Not everyone’s dance origin story is a romantic one. For Jennifer Stephenson, a Highland dancer from Montreal, Quebec, it is a tale rooted in practicality.

“I had severe pronation as a child,” Stephenson shares via email from her home in Montreal. “The doctor advised my mother to enrol me in some kind of activity which would strengthen my ankles and feet. Given my mother’s Scottish background, Highland dance seemed like the ideal choice.”

Stephenson began dancing at the tender age of six, noting that her passion for the sport grew over time.

“I enjoyed the competition. This is one of the few sports where boys and girls compete against each other on a level playing field – there is no gender division. And choreography is also an important aspect which provides a much-needed creative outlet.”

Along with that creative element, she remains active in the sport for the physical benefits, as Highland dance improves both cardiovascular health and strength conditioning.

In addition to her work in performance and competition, she opened the Stephenson School of Dance in 1977. She has represented Quebec at the Canadian Inter-Provincial Highland Dancing Championships, has become Fellow of the Scottish Dance Teachers’ Alliance, and has chaired ScotsDance Canada Championship Series three times over the last 20 years.

She notes that the biggest highlight of her career has been the work she has done as an educator.

“I started teaching in the basement of my parent’s house when I was 17 years old. I had just received my teaching qualification from the Scottish Dance Teachers’ Alliance, and thought it would be a good part-time job, as it was something that I loved to do. Over the years I continued to teach, mostly on a recreational basis. I then wanted to get more involved in the competition side of Highland dance, so I qualified to sit on the Royal Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing Judges panel. I love judging because it gives me the opportunity to travel across the world to see the sport at its best and bring that knowledge back to my dancers.”

Stephenson and her students have since visited various locales around the world to compete, including Edinburgh, Basel, Moscow, Belfast, and Halifax. Her teams have won championships both in Canada and the US, and placed in the top six at the World Highland Dance Championships in Cowal, Scotland.

“I am passionate about passing on the traditions of Highland dance, and I am proud of the network of dancers and teachers that I have trained who will go on to keep our traditions alive in the province of Quebec.”

She admits that the Highland dance community both at home, and elsewhere in Canada, faces challenges in the years ahead.

“When I started dancing, there was a vibrant and strong dance community in Montreal.  Our numbers have dwindled since then and we are now struggling to keep the traditions alive. This is not just exclusive to Quebec – it seems to be a trend across the country. For most of us, teaching is not our primary source of income, and we often hold down two or three other jobs. This means that we cannot always devote the time and attention that is needed to grow the sport.”

The key to reversing those trends, she notes, is education.

“We tend to be self-effacing; we have a rich and colourful history, but I don’t think we realize how unique it is. We need to work more on self-promotion, using tools available to us today which we did not have in the past. Social media is a good example of this and can be a very effective tool if used appropriately. Showcasing local talent, hosting open houses, etc. – all can help to increase our visibility. Inter-cultural collaborations are also important to expose young people, who otherwise would have no knowledge of Scottish traditions, to our art forms such as dance, music, theatre, etc. We must find ways to keep our culture and traditions alive while making them up-to-date and relevant.”

Currently, Stephenson is preparing a series of lectures and workshops for the coming months.

“I am also working with other professionals to implement a plan of action targeting dancer registrations in studios across Montreal and Quebec and increasing awareness of our Scottish culture.”