SAINT JOHN – Justin Saulnier fell in love with dance at a summer camp when he was eight years old. By the time he was 16, what he did for fun became something more for him. Today, he’s the owner of the Dynamic Academy of The Arts (DATA) dance studio in Quispamsis, directing award-winning teams.
“People say they work out because it’s stress relief. That was dancing for me,” he said. “If you’re worked up, you’re stressed out at school, you need a break or whatever, that’s what you did. You went to the studio, you dance, you got out all of that frustration and you didn’t think about anything other than what you’re doing at the time…It became so enjoyable to do that I thought, ‘I need this with me all the time’.”
DATA recently won several awards, including at the Candance Senior Champions in Halifax and Hit The Gloor in Levis, Que. last May. More recently, its dancers got the top three spots at the Take The Stage dance competition in Saint John.
Saulnier opened the studio seven years ago, shortly after completing the commercial dance studies program at the George Brown College in Toronto.
“I found out that in order to pursue a career in Toronto dancing, a lot of it is kind of waiting for opportunities to arrive. And if there are no current opportunities, you need a backup plan. So what are you going to do in the meantime while you’re waiting for that?” he said.
He also noticed that New Brunswick was behind larger Canadian provinces when it comes to performing arts training. While kids in cities like Toronto have access to arts-based schools, focusing on academics in the first half of the day and art education in the second half, that’s not the case in New Brunswick’s cities.
“When you go compete with these kids who do this like it’s their full-time job…they’re phenomenal at it,” he said. “I guess I just have to figure out how can I do that without having the opportunity yet. Because that’s kind of my next project is to figure out how can we get that into our curriculum in schools. How can we make it so that if you’re not from Ontario and you want to be a dancer, you still have that benefit being in New Brunswick or the Maritimes.”
The studio currently offers recreational classes for children as young as two years old up to 18 years old who just want to dance for fun. It also has competitive groups for ages five to 18. The teachers are Toronto-trained, with one of them certified to teach the Horton technique from the New York City-based Ailey School of dance. The styles of dance include jazz, hip-hop, lyrical and ballet.
“My [competitive students] currently train 12-16 [hours a week]. But for me, growing up, I only got to dance four hours a week,” he said.
DATA currently only offers Barre workout classes for adults. But Saulnier is working to add dance classes for adults in the future because he sees a lack of opportunities for youth who already have dancing experience.
“There are so many kids who finish high school and go into university and there’s nothing for them,” he said. “So we want to offer a beginner to advance adult classes for people who have never danced before but also for people who grew up doing it as a competitive sport.”
DATA’s student base has grown to 103 at the close of last season. But in the beginning, it was a challenge convincing people that performing arts can be a business, Saulnier said.
“When we first started, we had three kids registered. And I was literally, like, ‘oh my! This is it, I’m done, I have the worst idea ever and I shouldn’t have gone with it’,” he said. “Once I started being able to communicate with people and getting people through the door, so they can meet the faculty, they can understand what kind of service we’re providing, what our goal is, it immediately just went from there and it was word of mouth.”
The competitions that DATA’s students have won also help its growth. In addition, Saulnier himself continues to train with instructors at other studios in North America and relies on his relationships with them to learn more about the business side of things.
“It’s so helpful, just figuring out what people’s struggles were starting out. What they found really helped or what kind of classes really worked well for their studios, the time frame and how they marketed that,” he said, adding that art can be a real source of income.
“Hearing that term [starving artist] so often growing up, I was like, no. Why can’t we be artists but also get paid for it and know your worth and help people see your vision?” he said. “It’s totally paid off and I’m very happy to be here in this moment right now for sure.”