From the moment I met Joan at Danzaire Studio, I noticed a unique energy about her. At first, it seemed like a kind of quiet, friendly, charisma on the outside. But the more that we talked, the more I understood that there was an even bigger and ‘louder’ depth of character looming inside of her. And boy was I right. I soon learned that there was remarkable story of strength and resilience behind Joan and her dancing, a story of courage and inspiration that I am so honoured to be able to feature in the form of an interview here on Dance Me Free.
Thank you, Joan, for your openness, bravery and passion. Thank you for proving that Dance is much more powerful than many people may realize.
Tasleem: You had a photograph posted on your facebook page recently, with some ballet slippers in the background. It intrigued me- the contrasting images in it. Is there particular significance behind that particular shot?
Joan: Those ballet slippers were my first pair of dancing shoes when I was around 3 years old. My mom was a fitness enthusiast. She loved her Jane Fonda workout videos, and I would do the workouts with her in those ballet slippers.
A picture is worth a thousand words. That photo represents a childhood that, due to my being molested, I cannot wholly remember. It also represents tangible proof that my childhood did exist. Through my exploration with group therapy and expressive art therapy, I hope to reclaim that childhood, get back that little girl.
The photograph also reminds me of a Henry Kissinger quote “A diamond is a chunk of coal that is made good under pressure.” The background represents ‘coal’; the ‘diamond’ is my ballet slippers.
That’s beautiful. And you obviously have an artistic eye, not just in dance, but also in writing and photography. Where do you think that came from?
The fire for Art was lit since I can remember. We had the Mona Lisa (well, a print) in our home, and I thought that was the norm. Some families had the Last Supper. We had the Mona Lisa as well as Picasso, Matisse and Monet. No video games, just our imagination. No colouring books. My Mom (who holds a Masters in Fine Arts) believed colouring books limited the imagination. So we were always given blank paper. She never asked questions as to why the tree was purple and why the sky was green.
Later, The Sound of Music and Miss Saigon came into my life, and I think that’s when I lost my marbles. I watched The Sound of Music until I could memorize all the dance scenes. Then I would re-enact them in my living room, almost as if I was auditioning for something! If friends would come over, I would teach them the routines, regardless of whether they wanted to learn them or not.
It wasn’t long before I would completely lose myself in song and dance.
My childhood best friend came over to the house one day with a VHS (remember those?), and I remember the look in her eyes when she came in with something held in her hands. It was as if she was holding gold. She had a video tape of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with her. The first time I watched it, I had my hand over my face, scared out of my bloody mind, but it was smooth sailing after that. I was hooked. I knew dance would always be a part of my life.
Did you take formal dance lessons early on?
I was put in ballet at an early age, but was told that didn’t last long. And although Brunei, where I was brought up, is a Muslim country, I went to school in a British army camp where they adhered to the curriculum in the U.K. That meant that Dance, Music and Drama was NOT an elective. It was treated as a regular subject, and it set the standard for me that arts education was just as important as English and Math. Somewhere between acting out James and the Giant Peach and pretending to be a jungle cat was when the fire was lit.
My mom put me in a dance trio and we performed the La Jota Moncadena, which is a folk dance that originated in Spain. The photographs showed I danced for the Queen of Brunei; a moment which I can’t remember, but interestingly enough, I DO remember the dance itself.
What made you gravitate towards Hip Hop more than other dances?
Hip Hop is a culture, It has a rich history and a limitless future. Hip Hop is born from a struggle, something that I am no stranger to. It’s borderless, providing me with a sense of belonging. I came to Canada a little girl with black hair, olive skin and pink glasses. And I had a British accent. There was a lot that made me feel like I didn’t belong.
But Hip Hop changed that. It is the language that my soul speaks. It makes me feel understood. Get me on the dance floor and I’m the last one off. Get me free-styling, I may never stop. That’s where you get the real me, where I am this perfect concoction of flight and ‘groundedness’.
One of my favorite quotes, which encompasses this power of Hip Hop, is:
“Even if you didn’t grow up in the Bronx in the ’70s, hip-hop is there for you. It has become a powerful force. Hip-hop binds all of these people, all of these nationalities, all over the world together.” —DJ Kool Herc, from the Introduction, from the book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (A History of the Hip Hop Generation)
You mentioned expressive art therapy and how you were already doing it through dance without knowing it. Could you explain what you meant?
My life was in “limbo” 6 years ago, I was fighting for custody of my child, and dealing with the aftermath of surviving a domestically abusive relationship. In my own support system, I faced a lot of judgement from family members and friends. My body and spirit were exhausted.
Where do you go when your own home is not safe? You create one. When I’m dancing, I am untouchable, unscratched. I’m not even “me” anymore. I become a moment, an experience that will only happen once.
I remember booking studio time, and just letting the music play. I would go to the centre of the dance floor and sit down- legs propped up, my arms around my knees. Sometimes, I didn’t feel comfortable enough that way, so I would lay down on my right side in fetal position.
Then it came. The tears came and flowed until they created a puddle around my head. I didn’t even dance in those moments. I just knew I had to be alone in my thoughts and the idea of doing that in a dance studio alone was perfect because I am at “home” when I’m dancing. I would do that a couple of more times until I could actually get up and start dancing.
Sometimes my child would come with me and often times, we would end up dancing together. It was as if I had created my own haven for my child and I in the dance studio far away from harm and criticism.
How did having more awareness of dance as therapy help you personally? How did what you learn affect your dancing?
I had serious bouts of depression during that time. But what was I doing to help me through them? DANCING.
I remember thinking that I was the one that coined the term “expressive arts therapy”! Haha. After I did some research online, I was blown away by all the information I was receiving on this subject. It has cemented what I want to do in my life. I want to create art from struggle, whether it’s through movement, words or photographs.
You mentioned dancing with your own child sometimes. You also taught and encouraged other mothers to dance with their kids, right?
Yes, I stumbled upon a post natal Latin dance fitness program which was set up for mothers to do with their newborns and toddlers. I made a phone call, and instead of becoming a student, I became one of the teachers for their locations.
I love that you’re a mother yet you still make time to nurture your own art and creativity. Parents often give up their own pursuits in these endeavours to make time for their kids’. And the arts are encouraged more in kids than adults. But I think what you’re doing also teaches your son to do the same- to make time for what he is passionate about.
With the Arts, we are lucky because there is no ceiling to what you can achieve. I’m in the Arts for the longevity, not for temporary. I’m not as hurried as before to learn everything. It will take lifetimes to learn everything, and that’s what excites me. I’m in it for life.
Having a child who is artistically inclined helped a lot. Dance will always be a major part of my life. It’s a major artery in my being. The times that I tried to cut it out, I wasn’t functioning properly as a human and spiritual being. Plus, I have a lot of artistic influences that always kept me inspired and hoping especially through my darkest days.
To me, parenthood is not a life sentence. But if you treat it as if it is, that will lead to resentment later on. My child introduced me to the woman I was meant to be, and it makes sense that my craft became more genuine, as I became a mother, because I have evolved into a better person because of having my child. Motherhood has enhanced my creativity.
That is a perspective I have never heard from a dancer before. Thanks for sharing that. It reminds me that Dance is not an easy thing to teach as there are so many components to it and so many approaches depending on the teacher and the style of dance. What is important for you as far as teaching dance?
I learned an important life lesson in 2010 when I started collaborating with two fellow dancers. Along the way, the original vision got lost by greed and jealousy. I felt betrayed and used because my work felt like it became a part of something fraudulent. After that, I starved my ego, and I changed my way of thinking especially about the word “teacher”.
I’m not just a teacher, I’m also a student. It’s almost like people are afraid to be a student. But I’m a perpetual student, and as I said before, it will take lifetimes for me to learn everything about dance. In keeping it “right”, I am a music lover first and foremost, and all that I’m doing is that I’m sharing my love for dance with fellow music lovers. Regardless of their age, and all the factors that divide us, we are all equal on the dance floor.
I feel that you can capture the purest essence of dance when you catch someone freestyling…not necessarily in class or in the club, but when you’re lost in the music and there are no rules. The best example of this for me is when my kid and I are dancing at home in the kitchen while I’m cooking (well, supposed to be cooking!). I throw the best kitchen freestyle jams! That’s my definition of “living in the moment.” And I think teachers should encourage this more. Sadly, I see a lot of kids are only being taught choreography and how to get ready for a competition. But then they are missing the freestyle and grooving element of the art and expression behind the dance.
You’ve mentioned the word ‘passion’ a few times in this interview, and I’ve also heard from others about how passionate and expressive you are not just in your movements in dance, but also in your determination to just keep dancing. Can you give us an example of an experience you’ve been through that demonstrates this determination and drive you have?
Many stories come to mind, but one that I’d really like to share is my first out of town dance experience at a week long dance workshop in Banff (Alberta). Before this, I had been dancing in high school and at two dance studios in my community. My parents were not that enthusiastic about my developing such a passion for dance, for hip hop specifically, but that could not stop me from pursuing it. I was so excited to learn, especially from one of the faculty members- Jayson Wright- who is a teacher and choreographer from LA.
But before I had even unpacked my things when I arrived at the site, I ended up stepping on a split open bobby pin that was sticking out of the carpet in our cabin. The bobby pin got jammed into my foot, embedded so deep that I couldn’t even see it. I was taken to a local hospital in the middle of God-knows-where to see someone to get it out. I remember the hospital was so empty and the receptionist was also my attending nurse!
They tried to get the pin out, but they couldn’t. I was told that I could go home and get a reimbursement for the workshops, because there was nothing they could do. But I refused. I thought to myself, “There is no way I’m letting a bobby pin get in my way.”
Oh wow! So what did you do?
I stayed. And the first day of Jayson’s class, he was teaching a routine to Janet Jackson’s “Doesn’t Really Matter”. He saw me in the front row in the class, and with a puzzled expression, he looked back and asked me in front of everyone, “Uh, doesn’t your foot hurt?”
“Yes, but I don’t care,” I answered. He stopped and pointed right at me and said to the entire class, “Now THAT’S a true dancer right there.” That, for me, was a stamp of approval. I will never forget that compliment and how I felt in that precise moment. Because for someone that grew up with minimal support from her family in regards to pursuing dance, I take compliments like that seriously.
Don’t get me wrong, having that thing in my foot for an entire week was PAINFUL! I think the first aid attendant followed me around everywhere I went. I had to keep soaking my foot in epsom salt because it would constantly swell. And worse than that, sleeping at night was unbearable because I could feel the bobby pin moving around in my foot. But what got me through that week was what Jayson said to me on that first day of class.
That IS an amazing story. And this drive and resiliency you have for dance seems to roll over in other areas of your life as well. In particular, I’d like to ask you about the inspiring talks and speeches you’ve been giving recently. What are the speeches about?
The speeches are about my story of surviving sexual abuse. My first public speaking engagement was through Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. Upon finishing their women’s support group session, women were encouraged to speak at the annual Montreal Massacre Memorial (which happens every year in December). I jumped at the opportunity because it was something I was waiting to do for a very long time.
The number one reason why I am doing what I’m doing is because all my advocacy work, coupled with my passion for the arts (dance and writing, especially) is what makes me true to myself. This is who I was meant to be- to be a voice, to shine a light on darkness, to create art from struggle. I also am doing this for the survivors out there. They are not alone. I am proof of it.
The speeches are about my chapters in my ongoing book of life where I experienced sexual abuse.
After everything you’ve been through and have fought for, what would you like to see come about for you and your dancing in the next few years?
I want to live a life where I can simply be myself. That is my primary objective. So whether I am dancing in the studio, or dancing in the kitchen with my child, I want to be free to be myself. Dance and the Arts, for me, is the only thing that allows that to happen. And to be more specific, music- especially Hip Hop- and Dance drive me.
I’ll give you an example of this: I had a friend come and watch me teach a dance class once. I didn’t notice her watching from the door until after the class was over. After class, she told me that she felt like she was watching a completely different person. I replied by saying, “The person you saw was the real me.” I don’t think she quite understood my answer. Another friend, this time a co-worker, came to a beauty pageant I was in years ago. He knows me as his very reserved, quiet co-worker, which is what I’m like a lot “off stage”. So he was very surprised to see me dancing in the talent portion of the show to a Janet Jackson and Missy Elliot piece.
But both friends were witnessing the real me. A small, surviving trace of that 14 year old girl, before she was molested, is somehow visible through my movement.
And this goes for all the other aspects of my life. I want to be me. I want to make a ‘live-ing’ out of being my true self- no filter, no armour, no shield, no fortress, no drawbridge. This is one of the reasons why I want to break my silence.
Where do you see all of what you’ve been through taking you?
I love the arts, helping others, and being a mother. Whatever comes out of this, it will always incorporate the three. That’s the barometer I’ve set, and it helps me with decisions I have to make. It helps me decide whether an opportunity is the right fit for me.