Aida Knapp was a dance teacher in Richmond who taught many hundreds of students ballet, tap, jazz, modern and ballroom dance for 40 years in her studio on Railway Avenue and in various halls and auditoriums in Brighouse, Steveston, Ladner and Marpole.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1911, she was an only child to parents Frank and Amy Trueman. The family moved to China in 1917 when her father, a textiles engineer, was sent there by his company. Aida was introduced to dancing while attending an American boarding school at Kuling in the Lushan District. Her first ballet lessons were in the Russian method of dance taught by an Australian instructor, Madame Kelly. Aida loved dancing and took as many lessons as she could, determined to be a professional dancer someday.
Aida and her family left China after she completed her high school education, around 1928. They settled first in Vancouver, where she resumed her dance lessons with the Duncan Barbay School of Dance, and then on Lulu Island. She financed her lessons by working in various theatres and clubs in Vancouver where she got her first break into show business when a travelling road company from England played a theatre where she was working. They needed some girls to dance in their production and Aida eagerly accepted the offer to go on the road with the company.
Aida’s job was to travel ahead of the company, training new sets of dancers in each town, thereby reducing the need to travel with a large group of dancers and lessening expenses. The cost cutting measures were ineffective however as the company went bankrupt, stranding Aida in Ottawa.
Undaunted by this, Aida got on a train to Rhode Island where she stayed with her aunts and worked as a dancer in a Chinese Restaurant, making enough money to take more dance classes. She moved to New York where she attended auditions for dance companies and theatre productions, eventually landing a job in Atlanta Georgia at a luxurious hotel and theatre.
It was in Georgia that Aida was asked to join an act called “The Twelve Aristocrats”, a very successful dance troupe known for their versatility and the variety of their dance styles. The Twelve Aristocrats played all over the United States and Europe in the years leading up to World War II and took part in the filming of a musical movie called “Calling All Stars” while in England. An excerpt from the movie on YouTube, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YehBT1MFIxY , shows Aida performing with the Twelve Aristocrats.
As World War II grew nearer, the Twelve Aristocrats split up, some settling in London and others in New York. Aida returned to Lulu Island where her parents still lived. She was hired as the choreographer for the Palomar Theatre where she helped several girls get their start, including a young Yvonne de Carlo who went on to become a star in film and television.
It was during this time that Aida met her future husband, Elwood (Al) Knapp, who was working as a horse trainer at Brighouse Racetrack. In late 1939 they were married. Al built a house at 928 Railway Avenue where they lived and raised two sons, Wesley and Frank. Aida decided to start a small dance school to help make ends meet, moving the furniture out of their kitchen every day to make room for a small dance floor. As her school grew the space became too small and she rented space in halls in Brighouse and Steveston to hold her classes.
In 1950 Al built Aida a dance studio behind the family home. The dance school became a full-time job for Aida with as many as 200 students attending lessons six days a week. During her career Mrs. Knapp continued with her own education, attending dance workshops and conventions where she took additional training as well as giving instruction to other teachers.
Every June Aida would put on a dance recital where her students would perform the routines that they learned during the year. Costumes were made by the student’s mothers, and the events were eagerly attended by parents, grandparents, friends and neighbours. Proceeds from the recitals always went to benefit a variety of community activities, such as in 1948 when the funds were given to the Fraser River Flood Relief program in Richmond.
Her students performed at many venues in Richmond and around Greater Vancouver, such as the Kitsilano Showboat, the PNE, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, as well as in senior’s centres, for various community service organizations, etc.
While some of her students went on to pursue dance in professional and semi-professional ways, most ended their dance instruction as teens, but with a great appreciation for the art of dance and with love and fond memories of the woman who taught them.
Aida taught dance until 1984 when she was in her 70s. The dedication and love that she demonstrated for the art of dance and for her students have made her a Richmond legend, remembered sentimentally by the generations of young dancers that she instructed. She passed away in 1998 at the age of 87 having left a legacy of contribution to her community that lives on long after her passing.