• Megan Andrews

Resisting Definition

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

Thursday, Oct. 3, 2:30pm

Ryerson Theatre

Indigneous Dance Panel Discussion

A panel discussion moderated by dance artist/choreographer Michael Greyeyes about Indigenous dance with festival artists Jasmin Sheppard and Bulareyaung Pagarlava; invited dance artist/choreographer Jera Wolfe; Tracee Smith, dance artist and director of the Indigenous youth dance program Outside Looking In; and playwright/director and dance dramaturg Yvette Nolan.

(Left to right) ASL Interpreter Christopher Corsini, Michael Greyeyes, Jera Wolfe, Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Yvette Nolan, Tracee Smith, Jasmin Sheppard. Photo by Lenka Life Photography

Greyeyes started with a proposal that the group might explore a definition of Indigenous dance and the beautiful thing is that they didn’t, or rather, they came to really question what is meant by that at all. They shared their thoughts on the role of mentorship in their lives and then they discussed how the idea or experience of “home” or “place” manifests in their work.

For Jera: home is the sense of community he finds or builds wherever he happens to be working.

For Jasmin: when she performs, she envisions herself in the very specific location of her grandmother’s land, where the desert meets the sea as a centering place from which to perform.

For Tracee: home is a sense of who you are, of your identity and a feeling of self-actualization.

For Yvette: home is a sense of rooting down into the land we currently call Canada.

For Bula: home has to do with the ongoing process of living into his Indigenous identity and name, after having spent the first half of his life closed off from this and going by his Chinese name which he has left behind.

Michael then prompted the panellists to consider the question of what they’ve been taught and what they’ve been taught to forget, acknowledging that all of them have ballet training in their backgrounds and that this might obscure or “paint out” other expressions. He poses the question: how do we decolonize our bodies, our dance? How do you seek to forget those taught forms? Or do you hijack them or use other strategies?

A provocative question for sure and one that generated a range of responses that really centred on the counter-question – shared across the panel: why do Indigenous folks have to do or be seen doing so-called “Indigenous dance”? Dance is dance. Isn’t it a universal instinct? Does it matter what form one practices? If an Indigenous artist practices ballet, then aren’t they doing “Indigenous dance”?

For Yvette: “Indigenous dance becomes about the way we work in the room, rather than the people we set it on or the forms we use. For me, decolonizing happens in the room and in the expression.”

(Left to right) Bulareyaung Pagarlava, Yvette Nolan and Tracee Smith. Photo by Lenka Life Photography

To close out the conversation, Greyeyes offered a summary of the group’s sentiments, which in general pushed back against a definition, against being categorized, quite frankly against being colonized by the imposition of the idea itself. Greyeyes concluded: “What is Indigenous dance? There is none. There’s dance and there’s us doing it. It’s important that our bodies are present.”

By inviting these artists, by offering an Indigenous program this year and having presented Indigenous artists in the festival since year one with Interhoop, Fall for Dance North has been engaging with this process. Making space for this panel discussion and inviting the artists to speak about their experiences pushes things further and it’s important work – but of course it’s a much larger project. From my standpoint, as a settler artist/scholar, writer and festival insider through my role as Program Magazine Editor and Festival Writer, I see Fall for Dance North in active dialogue with Indigenous artists and in self-reflection on these issues, pushing on them thoughtfully. Most importantly, though, is how things carry forward. It is a process and requires an ongoing commitment to learning, growth, change and deeper understanding.


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1 Front St. E, Toronto, ON

Ryerson Theatre

43 Gerrard St. E, Toronto, ON

Union Station

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We respectfully acknowledge the sacred land on which Fall for Dance North operates, and upon which our events and activities take place.  It has been a site of human activity for over 15,000 years and it is the traditional territory of the Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit, in addition to other peoples, both named and unnamed.  Today, the meeting place of Tkaronto is still home to many Indigenous peoples from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work in this community, and on this territory.

Fall for Dance North thanks the following funding partners for their ongoing support: