Thursday, 6 March 2014

Dreamers Interview Series – Owen Hortop

After a much needed hiatus, ATUA is finally back online!  And what better way to start afresh than by  interviewing an awesome guy.  I give you Owen Hortop, swing dancer teacher at Cat's Corner (and so much more!) Owen was one of my first swing dance instructor and he's an amazing teacher.  Without further ado, here's the interview.

Information about the giveaway will follow the interview.

Tell us a bit more about what you do.

My job is (along with several other people) to keep Cat's Corner operating. That can entail anything from cleaning to sound engineering, quite apart from the artistic side of the job. Right now, I mostly teach and coach dancers, and provide customer service during the day. I'm also the studio's treasurer, although we have a bookkeeper who makes that job lighter than it used to be. I'm always glad when we end up having someone who can cover a technical thing that I'm used to improvise out of necessity; I really hope I'll never have to do plumbing again! The business is slowly growing, which allows me do more of what I love. I teach weekly at McGill Swing Kids – a university club – and last year, I animated jazz listening afternoons in a geriatric ward weekly. 

Did you always have this passion for swing dance or did you start as a general dance lover?

I didn't dance at all until I was 25 years old. It never occurred to me that I could. I was always a creative person (I wrote a lot and made sculptures out of steel wire), but I was shy and dancing scared me. One day, a girl dragged me out to Cat's Corner and I fell in love with it – not that it felt easy, but it felt totally possible. It was a world where people could just connect with each other and not say a word. So my first dance was swing, and I stuck to just that for quite a while because it was a safe space; I rarely ventured out of Cat's Corner, in fact. I was really inspired by the warm and accepting nature of the place, it seemed like there was no such thing as a dancer who wasn't also a nice person. Of course it's not that simple, but I think social dancing requires and teaches some essential respect and interpersonal skills that make folks easier to get along with. So I bonded with the people in swing dance specifically at Cat's, and that kept me coming back. What happened to the girl? She lives in Winnipeg now with her husband and two kids; I think she came out dancing about twice since that first night... 

When you started as a student at Cat's Corner, eight years ago, did you ever dream of becoming a teacher or more?

I think I asked about teaching after about six months. Of course I had no idea how much knowhow went into teaching swing! I've always liked teaching, sharing ideas with other people... but you really have to understand where people are going to guide their first steps on a journey. The people at Cat's were supportive and encouraged me to focus on becoming a better dancer before aspiring to teach, but it was always something I wanted to do. 

I was lucky in that I made a friend who was planning to open her own school in the West Island; I drew her business plan up as a term project for my entrepreneurship class (I was studying for a Bachelor's in Commerce at the time). She invited me to help her out further by teaching, since she knew I really wanted to. She invested a lot of time in me, helping me to improve my dancing and to think critically about how I was teaching. I wasn't great with crowds, and I had to learn how to deal with the occasional strong personality who'd show up in a class – there's almost always one student in every group who can be a motivator or a disruption, depending on how you treat them. It was a great training ground, small groups and lots of time to debrief since I was teaching with a dear friend.  

I kind of fell into my current position; there just kept being bigger things that needed doing at the studio. I was in school, and in my free time, I was dancing and volunteering. Then the studio moved and they needed someone to oversee the installation of the new studio location. The founder and owner was leaving, and a few of us created a new corporation to run the studio in its current form. I was there and willing to sign for the responsibilities inherent to running the place.  There are three of us who act as custodians for the dance community. Cat's Corner belongs to all of us, the "owners" just try to steer it toward success so that we'll always have a place to dance. 

What was the biggest obstacle you had to face on your way to your current position?  How did you overcome it?

I'd say that most dancers have the same nemesis in their growth, personally or professionally: their ego. Whether it's self-judgement for not getting something instantly, or pride getting in the way of learning from others, we all have to learn patience with our learning curve and not overestimate where we are or where we "should" be. Dancing is an intensely personal thing, putting a bit of your soul out on the dance floor where everyone can see it. Doing that without being vulnerable or defensive is hard, but that's the only way we grow. The more you can say "this is me, here's where I'm at, and I'm OK with working on it at my own pace," the better your dancing looks and feels in the moment and the better it will be in future. 

I've had a lot of moments over the past five years when I've felt insecure about my dancing because Montreal has so many amazing dancers. There are teachers here at Cat's Corner who are miles ahead of me and always will be. Setting that aside and knowing that I have a lot to contribute to my students' learning, as well as just letting myself enjoy how far I've already come are daily things. I have to remind myself to just love what I do and recognize that it's enough as it is. 

At Cat's Corner, we've got more than 20 people on our teaching roster. That's 20 artistic personalities full of passion for jazz and Lindy Hop, all with slightly different ideas and motivations, wildly different backgrounds, and – I repeat – egos. It takes a magician like Debbie (the senior partner at Cat's Corner) to get everyone pulling together, and I think all of us sometimes have to let go of being right so that we can move forward. 

What is your next goal?

I'm always looking to improve my dancing and expand my understanding of how we move through the world. I've started taking classes in Contemporary Dance and they're just fantastic; a great complement to what I'm doing in swing. I'm making a living with dance and that was really my big dream since I became interested in teaching. Now I'd like to travel a bit more, particularly to help smaller scenes develop across the country and around the world. I'm building a scene in Montreal for a swing dance called Collegiate Shag which isn't very popular yet, but we're starting to get momentum. I'd love to see that take off. I'm also interested in the idea of Dance Therapy, which is emerging in Canada as a valid care option alongside other art therapies. If I can manage to get back to school then I'd love to study psychology and use dance to help people express and heal themselves. 

What advice would you give to dreamers who hesitate to take the first step towards making a living out of their dream?

Hesitation is OK. Sometimes the thing that you love is best as a hobby. If you're going to go for it though, you don't have to be the absolute best at what you do. You have to be motivated and willing to find a place for your talents in the world, and it might mean making a very modest income and investing a lot of time to lay the groundwork. It's worth it, though! The day I realized that I could make a living doing this was a turning point in how I saw my life, I've been much happier ever since. Make a plan, and give it a reality check in both directions: not only "is my plan overly optimistic in its assumptions," but also "am I being so conservative that I'm cutting myself off from the future I want?"

Our previous guest, fiction author T.B. Markinson, would like to ask you: What advice do you have for people with two left feet, but who aspire to become adequate dancers? 

We all start out somewhere, which is usually awkward. When babies are learning to walk, we don't write them off as "inadequate" if they fall down a bit! For me, dance comes from connection to movement and connection to your body. If you can bop around to your favourite song, that's a step. If you have a gesture or a way of walking that feels good to you, give it some room to grow - do it big, small, fast and slow, until you find the way that feels just right. Most of the challenges I see in my students and myself come from being afraid of "doing it wrong." The less fear you have of mistakes (and I don't believe any movement you can walk away from is a bad one), the more stuff you can explore and choose from when you're deciding how YOU like to move. Do just a little every day, and be sure to include a mistake or two. 

The other thing to do is to find music that moves you. I love jazz music, but I also find something enjoyable in more recent music, from James Brown to Moby. When it speaks to you, you can't help but want to add to it, even if it's just drumming on your steering wheel while you drive. That's how you know what song to start with. 

Our next guest will be author and ex-pastor CharlesMcGarry.  What would you like to ask him?

How do you think people find or lose faith? Is it circumstance, or do they follow internal patterns?


For a chance to win a half-price private lesson with Owen, leave a question for him in the comment section.  Giveaway ends on Tuesday March 11th at 11:59ET.  Winner and answers to the questions will be posted on Thursday March 13th.


  1. Collegiate Shag - one of the "funnest" dances. What is your favorite music to Shag to? One or two specific songs, svp..

  2. Amazing and inspiring article. What a great Montreal personality!