Susan McNaughton (1952-2010)

By Samantha Mehra
  • Susan McNaughton / Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Dance artist and academic Susan McNaughton died on December 4th, 2010. Born in Toronto, McNaughton received a certificate in piano performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music. Later, she pursued a fruitful career as a dancer, choreographer, model and teacher in Toronto beginning in the early 1970s. Commencing her dance training at the Gladys Forrester School of Dance in the Royal Academy of Dance ballet technique, McNaughton went on to study modern dance with Bianca Rogge and took class, taught and performed with various artists at Toronto Dance Theatre – notably David Earle, Peter Randazzo and Patricia Beatty. McNaughton also taught at the Pavlychenko Studio and was part of its core faculty for several years before its closing. After spending many years as a co-coordinator of the dance program at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, in west Toronto, McNaughton pursued her intellectual interests and took to scholarship, presenting at conferences and publishing several articles, one of which appears in the soon to be released Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance (edited by Dena Davida). She completed two Master’s degrees at York University, one in dance (2002) and one in social anthropology (2005). Her Master’s research in dance focussed on the creation and performance of choreographer Lata Pada’s Revealed by Fire. A continual seeker of knowledge, McNaughton was in completing a Ph.D. in social anthropology at York University, where her research centered around the involvement of Sri Lankan Tamil women in the creation of temple-based Hindu worship practices in Toronto. The university has granted her Ph.D. posthumously.



Susan was tall with cathedral cheekbones and a smile that drifted all the way to the corners of her eyes. We spent a few years in all the same classes completing an MA at York. She was always inquisitive and asking about everyone else’s work … It always struck me that she was so curious and generous in her dialogue. She would get right up there, a foot away from you and stare right into your eyes as she asked you what you were working on. She had a rare kind of engagement in her community that will be missed.

~ Priya Thomas

Susan danced in Toronto performances I went to in the 1970s and 80s, but I remember meeting her when she arrived in Research Methods as an MA student in 2000. After she died, I found her first written assignment, a finely-etched memory of seeing her teacher Amelia Itcush in a Toronto Dance Theatre company workshop. My file reminded me of the others in that seminar. The group of eight happened to include Hari Krishnan and Priya Thomas, bharatanatyam dancers of astounding intellect. At the end of the term we had a little studio showing of Susan’s solo “One Woman – A Bridge,” which she took to The Other Festival in Chennai that December.

Susan’s program note for this work now seems prophetic of her own transition into research, which carried her forward from dance into social anthropology over the next ten years: “The moment at which Sita and Ravana meet is not only a turning point in the ‘Ramayana’ but the beginning of a personal rite of passage for her. Everything she had known changed from that moment on. What if, rather than being forcibly abducted, Sita follows Ravana in a fated way – toes awake but heels asleep, following an unfamiliar light, a local wind, a golden deer.”

Farewell, Susan. You were fearless!

~ Selma Odom

Susan and I taught together at Peel School of the Arts and Etobicoke School for the Arts. Later, during the many years that I was head of dance at ARTS YORK in Unionville High School, she was a frequent guest choreographer. During our many long car rides together, I got to know her as an exceptional bright light, an extraordinary intellectual and keenly engaged human being. I relished our far ranging conversations from literature, to art, to religion, anthropology and astrology.
One of my fondest memories was dancing with her at Premier Dance Theatre in “The Dance Goes On” in about 1992. The performance was co-directed by Paula Thompson and was a gathering of many artistic directors, dancers and choreographers from across Canada who were able to participate and who were being honored for their contribution to the development of dance in Canada. The group piece Susan and I danced in was choreographed by Gabby Kamino and was aptly called “Paths that Cross”.
On November 16, 2010, after I had visited Susan in the Princess Margaret Hospital shortly before she died, I wrote and dedicated the following poem to her:

Nothing prepared me for the change.
Quick! Shift the scene!
Roll back the years: “The Dance Goes On”.
Lithe limbs, long lines, space claimed.
Oh lovely, lanky one! Oh Dancer!

Now, straight-spined you sit,
Your back-drop, bed. Immobile legs lie still, unused.
And yet defying death, you will … the life goes on.

Gaunt faced and yellow,
Lips cracked and scabbed,
Eyes huge blue pools, unchanged,
From there your spirit shines.
Stick arms and fingers carve the lines,
So little left as illness takes its toll,
Strips flesh from bone.
Life’s loosening its hold.

What’s left? Sweet memories bold
Of rhythmic beats, of music and the dance,
Like life, one moment there, then quickly gone.
A brief connection. It’s memory that lives on.

~ Gabrielle Blair

Susan McNaughton was incredibly intelligent and had a special energy about her. Susan taught me at Cawthra Park Secondary School and opened my eyes to a whole new world of dance. She was very influential in creating my passion for modern dance, even introducing me to Robert Desrosiers.

She will be greatly missed.

~ Amanda Baron Ramdeen

I had the privilege of teaching, choreographing, and dancing with Susan. She was a remarkable woman. Her creativity and intelligence shone through her vibrant blue eyes, which sparkled truly like diamonds. I asked her one day how I could have that same sparkle and she began introducing me to such things as spiralina and cleanses that without Susan, I would have never done. Thank you for introducing me to a healthier approach in bettering myself not only on the outside but also the inside. Susan was a remarkable teacher, very passionate and demanding with her students. She taught beautifully crafted classes and was very patient with her students.
My best experience with her among many was a project I did in which she was a dancer. I was exploring aging and how women share their experiences with younger dancers. She was the ultimate professional in her work ethic. She was supportive to me artistically, asking great questions about my process and what I wanted to say, encouraging me to trust my creative instincts. She gave her beautiful performance to the piece and I realised what a wonderful mentor she was to me during the project.

~ Gabby Kamino

I am lucky to say that I experienced two sides of Susan: teacher and colleague. I had the good fortune of getting a chance to dance alongside Susan at the Fringe Festival when I was still her student in grade 12. In that role, she became a caretaker for us ‘younger’ kids dancing with professionals. She brought us treats daily. She looked after us like a mother hen.

As a teacher, she was a quiet influence on me as a dancer, however her words would always stay with me (“support your centre, stand tall”). It wasn’t until I had done years of training that I truly realized what she was trying to convey to us as beginning dancers. I appreciate her as a teacher and the inspiration she gave me. There is one regret: I never took the time to go back and tell her how she influenced me as a dancer; how I appreciated her teaching me the basic fundamentals in dance, and importantly, for supporting and fostering the artist that she may have seen in me.

There a few images that stick out in my mind of Susan McNaughton: her big warm smile and laugh, her enthusiasm for teaching and dancing, and her determination to teach us how to dance with passion without losing our strength.

~ Elizabeth Smyth

Miss McNaughton was my 1st Modern Dance teacher at the beginning of High School. A delicate transitional time for any young girl.
Aside from Modern, we studied anatomy and learnt the importance to taking care of our body’s as dancers. “Your body is a temple. Life is not a rehearsal. You have only one chance in this body, in this lifetime.”, she would say.
We also learnt about the pioneers of Modern Dance where I became intrigued by the works of Ruth St. Denis, and later influenced me to study Bellydance. Writing this, I now realize the importance of her teachings are to who I am today, as I am now a professional Bellydancer. Her classes were my 1st experiences with meditation, improvisation, and dancing barefooted to live percussion. I am so grateful to her as she planted many seeds in me, not knowing at the time.
I was blessed to have her as a teacher, even if only for a short time. If I had the chance to speak to her today, I would thank her for not only being a supportive dance teacher, but also a spiritual teacher.

~ Christina J. Lee

I was so sorry to hear about her passing. It got my thinking of that long time ago when we first met in her dance class and how, back then, she seemed so out there, but over the years upon reflection she was in tune with herself and her body and how it all connected to everything in life. She was inspirational that way to be such a free spirit and just let go. I remember a few times I would question her ideas and when it was all said and done the movements and choreography was wonderful! “It’s driving me crazy it’s driving me nuts” nough said. She was an inspirational teacher, one who wouldn’t be boxed in and helped myself and probably many other dancers to get more comfortable with themselves as dancers and human beings. She will be missed.

~ Sheralyn Stockley

Susan was, first, my modern dance teacher. We met when I was a grade 9 student at E.S.A. where she introduced me to a new world that I fell in love with.

Vivid memories: the journals she asked us to write. I was full of passion for dance but lacking the physicality or bravery to express it (yet). My entries were personal and heartfelt and Susan wrote back sensitive, encouraging words. Those words were crucial.

A solo by Gabby Kamino she danced on the small stage of the studio theatre. She was transcendent. Later I danced that same solo, attempting to embody Susan.

Dancing alongside Susan and eight women of varying ages in When Language has Left Us by Gabby Kamino. I was one of the younger dancers, at first intimidated by these older professionals while at the same time exhilarated to be dancing with them! It was one of those special, magical times that stay with a person: the kind that bring about deep bonds that remain despite time or distance.

When Susan passed away I had not seen her for many years but the night of her memorial I was moved by the strength of her presence in the room. There was sadness but also such joy – the kind of joy that Susan radiated. Everything about that night was so genuinely “her”. I felt remorse for not having seen Susan more, and never having acknowledged to her what a subtle but strong influence she was in my life at such a formative time. But somehow I think she knew.

Thank you Susan.

~ Mairéad Filgate


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