent most of that class holding Mrs. Fabian's hand."

Merkel said she got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend the National Ballet School's summer program in Toronto at 13 years of age all because Fabian campaigned the National Ballet of Canada to conduct a set of auditions in the north.

"She is with me everyday when I teach. Everything I learned from her I now pass on to my students. Her legacy lives on," said Merkel.

"As we are all aware, teachers do more than just teach. This is so true of Sonia Fabian," said Jackson, who is a freelance performer/choreographer, as well as a teacher of dance, in the Toronto area. She's worked for others and operated her own business, in these fields.

"After seeing a recital when I was five, I told my mom that is what I want to do and I have never stopped to this day," Jackson said. "Parents pay a pretty penny for dance fees. It was the best investment my parents ever made. We were ferociously proud of being a Sonia Fabian Dancer. She was old-school to us but that is what you need when you are first training. She gave me a standard to be proud of. She was tough. She did not mess around and had no problem putting us back on track when we were out of line. She was like our mom. She was a part of my daily life for 14 years growing up in Prince George."

Another former student still performing as an adult is Nicole Shuster Sakamoto Currie. She was on stage at Canada Day In The Park again this year as part of the Polynesian cultural dance group, and it all started back with Fabian. Currie called her "a witty story teller and her laugh was contagious. There are so many good memories I will take with me forever. I'm grateful to have known her, honored to have been taught by her and thankful to be a part of the dance family she created many years ago."

Hers was a legacy of building people as much as building a dance industry in a city that had none before, and now has a sweeping roster of quality amateurs and professionals, and a culture of success. This is why Fabian was among the first inducted into the Prince George Arts Gallery of Honour in the inaugural 1999 ceremony hosted by the Community Arts Council. Fabian travelled back to Prince George to accept the award.

Fabian had five children (members of her family still live in the Prince George area) and remained close all the while with relatives back in Saskatchewan. To them she returned upon shutting the doors in Prince George.

When she closed the local studio, she was far from finished with her lifelong occupation. With sister Maureen she founded All About Dance, a retail store servicing the dance community of Regina. As the effects of age crept in, her daughter Lisa Wilde took over the store and Fabian moved in with her sister in nearby Maple Creek as her final retirement residence.

Wilde - who was also a tot at her mom's knee in those Prince George studio days - marvelled at how widespread the reaction has been to Fabian's passing. There are two Facebook pages dedicated to her mother - Who Danced At Sonia Fabian Dance Studio and one called Remembering Sonia Fabian.