Dancing for Joy

Former dancers rediscover the passion of their youth.

September 11, 2014 | | Back Issues

In the midst of your busy, chaotic life, do you ever find yourself craving something that is just for you? Not a material thing, but a place where you are free to breathe, create and just be utterly yourself? Virginia Woolf referred to it as “a room of one’s own.” Well, after much searching, we, the members of Equilibrium Dance Collective, have discovered that very room, and it just happens to have an amazing dance floor.

EQ Collective is the dreamchild of creative director Jenee Gowing, a professional dancer and former movement lecturer at Acadia University. With 13 members aged 19 to 45, our mission is to inspire newcomers to the world of dance and to reacquaint seasoned dancers with the rare opportunity of performing. Our goal is to create one show each year featuring various styles of dance, including jazz, tap and contemporary, all tied together by a central theme.

Though many of us hadn’t danced in a number of years, we were surprised by how quickly our muscle memory returned. We soon realized how much we not only wanted to, but needed to dance. In our youth, dance had been such an integral part of our daily lives, but it seemed to have an expiration date. Once we realized we wouldn’t be dancing professionally, it became difficult to find classes that were essentially for pleasure, but still challenging.

Thankfully, we found Jenee Gowing’s adult contemporary class at Citrus Dance in Orangeville. Citrus owners Cecile and Mike Thomas, who clearly value a lifelong love of dance, supported our class even when attendance was sparse, and they continue to provide us with a beautiful and affordable space to dance in.

It took nearly four years for our class to gain popularity, and for the right women to bravely make a committed comeback to their first love. And for a while, that dance class was enough. The intense workout, focus and creativity it mustered were all the challenge we could handle. Until suddenly we wanted to kick it up a notch.

One of our dancers, Andrea D’Errico, a hospital dietician by day, suggested we should do a performance. In 2010 we had performed in the Citrus annual recital, but we didn’t feel it was the appropriate venue for our new ambition – to develop our own show and connect to our own audience.

Group member Faith Flatt, a naturopathic doctor, explains, “It’s creative expression that elevates us to our highest potential, to connect and share with others in our own unique way.” We really hoped that our age and (possible) wisdom would allow us to express those experiences authentically – and that someone would want to watch!

Since then, the element of performance has become integral to our staying power as a collective. It’s the thing that keeps us motivated and showing up for each other, even when our lives are hectic and we are exhausted and full of excuses. It’s not like hitting the gym after work, where your presence or absence goes pretty much unnoticed. We are accountable to each other. And although the collective’s ultimate goal is our annual performance, Jenee emphasizes, “It’s also the creative process of how we get there. How we express ourselves and our lives through our movement.”

And truly, it is Jenee’s passion and commitment that has made this possible. As the sole professional dancer among us, she has the experience, knowledge and creativity to weave together the wants, needs and abilities of such a diverse group of women. She has managed to create an environment where anyone can feel comfortable, confident and, dare I say, beautiful.

For many of us, our childhood dance experience hadn’t always brought as much pleasure as we’d hoped.  We didn’t all have the ideal body, or the considerable resources required to afford classes, costumes and competition fees. Many of us carry the emotional scars of being made to feel we didn’t belong in the dance world, in spite of our passion for it. We were put on diets, told we weren’t good enough, and many times went home in tears from rehearsals, auditions or competitions.

I stopped dancing competitively after age 15 because the pleasure and excitement of dance had been squelched by teachers who never seemed to notice my immense efforts, and by the parents of some other dancers who were putting too much pressure on us to win above all.

But this collective has left behind all that bitterness and carried forth the sweet. We don’t dance to compete. We dance for joy. Concentrating on performing has brought us back to what dance is really about – artistic expression. Now, as adults, we have discarded the futile search for perfection, and allowed ourselves to be and celebrate the dancers we really are. As EQ member Ally Buchan, a teacher, describes it, “The joy is just in moving, creating, and being with others who love the same.”

We keep that joy intact by respecting our limitations. If something feels insurmountable, we can just pass on it. We also happen to have a gifted choreographer who draws on our unique strengths and makes us look good.

EQ isn’t interested in becoming a professional company. It’s a place where we can gather with like-minded people and embrace and explore our interests. “It’s about the support, the connection, and the trust that we build with each other,” says Jenee.

Another member, Jenene Chung, a customer relations manager, says, “Having gone through a life-changing event, this collective helped me connect with who I am and re-ignite a passion I had forgotten.” Our youngest member, Sonya Nagels, a social service worker, agrees, “It is very powerful to belong to something I am passionate about. Our time together is something I look forward to all week!”

We are also encouraging newcomers to join our collective. So far we have four courageous women who have little to no dance experience but who are doing a tremendous job learning technique and choreography. New member Heidi Allen attended our first performance last year. She says, “It was moving and inspiring to see ‘real’ women dancing and really putting their hearts into the pieces, not to mention seeing them continue to use the training and skills they have been developing for years.” Heidi refers to her EQ experiences so far as “humbling, and hard work,” but she assures us she’s enjoying the ride.

As a collective, no matter our level of experience, we all have equal status.”Everyone has the opportunity to contribute to an idea and have it grow over time,” says Andrea. Dancers are given the chance to choreograph pieces, or otherwise contribute their unique talents, whether through costumes, scheduling, finances, publicity or technical requirements.

I will never forget how it felt to choreograph my own piece for our 2013 debut show, called You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere. For the first time I had the privilege of watching dancers interpret and perform something that came from me. And then to perform a solo, something I never dreamed I would be either capable of or willing to do. I remember walking off the stage after literally putting myself, and only myself, out there, and feeling such a sense of achievement. Not because I was spectacular, but because I took a risk. I let myself believe that I could do something that really, really intimidated me. And for one minute on that stage, I felt a kind of peace and belonging that, frankly, I could get used to.

I think all the members of EQ had a similar feeling after we finished that performance at Westside Secondary School (attended by over 120 people!). We were all so happy to be out there, with our friends and family watching, and hear, in the words of our mothers, “We still got it!” We were also excited that our theme, which explored the need for balance in our lives, resonated with many in the audience.

Members of the EQ Collective jump for joy! left to right : Andrea D’Errico, Karen Stuckey, Kim Ellis, Heidi Allen, Natalie Grist, Jennifer Bailey, Jenee Gowing, Sonya Nagels, Jenene Chung, Alicia Cooper, Faith Flatt, Johanna Bernhardt, Julia Rowe. not pictured : Ally Buchan, Cecile Thomas. Photo by Rosemary Hasner / Black Dog Creative Arts.

Members of the EQ Collective jump for joy! left to right : Andrea D’Errico, Karen Stuckey, Kim Ellis, Heidi Allen, Natalie Grist, Jennifer Bailey, Jenee Gowing, Sonya Nagels, Jenene Chung, Alicia Cooper, Faith Flatt, Johanna Bernhardt, Julia Rowe. not pictured : Ally Buchan, Cecile Thomas. Photo by Rosemary Hasner / Black Dog Creative Arts.

And we are evolving too. We are growing into our skin as we discover who we (now) are on the dance floor. “I’m even learning to feel myself dance from the inside, rather than as a spectator who watches in the mirror,” says Jennifer Bailey, an elementary school teacher.

Those of us with children also feel this is a powerful way to model what a thriving woman looks like. We feel it is essential for our children to witness us finding balance in our lives and making room for the things that are important to us. We want to eradicate that martyr instinct and keep our own inner flame burning so we can be the best version of ourselves – for our sakes and our families. The effort required is more than just physical, it demands being truly present and bringing forth something from within. It also requires being vulnerable, in order to create, express and perform. It isn’t easy, but the payoff is huge.

EQ has taught me that no matter what I do, no matter how I look, or who is watching, I have a right to dance, because it makes me feel good! Jenee Gowing has given us all the gift of dance. It’s no longer about being the best; it’s about doing our best. And I can’t tell you how amazing it feels for that finally to be enough.

EQ Collective will perform their original production, Pieces of Us, on Saturday, October 18 at 7 p.m. at Centre 2000, 14 Boland Drive, Erin. Tickets are $15; $5 for kids 12 and under. To order tickets or for information about joining EQ (membership is $25 a month), contact [email protected].

About the Author More by Johanna Bernhardt

Writer and dancer Johanna Bernhardt lives in Orangeville.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Johanna,
    I was so happy to hear about your group of ladies, I am planning to come to see the ladies dance in Erin at 7:00p.m. I love to dance, it is in my bones! I would love to join the troop, what night do you run your classes?
    I was told about you by Natalie’s husband, he is outside working on my sun room, I met him years ago at ballroom dancing along with Natalie. He remembers my dancing and said he thought this would be perfect for me!
    Diana Hollister

    Diana Hollister from Caledon on Oct 6, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Reply

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