Sonya Dessureault is a badass. She talks about her life story as if it’s just the perfectly natural story of things you do to make your dreams happen. This makes her even more badass.
Sonya and I skyped a few weeks ago, curled up under blankets on our respective couches hundreds of miles apart. It was a great chat full of surprises for me and her dropping crazy insights into dance and life and how to make things happen. You’ll want to read this and get to know her before Camp Westie. Even if you think you know her from last year, you’ll still be surprised, like I was, at the intensity and insight she brings.
Let’s start here: Sonya didn’t start dancing until the end of high school. “The closest thing to dance training I’d ever had was some community classes in a church basement,” she said. It was entirely for leisure but it interested her. “I was a great student. I got top scores in everything. And I was bored.”
At age 15, she did an exchange program in Spain. The experience changed everything for her. “I didn’t want to finish school, I wanted to explore the world.” Regular academic success wasn’t enough. So when it was time to choose a two year pre-college program, she decided to do a two year dance program with no prior training. It was the first real exposure to dance she’d had. Dance was more challenging than the schoolwork she’d been doing.
Academia wasn’t for Sonya. With high school over, she hitched a ride from Montreal out to Hamilton and worked on an organic farm for two years. There wasn’t a chance to dance there but the two years showed her more of what it was like out in the world. “I didn’t even know what organic even meant,” Sonya said. “I went for two months which became two years.” But after several years, she knew that farming wasn’t the life for her. “After 3 years and exploring the west coast of Canada, I miss dance too much. I can’t do farming I have to go back. I took my last money and bought a bus ticket back to Montreal.”
That’s when salsa happened.
There was a free outdoor lesson in a park the summer she returned. She was hooked by the differences in partner dancing and started looking for work. She found a small studio that needed someone to watch the front desk and she exchanged some of her time for lessons. A few months later, she entered her first salsa competition and not long after that started teaching.
It might surprise you that Sonya started in salsa. But actually, more and more west coast swing dancers are coming from other styles. There’s an open door that west coast offers. It so readily embraces other styles and personalities.
When Sonya found west coast swing, she said, “That’s my dance.” It happened when she saw a video of Jordan and Tatiana perform at a salsa congress. But there wasn’t a lot of west coast in Montreal at the time; it was clear that if she wanted to dance west coast she’d have to travel to the US to learn it.
This is how bad she wanted it: she rented out her bedroom in her apartment and lived in the laundry room. The extra income helped cover expenses to go to events and keep learning.
The side perk to renting the room is that Jerome Subey became her tennant. Together, they started training 3 hours a day, learning and practicing and trying to get better. She didn’t place in novice for about six months since she was training alone and didn’t know what she was doing.
“It was the Royston Intensive that changed things. They still have running jokes about this. I asked so many questions.” It opened her mind to what the dance was and what it could be. She went from a social dancer to a competitor. In a year and a half, she was in All Stars.
Sonya and Stephen started competing together in 2013. They met at Liberty Swing and later danced a strictly together at Summer Hummer. Sonya became well known in Europe; Stephen was well known in the US circuit. Together, they started teaching all around the globe. You can find them at any time away from North America, helping build the international following for west coast swing.
In addition to her fierce competition skills–just see any recent J&J or the intense classic performance at the U.S. Open last November for proof– Sonya is a dedicated instructor. As a teacher, Sonya values full comprehension. “Want to make people understand things. If I don’t understand it I can’t do it.” Sonya is definitely technical. She’s honest and clear but still positive. “There’s no point in putting people down,” she said. “Dance is about having fun. Come and learn, have a light bulb moment, have fun. Then everything is there.”
Coaching is her favorite role of the many hats a teacher can wear. “A coach makes sense of everything you hear. If you don’t have someone to help it make sense.” And having something be usable and practical for a dancer is her goal in every instance.
Between teaching and competing, Sonya’s life takes her around the globe. She’s also investing in a multi-year training in naturopathy and was certified in yoga last summer. “People told me I couldn’t have everything. But I did get everything. I travel the world, I dance, I teach, I make ends meet, and I have great friends. This is my everything.”
But she admitted there’s just one thing that she doesn’t always get in her job: the outdoors. “It’s part of why I’m excited for Camp Westie,” she said.
“There’s this human side to it,” she noted about the event. “Big events are the real platform for the art, but often you’re lonely even if you’re surrounded by people. It’s work. Camp Westie doesn’t feel like work. It feels like I can come and chill and enjoy and meet people. It’s a good vibe. I hope everyone who comes has fun!”
Sonya’s badass self will be joining the Camp Westie staff for the second time this year. Her energy as a Camp Counselor is unique, wild, and 100% her own style. We can’t wait to learn from her and hope you’ll join us.