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Dancer takes leaps of faith to success

Published:Friday | November 15, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Andrea Douglas. - Photo by Michael Reckord

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

Time and again over the last few decades, Andrea Douglas' love for dance has pushed her to take leaps of faith into potentially hazardous situations.

Happily, her leaps have taken her along a road to success and the Guyana-born, Jamaica-trained Douglas is now a school administrator and dance company director in Toronto, Canada.

She spoke to me about her journey just after she had made a presentation, 'Learning Through the Arts', at last month's Rex Nettleford Arts Conference, hosted by the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA).

Beginning with the premises that the arts - dance, drama, music and visual art - comprise a "common human denominator" in all cultures and that classrooms around the world are occupied by students learning at different levels, her presentation argued that the arts can be the common catalyst for enhanced learning in all subjects and fields.

According to Douglas, "drama is an effective way of using real scenarios to explain scientific theories, clarify historical revelations and misconceptions, and in general close gaps of cultural proficiency".

Douglas told me that children who migrate to Canada or the USA are often at a disadvantage in the classrooms of their new country. She has found that when the students share their experiences through the arts, the newcomers experience a rise in their comfort levels. In a video made with her students, which Douglas showed during her presentation, the audience saw a meeting of cultures when the African-Jamaican character Anancy encountered the characters of the American television series Sesame Street.

Douglas was in her early 20s and dancing with the Guyana National Dance Company when she read, in a Caribbean Contact magazine, about the NDTC and determined that she wanted to be part of that company. Some time after, she used much of her life savings to purchase a plane ticket to Jamaica, arriving at the airport with no one to meet her and nowhere to stay.


Smiling wryly, Douglas said, "I told a woman I met at the airport a lie, but I was walking with a good spirit."

The woman believed Douglas' story, that she had expected to be met, took Douglas home for the night, fed her, and next morning put her on the bus for the School of Dance. When the head of the school, Mrs Barbara Requa, heard where Douglas had spent the night, she said "We've got to get you out of there."

Douglas enrolled at the school even though, she told me, "I didn't know where the money was coming from. But it came."

She graduated with a diploma in dance years later, having also realised her goal of dancing with the NDTC. Over the next few years, she said, she taught at "quite a few schools".

Douglas added: "It was a learning experience for me on how to work in communities." That experience was to come in handy when she got to Canada in 1989.

Though she had started packing to return to Guyana, Douglas had also applied for admission to several North American universities. She was accepted to a number of them, but chose York University in Toronto because her father lived in the city.

At York, she was delighted to learn that the work she'd done at School of Dance for her diploma enabled her to matriculate into a master's programme. (She eventually graduated with an MFA in Dance Ethnology.)

Douglas found living with her father and stepmother uncomfortable and, after two months, decided to move. "I went to school with my suitcase, not knowing where I was moving to after school," she said. But again a guardian angel, in the form of a native Canadian woman who worked at the university, rescued Douglas. A conversation with the woman led Douglas to a set of newly completed apartments.

"The rent was Can$375 for a studio," Douglas said. Though she only had Can$300, she got to move in by promising to get a job and pay the balance the following week.

One of the jobs she had while at university was teaching dance in Toronto's notorious low-income, crime-ridden Jane and Finch neighbourhood. To Douglas, however, "it felt like home. I saw so many (black) kids like myself".

In the area were many people living on welfare in government-owned buildings, Douglas said. However, she continued, "for me, people are people. I saw people who could be educated."

hard work pays off

Douglas' can-do approach paid off and the community centre class which she started quickly grew from three to about 60 students. The group, which started in 1993, would eventually become the Children & Youth Dance Theatre of Toronto.

About a decade ago, one of Douglas' most notable students, 'T', a girl born in Canada of Jamaican parents, joined the group. She was about 10 or 11 years old at the time, said Douglas, and not only a "natural" performer but also a very bright student.

T was also very persistent. Douglas related how, when T was in Grade 2, she insisted on turning up for classes Douglas was giving to Grade 5 students in a school. T got a chance to be in the programme when Douglas needed a little girl to act in a play the class was producing.

Of the event, Douglas said: "T had to be the little child who cried for her grandfather, because he was beaten to death as a slave. Let me tell you, that girl put on a piece of crying, a piece of drama! I thought she was really crying."

T was also such a good dancer and was often given solo parts. Douglas said "the first piece we created for her was to Bob Marley's Johnny Was. She got quite a few awards for it."

Douglas said, when T took a nationwide aptitude test called the 'Gifted Test' in Grade 6, she scored 99.9 per cent.

T is now 21, working and teaching a class with Douglas' performing company. Probably remembering her own productive stay at the School of Dance, Douglas told me, "I'd love to see her come here (to the EMCVPA) to study."