By Jennifer Hoegg
Thirty-four may be young to receive a “lifetime achievement” award, but what if almost your whole lifetime has been spent in the business?
Gaea Jess has been involved with Cadance Academy for all of its 33 years. The New Minas dance school owner and her mother, Linda Jess, were honoured by the Annapolis Valley Chamber of Commerce Nov. 8 for their combined 33 years in business.
“It’s an honour to receive this award,” said Linda, who ran the dance school from 1979 to 2005, at which point she handed it on to her daughter.
“I think it’s really nice. I think the school has weathered and it has progressed and it has improved and it has brought to the Valley, and I’m very pleased about that.”
The local business landscape has changed along with the school.
“When I first started there was almost no competition,” Linda said, “because dance wasn’t recognized as something you put your child into at the time we started.”
Her Cornwallis Academy of Dance operated out of the Kentville Recreation Centre and spaces in New Minas and Berwick.
Under Gaea’s watch, the school has found a home on Roy Avenue in New Minas, although classes are still offered in Kentville.
Now, the market for dance schools is much more competitive.
“That’s the biggest difference,” Linda said. “Dance is become much more recognized as a thing for a little girl or boy to go to.”
From one instructor to 19 teachers, an office manager and other casual employees who work as dressmakers and bookkeepers, the school provides many local jobs. According to the chamber’s citation, the pair provide “employee satisfaction through their positive influence, complimentary dance classes for all instructors, encouragement to participate in choreographing performance pieces and treating everyone with kindness, while maintaining discipline and focus.”
That discipline and professionalism is reflected in the school’s dancers. Students from Cadance have gone on to win awards in dance and choreography. One student became the first male dancer from the Maritimes to attend Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s summer program.
“The quality of the technique has improved,” Linda said.
“I just did exams and recitals,” she added. “(Gaea) has taken it beyond that to a performing school and the standard of the dancers has gone way up.”
Linda studied dance in Calgary and at the Banff School of Fine Arts, before travelling to Australia with her diplomat husband. After spending time in British Columbia, they moved to the Valley when Gaea was 18 months old and her brother was four.
Twenty-five years of teaching dance in the area followed. Turning over the school to Gaea seven years ago was “wonderful,” Linda said.
“It’s hard on your body. It got to the point where I couldn’t demonstrate the advanced steps to the students,” she recalled. “I wanted to turn it over to someone younger.”
Gaea, who trained in dance and kinesiology at York University before performing and teaching in Australia and New Zealand, was working in Calgary at the time.
“I didn’t know it was something I wanted to do,” Gaea said, “even though my mom always wanted me to take it over.”
Her parents wrote a proposal and made it sound “really, really good,” she said of her mother’s retirement pitch.
“I just thought she could do it,” Linda recalled. “I didn’t want her to do exactly what I did. I wanted the school to become her school, where she developed it in her way. I didn’t push her into doing it my way.”
The younger Jess brought personal training, yoga and Pilates training to the school, along with a lifetime immersion in dance, but the business side of teaching was new.
“It was such a learning curve,” Gaea said. “Every year there are new things that get thrown at you.”
Linda did offer advice: “I told her to make sure she had her books right!”
After seven years running the school, Gaea is more seasoned and has some advice of her own for other business owners.
“I try to stay fair and treat people with kindness and just really try to be flexible and open minded.
“The biggest thing I have learned,” she added, “is that you are going to make mistakes, but you need to learn from your mistakes and try to rectify them and go on. “
Her favourite thing about running the business, however, is seeing the students grow and become good choreographers, teachers, dancers and performers.
“Seeing that moment when they take off and just what that brings them. That’s what makes it really worthwhile.”
Gaea currently offers training for ballet, modern, contemporary, jazz and hip hop dance, as well as eight-week sessions for moms and tots dance, yoga, Zumba, strengthening classes, even flamenco. Students range from infants with their parents in Salsa Babies to silver-haired Zumba Gold participants. That age range is represented in Cadance’s annual production of the Nutcracker, when toddlers to seniors take the stage.
“We try to involve the whole community in our Nutcracker,” Gaea said.
She has plans to keep growing the school’s community, too.
“I’m just very proud of what she has done with the school,” Linda added.
Now 67, the retired instructor hasn’t completely left the studio.
“I jump in and teach when she needs it.”