Celebrating 50 years of dance in Surrey

Surrey Festival of Dance packed with history, talent – and trophies.

From left

SURREY — The Surrey Festival of Dance headquarters isn’t exactly regal. It may be just a five-minute walk from such modern architecture as the SFU Surrey campus and the city hall/library zone, but it feels a world away.

The building is old and the second-floor festival compound has definitely seen better days.

But just look at the beauty that comes pouring out of these modest digs. The Surrey Festival of Dance, now one of North America’s largest dance festivals, will see no fewer than 10,000 performers cross the stage this year at the swanky Surrey Arts Centre Theatre.

From tap to jazz to hip-hop and much more, the dancing will be spectacular, and it will run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day for one solid month, from  March 29 to April 28. Better still, it costs a mere $2 to stroll inside and see it.

On this Monday afternoon, just a week before the launch of the 2016 edition, the Festival of Dance compound is substantially more claustrophobic than usual. That’s because it’s packed with trophies. They’re in boxes, they’re on tables and desks, and they’re scattered about on the floor. They’re everywhere.

Carol Girardi is a long-time treasurer of the event and, like everyone else who works so tirelessly on it, she’s a volunteer.

Girardi picks up one of the nearly 500 trophies and plaques.

“Look at this,” she says.

There, at the top left corner of the base, are the engraved names of the very first winners of this particular award. The year was 1966. Spin it around and you’ll see the names of every other winner since. There’s just one spot left before they’re forced to add another level – kind of like the Stanley Cup.

Girardi explains that each winner gets to keep their trophy for a year before fellow veteran volunteer Susan Snow locates all of them and brings them back home. It’s just one of the festival’s many long-standing traditions.

And this year, there’s something special in the air – it’s the festival’s 50th anniversary.

And Girardi is pumped. Excited as a kid at Christmas, she talks about the video they’ve created to mark the occasion, and asks repeatedly if I’d like to see it.

We watch it together (I am, I’m told, the first ‘outsider’ to see it)  and I quickly see it’s as just as “fabulous” as Girardi says it is. Mixing old photos and newspaper clippings with newfangled video messages of thanks and congratulations from past performers, some of whom have since gone on to great dance-centric success, it wonderfully encapsulates all the festival has been.

Doreen Rowe has been there from the start. A dancer throughout her life (ballet, tap, highland), she wasn’t about to discourage her own daughter, Cheryl, when she caught the bug in the mid-1960s. So she sent her to the nearby Betty Cross School of Dance. Soon, Rowe had made friends with the other dance student moms.

“And someone, I can’t remember who,” says Rowe today, “suggested we should have our own festival. That was 1966.”

The idea was met with approval and the group got to work. Within weeks, these seven moms of seven pupils had held their first-ever meeting, at Rowe’s Cloverdale home. And within months, the first Surrey Festival of Dance debuted at the original Princess Margaret Secondary School.

“I think we had 450 dancers that first year,” says Rowe, “though I’m a little unsure of that number. But we did end up with 54 trophies, all donated.”

Rowe has been with the festival since, through all its growth and all its venues – including churches and various gymnasiums. Indeed, she’s arguably become its figurehead – a fully committed woman and a competition day mainstay at the event’s “certificate table.” Even a move to Penticton in 2001 didn’t stop her. She treks back to the festival every year and stays for the entire month.

On Wednesday, Doreen Rowe and daughter Cheryl, Carol Girardi, the festival board, a whole whack of other long-serving volunteers, and assorted VIPs celebrated the festival’s golden anniversary with an invitation-only bash at the Surrey Arts Centre.

Rowe says they’d love it if you came out to experience what they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Visit surreyfestival.com.

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