A Misunderstood Art

A Ryerson dance student performs “For He Loves Me So” by Stephanie Mancini at Choreographic Works 2012. Photograph by Joseph Hammond

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[T]he small Ryerson theatre is engulfed in darkness, as the dancers get ready to begin this year’s EnChoreo production – a show to highlight the younger dance students who did not perform in the annual production Choreographic Works. It’s a hot night, a record temperature for this time of year. The smell of sweat permeates the air, but the dancers seem to keep their cool. Suddenly a spotlight appears, revealing a young woman in a white dress. The music commences as she begins her dance – poised, focused, fearless. As she dances, her fluid movements are cast around her in shadows.

This is how people experience the power of dance – all without even leaving their seat. It’s in these moments that the audience loses all sense of themselves while they watch the dancer take every coordinated step and every intentional breath. The audience forgets the heat of the theatre, the woman shifting in her seat beside theirs, and all sense of time is lost as eyes watch the dancer, entranced. At the end of her performance, the audience erupts in applause, the spotlight shuts off and again people are left in darkness. As the applause dies down, bodies relax, and heartbeats continue to keep time with the music just played.

You don’t have to be a dancer to appreciate the art form. Sadly, some people will immediately say, “I don’t get this” about a dance and brush it aside forever without giving it a second chance. It is this kind of thinking that makes dancing arguably the most misunderstood art. Dance has been classified as a form of entertainment, a sport, and an art – but with its diverse nature, should dance be considered its own entity? Dance is currently defined as rhythmic movement, but every dancer has their own relationship with dance. Karen Duplisea, the co-director of the Ryerson dance program, says that she can dance her emotions better than she could ever say them.

“Dance is my primary way of communicating who I am to the world,” says Duplisea. “I can honestly say that in no other way that I communicate, whether it’s writing or speaking, the honesty that I can portray. Perhaps because I have the license to act, or be what the audience might consider a character, it gives me the opportunity to actually be all the things that I really am but might not show on a daily basis.”

The incredible capability dance has to communicate on another level has prompted not just Duplisea, but many other dancers to express themselves through dance. Whether it’s birth, death, happiness, sorrow or fear, everyone has experienced a time in their lives where words did not articulate their emotions. Dance is just one of mediums of self-expression that speaks for people when there are no words that can show others how we are feeling.

It’s not to say that every time you are sad you are supposed to dance in front of your friends to show them that you’re upset, but rather that dance can be used therapeutically to harness feelings and release them through dancing or watching someone else dance.
Ariella Freid, a Ryerson performance dance student, is in her fourth year of the program but has been dancing since age five. As a dancer, Freid believes that some individuals avoid dance because they feel it is irrelevant to their life.

“It’s important that people realize that art is a natural expression of life and not that its an abstraction of life,” says Freid. “At the end of the day it is an expression of what we feel and what we experience in our everyday life. We’ve all gone through most of the same things. I would imagine that all art comes from a place of universal experience.”

The physical and emotional benefits of the self-expression that dance provides is unquestionable, however one major virtue of dance that is overlooked is courage. Dancers have the courage to perform in front of strangers, to be confident in their body, and become completely emotionally vulnerable. The fearlessness that dancers exhibit can be appreciated by anyone as they teach humans to lead with their hearts and keep moving with self-assurance in the direction of their aspirations and dreams.

After teaching at Ryerson for 21 years in addition to teaching master classes across Canada, Duplisea’s teaching experience has shown her how what one learns as a dancer is relevant in and out of the studio.

“A dancer learns self-discipline, a dancer learns to cultivate and maintain a very strong work ethic, a dancer learns how to be a team player but then they also have the courage and the know-how to go out there and be a soloist. Companies will hire dancers because they know they have these kinds of skills,” says Duplisea. “Any of the skills that [dancers] learn while they’re here [at Ryerson] and probably in any training facility are not just about dance, they’re about life skills.”

Regardless if you have been instructed in dance or not, the biggest misunderstanding about dance is that you need to know about it to appreciate it – when the truth is anything but. For those who are unfamiliar with dance, Freid suggests one simple action – watch dancing. Then watch some more. And if you don’t like either of those performances, the young dancer encourages that you seek out more.

“It’s really hard to challenge yourself to go out and see something new,” says Freid. “People think that it’s something that it’s not and people think that it’s so specialized and if you don’t like it you’re never going to like it. I want people to step outside of their comfort zones because they may just feel something or stumble upon something they like. If you don’t see something you like the first time, go see something else. There’s so much to see.”

Whether it’s a hip-hop battle, a televised dance competition, or even a production like Ryerson’s EnChoreo, dance’s presence in our society is endless with a multitude of styles and genres that could entice even the greatest skeptic. If you simply allow it to, understanding dance can be as easy as sitting back in your seat and watching for when that first spotlight shines on the stage and the dance begins.

Jessica Murray, Journalism ’15