Curated by Ralph Escamillan, the founder of FakeKnot and Van Vogue Jam, these profiles are meant to show the power of dance today, and its past and present relationship with the QTBIPOC community, as Pride celebrations roll out across Canada.
“It was important for me to catalogue the vastness of Queer communities around the country, specifically featuring the work and activism of artists and allies,” Escamillan writes. “I hope the readers find these profiles as catalysts to learn more about people in their own communities and how to support them in the work they are doing.”
The following pages feature five artists from these vast Queer communities: N9ne Louboutin Margiela, Jessica McMann, Tia Ashley Kushniruk, Ross Wirtanen and Jossua Collin Dufour.
Margiela (featured on the cover) is the mother of the kiki House of Louboutin’s Toronto chapter. After moving to Toronto and finding ballroom, she has been able to turn her feminine energy into a source of power and strength.
McMann is a Two-Spirit Cree contemporary dancer, choreographer and musician based in Calgary. Her work includes creating safe spaces for Two-Spirt and trans Indigenous dancers to express themselves.
Kushniruk, hailing from Edmonton, is expanding the idea of a dance practice. Her work, which she describes as interdisciplinary, includes digital paintings and films. But she believes that all dance artists are multi-faceted because the definition of a dance practice goes beyond just dancing.
Wirtanen has built an impressive resumé dancing with big names. But that’s not the most important part of his work to him. After years of experience, he stresses the importance of understanding the elements and history of dance styles, especially when those styles were created by marginalized QTBIPOC communities.
Collin Dufour, based in Montreal, has danced various styles including burlesque and contemporary. In his work, he wants to break the stereotype of “the troubled gay kid” narrative. And although he is seeing Queerness appearing in commercial dance culture, he hopes it’s not just the “flavour of the month.”
Read more about the work of these five artists.
N9ne Louboutin Margiela
For this ballroom member, femininity and Queerness are power
By Catherine Abes
N9ne Louboutin Margiela slinks across the floor of Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art, swinging her hips, commanding the audience’s attention in a way the gallery’s typical exhibitions never could. Dressed in a bra, thong, leather garter and knee-high lace-up boots, Margiela eases from a backward roll into a middle split, showing off to the judges of the Freedom Ball that kicked off Toronto Pride 2019.
While it would be understandable to feel vulnerable, Margiela doesn’t get nervous when she walks the Sex Siren category. The ballroom stage is one of the few spaces in her life where being a Queer, racialized femme means having all the power in the room.
“Sex Siren is … something I believe has lived inside me my entire life,” she says. She previously dabbled in adult entertainment to find a safe space to express her sexuality but says the predominantly cisgender, heterosexual male audience environment felt “parasitic.”
Margiela’s relationship with ball culture, meanwhile, is mutual and replenishing. Rooted in Harlem, ballroom was shaped by Queer and trans Black and Latinx communities who created safe spaces for unapologetic self-expression. Decades later, the culture continues to celebrate the Queerness of folks like Margiela.
The 31-year-old artist trained in ballet and jazz as a teenager before getting into the hip-hop scene in Vancouver. She then moved to Toronto in 2014. While she enjoyed the competitive nature, she felt at odds with her femininity and Queerness. Hip hop’s battle tactics demanded her movement be masculine.
When she found ballroom in 2016, it allowed her to surrender to the divine feminine energy she had within her, turning it into a source of power and strength. Now she moves like water, flowing in tandem with the curves of her body, touching her body often to communicate self-worship, even emulating the dynamics of intercourse. When walkingSex Siren, the main goal is to seduce the crowd regardless of their sexual orientation, she explains. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of genital grabbing, but anything can be sexy. When you love yourself and worship yourself, people want to touch you.”
In 2019, Margiela broke out of the Toronto kiki scene and debuted as a member of the mainstream House of Maison Margiela (for straight people, Margiela says to think of the kiki scene as college-level football and the mainstream scene as the NFL).
When you love yourself and worship yourself, people want to touch you.
The same year, Margiela became the mother of the kiki House of Louboutin’s Toronto chapter. Her primary responsibility is running practices and training her kids, as well as providing community care. Houses have historically acted as surrogate families for young Queer and trans folks who have been rejected by their biological families and may be living on the streets or struggling to make ends meet.
Margiela performs mental health checks, connects her kids with doctors and ensures “their real life is just as cunty as their ballroom life,” she says. She explains that she does this because she works in health care and that house parents will usually provide whatever resources they can. “If you have a house parent in digital marketing, for example, they will help you out with that,” she says.
The role allows her to channel her maternal instincts in a way that “naturally resonates with [her] Queerness,” removing the biological aspect of motherhood and instead pursuing it through chosen family.
In her house and the culture at large, respect is an ingrained value. Margiela doesn’t tolerate entitlement and talking back from her kids, especially if they’re speaking to a legend or an icon – established elders who’ve been in the scene for several years. “These people have been in the ballroom scene cultivating your scene that you’re now active in,” she says. “You have no business speaking to anyone like that when you’re just a baby.”
Respect also means acknowledging the distinct rules, history and cultural significance of ballroom – which makes appropriation all the more frustrating. The work of Queer and trans Black and Latinx women has historically gone uncredited in Queer communities, but shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose and Legendary have made ball culture more accessible than ever to mainstream audiences without always giving the necessary context.
Margiela is unapologetic about gatekeeping the culture from people who seek to extract ballroom elements for their art without committing to the community. “I have a lot of kindness in my heart to teach but I also don’t want to see [the culture] cheapened,” she says.
While the pandemic has the scene on lockdown, Margiela continues training so she can compete internationally as soon as restrictions lift. In the future, she hopes to be a ballroom legend. “[Ballroom] is one of my highest callings,” she says, “and I only do things that I’m called to do.”
Creating safe spaces for Two-Spirit and trans Indigenous dancers
By Abeer Khan
In the summer of 2009, Jessica McMann was in the middle of a routine, her hands planted on the studio floor as her legs moved above and over her body. As she followed the choreography, she realized this was something she wanted to continue doing for the rest of her life. Then in her early 20s, McMann was attending her first Indigenous dance training session with Raven Spirit Dance in Vancouver as part of Indigenous Ground Training Week. “They didn’t care that you weren’t flexible; they didn’t care if you were ‘too native’ or ‘not enough’ native,” says McMann. “They just wanted to share that Indigenous people can dance in this way and still honour their culture and traditions.”
McMann is a Two-Spirit Cree artist from Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. She’s a Calgary-based musician, contemporary dancer and choreographer. She always had an interest in contemporary dance, but this training week made her realize that it was something she could actually practise. “Seeing other Indigenous people dancing in that way and doing shows and having big long contemporary dance careers and experiences, I felt like I could actually enter that world,” she says.
As a child, McMann tried ballet but eventually stopped after being told she was “too tall” and was bullied by other dancers. She also faced abuse when her legs were slashed with a ruler. Later, McMann threw herself into her music. She had started playing piano when she was in Grade 4 and eventually obtained a bachelor of music from the University of Calgary as a flutist. She also holds a master of fine arts from Simon Fraser University, where she studied contemporary dance and composition.
McMann was adopted during the ’60s Scoop, a series of government policies that removed or “scooped” Indigenous children from their homes, communities and families through the 1960s without the consent of their families or bands. These children were put into the child welfare system and many were adopted into predominantly non-Indigenous, middle-class families across Canada and the United States. By the ’70s, approximately one-third of children in care were Indigenous, and this overrepresentation in the system continues today.
Her adoptive mother enrolled her and her sister in powwow and hoop dance classes when she was in high school. When she was 17, McMann reconnected with her birth family, and the following year she took a Greyhound bus by herself to meet her aunties. During that trip, they brought her to her first powwow. It was there she met her (now late) nana for the first time. “She saw me dancing and she knew that I was her grandchild right away,” recalls McMann.
In all her work as a musician and a dancer, McMann has centred Indigenous and Queer voices and experiences. In IIKITAPIIT (2019), a CBC short film directed by Irina Lord, McMann explores violence against Indigenous women and Two-Spirit/Queer identities and examines those intersections through dance and musical composition. She also worked on NATOOWAPAKAA’KSIIKS alongside Elijah Wells, a Kainai animation and visual artist. The animated project is part of a larger work exploring the role Two-Spirit helpers have on Indigenous people struggling with their identity.
“You can’t have decolonization or Indigenization or anything without making sure that those marginalized voices are in the centre,” says McMann. “If you don’t have trans voices, if you don’t have LGBT voices, Indigenous voices, in the middle of your decisions and your programs and your boards, you’re not doing it.”
You can’t have decolonization or Indigenization or anything without making sure that those marginalized voices are in the centre.
Centring these intersections is also present in McMann’s dance classes, which she has taught with Wells on and off in the spring and summer since 2012. In these classes, McMann says they’ve worked to ensure people can learn any dance style they want, regardless of gender identity. She says this creates a space where folks can feel safe and express themselves.
McMann explains that pre-contact with colonialists, Blackfoot and Cree people each had a role in the community that was not determined by gender. “Everyone was needed,” McMann says. But with contact, a gender binary was imposed on Indigenous people. “So for us, it’s about bringing forward those pre-colonization and pre-residential school teachings to our dance classes.”
She says for many Indigenous people, having this space is important, but for others, who may be dealing with past trauma, body image or gender discrimination, these spaces are essential. “We try to really have a space that we can put everything in the past, and we’re there to dance and connect with our culture and our ancestors,” says McMann.
As she carries on with her career, her goal is to continue making dance accessible to all Indigenous people. “My hope is for Indigenous, Two-Spirit people to feel seen and respected and that they can do it, and that they belong,” says McMann. “For the non-Indigenous community that I teach, I just want them to understand and start to find a place of sympathy and understanding so that they can do what’s right.”
Tia Ashley Kushniruk
Everyone is multi-faceted and interdisciplinary
By KC Hoard
For Tia Ashley Kushniruk, everything is dance practice.
It’s in her glossy digital paintings and her bizarre, oddly heart-wrenching films. It’s in her conversations, the way she gesticulates and the way she speaks. It’s in her observations of others – dancers and non-dancers. It’s in her scriptwriting and, yes, it’s in her actual practice as a professional dancer. Everything is kinetic for her; everything is choreographed and executed, not unlike the dancing that she’s been doing for most of her life.
“Sure, I might be multi-faceted and interdisciplinary, but so is everyone else,” Kushniruk tells me over Zoom. She’s wearing a black hoodie, big glasses and a silver-striped, neon-orange jacket that looks a bit like a pylon (but chic). “At the end of the day, dance practice is what you choose it to be.”
Kushniruk hails from Edmonton, a city with a robust and unique dance culture. Her parents, both of whom were once professional ballroom dancers, met at a ballroom competition. Kushniruk says they stopped dancing when she was around six or seven, but they put her in ballroom at a very young age, hoping to give her something to put her energy into. And Kushniruk ran with it.
Sure, I might be multi-faceted and interdisciplinary, but so is everyone else… “At the end of the day, dance practice is what you choose it to be.
At age five, she began to dance competitively – tap, jazz, ballet, musical theatre and hip hop – which she says was par for the course in Western Canada at the time. “There’s not really a concert dance scene within Edmonton. That’s the thing that you do; you shove a kid into competition dance.”
She kept that up until she turned 18. After a year of auditioning while dabbling in commercial dance, clowning, physical theatre and even business school, she decided she wanted to pursue a career in dance – she just needed to find the right spot. She ended up working as a company dancer with Shay Kuebler, an accomplished choreographer with a reputation for creating one-of-a-kind dance productions. She has also performed works by other prominent choreographers including Peggy Baker, Christopher House and Jaz Fairy J. But the pandemic has made things complicated for her, as it has with everything else. Unable to perform live for more than a year, Kushniruk has focused her attention on other creative outlets. She’s been drawing more – digital paintings depicting dancers in motion, their movements illustrated by vibrant streaks of brilliant blue and orange. She’s also made a short film called monolith, which was presented by Mile Zero Dance from April through May. The eerie film portrays a test subject who is forced to perform increasingly strenuous physical tasks by The Monitor, an entity that presents itself as an unmoving white mask on an old-school TV. (The Monitor was inspired by the mid-’90s Canadian YTV show ReBoot and is voiced by monolith’s cinematographer/editor, Nicolas Lehmann.)
Kushniruk co-wrote and produced the film, which is inspired by her experiences as a dancer. It’s part of her work’s ongoing motif to capture what dance is, what motivates people to move and how we inhabit and manipulate the people around us.
“Seeing bodies bleed in and out of space is something that’s really fascinating to me, and also noticing how they’re moving and the gestures that accompany that,” she says. “Dance is non-verbal, so everything is subconscious cues. Everything is unconscious relationship.”
He has danced for big names, but that’s not what he wants to talk about
By Max Gao
Ross Wirtanen distinctly remembers being onstage at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto blocking the Rhythm Nation choreography for Janet Jackson’s 2015 Unbreakable World Tour. During the rehearsal, he saw a big mane of hair walk into the audience, flanked by two bodyguards. “It was Janet,” he says. “She sat in the middle of the whole stadium and politely watched us rehearse. No pressure, right?” In rehearsals, Wirtanen says Jackson’s team made it clear that anyone who wasn’t “up to snuff” would not be going onstage. “But this is what we love about Janet Jackson. Her perfection and care for her dance legacy is unmatched,” Wirtanen says.
Wirtanen describes dancing for Jackson as a full-circle moment. He grew up in Victoria, learning the music video choreography of some of his favourite R&B, hip-hop and pop artists from the ’90s, including the likes of Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. So, in his teenage years, he immersed himself in tap and street dance classes. He dreamed of one day being part of the productions that he had revered and continually watched.
Now, he is the founder of RiaToss Productions, a Toronto-based theatrical performance art company. He has also appeared on The CW’s Riverdale, NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina as a principal dancer. His stage credits include performing as a background dancer for Ariana Grande, Bebe Rexha and, of course, Janet Jackson. But these gigs are not what Wirtanen wants to talk about.
With the internet, it is so easy for us to see something, regurgitate it and/or steal it. But there is a story behind every dance move, and we need to care about that story.
“Pop culture and Queer culture are the pillars of my dancing, creative work and my overall identity,” he says. Now that he has more industry experience, he recognizes the importance of understanding where all these elements come from, what they mean and how they are relevant to him. Wirtanen firmly believes that, for any dancer, teacher or choreographer, it’s imperative to research and understand a dance style before attempting to create one’s own interpretation, especially when those styles originate from marginalized QTBIPOC communities.
As an example, Wirtanen highlights the ballroom scene, created by Black and Latinx folks, for birthing the pop culture moments seen on popular TV shows like Drag Race, Legendary and Pose.
“With the internet, it is so easy for us to see something, regurgitate it and/or steal it. But there is a story behind every dance move, and we need to care about that story,” he says. Wirtanen also says that as Queer culture increasingly enters mainstream media, which tends to favour straight, white and cisgender people, we rarely see the general population giving credit to the cultural pioneers. “The more we acknowledge and respect this, the more we can properly uphold these communities and their dance forms, without discrediting or erasing their creators.”
Jossua Collin Dufour
Going beyond the ‘troubled gay kid’ narrative
By Dhriti Gupta
Wrapped in a bulky yellow fur coat, Jossua Collin Dufour waited anxiously backstage at La Sala Rossa in Montreal. As per the rules of the 2017 Short & Sweet festival, he had just three minutes to wow the crowd before the lights and music were cut. It was one of the first times that Collin Dufour was performing something he created alone. But the minute he went onstage, snare drum from Princess Nokia’s Tomboy slicing through the air, he grounded himself: if he had fun, the audience would have fun. And they did. The crowd whooped as Collin Dufour pulled off the mask obscuring his eyes and flung it to the side. They hollered as he reached down and unclasped his heels. Each tantalizing reveal was met with more applause than the last until the coat finally fell to the floor, unveiling a rope belt of real bananas dangling from Collin Dufour’s waist. The audience went wild as he swung his hips, channelling the iconic Black entertainer Josephine Baker – a Queer burlesque homage to her “Banana Dance” of 1926.
Less than five minutes, the performance felt monumental in Collin Dufour’s career, a perfect example of how he aims to “mix and match layers of beauty, fun and diversity” in his work. Two years later, Collin Dufour collaborated with the Montreal-based production duo Flamant to feature the performance as a short film. While he’s still exploring, ever since Collin Dufour graduated from École de danse contemporaine de Montréal in 2014, his goal has been to bring each performance into his world, be that in his freelance work or as a permanent dancer for Compagnie Marie Chouinard. “Every style of dance has something that … I wonder how I can put in my body,” he says. “I just want to put myself in any story that I can imagine.”
Collin Dufour started his dance career in hip hop when he was 17 but didn’t see the complexity of QTBIPOC narratives reflected in Quebec or Canadian culture, screens or stages. All he ever saw was the stereotype of the “troubled gay kid” who had difficulty at school and with their peers. But he knew there was so much more to people’s stories; there was beauty and history to be showcased. Now that he’s older, he sees Queerness finally making its way into commercial dance culture but fears that it’s “the flavour of the month.”
“They’re using it right now, but there’s a difference between having a creative team of Queer people and just using or tokenizing Queer people,” he says. “I love the long process of creating. … I don’t want it to be over in a month.”
“I want Queer creatives to have space … and money to create things that are really meaningful.”
Collin Dufour says he sees the industry getting there slowly, thanks to Queer people who are vocal in making space for themselves, something he says he tries to practise where he’s comfortable. He tries to make it clear where he’d like more freedom in how he’s presented, especially because it’s part of his range as an artist to move along the scale of gender performance.
I want Queer creatives to have space … and money to create things that are really meaningful.
— Collin Dufour
In the near future, Collin Dufour would like to work on another narrative short film with a dancer as the focal point. Ideally, the film would have five or six different scenes, choreographed by him but with an outside eye to help define the different angles of his character.
He appreciates being able to move across bigger and smaller spheres of dance from independent collaborations with the likes of Flamant and Nico Archambault (winner of the first season of So You Think You Can Dance Canada) to the studio at Compagnie Marie Chouinard – they all nourish his creativity in different ways. He feels awestruck working with dancers he learned about in school, like Carol Prieur. “I need inspiration in my life and I feel working with these amazing dancers, I get that food every day,” he says. “But also working on little projects, I get to meet new people. I get to see new little stars and get inspired by different ways of working, dancing and thinking.”
Regardless of the work he does, he wants to highlight a new kind of beauty and fearlessness, inspired by the cathartic yet graceful power of Black female icons like Whitney Houston, Tina Turner and Grace Jones. “They just have this super force. … But it’s all [rooted] in beauty and blooming,” he says. “I really want to bring this sense of love, of magic, of spirituality. … These contrasts of soft and beautiful but strong and grounded.”