A Hard Childhood
Cindy left her native England to see Canada, and never once looked back. Settling in Quebec, the young woman closed the book on a difficult childhood; a violent, loveless family; a gray, hard city; a life of being bullied… All left in the dust an ocean away…
Cindy has lived in Quebec for decade and a half. Underneath a warm, friendly exterior beats the heart of a lioness. Deep down inside she is made of steel – steel tempered by a difficult upbringing that no longer appears to haunt her. She has rebuilt her life in Montreal, turning the page on her past, and all without the least shred of animosity or bitterness…
Dominic Desmarais Files Hip-Hop, Breakdance
Cindy grew up in the decaying industrial city of Peterborough, England. An ugly place where unemployment is sky high and violence lurks around every corner. “When I arrived in Quebec,” she remembers, “I wondered who guarded the flowers along the edges of the public roads at night! I couldn’t believe how safe things are here. Where I’m from, it’s normal to see an abandoned car on fire on the roadway.”
It was dog-eat-dog in her hometown. There was no college or university, so escaping poverty meant getting out of Peterborough altogether. “If you found a job at 16 you dropped out of school, because there was no point going further in your education. The whole city was like that.” The cream of the crop saved themselves by moving away: those who stayed were trapped forever. “They never went anywhere, even to visit London!” she says.
Cindy was the youngest of 5 children. They fit in well with the whole atmosphere of their native Peterborough. Her father, a soldier in a parachute regiment, was frequently absent. A man of few words, he was strict with his children. Her eldest brother was affiliated with the Hell’s Angels, and fled England for fear of being assassinated by his gang. Another brother did prison time for fraud and drug trafficking.
After the birth of the family’s second child, Cindy’s mother became depressive. “She went back to join her relatives, who were in the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Cindy recalls. “My father wanted no part of it. He wouldn’t let us attend any of their meetings, and we couldn’t even be around when other Witnesses visited our home. It was a taboo subject.”
When she was still a child, one of her brothers, age 17, was involved in a car accident. Her mother arrived at the hospital first and, following Jehovah’s Witness practice, refused to give the necessary permission for her son to receive a blood transfusion. “My father couldn’t believe she’d refused to let her son’s life be saved. Neither could us kids. From that moment on my dad couldn’t understand my mom at all.”
Cindy had a front row seat for daily arguments between her parents. Love was dead in her home. “They were born during the Second World War,” Cindy explains, “and people from that generation married for life whether you were in love or not. They fought non-stop. But they stayed together for the children.” Finally, however, her father demanded a divorce. Cindy was 12. All of her brothers and sisters had already left home. “I had to move to Quebec to take a step back and understand that this wasn’t a normal family upbringing,” she says, without a hint of bitterness in her voice.
Bullied at School
Young Cindy was the victim of verbal abuse at school. Any excuse would do to get under her skin. “I had no self-confidence,” she admits. “I never spoke. I didn’t stand up for myself. They made fun of me because my mom was a Jehovah’s Witness… Mom left home every weekend but never told us what she was doing.”
Mom had been going door to door for the Witnesses. “So when she’d meet with the families of my schoolmates,” Cindy says, “I’d be made fun of the next week at school. But I never understood why. I couldn’t defend myself because I had no idea why I was being teased. And our father forbid us to talk about the subject at home.”
Her older siblings and her parents would discuss subjects Cindy didn’t understand, without explaining a thing. Left in the dark, Cindy carried her grief and unease with her to school, which made things worse.
Young Cindy found herself caught in a vicious circle of ignorance. Bullied at school because of her mother’s activities, at home she could not talk about what was going on in her own life. She had to deal with her inner pain alone. Sometimes, the teasing turned to Cindy’s physical appearance. “We didn’t have much money, so I had to wear old clothes,” she recalls. “I never had anything new to wear. I mostly wore boy’s clothes that were too big for me. I looked fat. And my first name, it’s the name of a doll in England, like Barbie. They used to call me Cindy Doll: You’re supposed to be Cindy Doll, but you’re not even pretty, and you’re fat… I wanted to die.”
No matter what she did to try and fix the situation, it would backfire. “My mother ended up becoming a school monitor. That didn’t help. If she disciplined someone, it was my fault. I always felt ill at ease. Whenever mom talked to a student, I’d get scared.”
Despite being bullied, Cindy had some friends. Or at least, she thought she did. “I always wanted to hang out with the cool crowd,” Cindy admits. “They kept me around because I did everything for them. I gave a lot to win their friendship. But I wasn’t their friend. I was their servant. Whenever one of them had a problem, I was sent to take the punch. Or they’d decide to gang up on me.” Cindy was always walking on eggshells. She never got in touch with who she was deep inside, too busy being whatever she thought the people around her wanted her to be. She spent a lot of time questioning herself, wondering why she felt so bad.
From Intimidation to Violence
As a child, Cindy didn’t only suffer psychological violence. One day after school, she found herself surrounded by a gang of students. A so-called friend was mad at her. Cindy, all of 7, had to listen to the chants of a mob out for blood. Her blood. “Everyone was yelling for my friend to hit me. She only threw one punch. I fell down on the street. Cars had to stop to avoid running me over. I was in shock.”
Already, even at that young age she knew that telling on people wouldn’t help. But she tattled anyway. School officials notified her bully’s parents: “It just made things worse,” she recalls. “The next day I was labeled a snitch. At home, I said nothing. If I had said something at home, my brothers would have gone after the girl with a bat.” Nor could she go to her father for support. “You could never show weakness in front of him,” she recalls. “You couldn’t cry. He had no sympathy for that.” At age 7, Cindy dealt with the situation on her own.
She was left alone at school for a time, too. But at age 10 found her friends turning on her once again. “Tomorrow we’re going to beat the hell out of you,” they chanted at her one afternoon. Terrified, she went home. Her oldest sister, almost twice her age, found Cindy in her room, on her bed, drowning in her own tears. Cindy was asked why she is crying. She opened up to a sister she hardly knew, on the promise that nothing would get back to their father.
However, news did get back to her brothers. “They reacted just the way I expected them to,” Cindy says. The brothers came to school with Cindy one day – with bats. They threatened Cindy’s friends. Cindy was left alone after that, but she had no friends.
When her father found out about the situation he reacted just as one would expect of an ex-paratrooper – he enrolled his youngest daughter in martial arts classes. At her father’s instigation, Cindy took up self-defense. She took to it like a duck to water. Her new passions in life became judo and tae-kwon-do. “I could let my built-up emotions out,” Cindy says. Soon she was county champion. Her method: “I got my frustrations out on my opponents. But it didn’t solve all my problems…” Cindy could finally smile a bit.
At age 12, her old life of being bullied was almost forgotten. One day she was visiting downtown Peterborough with some friends when the unexpected happened: “Some Gypsies came along,” she remembers. “I was thrown to the ground, then beaten and kicked. They robbed me. I was covered in blood. It was a savage attack.”
Her father arrived on the scene – and turned on Cindy. “He was angry at me. He couldn’t understand why with all my judo training, I didn’t defend myself.”
She left her elementary school thinking she had left behind her old demons. But the tale of the judo champion beaten by gypsies made the rounds of her school. Cindy’s reality check was harsh. She found herself harassed and embarrassed. Being a martial arts champion is all well and good; but reacting with violence to outside harassment was not part of her emotional make-up.
Still, her self-defense training and her success in competitions helped her build a foundation of self-confidence – shaky, fragile, but there nonetheless…
Cindy the Adventurer
Changing schools should have been a breath of fresh air for Cindy. A new school environment; a new start; a place where she could stand up for herself and grow as a person. But tough times in her teenage years wiped out her high hopes.
“My inner rage came out,” she recalls. “My parents divorced just when I needed their support.” Cindy’s father remained at home; her mother rejoined her own family. Her brothers and sisters had left the nest. Cindy found herself alone with a retired military dad. She took a job in a café to support her father financially: “He didn’t see me as a daughter, but as a roommate.”
Cindy’s responsibilities included doing all the cooking and cleaning, as well as doing her own homework and earning money. “I didn’t know a thing about menstruation, or boys,” she recalls. As of age 12 she had to learn everything on hew own. And she could never show weakness to her father. Cindy had to grow up fast.
She crossed paths with another young girl going through the same thing. “We started smoking and swearing. I did my own piercings. I came from an extreme family, so I went to extremes!” Cindy the bullied child gradually faded from view. In her place emerged a punk rocker going through a tough adolescence. She dated an older teen boyfriend who worked for a living. One face she showed to the world allowed her to fit in well with her school classmates; another face let her get along with her work colleagues. Cindy was leading a double life.
A New Passion
But Cindy didn’t escape one family tradition: At 16, she was expected to jump out of a plane with a parachute. With her first jump, she found a new love. The energies she had poured into self-defense were now channeled into weekend parachuting. At 17 Cindy earned her jumping qualifications. She divided her time between school, work and parachuting. Her father was proud of her. She would wait for her on the ground after each jump, where they would share a beer together. “He treated me like an adult!” she recalls.
It would soon be time for Cindy to leave the nest and move out on her own. Her dad decided to sell the family home. The pair decided to exit in style, traveling to Tunisia with their belongings in backpacks slung over broad shoulders.
“We didn’t celebrate Christmas,” she remembers. “Instead we hit the road. We went to Morocco and Tunisia, and we went backpacking through Europe.” This time, on their last trip together, their home sold, they journeyed through the vast Sahara Desert of North Africa, the world’s largest desert. “We didn’t play tourist!” Cindy smiles. “On our last night, to celebrate the end of our trip, we stayed at a hotel. And I met my first real boyfriend.” He was a young Tunisian waiter. It was love at first sight. But she had to return to England.
Her Heart in Tunisia
Cindy decided to finish the British equivalent of junior college. With no home to return to she stayed with her mom, who she had seen little of in 5 years. During the divorce, when it came to who would take care of Cindy, “my mom had no opinion,” Cindy recalls. “She never took a position. Nothing seemed to bother her. I felt angry towards her, as if she’d abandoned me. She never fought to keep me. That’s when I found out that she’d been abused by her own father. I didn’t know. I felt closer to her. I began to see her differently.”
Cindy was busy. She divided her time between school, working in a bar, and parachuting. Her body was in England but her heart remained in Tunisia. As always she kept her feelings to herself. No one in her family knew about her Tunisian love. But she phoned him constantly. Unable to get into a university, Cindy left England to join her boyfriend.
She landed a job at the same holiday resort where her boyfriend worked. “I was an activities leader for tourists,” she says. “I gave volleyball and sailboarding lessons. At night I danced at a hotel cabaret. We did country line dancing, and remakes of Thriller and Grease.” This is where Cindy was first introduced to dance” Little could she imagine how dance would later become her life’s passion.
Befriending one of the other hotel dancers, Cindy got in touch with her feminine side: “She was really a doll. She taught me to be a woman. I learned all about makeup and fashion. I had no fashion sense before meeting her. No one knew me. I could make myself in whatever image I wanted. I found my self-confidence.” In Tunisia her light skin tone and blonde hair turned heads. Taunts of Cindy Doll, you’re not even pretty seemed very far away. She felt reborn.
After 3 months working at the resort, Cindy returned home to gray, rainy England. She stayed in constant touch with her Tunisian waiter. Her family felt she was somewhere else, her head in the clouds. She could no longer keep her secret: “My family is pretty racist… They were all over me as soon as I told them I was in love with a Tunisian. And I didn’t want to tell the truth. Yes, he was pretty possessive. I was in love, and at 17 I didn’t think that was a problem.”
Her family turned up the pressure. They were scared that Cindy would leave for Tunisia when she turned 18. “They came up with the money to send me to stay with my sister for 5 weeks in Quebec. They were unanimous: if I went back to my boyfriend they’d lose all respect for me. It was my last chance to save my relationship with my family.”
Cindy longed to return to the arms of her Tunisian love. Her older sister had left home when Cindy was 8, and they hardly knew each other. Nonetheless, Cindy decided to go to Quebec. After the 5 week trip to Quebec, Cindy still planned to leave her dysfunctional family behind and start a family of her own in Tunisia.
Quebec: The Promised Land
Cindy found herself spending 5 weeks in Quebec with an older sister she had barely seen in a decade. Her heart heavy with longing for her African beau, unsettled by her family’s opposition, an 18-year-old Cindy would see her life upended forever in an unknown country.
Her elder sister had had the good sense to leave their troubled, violent family to travel the world on her own. She had sent postcards and presents home from all over the world. Eventually, after traveling throughout the United States, her sister had found love, settling in the small rural Eastern Townships town of Roxton Falls, population 1,300: an entirely French town, Cindy felt lost. She had never lived in Canada. She did not know a word of French. She nursed a broken heart.
“I was scared,” Cindy admits. “I didn’t know my sister, and she intimidated me. But I opened up to her about my love match. I told her my boyfriend was jealous and possessive, and that I didn’t get any sexual pleasure from our sex. I thought that making love meant pleasing your partner. She made me understand that love wasn’t like that. It was great for me to have someone to confide in. I’d never been able to get any advice on sexuality. It encouraged me to open up to her even more.”
For the first time in her life Cindy felt listened to and respected. Their relationship grew closer; Cindy started to integrate into the Roxton Falls community. With her brother-in-law, a blacksmith, they produced welcome signs for homes, as well as jewelry. They also painted horse trailers. Together they traveled the summer county fair circuit.
It was a total French immersion program. Cindy quickly picked up French. Her shyness disintegrated. She blossomed: “I stayed 6 months. When winter came, the barn I was living in was too cold to sleep in. I could either return to England, or leave Roxton Falls and stay in Quebec.”
New Cindy, comfortable in her own skin, had no wish to turn back the clock. She tagged along with her brother-in-law’s father on a short trip made to Montreal. “It was the first time I’d ever seen such a city,” she recalls. “It’s what I imagined New York might be like. Big buildings, skyscrapers, and people everywhere! When we crossed the Champlain Bridge, my heart beat faster. Montreal was so beautiful. I’m not a country person. I need action. It was love at first sight. I wanted to stay on this island!”
Montreal, Mon Amour
Cindy wanted to settle in her new promised land, in Quebec’s metropolis. Traveling in the United States, her sister had found work as a nanny. She advised Cindy to do the same. Cindy lucked out: a doctor, panicked at not finding someone to look after his kids, hired her on their very first meeting. Cindy was well housed and well paid for taking care of the doctor’s children. She cooked their food and cleaned around the house. Cindy had little time to explore Montreal. Her only friends were the kids in her charge.
To free herself from this demanding role for short periods, Cindy took aerobics classes at the local YMCA. There she met Angelo, a hip-hop dance teacher from Madagascar. It was love at first sight. They quickly bonded. She was 19; he was 31. She lived at the doctor’s home; he had been staying with friends. “When I met him,” Cindy recalls, “he was sleeping in Metro stations and on the street. He’d run out of options. His friends didn’t want to put him up any longer. He showered at the YMCA where he gave his dance courses.”
Cindy enrolled in Angelo’s classes; their love strengthened. Cindy became pregnant. But their lives were too unstable: “We wanted to keep the baby,” Cindy says. “But I had to abort. That hurt.” It was 1999. The worse year of her young life.
Then, a fatal blow: she had to break up with Angelo when he was deported. His tourist visa had expired. Her soul destroyed, she returned to England.
“I stayed 4 days,” Cindy recalls. “I was insulted in the street 3 times, for no reason. That never happened to me in Quebec. I realized I couldn’t live in my home country.” She made the risky move of returning to Montreal. A long talk with immigration officials at her arrival scared her. But she passed through immigration. She could breathe easier. Canada opened its doors to her – as long as she married Angelo.
Dance, a New Obsession
The newlyweds moved into an apartment. Cindy followed her husband everywhere. She took part in every class he gave: “I saw his talent. Since I was blonde, I wanted him to have eyes for me only. He was the best dance teacher around. A true artist! But Angelo was no businessman. Several of his students complained. I began to work on the business side of things.”
She lost herself in dance, and in organizing and running their new dance studio, Angelo Dance Productions. She poured herself into the business the same way she’d given her all to her judo and tae-kwon-do courses, and later, her parachute training.
At first, just Angelo taught while Cindy listened to other dancers: “Training with others, I started to notice a blending of styles in hip-hop. It wasn’t clear that every dance move came strictly from that style. I started to try other street dance styles. Something clicked. If I wanted to study these styles, I thought, then others would want to study them as well.”
She asked other dancers to teach styles other that the hip-hop that Angelo was teaching. “That’s when I realized our problem: the name of our company. If you didn’t get along with Angelo, you couldn’t represent the company.” In 2000, Angelo Dance Productions morphed into Urban Element. The new studio offered classes in 5 dance styles. The first summer it accommodated 100 students. Things looked bright for the team of Angelo the artist and Cindy the teacher/businesswoman. They were married, with a roof over their heads, and a thriving school to their credit.
An Elite School
Soon, 20 Urban Element teachers were teaching 12 dance styles to 400 delighted students of all ages. In 2003 the school’s elite troupe won the Hip Hop Forever competition, a giant Montreal dance contest. Thanks to that win, they were invited to perform across Mexico. Urban Element gained fame and renown. Its dancers won 4 Canadian hip-hop championships and represented Canada at the world championships in Las Vegas. Urban Element was and is a driven, ambitious studio not content with mediocrity – just like its co-founder, Cindy.
“The goal is to have the best teachers in every dance style,” Cindy says. “I want to have the very best, so that Urban Element is a quality dance school. A place where you can improve, evolve, and teach others. If your career isn’t going forward, you can stay with us. We’ll provide free rehearsal space. But sometimes, we’re taken advantage of. We suffer thefts. Our walls are tagged,” she complains.
A Community School
The school has gone through some hard times money-wise. The studio space is huge, and paying the rent is sometimes a feat. “Hip-hop’s reason for being isn’t financial,” Cindy reflects. “There are more commercial dance styles out there, some that are more suited to videoclips, which pay well. Hip-hop is a street dance. At Urban Element, we’ve kept the street aspect of dance alive, with a youth community centre at our core. If there are kids who want to take our courses but don’t have the money to pay for them, we’ll keep them on anyway. Not all our students pay. So we’ve been cutting it close for a long while!”
Urban Element students show up way before their classes begin. At 4 p.m. when their day school is over, they arrive at the studio. There they do their homework, they socialize. The studio operates like a youth centre.
“We’ve become a little community of our own,” Cindy says. “If we closed our doors it’d affect a lot of people.” She has considered this prospect.
But Cindy is a fighter. She has fought all her life. She has gained wisdom in her battles. She knows where to find the energy and the motivation to keep her dance dreams, and those of hundreds of others who depend on her, alive.