Beyond the stage: U of T's Seika Boye on what we can learn from dance
The University of Toronto’s Seika Boye has performed and presented her choreography across the country with the nation’s top dance companies and worked alongside some of Canada’s most respected artists.
But in addition to being an artist and writer, Boye is also a teacher and scholar. An assistant professor, teaching stream, at the Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies and director of the centre’s Institute for Dance Studies (IDS), Boye’s research explores Blackness and dancing in Canada, as well as embodied learning and pedagogy.
She recently spoke with Arts & Science writer Sean McNeely about the magic of dance, its ability to reveal and uncover elements of history and social justice and its potential to elevate interpersonal connection.
What do you find so unique about dance?
Trying to describe dancing as an experience is like trying to describe life. I stopped performing professionally over 15 years ago, I was 30. At first, I thought my dancing life was over. In truth, so many of my realizations about dance came after this.
Dancing shaped who I am as a person, not because of what I can – or could – do physically, but because over a lifetime of training and moving together in space with other humans for hours and hours every day for decades, it taught me how to connect, to fall into rhythm with and sense the world around me – to notice connection between human beings and other creatures, to be carried by that connection, to experience life through movement — in joy, sorrow, protest, gratitude and love.
What draws you to the historical side of dance, particularly Black dance history?
I had been teaching 20th-century dance history and I had students asking me about the history of Black people dancing in Canada. There was a complete lack of resources, especially pertaining to before 1970. I wanted to fill that gap.
My first son was also born in 2007 and I was thinking deeply about Black history in Canada. I’m first-generation Canadian – my father was from Ghana and my mother is from New Zealand. I knew very little about the history which is also my children’s history. Performance studies was a place where my background in dance studies and literary theory, and work in arts journalism could come together.
I started with where Black people were dancing in Canada. What dances were they doing? Where were they allowed to dance? Where was it safe to dance? Then there is the question about what we can learn about Black communities, populations, about the legislation of bodies whether pertaining to immigration or who is permitted into a nightclub or hired into a company when we ask questions through dance. What does dance reveal about a society and its values – and not just about Black people, but all people.
You’re the director of the Institute for Dance Studies, can you talk about the research done there?
The institute is dedicated first and foremost to building community for dance and movement-focused researchers across disciplines, providing platforms and bridges for connecting with one another, and for advocating for the value of dance-focused research in the academy.
There’s a vast range of research happening – some focused on contemporary performance, historical and archival research, social justice and education, ethics in training, archival methodologies, stroke rehabilitation and physiotherapy, skills transmission.
One of my favourite things that we do, in addition to workshops and lectures, is in collaboration with my colleague [Associate] Professor Xing Fan, is called the “Practice Pop Up” that invites graduate students and faculty to ask questions that can be answered through choreography, using props and trying movement experiments which are then followed by discussion. This serves as wonderful preparation for research studies and for developing research questions.
This has supported research about gender and identity in 19th-century Victorian England (Heather Fitzsimmons Frey, MacEwan University); “what dance is” in preparation for a researcher's time at an EEG lab (to record brain wave patterns) for research about movement and Alzheimer’s care (Rebecca Barnstaple, York University); and exploring the relationship to apparatus in rhythmic gymnastics (Anna Paliy, U of T PhD candidate).
Are there parallels between being a performer and an academic instructor?
There are so many parallels and they continue to unfold for me. Here are just a few:
- Attentiveness to your surroundings – people, place, things – simultaneously on an ongoing, durational basis with your body and mind
- Lateral thinking and relationship
- Ongoing discipline, practice, preparation and repetition
- Respect for the reciprocity between performer and audience, student and instructor
- Acceptance that things will go wrong and honing skills to recover in the moment
- Managing your nerves, staying the course, pacing yourself
- Awareness of self as a member of an ensemble or community that is dependent upon one another
What’s a misconception about the academic study of dance?
That it’s only about dance for the stage and virtuosity and critical analysis. That its value is contained to dance studies itself and not relevant to our overall well-being and relationships to one another as human beings. IDS and Hart House are co-hosting a series this year called Moving Dancing Knowledge that is working to dispel these misconceptions.
The misconceptions are often also connected to the devaluing of embodied knowledge and what it has to offer us as a species. I think we’re all considering questions about connection and touch and moving together as essential parts of our human experience. This connection is something that dancers and people who dance in all and any aspects of life know deeply.