Have you ever watched ballet dancers in absolute amazement? Ballet is a very graceful form of dance but the movements that dancers perform appear to be rather unnatural for the body. When these movements are done well and with precision, they appear natural and you can’t help but be mesmerized as the dancers appear to float through the air in ways that seem to defy gravity. What’s even more fascinating, at least for me, is the way that they spin on the tips of their toes. As a youngster, I attempted this move repeatedly without any success. Karen Mason-Albert was born to dance in this way and she not only perfected her ballet moves, she also excelled in many other areas of the performing arts.
Karen was born into a military family. They lived a military life; living from posting to posting. “I have two older brothers and our family moved to Chilliwack in 1978 when my dad was posted here and here we stayed,” she smiled.
From the time that she was just three, Karen knew that she wanted to dance. “I was a ball of energy as a child and dancing was a good way to channel that energy. I started to dance when I was five; my mom thought that this would be a good age to start. I wanted to do tap but my mom wanted ballet and my teacher said that ballet would provide me with the discipline that I needed. Classical dance, which is what ballet is, is a main ingredient to any dancer’s success. I have my mom to thank for that,” she said. Karen was allowed to learn other forms of dance; the only caveat was that she had to continue with her ballet. “I love tap. It’s one of the most challenging forms of dance because you have to think before doing the movement. It was my forte; it was what I loved. But, I learned to love ballet too. I have huge respect for that form of dance,” she said enthusiastically.
Karen started off with Francis Ford’s Ballet School and eventually moved to the Barry School of Dance in Abbotsford, where she expanded her focus to include tap, in addition to ballet. By the age of 10, she was with the Dance Factory and during her first year with the school, she had her first tap solo and was named the most promising tap dancer. Her life of dance took off from there.
Bonnie Jean Anderson entered her life and gave her the drive to dance. “We had a good connection. She always challenged me.” At 11, she became totally focused of her craft and was dancing at least five days a week. “I began dancing with the Deborah Cameron School of Ballet in Langley. We were constantly on the highway going to dance classes or competitions and I became a strong dancer. My mom stopped her life for me so that I could dance. Mom, Bonnie and Ms. Cameron made me the tough competitive person that I became. I was competitive against myself, though. I was focused but I remained a positive and optimistic competitor. Training, performing and competing became my life. I had no social life to speak of,” she explained.
This young girl was clearly driven and she had a goal. She wanted to be the absolute best that she could be and after awhile resolved to become a triple threat. “Back then it was rare; not so much now. I wanted to sing, dance and act. I began taking voice lessons with Laurie Hirschman and was classically trained for five years. I was into ballet, tap and jazz dancing and was doing musical theatre. My mom always supported me but she never pushed me. She was taking my lead. My mom invested so much in me and I will always be grateful for that,” she said.
There were the exams and competitions, the dance conventions and the summer camps and they were going very well. Every year, Karen would get a spot to compete at the BC Festival of the Arts and at the age of 14, she was picked up by an adjudicator in Surrey and was chosen to go on a dance tour in Russia. “This was a one year process because we had to learn the dances; we had to learn Russian and that sort of thing. While we were there, I had two sessions with the Bolshoi Ballet and I couldn’t believe that I was standing in the same theatre as Mikhail Baryshnikov. What an amazing experience,” she enthused. She was also awarded a full bursary in Los Angeles to study with Tina Landon, who was Janet Jackson’s choreographer.
By the time that she was 15, she was teaching dance at JB Academy and taught there for three years, building their dance program. “I taught Amanda Quinton when she was 3 and she’s now the owner of Project Dance, which is where I teach. Talk about going full circle,” she laughed. She was training, teaching and still in high school and it was a tremendous load but she excelled nevertheless. Karen also danced with the Arts Umbrella Dance Company, a prestigious dance company operating out of Granville Island and this certainly helped to expand her horizons.
She was hardly out of high school when her agent lined up an audition at the Deerhurst Resort located just outside of Toronto for a show called A Touch of Broadway. “In the show, there were 12 singers which included four main vocalists. I was told that I had the job; I just had to get rid of my braces. I packed my bags and went to live in Huntsville, Ontario. I was 18 and the youngest in the cast and I had the pleasure of working with Shania Twain. She was known as Elaine at that time, of course. She was one of the main vocalists and she took me under her wing. We spent a lot of time together. It was an intense show and we worked long, long hours. We were supposed to go on tour in Europe after the year’s contract in Deerhurst but it was just too expensive to take the show on the road so I came home after the contract ended and opened up Centre Stage Dance Studio, which I had for 15 years. I did keep in touch with Shania for the next five years but eventually we lost touch. I’m hoping to connect with her again in the near future,” she said.
After she came home, she met the love of her life. “He was on course with the military here and we met and hit it off. He came back while he was on summer leave to propose. As much as I loved him, I told him that I couldn’t do it. I had my business and I knew the demands of military life and I just couldn’t do it. In an act of sacrifice, he stepped away from his military career to marry me and we stayed here. We were married for 15 wonderful years and we had three children; Curtis, Mathew and Jessica. Dan was my rock but two years ago he was tragically killed in a worksite accident.” she said.
Through this tragic time, Karen has managed to remain strong. “Communication plays an important part in our family. We’re a tight team. One thing that I can say with certainty is that every day is precious, so live it to the fullest. I miss that we’re not journeying through life together but I know that he’s looking down on us. I appreciate this community and I love teaching the kids. Chilliwack is important to me and I’ll do anything for this community,” she ended.