The Future of Professional Dancers in Saskatchewan

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dancer in mid-air

What does it truly mean to be a professional dancer in Saskatchewan? Is it about completing a professional training program or is it more about earning your livelihood through performances or choreographic endeavors or simply your passion for dance? While definitions may vary, within the context of this article, by ‘professional dancer,’ I am highlighting individuals whose main source of income stems from their performing practice.

There is a noticeable lack of statistical data on dancers within the provinces, with the most recent province-wide review commissioned by Dance Saskatchewan Inc. and authored by Daybreak Consulting. While going through that report, I was struck by one overarching take-away: ‘It’s nearly impossible to sustain a livelihood as a professional dancer in Saskatchewan.’ This resonated strongly with me as well as with my peers in Winnipeg. Unsurprisingly, Manitoba and Saskatchewan seem to be facing similar challenges, and perhaps the whole country for that matter, painting a bleak picture for aspiring full-time dance professionals.

Professional dancers in Saskatchewan are by necessity multifaceted and versatile artists, but achieving financial stability solely through dance is often a challenging feat. The absence of full-time dance companies within the province adds another layer of complexity for aspiring dancers. Saskatchewan’s dance scene lacks in opportunities and mirrors a larger national trend where the availability of full-time positions for dance artists remains scarce despite the abundance of talent in the country.

Amongst Saskatchewan’s dancers, it is a common reality to juggle multiple jobs in order to sustain their dance practice. We get along by engaging in teaching dance recreationally or branching out into related practices like yoga, massage, Pilates, mitzvah, Feldenkrais and more to ensure financial stability while pursuing their artistic endeavors.

I personally try to seek out work that complements my dance practice or aligns with related fields. In the past, I have immersed myself in theatre production, working behind the scenes during performances, managing lighting and sound aspects or even providing administrative support for various arts organizations. Recently, I have ventured into the world of acting to further enhance and supplement my dance practice.

My recent attendance at Mosaic in Regina got me thinking about the crossover of cultural dances and being a professional within the dance community. My past visits to events like the Folk Fest in Saskatoon as well as various powwows have revealed to me the awe-inspiring world of these cultural dance forms. These dancers undoubtedly deserve recognition as professionals within their field, despite the fact that many lead completely different lives outside of their dance careers. It was also through cultural dance, specifically traditional Metis dance, that I was introduced to other styles of dance and eventually decided to pursue a career in the art form.

Let us also not forget about the dance studios and schools that cultivate future generations of dancers and choreographers. Many individuals who embark on a path of teaching or creating choreography within these institutions often started out as dancers themselves. Their evolution into professionals within the dance studio world is a testament to both their passion and the nurturing environment in which they were raised.

My journey into the world of dance began later than most, at the age of 19 when I attended my first contemporary dance performance in 2014 at New Dance Horizons’ Ice & Fire Festival. Two standout performances from that event, ‘Dream Pavilion’ by a Calgary-based artist Davida Monk and ‘The Understory’ by Regina-based Johanna Bundon and Toronto-based Bee Pallomina, left a profound impact on me. This eye-opening experience was part of a regional touring series called the ‘Prairie Dance Circuit’, dedicated to supporting and showcasing dance artists from the prairie region. Prior to this revelation, I had never imagined myself pursuing a career in contemporary dance. The idea of dance as a livelihood seemed distant and unattainable. Fast forward to today, and I proudly consider myself a professional dancer. I made the decision to relocate to another province in pursuit of my dance education, given the absence of such programs in Saskatchewan, I embarked on a transformative journey, completing a professional contemporary dance training program at The School of Contemporary Dancers in Winnipeg, MB.

Most of the professional dancers I know from Saskatchewan who are currently pursuing their careers as dance artists have been sadly forced to leave the province. The lack of opportunities here has pushed them to move to larger cities like Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal in search of a successful dance career. I find myself facing the same struggle. It’s a dilemma: not having enough opportunities but if we don’t create those opportunities ourselves how will we overcome the issue. Despite this, the advantage of living in Saskatchewan is the reasonable cost of living compared to those bigger centres. There is definitely something to living in the prairies, with its wide open spaces, quiet calm and ease of access to nature. There is immense potential for dance artists to thrive in the province, and my aspiration is to establish a successful dance career here and inspire others to do the same.

The arts community as a whole is grappling with a national issue that needs our attention. It is a rarity for professional dance artists to make a living solely from their performance practice. This is a privilege often reserved for full-time company dancers and even those opportunities are dwindling, especially in this post-COVID world. While the roots of these challenges are complex, we can begin addressing them by fostering ongoing dialogue. Numerous questions linger, but what matters most is that we are asking these questions and keeping an open dialogue with local artists. This signals that complacency has not fully taken hold in our beloved dance community. One of the most profound, rewarding and satisfying aspects about being an artist is to push boundaries, challenge complacency and inspire and engage audiences to do the same.

Marcus Merasty is a dance artist of Cree descent who leapt into dance through the Métis jig over 10 years ago. He found his way to integrating contemporary dance and performance and continues to commit his time and energy to the study of movement through multiple residencies and mentorship opportunities. His performances have taken him across Canada. Marcus is an extraordinary performer; the ground begins to move when he dances.