International Dance Day with Miss Coco Murray
“...we celebrate International Dance Day yearly as a political, sociocultural, and economic wake up for the world to understand the impact of global forms of dance.” Collette Murray
Founded by the Dance Committee of the International Theatre Institute, International Dance Day aims to promote dance in all its forms across the world, to celebrate the dancers who continue to break down barriers, provide access to dance, raise awareness of the value and importance of dance and to celebrate dancers and the dance community and their incredible work.
For as long as humans have existed, so has dance. For centuries dance has been the channel that has allowed people to connect to and celebrate their cultures; It has been the ritual in which people have passed on their knowledge and customs to the next generation. In the more recent past, dance has become a vehicle of perspective. It has allowed people to organize and come together; to address, to challenge, to celebrate what goes on in the world, in local communities- even in the political arena. The world needs dance.
This International Dance Day, we were incredibly lucky and had the opportunity to speak with the indubitably inspiring Collette Murray. Collette Murray is an award winning artist, dance performer, instructor, cultural arts programmer and educator. She is the director of Miss Coco Murray, a mobile dance education business, and the Artistic Director of Coco Collective, an intergenerational, multi-disciplinary team of artists offering collaborative arts-based projects.
In 2019 she was awarded the Community Arts Award by our Neighbourhood Arts Network. We got to talk about how she got into dance, what’s motivated to do the incredible work she’s done, and some of the most impactful moments she’s had in her immense career.
Can you tell us about your first memory of dancing? How did you get into dance? What made you fall in love with it?
I was inspired by Fame, the 1980s series of a performing arts high school and years of seeing Soul Train during my years in Brooklyn, New York. What sparked my interest in ever attempting to dance was seeing Janet Jackson music videos to her first award performance. To see a shy girl, grow into an independent, Black woman centered within dance ensembles was empowering. That representation spoke volumes to my spirit and paralleled my quiet nature. My siblings gifted me with my first concert in Toronto to see the Rhythm Nation tour for my 13th birthday. Outside of my first recollection of dancing in my room to music videos was this concert. Yes. I was a quiet girl surrounded by community, seeing her inspiration LIVE and dancing throughout with emerging hip hop dances I grew up seeing on TV in Brooklyn. That communal tradition of any dance circle/cypher with one’s collective was the ancestors speaking and surrounding me. I love dance because it is a communicative expression where I could make a statement without words, bring out my energetic personality and display my individual voice.
What kind of impact does dance have on audiences?
Dance is present within each ethnicity, yet the purposes differ so I cannot provide a homogenized response on a pluralistic matter. The impact of dance is beyond a consumed form of entertainment, a commercialized product, and a tourist attraction. From my experiences within dances of the African diaspora and its derivatives and studying cross-cultural expressions, dance impacts an embodied alignment of the intellectual, kinaesthetic, aural, visual, spiritual, and polyrhythmic qualities that foster symbiotic relationships in the sociocultural and political realm. Dance captivates audiences to bear witness, to encounter a communal space of interaction, to learn about preservation, as well as connect to emotive and communicative expressions on an individual and group level. Dance impacts the participant’s life and audiences can be active, passive or co-creators. Audiences can be challenged or intrigued by the complex and creative range of movement storytelling, across ages and abilities. The audience can be impacted by learning about themselves, in relation to others in the ecosystem by viewing and participating in thought-provoking, spontaneous, and inclusive dance experiences.
People have stated that you’ve given them a gift with the work you do, that the outreach and the education you provide is rich and powerful and so engaging. Can you share with us an impactful moment or experience that reaffirmed your belief in the incredible work you do?
I have two impactful moments. After I headlined a performance, a former student came up to me to say hello. I met her during my last year teaching my children’s dance class at Oakdale/Chalkfarm Community Centres at City of Toronto. I had not seen this young lady since I did a Career Day presentation at her high school several years prior. In this brief reunion, she informed me that I inspired her to pursue dance, gave me the biggest hug and with a smile told me she was studying dance performance at Centennial College. The second memory was completing a culturally-responsive arts program at a school. This is a racialized school, predominately with Black students that were not part of the popular group of kids but after their Coco Collective experience, they formed a close-knit community, supporting each other academically and interpersonally during the remainder of their school year. After the culturally relevant learning and final arts showcase, parents thanked us for working with and affirming their kids. Educators noted improved academic engagement, leadership, and presentation skills thereafter. That touched my heart. I never know if the younger generation understands what intentions I had, and you never know if anyone sees beyond the stereotype of a ‘starving artist’ that the dance industry can be a viable career.
This past year and a half has been especially difficult for artists; how has your practice evolved or been adapted to still have the same kind of impact?
The pandemic created a full pause and challenges. I had to pivot to finish mentoring the last cohort online, but I was able to expand their thinking and educate them on a plethora of possibilities. During this reflection period, I prioritized myself and redefined goals. Living in a triad of pandemics (mental health, COVID and Anti-Black racism), I was cognizant of what artists were going through and spent my time evolving, academically. Therefore, my artistic practice is adapting to include advocacy, speaking engagements and panels. I thought about how I could create in new ways and with digital engagement. As recipient of COVID-19 artist response funding, I am cultivating some new projects for adaptation and on a few committees to support shifts in anti-racism. The stay-at-home order is disruptive, but the lesson here is adaptation.
You’ve stated that your journey began when you performed, apprenticed and taught recreational dance classes in your childhood neighbourhood. You also state that this was one of the motivators to bridge the disconnection you had with your multi-ethnic background. What about this experience helped you identify the need for access to African/Caribbean styles of dance and services related to cultural practice?
As a child, I lived among a diverse, immigrant group of working families in West Toronto. So, it was the responsibility of parents to find spaces where the culture occurred, which I learned in my adult life was downtown or the east end of Toronto. This was extremely inaccessible given the area I lived with limited transit and working parents. The void was glaring, as each art form was separate. It as a dominant narrative that art was only presented the way the school board defined, and recreational programming was an extension of that same format: music, or art and crafts, no dance and maybe a choir. The arts in my culture are integrated, and I had no access until seeing Caribana. That did not sit well with my spirit. Such an indirect message was indicative of absence, an internalized unbelonging and of a personal responsibility to find cultural relevance and like-minded people who were engaged. So, I needed to create spaces for others. Even though I encountered people and institutions who grossly failed to understand the art I brought, the cultural nuances and had dichotomous thinking that art was easily substituted for any other, that frustration meant that I had to do more. I turned my frustration into purpose.
What programming do you have going on right now? Is there anything else that you’d like to share with readers?
Currently, Miss Coco Murray is working with TDSB Creates, Vibe Arts and is a lead artist in augmented reality project with Arts Etobicoke for the 2021 Public Year of Art. In addition, I am in a research stage with a collaborative dance project. Coco Collective has a dance training initiative for mentees and two culturally responsive projects for partnered schools. Along with my doctoral studies in dance, I am writing manuscripts. When travel can safely occur, I have an academic conference to present on my graduate research of culturally responsive arts and community.
Why should International Dance Day be celebrated?
Toronto is a metropolis with hundreds of cultural and linguistic communities that dance. Although April 29th commemorates the birthday of a French ballet choreographer born in 1727, we celebrate International Dance Day yearly as a political, sociocultural, and economic wake up for the world to understand the impact of global forms of dance. It is a day UNESCO developed in 1982 to raise educational awareness for societies, government, and institutions to recognize the value and hopefully the plurality of dance. More than ever, dance, as an artform, has entertained many during this health pandemic. This year, all festivals and participatory events are to adapt and engage in new ways to continue celebrating dance practices all over the world. Dancers are extremely impacted by COVID, so this day is an important reminder to the world that dance is needed, is resilient and is revolutionary. Let us be reminded that dance is not only performative but informs and is influenced by the social, political, economic, and cultural fabric. We will not only dance in our rooms, in our backyards, on the street, in our digital world and in spaces that can gather in-person. Dance matters in all spaces and positively impacts our lives so we need all sectors of our society to understand the importance of dancers.
We need dance now, more than ever. We’ve seen how resilient artists have been throughout this entire pandemic and everyday we are incredibly moved and inspired by the incredible and thoughtful work they do. Though the future remains uncertain, we’re excited to see what Miss Coco Murray will have going on and are looking forward to the day we can all convene and celebrate in person.
Make sure you head on over to the Miss Coco Murray and Coco Collective websites for updates and more information and to follow them on Instagram and Facebook for upcoming events and opportunities!