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A Place in This World

When I was in grade 8, circa 1984, my dance teacher, Dale Hyde, asked if I would like to be his assistant director for a new dance company he was forming, Canadian Dance Tapestry. We studied National Dance in school and he and our music teacher, Alice Brass, wanted to bring traditional Canadian dance to a broader stage. Dale was a member of the Ontario Folk Dance Association and introduced us to international dance instructors who led us through a myriad of traditional dances, from Macedonia to Bulgaria, from Nigeria to England, from the Philippines to Japan. In school, we explored geography and history in dance class, finding the countries on a map, recording steps and translations in our notebooks, and learning dances that had been passed down through generations of dancers from around the world. We listened to music using instruments and compositions we had never heard before, and we wore beautiful costumes, researched and recreated by hand. It was a privilege to become aware of other forms of dance that represented a variety of cultures. 


Our dance company grew and was soon invited to international folk festivals around the world. We traveled through France, toured Italy, went to Germany, danced at Epcot Centre in Disneyworld, in addition to performing for Ontario events such as the opening of Skydome, the Bindertwine Festival in Kleinberg, and at landmark locations including Roy Thompson Hall, Harbourfront Centre and the Canoe Museum. Everywhere we went, we met other folk dance companies from different countries. Many of our dancers and musicians spoke a second language, so we would often provide translation services on tours and visits, and this fostered friendships with people we would never have crossed paths with otherwise. Our group was unique in that although we wore matching costumes, none of us were similar in appearance. Many groups did not even realize Canada had traditional dances, and it was fascinating to see how our choreography related to another country’s because of our roots in the UK, Ireland and Scotland. We came to appreciate our differences by highlighting our similarities.

Folk Dance is rarely taught in most studios and classrooms. The typical public school dance curriculum is covered in gym class as a folk dance unit, often consisting of a reel or square dance. There is literally a world of dance that will soon be lost if we do not continue to pass on the tradition of sharing space and moving in unison with each other. It is our responsibility to ensure the traditions of all ethnic communities are honoured and upheld by teaching and  celebrating all the identities that make up the fabric of our diverse world. Circles and lines are traditional floor patterns used by all ethnic groups, while walking, hopping, jumping and turning are all pedestrian moves that are accessible to anyone who is mobile. The beauty of traditional dance is it connects us with our past in the present. Traditional dance brings people together and transcends all language barriers and political boundaries.

If you wish to introduce your students to cultural dance, I highly recommend you visit Ontario Folk Dance Association (https://ofda.ca/wp/) and attend one of their events. Recreational dance groups focus on the social aspect of dance and welcome all movers, from absolute beginners to professional performers. They host a weekend retreat every Victoria Day weekend at the University of Waterloo and feature a different country each year, with music, crafts and of course, dance instruction. The evenings are filled with live music and singing, open dance circles, and potluck meals. The older generations lead the formations and even the youngest participants catch on to the rhythm and sequence. They also have a YouTube channel you can subscribe to so you can watch and learn dances from your home. Even if you are not comfortable teaching the dances, the videos are easy to follow and can be played on a screen for your students to watch. You could incorporate musical instruments, songs, and food with your lesson plan so they may partake in a fully immersive experience. 

It’s important to distinguish between cultural appropriation, where a dominant culture assimilates or imitates another culture for the purpose of tokenism or parody, and cultural appreciation, where intersectional identity may be recognized and celebrated. To instill the value of authentic, contextual research and reconstruction, we can model attention to historical detail, by providing rich, meaningful stories behind the dances, costumes and music. When students are represented in curriculum, when they feel seen and heard and recognize themselves in classroom material, it validates their personal, family experiences, and promotes inclusivity and equity. Cultural dance makes movement accessible and meaningful, because it is rooted in shared rituals that connect us across time and space. Invite your learners to participate in an engaging, embodied learning opportunity rife with symbolism, ceremony and community.

Guest Writer: Erika MacNeil, is a dancer by training and a teacher by trade. Mother of two teens and owner of two mutts, Erika is also the librarian at Rogers PS in Newmarket, where she lives with her husband and family. She writes primarily flash fiction and poetry and has been published in a variety of media. She offers editing and content services for students, bloggers, and writers, and serves at Open Mic and Student Coordinator for the Writers Community of York Region. She has been a judge and critic for writing and public speaking contests and enjoys singing and painting when she is not in the studio or buried in a book.

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