Rather than subscribing to hierarchical and separate systems of creation, dissemination and animation seen in most mainstream dance models, Toronto's Vivine Scarlett takes a more holistic approach. In her organization, dance Immersion, creation, presentation, training and animation are seen as integral, informing and enriching one another. - D.D.D.
All our various programs could be called outreach and dance animation. They include an annual showcase presentation, less formal in-studio presentations, talk-back forums, workshops, visual art exhibitions, and a youth arts program. These programs have a strong focus on education. I believe that the artists whose work we present and their audiences have to be educated about each other. As professional dance artists, we train and work in our discipline. But another important aspect of what we do is our audience. dance Immersion works hard at making connections for those people who come to share with us. We have to learn about each other in order for it to work. In animation, it's important to let people know how what you're doing connects to them. You want them to feel that their experience of dance is really a part of them and what they do. You're constantly searching for different ways of reaching out to them.
We have to look at all aspects of our community, determine what is lacking, and how to obtain it. Our outreach work has to address all those areas. A lot of our dancers do not have the opportunities to develop in the ways they should. I'm specifically talking about having a full-time training facility. None of the dance companies working in the dance styles of the African diaspora have full-time dancers. Most of their dancers have full-time jobs. They've got to train and rehearse after work when they're tired and have other things on their mind.
If you come to Canada from Ethiopia, where you've been a dancer, there's no place here that can offer something remotely close to your previous dance experience. It's very difficult and terribly important for the development of our dance artists. The community relies on guest teachers who come in through us, and other companies like COBA (Collective of Black Artists) and Ballet Creole. We need a dance centre for dance forms of the African Diaspora.
From 1982 to 1991, I had been doing a lot of jazz dancing at the Randolph Dance Academy. A friend invited me to a West African dance class. My eyes were completely opened by that experience. Of course, there was dancing but it was the drums, the unfamiliar rhythms, and the singing that made it so different. I was fascinated by the stories about my people before slavery. After class, I would read and find out more about myself and my heritage. It was empowering for me.
In November of 2003, we held our first national conference, African Dance Conference: The Business of Dance. It was an effort to build the community, to talk about how we see ourselves, what we need, and to network with one another. We also wanted to look at the business side of dance because it's important to realize that what we do is also a business. We had great representation from across the country. There was a session with the CanDance Network of specialized dance presenters where people met and artists learned more about presenting opportunities and the market for professional dance. Those presenters, in turn, got to know about our dance community, and what some of our issues were. While the conference was open to the public, it was primarily geared to dance artists. The outreach we did for the general public was focused on the studio performance with various companies presenting finished pieces or works in progress.
When dance Immersion started we had a regular gig during Black History Month. There were a lot of preconceived ideas of what African dance was. People expected to see only black dancers, a lot of drumming and maybe some limbo or fire-eating. Instead, they saw a variety of dance styles executed by a variety of different dancers. This evoked a lot of conversation, and I believe attitudes are changing. But there are people who might see white or Asian dancers doing African dance and think it should be only black dancers. But for me it's only about the dance. It's not about a dancer's skin colour. It's all about the art form, and the passion, training and discipline it takes to be a dancer. Our multicultural environment makes it possible for many diverse people and ideas to contribute to the evolution of this and other dance forms.
Ngoma is our affiliated partner and plays an essential role in our Youth Arts Program. This Toronto-based dance and drum performing ensemble addresses our organization's objective to promote, cultivate and preserve dances of the African diaspora and to build a community of young people who will continue to evolve the art form. It's an ensemble with a twofold purpose, to build community and do outreach at the same time. The Youth Arts Program classes provide training for the children, and the rehearsals after those classes give them additional training as they aspire and work towards becoming a professional company. It's more than working towards a year-end recital. Not only do these young people get dance training, but they get mentored in how to manage a dance organization. They come into our office and help out with the administration. In turn, they talk about their involvement with Ngoma to friends and family, and are seen by the larger community through their performances.
In our annual showcase presentation, we present the work of emerging and established artists. The emerging artists get an opportunity to work in a professional situation, and maybe work with a lighting designer for the first time.
The series of workshops complements the performance program and is an important learning and professional development opportunity for these artists. Workshops cover dance technique but can include the technical aspects of lighting design, publicity and marketing, or how to write good program notes. There are so many other areas of training that people can benefit from.
We try to gear the talk-back sessions after each show to that particular audience. For an evening show with an adult audience, the talk-back will be geared towards them. A matinee performance, with a noticeably younger audience, will have its talk-back focused on the kids, what they might find interesting about the show or the dancers. Following our in-studio presentations, we host a reception where the guest instructor or choreographer talks to the audience. The dancers who've been working with them in the studio are invited to take part in the discussion. We work hard at finding ways for people to make connections and network in all our programs.
Dance Immersion is simply that. Our organization is about immersing ourselves in the many different aspects of dance. It comes from the African tradition where art is not separated into various disciplines, but seen as a whole and connected to everything you do. In Africa, where dance is a part of life, everybody dances.
Our art contains dance as well as the music or rhythm that goes with it. There's always a visual element, as well as the spoken word. In order for the art to continue and flourish, children have to be a part of it too. Our outreach also extends to our elders who came before us, and taught us through art. We approach our outreach like it is a complete and all encompassing circle.