Saturday November 22, 2014

Dancing into a small town lifestlye

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Through a year long Random Acts of Dancing initiative, Ashley Johnson is taking the joy of dancing to unusual places.

Ashley Johnson is a familiar face to many in the Battlefords. Whether they know her from her work with the Living Sky School Division, one of her dance concerts, or just from being the most enthusiastic dancer at any musical event she goes to, Ashley is now firmly part of the cultural landscape of the Battlefords, and is likely to stay that way.

Ashley is originally from Edmonton. After finishing high school there, she studied dance at Grant MacEwan, the University of Calgary and in Hong Kong.

Unlike many in the dance world, Ashley’s study of dance focused less on the studio-based aspect of dance, and more on the social and community aspects. As a child, dance was just a normal part of her life. She grew up in a family of dancers, and was so enthusiastic about dancing as an activity her grandmother used to joke she would dance down the aisle when she eventually got married. This focus continued at the University of Calgary, where she focused less on traditional styles of dance and more on exotic forms, studying Hula, African and Irish dance.

Despite dancing for her whole life, Ashley’s path to the Battlefords was a long one. At the University of Calgary, she was having trouble with pain, injuries and disillusionment about being a dancer in a big city. The professional world of dance is a cruel one – brutally difficult physically, rapaciously competitive and poor-paying. The career of a dancer, if it ever begins, rarely lasts more than a few years. If one is born with the wrong kind of body (too tall, too short, too short-limbed), a dance career is all but impossible.

While facing this disillusionment, Ashley met a Mitzvah technician in Calgary. Though rooted, ultimately in dance, Mitzvah is a much broader discipline. After M. Cohen-Nehemia, an Israeli dancer, suffered major back problems from dance, he rehabilitated himself slowly with a variety of teachers, doctors, and with the help of F.M. Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique. Out of these myriad influences came, in the late 1960s, the Mitzvah technique, in Ashley’s words “a type of movement therapy that looks at realigning and freeing the skeleton and allowing one to move in a pain-free way.”

She eventually followed her Mitzvah teacher to Davidson. Expecting a city like Red Deer, as Davidson is midway between Saskatchewan’s largest cities, she found instead a one-horse town in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It was an eye-opening experience for someone who had lived her entire life in large cities; Hong Kong has a larger population than Alberta.

But the exposure to small (or tiny) town life was nevertheless valuable. Davidson taught her the beauty of the open prairie, and how to live in a small place after living in such large cities. When she did eventually move to North Battleford, after running out of money, it felt like a bustling, urban metropolis.

After moving here, she worked first in Cut Knife as an artist in residence for the Living Sky School Division. She stayed in North Battleford, working dance contracts for Living Sky, BTC and private work.

Her work in the Battlefords is now all but ubiquitous. She continues to work for the LSSD, at Connaught and McKitrick schools, in a variety of capacities. She teaches students dance, but also works behind the scenes with teachers to integrate movement into the classroom. Because of the increased interest in kinesthetic learners and differentiated instruction in the world of education, her work is well-appreciated by educators.

She never invites herself into a classroom, and only comes at the invitation of the teacher. But teachers are always appreciative of her teaching. “I think that whenever I go and give a talk or lecture, teachers tend to really light up, because they really understand children, but they often don’t have the tools to make the kind of changes that are related to movement and to the body. There’s so much stress on an everyday classroom teacher that their ability to integrate another program into their classroom without having an outside support network is really tough.”

Students, too are appreciative, from the most gregarious to the most shy. “I haven’t met a kid that hasn’t come around in some way shape or form. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that dance is a really joyful activity. If we can present it in a way that’s open and non-confrontational, non-competitive, and really looks at expression and physical activity and music, from a perspective of play, students really respond.”

Her work with the schools also draws her into the community in other ways. As part of her work for Living Sky, she runs community dances, which encourage parents and grandparents to join their children in using dance as it was traditionally used – to build community, relationships, meet people and have fun.

Outside of the schools, Ashley is active in the city as a dancer, Mitzvah technician and choreographer. She is currently working on a year-long project called Random Acts of Dancing, which aims to take dance out of traditional performance spaces and place it into unusual places, like street corners, classrooms and houses. Several weeks ago, she had a major house concert that drew crowds almost beyond capacity and introduced many in North Battleford to contemporary dance for the first time. It involved local musicians and dancers, and also attracted friends of Ashley’s from outside the province who danced and choreographed pieces. As Random Acts of Dancing is a yearlong project, expect more concerts in the future.

Whether you know her as a dance educator, a choreographer, a teacher, or a friend, Ashley is truly a blessing for our tiny community (compared to Hong Kong) or megalopolis (compared to Davidson). And she feels the same way, as she explained to me that “it’s truly been a gift” to be able to support herself in a community where she is appreciated, employed, and able to thrive as an artist.



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