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Life lessons through dance

Alumna draws parallels between dance and the law

By Matthew Fox

Lawyer Mandi Sutherland Olivier was called to the bar—the ballet bar that is.
Lawyer Mandi Sutherland Olivier was called to the bar—the ballet bar that is.
/ Shutterbug's Photography
Stereotypes suggest that a dance school owner with the confidence to negotiate a lease with a landlord that happens to be a law firm would be rare, but Mandi Sutherland Olivier did just that to secure her studio space last year—thanks to her own atypical background as a lawyer and dancer.

Afterwards, they asked me if I wanted to work part-time in real estate for them,” she says in the modest office of her Dance Divas Inc. studio in southeast Calgary. She politely declined.

Having studied in both fields, Sutherland Olivier, BA’00, LLB’04, believes there are more parallels to dance and law than first meet the eye. “A lot of the same principles I applied as a young dancer and teacher, I applied as a lawyer,” she says. “Dancers are extremely determined and dedicated. There’s a certain seriousness to it.”

Sutherland Olivier grew up in Grande Prairie. Taking lessons from the age of four and practicing countless hours in her basement, she developed into an accomplished ballerina; at 17 she was accepted into a six-week program at the esteemed Walnut Hill School near Boston, an experience she considers “the best thing I ever did as a dancer.”

Sutherland Olivier learned of the U of C’s new BA with a dance major and, after four years in Calgary, was in the program’s inaugural graduating class. She knew she wanted to continue her studies and had taken several pre-law courses. “I’ve always had a strong sense of justice,” she says. “Even as a young child, if I didn’t feel that someone was being treated fairly, I never had a problem speaking up about it.”

Guidance she received from Janice Dickin, BA’71, MA’74, LLB’85, chair of the U of C’s Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics Board, convinced her that a law degree was next. “Janice’s mentorship and my ongoing relationship with her has become the most important element of my time at the U of C,” Sutherland Olivier says. “She was one of my first female role models who made it okay to be smart and successful, and to not hide it.”

Sutherland Olivier says she enjoyed her Faculty of Law experience, but seeing firsthand the work-life balance pressures faced by many lawyers convinced her it wasn’t for her. Undaunted and goal-oriented, Sutherland earned her degree and was called to the bar in 2005.

Teaching dance full-time at a friend’s studio for a year convinced Sutherland Olivier that she wanted to run her own school. In 2007, she earned Registered Teacher Status with the London, U.K.-based Royal Academy of Dance and she launched Dance Divas, offering ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop lessons for 140 students aged two and up.

“It’s important to me that my students are well-rounded, disciplined and hard working, and I’d also like them to be good, respectful people. We are learning life lessons here, and the vehicle is dance.”