This article was originally published in our Winter 2022 print issue as part of the To Our Teachers series.
Kathleen Rea was one of my dance teachers at George Brown Dance in 2019. Her positive teaching qualities were numerous, and they arrived at a time in my life when they were sorely needed.
I noticed early on that Kathleen’s teaching style was unique. The messaging people get in dance school from instructors can be overly individualist, pushing them to be “the best” in the room and see others as competition. Kathleen avoided this type of talk in her modern contact dance classes. Instead, she emphasized a few key points, conveyed subtly in practice: the importance of freedom of expression, experiencing joy in movement and embracing spontaneity and play. She welcomed these as both individual and group experiences. Kathleen also practised the art of noticing and affirming students. This aspect of her teaching practice intersected profoundly with my story.
I learned when I was young that boys like me just did not dance. Full stop. I know that might seem hard to understand, but it’s the simplest way I can describe what I knew to be true at the time. Through a process that is hard to even remember, I learned how to regulate my bodily movements in a “masculine” way to keep other people happy, or at least comfortable. When I came out to myself and others in my mid-20s, there was an unclenching of my body from this gender prison. That’s when dance entered my life in a sudden and spectacularly awkward way. Dance quickly became a way to self-express, of course, but also a practice of bodily reclaiming, healing and integration.
Through a process that is hard to even remember, I learned how to regulate my bodily movements in a ‘masculine’ way to keep other people happy.Wright
For me, coming out and being Queer feels like a lifelong project of healing, occurring in waves of self-assertion. Things are getting easier overall as the waves move in the right direction. And it was in a moment of confidence and self-assertion that I first encountered Kathleen and her teaching. She prioritized freedom of expression in her class. She suggested movements, but there was room for spontaneity and individual invention, which she welcomed with wide-eyed curiosity. Kathleen invited joy into the room. I soon found myself in a play-like state, having a lot of fun in class while also improving technically. I was giggling a lot, and it was catching on with my dance partners. I felt childlike. Kathleen knew that play and learning go together – and I had been cut off from this play pretty young. So as much as play can be a powerful learning tool for anyone, for me it had this added significance of allowing that little kid to play in a way that he never got to – like a positive regression. I was on a journey.
Kathleen invited joy into the room.Wright
Near the end of the course, I was leaving the room, one of the last students out. Kathleen called my name unexpectedly and I whirled around. She said, “Eric, I noticed you were doing an amazing… something… today.” I honestly can’t remember the specifics of what she said. But this intentional act of noticing really moved me. Kathleen saw that I had never been noticed just for who I was, like I needed to be back in the day.
Our culture often defines empathy and its potential for transformative love as an inborn personality trait. Some people, it’s said, are just more empathetic than others. But in truth, empathy is something we can choose to practise. We can learn to be empathetic and choose it as an act of will because we are committed to a vision of the world rooted in love.
That day, and throughout her classes, I saw Kathleen, with the power of her intense perception, choose to consistently practise empathy and love through affirmation – not just for me but for everyone in those classes. It was world-making. Among many other reasons, that’s why Kathleen was the best dance teacher I have ever had.