Recipe for a Dancer

Chick Snipper
The Tomorrow Collective in action, photo: Chris Randle

With the arrival of shows like So You Think You Can Dance (important enough to have its own acronym — SYTYCD) and Dancing with the Stars, to name the biggies, dance has become the new American Dream. Fame, fortune, partners with pecs — they can be yours for the taking. All you have to do is become a dancer who is good (and cute) enough to fox trot, hip hop, jazzercise and barrel roll your way into the dazed eyes of loud-mouthed judges and screaming fans who have the power to dial you to stardom. I mean, how hard can that be?

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to watching a full season of SYTYCD at my daughter’s behest. (I had put all bets on the aptly named Twitch — he lost, so there were some boo-hoos in my house). When not upchucking at the yuckiness of it all, I was marveling at the technique and endurance this show demands from its dancers. I was particularly taken with the range displayed by hip-hoppers, some of whom had little or no formal training (outside of their own specific form) previous to joining the other SYTYCD initiates. This show proves to the world that dancers are more fit than some professional athletes, as well as high spirited, determined, and humble individuals.

I know that these reality shows are more about theatre than ‘truth’, but I couldn’t help feeling a chill at the quantity of abuse heaped on the participants during the ‘behind-the-scenes’ rehearsals. Withstanding it demands a ‘beyond grueling, boot camp is for sissies, injuries be damned, shoot ‘em up’ kind of mentality. And that doesn’t include the verbal assault aimed at them by the judges after the ‘the routine’ (as each 1-2 minute piece is quaintly labeled). Outside the world of TV, in contemporary and traditional dance, this kind of disrespect still exists here and there; although things have improved thanks to dancers’ unions organized and propelled by recognition that “things must change.”

What does it take to make a dancer? When I say ‘dancer’, I mean pre-professionals and professionals who are slogging it out in the trenches of Canada’s cultural milieu; women and men who train and rehearse daily, often on weekends, in an under funded, poorly paid, marginalized, and esoteric world. This world is distinctly different from the one reflected in SYTYCD, and it’s not because these dancers work less hard or are less talented. It’s because they do it behind closed doors, are barely recognized by society for their contribution and commitment to dance artistry, and rarely receive accolades from the general public.

The following comments are specific to my observations of the dance world in Vancouver, BC:

Dancers generally work for choreographers on projects funded (sometimes) by city, provincial and federal programs. The artists then stretch these meagre dollars as far as they possibly can.

The dancers train in the morning (this training is sometimes subsidised, often not), at least 5 days a week, then rush to rehearsals in the afternoons. Somewhere in all of this they may also teach, or wait tables, clean houses, write grants, study massage therapy, or look after their own children. On their small wages they may also be trying to cover the fees of chiropractors and pay down student loans.

They do it because they are called to it, just like great teachers or astronomers or chefs. Yes it’s a choice, but one that is easy to make and hard to fulfill; one that brings minimum financial remuneration, punishing body issues, fleeting highs and constant criticism — as well as joy, passion and challenge.

Let me introduce you to 3 of these amazing creatures: Katy Harris-McLeod, Mara Branscombe, and Jennifer McLeish- Lewis. Each has a background, education, voice and style quite different from the other two. What binds them is a passion to create, rehearse and perform dance with one another — and with others. In order to accomplish this, they have formed their own company, The Tomorrow Collective (TTC) whose mandate includes the production and presentation of new and unusual performances, including the hip Vancouver-based series, Brief Encounters.

These 3 women have acquired university degrees, earned certificates as yoga instructors, lived and studied inside and outside Canada, tree planted, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, trekked through wilderness, white water rafted and taught Waldorf school. Oh yeah, they’ve also performed dance in theatres all over the country, as well as in Berlin, Zagreb, Brussels and the US, to name a few places. And none has yet reached the ripe old age of 35.

I asked each of them a few questions, some dance related and some not. They were permitted a maximum of 2 sentences per question.  Here’s how they responded.
[img_assist|nid=564|title=Katy, photo: Steven Lemay|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=384|height=255]
Katy’s responses:

Why dance?

Because I can feel the dance in my body even when I am standing still.
Because I like to be seen.

Describe yourself in 3 words.


What is it like to work in dance in Vancouver?

Vancouver contemporary dance scene feels like a family, even though I think not all the family members are on speaking terms.

What other place (city, country) would you like to work in?
New York sounds like a wild place to dance, but I would miss the green, the ocean and people knowing who the hell I am.

What makes someone a great dancer?

A ton of (diverse) training and the ability to make it look special on her/his body.  Originality, imagination, stage presence and drive.

Who are your dance heroes, dead, alive, international, national?

I have never been one to have heroes.  I don’t know why.  It always made me feel slightly guilty, but I never put anyone in that role, not even God.

On a long flight, what do you do to amuse yourself?

I watch the cheesy movies and really enjoy the little snacks they bring us.

What would you do if you could no longer dance?
Have babies. Build my own house. Travel. Produce shows. I don’t know.

[img_assist|nid=565|title=Mara, in the centre, photo: Chris Randle|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=384|height=256]Mara’s responses:

Why dance?

To feel glimpses of freedom, in Sanskrit the term is "Samadhi", which translates as the higher or transcendent state of consciousness attainable by suitable spiritual disciplines, such as yoga — I feel that dance is a practice like that of yoga.
To become a conduit of sorts, where stories can be created, told, witnessed, and as a result, to touch the audience members so that they feel something that lives inside of them waiting to be expressed.

Describe yourself in 3 words

What is it like to work in dance in Vancouver?

Interesting in its opportunities and challenges:  Vancouver's dance scene forces one to be quite resourceful in that there are several ways in which you can create work for yourself.  (Film, TV, starting your own company e.g. The Tomorrow Collective)
It is also quite limited in that there is not much work, and a ton of hungry dancers, especially for women; if you’re a man, you’ve got it made as a dancer in Vancouver.
I am cheating, as this is my 3rd sentence: It's all about who you know in this city.


What other place (city, country) would you like to work in?
I would like to work in Montreal, Barcelona, Berlin, Norway, Switzerland. I guess I should make a plan for some sort of world tour?

What makes someone a great dancer?
Honesty, versatility, dynamic stage presence, ego-less-ness, innovation in mind and body, a sense of humour and wit, comedic timing. And an articulate and released body.

Who are your dance heroes, dead, alive, international, national?
Swami Rhadha
Pina Bausch
Mary Starks Whitehouse
Crystal Pite
Mark Boivin
Susan Eliott
Peter Bingham
Chick Snipper----a fabulous choreographer with whom I would really like to work again!!!!

On a long flight, what do you do to amuse yourself?

Daydream about living a completely different existence — usually along the theme of world traveler — the way I used to live my life.

What would you do if you could no longer dance?


[img_assist|nid=566|title=Jenn to the left|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=295|height=288]Jen’s answers

Why dance?
Because I was always dancing, as soon as I could walk I was dancing.  
Because I was always good at it.

Describe yourself in 3 words.


What is it like to work in dance in Vancouver?

Working in dance in Vancouver feels like community, it feels safe.  At times the work here also feels safe, which I don’t consider to be a positive thing.
Extra thought: In my opinion the distribution of funding in Vancouver is way off point.

What other place (city, country) would you like to work?

I would love to work (in dance?) anywhere warmer, drier, and sunnier or where there is more $$.  I considered Brussels, but it is none of those things - except perhaps for the money, but I don’t speak French.  

What makes someone a great dancer?

Their capacity to be honest, vulnerable and strong and their presence in performance.  
I like the metaphor about the performer as a human sacrifice — the audience watches (the ritual) while the performer is the catharsis for all.

Who are your dance heroes, dead, alive, international, and national?

Ummmmm, at the moment:
Karl Frost (because he is living the life he wants to be living. He is a teacher to me)
Baryshnikov (because he could jump SO high and was SO cute)
Miss Barbara (my first modern dance teacher)
Steve Paxton (the person responsible for contact improvisation)
Fabrice Ramalingom (another mentor/teacher working in France)
Rasmus Olme (a teacher I met at Impulstanz this summer, one of the new wave of dance rock stars)

On a long flight, what do you do to amuse yourself?

Eat Smart Food popcorn and drink soda water, watch an in -flight chick flick, read either a great book or the trashiest rag I could find at the airport shop, do my nails. And talk to the handsome businessman sitting beside me.  

What would you do if you could no longer dance?

I would be a yoga teacher or performance artist or mother or contact improvisation teacher or a make-up artist or a body worker or a Chinese medicine doctor. Too many things!!!

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