Emma Kowalchuk (family photo).

Penhold sisters on two different professional dance paths

Emma and Olivia Kowalchuk leave home to study ballet

Ken and Kirsten Kowalchuk went from having two energetic dancing daughters in the house to being empty-nesters — all within a space of three days.

Both girls moved out last fall to become full-time resident students at two of Canada’s most prestigious dance schools. Emma Kowalchuk, 16, is studying at the School of Alberta Ballet in Calgary, while her sister Olivia Kowalchuk, 14, is attending the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, two provinces away.

Their acceptance calls came within the same week last July. “We were in shock,” recalled Ken. “All of a sudden we were losing one kid, and then three days later …” the second call came in and their other daughter was leaving as well.


Dancers in summer RWB program

Letting them go was a bittersweet decision for Kowalchuks, but they both felt it was important to let Emma and Olivia pursue their dance dreams. Kirsten remembers how much it would have meant to have had the same opportunity when she was a teenager.

“The girls are so excited, and they’ve both worked for this for so long … but, oh my gosh! They are so young to be away from us! It’s definitely been a transition,” said Kirsten, who runs the Penhold School of Dance.

As a mom, she particularly feels their absence. Kirsten said Emma and Olivia have always taken ballet classes with her, and had even been helping her in the studio.

Kirsten now does a lot of Facetime with her daughters. She’s also been putting a lot of mileage on the family vehicle driving to Calgary, and flying to Winnipeg every other month.

Olivia lives in a residence attached to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet studios, and only has a short walk to classes at the University of Winnipeg.

Ken, a communications consultant, reminds her to walk in a group.

His nerves remain frayed at the thought of Emma taking the C-train from the south side of Calgary, where she’s living with her grandparents, to the downtown dance school by 8 a.m. Ken explained, “Here she’s grown up in Penhold, never been on a bus before in her life, and she’s taking a C-train in the big city!”

Besides the emotional roller-coaster this year has been, he admitted it was also a financial challenge — although a partial scholarship from the School of Alberta Ballet has helped.

The situation reminds him of Olympic parents and all they sacrifice. “I guess you don’t think about it … you just get it done,” said Ken, who’s focusing on his daughters having the experience of their lives.

“We couldn’t have done this if Ken and I weren’t on the same page,” said Kirsten, who feels she’s always been realistic about prospects in the dance world.

Since there are no guarantees that either girl will be asked to continue at the ballet schools next year, “I tell them, if it’s only for a year, then you’ve had an amazing year! Learn everything you can.”


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Contributed photo Olivia Kowalchuk in Royal Winnipeg Ballet studio.

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