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Get Onboard

The story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad has long been woven into the fabric of Canadian history and our role in providing a safe haven for those escaping the persecution of slavery in the South. In high school, I was introduced to Len Gibson, a pioneer in African-Canadian dance culture, who was a guest teacher and choreographer for our dance company. He showed us the work of Alvin Ailey, a grassroots African-American dancer and choreographer, whose suite, Revelations (1960), his company’s signature piece, is recognized as one of the most popular and performed dances in the world. It is based on African spiritual, gospel and blues music, passed down through the generations and congregations. As young dancers, we were inspired to create our own Underground Railroad Suite, based on Gibson’s teachings.

To begin our work, Gibson shared with us his personal experience working with Katherine Dunham, who also mentored Ailey. He described the struggle between despair and ecstasy, the tug of remembrance and honour, experienced by people of African descent, whose generations were becoming further and further removed from their ancestors, making it difficult to relate to and connect with their history. Gibson set an example of compassion and tenderness for the families who were torn apart and lost as a result of slavery, and helped us understand how music and movement buoyed their faith and hope that tomorrow promised a brighter future. We learned the melodies and lyrics of the songs sung in the fields to combat the brutality of the endless work required of a slave. He taught us the clues in the words they sang, so that those who escaped recognized the route to follow, and saw the symbols that represented safe houses. We used these props, such as a scarf or a knot in our costumes, to signify the meaning of this secret language. 

Developing the composition of movement sequences was built on exercises and visualization sessions Gibson led us through. He had us imagine travelling at night, barefoot, through treacherous landscape. He played sound effects of wild animals and gunshots, and had us listen to the trilogy of songs, blindfolded, lying on the gymnasium floor, the vibration from the speakers humming through the boards, buzzing against our skin. Each movement he put us through had a story: harvesting apples from a tree, lifting branches off the path, scooping water from a stream. Our interpretive dance became a wordless tale of bondage, chance, and salvation. Road to Freedom had us boarding an imaginary train, using our pounding feet to establish the rhythm of the metaphoric engine, spreading the word, gathering our kin. Run to the Rock highlighted the sheer power of the male form, leaping and defying gravity and authority, against all odds. Wade in the Water is the exultant triumph of mothers, sisters, and daughters, crossing the border and cleansing themselves of anguish and pain. 

This choreographic process has stayed with me over years, reminding me of the importance that sensory input plays in my instruction. Focusing on the stories in history, we may bring the past to life by helping our students explore the human experience with their

five senses, and incorporating the arts into our lessons by teaching self expression through music and movement. I invite you to examine some of the material I have shared here so you may include or refer to it in your own classrooms. My intention of becoming

a teacher has always been fueled by my memories of my own teachers, hoping to inspire the next generation to continue to honour the past in order to build our future together.

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.


Len Gibson:

Alvin Ailey:


Road to Freedom:

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