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Initiated in 1982 by UNESCO, International Dance Day is marked annually on April 29 across Canada and around the world. The date commemorates the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), regarded as the founder of modern ballet. We invited dance artist, teacher, and writer Kristen Lewis to write a special International Dance Day message:
I have had the strange, good fortune to spend the better part of my life dancing. Dance has never, not once, let me down. Predictably, and over and over, dance has expanded my capacity to see beauty even in hard places; to think and feel beyond the confines of my conditioning; to bear with skill the suffering that is an inevitable part of our life in time; and to grow in my capacity to love life as it is, beyond all the ideals that would seduce us from seeing life face to face.
I have been blessed, too, to witness, via my extensive community-based dance teaching work the predictably miraculous way dance transforms people from all walks of life. I have seen dance call forth deeper, fuller ranges of human expression; bring an over-abundance of joy even to those mired in despair; offer meaning as a throughline amid the chaos; and, not infrequently, heal old, hard wounds in ways I never could have predicted in advance. I have seen dance do for people, myself included, what we never could have done for ourselves.
I teach dance to all kinds of people: brave young adults in my performance classes learning to take bold creative risks in their artistic practices; rambunctious preschoolers eager to teach me their unique-in-all-the-universe dance moves (they have taught me lots over the years!); nervous seniors who have dared to take their first, tentative dance steps in my adult classes, breaking open with sorrow and joy when they realize what it meant to go so long without dancing, and, too, how wonderful it is to finally come home to the dance. Their example has taught me that life is long and dance is patient. It is never too late to start anew.
Life, even when it is good, is hard. And, our world being what it is, full of injustice and both necessary and un-necessary suffering, life is often pretty far from good. Dance makes the hardness easier to bear, provides a place where it is possible to drop the tired old modes of being we accumulate by force of habit, in order, often, to get along in a world that condones only the narrowest range of expressive possibility.
Dance doesn’t happen on its own—it depends on the people who dare to make a home in themselves where dance can enter. On this International Dance Day, I am feeling grateful for everyone now and across the ages who has dared to open to dance, to make a home for dance in themselves, in their families, and in their communities.
Our world is not always friendly to dance; for many, to dare to dance has been to risk one’s life. Lest we forget, for instance, that Indigenous people’s dances here and across the world were banned, often on pain of death (and not all that long ago) by colonial authorities’ attempts to suppress the holy power inherent in the dance. My father’s Methodist upbringing banned dancing (along with cards and drinking) as a possible tool of the devil. That I can dance is a gift not given to many of my ancestors, nor to the ancestors of many people. Around the world, even to this day, in many pockets, dance remains deeply threatening to authorities worried about its power to disrupt.
At a perhaps less obvious level, the world’s unfriendliness to dance shows up as economic devaluation of the work dance artists do; as quiet ridicule of dance as “less serious” than other apparently more world changing endeavours; or, more subtly, to the nervousness so many people have about even daring to try to dance.
To make a home for dance is to make a sacrifice; to choose to swim against the grain of historical suppression of the dance, and against current social conditioning that discourages the natural human instinct to dance; to forego the comfort of familiarity for the call of something wider, bigger, deeper than the known: a vast territory of the unknown, something dance will not fail, eventually, to uncover.
On this International Dance Day, I want to thank everyone now and across the long hallway of time, who has dared to dance instead of not dancing—each brave step, each healing step, each potentially ridiculous step, each step steeped in bold personal style gives permission to the others. I thank everyone in our dance community here in B.C., and in the wider circle of dance relatives around the world, for their fortitude in keeping dance going, often against formidable odds. May we dance and dance often—and invite others, even the ones who think it strange, to dance. May we make life a bit more bearable thereby. May we love more and better, because we dance.
Kristen Lewis is a dance artist and teacher, a writer, and a legal advocate. Across all these roles, she is interested in cultivating the capacity, in herself and others, to look to the body as a vital resource for critical thinking, for conflict transformation and, ultimately, for peace-building.
The Dance Centre Presents
International Dance Day 2023
April 29, 11am-6pm
Free | Tickets for Dance//Novella $0-$20
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Photos: Kate Plyley, Thomas Mallett