Passion for Blacks in Dance unites 500 artists in immersive Toronto gathering


For only the third time in its 32-year history the Washington DC-based International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) is holding its annual conference in a host city outside the United States — Toronto. Through Sunday, almost 500 dancers, choreographers, directors, educators and arts administrators from across North America have been reconnecting and sharing their experiences in the what is the IABD’s first post-pandemic gathering.

“It’s a big deal,” says Mozambique-born, Toronto-based dancer/choreographer Pulga Muchochoma. He is presenting a new solo during one of the conference’s evening showcase performances at the Jane Mallet Theatre.

“It’s recognition that Black dance artists in Toronto and Canada are an integral part of a global community,” Muchochoma continues. “It’s also a feather in the cap for Dance Immersion without which this would not be happening here.”

Dance Immersion is the Toronto organization founded in 1994 by Vivine Scarlett to produce, promote, and support dancers and dances of the African Diaspora. It fosters new work, runs a variety of educational programs and presents both Canadian and international artists. It was thus understandable that the IABD accepted Scarlett’s suggestion to step beyond the U.S. for its 2007, and its return in 2012.

Since then, numbers of attendees have grown – but there were worries over how the pandemic would affect it.

“A big question for us,” Scarlett explained, “was who will come?”

She need not have worried. The 2023 conference, limited in numbers by the capacity of its performance venue, sold out quickly. After two missed years, Scarlett credits the eager response to a pent-up desire to meet again in person.

After all, that eagerness is what drove the first IABD conference in Philadelphia in 1988, designed to foster connections within and to advocate for the Black American dance community, that spurred the formal launch of the IABD three years later. That first conference welcomed just 80 participants. The most recent conference in early 2020 — it squeaked in just before the pandemic lockdowns hit — drew some 1,200 people to the same city. The smaller attendance at the current Toronto event, originally planned for 2021 and twice postponed because of the COVID crisis, reflects the challenge of organizing a conference during the uncertainties of a lingering global pandemic.

Performances are just one part of a conference that also comprises daily plenary sessions, workshops, presentations, panel discussions, audition opportunities and an awards luncheon, While most of the non-performance activities take place at the Sheraton Centre, auditions are happening at Canada’s National Ballet School.

The 2023 conference has the over-arching title: “Globally Connected, What Does Our Tomorrow Hold?” If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that technology can help bridge distances and bring people together in different ways when in-person gatherings remain problematic. Thus, the 2023 conference has been designed as a mix of live, livestreamed and virtual events that potentially gives it global scope and reach. You don’t have to be in Toronto to share in the experience.

The IABD helps by offering host cities a detailed “How To” handbook. It also has a major say in programming although the host city gets to present one of the evenings of performance. Dance Immersion has used these opportunities to showcase artists from across Canada, this year from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

Dance Immersion also organized its own two-day pre-conference event called “Connectively Moving Our Dance” which included special showcases of emerging artists for the Canadian Network of Dance Presenters whose members have been meeting in Toronto this week.

“It has never been easy for Black dance artists,” says Muchochoma, 36. “I look at the younger generation of dancers. It may seem sometimes they have no place to go. But a global event like this, dedicated to Black artists should offer encouragement. Just fight hard and put your work out there.”

Dance expressions derived from African roots cover a wide gamut, from traditional to contemporary to a range of fusions with other dance traditions. Also, despite the headwinds they often encounter, Black dancers may be drawn to classical ballet and Western contemporary dance. It’s this diversity, whether cultural, geographic or esthetic, that the IABD seeks to celebrate.

Scarlett emphasizes that the conference and festival is fundamentally about dance itself. “Anyone can belong and all are welcome if they share a passion for Black dance in all or any of its many expressions.”

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Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who covers dance and opera for the Star.


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