This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 print issue.
Jess Huggett found her way to dance through the Dandelion Dance Company when she was 13 years old. The Ottawa-based company, now closed, was an inclusive space for girls of different abilities. During her time at the company, they often talked about social justice. She then created her piece I Am, about her life experiences as someone with Down syndrome.
After graduating high school, as well as the Dandelion Dance Company, she was introduced to Propeller Dance, a company specializing in contemporary integrated dance and diverse dance practices. “I thought it would be a great way to have my voice heard,” says Huggett. Since 2009, she has been dancing, creating and teaching with the company.
Elizabeth Emond-Stevenson found her way to dance growing up taking recreational dance classes, but it wasn’t until she was almost 16 that she realized that dance was a career option. “It blew my mind,” she says. She was then accepted into the Quinte Ballet School in Belleville, Ont. and played a “wild game of catch up for a couple of years.” She has since trained at The School of Dance in Ottawa, at Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in Calgary, and began her independent career, working with artists across the country. She then, too, found Propeller Dance.
Then in 2019, Huggett and Emond-Stevenson found each other. Introduced by Amelia Griffin, a dance artist who knew that Huggett was searching for a peer mentor, they have now been engaged in a peer-to-peer mentorship for three years, working on (mostly) contemporary technique, choreography and teaching skills. They also call themselves “show buddies.”
Catherine Abes sat down with Huggett and Emond-Stevenson to talk about their mentorship and how it differs from a traditional student-teacher relationship. According to them, it all boils down to freedom, trust and compassion.
Catherine Abes: Since so much of your peer mentorship lasted through COVID, how did that relationship help you during the pandemic?
Elizabeth Emond-Stevenson: I can start.
Jess Huggett: Sure.
EES: It’s helped me in a lot of ways. At the beginning of the pandemic, we took a couple of weeks off.
JH: We did.
EES: We chatted on the phone, right? We emailed, but we didn’t practise because we obviously, like most people, were in shock. And didn’t really know how to proceed and we were prioritizing keeping safe. And then we started working on Zoom. And that was one of my first experiences connecting through dance virtually. So I guess, immediately, I could say I learned a lot about how to connect through a screen with you.
EES: And we let go of a lot of things and we zoned in on other things. We kind of let go of left and right at the beginning, because it wasn’t useful for us. And we played a lot with proximity towards and away from the camera. And I guess even in a way it was like, we had a third sort of element in our sessions, which was the camera, and we’re including that in how we’re working together. And working with you during the pandemic has helped me really keep a solid practice going. I felt more confident going into some of the virtual trainings and intensives that we have done. Because you’re there. Because we’re doing it together.
JH: Yeah, we are.
EES: I feel a little less nervous, a little less shy, and I know that, after, I have someone to debrief with. I have someone I can bounce a little question off of and figure things out with and someone to help put things into practice. I feel like it was really easy during the pandemic, for obvious reasons, to abandon your practice or even your own self because everything was so hard and challenging. You helped me stay with and maintain my passion and maintain my motivation.
JH: You have made me feel like I’m home, and I can be myself around you. You are my sis, and a mother. And it really helps me shape who I am today.
EES: Thanks J, I feel similarly.
CA: That is so beautiful, and I feel like it’s so nice to see that a strong relationship could blossom probably when we needed it most, when people were so disconnected. And I totally understand the benefit of having accountability, having somebody to keep you involved and also the structure. Time became so loose and so hard to keep track of, and that’s really wonderful that you both had that. How did you decide to begin a peer-to-peer mentorship?
JH: I had another peer mentor before Elizabeth, her name was Allison Elizabeth Burns and then she got a part-time job. And then my mom and I decided to hire this lovely woman.
EES: I already sort of knew you in the community, but not personally, so I was interested in what you were doing. And once I got to know you more personally … we have a lot in common with what we’re interested in dance.
EES: And at the same time, we have different experiences and perspectives that we bring together. So we are still able to challenge each other. Working with you has been my first experience with a peer-to-peer mentorship. I guess what’s also interesting is there are obviously other peer-to-peer mentorships out there, I just don’t know any. So we’re kind of reevaluating and creating and reflecting as we go along. And we’re at the point where I think we know each other well enough where we feel comfortable saying, ‘That doesn’t work for me.’ Or we feel comfortable challenging each other, we know where to push each other and where not to push each other for the most part. And if we accidentally push each other too far, for example in training or artistically, the other person is able to say, ‘I need some time,’ or ‘actually I don’t want to go in this direction.’
CA: That’s really cool. That it’s like a very fluid, organic relationship.
JH: Yeah. Yeah.
CA: OK, so how does a peer-to-peer mentorship work?
EES: We currently meet four times a week, but it usually is two to four times a week, depending on the season, and depending on what we’re both working on. And we split up our time. If for example, one of us is working on a project, and we want input from the other person, like, for example, Inside Out, your choreo-poem dancefilm you made with Propeller. Before your rehearsal every week for that, we would meet and go through the rehearsal plan and practise the rehearsal plan.
JH: Right, yeah.
EES: And then after the rehearsal, we would debrief, right?
JH: Yes, we would.
EES: So we build the sessions around what we’re doing at that time, but we consistently train together. I’d say, western contemporary dance is sort of our staple. And we do a lot of strength training and improvisation. And then whatever classes or professional development we’re doing at the moment, we try to explore that in our sessions as well. So this past summer, we’ve been doing Stopgap Dance Company’s Seebed training, which is inclusive dance teacher training. So we take concepts that we’ve learned in professional development and then we test them out for ourselves in our own practice session. We also go see performances.
JH: Yeah, we used to.
EES: We watch them online now. So we were kind of like, performance going buddies. It’s nice to have somebody to go with but it’s also nice to chat with somebody about it afterwards.
JH: Right, yeah.
EES: We co-teach a class at Propeller Dance together. Sometimes part of our peer-to-peer mentorship works on teaching skills. I have a long-standing relationship with Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre and I’ve been teaching for them for maybe five years on and off and something Jess and I have done together is we’ve co-taught classes over Zoom for Amethyst. Did I get all the elements?
JH: You did.
EES: Do you want to mention What Connects Us?
JH: Our project called What Connects Us. What Connects Us is animating the spirit of dance.
EES: Correct me if I’m wrong, J, but it’s a creation project right now. Where we’re working with, as you said, animation and dance together. And Jess, myself, Liz [Winkelaar], and Amelia [Griffin], we’re dancing in it. And Amelia is supporting. And Rachel [Ray] is dancing in it. And she’s also the animator.
CA: That’s really cool. Can you tell me about the program that you’re co-teaching right now?
JH: It’s Propeller Dance. Me and E are co-teaching the youth and adult program. We teach once a week. Mostly on Saturdays.
EES: We’ve been co-teaching for two years now. The artistic leads of Propeller Dance are Renata Soutter …
JH: And Shara Weaver.
EES: And Liz Winkelaar.
JH: And Liz Winkelaar.
EES: We co-teach an hour-and-a-half-long class together every week. We have a summer break right now. And part of what Propeller supports is establishing teaching relationships, and co-teaching as kind of a method of teaching in and of itself. And so the way that you and I teach, sometimes you lead an exercise or sometimes I lead an exercise. Sometimes one person demonstrates and one person explains it verbally. We play with a lot of different ways of doing it — I guess in a similar fashion to our own peer-to-peer mentorship. We’ve been through a wild ride of adapting to Zoom for teaching with Propeller.
JH: And sometimes we do it in person.
EES: In the park.
JH: In Hintonburg Park.
EES: We’ve really had to adapt our teaching practice and how we work together because of all these different platforms or places that we’ve been teaching. Which has been kind of cool.
EES: When we work in the park, we try to use the environment to our advantage I’d say. We didn’t get to do it because it rained, but you came up with that exercise. We called it… just one second Catherine, I actually have the teaching plan right here.
JH: Oh cool.
EES: It was sort of like interval training but like, using the park. Around the tree we had structured circle improvisations. And then we had some pylons where it was all about weaving, like weaving through space. And then we had something around the picnic table, which I think was like finding sharp and linear movements or something like that. We like to use what we have at hand. Did I get that right?
CA: How does a peer mentorship compare to the transitional learning relationship between a student and the teacher?
JH: OK, with a peer it’s much more different than a teacher student class. It’s much different.
EES: For me, there’s definitely a difference in power dynamics. Even though a lot of the teachers I work with now, when I’m taking class, I purposely choose classes where I feel that the approach is not deliberately hierarchical just for the sake of being hierarchical, and I try to be very conscious of that when I’m teaching students and make sure that they have a voice and an input and autonomy. And when I’m working in this peer-to-peer mentorship we’re constantly giving input from both sides.
EES: And we’re also co-creating what’s going on each week, but also that’s leading to the co-creation of future goals together. We have the privilege and luxury of being much more involved with that and getting into the nitty gritty details. We’ve invested a lot of time and care.
JH: And thought.
EES: Into this peer-to-peer mentorship, this relationship. And all of that is enabling us to customize what we want out of it, and has built up a certain level of trust that you don’t always get to build, maybe, in the way you would with a class with many, many students, although that can of course happen in those situations. What about you? How is this different?
JH: When you work with a peer-to-peer mentor, it’s very different than an actual class. I had teachers who were almost distant to me. And that wasn’t a very good fit for me. So I took a class that had an inclusive teacher. And working with E has been pretty great. But it actually brings me to like a better place to be myself.
EES: That’s a good point. We structure our sessions and our mentorship around our individual accessibility needs as well. Which is something that definitely some companies and artists make great strides to do. But it is always difficult to make a class accessible to everyone.
JH: It has an accessible ramp. That’s an important part at Propeller Dance.
CA: What’s your favourite thing that you’ve learned from each other? Whether it was a lesson or a special moment that you shared?
JH: E, can you say that?
EES: You too. You want me to start?
JH: Yeah. And then I’ll say it.
EES: Alright. Gosh, there are a lot of moments. This is going to sound like a small point, but for me it’s been big. I used to get a lot of anxiety going into dancing situations. Because I love dance, but the unknown of interacting with people kind of gave me a lot of anxiety. Because I think working with you, you’re a great improviser.
JH: Thank you.
EES: And we work a lot on improvisation skills, both in like a concrete dance way, but also in an, ‘OK, this isn’t working for us, let’s adapt in the moment.’ So working on those kinds of skills with you has made me be able to work from a place that is more grounded. Because I’ve developed these skills where I know that if I’m in a situation with certain unknowns, I know that I’m going to be able to adapt or pivot. And I have all these tools in my back pocket that I didn’t have before. I’ll talk specifically to supporting your practice in our peer-to-peer mentorship, and really diving into the ways that you like to work and the ways you like to share dance. And learning how to be very clear in my communication, both verbally and physically.
JH: It’s pretty good.
EES: Specificity was something I struggled with a lot in my traditional or conventional dance training, I guess you could say. And spending this time working with you and learning with you has really helped me develop my specificity. And I now feel OK. I take the time I need to take to make sure that I understand what’s going on clearly. And I ask questions if I need help with clarity. And then I take the time to make sure that if I’m working with you, or if we’re working with other people, I take the time I need to take to make sure that I’m clear and specific and that I am understood and that I understand as best as I can.
JH: That’s right.
EES: Which helps my learning and I think, hopefully, helps your learning too.
JH: I feel confident and I can express myself with authenticity and I feel I’m at home when I’m working with E. I feel safe, I feel secure, and that’s how E inspires me, to be the best I can be. There’s a moment of connection.
EES: I’m curious what moments or projects or things stand out for you from our time together.
JH: My biggest memory was working on Dance In The Making with you and Amelia and Rach. Dance In The Making is a dancefilm that I created about how we can connect through dance and through movement.
EES: It was sort of a dance documentary film. And it was made through BEING studio.
JH: An art studio that’s on the third floor where people with different abilities can come in and make art. And it’s professional artists. We had art exhibitions and we sell our paintings.
EES: That’s a standout moment for me to actually, Dance In The Making. Jessie asked me to be a part of this dance documentary in the fall of 2021. And it was the first time or one of the first times that I went back into a theatre to dance since the pandemic started. And we had some sessions beforehand where we talked about our relationship to dance. And then we went into this theatre space. And we had a live musician.
EES: And we improvised together. You structured an improvisation for us and then we went into the theatre. And then the documentary crew was kind of following you around and filmed us working together.
JH: We used the barre.
EES: Yeah, that’s true. We had a ballet barre.
JH: On stage as a prop.
EES: Just a couple of weeks ago, we went to a gala fundraiser for BEING studio, and Dance In The Making was shown there and we got to watch it together. That was cool.
CA: What are some traits of an excellent peer mentor? If you were telling someone, here’s how to have a successful peer mentorship, what kind of traits would that person have to bring to the relationship?
JH: To really know the person before you dance or do anything. Just know them. You have the confidence and a devoted personality.
EES: And what about you? What traits or qualities do you have?
JH: I bring my originality, my athletic moves. I bring my sources. I’m very prepared. So having a peer mentor who has all of those qualities and traits makes a really good peer mentor.
EES: May I chime in?
JH: You may.
EES: I think what makes our particular peer-to-peer mentorship successful is the trust. Developing trust, which does take time.
JH: I was about to say that. You have to build trust in your peer mentor.
EES: And an open mindset.
JH: Of course.
EES: And patience, I think.
JH: Oh yeah, I love patience.
EES: I feel like I can tell you when I need more time or when I’m not having a great day. Because let’s face it, it’s not really possible to leave yourself at the door and come into dance as this neutral person. I don’t think that’s possible.
JH: Me either.
EES: And so I can tell you like, ‘Listen, I’m having a hard day today, but I can still come to the session.’ And you are respectful of that. And we can work with where we are that day.
When you work with a peer-to-peer mentor, it’s very different than an actual class. I had teachers who were almost distant to me.Jess Huggett
CA: I’m really grateful to you both for sharing. I danced when I was younger and there was nothing like this and dance felt like a very individual, competitive environment. You’re all kind of competing for attention from the teacher. I was very stressed as a dancer so I feel like if I had someone that I was working with, in the same way that [you both] support each other, that I could have had a different experience.
EES: I think about that too. And how difficult it is training conventionally in dance, like my experiences at ballet schools and my contemporary training. There were so many great elements of it, and at the same time, it’s highly competitive and the stress that puts on you and your relationships with your peers is really tricky. As I was graduating, I started realizing the ways I did and didn’t want to work. And I knew that this competitive viewing of other dancers as someone to work against, I knew that that just wouldn’t work for me. And so I knew that I really needed to find pockets of support and connection in the community and kind of go from there and whether that would result in a typical success or not kind of didn’t matter because I just knew that working with a competitive mindset was not sustainable for me.
CA: Jess, what is your favourite thing about working with Elizabeth?
JH: My favourite thing about working with E would have to be her compassion.
EES: Thank you.
CA: That’s lovely. Elizabeth, same question. What’s your favourite thing about working with Jess?
EES: I’ll have to narrow it down. My favourite thing is your honesty and the fact that you’re not afraid to challenge me artistically and as a person. And I feel like being challenged as a person is part of your art.
CA: Thank you both so much for taking the time to chat with me and tell me about your beautiful, beautiful connection. I hope people read this piece and they realize that there’s other ways that you can learn and grow and dance without necessarily being in class. I hope you both have a lovely day.
JH: Have a lovely weekend Catherine.
EES: Take care.
This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.