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Tsawwassen-roots dancer reflects on journey from Delta to the Big Apple

Madelaine Burnett started off at Deas Island Dance and has since made her way to dancing and performing professionally in New York City
Madelaine Burnett
Tsawwassen’s Madelaine Burnett is making good on her childhood dreams of pursuing dance as a career, and is doing so in New York City.

It was devastating, the prospect of giving up dancing after a lifetime of dedicating herself to it at Tsawwassen’s Deas Island Dance, recalls Madelaine Burnett.

But years later, now holding down a professional dancing career in New York City and part of the Alison Cook-Beatty Dance Company, it turns out the South Delta Secondary grad had nothing to fear.

Back in 2016, she auditioned for the NYC-based Alvin Ailey American Dance company, and to her delight, it landed her a spot in their school program. However, this also meant abandoning her original plan of taking her offered scholarship at the University of British Columbia for Kinesiology.

“I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve already been sad for years leading up to this, at the potential of not dancing,’ so, I thought, ‘Okay, as a gap year, I’m going to go to New York and take one year to dance my heart out, and then I’ll come back to study those plans … I told myself ‘If I get a sign, or if something tells me that I’m doing the right thing, I’ll stay,’” she recalls.

The sign she’d been waiting for made itself known, loud and clear, through repeated scholarship offers that allowed her to stay with the Ailey School for three years before getting a job with Martha Graham’s second company, Graham 2, in 2018.

There, she fell in love with the Graham technique – a modern dance technique that aims to expose “the depths of human emotion” through sharp, angular, jagged and direct movements, reads the company’s website.

“It’s not a technique about being pretty, it’s a technique about being real ... the whole technique came from the idea of the human breath and the natural way that the human body moves ... it’s about showing the human,” explains Burnett.

Modern dance also showed her a much more diverse, welcoming space for dancers of all shapes and sizes, that up until that point, she hadn’t experienced while being submerged in the world of ballet.

And as she dove deeper into the technique – including getting certified to teach it, in addition to her Royal Academy of Dance ballet teaching certification – she couldn’t stop thinking about how kids back in Tsawwassen don’t usually get to have their eyes opened, like she had hers.

So, every visit back home to her home dance studio, Burnett is determined to bring a little bit of New York’s modern dance culture back with her, which she did while grounded in Tsawwassen for over a year from the pandemic.

This year is Burnett’s first year of sustaining herself entirely off dancing professionally, and though it’s been tricky at points, she’s been loving it, especially because of all the gigs that she’s been taking on to spread awareness and education about different humanitarian causes.

“It’s really something that I’m grateful for every single day, no matter how exhausted I am running between all my different performances ... I want to be an artist – even if I’m a struggling artist, I want to be an artist. I want to live off that,” she says.

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