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Introducing this year's Fiddle Fest judges

By Celina Ip

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
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Six-year-old Seamus Darrah and square dancing partner Ava Mark, seven, show off the skills they learned during dance lessons provided to elementary school kids in Beachburg recently. In all, eight young dancers were invited up to the main stage at the Pembroke Memorial Centre during Saturday night's Fiddle Fest finale event.

Ryan Paulsen / Daily Observer
Six-year-old Seamus Darrah and square dancing partner Ava Mark, seven, show off the skills they learned during dance lessons provided to elementary school kids in Beachburg recently. In all, eight young dancers were invited up to the main stage at the Pembroke Memorial Centre during Saturday night's Fiddle Fest finale event.

The judges lineup for this year's Pembroke Old Time Fiddling and Step Dancing Championships has just one change to the roster.

 

Taking their place in front of the stage during the fiddling competition will be newcomer Shane Cook of Dorchester, Ont., who joins mainstays Brian Hebert of Pembroke and Calvin Vollrath of St. Paul, Alberta.

On the stepdancing side of things, it will be returning judges Chad Wolfe of Ottawa, Tiffany Fewster-Salt of Woodstock, Ont. and Pembroke's own Rhodina Turner.

Cook, the newcomer, is a Canadian and international fiddle champion who’s been noted by The Canadian Fiddlers’ Hall of Fame as one of the “finest fiddlers in the world today,”. In 2006, he retired from competitive fiddling as one of Canada's most highly awarded fiddlers. He is a three-time Canadian Open National Champion, a three-time Canadian Grand Masters Champion, a Grand North American Champion, and is the only foreign fiddler to win the US Grand National Championship, a feat he accomplished at just 17 years of age.

Cook competed at the Pembroke Old Time Fiddling Championship from age 8 until he was 24. Now, Cook expressed that he’s thrilled to be able to return to the event as a judge.

“I am really fortunate to get to travel the world playing Canadian fiddle music for a living, and I’ve come to realize that what happens in Pembroke is totally unique. Whenever someone asks me about Ontario fiddling, I always think of Saturday night at the Pembroke fiddle park. To me, its as good as it gets when dozens of fiddler and step dancers congregate around the dance boards and piano and play till sunrise. It’s a joyous sight and sound that you just won’t find anywhere else,” said Cook. “So to get the invite to judge and have a front row seat to it all has me excited like no one would believe.”

Brian Hebert has been a household name around the Upper Ottawa Valley for decades, having taught generations of up-and-coming fiddlers and lending his adjudication talents to the competition for many years now. In 2009 he had the distinction of being inducted into the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame and he also filled the role of artistic director at the 1999 Fiddles of the World convention in Halifax, N.S.

Hebert's career has been built on not only his fiddle-playing skills, but also his ability to mentor other players. He got hooked on the fiddle at the age of eight and he's never looked back. As a teacher, he brought his love of music into the classroom, establishing a credit course in Canadian fiddle. Over the years, he has mentored and coached many young fiddlers and is a tireless ambassador for the fiddle.

Among his many achievements is being instrumental in the creation of the Pembroke Old Time Fiddling and Step Dancing Championships and being honoured by the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Championships organization for his contributions towards the growth and development of Canadian fiddling.

Rounding out the fiddle judging trio is Calvin Vollrath who’s been involved with the fiddle fest since 1992.

Raised on Don Messer's Jubilee, Vollrath received his first fiddle at age eight. Twice crowned the Grand North American Old Tyme Fiddle Champion, he has since composed more than 400 tunes, many which have become standard contest and dance tunes across North America and Europe.

He also has to his credit, more than 50 albums, numerous music books and an instructional DVD. This year he composed five fiddle tunes which were performed during the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies by a distinguished group of Canadian fiddlers including Rankin's April Verch. In recognition of his contribution to old time fiddling, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Championship in 2005.

“I just love the atmosphere and fellowship. I missed last year and I'm super excited to be back this year,” said Vollrath.

For the stepdancers, the judging level is no less impressive.

For Rhodina Turner, the Pembroke contest is the highlight of her summer and she is no stranger to the event. She has been volunteering at the registration trailer for 27 years and she wouldn't miss it for the world.

She is also no stranger to the stage itself as she took part in the stepdancing competition for many years, taking to the stage for the final time in 2002 before moving to the judges table for the past 14 years.

Turning her attention to judging was a natural progression for Turner, who still dons her dancing shoes providing lessons for some competitive and beginner students. She has also incorporated stepdancing into the programming at the Pembroke Boys and Girls Club, where she serves as the executive director.

Chad Wolfe is no stranger to the stage and competition at the Pembroke contest, having earned a championship standing himself, so he knows what it takes to win, from both sides of the panel. Wolfe's professional resume includes performances with Mirvish Productions and Natalie MacMaster, and he currently teaches dance at his own Ottawa-based Chad Wolfe Studio of Dance and Music.

Now into his fifth year of judging the competition, Wolfe is more than eager to witness another group of talented step dancers.

“For me, it is an honour to be a part of this event. There is just something magical about the atmosphere of this contest. From the energizing music in the park, to the incredible talent and skill being showcased at the competition, it was always the contest I just couldn't miss as a young competitor,” said Wolfe. “Now 20 years later, the energy is as strong as ever, and as a judge, I am thrilled to see the skill level of the dancers increasing higher and higher each year.”

Tiffany Fewster, a former Canadian Open Stepdance champion who joined fiddler Natalie McMaster on the road in 2002, will be returning to Pembroke once again to lend her considerable talents and experience to the adjudication panel this year.

Her professional dance debut was at the age of 15, performing as the Royal Alexandra Theatre's principal dancer, two short years after winning the Ontario Youth Talent Search contest with a dance routine she choreographed herself.

cip@postmedia.com