Claire French joined our team as Membership and Outreach Coordinator in March 2020, just two weeks before the pandemic hit. As she finished up her time in the role this past month, we asked her to share her experiences in the position over this unprecedented year.
What is your background as a dance professional?
I started dancing at the age of three. I was a disco dancing champion in my teens, and I also gained my ballroom teaching certification and attended stage school in London. My first professional choreographic gig was in the UK in 1993 for Leeds Civic Opera while I was still an undergraduate student. In 1994, I received my BA (Hons) in Dance with Inter-Arts from Leeds University College Bretton Hall. In London I worked for several independent choreographers and companies and established my own company, Artfusion, performing across the UK. In 1997 I came to Vancouver to study for my MFA Interdisciplinary Studies at SFU and graduated in 1999. After that I guest choreographed, taught, and performed in BC and internationally. I also established a mentorship program called Project CPR (Choreographic Practice and Research), which ran from 2008-2017. I have spent the last five years studying, lecturing, choreographing, researching, writing, and coordinating and dreaming up projects. Through my freelance choreographic career, I have navigated and negotiated my choreographic, administrative, and mentoring motivations, which have genuinely gone hand-in hand for me for almost three decades.
I am Artistic Co-Director of Restless Productions with my life-partner, composer James Maxwell. Historic note: we self-presented Loose Feathers under restless.co at Scotiabank Dance Centre in 2001—the year it opened. We are a project-based company that invests in process as much as product, and some of these processes have never become shows. We are fortunate to have busy independent careers and we see the company work as opportunity to delve into forms of collaborating that emerge out of ensemble-thinking, across disciplines.
You started with The Dance Centre just two weeks before the pandemic hit – what was that like?
I took the contract position aware of a strict Mon-Fri 9-5 schedule. I was quite vocal in the beginning about my trepidations around this. The idea of work didn’t scare me, the number of hours was not the issue, but I thought that the admin routine might drive me to distraction. Also, I wasn’t sure how my office colleagues would react to me stretching, dancing, and singing while I worked.
I only had two weeks in the office to test this, as all too soon I was back to working from home. On the one hand I could dance and type and throw papers around the living room, kitchen, and study (my usual practice) and on the other, it was sometimes hard for me to stop working and I didn’t really get to understand how The Dance Centre team physically/ proximally worked together. That had to wait.
I am tech savvy and was able to set up all I needed to follow usual administration procedure, remotely. Working remotely revealed the aspects of membership services that had been tied to dance activity in the building and had relied on person-to-person connection and the aspects that could still be normally coordinated without being in the building. Of course, this uprooting also changed aspects of the job. I think having a new person also helped the team adapt because there was already a sense of change in the staffing, and my questions were already pushing the staff to evaluate the routine procedures to which they had become accustomed.
Once deeply in the job, I felt that I was balancing maintaining processes—this was a temporary maternity cover contract, so our expectations involved my predecessor Hilary returning to the role—and making changes to adapt to the new situation. I did not want to upset the role permanently, however, changes had to be made that would also affect how the team worked together.
Taking a full-time admin work contract as a freelance choreographer just as COVID hit was a blessing and a curse and the impact on me personally took time to sink in. Quickly, I saw my position as playing a vital role in supporting The Dance Centre members through this insanely disruptive and scary time. I feel blessed that I had this opportunity to work with amazing colleagues in dance and the performing arts nationally and internationally who are working tirelessly to find ways to manage and care for artists, arts workers, and the performing arts industry. I feel blessed that I did not have to worry about income and my time was filled by the job and my other activities.
How has the delivery of member services changed due to the pandemic?
I am talking from the perspective of being a member of The Dance Centre for over twenty years, rather than from my position of Membership and Outreach Coordinator because I only really had the opportunity to be the person delivering services to members in the usual way for two weeks! These are some of the changes I know I made: I couldn’t send out annual membership cards the old-fashioned way so I found an alternative in digital membership options; to stay connected to the membership I created a weekly E-Central newsletter and featured a different member in each one; I got a Zoom account and set up weekly member meet-ups. A lot of the programming options had to move online, and I interviewed artists and edited the videos to help keep The Dance Centre’s interest in conversing with programmed artists alive. During the full lockdown, I was determined that we could still offer dance to seniors and so these classes moved online through my Zoom account. The Dance Centre is continuing to run these classes.
I am grateful for all the experiences of my freelance career that helped me dream up possibilities, jump into action, collaborate, and deliver. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work with the devoted and passionate team at The Dance Centre. There has been much upheaval, it has been difficult, emotional, humbling, and rewarding. I have learned a lot and accomplished a lot in the position and as Hilary decided not to come back and I decided not to stay, The Dance Centre continues to adapt, whilst offering stability and constancy to members, and beyond.
What is your proudest achievement in this position?
I implemented several things that I am proud of, but I want to answer the question by saying that I prioritized communicating with members to find out more about them and to share my experiences with them, to find out what they needed, how they were doing, and to offer suggestions. This always led to finding better ways to serve the membership or to provide more information about the contexts that The Dance Centre operates within. I was instrumental in creating the Reboot grants, for example. I continued to reach out and was able to create new ways to deliver programs and create opportunities for artists.
While I am quietly proud of a lot of the things I did, I am loudly proud of my colleagues for their grit, I am proud of Linda Arkelian for her unwavering online teaching for the seniors’ program throughout the pandemic, I am proud of the resilience of artists and arts workers and proud to be one of you!
What are your favourite memories of the last 14 months?
The light times in the dark times! Being in the studio and on Zoom calls with artists, presenting for The Dance Centre at a Canadian Dance Assembly meeting, being part of developing our coping and operational strategies that we employed as the building reopened, running around the building, naively grabbing some form of digital content, posing and dancing while participating in rotational cleaning duty, creating an Open House tour video, escaping to the patio, tap dancing in the elevator.
Office antics: decorating my plexiglass screen on Friday afternoons with Lindsay our Digital Marketing Coordinator, weekly exit chats with our accountant Elyn, the changing tones of our weekly Zoom staff meetings, visits from masked members. Honest and frank moments that reminded us all what we were doing and why. The feeling of being in something together. Jumping in. Having the opportunity to work with my successor Nazanin as we transitioned the role.
Professional development: I took free online courses to help me do my job better. I don’t think these courses would have been on my radar had I not been in this position.
What are you up to next?
Restless is currently in early stages of research and creation for a new interdisciplinary work, which is exciting and slightly unnerving, yet feels vital. We are part of Idan Cohen/ Ne. Sans Opera and Dance’s Dance and Music Project and we have our own DanceLab at the end of the year. We also have a couple of film projects.
I am a doctoral candidate at University of Chichester, UK and taking the next few months to complete my Practice as Research PhD in Dance. I thought I could complete this while I was working at The Dance Centre, but it didn’t work out that way.
I feel like I am untethering from a sense of obligation I have felt for a long time! There is so much more for me to do, and new avenues for me to explore and I am open to new possibilities. I joined a pop choir! I am interested to pursue career opportunities in communications, technology, and media.
Right now, I am going to tap dance in my kitchen on my new portable dance floor.
Take care! See you soon! Thank you for your artistry and resilience!
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Photos: Chris Randle, James Maxwell