Dance Manitoba will hold its 1st Annual Distinction Awards for Excellence in Dance on January 18, honouring six of Manitoba's dance icons. Receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards will be the late Rachel Browne and Arnold Spohr and dance pioneers Doreen Bissett, Donna Fiala, Daphne Korol and Vi Robertson.

"I was so overwhelmed and surprised at getting this honour and being in such a stellar group of people," said Bissett. "It's just an honour. It's amazing that what began as a fun hobby evolved into a lifelong profession."

Bissett started Irish dancing at the age of 10 with the McConnell School of Dance in 1951. She branched out into tap and jazz and before long, at the age of 14, she took over a community club dance program. 

She said she was fortunate to be around during a time when the CBC put on a lot of variety shows, including Dances of the Nation, Club 41, The Show That Jack Built and Red River Jamboree. 

"For a 16 or 17-year-old, doing professional work on TV was fun and exciting, as well as working with celebrities that they brought in," she said.

After she married, Bissett opened her own dance studio in Transcona. 18 years ago she sold it to her protege. "I've wound down over the years, but I couldn't quite cut the cord, so I still teach a few classes of Irish dance," said the 74-year-old. 

Donna Fiala's career took quite a different path. She made her mark leading and choreographing for The Bomberettes for 27 years from its inception in 1952. "We performed for games at half-time, we did full performances, and we were not cheerleaders," she noted. "We danced, twirled, marched and maneuvered."

She took the Bomberettes to five world fairs and three Grey Cups. A highlight was winning the World Dance Twirl Championship at Notre Dame in Indiana. She also opened her own dance studio.

Fiala, 82, allong with Bissett, was also one of the founders of Dance Manitoba. She has watched dance flourish in the province through the decades, explaining that the number of dance schools has increased from five to over 60.

"The dancing has improved tremendously," she said. "I think it's really all because of Dance Manitoba and the dance festival."

She's pleased to have watched her children take up dancing, as well. Her daughter has been a teacher at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for 25 years and her youngest granddaughter is dancing in the festival.

Fiala said she feels "fortunate and humbled to be among the other wonderful recipients at the awards. I'm pleased if I have made a difference in the art of dance."

Dance Manitoba, now 34 years old, promotes dance and dance development in Manitoba. Their biggest event is the Manitoba Provincial Dance Festival which now features more than 1500 performances over the course of 18 days.

The 1st Annual Distinction Awards for Excellence in Dance takes place at The Fort Garry Hotel on January 18.