Pen pal exchange evolves into close friendship for promising ballet dancer

What began as a pen pal exchange has evolved into one of the biggest supporters of Emma Tomlinson’s promising ballet career.

It was back in January when a community pen pal project was launched for residents of The Wexford. The seniors’ residence in Tsawwassen was under strict COVID-19 lockdown measures at the time. The response proved to be overwhelming.

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“It was incredible. We had hundreds of emails, including some from Europe and South America,” recalled Wexford recreational assistant and project organizer John Meier. “I think people Google searched for pen pals in Canada and that article came up. The most exciting one of all of them was Karel and Emma.

“We have close to 70 suites here and I tried to place the letters with the right people to make it a good fit. When someone saw Emma’s letter they said ‘you have to talk Karel about this.’”

Tomlinson, 14, was encouraged by her parents to write a letter about herself and her passion for ballet. The South Delta Secondary student was stuck at home with her school closed and dance classes cancelled during the height of the pandemic.

ballett
Source: Karoline Cullen

Her submission ended up with Karel Ley whose close lifelong friend happens to be one of Canada’s most accomplished ballerinas of her generation.

Lynn Seymour was the same age as Tomlinson when she earned a scholarship to the Sadler Wells Ballet School in London. She went on to be a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, a world renowned classical ballet company.

Ironically, for three straight years, Tomlinson had travelled to London to attend Royal Ballet School’s White Lodge summer intensive program where she earned two achievement awards and direct entry for what turned out to be a postponed 2020 visit.

From the initial letters, Tomlinson and Ley began to write each other regularly and exchange photos too.

“It’s pretty cool. I have lots of dance friends but (Karel and I) are from different generations and the fact that we have so much in common is great,” said Tomlinson.

Ley eventually moved to London and lived with Seymour as a nanny to look after her two children during the height of her career.

“I was a great fan and supported Lynn from a distance while I was here in Canada. We wrote a lot of letters when she was in London. All sorts of things she could moan to me about,” smiled Ley who started ballet lessons with Seymour after the pair were inspired by a Theater Under the Stars production at Stanley Park. “She had twins and was desperate for a nanny. She begged me to come over. I always wanted to go to London.”

Ley sees a bright future for Tomlinson who will be training full-time with the Goh Ballet Academy in Vancouver starting this month, after getting her start with Deas Island Dance 10 years ago. Tomlinson inspires to dance in Europe one day and hopes to land with a professional school in the next couple of years.

ballet
Source: Karoline Cullen

“That’s what I really love about their relationship is Karel is offering so much advice to Emma that even I can’t because I don’t come from the same type of background with a love of dance,” added Tomlinson’s mom Heidi Surman.  “She has a wonderful long history and knows what it is going to take from a commitment standpoint.”

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