Rishell O’Brien, BSc, AAC
Jazz, Lyrical, Ballet, Tap, Acro, Performance Coaching, Studio Director, Artistic Director

After 21 years of teaching dance throughout the lower mainland, Rishell is ecstatic to continue to watch Defy Gravity Dance Company flourish.  Her team of instructors train students to be well-rounded individuals who appreciate the art of dance. Rishell has been dancing since the age of 6 and trained in ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop for 15 years. She began teaching in order to share her love of dance with her students. Rishell attained a Bachelor of Science degree from UBC in 2004. Her years of study in anatomy, physiology and biomechanics compliment her knowledge of the body and its capabilities. Her love for children combined with many years of sociology and psychology classes allow her to connect with each student and find ways to assist them with their individual learning styles.  Rishell continues to update her education as an instructor having recently become a certified Acro Instructor as well as participated in a Collaborative Teaching Workshop with renowned Oberlin College Dance Educator Deborah Vogel.  She looks forward to bringing innovative ideas concerning Dance Health to the studio through her collaborations with other like-minded healthcare professionals.  As the Studio Director of Defy Gravity, Rishell oversees the training of each dancer and strives to ensure that each student meets their physical, artistic, social & emotional potential.  She is a member in good standing of Healthy Dancer Canada and BC Dance Educators Association as well as Acrobatic Arts Canada.  Rishell was a member of the Board of Directors for the Richmond Arts Coalition for many years where she worked to increase awareness of the importance of Art in our everyday lives and was voted Top 3 Best Dance Teacher (Richmond Review “Best of Richmond” contest) for the last eleven years.  In addition to her volunteer work in the community, Miss Rishell also served on the Richmond Arts Strategy Steering Committee helping to develop an Arts Strategy Plan currently being implemented in the City of Richmond and was appointed to the Gateway Theatre Endowment Committee in 2014 where she helps determine which artistic ventures receive funding in Richmond.  Miss Rishell served as the President of the Board of Directors of Renew Humanity where she helped raise funds to send deserving students in Uganda to school for two years.  In the last several years, Miss Rishell’s students were awarded numerous High Mark trophies, Diamond and High Gold medals in Regional and Provincial competitions and multiple prestigious Judges Awards as well as earning the prestigious honour of students qualifying for and attending the BC Provincial Festival of the Arts!  Miss Rishell has received numerous Choreography Awards and continues to coach her dancers to excel in both dance technique and performance.

Headshot Carolyn 2014Carolyn Schmidt, FST
Modern, Contemporary, Ballet

Miss Carolyn is a professional contemporary dance artist originally from Vancouver Island.  She creates, performs, teaches and produces contemporary dance in the Vancouver area and beyond. Training formally at The Ailey School in NYC, Carolyn has a deep knowledge of many modern dance techniques and a passion for dance composition. As a dancer, Carolyn has performed in work by emerging and established choreographers throughout the USA,

Canada and Spain. As a choreographer, her dances have been presented at venues and festivals including Dumbo Dance Festival (NY), Young Choreographers Festival (NY), Green Space (NY), Feats Festival of Dance (Edmonton), Dancers Studio West (Calgary), Dance Victoria, Mascall Dance/BLOOM (Vancouver), HATCH Series (NY) and Vancouver Fringe Festival. Carolyn is Co-Producer of To.Be.Announced Choreographic Showcase which presents contemporary dance in unique and engaging settings. Dedicated to a life of moving and shaking, Carolyn is constantly seeking opportunities to connect, share and grow through the art of movement. www.carolynschmidtdance.com

Adam Head Shot 2016Adam McKinnon
Hip Hop

Creator and Director of VanCity Project Choreography Showcase Adam McKinnon joined the faculty of Defy Gravity for the 2016-17 season and is back for another year!  Adam has danced and choreographed for the best in the business, performing at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and Music Artists such as Nelly Furtado, Michael Buble and Carly Rae Jepson to name a few.  Adam has been teac

hing and choreographing in the Lower Mainland for years, earning him great accolades with Adjudicators and fellow colleagues alike.  Adam looks forward to bringing his passion for Hip Hop and all things performance to DG.  Our dancers love working with Adam and enjoy his infectious passion for his craft.

Kristyn PlanteKristyn Plante

Kristyn has been teaching throughout the lower mainland for the past 14 years.  She began dancing at the age of 5 at R & S School of Dance and won numerous scholarships and awards throughout her years of competition.  As a young dancer, Miss Kristyn appeared in the Canadian Dance Teacher Association Tap training video.  Kristyn has performed in numerous venues throughout her dance career and was honoured to perform as a tap dancer in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  Kristyn has trained with some of the best tap teachers in the business including William Orlowski and Brenda Buffalino.  In 2007, she trained in New York at the Broadway Dance Centre Teacher Convention with renowned choreographers Shea Sullivan, Mia Michaels and Tyce Diorio.  As a teacher, Kristyn has been awarded with outstanding choreography awards for her Tap and Lyrical choreography.  She is proud to have been the teacher & choreographer for a bronze medal tap solo at the 2008 Dance World Cup. For two consecutive years, one of her tap solos earned a DG student the honour of qualifying for the Provincial Arts Festival.  Kristyn is known as an enthusiastic and motivational teacher and is looking forward to sharing her passion for Tap with her students.

TamaraTamara Burdeny, BA, AAC
Acro, Jazz, Lyrical

Tamara began her dance training at 4 years old in a Ballet class. At age 8 she took a Jazz class with Miss Rishell and has been living and breathing dance ever since. She trained extensively in Ballet, Jazz, Lyrical and Modern Improv at Defy Gravity and continued her training at Harbour Dance Centre. Tamara was among the first competitive group of dancers who also won the first Dance Power Championships with Defy Gravity and is proud to have earned many accolades for her solo and group work as well as self choreography. Tamara was a competitive gymnast throughout her childhood and continued on to be an elite Cheerleader with the Vancouver All Stars International Worlds Team. She is a four-time International Champion (2009 -2012 National Champion with 5th place at the 2011 World Finals and 7th Place at the 2012 World Finals).  She has worked in film and TV with appearances in “The Company We Keep”, and “Mr. Young” as well as appearing as a dancer and cheerleader on the CW11 series “Hellcats”.  Miss Tamara’s goal is to instill a love of dance and passion for hard work in her students. She strives for technical perfection and can often be seen standing on a chair to make sure she sees her students from every angle. Miss Tamara, a certified Acrobatic Arts Instructor, will be growing the Acro program at Defy Gravity this year and we are excited to see this program continue to develop strong, flexible and dynamic dancers!

DolanTaylor Dolan
Contemporary, Lyrical, Jazz, Musical Theatre

Taylor is a Vancouver-born dancer, performer, choreographer, adjudicator, and instructor. Raised in White Rock, Taylor began dancing as a toddler, training with Spiral Dance Co. Her professional career started at the age of twelve, where she danced for Disney, Nickelodeon and Royal Caribbean Cruises.  After graduating high school Taylor continued to pursue her passion for dance, joining the ballet-contemporary company Lamondance in 2010 under the artistic direction of Lara Barclay and Monica Proenca. At the age of seventeen Taylor was asked to debut her first choreographic work at the Vancouver International Dance Festival. That same year she danced in music videos for various recording artists such as K-OS, Keisha Chante and Sean Desmond. The following year she began her first adjudicating tour across Canada, and has since adjudicated in Canada, the US and internationally.  In 2012 Taylor moved to London UK where she danced with The Greenwich Contemporary Dance Company, and trained musical theatre performers for their West End debuts such as The Lion King and Annie. Some of her other European credits include performing at the Much Music Video Awards in Amsterdam, the Tanzart Festival in Germany, and guest teacher and adjudicator at Danza In Fiera in Florence, Italy. After two illuminating years of performing and teaching abroad, Taylor has returned to Vancouver. She is currently enjoying her first season back, teaching and choreographing at studios in the Lower Mainland. She has just finished working with The Response. Dance Society under the artistic direction of Amber Funk Barton, and was this year’s (2015) BC Provincial Adjudicator. For Taylor, every aspect of contributing to the dance community is her passion and privilege, and she continues to focus on the creative elements of dance.

Kirsten McInnis
Jazz, Contemporary, Lyrical

Kirsten started dancing at the age of three, and began training with Defy Gravity when it opened in 2007. In 2016, Kirsten graduated from the Defy Gravity Pre-Professional Program, where she trained in Jazz, Ballet, Modern, Lyrical, Tap, Contemporary, and Pointe. Over the years, Kirsten has been involved in many performance opportunities including Sweett Moves: Bated Breath, Lovers Cabaret: Lovers of Dylan, Sweett Moves Summer Jam, and Vines Art Festival. At a young age, Kirsten found her passion for dance and continuously strives for new experiences and opportunities to learn from.

She is currently training with Modus Operandi, a Vancouver based contemporary training program to expand her knowledge of dance and performance opportunities. Kirsten is excited to return for her third year as a faculty member at Defy Gravity and can’t wait to share her passion with DG Dancers.

Riley O’Brien
Tap, Ballet

Miss Riley joined the DG Teaching Faculty in August 2015 and brings with her many years of training, performance and several years teaching experience as an assistant teacher to Miss Rishell.  Riley has earned many prestigious awards at Competitions and Festivals as well as scholarships and invitations for special performance opportunities including a performance in Sleeping Beauty produced by Ballet Jörgen.  Riley is passionate about dance and loves to share her eye for flawless technique with her dancers.  In addition to her teaching role, Miss Riley is studying at UBC, pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree.

Katherine Somody, BA, MFA (Dance)

Katherine trained as a dancer at the Anna Wyman School of Dance Arts and the Goh Ballet Academy, touring China and Japan and performing works by some of her favourite choreographers including Balanchine and Wen Wei Wang. She holds a BA in Art History from UBC and the Sorbonne in Paris, and an MFA (Performance Art & Dance) from Cornell University in New York. She has curated, taught, written about, performed, choreographed and exhibited art, music and dance in Berlin, Paris, New York, Halifax and Vancouver. Recent projects include Did you Say I Was Dancing at Experimental Gallery in New York, and How I Learned To Stop Blanking and Verb the Object at SFU Woodwards in Vancouver. She uniquely incorporates Forsythe’s Improvisation Technologies and the Laban Method in her classes. Miss Katherine continues to be impressed by the confidence, courage, creativity and grace of the dancers she works with and is ecstatic to join the teaching faculty at Defy Gravity.

Natasha Lutz-Van Poelgeest 

Natasha is originally from Brampton Ontario where she received her early dance education.  She is a graduate of  the School of Toronto Dance Theatre’s Professional Training Program and continues to train as both a dancer and teacher throughout the country.

Natasha was  a member of the repertory company dancersdancing,performing the works of  Judith Garay, Day Helesic, Rob Kitsos, Antony Morgan, Santee Smith and Wen Wei Wang.   She has also danced for Judith Marcuse Projects, Robert Desrosiers,  the Vancouver Opera Society, Conpagnie V’ni DAnsi and other independent choreographers. Natasha’s own work has been presented at various venues throughout the country,on film and television.

When Natasha gave birth to her first child she decided to focus more on teaching and has never regretted her decision.  She has been a dance educator in the lower mainland for over 15 years teaching Ballet, Modern, Tap, Jazz, and Creative movement to dancers of all ages and levels.  Along with teaching at various studios throughout the lower mainland, Natasha has a specialized dance program designed for elementary school students.

What Natasha loves about dance is its perfect combination of artistry and athleticism.  She finds immense joy in sharing her passion and believes that dance is for everyone.  Being a part of the Defy Gravity family couldn’t make her happier.

Mariah-Jane Thies, RAD RTS 

After 10 years as a guest teacher at Defy Gravity, we are excited to finally welcome Miss Mariah-Jane to the Defy Gravity Teaching Faculty.  Miss Mariah-Jane is a highly sought after dance educator travelling across North America and Europe to teach Ballet and Modern and lecturing on Somatic dance practice and the Brain-Body connection (how to teach our dancers to train efficiently and safely).  She is a featured lecturer at the upcoming Healthy Dance Canada Conference in Toronto and the prestigious IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine Science) in Helsinki, Finland where she will be presenting information included in her two upcoming books “Missing the Point(e)?  How your use of feet affects all your dance technique” and “The Missing Link in Dance Training: Brain Integration”.  

Miss Mariah-Jane brings with her a wealth of teaching experience as a certified RAD teacher as well as her years of training and mentoring the next generation of RAD teachers.  Her passion is dance education and she feels very fortunate to be able to share that with our dancers at DG this season!  In addition to her RAD teacher training, Miss Mariah-Jane is also a certified instructor of the Evans Method Modern Technique, encompassing the Bartenieff Movement Fundamentals (Brain Dance) and Laban Movement Analysis.  She was the first Canadian to hold this certification and is honoured to have worked with modern dance and pedagogy legend, Bill Evans and his partnered teachers, Peggy Hackney, Don Halquist, Kitty Daniels,  and honoured and awarded dance pedagoge, Debra Knapp.  Miss Mariah-Jane is also a licensed Brain Gym instructor and a licensed consultant of Rhythmic Movement Training (integrating the postural and primitive reflexes) and has brought these ideas into the dance community through the creation of SKIP (Specialized Kinesiology for Injury Prevention) for Dancers.  We are looking forward to a year full of learning and growth with Miss Miss Mariah-Jane. 

Zabelita Fraser

Zabelita is one of Vancouver’s most experience and sought after Ballet/Exam pianists and we are pleased to have her as our resident accompanist for our Pre-Professional Program Ballet classes.  Zabelita has worked with our Cecchetti Ballet students for the last several years, and will be returning for another season with Defy Gravity.

Faculty on Sabbatical for 2018-19 season

Amy Laithwaite

Amy Laithwaite, AISTD, Dip NBS TTP, FST
Ballet, Conditioning, Pointe

Miss Amy’s passion for dance led her to the National Ballet School in Toronto. Amy graduated from the NBS in 2004 with the Three Year Teacherʼs Diploma (Dip NBS Ttp): Honours standing. Amy was awarded the Carole Chadwick Scholarship for most promising teacher; she also earned Honours for her Cecchetti Associate Teachers Qualification (AISTD). Whilst at NBS, Amyʼs love of children led her to studies in “Early Child Development through Dance”; she studied with Carina Bomers and Bonnie Popadopalus on creative movement for young dancers. Amy also taught at the Pickering School of Ballet, just outside Toronto, training many young dancers who are now working in the industry.  Ballet has always been Amyʼs first love. As a young dancer, Amy trained at the Coquitlam School of Ballet; the Royal Winnipeg Ballet; and has worked with renowned artists such as Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, and Rex Harrington.  Since returning to Vancouver from the NBS, Amy continues to pursue higher level studies in the Cecchetti method. She also regularly studies in modern, salsa and flamenco; these dance styles, as well as jazz, tap, and national dance have influenced her award winning choreography. Amy is a highly sought-after teacher and teaches regularly at schools around the lower-mainland. She holds her Cecchetti Advanced Two certificate and most recently, Amy was a featured soloist in Salagia: Seven Gifts for Clara, a contemporary dance production of Collabart Creations and DansArts et al.  Amyʼs goal in the studio is to cultivate a passion for music and movement in her students; and to create a safe and joyful environment for them to explore their love of dance.

Gillian Gardner
Jazz, Lyrical

Gillian’s training began at a young age training locally in Ballet, Modern, Contemporary, Jazz, Tap and Musical Theatre.  She went on to win Dancer of the Year in 1997 and was the winner of the Modern division at the 1999 Provincials in Nelson, B.C. Gillian graduated as a dance major from the Langley Fine Arts School after performing abroad with the school’s modern based dance company, Esprit De Corps under the direction of Jill Stacey.

Positivity, hard work and dedication has provided Gillian with jobs that have taken her across the globe to countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, China, Korea, Japan, Australia, the UK and throughout the US. She has been seen on the stages of the Jesse Awards, Royal Caribbean Productions, Holland America Cruise Lines, Mooncoin Productions, The Vancouver Underground Circus and was hand picked to fly 30 feet in the air as lead Aerialist portraying “Ariel” at Tokyo Disney Resort in Japan. During her time with Tokyo Disney Resort she worked as a Character Performer, Dancer and Aerialist. Gillian was the first performer to perform in two shows simultaneously and was instrumental in negotiating the first ever swing contract with Oriental Land Co. for foreign performers. Her television credits include CW’s Smallville, Sci fy’s Caprica, FOX’s Human Target, USA Network’s Psych and YoGO TV.

She has worked in the roles of Dance Captain, Production Assistant and Company Manager for Broadway revue shows produced at Stiletto Entertainment in Los Angeles, California. Gillian has worked as a guest choreographer for The Vancouver Underground Circus, The Dance Academy of Prince Rupert and The Walnut Grove and White Rock Schools of Music and Dance as well as being an instructor at Dance Base in Edinburgh, Scotland. Gillian travels throughout Canada and the USA as a sought after Adjudicator and Dance Educator.

Most recently Gillian has embarked on the exploration of Jazz Dance history with the help of Joanne Baker and Kim Cooper of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks Calgary. She hopes that by remembering where Jazz came from we can begin to reintroduce those values back into our contemporary jazz movement styles and begin to build a jazz dance community based on art, expression and creation.

Guest Choreographers – we love them and we love the positive experiences our dancers have working with these amazing professionals…

Keiran Bohay
Jazz Guest Choreographer

Keiran Bohay was raised in the small town of Wainwright, Alberta. There he took his first tap class at age eight and instantly fell in love with performing. He then began training in various dance styles such as jazz, lyrical, hip hop and ballet. At the age of 13 he took a brief break from dance festivals to perform in The Citadel Theatre’s production of Peter Pan and Oliver!, giving him his first taste of professional work. After graduation Keiran moved to Edmonton, Alberta where he advanced his dance technique under Shelley Tookey. Keiran progressed quickly and made his move to Vancouver to train with The Source Dance Company, under direction of Joanne Pesusich. His talent did not go unnoticed and after only a short time in Vancouver, he took over a few drop-in classes teaching at Harbour Dance Centre under Pam Rosa and Moe Brody. Throughout his time in Vancouver he has gone on to Choreograph Tap, Contemporary, Broadway, and Jazz for local training programs such as ITP (Intensive Training Program), Source Dance Company, and Aviary. He has performed Musical Theatre with the Arts Club (Mary Poppins) and gone on to dance in many hit tv series and movies (CW’s the Flash, Disney’s Descendants, ABC’s Once Upon A Time, CW’s No Tomorrow ect.) Known for his energy, comedic personality and unique style, Keiran teaches and choreographs throughout western Canada, and can’t wait to share his passion with the DG Dancers!

Jade Chong
Lyrical, Jazz, Contemporary Guest Choreographer

Jade started her dance career at Defy Gravity in 2007 and graduated from the Pre-Professional Program in 2016. She loves sharing her heart and passion for the art form with likeminded others and hopes to inspire other dancers to pursue their dreams. She has trained in styles such as Jazz, Ballet, Lyrical, Contemporary, Modern and Pointe.

Over the years, Jade has received many prestigious awards, scholarships and recognition from Festivals and Competitions. She has been involved in many performance opportunities such as Peak Provincial Honours Performance 2013 and 2016,  Sweett Moves: Bated Breath, Vines Art Festival and Lovers Cabaret: Lovers of Dylan. She has also danced in Season 6 of ABC’s, Once Upon A Time. Jade currently attends, Modus Operandi, a Vancouver based training program to support and further her skills in hopes of becoming a professional contemporary dancer.

Sherrie Sherger
Jazz, Lyrical Guest Choreographer

Originally from Toronto Ontario, Sherrie grew up in her family owned studio Premiere Dance Acd. based in Calgary and now resides in Vancouver.  She is a guest Choreographer/Instructor for many dance companies, studios and dance education institutions throughout Canada and the US. She also guest instructs over seas including: John Paul College of Arts/ Brisbane Australia, Secondary School Dance Program Dover England, Olten Dance Productions Switzerland, and DSB Berlin Germany. Sherrie is extensively trained in the RAD ballet syllabus, the A.D.A.P.T jazz & tap syllabus as well as Dance/Music history, anatomy, kinesiology through the Grant MacEwan University Dance Arts Program. Sherrie has been an educator for 25 years and adjudicator for 15 years.
In her professional dance career she was principal dancer for 6years with Decidedly Jazz Dance Company, De Hershey Modern company and Stone Soup Collective Contemporary Company. She performed in the Dance Documentary “No Small Feats”, “World Dance Congress” Chicago with Director Gus Giordano, Principal dancer with Las Vegas Company, Farrington Production, performer for Rio Las Vegas show Atami Japan. “The Mix” revue show Macau China as singer and dancer.

Sherrie’s commercial credits include: “Radio Disney”, Lysol, Febreeze, Ensure, Chevy, Tim Horton to name a few.  Choreography credits include Michael Jackson VH1 film “Man in the Mirror”, Kimberly Wyatt (Pussycat dolls) for VH1 Magic special, “The Man” starring LL Cool J (television pilot), Nelly Furtado, The Black Eyed Peas (GreyCup half time show), The Gemini Awards and assistant choreographer to Sean Cheeseman for CTV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”. Professional Musical Theatre Credits: “The Boyfriend”, “The Music Man”, “42nd Street”, “The Pajama Game”. Choreography for Theatre credits:”Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat”, “Aladdin”. “Evangeline”, “Shakespeare On The Park”, for Mount Royal Theatre Arts. “The Cherry Orchard” for United Theatre Players, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” and “Damn Yankees”, for The Front Row Centre Players.

Over the years Sherrie has worked on many film projects as choreographer and movement coach. she has won numerous distinguished awards for her creative choreography including winning the International Choreography Award representing Canada.  Welcome to the DG family Miss Sherrie!

Chanel Lacasse
Lyrical, Contemporary Guest Choreographer

Born and raised in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Chanel is a Vancouver based choreographer & dancer specializing in commercial contemporary dance. Chanel’s love for the arts began with classical ballet where she trained at the Royal Winnipeg School of Ballet as well, Boston Ballet, Walnut Hill, schools in Los Angeles, New York and Russia. Chanel is an alumni of the Source Dance Company. Most recently Chanel has been teaching at Vancouver’s professional drop-in studio Harbour Dance Centre, assisting for Groove Street Productions & Showtime Productions, ‘Rocky Mountain Dance Project’ & choreographing for the Source Dance Company. Chanel is also the founder and co-director of KC Dance Workshops, a touring dance workshop geared towards inspiring young dancers across Western Canada. She has worked with international choreographers such as Sabrina Phillip, the Barton sisters, Joanne & Alex Pesusich & Liz Tookey to name a few. Commercial work includes Sephora, GSG Productions, Whistler World Ski & Snowboard Event, St. Pauls Hospital, Variety Childrens Charity, Marianas Trench. You can catch Chanel on the upcoming finale episode of iZombie!

Recital 2015 Teacher photo












DG Faculty after our 2015 Recital “Under the Big Top”, from left to right: Jamee, MJ, Carolyn, Kristin, Kristyn, Amy, Rishell, Damon, Tamara, Ashley