Photo by McKenzie James

I am an artist with over thirty years of experience as a dancer, educator, rehearsal director and entrepreneur. Reflecting on my journey into dance has brought up memories of teachers and mentors who have supported my artistic development, whether it was in the studio setting or attaining my degrees in dance at York University.

When I was twelve, I attended a performance at the O’Keefe Centre now known as the Meridian Hall by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. This all-Black dance company was inspiring, graceful, elegant, athletic, and technically skilled. My goal was to eventually train in New York, but my path took a different direction.

Magda Lakihazi was my first Cecchetti ballet instructor. She would often give me private lessons throughout my teenage years. She had a wonderful eye for detail, was meticulous, kind, and encouraging. Throughout high school I had classes in ballet and jazz. I was eventually introduced to Len Gibson who had a dance studio. His classes were high energy and pushed my technique and artistry. I had the privilege of performing with the Len Gibson Ensemble in the early 80s. I did not stay long because I wanted to pursue a degree in dance.

I was enrolled at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (TMU) in the dance program from 1982-1983. I became increasingly unsatisfied with the curriculum and decided to leave after a year of training. Fortunately for me, Billyann Balay who was teaching modern dance, noticed my lack of enthusiasm for the program. She suggested that I audition for The School of Toronto Dance Theatre (STDT) where she was the principal.

From 1983-1986 I trained in the Martha Graham Technique with the founders of Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) Patricia Beatty, David Earle, Peter Randazzo and various teachers over the years. I fell in love with this rich, foundational, and complex modern art form which I continue to teach at Toronto Metropolitan University, STDT and Performing Dance Arts.

My passion for teaching started in my formative years. I would rush home from school and share with my siblings what I had learned that day. This imparting of knowledge continued when I was a gymnastic coach for several years and taught dance classes for the club.

Since 1987, I have taught in the Pre-Professional Training Program at STDT, and I was the Training and Performing Associate from 2009-2021 under the expert leadership of Patricia Fraser. I have taught master classes locally, nationally and internationally to novice, pre and professional dancers.

As a dancer, I performed choreographies by the founders of Toronto Dance Theatre and then resident choreographer Christopher House from 1986-1992. In the fall of ‘92 I was offered the position of Rehearsal Director.

For twenty-six seasons I worked alongside the visionary and creative genius of artistic director Christopher House (1994-2020). Most of my skills as rehearsal director were learned during this period. It is an interesting job that has included remounting choreography, coaching, directing rehearsals, new creations, teaching, scheduling, touring, and collaborations with artistic, administrative, and production teams. I continue to be active in this role with the innovative and forward-thinking artistic director, Andrew Tay.

I am proud of my academic achievements. From 2000-2006 I acquired a BA and MA in Dance at York University, while continuing to work full time for TDT and part-time with STDT. I was thrilled by this endeavor, because it allowed me to experience academia and to be stimulated by professors such as, Mary Jane Warner and Selma Odom.

My teachers and mentors have inspired, nurtured, educated, and supported my journey in dance. From their examples, it is my desire to continue the work of sharing information, imparting knowledge and encouraging future generations of dancers through my experiences and artistic endeavors.

My initiatives outside of teaching and rehearsal directing have led to the audio series Recconecting with Black dancers from the 80’s and Early 90’s (2021) and collaboration with Mary Jane Warner on the film tribute Celebrating Patricia Beatty: Artist, Choreographer, Teacher (2021). I have enjoyed these different projects because they have kept me engaged with the broader dance community. My hope is that they are informative and offer a glimpse into the lives of the people associated with TDT.

On January 27, 2023, I was honoured with The Charles Augins Inspirational Artist Award. This is the first award that I have ever received in acknowledgement of my work in the field of dance. I am filled with gratitude because rarely are artists in my profession recognized for their contributions to dance.

To be appreciated and celebrated by the International Association of Blacks in Dance organization, dance Immersion, family, and colleagues is meaningful because it reflects all the hard work, dedication, commitment, time and energy that I have devoted to my craft.



Documenting Black Dancing Bodies Against the Odds

By Emilie “Zila” Jabouin


When people ask me what I do, I say I am a dance artist and a researcher. The two actually go very intimately hand-in-hand. I research to tell forgotten stories of black women and of black history particularly in the Americas as a whole, and I dance to share those stories intimately and process them in my body for others to be present to them.

In 2022, I had the privilege to work with Dr. Seika Boye on her dance history exhibition, “It’s About Time: Dancing Black in Canada, 1900-1970, and Now” that had opened in Vancouver, BC on October 12, 2022 at the Audain Gallery as a critical engagement with historical representations of Black people in performance. In preparation for the opening of the exhibit as part of the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) held in from January 25-29, 2023, I kept a different intention and audience in mind. This showing was going to be for an international audience, or at least an American one that for the most part knew close to nothing about Canada, and was maybe even hesitant—and secretly doubtful—about whether Black Canada was relevant at all.

Regardless, working on “It’s About Time”, documenting Black dancers, their diasporic realities, their work within and outside the dance space was so fulfilling because I saw myself, my life, my passions and work reflected and contextualized in their stories.

Five artists were highlighted in this exhibit, including: Paul Pettiford, Dindi Lidge, Jean Sheen, Kevin Pugh, and Zab Maboungou; three of which are still alive—Zab Maboungou, Kevin Pugh, and Jean Sheen—and have been active in creating ground-breaking and foundational spaces for all dancers, while maintaining the rigorousness of dance as an artform to thrive. There is a tinge of activism and commitment to future generations that all of these dancers, choreographers and advocates exhibited. This was noticeable in the character roles they took on during their career; their decision to teach; their promotion of dance education and scholarship here and abroad; the opening of dance schools; as well as their development of foundational techniques. All have made great contributions to the landscape of dance and for the future of Black dance in Canada specifically in ways that are difficult to grasp—and that are made more palpable through this historical and timely exhibition that continues to give.

A point I would like to share are some of the difficulties of let’s say, not finding dancing images of Jean Sheen, one of the artists highlighted in the exhibition “It’s About Time”. This could be a result of how often dancers are overlooked (even in dance spaces) as being the glue, the in-between, the bones that make choreographic work possible! There are also many false beliefs that we, as dancers, are just there to present the work…nothing else. These misconceptions greatly underestimate for example the more mature dancers in their 30s, 40s and older all together who have a very different relationship with their bodies, than younger dancers who maybe have less or no injuries and who can twist their bodies in ways that may not be as easily possible for some of us anymore. Either way, the dance really cannot be divorced from the body, from the stories, from the weight of the experiences, and from the ways in which we individually express ourselves…Another point that troubles me, is the shame and discouragement of knowing that precious information about Paul Pettiford’s life and commitments to dance, to Black art and to community in “Blackhurst”—the historically Black Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood of downtown Toronto, are fizzling away as we presently speak in the Toronto Library archives. Their deterioration is caused by underfunding. Point blank. The underfunded nature of archival practices in turn underprioritizes the documentation of Black communities in Canada—which continues to feed the idea that we are simply not here.

Although immigration laws and policies have for long dictated how Black dancers move through Canada and in Canada, and I am proud to say that regardless of the odds, we continue to dance, create, advocate for our communities and our unique artistic expressions, then and now.