For more than 40 years, Sarnia’s Christine Neufeld has made her highland dance studio more about support and character-building than athleticism and competition.
She retires this year from an exceptional career of teaching, judging, mentoring and producing highland dance performances enjoyed by thousands in our community.
Since she started the Neufeld Studio of Highland Dance in 1980, Sarnians have become accustomed to seeing Christine’s students perform at Canada Day events, Robbie Burns dinners, the annual Irish Show, the Brigden Fair, local retirement homes, St. Andrew’s Nights in Petrolia and a myriad of other places.
The local girls and young women in their tidy costumes, performing a Highland Fling, a Sword Dance or a lively Reel, have all been taught by Christine. And now they will be taught by Christine’s daughter Tara Antle who has taken over at the studio.
Christine’s students plan a gala send-off on June 6 to pay tribute to Christine’s love of dance and her love for the hundreds who she has taught.
“She’s like a second mother to me,” says Elleke Burke, a 27-year-old nurse at Bluewater Health who has taken lessons at the Neufeld Studio of Highland Dance since she was three years old.
“I can attribute a lot of who I am based on how Chris ran her dance classes and cared about me and other dancers,” Elleke said. “I feel like my success in life and in my career has a lot to do with her.”
The Neufeld approach to teaching highland dancing is about building confidence, say her students, including daughter Tara who began dance lessons with her mom at age 4.
“Above all, my mom has patience,” Tara said. “If kids aren’t picking something up, she has a way of explaining it and encouraging them that works.
“It’s never been about pushing her students so they can compete. It’s about working with them at their level and building that confidence.”
Christine has been highland dancing since she was five and began teaching at age 17. When she moved to Sarnia from Edmonton in 1980, she started her own dance studio in her basement on Twin Lakes Drive, judged competitions across the country, and played a key role in Sarnia’s Highland Games for 21 years. It was Christine who organized the competitions and co-ordinated as many as 300 dancers every year in Centennial Park.
She’s modest about the hundreds she’s taught and how many lives she’s influenced.
“It’s the kind of thing, if you have the patience and you think you can change lives, you can really make a difference,” she said.
“I’ve had dancers come to me with physical issues and life issues, and I’ve worked with them and seen the change that dancing can make in their lives.”
She recalls a little five-year-old girl whose parents brought her for lessons. “She had such high anxiety that she couldn’t attend school and her parents felt she needed something,” Christine explained. “It took a long time but slowly she began to talk to me and to work at it.
“Now, after six years, she’s performing by herself and she has confidence.”
Teaching is a joy, Christine said. “The girls are like family.”
She’s not ready to completely walk away from teaching, she added. While no longer at her studio regularly, she still drops in to help prepare for shows and competitions. She also continues to teach Scottish Country Dancing to an older age group every week at Canon Davis Anglican Church.
The finale of every dance season has traditionally been a Scottish Night in Centennial Park.
This year’s show on June 6 starts at 7 p.m. and is free to all at the Suncor Agora.
“We are dedicating our recital to Chris and her life’s work in highland dancing,” said Elleke.
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