After urging workshop participants to set an intention for an act of small change, Esie Mensah immediately had her workshop participants rise from their Zoom boxes and get moving. The renowned choreographer, born in Hamilton, Ont. to parents who immigrated from Ghana, incorporated her signature, flowing movements into a segment of the workshop she calls Afro-healing.
“Dancers know we can do this; we can dance out the funk we’re feeling,” she said to the Grades 9 to 12 students, gathered on Wednesday, March 3 for a workshop that’s part of Black History Month Celebrations, embracing the theme, ‘Celebrating Black Artists Past and Present.’
Participants prepared for the session by watching Mensah’s short film about ancestral history and violence, ‘Awakenings: A Revolution of Love’
, shot during the pandemic at Toronto’s Fort York for the Toronto History Museums’ Awakenings project; the location’s historical colonial significance is of course intentional.
Since graduating from George Brown College’s commercial dance program in 2007, Mensah has appeared in commercials and music videos, including for Drake and Rihanna, and performed on live stages.
“Dance is a physical language and the power of artistic expression is a form of communication and a way to advocate for social change,” says Branksome Hall dance teacher Annie Wood, who taught jazz dance to Mensah more than a decade ago at George Brown College.
This event was a collaboration between the Black Student Union, the Dance Department, the English Department, Student Life, and the Diversity Council. Nejat, co-head of the Black Student Union, was the catalyst for the event, due to her interest in Mensah’s work.
“I think it's important to have Black Canadian artists come in and share their incredible work and experiences because we rarely get opportunities to hear these perspectives, despite their consistent and significant contributions to the arts,” she says.
“Black Canadian art and history are also quite often overshadowed by African American history, so it's very important to highlight and acknowledge this history and appreciate their work. Personally, I find Ms. Mensah's work very exciting as I appreciate how unapologetically proud she is of her cultural heritage and her messages advocating for social change for issues such as colourism, both of which are really prevalent in her creations.”
Mensah, whose people are Ewe from Ghana, spoke of growing up in Hamilton, making trips to the Ewe Canadian Cultural Organization of Ontario in Toronto, learning cultural dances from Ghana and other West African countries. She also taught herself choreography through repeat viewings of music videos.
“I created the term Afro-fusion in Toronto,” she says, at a time when, a few years into her professional dancing career, she wanted to incorporate her cultural heritage and so started mixing commercial dance with traditional West African dances.
“I don’t always know why I’m making my artistic choices,” she said during a student Q&A session. “I find myself in a flow state ancestrally.”
In answer to another question about how to help the “revolution of love,” Mensah said this: “We need to be aware of what we cosign unconsciously and say, 'Let's not do this anymore.’ Compassion and empathy are the tools no one wants to apply in all situations but that’s how we need to receive people’s stories. This is a stage of rebuilding and people are fragile. We need to embrace them with honesty and compassion.”