Keynote Speech 2006

Lateral Moves: Making a Difference in Dance Off Stage

By Amy Bowring

I feel very honoured to be asked to speak to you tonight. Although I was an enthusiastic ballet student, I don’t exactly consider myself the poster child for post-secondary ballet training. That said, however, I think I probably do represent a sector of the university population that found another way to make a life in dance outside of actually dancing and I think that transition is what I can best speak to tonight. Excuse me for talking about myself for the next twenty minutes; I don’t make a habit of that kind of activity but sometimes one is one’s own best case study.

When we enter university, we think we know everything, that we are indestructible, and that we will be young forever. The humble among us soon realize that we know nothing. We also have no idea how much our minds will grow in a mere four years, how our perspectives will change, how chance meetings with certain individuals – teachers, mentors – can turn the world we know completely upside down.

Tonight, I’m going to ask you to think outside the barre, to watch for those students who need doors open for them in other areas, to be aware when a student’s interests outside dance have the potential to affect dance, to contribute to the art form, to develop new ideas in the field.

Having grown up in a small rural community where the arts were not encouraged to the extent that they might be in a more urban setting, I was thrilled in my later high school career to discover that one could pursue dance at the post-secondary level. I had loved my ballet classes since age 7 but I knew that I was not destined to be a ballet dancer. Just before high school ended, I was introduced to Limón technique and a new passion was ignited. I read about the program at York University and I knew that was where I wanted to study. I was 19, in great physical shape, sick of the place where I had grown up, and ripe for embracing ideas that were new to me. When school began, I thought dancing every day was a brilliant way to spend one’s life, dance history was supremely fascinating, I was taking an array of other interesting courses and I had a new and exciting circle of friends who were studying theatre, film and art. I read about the Judson Church artists of the 1960s and fancied my friends and I as some radical group of artists who would change the world.  Suffice it to say, I had a rather romanticized vision of what it meant to be an artist.

At the end of that first year, I ran into a high school friend on campus; he had gone to York to study music. At that time, the music students took classes in a building far from the other fine arts students so we had not bumped into each other very often. His year had not gone as well as mine and he was so thrilled to see a familiar face that he picked me up and began spinning. It was a damp day and his six-foot form slipped in the mud and came crashing down to earth. My torso was trapped between his arms and his upper body; my legs – having been swinging outward due to centrifugal force – were still behind me when I landed. My upper body couldn’t move forward and consequently, I hyper-extended my lower back severely. The wind was knocked out of me. I couldn’t speak or move for several minutes. My friend kept asking if I was alright and I couldn’t answer. I just kept thinking to myself, “You can’t dance if you can’t stand up.” With help, I was eventually able to make it back to my residence room. I lay in a ball curling my spine, then I iced the injury. When the pain would not subside for several hours, I went to a hospital where I was handed a bottle of anti-inflammatories and sent on my way.

Technique classes were essentially over for the year but I did mention the injury to one of my teachers who chalked it up to over-extending myself in our year-end assessment class. When I tried to explain that it didn’t happen in class, this teacher simply wasn’t listening. I went home for the summer and worked a desk job. I tried to get into the local physiotherapy clinic but spent most of the summer on a waiting list finally getting in about 3 weeks before school was set to start again. The physiotherapists thought I was flexible enough – compared to the local farming community, I probably was – but I knew my body wasn’t able to do what dance demanded of it yet I had trouble convincing small-town physiotherapists of this fact.

When I returned to York for the new school year, I told my technique teachers that I had injured my back but in hindsight I see that nobody understood the severity of the injury – it didn’t happen in class or rehearsal, it didn’t happen in front of dance people. I was not confident enough to be pushy about getting help from them and I was too naïve to know what kind of treatment options I should be seeking. I spent most of my second year of university in pain and depressed. My grades dropped significantly and I toyed with the idea of quitting school altogether. But it’s not in my nature to quit anything so I just kept struggling along. By the end of the year, it seemed clear to me that my body needed a break and I decided that it would not be the end of the world to stop dancing for one year and give my body time to heal. The pain was putting me in a funk and I needed to find a way out. To add insult to injury, I discovered that making the choice not to take third-year technique meant that I could no longer be a dance major. I had to switch majors to a program called Fine Arts Studies, which allowed me to take dance theory courses in combination with classes in other artistic disciplines. I felt very slighted. I was determined to make dance my life and I was trying to find a way to contribute outside of performance and yet I felt like I was being shoved out of my community. My friends who specialized in theatre history or art history were still considered theatre majors and visual arts majors; I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be a dance major. To the York Dance Department’s credit, this policy is no longer in practice and there are more theory courses offered than ever before.

Despite the switch to a new major, I embraced my third year with renewed zeal adding courses in film studies and art history in addition to every dance theory course that was available. It was in this year that I encountered two teachers in the dance program with whom I had not studied previously and my mind was opened to astounding new possibilities for a life in dance. I began to realize that researching and writing about dance could provide a way for me to contribute to the art form while also appealing to my insatiable curiosity and incorporating a love of writing that I had had since childhood. It was an epiphany for which I am eternally grateful. The following year, these two teachers hired me to assist with the production editing of an anthology they were publishing – I learned more than any university course could possibly teach me and I still use the knowledge I acquired on a daily basis. At the end of my undergraduate studies, one of these teachers encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree in journalism, and it was brilliant advice.

In my third year of university I also discovered Dance Collection Danse (DCD) and met its iconoclastic founders, Miriam and Lawrence Adams. Dance Collection Danse is Canada’s largest archives for theatrical dance history and the nation’s only dedicated dance book publisher. I kept designing my assignment topics so that my research would continue to lead me downtown to DCD. My enthusiasm for research eventually led to a summer internship with Dance Collection followed by a series of project-based assignments in research, writing and proofreading. By 1998, DCD had acquired enough of an increase in its funding to bring me in part-time, then full-time and I haven’t looked back since. For as long as the board will have me, I will be at Dance Collection Danse, which I realize is a rare statement to make in an era when Gen-Xers tend to change jobs as frequently as they change their iPod playlists. But my commitment to this organization and to Canadian dance history in general speaks to the power of having teachers who can identify, encourage and nurture a student’s innate talent.

I think that sometimes, for dancers, we let the commitment to our training push us into areas that we may feel obligated to pursue rather than allowing us to take that training and apply it to a new field or a different area within the dance milieu. There is an annual conference in Toronto called On The Move. Its purpose is to assist graduates from pre-professional training schools with the transition into professional life, whether they come from an academic or a conservatory setting. I once heard a student say that one of the things that scared her was turning away from dance after completing her training – she was worried about the disappointment that her parents and teachers would feel; she felt obligated to pursue a professional dance career after her parents had paid so much in tuition and her teachers had invested so much time into her training. It is a credit to On the Move that the sanctity of the conference allowed her to make such an honest statement, and after she spoke, it was obvious that she was not alone in her concerns.

There are so many ways to make a life in dance and to contribute to the art form outside of performance that it’s tragic that this particular student felt so much pressure to become a professional dancer. In ballet in particular, and for girls primarily, we begin training so early that sometimes it’s difficult to see ourselves in any other profession. However, transition is a reality in dance; it may come while one is in the middle of pre-professional training or it may come after 30 years of performing but it will come eventually. I encourage you to be on the lookout for those students who may not be destined for a performance career but who can make a life in dance in other ways, who can contribute to the development of the art form. Writers, researchers, editors, translators, teachers, administrators, publicists, fundraisers, board members, arts council officers, civil servants, notators, movement analysts, therapists, historians, anthropologists, ethnographers, filmmakers, presenters, curators, designers, stage managers, archivists, and the list goes on. There are a myriad of careers that make up the dance ecology and students who have only thought about dance within a studio setting, may not have had the chance to consider all of these disparate paths. Additionally, the choice to pursue a non-performance career in the dance milieu must be valued; students should feel that their choices are respected. Post-secondary education is the place for new ideas to percolate and evolve, for experimentation to take place, for minds to grow, for discovery to happen. It is an educator’s responsibility to ensure that horizons continue to expand for students. Universities exist for members of society to learn what has happened in the world and then to take that knowledge to the next level.

When I recall some of the dance majors I attended university with, I discover other examples to illustrate my point. One fellow alumna is a stage manager who specializes in dance. She is constantly working and in high demand; there simply aren’t enough of her around. Another graduate started a magazine that is now in its ninth year of existence. Each year, she has to expand her staff to keep up with the demand for her time and expertise – all but one of her staff members are dancers, even the designer. Another colleague, who graduated from a conservatory, is bilingual and showed an aptitude for editing and translation. She was encouraged to pursue this route because, in a bilingual country, we need translators who also understand the language and terminology that is specific to dance. She now works as a performer for a modern dance company and as a translator. Even with a company job, dancers are rarely guaranteed 52 weeks of employment. For the majority of dance artists, a parallel career is a reality and having the skill-set to work in a related dance career when not performing beats waiting tables and slinging beer. A new parallel career within the dance field emerges from a preservation initiative about to be launched by Dance Collection Danse – the Grassroots Archiving Strategy. Designed to help the field preserve its legacy, this endeavour has received interest from dance professionals across Canada and across the generations. The project has several components, but simply put, the Grassroots Archiving Strategy will train dance professionals to perform the kinds of tasks that I complete when a new collection comes into the Dance Collection archives. It is the milieu’s good fortune that this new career is also supported by changes to funding policies at the dance section of the Canada Council for the Arts.

The possibilities for contributing to dance off-stage are staggering. Necessity is the mother of invention; if students are aware of the full ecology of the dance milieu then the natural leaders within each generation will identify needs and initiate activity to support those needs. They can get a head start if the academic and artistic communities work together to teach them about this ecology before they graduate. Don’t let them flounder in the field after graduation. They need knowledge about the past, present and future of dance in order to excel. Once they have this knowledge, I feel strongly that, in most cases, those who have a burning need to contribute will realize their potential.

I have said before that York University did a good job of giving me a grounding in dance practice and theory but it was the late Lawrence Adams of Dance Collection Danse who provided my apprenticeship as a dance citizen. I was fortunate to have found a mentor in this remarkable man; he supplied the training that I don’t feel I found in university. And he and his wife Miriam helped me to find the life in dance that I was looking for. Through them, I gained computer skills, research methods, preservation tools, and historical knowledge. They added to the writing and editing skills I had acquired in university, taught me the wide range of tasks involved in publishing books, and exemplified the importance of participating in the community of dance through advocacy initiatives and service organizations. But I think one of the most important things the Adams gave me is a sense of my dance ancestry that has led to pride in what I do and in the community to which I belong, as well as confidence in my ability to contribute to the field without actually dancing. They encouraged my research, supplied outlets for my writing and supported my initiation of the Society for Canadian Dance Studies in multiple ways.

In 2005, I was hired to take notes at a conference given by the Dancer Transition Resource Centre. The overarching theme that emerged from this conference was an unfortunate lack of self-esteem among dancers. There was not a lot of pride or confidence in what they were doing and what dance contributes to society. I told them in my summary that I wished they knew more about their dance ancestors. If they knew about the family of brave, pioneering souls that they had emerged from, they would have much more pride in their contribution as dancers and choreographers. It made me very sad but it also reinforced my commitment to researching, publishing and exhibiting Canadian dance history.

Canadian dance history has great depth and is not derivative of all things British and American as is often and mistakenly assumed by non-Canadian scholars. It is true that we are a nation of immigrants but while our dance roots are embedded in our immigration history, these immigrants made a point of embracing Canadian themes, training Canadian dancers to form companies, and collaborating with Canadian composers and designers. I should also point out that our history does not begin with the National Ballet of Canada. As important an organization as it is in our national story, there was considerable dance activity here in the half century that preceded the National Ballet. There was a thriving Vaudeville scene at the turn of the twentieth century and lead dancers, like those in Toronto’s Uptown Girls, could potentially make more money than their parents. Research into the 1920s and 1930s is revealing a sophisticated integration of artists in all disciplines particularly in works seen at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre. The immigrant artists to whom I referred earlier, led the development of a distinctly Canadian dance art particularly through the Canadian Ballet Festivals from 1948 to 1954, for which 90 original works were created. Alongside the Ballet Festival phenomenon was the work of Quebec’s radical automatist artists including choreographers. Post-war immigration brought a group of German Expressionist choreographers who made new inroads into modern dance in Canada in the 1960s paving the way for the modern dance boom of the 1970s. The number of modern dance and chamber ballet companies, as well as independent dance artists, increased significantly through the 1970s and 1980s establishing dance as the fastest growing art form in Canada. Economic difficulty in the 1990s has had a severe effect on dance here creating a scene where some small and mid-sized modern dance companies closed and many independent dance artists struggled more than usual, but the field is on the mend although funding levels have still not fully recovered from the cuts made a decade ago. Regardless of where we are at the moment, the fact remains that Canada has a rich and wonderful dance history and it has become my mission to make sure everybody knows it. I guess I can check you all off my list now.

Although the details of my past are unique, the situation that I found myself in as an undergraduate is not. I know there are other people like me in dance departments all over the world – people who are dedicated to the art form but who have the potential to make a difference off stage. With exposure to the right things and encouragement from attentive people, I found my way. Others can do the same but they need an array of choices laid before them and that’s what the professional and teaching communities need to be aware of. We need to expose students to these possibilities and value their decisions. It must be recognized that choosing a life in dance off stage is a lateral move and not an admission of failure.

Copyright © Amy Bowring, 2006

Amy Bowring (B.A. Fine Arts Studies, York University; M.A. Journalism, University of Western Ontario) is a freelance dance writer and historian, Research Coordinator at Dance Collection Danse, and Founder/Director of the Society for Canadian Dance Studies. Amy has published articles in Right to Dance: Dancing for RightsCanadian Dance: Visions and StoriesDance Collection Danse Magazine,Canadian Encyclopedia, International Dictionary of Modern Dance, Encyclopedia of Theatre Dance in Canada and The Dance Current, among other publications. She chronicled Peggy Baker’s Choreographer’s Trust project and curated a virtual exhibition on Canadian modern dance pioneer Nancy Lima Dent. Amy is currently writing a book about the Canadian Ballet Festivals (1948-1954) and their role in the professionalization of dance in Canada. She is a co-recipient of the 2002 Toronto Emerging Dance Artist Award.