Kensington Market: Gallery Ignites Dancing Black In Canada

Dancing Black Exhibition - Weekend Viewing
By Stephen Weir
92-year old Ola Skanks hasn’t danced in public for twenty-years, but, there was no way that she was going to miss the opening of a Kensington Market gallery’s exhibition about the history of the Black community and Canadian dance.         
York University’s Dr. Seika Boye curated Dancing Black in Canada, 1900 to 1970. “This exhibition illuminates the largely undocumented dance history of Canada’s Black population before 1970” Dr. Boye told a packed Ignite Gallery earlier last month.
The exhibition is made up of photographs, media clippings and artefacts that detail how Black Canadians first got involved in dance – both professional and socially – beginning some 120-years ago. Featured are individual well-known dance artists such as Leonard Gibson, Ola Skanks, Ethel Bruneau, Joey Hollingsworth and Kathryn Brown.
“The exhibit exposes the representation of Blackness on Canadian stages, as well as audience and media reception of Black performance in Canada during this era,” says Dr. Boye. “ Put simply, dance is the history of our bodies!” 
Her exhibit is subtitled “About Time” because it explores how racism impaired the community’s ability to take to the stage. It also explores how government legislation had to pass to allow the community to take part in everything from dance lessons to taking part in social dances at mid-century. 
The Ignite Gallery is owned and operated by OCAD – Toronto’s art university. It is a small but popular art space on Augusta Street in Kensington Market and is open to the public, free of charge, on weekends.  The Ignite exhibit is a continuation of an initial January to June run at the (hard to reach) Dance Collection Danse Gallery on Church St.”
Ola Skanks -photo by Weir
Ola Skanks and her sister learned how to dance in the 1940s by going to the movies in Toronto and watching actors’ tap dance on screen.  She then performed professionally at various venues and events around Toronto including the Elks’ Club and Home Service Association events in the 1940s.  She opened her home to visiting dancers from Africa and learned African choreography.  
She danced in Canada’s modern dance movement back in the 70s and had her own downtown Yonge Street studio.
“The last time I danced professional was two decades ago, in San Diego,” the Caribbean Canadian dancer told the Caribbean Camera at the exhibition launch party. “But that doesn’t stop me from dancing at home.  Dancing keeps us all alive.”
Don Gillies, Janet Baldwin, unknown (seated–possibly Portia White), Dorothy Dennenay and 
Bill Diverof the Volkoff Canadian Ballet, c. 1945. Jim Bolsby Portfolio, Dance Collection Danse.
Ola Skanks has loaned pictures and dance artefacts to the exhibition.  The actual text for the show is being turned into an educational pamphlet that will be distributed to Canadian schools so that students can learn about the history of Dancing Black in Canada. The show runs until August 12th.

SAD NEWS - The day after the exhibition closed (August 13th) Ola Marie (Shepherd) Shanks passed away peacefully at the Baycrest retirement home in Toronto. There will be a Memorial Gathering in her honour on Tuesday September 4th, 11am at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, 16 Spadina Rd in Toronto.


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