“Dance is a statement—expressed by our bodies—about being alive and shouldn’t be done only by ‘experts,’” declared guest columnist Erin Flynn in the August 24 Dance Scene. I must agree. There is an inherent joy in dancing; I cannot recall ever seeing someone bop and shimmy, leap and twirl, groove and jive, while sporting a pout. As a dancer, I may be biased, but I believe that all children should have the opportunity to dance, or to participate in any form of art they choose.
Arts classes, however, are a privilege usually reserved for children whose parents can afford them. This is unfortunate, as research shows the benefits of arts participation for students, especially those from low-income backgrounds. “The arts are … a great equalizer in terms of economic and social discrepancies,” writes Derek E. Gordon of the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network. “They have a way of leveling the playing field, allowing individuals to progress in life more effectively. There is also a lot of research that addresses the impact that the arts have on cognitive learning skills. For example, … visual arts and dance can affect the spatial perception of students—particularly young students.”
Impressively, Stephanie Felkai, CEGEP biology teacher and single mother, is levelling the playing field right here in Montreal. Felkai is the instigator of the Inner City Dance Project, an initiative that will provide free, or nearly free, dance classes to children from low-income families as of September 2004. Why dance? “Because dance is what I know,” says the devoted Felkai.
After many years of ballet, jazz and modern dance classes in her hometown of Sudbury, Felkai moved to Montreal to study at McGill University. She completed a bachelor of science in biology and a master’s in genetics before entering the workforce: first as a research assistant in a lab, then as a medical writer for a multimedia company. During this scientific foray, her interest in dance remained recreational—until she found herself unemployed.
Energized by additional dance training and encouraged by comments from her peers, Felkai pursued a new career in dance. She quickly realized, though, that the subjectivity and competition of dance did not suit her. With financial stability—not to mention professional recognition—far out of reach as a dancer, she decided to turn from the stage and find her niche on-air instead of in the spotlight. Noticing that dancers had no venue to promote and discuss their craft, their projects and their issues, no way to open dialogues between dance forms and to better represent dance in society, Felkai co-founded with colleagues Lys Stevens and Katherine Blenkinsop the Movement Museum, an hour-long show devoted to dance (it airs Thursdays at 2 PM on CKUT 90.3 FM).
Several months after the birth of her daughter, Ruby, Felkai was inspired to open a free dance school. “There is a physicality that you can learn from dance that’s invaluable,” explains Felkai, “Dance can teach you to use your body creatively, to express yourself physically.” This project, she adds, is part of “the struggle to express the socialist values Canada is known for.”
And so, with the help of Ethel Bruneau, Lys Stevens, Allison Griffith and other friends, Felkai is launching the Inner City Dance Project. Experienced teachers will work with children ages five to fifteen once a week in an inexpensive and accessible location. At the end of each session, the children will have an opportunity to perform.
In this, its pilot year, the school will operate without a budget. Teachers will commit to volunteer once a week for a month, teaching in their chosen field. The list of volunteers already includes Sonya Stefan (tap), Cheryl Williams (swing dance), Katie Ward (contemporary), Katherine Blenkinsop (popping), Claudia Franscelo (house) and Jodie Allen (breakdance). The volunteer administrators—Felkai, Stevens and Jill Goldberg—will explore possibilities for future funding after evaluating the project’s feasibility at the end of the pilot year.
Since children from low-income families can also be part of ethnic communities, I asked Felkai whether she foresaw dissonance between the dance styles taught and the children’s cultural backgrounds. Not thus far, she responded, as the project is still a work in progress. With no restrictions on what types of dance can be part of the program, there is always room for willing teachers. Furthermore, as she has a penchant for dialogue, Felkai will meet and follow up with volunteers to see what works best, adapting the program according to their feedback.
Felkai may be busy caring for her daughter and helping her CEGEP biology students “find their own way learning,” but her commitment to providing this opportunity to children from low-income families is clear. The Inner City Dance Project is close to her heart, and she hopes the initiative is sustainable so that children will continue to benefit from the classes. Dance, after all, is not only for the experts.
For further information about the Inner City Dance project, please contact Stephanie Felkai at [email protected]
Marie Claire Forté dances and has a particular attachment to words. Formerly based in Montreal, she currently dances with Le Groupe Dance Lab in Ottawa