Taking a dance class is good practice for being a more courageous human. It’s always daunting to walk into an unfamiliar studio for the first time and then to dance amateurishly among strangers. But the risk-to-reward ratio is clearly in your favour. Worst case: you look clumsy in the mirror. Beyond that, it’s basically all good, and sometimes almost miraculous. So in the interest of more people dancing more bravely more often, here’s an incomplete guide to dance schools and studios in Montreal.
6889 St.Laurent, 2nd Floor
Studios Accento in Little Italy isn’t even half a year old, and it still has that new-studio smell. The hardwood floors are unscuffed, the white walls are unblemished, and the air conditioning is turned up high. Despite the scrupulous atmosphere, Studios Accento is comfortable and affordable. Founder Lana Hadi—who opened the studio because she wanted more opportunities to dance—is offering a first-month pass for only $60, which is a good deal for what feels like a high-end spot.
The classes are designed to be drop-in friendly, and they emphasize fitness and fun over technique. The instructor of the Samba class I sampled was dynamic enough to convince a room full of mostly-hesitant people to shake their hips with zeal and flair. By the end of the class, I’d hopped my two feet around, drew sexy S’s in the air in front of my face, and even danced in a chain. It was like a wedding, but without the drunkenness and fuss.
3451 St-Laurent, 3rd floor
I was a big fan of Danny Kaye and Fred Astaire growing up, and I’ve always wished I could move in their sly, loose-legged style. If you’ve got a similar inkling to be jaunty when you dance, you might find yourself gravitating to Cat’s Corner, a swing dance school on St Laurent near Sherbrooke. They host a $10 open swing night every Friday that begins with a well-attended introductory lesson on the basic steps. I went alone, which might be the most single-feeling thing you can do in this city. The vibe was a tad prowl-y, but the instructors had us switching partners at a brisk pace.
A few of the more experienced dancers performed a convincing cos-play of 40s-era friskiness, while we newbies perpetrated our terrible jive—the term that black progenitors of swing used for white people doing it badly. Today, swing dancing offers a nerd- and queer-friendly alternate universe where dating is fun and going out dancing actually means dancing. Cat’s Corner is a warm little pocket of the city where people can snap their fingers and be part of a strong dancing community, and, in six-week sessions of once or twice-a-week classes, maybe even get good enough to join one of their advanced troupes.
3505 Durocher St
To me, ballet is to dance as math is to music. It’s totally cool when people love math, but my brain can’t be bothered. Even so, I was excited to draw some pretty triangles with my toes when I dropped into a beginner class at Ballet Divertimento in the McGill ghetto. The instructor, Victoria Yakobov, determined it was my first time, and then gave me a wry smile: “You’ll suffer,” she said, while the rest of the class grinned ruefully. It turns out I was in a level 3 class, deceptively called Debutante 1. I wouldn’t recommend making this mistake, though I would recommend taking a real intro class with Yakobov, as she is hilarious.
Originally from Azerbaijan and now somewhat advanced in age, she plays up her old-world demeanour for comic effect, and her dynamic with her sandwich-munching piano player might be the best natural comedy in Montreal. Ballet Divertimento is as close to Hogwarts as you’ll find in a ballet school: a weirdly designed building, an odd cast of characters, and a lot of earnest students obsessively trying to do things that seem impossible. There are formal training programs for professionals and 3-year-olds destined to become professionals, as well as courses with a “professional atmosphere” for adults who want to get into (or, more likely, back into) ballet. You may get the taste for elegant precision and physical bad-assery, in which case you can buy batches of 10 or 20 classes and advance on your own schedule, with Yakobov nudging you waggishly along.
7577 rue St. Hubert
Urban-Element Zone is a converted storefront on St Hubert that offers the perfect atmosphere for learning street-style techniques like krump, popping, and waacking. It’s a welcoming space with a straightforward approach: walk in and dance. Everything about this studio feels accessible, which is perhaps why it’s so popular. The intro hip-hop class I attended was practically shoulder-to-shoulder, which might have been annoying in other circumstances, but felt convivial there. The teacher was a good communicator and focused on style and technique, building basic steps into combinations of moves.
Urban-Element Zone encourages people to either come to drop-in classes or commit to a 3-month season that ends with a show. You can get 11 weekly classes for $165, or go unlimited for $450. Apart from the performances, committed dancers might get to participate in one of their several annual street-dance battles. To refine a personal style or develop a choreography, you can join the community at 100Lux on Amherst, which offers space for solo practice among other street-style dancers.
50, rue St-Jacques
The goal of pole dancing is to look effortlessly graceful. The reality of pole dancing is that it’s very, very hard. I took an intro class at Milan Pole Dance studio in the Old Port, and the first time the instructor asked us to hoist ourselves into the air by bracing our shins against the brass pole, my body and mind refused. In the end, I succeeded to make a painful and awkward shimmy upwards, but it was a short-lived victory, as the subsequent moves were only more difficult. Nevertheless, progress was made and I had fun, though not once did I look effortlessly graceful (except for the warm-up—I think I looked good for that part.)
Serious athletes who are into climbing, gymnastics, and circus stuff will take to pole-dancing more naturally, though some of the other beginners were already doing impressive things after only a month or two. The difficulty inspired a collaborative atmosphere, with the more experienced students helping newcomers figure out the moves they were attempting. Milan Pole Dance offers drop-ins, but there doesn’t seem to be much point in dabbling. Pole-dancing is a commitment, and being able to do it at all is probably its own reward.
7240 Clark St.
Studio Danse Montreal is located in the basement of the Eastern Bloc building on Clark just north of Jean-Talon. There are three mid-size studios and they tend to stay busy, each with two or three classes per evening. The aesthetic is vaguely international (faux prayer flags, etc) and the atmosphere is no-fuss. There are ballerinas keeping their physique, devotees of various dance forms, and regular citizens just trying to pick up some moves. SDM offers an eclectic schedule, from bhangra and burlesque to street-jazz and samba. They’ve also created a unique mise en forme exercise class that’s basically Brazilian Zumba and is popular enough to be offered five or six times a week.
“The idea is that it’s a party every time,” explains founder Anne-Josée Grégoire. I sampled the barre au sol class, a floor-bound ballet training regime with a lot of fancy stomach crunches and twisty leg-raises that’ll put a wobble in your walk home. Think: mean yoga. The instructor was harsh in a funny, it’s-awesome-how-I’m-kicking-your-ass way that I appreciated.
3451 Blvd. St Laurent, 3rd floor
Are you the kind of person who prefers to not really get into it when you dance? Then Zumba is probably not for you. If you like to be fabulous as hell, however, then Zumba will be a good fit. Here are three things I like about Zumba: the instructors smile a lot, the choreography is full of sass, and the music could otherwise be appropriately blasted from a purple convertible on a hot day. Admittedly, some Zumba classes have boring music and lame cardio moves, but Bamboofit on St Laurent delivers the straight goods.
The founders are Lina and Laura Barreto, two sisters from Colombia, and they draw a lot of their inspiration from Latin music and dancing. Not only will you get a workout, but you’ll be better prepared the next time a merengue rhythm sneaks up on your night out. The classes are 10 for $80 or 20 for $140, and they are offered in a spacious third-floor studio at Cat’s Corner dance school, so you’ll feel more like a dancing queen than a gym-rat. But the sweat is real. Work it.
Studio 303, 372 Ste-Catherine West
The Belgo building on St Catherine is Montreal’s beautiful dream of itself. It’s an oasis of creative activity on an otherwise purgatorial strip of bad restaurants, international chain stores, and services for young American tourists. Walking through the lobby past the dreary main floor café. and climbing the grand staircase feels like ascending to a better world. The floors above are an artistic honeycomb of studios and galleries, and in the middle of all that buzz is Studio 303, a hub for contemporary dance practice at all levels.
It’s a place to cultivate your individual creativity and unique approach to dance. They host residencies and performances, as well as daytime workshops for trained dancers and classes at night for anyone. I’d recommend the Gaga/People class, which is impossible to describe in a sentence and could very well be life-changing. For anyone interested in sampling contemporary dance, Isabel Mohn’s class is a great place to start. It’s a good balance of technique and expressiveness, and you’ll learn a few short choreographies over the course of a season. Studio 303 has big windows rather than mirrors, so it feels like you’re performing for an oblivious city. It’s a lovely spot to watch the sun set as you discover what your body can do.
1435 Rue de Bleury
The École de danse contemporaine de Montréal is mostly for dancers going pro. It’s part of the CEGEP system, so you can get a credited degree and become a person with a job in dance. For the rest of us, there’s the recreational program, and even if it only ever culminates in peculiar displays on the dance floor (or the living room floor) for friends and partners, there’s something gratifying about taking dance classes in a professionalized milieu. Specifically, the EDCM is located in the Espace Danse at the newly opened Wilder Building, which is home to some of Montreal’s heavy-hitter dance companies, like Tangente, Agora de la danse, and Les Grands Ballets.
So if you’re drawn to contemporary dance but are still just a moth banging on the window of the dance world, there’s an opening here to slip inside and feel it out. The EDCM allows drop-ins, but the program is designed so students advance through six levels, from Dance Beginner to Dance Creation. The whole journey would probably take a few years. To make such a prolonged commitment, it helps to develop an imagination for what contemporary dance might do to your way of being in the world. You could find yourself really busting out.
Montreal is teeming with dance studios, and this list is only partial. Some other promising options are:
Words by MARK MANN
Feature image by Adéral Piot | Dancer: Yakhoub Dramé of the École de danse contemporaine de Montréal
This article is part of Issue 1: Illumination