Curator Seika Boye standing before historical images of black dancers

Photography By Geneviève Caron 

Toronto exhibit explores history of Black dance in Canada

Curator Seika Boye reveals the largely undocumented story of our nation’s Black dancers

In a tiny gallery at Queen and Church, tucked in between a pawnshop and a nail salon, is a chance to go back in time and see how, where and why Black Canadians were dancing.

“We live in a systemically racist country,” says Seika Boye, curator of It’s About Time: Dancing Black in Canada 1900 to 1970, an exhibit at Dance Collection Danse, Canada’s national dance museum. “The system is shaped to not recognize the history of Black dancers.” Boye, who is also on faculty in the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto, hopes her new exhibit will change that.

Boye, a Hamilton native, started dancing at the age of three and never stopped. She went from student, to performer, to teacher to dance historian. While teaching 20th century dance history at York, her students often asked her about Black dance in Canada. Unfortunately, when she tried to find out, her research didn’t yield any answers. “Nothing came up prior to 1970,” Boye says. “The research didn’t exist.” In 2009, she started working on her PhD, digging through old archives and newspaper reports, to put the history together herself.

Her new exhibit takes audiences on a journey from the early 1900s to the 1970s and shines a light on the dance history of Black Canadians. Photos show white performers dressed in “blackface,” alongside an instruction manual on how to properly apply the makeup to achieve “accurate ethnic complexions.” Newspaper articles report on Black people being denied entry to dance and music venues where the performers were Black.

Seika Boye silhouetted over historical photo of black dancersAlthough the Black community faced racism and discrimination, it didn’t mean they weren’t fighting back, and it didn’t mean they weren’t dancing. Boye says her efforts to uncover these stories became detective work. She studied archives and oral histories, and once she started researching, she realized how much history was hiding. “It started to multiply. One thing would lead to 10 more things. It’s a history that appeared not to be there, but it’s actually everywhere.”

Boye uncovered a petition sent to the Toronto mayor in 1840, asking for an end to performances that ridiculed the Black population. In 1943, the Globe and Mail reported on young Black people picketing outside Palais Royale on Lake Shore Blvd. to protest the barring of Black people from entering the dance hall.

Despite evidence of discrimination and racial tension, Boye also unearthed many positive images of Black dancing in Canadian history, from lively house parties and backyard concerts to formal dance recitals.

“The system is shaped to not recognize the history of Black dancers.”

The exhibit also celebrates individual dancers, like Toronto-born Ola Skanks, one of the first dancers to bring traditional African dance to Canada in the 1960s. Now 92, Skanks was at first reluctant to participate in the exhibit, but she eventually agreed to an interview with Boye. When the two met, Skanks pulled out a scrapbook that documented her dance life. “It was literally under the bed,” Boye says. “So metaphorical. It was an archive of a creative life. She wanted to do something, and she found a way to do it.”

Boye hopes the exhibit will encourage people to take a look at their own local histories. An old theatre in your community may have been a dance hall in the past. Who was dancing there? “Where were Indigenous people dancing?” Boye asks. “Where were Italians or Ukrainians dancing?” She says that dance history is a way to explore how communities celebrated together and grieved together. It’s a way of seeing what young people were doing, a way to animate history. Above all, Dancing Black in Canada is an opportunity to celebrate Black dancers and to ensure that their stories are told. “Just because the history isn’t available,” Boye says, “doesn’t mean things weren’t happening.”

It’s About Time: Dancing Black in Canada will run at Dance Collection Danse gallery until June 22, then runs at Ignite Gallery in Kensington Market from July 11, 2018 to August 19, 2018