This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
As Calgary-based artists who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC) emerge from various kinds of training, what are they hoping to see from a sector that is tentatively emerging from a pandemic?
In 2020, Tiara Matusin and Cindy Ansah created a new company called NAPPY Dance Collective, the first Black contemporary dance company in Calgary. The company is an invitation to imagine new futures for contemporary dance.
While BIPOC dancers are increasingly influencing contemporary dance, many of the spaces available for training and professional performance have historically been seen as largely white spaces.
“There are these hard-marked boundaries associated with contemporary that conform to white standards, making it difficult to fully immerse both Black identity and my contemporary dance experience into the contemporary dance community,” said Matusin, who recently graduated from the University of Calgary’s dance program.
Matusin often felt disconnected from her Blackness while training to be a contemporary dancer; for example, music with vocals was not deemed appropriate. She didn’t find there to be much room for deviating from what was considered to be contemporary dance.
That disconnect was also felt by Ansah, another recent grad from University of Calgary’s dance program. Reflecting on her dance education and training, Ansah said that she found herself in classes with predominantly white dancers and teachers.
“At the core, ‘contemporary’ means ‘present-day’ or ‘current,’ and contemporary dance for me manifests as that which translates the current-day culture,” Ansah said. As such, the idea that contemporary dance is primarily for white artists and white audiences is contrary to the art form, Ansah asserts.
“I was formed by things, like codified systems, like ballet and tap and jazz, which I was steeped in, and I believe that it’s still contemporary expression,” said Michèle Moss, a choreographer, dancer, researcher and educator who primarily teaches jazz dance at the University of Calgary.
Moss is biracial and her experience of race has always been a part of her identity. Exploring dance and research led her to begin mentoring emerging contemporary dancers like Ansah. Though her practice is in jazz, she thinks of herself as a contemporary dancer.
A 2017 voluntary Arts Professionals Survey conducted by Calgary Arts Development revealed that 83 per cent of Calgary artists identify as white, while only 67 per cent of the city’s general population identifies as such.
Moss’s theory as to the apparently low percentage of non-white artists in Calgary is that people of colour are still just trying to get by. Parents are encouraging their children to get careers outside of the arts, to get specific training.
“ ‘Don’t go into liberal arts. Just become a doctor and get it done,’ ” said Moss, and laughed.
It’s a sentiment that is echoed by both Matusin and Ansah.
“When BIPOC artists are additionally gaslit into considering the arts as a luxury, only to discover there are limited resources for us, it affects self-identification and the capacity for imagination in the generations of BIPOC artists that follow,” said Ansah.
It goes hand in hand. The more emerging BIPOC artists are encouraged to have a backup plan to their career in contemporary dance, the fewer artists go on to make dance a career and the more barriers there are to BIPOC dancers.
However, the same 2017 survey revealed that the younger generation of the arts sector has significantly higher representation of visible minorities.
When BIPOC artists are additionally gaslit into considering the arts a luxury, only to discover there are limited resources for us, it affects self-identification and the capacity for imagination in the generations of BIPOC artists that follow.Ansah
Matusin and Ansah are hopeful about the future.
“It was through the Black community in Calgary that I learned how to process and articulate my experiences and understand that my labour is not for the institutions under white supremacy; it is for the change I envision for the world, the communities with whom I connect and the reclamation of Black joy,” Ansah stated.
“Change won’t happen overnight, but I believe opening the space up to welcome Black bodies as capable movers, of all abilities, to showcase and represent our multifaceted selves, will have a trickling effect and encourage the next generation of artists to also pursue dance,” Matusin said.