Weekly program helps at-risk young immigrants, many living here alone and undocumented, find solace and confidence.
The dance hall looks nothing like a professional studio — there are no hardwood sprung floors or wall-to-wall mirrors.
But nothing can dampen the enthusiasm and determination of these youthful dancers — many of whom have come to Canada on their own, without documents — to express their inner feelings and explore their passion for any dance form, from hip hop to salsa, dancehall, traditional African, jazz and break-dance.
With Tinashe’s catchy All Hands On Deck blasting from a boombox this weeknight, the 15 young men and women gyrate their elastic bodies to the tune, carefully following guest instructor Irvin Washington’s every cue.
“Cut, push! Cut, push!” shouts Washington, a professional dancer and choreographer, tapping his toes on the plastic flooring. “You have to do it over the top. Do it! I love big moves. It is okay to feel crazy. You need to build up toward these explosions.”
For the teenage dancers in the weekly Dance Steps program, the community rec room — with plastic flooring and its furniture pushed back to the edges of the walls — is a place to find solace and sanity amid the craziness swirling around their young lives as immigrants.
“You come here and check your worries and fears at the door,” said Francois Dushimiyimana, 20, who left his family behind in Rwanda when he sought asylum here in December 2013, via the United States.
“We all go through our journey alone, and no one seems to understand. Here we meet other people in the same boat and share our stories. We have great support because we’ve been through the same, and we don’t judge one another.”
Offered weekly at the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre and St. Stephen’s Community House, the program was initiated by the FCJ Refugee Centre last fall to help some three dozen at-risk newcomer youth learn life skills through dance classes that would otherwise be out of their reach financially.
“These youth face all kinds of barriers. Some of them can’t go to school or work, and can’t advance in life. We want them to emerge and take leadership. Dance is just a vehicle,” said program co-ordinator Diana DaSilva, herself a former professional dancer and teacher.
“We run our routines and put our choreography together and perfect it. They have to be very disciplined, learn to communicate, work as a team, resolve any conflict and listen to each other. And we want them to be empowered in the process and take these skills with them outside the classroom.”
Ane’ssa Hanson, 18, was sent by her mother to Canada from Jamaica on Christmas Eve 2011, to stay with her aunt and cousins “for a better life.” Now living on her own and attending Grade 12, Hanson is an avid dancer who would like to pursue traditional African dance and dancehall as a career.
“This is the one place that I can be myself, because everyone is a friend. We can all have fun and joke around, doing all these crazy, wild moves,” said Hanson, who does housekeeping to support herself and has applied for permanent residency in Canada on humanitarian grounds.
“You got teased for your Caribbean accent in school and have a hard time fitting in. Definitely, financially it is always a challenge. Did I make the right choice to come to Canada? Yes, when I’m here (dancing). No, whenever I feel homesick.”
Washington, the guest instructor, said he was impressed by the excitement and enthusiasm shown by the youth.
“It is good to see them fight for it. It’s not like these aspiring dancers are going to be on TV dancing with Beyonce, but dance can change lives. These young people have to fight and fight and fight in their lives. This will give them the confidence they need to push through it.”
That rings true to Dushimiyimana, who had been told he looked ridiculous when he danced and has to practise his new moves in a tiny bathroom, the only place at home with a mirror.
“We have performed at a few public events. It’s nerve-wracking, but it felt great to be dancing in front of so many people, clapping and smiling at you, having a good time,” said Dushimiyimana. “It is self-empowering.”