Canada’s First Family of Dance
If Canada has a first family of dance, the Foleys can claim the title. This family’s dance dynasty spans three generations, and the thread that connects them is a steadfast commitment to dance education.
The Foley story begins with Brian and Faye, who helped shape the landscape of Canadian dance. Best known as the creators of a dance teaching syllabus, Associated Dance Arts for Professional Teachers (ADAPT), the Foleys have made their guide for teachers a crucial institution in Canadian dance education. But the heart of the Foley plan is keeping dance in the family. Brian and Faye started several dance ventures, passing on some of them to their children. Faye’s children, Danny and Debbie Poland, have also made substantial contributions to the field. Danny and his wife, Lisa, run a studio that Brian started in the 1960s, while Debbie and her husband, Frank Noce, direct another Brian-and-Faye venture: CanDance, Canada’s leading competition company. Brian and Faye’s son, Ryan, is a freelance dancer, choreographer, and teacher. And Debbie’s daughter Ashley, also a dancer, teaches at the family studio.
The Foleys’ connection to dance began in the 1940s, when Brian’s aunt, Mary McCracken, a former dancer for Canadian army shows, was eager to get her children started in dance classes. She suggested that Brian, then 5, come along for the ride. His cousins lasted six months, but Brian went on to dance professionally on television at the tender age of 10. With variety shows all the rage, work for dancers abounded during the boom years of the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC).
In search for higher quality dance education, Brian’s parents moved him to Louise Burns’ studio, a top Toronto school at the time. There he first laid eyes on his future wife, Faye, who studied as well as taught at the school. “Faye was always impeccably dressed—not a hair out of place; everything matched, including the color of her tap shoes,” says Brian. “She was a stellar student, never missed class, never late for teaching, and she always knew what steps came next.” At 14, he left to study with Gladys Forrester, whom he credits with bringing jazz technique to Canada and instilling in him a lifelong attention to quality dance education.
At 18, Brian danced on The Ed Sullivan Show; a year later, in the mid-1960s, he choreographed for and danced in his first TV series, a weekly teenage show called Time of Your Life. In his mid-20s his career took off; he went on to direct TV, stage, and industry shows and became the youngest Canadian choreographer to be hired by the CBC. Brian opened his first studio in 1963 in the east side of Toronto. In 1966, he bought another studio in the west end and ran the two locations until 1968. He was a virtual dance machine, simultaneously teaching and dancing professionally.
In 1966, Brian started working with international ice skating competitors; by 1976 he was choreographing for 13 Olympic Games skaters, including gold medalists Dorothy Hamill, Robin Cousins, and John Curry, as well as bronze medalist Toller Cranston. “I never actually put on a pair of skates,” jokes Brian. “But I know how to make them look good.” He choreographed Hamill’s routines for the Ice Capades and made dances for Cranston’s 1977 Broadway production, The Ice Show.
Brian worked with more than a few Broadway luminaries, dancing in a show with Michael Bennett and performing choreography by Jerome Robbins, Peter Gennaro, and Bob Fosse. He guest taught at the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg and at the Deutsche State Ballet in Berlin and was one of the creators of lyric jazz in the 1970s, then known as “rock ballet.” “I taught a lyric routine to Johnny Mathis’ ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ at a Christmas convention,” recalls Brian. “It was the talk of the dance teaching industry in America in 1976.”
Like Brian, Faye developed a passion for dance education at an early age. She started dancing at 7 in a small school that left her completely unprepared to understand a real dance class. At Louise Burns’ studio she was baffled by the teacher’s directions. “She started [rattling] off these technical terms. I had no clue what she was asking,” says Faye. The experience had a profound effect on her life path; much of her work has focused on making sure that dancers have the tools they need. Despite her rocky start, Faye received quality training and eventually became a teacher at Burns’ studio, where one of her young charges was Brian. “He was a smart aleck,” Faye says. “He was always running around, chasing the girls, and wanted to be at the front of the class.” Brian did make an impression on her, though the two lost touch after he moved to Forrester’s studio. Eventually Faye married, had children, and opened a small dance studio of her own.
Then, in 1966, fate intervened in the lives of the two dancers. As Faye drove through Toronto one day, she passed a huge sign that read, “Brian Foley Studios.” “This can’t be the same guy,” thought Faye. But sure enough, that sassy kid had grown up and was running a successful dance studio. Faye began taking classes, and Brian asked her to teach at the studio. Eventually she separated from her husband; she and Brian were married in 1974.
Today Faye is in demand as an adjudicator and teacher for dance competitions and dance organizations across Canada and the United States. In 1979 she became the first Canadian dance teacher to win an overall award at the Dance Masters of America (DMA) National Convention, taking home the first-place Jazz Group Award. “That year, all American dance teachers became very aware of the standard of dance in Canada,” says Brian. Faye has since earned a reputation as a teachers’ teacher.
The Foleys made it clear to their children that dancing was a choice and not a demand. Danny didn’t start dancing until age 11, when a figure skater living with the family urged him to give dancing a try. Since then he has amassed an impressive list of professional credits, including tours of Funny Girl, The Music Man, and Annie;the TV series Wayne and Shuster and The Tommy Hunter Show;and the films Heavenly Bodies and Loose Screws. He received the Sherry Gold Memorial Award for Excellence in Choreography at the American Dance Awards (ADA) in 1995. Today he is a frequent adjudicator at competitions and continues to choreograph for fashion, stage, and competitions.
Faye’s daughter, Debbie, doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t in the studio. She had a flourishing dance career specializing in tap, jazz, and ballet and danced on several TV specials. She doesn’t regret a moment of her dance-focused childhood. “We traveled a lot and had so many great opportunities as children,” says Debbie. “Yet we had remarkably well-adjusted childhoods.”
Ryan started dancing at age 6 and was trained primarily by his half siblings, Debbie and Danny. He won the America’s Male Dancer of the Year award from the ADA in 1995 and ran a tap dance company called The Next Step. He has worked with Gregory Hines, Barenaked Ladies, The Moffatts, Alanis Morissette, Nelly Furtado, and Tap Dogs, and danced in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Song and Dance. These days he teaches at ADAPT conferences and freelances throughout Canada.
In 1978 the Foleys’ focus on dance education began to broaden, and they started the first Canadian chapter of Dance Masters of America. But it was ADAPT that placed them on the dance education map. The ADAPT ball got rolling when other teachers, who had noticed that the Foleys’ students had a certain polish and got consistent results at competitions, invited them to evaluate their students. “We started to jot down a few ideas and that provided the seeds for ADAPT,” Faye says. They maintained a very high standard of training and it showed in all their students. It was time to evaluate and codify what they were doing right and share it with the dance world. The first version of ADAPT got a test run during a summer camp in 1979. The teachers were astounded by the results, and not long after that ADAPT had become a well-established system. “I do feel I have a good eye,” says Faye. “There are only two ways of teaching, the right way or the wrong way.”
During the mid-1980s the Foleys realized that ADAPT was taking most of their attention. It was time to pass the studio on to Danny and Debbie. Brian remembers the day when the Brian Foley Dance Complex officially became Performing Dance Arts Inc. As the new sign went up and the old sign came down, “a knife went into my heart and turned that day,” he says. Debbie and Danny ran the studio together for 13 years, at which point Debbie moved on and Danny’s wife, Lisa, joined him in the business.
After leaving the family’s dance studio in 1996, Debbie, with her husband, Joe Noce, took over the management of CanDance. She travels nonstop, going to all the regional competitions. “I enjoy seeing the kids grow and improve,” she says. “I love organizing things; it’s my way of giving back to dance.” She also works as a senior ADAPT examiner.
ADAPT, used by 45,000 students in Canada, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, and Performing Dance Arts is going strong in its 20th year. Without a doubt the Foleys have left a significant mark on Canadian dance. All of them feel blessed to be working successfully in the dance industry. “I am really proud of everyone,” says Faye. “We spend a lot of time together and it’s great to have something in common.” It’s too soon to know if the newest crop of Foleys will stay in the business—Danny and Lisa have two young children and Ryan and his wife, Andrea, have two; Ashley recently gave birth to the newest Foley, making Brian and Faye great-grandparents. Still, they are fortunate to be born into a family that strives for excellence. Brian sums up the Foley family mission: “My life has always been about spreading the world of dance.”