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Interviews, essays and commentary published by The Dance Current.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Past Future: Kaeja d'Dance at 20 years
Interview by Megan Andrews

Allen and Karen Kaeja (2006) / Photo by Ella Cooper

Over the last twenty years, you have established your company as a force on the Canadian scene. You have also managed to maintain a family life, as a couple and as parents of two daughters. I know that your company office is located in the lower level of your home. How have you negotiated the balance and flow of personal and professional life? Do you have any tips for other artistic families?

Karen: It has always been vital to have the office in our home so that I could flow from office to children at will. I remember after the birth of our second daughter twelve years ago, I put her in a bouncy bucket on our tiny office floor while we met with our administrator Janelle Rainville at the time. I recall her saying ‘I don’t think I could ever have children’, after watching me multi-task tending to a crying baby while we were talking about a grant or touring plan. Today she too has a child!

The urge to have children for me was far greater than any concerns of changes that would occur to body or lifestyle. I performed until my eighth and ninth month. Allen and I felt so strongly about having kids that we were committed to bring them with us and have them be part of our life no matter what city or country we were going to. For a decade, we travelled with them around the globe because we could not see it any other way. Exhausting yes, but ultra satisfying. When they were small my spine would engage in a certain way an hour before a show because I was sure that I would be called away to a child emergency. I always felt that if I could get through the performance without being called by the babysitter or the kids in a state of need, that I was in for a lucky performance. I always call my children right before I perform in a show. I have to say that with each child, I experienced the most valuable lessons in my career. Each was a structured improvisation from heaven that I had no control over. I knew only one rule: that there was but one pathway to delivery. The structure was clear, only my journey was not. The birth of my children was the most profound structured improvisation that I have ever performed. It was full, it needed no audience, it came from within and was deeply embodied. It was also the discovery of the best vocal work I will ever have done! The experience of this involuntary craze is embedded deeply in my physical memory and it is where I go for information to create and perform. I am thankful to have two constant resources like never ending rivers, for my creativity and understanding of life – the children. Without those parts to the mystical puzzle of life, I would not be the person and artist that I am. I believe that my dancing began to crack open after I had children. I also learned how to be incredibly efficient in the studio and everywhere else. Lounging on the beautiful wooden floor hoping for an inspiration to drop by was no longer an option. When dancers ask me about having children and dancing, I always say to go for it. Life will alter as you know it with new negotiations, and that is a good thing!

There are several performances that I have done with our kids – they are always monumental for me. A sweet spot with Aniya at five years old was the creation of our Bravo!FACT film “Sarah” in 1999. I still love that film. In 2009, when I created a duet with our twelve-year old Mika, I felt like I had entered the most important moment of my career on a personal level. Out of two decades of experiences, I found that co-creating and performing a professional work with my child quite honestly overwhelmed me in the most beautiful way. It was the first time I felt like it would be a perfect moment to end my career. Now I understand it as a marker of time that was necessary to lead me to my next phase.

At times, different employees have suggested to move the office out of the house, but it just never resonated with me because then I would have three places to be at once! I do dream of an office attached to our studio - that makes sense to me. Juggling motherhood, my love for Allen, the company and my career, is like being a tour manager for many. It is a bumpy, windy, mountainous, chaotic, challenging, spirited and wonderful lifestyle. It has been one long never-ending day that has suddenly turned into twenty years, but I would not have it any other way!

Allen: I think it is crucial to say that when Karen and I began dating, twenty-five years ago, we realized that we both had common goals of maintaining dance as a career and having a family, something that was very rare in our day. As we built our relationship, then company, we began to set goals for our future and eventually, planned our children around our schedules, to give them as much attention, and Karen recovery time, as possible. We’ve strived to focus on all aspects of our lives simultaneously.

Both Karen and I are driven individuals and together, I feel, we make a whirlwind. We balance each other with foresight and present awareness. Karen is incredibly detail oriented and I am a big picture guy – a good match on most days! We both believe strongly in our community and that the evolution of our art form is a continuation of our passions.

I feel that as a couple we are able to support each other, both in finding time to “hang” with our kids, take them to their activities, raise them and deal with their issues, as well as each others growth, directions and vulnerabilities in our careers.

TIPS: Children! I believe having them is one of the greatest gifts for an artist! They redefined my art, process and my choreographic development for a decade. My girls, in their ever-continued evolution, from birth to pre-teen to almost university, inspire me completely. Karen and I saw ourselves touring the world, doing creative residencies and spending quality time with our children in as many different experiences as possible – which I feel we have done and continue to pursue. I have included both our girls in my films and we’ve performed with them, at various times, on stage. My youngest, Mika, really wanted to come to Norway with me this past February, which I would have loved, but now that they are older, it’s more difficult pulling them from school for a month. We continue to find pathways to fully include our children in our creative, parental and adult lives.

Allen Kaeja (1997) / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Allen, I believe the dance film work your company creates belongs more in your creative portfolio than Karen’s but correct me if I’m wrong. What attracted you to the medium? How does your film work relate to your creations for stage?

Karen: Dance on film has been a huge part of my performance life and has played a key role in my comfort level as a performer. I get to hover in a world that is within me and beyond me at the same time, while the camera translates information to the viewers. I love the sensitive relationship with the camera, how its eye becomes my dance partner and ultimately then, my audience as partner. Dancing for the camera has become an extension of my perspective of what a partner can be. It is a totally unique experience that I have been comfortable with since the beginning of our seventeen films together. The relationship is personal and subtle, allowing me to me live inside the performance while reaching far beyond in its final frontier. It is an intimate encounter that gives me another angle to draw on for stage performance.

Allen: Ahhhh, good question. I tried to avoid making dance film for years. It was Karen who pushed me into it. We had just completed “Old Country” in 1995 and Karen said this piece has to become a film. I resisted, and resisted, and resisted, even when two potential directors were interested in turning the piece into a film. (When both of these projects collapsed, I realized, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this is fortuitous; one day I will eventually shoot the piece myself. Little did I know that in 2004, the film would be supported by CBC, play in festivals worldwide, and that my co-director Mark Adam and I would be nominated for a Gemini for Best Direction). Karen did everything she could to try to convince me to pursue this direction, including antagonizing me when she did her first dance film intensive (sponsored by DUO in 1996) and basically said, “Your work would live fully in the film medium, you have to do it! It’ll rock your world!” Karen noticed that a master workshop was being held in Vancouver, run by Bob Lockyer, and suggested I take this. I applied and flew out to Vancouver in the spring of 1997.

After this intensive and absolutely life-altering course, I was immediately involved in three dance films. The first two, I was a choreographer and was disappointed with the outcome and experience. I felt that the directors didn’t capture the essence, nuance and integrity of my choreography. When one director didn’t even want to study the work before he shot it, I remember saying to Karen, “From now on, I will only direct or co-direct my films”. While I was in rehearsals for “Courtyard” (1997) and rehearsing at CCDT, I walked into Jet Fuel Café for my daily latte and Mark Adam approached me, suggesting we shoot a film together. I asked him if he minded if we co-directed it and Mark said, “sure!” The Bravo!FACT film, based upon “Courtyard”, was named “Witnessed” (1997). We premiered it on our opening night of “Courtyard” and the five-minute film was soon after short-listed for IMZ Jury Prize (Europe), was one of the most played films in Bravo!’s history and is still touring the world in many festivals. “Asylum” (2004) was one of six films, out of 1,000, to be shortlisted for Special Jury Mention at the Banff World Television Festival, which Martin Scorsese won. I don’t mind being in this category ;).

Working with Karen, in both film and stage, has had an immense influence on my development as a filmmaker. Karen is incredibly versatile and can change her persona easily from the stoic and longing spouse in “Old Country” to the dominant Matriarch in “Asylum of Spoons”. She has been and continues to be my perfect muse. David Hinton, world-renowned dance filmmaker, once described Karen as “a powerful film performer who transforms the screen and captures the viewer into her world”.

Five years ago, I began teaching master dance film workshops, both here in Canada, and in Mexico and the USA. Inspired by this experience, I approached Nadia Potts, then head of dance at Ryerson Theatre School, and asked her if I could create a practical, creative dance film course for the Ryerson fourth-year class. And so four years ago, the first ever hands-on dance film course in Canada was begun. The course is twofold for me. Not only does it evolve from year to year, with the students creating up to four film projects in the fall term, but it continues to stimulate and deepen my investigation and perspective on dance film.

Relationship to stagework: Most of my early films were adaptations of stage works to film. A cycle seemed to evolve that put forth a stage work which toured nationally or internationally, then an adaption of the work was made for education performances at the same time as a film developed of the original work. The film creation involved the process of deconstructing, re-envisioning and finding the essential nature and qualities of the stage works to re-invent them for the eye of the camera and the world that film can breathe so fully. Choreographic structure, stage dimension, proscenium, all have to be forfeited because suddenly a work could be seen from all angles, focal lengths, textures and, of course, locations. Whatever the imagination can conjure, film can reveal.

Film didn’t directly affect my stage work until the creation phase of “Asylum of Spoons” beginning in 2002. By then I had co-directed or directed and produced eight films. As I was in the rehearsal studio, I also began to write the screenplay and shot list. I began to document the work from the eye of the camera as well as the sense of stage. In this way, each world influenced the other and this approach was very exciting. If I imagined a moment on film, like Karen’s “Matriarch” persona manipulating the “family” at the table and inciting a temporary mutiny, I began to re-create it for stage and vise versa.

By the time the work premiered at CDF in June 2004, I had the first draft of the screenplay complete. Encouraged by Neil Bregman, Director of SoundVenture Production (Ottawa), I received another sponsorship from the Banff Centre, to complete the script in September and within the month, Bravo!Network picked it up. We shot the majority of the film three weeks after our Toronto premiere in March 2005.

Even today, I integrate both worlds, but I am also writing directly for film, without the advent of a stage production. Very different process and outcome. One of my recent films, “Of The Heart” (2009), co-directed with Douglas Rosenberg, was shot on location in Wisconsin with David Dorfman and Lisa Race, sponsored by Wisconsin Public Television. Doug and I structured the shooting so that David and Lisa would fly in one morning, having only seen the location through photos sent via email. We drove to the site, set up the dolly, track and tripod. Set up the framing and shot them while they improvised. We took a full four hours, culminating into the sunset. We then had home cooked dinner with the crew, David and Lisa flew out the next morning and voila! “Of The Heart” has now toured the world and has been shortlisted in both New York and Spain for Jury Prizes.

Karen Kaeja (1997) / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Karen, earlier in the company’s history, you were less involved in choreography. Recently you have co-choreographed several group pieces with Allen, such as Abattoir. Further, in the last eight or so years, you have become more active as a choreographer yourself. How has your creative process developed and differed from Allen’s and from the way you work together? You both have had a long-term relationship with contact dance and improvisation. Karen, I’m wondering how these modes inform your choreographic process?

Karen: Partnering is in my bones, its how I grew up in this field and its the form of dance that hooked me in and made me feel like I had found home. The pressure and sensation against someone’s body and the information I receive from someone else, when our bodies are engaged is like eating my favourite food – nurturing and fully understood. The years of exploration and practice in this duet form have given me mountains of information. For a long time I felt at a loss if I did not have a physical partner in rehearsal and on stage, but now I extend my knowledge and exploration into solo practice and creation by taking partnering impulses that arise from my own body and asking my own body to respond to them– sounds kinky, but there is so much to draw on. The practice of improvising has taught me how to be present and to rely on myself no matter what. I have always been enamored with activating the here and now.

Over the years, I have made smaller works and been an antagonist and challenger to Allen in his works. Allen has depended on me as movement creator and evoked an atmosphere of total trust in my contributions. This provided me with a groundswell of practices and initiations that I have been incubating for years. I have also been an insider for the partnering development. After twenty years as an aligned duo, something very special is happening. We are each reevaluating what our key creative passions are and this is rerouting us to a more defined place. Allen more deeply into his Elevation techniques and myself into more subtle and idiosyncratic character work based on how I see and tick in the world that is defined by juicy movement investigation. I have always been practicing movement invention because I have been the key movement catalyst in all Allen’s works. It feels like we are taking what has been combined into one and pulling it apart, strip-searching our own investigations more fully and reaching a new level of satisfaction.

After co-creating “Abattoir”, I felt the need to devote my creative time to my own work so that the inquisitions and challenges I excavate in the studio would become self directed, owned and honed by me. It was a springboard for me. I suppose I am taking ownership of all the pushing and prodding and challenging I have focused towards Allen in his works. As I take off on my own journeys choreographically, I must say it is VERY lonely, but exciting. Knowing that Allen is always a solid rock for me in a creative capacity is a gift. I have opened myself to new collaborators. I invite artist’s eyes, bodies and minds in to work and research with me, who are exceptional and have not been part of Kaeja d’Dance in the past. I find I crave this kind of stimulation. For the past five years, I have been visioning large site-specific projects bridging the public and professional dancers in one performance arena like “Bird’s Eye View” (co directed with Diana Groenendijk), “Stable Dances” and “Flock Landings”. What attracts me to create these kinds of projects is that they are platforms for the performers to reveal their brilliant goods. This city is so rich with amazing dancers that I am compelled to highlight a blend of their artistry, my own work and the inclusion of the general public in one event.

Improvisation has always been a strong thread for me in creation and performance. I usually have several projects going on to fuel this passion. I will be forever grateful to Allen, whose trust in me as a performer over twenty years has provided me with plenty of room to explore both set and improvised delivery within his evening length works. All of Allen’s works are tightly choreographed with the exception of one section that he leaves open for me to improvise. People don’t really know this, it was always this unspoken thing we had going. He knows we both need/want to set me free at some point. It is usually three-quarters of the way through a work when I have reached a point in my role that the dance speaks to me of where I need to take it. On the partnering front, I am lucky that I have had my very own dance partner to create and improvise with for so many years.

Being an improviser has given me a toolkit to observe the world and create from a non-linear place. It allows me to dance, choreograph, sit, think, write, crunch numbers, be a mom, run a company, deal with ALL kinds of things and never be frustrated for too long.

The mystery of a new creation, whether I am a dancer or creator in the process, is still the key to my appetite for life. I love being immersed in the creative process as much or more than the performance. I still love being the vessel in the hands of other gifted creators that springs life into a new form. I like the balance of dancing for Allen, creating my own work and dancing for other choreographers. Coming at dance as a performer who is ignited by improvising, it generates what I carry with me as a choreographer when I ask with great anticipation for my interpreters to go there too. I still find it difficult to put what instinctually comes out physically into words for my interpreters.

Earlier in the arc of Kaeja d’Dance, you codified and named your choreographic method, calling the process Structured Innovations (SI). My understanding is that this is a collaborative creative exercise in which each member of a group, in quick response, adds a new movement to a developing sequence that is then manipulated and directed by you. What compelled you to codify and name your process in this way? Do you still use this method?

Karen: Allen and I came on the tail of a generation who built material on their dancers by teaching them the steps and pathways to replicate. I think SI was a way to begin to define what we were doing, which was drawing information from our interpreters. I would not use that terminology now, because what I do is not so cut-and-dry and very different from Allen. I like to sit and watch a dancer as they walk into the studio and how they are in the space and how they breathe life into movement suggestions. I begin to morph into a work from there. I combine an intuitive tracking while asking myself a lot of questions, digging into an idea or an image in different ways – internally, laterally, underneath. I riff off of how material is being interpreted to a point that in most cases, I could not perform the exact work myself because it takes on its own life through the interpreter. I encourage that deepening.

Allen: Structured Innovations (SI) was an immensely important process in my development. I was personally frustrated by trying to re-capture moments from a structured improvisation that would last up to twenty minutes (sometimes through video and sometimes through note writing) and thought, there has to be a more comprehensive way of working with impulse-driven work, – the unexpected nature of the unknown and to somehow capture the essence of a moment or series of moments right away, without compromise. I have always believed in the creative brilliance of my dancers and because we developed and used this process inherently, I felt that by “codifying” it, we could use SI as a set of parameters from which to break free. The importance of a defined structure is to find its limits and challenge its outcomes. Over the past twenty years, I have credited my dancers as: Created with and performed by.

I feel that many choreographers don’t credit their predecessors enough with how their personal training and experiences influence their choreographic development and work. I don’t believe that this means compromise, as we all strive for our own physical language. I encourage anyone using SI or my Elevation techniques to credit where the influence came from.

The greatest change now in this process is that I am much more succinct in my direction. I used to allow the dancers to create a larger portion of the structure before I intervened; now I am in-your-face pretty much immediately and continuously. I try to work as a comprehensive, creative and impulsive team. I have also defined my vocabulary much more, so the Elevation techniques now play a much more definitive role in the choreography.

I used to feel that my voice was compromised slightly with the SI approach, but have discovered nuance and even greater defined directions within the process that enable me to fully integrate my voice with those of the dancers. My credit to the dancers remains the same.

Karen and Allen Kaeja in Abattoir by Kaeja d’Dance (2008) / Photo by John Lauener

I find the practice of naming movements quite fascinating, particularly in contemporary dance. Though codified techniques – informed by classical modern dance and ballet – often play a role, movement vocabularies tend to arise from a choreographer’s idiosyncratic way of moving or from interpreters’ personal movement capacities and qualities. Within a process, we often agree on names for movements or phrases in order to communicate effectively in the studio but these names usually remain internal to that particular creative process. Allen, I know you’ve recently been developing some different approaches to partnering in your work, and setting and naming various lifts. In addition then, to naming your process (SI), you’re also now naming specific movements. How does this serve you, your collaborators? Do you see it as a teaching tool within your own work, beyond it? Given that so many dancers and choreographers are always experimenting with the possibilities of the body in motion, have you ever come across the same movement in someone else’s work going by a different name?

Allen: Great question. It was my dancers originally who asked that I begin to give names to particular Elevations, as the body of this vocabulary was becoming so extensive and I would ask for particular Elevations in a given work and then develop more for the next one. So within a few years, I began to identify the Toss, BCAAT, FCAAT, Sidefly, Bullet, Pop, Wheel, Shoulder Float, etc. In each process, and each exploration, I would find newer and newer elevations, based upon particular principles, which I now identify as Anchor Throws, Pivots and Capturing Momentum. Therefore, the use of the forearm, scapula, upper inner thigh and lower ribcage became propulsion points for throws, tosses and hurls. I decided five years ago to begin teaching these to my Ryerson and STDT students and realized that I currently have about sixty different elevations, and that they are graduated in their height and length of throw. The choice of which to use depends upon the choreographic language of any given piece. I feel the basic principles are universal, so it was only a matter of time before the clarity and essence of the Elevations were present in the general partnering we see today. I feel my background in wrestling (Olympic Freestyle) and Judo have helped propel the physicality forward. Also, my intensive investigative creation time with Karen over the past twenty years has helped me to identify and clarify accurately the starting, control and descent of the techniques. Karen loves to fly and has a power and precision that is clearly defined and articulate.

Over the past thirty years, I have yet to see my Elevations used in anyone else’s work and yet to find a similar name of one of my throws, tosses or hurls. This does not mean it’s not occurring elsewhere, as I believe the principles are universal.

I realize that in fact I have documented either in photography or video all the developments of these Elevations from the 1980s, so it’s been a pretty fascinating journey. Being insatiably curious, I am never satisfied with achieving something; I need to see its next evolution and development. I can’t wait to see where partnering is going to go in the future. It’s a very exciting prospect for me. I look forward to the equalization it demands, empowering women in today’s and future generations to take control, find the strength and mechanics in an area that women were traditionally lifted, not lifting. This opens the doors for men to become vulnerable partners in the beautiful release of being thrown by women through space.

There is a general craving in our society for the new, a demand for innovation. The arts are no different. Can you comment on how this plays into your work? Is this a value for you/your company? What challenges do you perceive with respect to this force, particularly in dance?

Karen: I feel the concept of change and evolution is part of the reason I am drawn to stay with dance. It offers me something new in the discovery process of even the tiniest movement. I can do something a thousand times and there is always a curious difference. I remember when I was first exposed to “sensorial work” twenty years ago. I found it so simple that I didn’t know how to fully engage. I wanted only to do work that allowed me to feel and challenge the intense muscular workings of my body. Now twenty years later I crave every moment of what those forms have to offer. I find a richness in them that gives me new and subtle information. I feel like the longer my body and mind stay in dance, the more layers I find to peel off, kind of like an aging painting. In a fresh painting or young body, the layers of materials or musculature used are strong and malleable. As either ages, things chip away on the outside and fade, leaving the centre burning with intensity that shines at a frequency, aching to expose its inner truths. Perhaps I have less to hide behind now and this has me very excited. The desire to assert technical attributes fades into the background and all those good years of training become like a personal assistant to get the physical structure where it needs to go to reveal the inner story. I attribute my longevity as a performer to my early Mitzvah training and then stockpiling technique and other such luxuries on top of that.

So yes, every day moves me forward. When I enter a creative process as a dancer or a choreographer I am so happy. It is a strange thing to feel “at home” as a non-verbal communicator. I love that what I do is ephemeral and that I can be caught on film or photo image and that this distills time – almost like a gasp of air that is caught mid flight. When I see films or photos of myself performing, I recall the sensation of the moment it was shot and I hope I never lose that. I also wonder which breath in the arc of life I was at and it makes me wonder, how many more breaths do I have left in me?

I feel that I am affected by what is around me, past and current, on a day to day basis – people, events, memory, emotions, aging, growth, relationships and images. I am sensitive to the psychology of relationships. I entered the dance field through dance therapy studies at York. I notice how the dancers with whom I work embody a certain appetite for moving and thinking, and as I go deeper into my core of movement invention, all these factors play an important part in my creations.

I am interested in creating new work, or when the opportunity arises, to reconstitute old work with a new edge. I personally love to continue moving forward and if I ever feel locked up in a project or trajectory that is no longer stimulating me, I have to move on and get up or make a shake-down happen. The challenge is to not suddenly drop some aspect of what Allen and I built over the years but to figure out why something no longer feels necessary and then how to transform it. Usually it is a lengthy and challenging process but it always leads to resurgence. For example our education work that is focussed in the schools continues to live on but I am now developing projects with professional dancers and people of all ages in a community.

I think there are blessings and curses to getting good at something. You get known for it, but the danger is that society likes to peg you and so do the arts councils. When you need to grow and expand or change tack, a whole bunch of explaining has to go with it and that sometimes holds back the flow. On a positive note, dissecting an idea so fully brings a rich understanding of the legs it needs to walk on. One of our baselines is change and it can be hard for others to keep up. A few weeks ago we were talking to Janelle about an upcoming project for 2012. It hit me when she inferred that nothing we ever come up with is simple. “Kd’D takes on seemingly simple projects that have so many layers that they end up being as intricate and detailed as a spider’s web.” Our current general manager, Jessa Agilo-Copeland, reminds us regularly that, “we have big dreams and passions and are inspired and driven.”

Allen: As an artist and individual, I am always investigating and challenging my knowledge, both with Elevations and in my works. I would say I’m intrigued by the unknown and am driven to find clarity and insight. It is inherent in my being and creative process to push and push, until I reach a level of understanding, then use this as a base to move forward. I feel our company has been based upon these principles of always-moving forward, finding new directions and understandings. This is why I’ve never pursued a remount, as the past is past; what’s next!

I think that craving for the new is a reconfiguring of the known and the past. I think the general public doesn’t necessarily recognize the “new”, until its already mainstream; otherwise we’d have a very different social platform for the arts and much more funding.

Karen and Allen Kaeja (2000) / Photo by Steve Stober

Who/what have been your strongest creative influences? Who/what are they now?

Karen: I like to surround myself with people who inspire me and who I am comfortable around – family, acquaintances, colleagues and the person next door. Artists who inspire me are Paula Ravitz (now a psychiatrist), Pina Bausch, Margie Gillis, Denise Fujiwara. I am equally fascinated by people who keep with dance as those who walk away from it. Dance has such a strong grasp on me, I don’t know if I could ever walk away or how that would transform me. I am so happy to witness many older artists with the same passion now as when they were young, but evolved, and those who are younger – seeing them take it all by the horns and wildly tossing about past and current notions. So many Canadian and European artists are inspiring to me. I love collaborating with my peers and have several exciting projects on the horizon with them. The ideas they bring to the table are so beautifully marinated. I am inspired by physical and emotional behavior and how relationships that we cannot do without, shape our state of mind, along with paintings, photography, music and memory.

Allen: In my early years, I was strongly influenced by Robert Desrosiers, Pina Bausch and David Earle. During the nineties I had the wonderful opportunity, through running fFIDA, of seeing hundreds of artists a year and deeply appreciating their work and development over the years, including Holy Body Tattoo, Roger Sinha, Édouard Lock and Dominique Dumais etc. Today I am moved and fascinated by the works of Crystal Pite, Denise Fujiwara and Marie Chouinard. I’ve always believed in the creative brilliance of my dancers and am eternally grateful for having the gift and opportunity to pursue choreography and film, and to creatively explore my passions with Karen.

As much as you are known for your choreography, performance and film work, I would also characterize each of you as community instigators in your own right. Allen, you were co-founder of fFIDA and the CanAsian Dance Festival. Karen you co-created the Festival of Interactive Physics. Together you launched the MADance Screen Salon, which ran for two years. You also have invested in dance education with your book EXPRESS DANCE and your teaching, and you ran an affiliated emerging artist company, Kd’D2, for five years. What motivates you to undertake such initiatives and how do these experiences feed back into your company and creative work?

Karen: My motivation is based on desire and wishes and a sense of necessity for a way and place in society for our work and needs to live. Allen and I had received a Chalmers award to study with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson in 1996. After loving that time period of exploration with these incredible founders of improvisational forms, I wanted to do more and since we had a child and were already doing lots of touring, I thought why not bring them here so that myself and other Toronto artists and community members could study at home rather than spend lots of money going elsewhere. Pam Johnson and I were totally aligned on initiating a forum to get them here, thus the Festival of Interactive Physics was born in 1997. For a decade, FIP became a place for many to do annual personal studies in a concentrated time period. I am grateful to Pam and the many artists who graced FIP.

I am not attracted to the tried and true. Neither Allen nor I came out of a hearth that was already established. We were not born and bred as ‘company’ dancers. We were late-starting independents on a road of discovery. I think our strength was built out of doing what our hearts led us to, and not knowing how to fit into an acceptable structure. We were living, and I still believe we live, the life of the underdog. It took us a long time to be funded as a company because we never fit into the known structure of the times, which was where the funding was going back in the beginning of Kd’D. We only ever create what we want to, because that is what is meaningful to us.

Twenty years feels like a drop in the bucket yet much has transpired: projects, touring, overseas residencies, performing, films, community initiatives and education. There have been many kind producers giving us great opportunities, like two generations of artistic directors of the Canada Dance Festival who kept us performing there for eight seasons in a row and Mimi Beck who, along with so many others, produced us a number of times. So many artists have graced our work with their talents. For sure we would be nowhere without all of these people and opportunities that have all played a profound part in fueling our work.

I look at the future as a continuum informed by the past, present and imaginings of the next moment in time. I am always embracing new ideas of mind and body. Every project feels like a first and that is attractive to me.

Allen: This is also a very large question: I was involved in my first site specific and community-based work in the early to mid-eighties, performing in such events as Toronto Island Follies as the wrestler “Metro Mangler”; in a small town in the Netherlands as part of their celebration of having squatted in a town for ten years; and a large-scale, multi-media work in the natural sciences museums in Ontario. Working with T.I.D.E. (Toronto Independent Dance Enterprise) from 1987 through 1989) really opened my eyes to a new process of both improvisation as creation and improvisation as a tool for education in the public school system beyond technique.

I began my personal site specific creations with two multi-media productions with Karen: “Savage Garden” (1990) throughout the Cecil Street Community Centre and subsequently “Alanscape” (1991) at ED Video, in Guelph where we took over the whole space to create a visual, audio and kinetic experience for the audience with composer/musician Jeff Bird; during fFIDA, in 1992 and 1993, I created large-scale events in the CBC Atrium, as part of a kick-off to the festival. I was also invited to create a similar event at CDF in 1994 in the lobby of the National Arts Centre.

My first real community-based integrated project was with Karen in Sweden in 1998, where we worked with dozens of dancers from the professional, to college/high school arts training program to community; all performed on the same date. Edgardo Moreno, our resident composer, flew over and created the music. We then went to Portugal where we were invited to work with 100 community members to create a huge performance event in Guimaraes. The performers ranged from nine to seventy years of age. We were there for a week.

Sooooo, what motivates me to create, participate and investigate community-based projects? Curiosity, the unknown adventure, the ability to work with new creative individuals, my love of dance as essential to life and developing and enriching the community I live in.

Allen and Karen Kaeja (2006) / Photo by Ella Cooper

On your twentieth anniversary program in Toronto this April, you are both premiering new works. Allen, you have two group works on the program: “Armour/Amour”, a multimedia creation; “Jericho”, created on and performed by five dancers, from Ut i Scenekunsten in Norway. With respect to “Armour/Amour”, what creative questions underlie this work? What have you learned from this process that is leading you into your future choreographic explorations?

Allen: Some of my questions for “Armour/Amour” were:
• How to balance the projected image, live performer and frame as a form of revelation, to transfer attention from screen to performer to screen? How to articulate the kinetic and intimate characteristics of the performer?
• How does frame rhythm differentiate from the intuitive timing of the performers, yet balance the viewer’s interpretation? When does projection interfere with or reveal dimensions of the choreography and how to play with the dynamic of the two worlds?
• Colour, tone and texture of the image can create an atmosphere of either intimacy or distance. How do these elements transfer to the viewer? How do our journeys in choreography, performance, camera and media intersect in a compelling way while following coherent themes?
• How does the integration of live and previously shot footage interact and reveal core layers?

I think I have been most surprised by the intimacy I’ve been able to achieve, without compromising the choreography or media imagery that Elysha Poirier and I are working with. I feel the relationship between and Karen and Mairéad [Filgate] have beautiful surprise and uncertainty, wonderful qualities that carry the work through both their chemistry and individuality.

Since “Abattoir”, Karen and I have entered a curious and beautiful pursuit. We have been passing the torch. I began investigating multi-media ideas with Elysha Piorier in the summer of 2008. Karen asked if we could take these ideas into her solo for HUB14, which took our investigation in a completely new direction and became “BLINk”, with Elysha as live media and myself on live camera.

I have now taken last year’s “BLINk” solo in a completely new direction, creating a duet with Mairéad Filgate and Karen, and exploring a domain inspired by the original concept of working together with collaborator Elysha Poirier. I’ve twisted these elements into “Armour/Amour”, a work of discovery and layers of vulnerability.

In both “Armour/Amour” and “Jericho” (Ut i Scenekunsten, Norway), I feel that I’m discovering a new approach to creation structure and to the investigation of intimacy and this is very exciting to me. I’ve been able to touch upon the source of a moment and expand it to encompass a thought and visceral image. I feel that this is a new phase for me and I can’t wait until the next investigation.

I feel these works will re-define the future of my choreography for the next decade. There is something powerful and personal, present and unknown that I am craving. There are whole new generations of extremely talented dancers I want to work with as well as those dancers who have been with us for many journeys. I am complete when in the rehearsal studio and feel my direction is clear: create, create, create!

Karen, you also have two works on the program: a solo, “The Visitor” and a duet, “Quenched”. Both works thematically treat the realm of the personal and the intimate. Arguably, an artist’s personal experience is always embedded in his or her work in some way. I’m curious whether these works are intentionally autobiographical? For you, what creative questions underlie these works? And, as with my question to Allen, I wonder what seeds you’re discovering through these creations that may germinate in future works?

Karen: My discoveries during “The Visitor” creation process have made it clear that I am launching into a new territory for myself that feels more true to me and that I am compelled to be challenged by. I am pushing myself, taking the seed of my feeble attempts into questions and excavating my answers. I am trying to strip the movement to its essentials and let the canvas of the imagery, like a painting, speak to me so that I can remain authentic in developing the essence of what excites me. I have a need to run the other way from information instilled by my past, in essence to shake up what I think I know as a creator. I feel this is a more demanding way for me to work and even more particular than I have worked in the past. It has been crucial for me to bring in gifted outside eyes to help me with this process, such as Sasha Ivanochko. I can’t help but be further informed by what my fabulous interpreter Stéphanie Tremblay Abubo brings to the canvas.

The subject matter of loneliness seems to be seeping through “The Visitor”, which I suppose is apropos in my quest to assert my choreographic voice. I find this journey is a lonely but fueled road. For my duet “Quenched”, I had already embarked on a series of duets with dancers and their lovers. When Courtnae Bowman asked me to create a work, I realized I had a pair of lovers in life and dance with her and Zhenya Cerneacov. What they brought to the studio was an intensity and a fabulous passion between them, with elements that I recognized in my own artistic relationship with Allen. It was a delicate investigation to push both the fierce energy and the lighter side for rich material that was and could remain very real between them. My goal was to bring out something about them in the end, while I followed my intuition. I don’t intentionally make works that are autobiographical but I am sure that I am written all over them.

Inhabiting the persona of my creations brings me closer to understanding the core of a work, ultimately informing the continuation of its creation and life span. I perform aspects of my creations as solos in different formats to get to know more about the characters and essence of the works. Extremely lucky to have had the continuity of Allen, a fantastic male dance partner, for my career thus far. I am curious about exploring new duet partners to open a new chapter, while I deepen and encounter my everlasting pursuit as a performer.

I still find it very difficult to say what my work is about except for what inspired it and what elements are becoming entrenched in it. Even though there is always content, I can never pin myself down. Creating dances is more like a revealing of the subconscious. For me as an artist, this must be the way I balance everyday family and company reality with the domain of the mystical. I am thankful for the gifts of support from councils and others that enable me to dance in the studio every day and be in this magical place of creation.

Allen and Karen Kaeja in Auro Choreola by Kaeja d’Dance (1992) / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

I have a feeling you are long-term thinkers and planners. Barring unforeseen circumstances, what will Kaeja d’Dance look like in another ten or twenty years? Are you concerned with archiving and preservation? Does Kaeja d’Dance have an approach or plan with respect to documenting past and current creations?

Karen: It is hard to say what Kd’D will look like in a decade or two because the company has really grown organically. Sometimes I find planning is antithetic to being responsive. I like a balance. It wasn’t like we decided we wanted to create a company and do exactly what we are doing, but once we got going, the follow through makes sense. I realized that all the things I had done in life until then led me to this career. We have dreams and those are sometimes different than reality allows. I know I will continue to perform, choreograph, collaborate, stretch myself, mentor young artists, write, do more with film, create opportunities for dance artists, teach, come up with many crazy ideas, implement some, share, play and dig deeply.

For now I imagine archiving our company work will occur through our films, scribing and video-recording our rehearsals. We are so busy creating that archiving will perhaps be a chapter down the road. We have had one incessant habit since the beginning, which is to save hard copies of every press article and poster that has ever come out on us. We have twenty-two scrap-books filled with memorabilia since 1990. Dance Collection Danse and the Toronto Public Library also have copies of most of our articles and films and there are a few video outlets like Queen Video and Suspect Video that rent out our films.

Allen: Well, there are number of different areas that I concurrently work with.

I am driven to continue stage creations that are poignant, that investigate the power of our spirit and how the power of propulsion can reveal vulnerability, kinetic intimacy and dynamic liberation. I look forward to touring these works nationally and internationally and continuing to be immersed in my community.

Kaeja Elevation commissions are increasing every year and these works are beginning to tour worldwide, without me being present. I love this idea and hope these opportunities will continue to persist.

I will be writing another full-evening dance film that integrates both CG and 3D within the decade, as well as creating numerous smaller dance films.

I’ve been teaching the next generation of dance artists to teach Elevation techniques. With the demand increasing, this means my time can be focussed and streamlined for creation

I will write my third book, which will be based on Elevation techniques (and maybe get my PhD).

With Karen as my muse, I feel the next decades will continue to be filled with wonder and surprise. I know we will collaborate on many new projects and adventures, kind of like our first date, over and over again.

I will be at my children’s graduations and significant moments in their lives. I will hold hands with Karen and cradle my grandchildren in my arms and I will LAUGH!

Kaeja d’Dance presents 20/20 Vision from April 12th through 16th at Enwave Theatre, Toronto.

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Profile: The Extraordinary Presence of Louise Lecavalier

Summary | Sommaire

Louise Lecavalier and Patrick Lamothe in Children by Nigel Charnock / Photo by André Cornellier

Between life and art, work and dance, gesture and narrative stands former La La La Human Steps principal dancer Louise Lecavalier, whose presence is legend and instructive.

Entre vie et art, travail et danse, geste et récit se trouve l’ancienne première danseuse de La La La Human Steps, Louise Lecavalier. Sa présence est légende et instructive.

Between life and art, work and dance, gesture and narrative stands former La La La Human Steps principal dancer Louise Lecavalier, whose presence is legend and instructive. Lecavalier, now fifty-two and mother of nine-year old twins Jeanne and Romy, is founder of the Montréal-based production company Fou Glorieux and well into a formidable second act as a solo performer. She is currently on tour with two new works that will play Toronto and Montréal in April: Children (2009), a playful duet with Patrick Lamothe, choreographed by DV8 alum Nigel Charnock; and A Few Minutes of Lock (2009), her diligent reconstruction – the sparseness and clarity of gesture suggesting equally a “deconstruction”, to borrow her words – of two duets from the La La La repertoire. Writer MJ Thompson caught the end of a rehearsal in late February at the La La La studios on Montréal’s avenue du Parc, as Lecavalier, dancer Keir Knight and rehearsal director France Bruyère toiled quietly on the Lock duets. In her interview with Thompson, Lecavalier comments: “Yeah, I always wish people could see what’s here. On stage, the lights move with us, we worry if we’re in the right place or in the dark. Here …we can see everything. So we’re not bothering being in the “right” place, the right moment. No, I really like this feeling.”

Entre vie et art, travail et danse, geste et récit se trouve l’ancienne première danseuse de La La La Human Steps, Louise Lecavalier. Sa présence est légende et instructive. À cinquante-deux ans, mère de jumelles de neuf ans, Jeanne et Romy, Lecavalier est fondatrice de la compagnie de production montréalaise Fou Glorieux. Le deuxième acte de sa carrière comme interprète soliste est déjà bien entamé. En avril, elle est en tournée à Montréal et à Toronto avec deux nouvelles créations : Children (2009), un duo enjoué avec Patrick Lamothe du chorégraphe de DV8 Nigel Charnock ; et A Few Minutes of Lock (2009), sa reconstruction minutieuse de deux duos du répertoire de La La La. L’épuration et la clarté du geste dans ces duos les versent, selon Lecavalier, dans la « déconstruction ». En février, l’auteur MJ Thompson la rattrape en fin de répétition aux studios de La La La sur l’avenue du Parc à Montréal. Lecavalier est là avec le danseur Keir Knight et la répétitrice France Bruyère ; ils s’appliquent tranquillement sur les duos de Lock. En interview avec Thompson, Lecavalier note : « Oui, j’aimerais toujours que les gens puissent voir ce qu’il y a ici. Sur scène, la lumière nous suit, on s’inquiète d’être à la bonne place ou d’être dans le noir. Ici… on voit tout. On ne s’en fait pas avec la “bonne” place, le bon moment. Non. J’aime beaucoup ce sentiment. »

Louise Lecavalier (Fou Glorieux) presents Children and A Few Minutes of Lock from April 13th through 16th at Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto, and from April 27th through 30th at Usine C, Montréal. | Louise Lecavalier (Fou Glorieux) présente Children et A Few Minutes of Lock du 13 au 16 avril au Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto, et du 27 au 30 avril à l’Usine C, Montréal.

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Read the full article by MJ Thompson in the April 2011 issue of The Dance Current print magazine. Lisez l'article intégral de MJ Thompson dans l’édition imprimée de avril 2011 du Dance Current.

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Feature: It Never Stopped! - Blackfoot Dancing in Canada

Summary | Sommaire

Horn society dance c. 1940s / Glenbow Archives NA 2563-3

Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn are professors of dance and dance researchers at the University of Lethbridge and the University of Calgary, respectively.

Lisa Doolittle et Anne Flynn sont professeures et chercheuses de danse aux universités de Lethbridge et de Calgary, respectivement.

Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn are professors of dance and dance researchers at the University of Lethbridge and the University of Calgary, respectively. During their early investigations into multicultural dance in Canada, part of a multi-year research investigation funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the University of Lethbridge, they learned about amendments to the Indian Act circa 1880s that banned First Nations’ dancing. Stunned by the specific targeting of dancing as an action that needed to be stopped, they undertook a decade-long investigation of connections between dance and multiculturalism in Canada. Doolittle and Flynn began with the Blackfoot people, who live nearby in Southern Alberta, seeking to understand their encounter with European settlers over the course of about one hundred years of Canadian nation building. In addition to the story revealed through Doolittle and Flynn’s research, here, excerpts from some of their interviews offer first-person perspectives, while Doolittle’s personal reflections reveal some of the complexities and issues involved in this work. Commenting on their research, Doolittle and Flynn write: “When we access embodiment (like dancing) we can glimpse how affect and agency can influence the dynamics and negotiation of power over time. We can see the ways that we perform our cultural identities and ideologies. Through multiple historical moments, we notice First Nations dancing that both destabilizes and supports power structures constructed on rigid foundations of “race,” “whiteness” and “indigenousness” as Canada continuously re-imagines diversity and the place of indigenous peoples inside it. This imagining is an ongoing process that is never fixed. We can look at current policies on funding for aboriginal artists, for example, to get a sense of the underlying assumptions that inform today’s working definition of multiculturalism in Canada.”

Lisa Doolittle et Anne Flynn sont professeures et chercheuses de danse aux universités de Lethbridge et de Calgary, respectivement. Au cours de leurs explorations préliminaires sur la danse multiculturelle au Canada, dans le cadre d’une recherche pluriannuelle subventionnée par le Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada et l’Université de Lethbridge, elles ont appris sur les amendements à la Loi sur les Indiens autour des années 1880 qui bannissaient la danse des Premières nations. Sidérées que la danse fût ciblée comme action à interdire, elles entreprirent une recherche d’une décennie sur le lien entre la danse et le multiculturalisme au Canada. Doolittle et Flynn commencèrent auprès du peuple des Pieds-Noirs qui habite le sud de l’Alberta. Elles cherchèrent à comprendre la rencontre entre ce peuple et les colons européens au cours de la centaine d’années de la construction d’une nation. Dans cette édition du magazine, en plus de l’histoire révélée grâce à la recherche de Doolittle et de Flynn, des extraits de leurs entrevues proposent des perspectives de première main, tandis que les réflexions personnelles de Doolittle dévoilent une partie de la complexité de son travail de chercheuse et des questions que cela soulève. À propos de leur recherche, Doolittle et Flynn écrivent : « Accéder à une chose avec tout le corps (danser, par exemple), nous permet d’entrevoir l’influence de l’agence et de l’incidence sur la négociation de rapports de force au fil du temps. Nous voyons les façons que nous donnons corps à nos identités culturelles et à nos idéologies. Nous notons, au cours de nombreux moments historiques, que la danse des Premières nations à la fois ébranle et soutient les structures de pouvoirs qui reposent sur des fondations rigides de « race », d’appartenance à la « race blanche » ou au « peuple indigène ». Et cela, pendant que le Canada renouvelle continuellement sa notion de la diversité et la place des indigènes au sein de celle-ci. Le renouvellement de cette notion est un processus continu, jamais fixe. Les politiques actuelles sur le subventionnement des artistes autochtones, par exemple, sont un indice des conceptions qui sous-tendent la définition en usage du multiculturalisme au Canada. »

Learn more | Pour en savoir plus >>

Read the full article by Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn in the April 2011 issue of The Dance Current print magazine. | Lisez l'article intégral de Lisa Doolittle et Anne Flynn dans l’édition imprimée de avril 2011 du Dance Current.

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Apprendre la danse dans Internet
De Katharine Harris, l’École nationale de ballet du Canada
Traduction de Marie Claire Forté

Avec l’omniprésence d’Internet aujourd’hui, il n’est pas surprenant que nombre de jeunes danseuses s’en servent pour apprendre sur la danse.
Parmi les professeures, les réactions à Internet varient. Certaines sont heureuses d’intégrer les nouvelles technologies à leur approche pédagogique, d’autres comprennent difficilement les avantages d’apprendre à danser avec des ressources en ligne.
Apprendre à l’aide du Web ne remplacera jamais le travail en studio avec une professeure. Cependant, comme professeure, vous avez la responsabilité d’aider vos élèves à comprendre comment se servir d’Internet intelligemment et en toute sécurité. Et puisque notre dépendance au Web ne cesse de croître, vous tirerez avantage à trouver des moyens de vous en servir, pour vous et pour votre studio.
Quand vous discutez avec vos élèves sur l’usage de ressources en ligne, assurez-vous que le dialogue est honnête. Vous voulez que vos élèves se sentent à l’aise de discuter de ce qu’elles regardent en ligne. Vous voulez qu’elles vous fassent confiance, qu’elles vous parlent ouvertement. Voici quelques points à considérer lorsque vous lancez la discussion.

1. Pratiquer et apprendre la danse avec des outils en ligne peut être amusant et utile. C’est un excellent aide-mémoire si les enchaînements que vous répétez sont en ligne, et c’est un bon moyen d’apprendre sur une nouvelle forme de danse. Cependant, cela ne remplacera jamais le travail en studio avec une professeure.
2. Peu importe le style, du ballet classique à la danse de salon, les outils en ligne ne dressent pas le portrait complet d’une forme de danse. Ils offrent plutôt un aperçu de la gestuelle que vos élèves pourraient aborder. C’est important de reconnaître qu’Internet ne peut pas fournir une expérience complète d’apprentissage.
3. Si vos élèves essaient de nouveaux pas à la maison, rappelez-leur de faire attention à leurs limites. Elles ne devraient pas essayer de monter sur pointe une première fois à la maison, ni essayer d’autres mouvements complexes qui font appels à une aptitude technique particulière. Les nouveaux pas devraient être explorés sous la direction experte d’une professeure afin de prévenir les blessures en favorisant l’alignement fonctionnel, la force adéquate et la bonne coordination.
4. Enseignez à vos élèves à vérifier les sources du contenu en ligne. Puisque la publication en ligne ne demande aucune expertise, parents et professeures doivent être particulièrement vigilants pour s’assurer que les élèves sont capables d’évaluer ce qu’elles trouvent dans Internet. Repérez les sites Web de professeures et de studios que vous connaissez et à qui vous faites confiance. Encouragez vos élèves à s’y fier plutôt qu’aux résultats d’une simple recherche Google.
5. Songez à lancer votre propre site Web ou poste YouTube pour publier des vidéos d’instruction et que vous pourriez recommander à vos élèves.

Nous sommes tous égaux devant Internet. Un petit studio de danse ou une professeure de danse indépendante peut créer un contenu aussi excellent que celui d’une institution. Toutefois, comme avec tout outil, une bonne utilisation du Web exige discernement et pratique.

Learning Dance from Online Sources
By Katharine Harris of Canada’s National Ballet School

In today’s world, access to the internet is ubiquitous. It’s not surprising that many young dancers are now using the internet to learn about dance. Among dance teachers, reactions to the internet are varied. Some are happy to embrace new technologies, while others find it hard to see the benefits in learning dance online.
While learning from the internet will never replace working with a teacher in studio, as a dance teacher you have a responsibility to help your students understand how to use the internet smartly and safely. And, since reliance on the internet is only going to increase, you will benefit in finding ways to use the internet to your and your studio’s advantage.
When discussing the internet and dance with your students, commit to having an open dialogue. You want your students to feel comfortable talking to you about what they’re watching online. You want them to trust you and know they can speak honestly and openly to you. Here are a few points to consider in starting the conversation.

1. Practicing and learning dance using online tools can be fun and helpful. It’s a great way to refresh your memory if the material you’re practicing is posted online, or to learn about a new dance form, but it will never replace the in-person experience of working in studio with a teacher.
2. With any dance style, from ballet to ballroom, online tools don’t provide a representation of the whole dance form. Instead, they provide a snapshot of the type of movement students can expect to encounter. It’s important to recognize that the internet can’t provide a complete learning experience.
3. If your students are trying new movements at home, remind them to be aware of their own limitations. They should never try going up on pointe for the first time at home, nor attempt any other challenging movements requiring specific technical skill. New movements should be explored under a teacher’s expert guidance, so as to prevent injury by ensuring correct alignment, adequate strength and proper coordination.
4. Teach your students to check the sources of online content. Because anyone can post material online, extra diligence is required on behalf of parents and teachers to ensure students know how to evaluate what they find. Identify websites of teachers or studios you know and trust, and encourage your students to rely on their examples, rather than what they pull up through a general Google search.
5. Consider starting a webpage or YouTube channel to post your own instructional videos, which you can then confidently recommend to your students.

The internet provides an equal playing field for everyone. A small dance studio or independent teacher can create and post content that rivals a larger establishment. However, as with any tool, using the worldwide web effectively requires understanding and practice.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Feature: The Bellybutton Revolution

Feminism and Bellydance
By Yasmina Ramzy

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published online at www.gildedserpent.com. It is republished here by permission of the author.

My mother was a devout participant in the feminist revolution. She burned her bra at marches and generally wreaked havoc for my father and our neighbours. I was instilled with the ideas of such famous activists and authors as Betty Freidan, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem. At eleven years of age, I was not aware of the importance of such a political movement and the profound effect it would have on the future of young girls like myself.


When I grew up and became a bellydancer, needless to say, my mom was perplexed and wondered where she had gone wrong. To her, bellydance was about objectifying and exploiting the female body and in a part of the world where women’s rights were held in little regard. To her, I was sabotaging and against everything she had struggled for. To me, I was part of a new feminist revolution, which I call the Bellybutton Revolution. When I visited the Middle East, I witnessed two-hour elaborate dance performances that featured one lone female artist in all her feminine, sensual and glittering glory with a fifty-piece orchestra supporting her. Now this was a powerful woman who was having a lot of fun enjoying being a woman and it was who I wanted to be.

When invited to dinner in Arab homes, I would always end up eating way too much, but after dinner the men would go to one room, smoke cigars and play backgammon and I would join the women as we bellydanced for each other. I was always in awe of how the five-year-old girl, the pregnant mom and the eighty-five-year-old grandma would each shake her hips and strut her stuff with the same glint in her eyes and the same chin held high. It often made me wish I could share this feminine pride and power with my friends and other women back in Canada.

In the eighties, when I would come home to Canada after performing in the Middle East and say I was a bellydancer, people had no idea what I was talking about or why I was working – where? Syria? The usual response was to change the subject or make some inane comment about a ruby in the bellybutton. So, often, I just said I was an accountant – less explaining to do.

Nowadays, many women and some men are either taking bellydance class themselves or their sister, mom, daughter, grandmother or friend is – everywhere, in small towns and cities from Indonesia to Russia and Argentina to the Yukon. In fact, today, I teach in over sixty cities around the globe

Why is this ancient dance making such a huge impact with women all over the world and why NOW?

In the wedding march or Zaffah, the bellydancer leads the bride and groom in a procession and with her movements along the way, she teaches the newlyweds about the birds and the bees and inspires them for their first night together. The Zaffah is often performed at anniversaries as well.

Once, while performing at a large family gathering celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of a Syrian couple, I witnessed the enduring power of bellydance. In the middle of my performance, I went over to the couple to pull them up to dance a Zaffah. As I was approaching, the family stopped me and asked me not to embarrass the wife as she was crippled and could not walk. But before I could return to the dance floor, she had grabbed my arm with a formidable grip. She then firmly placed her other hand on the table and used the strength in both arms to help herself rise. Everyone around protested. She gave them a scolding and got herself almost to a standing position. Using all her strength to support herself on the table and my arm, she beamed a huge smile at me and proceeded to slowly sway her hips from side to side. The room was silent until she sat down, then it erupted with applause and roars of appreciation as she looked proudly into the wide and bedazzled eyes of her husband of fifty years. With the simple act of swaying her hips, she was in her full glory.

During my twenty-eight years of teaching bellydancing to countless numbers of women, I have listened to the many reasons students take up the dance. There is no typical type of woman, no particular age and no particular background. She will tell you that she persists because bellydancing enhances self-esteem. Often, one will tell how she found the courage to stand up to a difficult boss, an abusive husband, or equally difficult situations. Eating disorders have been alleviated, entrepreneurs born, and all have experienced a new awareness and comfort with their bodies regardless of shape and size. They will always tell you it was because of bellydance.

One of my mother’s idols, Gloria Steinem, wrote a book in the early nineties called “Revolution from Within”. The premise was that as a result of the feminist revolution, women could now vote freely, hold management and public office positions, receive better pay yet still not equal pay. There was still discrimination when it came to important and powerful job positions. She said that women will never be completely equal to men until deep down, there was a revolution from within, until women themselves truly believe they deserve it and, in particular, deserve equality as women, not as women emulating men

There is a new revolution going on. I call it the Bellybutton Revolution. It is contributing greatly to the “Revolution from Within” that Gloria Steinem wrote about. Bellydancing seems to be opening a new/old door on how to view femininity, the female body, what can be expressed through it, and the empowerment that feminine sensuality holds.

Yasmina Ramzy is director and producer of Arabesque Dance Company.

Arabesque Dance Company and Orchestra presents “NOOR” (“Light”) from March 3rd through 6th at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto.

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