Forging Connections in and Through Dance Education

Pulse Ontario Dance Conference By Megan Andrews

It was cold and verging on rain all day Saturday – the third day of the Pulse Ontario Dance Conference – but the delegation of 160 dance students from public schools across the province and six commissioned choreographers braved the weather along the windy waterfront of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ont., in order to develop their site-specific works for presentation at the event’s culminating evening.

A rousing group drum-and-song session led by conference keynote speaker and Nipissing First Nation-based dance artist Penny Couchie rounded out the lunch break. Couchie is co-artistic director of Aanmitaagzi, a multi-arts creation and performance company, and she runs Big Medicine Studio in Nipissing First Nation. Earlier that day, she’d led a drum circle and procession that dispersed the groups of student dancers and their choreographers to their creation sites along the lake. The delegation worked outdoors, but unfortunately, due to the weather, in secondary locations around Chippewa Secondary School to be close enough to warm up as needed.

Dance is most certainly happening in public schools across Ontario. It must be, as it’s part of the Ontario Ministry of Education mandated curriculum. The question is: “How is dance happening in these schools?”

The answer: in part with support from the biennial conference initiative Pulse. Founded in 2004 and led to date by Peel District School Board dance educator Carmelina Martin, the conference brings together dance educators, students and professional dance artists in a networking and professional development event involving workshops, performances and a symposium for teachers. The first event was held in 2006 at York University’s dance department. This year the event was held in North Bay, with support from Dance Ontario, the province’s regional arts service organization through funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Pulse’s mandate: “… to support emerging dance programs, including those in under serviced or in rural Ontario, and to begin forging lasting relationships between educators and the professional dance community.”  

This year, the conference’s northern location drew many delegates from nearby northern regions of the province while also attracting participation from other Ontario school districts. Teachers and delegations of dance students travelled to Lake Nipissing and stayed in residence at Canadore College. Evening performances at North Bay’s Capitol Theatre on Thursday and Friday included presentations by Penny Couchie (Aanmitaagzi), Bboyizm, Ottawa-based social justice youth theatre Dandelion Dance Company (Hannah Beach), urban/contemporary Alias Dance Project and contemporary dance group Jasmyn Fyffe, among others.

Workshops led by some of the invited performers and choreographers along with other artists – including bellydancer Yasmina Ramzy, Brazilian contemporary dancer Newton Moraes, bboy Mariano Abarca and Ballet Creole dancer Sharon Harvey – took place at Chippewa Secondary School, where Pulse’s North Bay conference host Andrea Lefebvre teaches dance. Six invited choreographers from a range of forms (classical Indian and contemporary dancer Nova Bhattacharya, Allen Kaeja [Kaeja d’Dance], Lauren Cook and Troy Feldman  [Alias Dance Project], Ashley Burton of Arts North, Jasmyn Fyffe and Penny Couchie) were commissioned to create site-specific works with the dancers on the Saturday, with a performance in the evening.

The chance to see live dance performance and to engage with professional dancers and choreographers of national and international repute is relatively rare for dance students in more rural and remote regions of the province. As Lefebvre attests, much of her North Bay students’ dance viewing occurs online and through video. To be able to interact with professional artists and experience the creative process provided a welcome opportunity for live dialogue and interaction. The students’ commitment to the site-based creation process, in spite of the cold, was a strong indication of their enthusiasm for the opportunity.

Pulse also aims to support public school dance educators, not only in delivering curriculum, but also in strengthening their ability to advocate for dance in their schools – with other staff, principals and parents. While the student delegates worked with their assigned choreographers on Saturday, their teachers participated in the Free Flow symposium involving a creative process workshop actively linking dance to curricular objectives in non-arts subjects. The afternoon brainstorming and advocacy sessions got the teachers working together to problem solve around various issues they face in their local teaching environments.

Clearly conference attendees are already “converted”; they understand the value of dance education and come to Pulse because they believe in the opportunity for their students and they value the chance to engage with other dance educators. But Helen Gobby, an elementary teacher in North Bay, notes that one of the challenges for non-dancers in implementing the dance curriculum is simply not being comfortable moving expressively in front of others. For her, the professional development offered at Pulse is essential to facilitating exploration and providing tools and experiential templates to use in the classroom. In addition, networking is key to building community and solidarity among dance teachers who are often the only voice for dance at their home schools, amid the din of competing priorities and core emphasis on language, math and science.

According to Pulse’s 2013 Positioning Statement: “Pulse is a catalyst bringing together stakeholders in dance education, providing a space to promote dialogue through a shared experience and collaboration.” This year’s event proved successful once again, this time not only for the gathered educators and students from across the province but also for the local dance community in North Bay. In the event’s planning stages, connections were forged between the local First Nations dance/arts community and North Bay’s non-native and public dance educators. All it took was an invitation.

As Couchie regularly asks of anybody passing by her studio, native and non-native alike “Would you like to come in and dance?”

If anyone needs evidence of the importance of dance and dance education in our public schools, look no further. Connections and relationships grow when we dance together. Communication, expression and collaboration are foundational in movement-based creative process. Perhaps as upcoming generations of students receive an increasingly strong dance education in public schools, more adults will be problem solving together using the skills they acquired in dance class.

Learn more >> pulsedance.ca


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