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13 December 2010

Toby Dancer (1953 – 2004) musician.

++ updated November 2013 to include the stained window.

Adrian Chornowol grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. His Ukrainian-born father was a musician with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Adrian was a child prodigy who played classical piano in the window of the Harmony Kids store. He grew up to be a record producer of note.

He was the music director of a country music television program, where he met Ian Tyson, who credits Chornowol with creating a unique sound for his platinum album Cowboyography, recorded in Calgary in 1987.

In 1989 Chornowol was repeatedly stabbed in his home by two homeless aboriginals. Shortly
afterwards he moved to Vancouver, and as Toby Dancer attempted to transition, as her brother had already done. She was very lonely and succumbed to heroin and then morphine.

Toby drifted to Toronto in 1998. She found the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, and a worker there found her a room. She sometimes played the piano, but needed coaxing. Zepheniah James, from Jamaica via New York, brother of the late Philip James of the Blues Busters, taught music at the Centre and slowly got Toby to play with him. They recorded two CDs. Toby also contributed to the music at Emmanuel Howard Park United Church, and confided in the minister Cheri DiNovo, who is now a New Democrat Member of the Provincial Parliament.  Emmanuel Howard Park United Church now has a stained window to remember her.

Toby died at age 51 of a drug overdose.

The Ontario Private Members Bill introduced by Cheri DiNovo in 2007 to add Gender Identity to the Ontario Human Rights Code is known as Toby's Bill in her memory.  It finally became law in 2012. 
  • Ian Tyson. I Never Sold My Saddle. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1994: 59.
  • Catherine Dunphy. "Toby Dancer, 51: Musical genius died a drifter". The Toronto Star, Dec 03, 2004.

For somebody who made such a mark on Canadian music, Toby has a very small imprint:  Merely a paragraph in Tyson's book, and the obituary in The Toronto Star.  If you google Adrian Chornowol you find entries in Music databases, but they are no more than the name and sometimes a list of albums.


    1. In 1991, after the stabbing in Edmonton, Toby and I spent a significant amount of time together in Vancouver. He was sober and supported by many in the music community in terms of both his transition and acknowledgement of his immense talent. I'm not sure when she started using drugs again, but I did speak briefly to her after she moved to Toronto.

      I also knew Star, her brother, in 1996, and was saddened when she, too, died.

      They were both amazing people and I was glad to know them.

      One point I would make, and I'm glad Toby was supported in Toronto by the community center, is that if you subscribe to an abstinence model, Toby's continued use of marijuana and other drugs is likely to have contributed to his relapse with heroin and his subsequent death. So sad to have seen this happen.

    2. Thank you for your comments. I am star and Toby's stepsister Laurie. Yesterday we buried Walter Chornowol our father. He is resting in peace now.

    3. I knew Adrian and was close to his brother Taras in Edmonton and later in toronto in the 1970s/early 80s. We lost touch, though I ran into Adrian as Toby once or twice, and was very saddened to read of Toby's death. And then shocked to find out that Taras (who I never knew as Star) was also gone. I have loved his wonderful spirit all my life to this day and would very much appreciate any information about when/how he died as I will always wonder about him. Thank you. Also condolences on the loss of Walter, whom I knew slightly from various Ukrainian events, dances, etc in the 80s. Also a lovely man. thank you for this website and a chance to be in touch.

    4. Thank you for this post! I met Toby at Emmanuel Howard Park United Church (now Roncesvalles United Church) when our (then) minister, Cheri DiNovo introduced us, through our shared love of gospel music. We started the EHP Gospel Choir together, and began writing and arranging songs together for the choir shortly after that. Before she died, Toby had become depressed and started using heroin again, but in May of that year her mood lifted, she started to manage herself through withdrawal, and we started planning on writing a gospel album together. We had a meeting on my birthday in July to plan the demo, and I walked to her boarding house to meet her, only to be met by police and ambulance crews at the door. Someone had found a body in the bathroom. They asked me if I knew Toby, and when I said I did, they asked me to ID the body. It was her, and my heart just broke. I'll never know if planning the album began to overwhelm her, or if (as a few of us surmised)she was managing her own withdrawal using patches and accidentally overdosed. But, to my knowledge, Toby was happy and making music with people she loved when she died, so I hope it was simply the latter. Today, I was listening to a recording of a children's song I wrote, and Toby was playing the piano accompaniment, and it made me think of her (as I do so many days)and search for a picture of her. Miss you my friend...see you on the other side. This is the song I sang for her at her funeral:

      Toby's Song:

      You were blessed with a soul that had two spirits
      But the world kept telling you you had to choose.
      So what should have been a miracle inside you,
      Became a burden that you knew you’d never lose.

      Oh, sometimes, a gift can be a burden
      And sometimes, a burden is a gift
      And although I always tried to help you bear them
      There were some I that I could never help you lift.

      They said that your gifts they were a blessing,
      But a burden is what they had become,
      So you hid your music way down deep inside you,
      Like a seed that’s sitting waiting for the sun.


      Then you found a home where you were finally cherished.
      And the music in your soul was breaking free,
      And I knew that it was I who’d found a blessing
      When you shared your spirits and your gifts with me.


      And now all your burdens, they are finally lifted
      By the One who helped you bear them for so long.
      And when I sit alone and pray to Him for comfort,
      I feel both your spirits touch me with their songs.

    5. I knew Adrian soon to be Toby for years Sheila was also a friend Adrian had given me the rental property that he and Sheila shared as a couple after their breakup it was located at 9235-96 St. in old Bonniedoon it was on the ravine and was bordered at the rear by the ravine, truly it was a little piece of paradise, I spent many wonderful hours there many times I thought of my friend Adrian who had so graciously left it to me. Happy Trails Adrian you will be missed. Signed Ian Pennifold

    6. There was a recent comment that gave the street address of Toby, and of the commenter. I avoid giving street addresses in that there are some weird people out there, so the comment was not released.

    7. Anonymous11/9/23 10:20

      Toby (then Adrian) was a fixture on the Edmonton music scene in the '70s. She played a solo piano house gig for years, first at the Japanese Village and then at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was a great pleasure to go listen. Toby also taught jazz piano at Grant MacEwan College and those of us that were lucky enough to study with her learned so much. My lessons usually involved going over to the house on Saskatchewan Drive, playing piano but also listening to a lot of music, especially Toby's great idol, Bill Evans. She had such a deep and respectful relationship with music, she was absolutely genuine in her playing. Everyone loved her and regarded her as their favourite piano player (even in a town with Tom Banks, Charlie Austin, and many other greats).


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