To Russia, with love

Teachers team up for ballet-focused expedition

Published on September 14, 2013

She is a longtime dance teacher and choreographer with a special interest in ballet; he is a high school Russian teacher who has been travelling to the former Soviet Union since 1990.
Together, Marie Steffen and Rodney Squires have created the perfect Eastern European getaway for dancers and ballet lovers in this province.

Next April, over Easter break, they will take a group of Newfoundlanders to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a week-long ballet and cultural tour, taking in ballet performances, a backstage tour at the famous Mariinsky Theatre, visits to palaces, museums, cathedrals and other cultural monuments, and, for those who wish to participate, masterclasses in dance from acclaimed Russian teachers at the Jacobson Ballet School.

Steffen is a native of the U.K. who has been living in St. John’s for the past 22 years. She owned her own dance school, The School of Dance, from 1999 until 2009, and was director of dance at MAX before selling her dance school to MAX last year and taking a break from the profession. This coming January, Steffen will officially open her new school of dance, Steffen Dance, in the west end of the city. She has never been to Russia, but it’s always been one of her dreams.

“When I was young, I’d be looking through ballet books, and Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Makarova, these are all names that I grew up with,” she said. “I’m beyond excited to think that I will be there and maybe in a theatre that they have danced in. It’s pretty huge.”

Squires love of all things Russian began when he was just five or six, watching the world hockey championships.

“I fell in love with the Soviet hockey team,” he explained. “Even when I was a little boy, I said, ‘one of these days I’m going to study that country and I’m going to learn that language.’”

Squires went on to do a degree in Russian language and literature from MUN and a masters in Russian studies from the University of Toronto, as well as a diploma in teaching Russian as a foreign languages from St. Petersburg’s Hertzen All Russia State Pedagogical Institute. He’s been teaching Russian at Prince of Wale Collegiate high school in St. John’s for the past 13 years, and has organized eight previous group tours to Russia for his students and members of the public.

Steffen and Squires met when Squires’ wife, Frances, began dancing. These days, the couple’s seven-year-old daughter, Nadyezhda — who speaks fluent Russian, thanks to her dad — takes ballet lessons from Steffen.

Steffen and Squires came up with the idea to organize a ballet-focused tour of Russia together — she with her dance experience, and he with his knowledge of St. Petersburg — and worked out all the details.

In Russia, ballet dancers are the equivalent of hockey stars in Canada, Squires said.

“It’s the same level of adoration,” he said. “These dancers represent, quite honestly, the state. Russians are proud of their history in terms of space and the ballet. If you are a prima ballerina in Russia, you can’t go out on the street because you will be recognized by just about everybody.

“I was telling my male students that for guys, it’s culturally fine, at the age of four or five, for your parents to enroll you in these ballet schools and it’s expected that the guys will dance along with the girls. There’s no stigma attached to being a ballet dancer in Russia in terms of males.”

While Steffen and Squires have already had expressions of interest from dancers and dance teachers, it’s open to anyone who wants to come. The cost is approximately $4,100, which includes airfare, accommodations, all breakfasts, lunches and some dinners, museum entrances, the Mariinsky Theatre tour, city bus tour, folk performance show at Nikolaevsky Palace, a day trip to Pushkin/Tsarskoye Selo, an English-speaking tour guide and Russian language and culture preparation classes in St. John’s prior to departure, as well as the ballet masterclasses. Those who do not wish to take part in the classes will receive a reduced price.

If all goes well, Steffen and Squires hope to make the trip a regular event.

“I just want to find a way to bring more Newfoundlanders over there in general, but this has a purpose to it, and it’s near and dear to my heart,” Squires said. “Even though France is considered the birthplace of ballet, Russia — and St. Petersburg in particular — is considered the premier place to dance and to be a dancer. If Marie and I can bring our young Newfoundland dancers, and some older dancers, too, to Russia, then why not?”

Anyone wishing more information on the Russian ballet and culture tour can contact Steffen through her website at



April 17-25, 2014


Day 1: Depart for Russia. Overnight flight to St. Petersburg.

Day 2: Transfer to hotel upon arrival, acclimatize to surroundings. Dinner at hotel.

Day 3: Breakfast at hotel, then enjoy a city-wide bus excursion. Visit to the Peter and Paul fortress, the burial place of the Romanov royal family. Lunch will be at a city restaurant, before an afternoon of shopping and browsing. Dinner at a city restaurant and an evening stroll through the city.

Day 4: Breakfast at the hotel before a three-hour ballet masterclass at the Jacobson Ballet School. After lunch in the city, a visit to Winter Palace, the main residence of the Russian Tsars and Tsarinas. Tour of the Hermitage Museum. After dinner, take in a ballet performance.

Day 5: After breakfast, a visit to the town of Tsarskoye Selo, where Russian writer Alexander Pushkin lived and studied. A visit to Catherine Palace. After a lunch of traditional food in the Podvoire restaurant, a visit to the Broken Ring monument. Dinner at your leisure before attending another ballet performance.

Day 6: After breakfast, another three-hour ballet masterclass. After lunch in the city, visits to Yusupov Palace, the murder site of Rasputin. Dinner at your leisure before a visit to the Nikolaevsky Palace, for a traditional folk show performance will canapés and cocktails.

Day 7: After breakfast, a backstage tour of the famous Mariinsky Theatre, followed by lunch in the city. A visit to Kazan Cathedral and St. Nicholas Cathedral. Dinner at your leisure before a taking in a final ballet performance.

Day 8: Breakfast, followed by a final ballet masterclass. Leisurely afternoon to shop and relax before dinner and a walk around downtown St. Petersburg.

Day 9: Early morning flight back to St. John’s.
 Twitter: @tara_bradbury