Each and every day, I lose myself in the immediacy of the moment, find myself in the joy of the movement. Each and every day, I learn more and more...and, within that new knowledge, realize that I have so much farther to travel.

Shallom Johnson is a contemporary dance artist, visual artist and freelance writer based in Vancouver BC. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Contemporary Dance from Simon Fraser University, and has been active in the Vancouver dance community as a choreographer, performer, and instructor since her graduation in 2004.

Shallom is interested in art in public spaces, site-specific performance, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community involvement. Her street-based artwork, performance and photography examines and documents who gets to make art, where it gets made, and where/how the creative process and product is viewed. In the future, she hopes to explore this theme further via new media and technologies, new methods of creation, collaboration and community engagement.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hello LDSS Dance Students!

Tonight I found out that the dance students at Lakes District Elementary School (Burns Lake, BC, Canada) will be using this blog as a resource for their class - every week they'll be trekking up to the computer lab to read updates and watch the videos, and hopefully I'll be able to broaden their view of what constitues dancing, and who is able to dance, and also help them to see that a professional dance company doesn't have to be stick-thin girls with long legs wearing leotards.

I have my mom to thank for this, she runs the dance program at LDSS, my alma mater. I've been working with her class for the last two years in a row. The first year I set an evening of work on them called Blinders. It revolved around the theme of social blindness, about seeing (or choosing not to see) the truth about the world we live in, and making the next choice to stand up for what we believe in. It was a multimedia work that incorporated a lot of students - live musicians, video projections made by the computer/digital arts class, student choreography, all kinds of stuff.

Last year, I brought two friends (two of the three girls that make up our collective, 30Toes) up to Burns Lake to help me set another evening of work - this time, about this history of hair as a social and political statement. We each took a couple of sections and workd with the kids to create a dance based on variations on this theme. Some of the songs were more serious, some were humorous, some were more technical...we were working with kids from all different backgrounds, so we had a lot of variation in the final show.

My section was sourced from the cutting of children's hair in First Nations residential schools earlier in the 20th Century. For those of you who may not be familiar with the history - In the early 1900's, the American government shifted their genocidal policies from extermination to assimilation of Native peoples. Instead of endorsing massacres, forced relocations and the destruction of villages and food supplies to solve "the Indian Problem", they decided to "kill the Indian, not the man". This translated into a systematic descrution of Native Americans' spiritual, cultural and socioeconomic systems, replacing them with White values while keeping them in a perpetual state of poverty and disposession. Almost an entire generation of Native children were ripped from their homes and communities and placed into Catholic residential schools, where they were stripped of everything identifying them as Indian. Their hair was chopped off, they were forbidden from speaking their own language, from engaging in traditional spiritual practices, and often forbiden from seeing their families for months, even years on end.

*As a side note, hair also played a large part in the "Indian Wars" of the 18th and 19th century, as American governments on the local, state and federal levels levied "scalp bounties" on any Indian hunted down and killed - man, woman or child. The Scalps were taken to prove that a kill had been made. Often other body parts were taken as souveniers. Bounties often ran upwards of $100 per adult male scalp (adult males were usually defined as 12 and over, women's and childrens' scalps were less profitable). Many private citizens' organiztions also paid scalp bounties in the attempt to clear the land of any and all Native inhabitants. This happened to some extent in Canada, but was not nearly as systemic.

Burns Lake and the surrounding area has a very large First Nations population, many of whom were in residential schools or are children of parents who grew up in these institutions. There is also a very large part of the community who are descended from the "settlers" that stole the land away from its original inhabitants - the Gitksan and Witsuwit'en peoples who were forced into small reserves, often arbitrarily placed far away from their traditional villages and huntung/fishing territories. I wanted to draw on this past and present power dynamic, engaging the community's collective experience to create a piece that was relevant, poignant and evocative. I wanted to create something that would make people stop and think.

During the process, we used a few of the Toolbox exercises in creating the choreography. I started by researching text - excerpts from interviews with elders from the area who had gone to residential school as children - and asked the students to pick a few words that stood out for them. We then used the Movement Metaphor and Equivalents tools to come up with movements from the chosen words. We used these movements to Build a Phrase (another Dance Exchange tool), then experimented with different combinations of text and movement. (Click on the links for a full description of these tools) Eventually we ended up with a duet and a small group piece. For the group piece, we also made use of some traditional Native songs, and the duet was in silence.

I was so impressed with their creativity and enthusiasm for the project. I wish I could have seen the final production, but by then myself and my friends were back in Vancouver. I heard that it went really well. They had an amazing reaction from the community, just like they did the year before - my mom said that people were still coming up to her, months later, to tell her how much they enjoyed the show.

I'm excited that they'll be following me through my experiences here in DC - hopefully I can inspire them to "reach for their dreams" (as cheesy as that sounds) just like I am continually reaching towards my own.

Photo: The Dance Exchange core company rehearsing Lemkin (a section of Small Dances About Big Ideas, another work about standing up for truth and justice) for the upcoming Charter Oak performance. Photo date: Sept 11th, 2007.

For more perspectives on the politics/sociology of hair, here are some interesting links:

Dangerous Hair
Bernice Bobs Her Hair
Nappy Hair
American Anthropological Association Statement On Race
Nappy Hair: A Marker of Identity and Difference

For more information on Indian Residential Schools and related subjects, here are some links:
The Crucible of American Indian Identity: Native Tradition versus Colonial Imposition in Postconquest North America (Churchill, Ward)
Suppression of Indigenous Sovereignty in 20th Century United States(Churchill, Ward)
Gathering Strength: Canada's Will to Reconcile, Recover and Repair
"The Circle Game": A Review

If you've never read Churchill I recommend his work wholeheartedly, I'm reaing his book "A Little Matter of Genocide" right now and it's...making me very sad, and angry, and frustrated at the history of the supposedly "Civilized" Western nations, and the disinformation/misinformation/Orwelian doublespeak that is perpetuated to this very day.

This project is something I'm interested in revisiting at some point, creating a work that will that will have a longer-term research/generation/development period and will involve more of the community.


Anonymous said...

Hey, we have a couple questions for you!

1. What inspires you to continue dancing?

2. Did you ever think you would be where you are right now with all you've accomplished when you were just begining to dance?

3. What advice would you give to someone wanting to advance in the dance world?

thanks, hope to hear form you soon. Good luck with everything your doing, - Megan , Katie and Candice.

LDSS Dancers said...

Hey Shallom
This is Daina, Cori, Eva, and Jordi From Lakes District Secondary School. We would like to ask you a few questions.

1.Are You enjoying teaching Dance and is it Challenging?

2.What is your Favorite Type of Dance?

3.What inspired you to dance?

4.What kept you motivated?

5.Do You Have an idol? and who is it? and why?

6.Whos Your Favorite Dance?

7.Everytime i do the sidesplits my hip pops out. Is there any way i can stop this from hapening?

8.What is the worst injury you have evr gotten while dancing?

this is raina and jessica

9.what is one this that youve gained as a person?

10.if you wanted to continue in the dance world how would you recomend to start?

11.what is youre best experience as a dancer?

this is neely and branae

12.How old were you when you started dancing?

13. Who is your favourite dancer?

Anonymous said...

Hello, I wanted to know who inspires you most in the dance community?
And who is the most seasoned dancer you're currently working with?


Anonymous said...

We've enjoyed following your blogs so far! Good luck in your upcoming performances and we hope you get to stay in the place you mentioned by the studio!

----Who is your biggest influence in the dance world?

-----Do you prefer to do your own choreography or having someone else choreograph for you?

-----If you were a member of the company would you be able to make a decent living off of your pay-cheque?

Thank you for involving us in this project , take care!!

-Sierra, Severine, Maja and Jennifer

Shallom (Editor) said...

Hi everyone! I am so happy to have all of you reading my blog and asking such great questions! I am going to write all of my answers in one or two new posts instead of putting them in the comments...you've given me lots to think about!