Interview with: Shauna Elton
By: David Clennin
Shauna Elton is a dance teacher, choreographer, and performer in Vancouver, BC. She has performed and toured all over the world, dancing under the direction of Peter Boneham with Le Groupe Dance Lab for 9 years. As a choreographer her work has been presented in the Vancouver International Dance Festival, the Canada Dance Festival, Dances for a Small Stage, and much more. Shauna is a certified Nutritional Practitioner and Yoga Instructor. Her technique classes are unique to her personality and have been influenced by her many mentors and instructors.
I believe Shauna’s experiences throughout her career, along with the wisdom gained from her mentors, can help emerging artists better transition from pre-professional programs, and offer insight into becoming working professionals. Shauna is a very energetic person, and has become a great mentor for students she has been teaching. My time spent with her at Simon Fraser University’s Dance Program has been fun, inspirational, and truly helpful towards my career.
David Clennin: What’s the best advice you have for an emerging performer coming out of a training program?
Shauna Elton: The best advice is to be available and involved. So even if you don’t have anything that you can do in a dance setting [you can] be the person who tears tickets, or help with tear down or setup. You’re still going to be part of it in the sense that your presence will be there helping. Go and invest time towards something that you want to get more involved in. Then that just allows you to have more conversations. People get to know you more. And then one thing leads to the next thing.
The other thing I would say as advice for an emerging artist would be to clarify what you want. You might make a choice, and so that choice brings you to a new choice. That’s different. But if you don’t have clarity with your first step, or what you want to do, you can waft around like a hayseed.
I go towards what I have passion for, or what inspires me. So for instance, I wanted to dance for Le Groupe Dance Lab because everything about that was the best thing I had ever heard of. It was my dream job. Plus, as much as Peter Boneham scared me I really liked how he taught. And I knew that his principles and what he was doing, even though I didn’t always get what he was asking for in my body right away, I wanted to aspire to get there. So that information was very clear to me where I was going. So if there is an artist that you totally admire, go towards those things because that will just snowball into bigger clarity. If you go towards what you love, or what brings you either personal satisfaction of how you like to move, or something that you want to aspire to be, then you take that first step and you will just get more and more clear in your direction. Maybe you make that decision and you go towards it and then halfway through you’re like “Oh! I was so wrong! Now I know that I had an idea that is false or something has changed for me” And then that feeds back and you realize “Okay! I’m going to make a new choice, I’m going to go towards this other place that helps me feel fulfilled”
DC: You have a small business, Munch-kin, and are a certified yoga instructor, how have these facets of your life influenced your dance career?
SE: Yoga is not about the body, its more about the mind and how to facilitate a way of being present and having an awareness of yourself. But not everybody goes that far right? You can just do the physical postures and that’s where you can stop and stay there. But if you go further into it, the postures are meant to support a meditation. So once I started figuring that all out I was like “Wow I love this because it’s accessing something that has nothing to do with dancing, its about knowing myself and having joy and contentment in my life” So that’s why I went deeper into yoga, because it’s a practice that, for me, had to do with my brain, with how I think, with how I want to think, how I want my life to be, and recognizing where I was and how I was living my life. So yoga was a completely other investigation [from dance] on a very personal side, that influenced how I am as a person.
With Munch-kin, I just wanted to investigate nutrition and what the affects are, how big was it and its relationship with having a family. I want my children to be extremely healthy. I just don’t want to be the consumer. I want to be an educated consumer so I can make good choices for my family and for myself.
DC: How has becoming a certified nutritional practitioner affected the way you view dancers?
SE: When I was training, I didn’t have any indication of how to take care of [my body], how to have energy, how to take care of injuries, how to maintain anything. I was just like “what are we doing? Having coffee? Alright lets have some coffee!” When I was training, I was within a not very healthy environment.
With dancers no one was ever there to discuss anything, there wasn’t anything like, “hey! This is how your body works and this is how it functions the best” no one ever talked to you about that. So you just had no idea. So if you’re tired and decide to have a coffee or something like that, its not necessarily what your body needs. And you need to think of long term health. Especially for girls, because eventually you will not be dancing and you might want to have a family. There is a lot of things you can do to your body when you’re younger, because you don’t know anything.
DC: Do you think working as a dance artist, that it is important to have other career paths that are intertwined and connected with dance in some way to make your dance career more sustainable?
SE: The dancers that I know that are working are all Pilates instructors. Its like they’re Pilates instructors because that pays well and its flexible. Or teach dance. But here’s something you can look into. Working in a theatre, as a stage manager or just helping out backstage, is an option that allows you to be seen [while at your job].
Go where you’re interested! There’s no point if there’s a reluctance and there’s not even an interest. That’s not a way to spend your time.
DC: You have danced all over Canada during your career, what made you decide to settle on Vancouver?
SE: So after I graduated from the School of Contemporary Dancers [in Winnipeg], which is where I trained, I went to Ottawa solely because it had to deal with that company Le Groupe Dance Lab, and the fact that they brought choreographers from all over the world. And I was like, “that is my dream job.” [Working there] means that I don’t have to work with one particular choreographer. I can be there and work with many different people. I stay in the same spot, but they come [to me].
So first of all I got married, and then within that year it was clear that that would be my last year at the company. All my family all lives out west in Victoria, so then the move to Vancouver was pretty much because I wanted to move closer to family and [the move] had nothing to do with dance in anyway. And then I came in and started looking for the dance scene. I guess ignorance is bliss in the sense of I came with not an idea of what the Vancouver dance scene was, but came with my own my ideas.
DC: And do you think that helped you a lot?
SE: Probably, because I wasn’t coming at it from a place of questioning, I wasn’t doubting anything about my [decision]. I never doubted that I would work here, I just moved here and was like, “where is my work?”
DC: Is there a difference in dance communities/technique/companies across Canada, such as Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto?
SE: Absolutely! Styles, work ethic, vibe, everything is just different.
DC: Okay, because I’ve been having thoughts on moving to other dance scenes and finding work elsewhere.
SE: If you have a clear idea on what you want to do in a different place, it’s better than going there and not having a clear idea. If you go there wafty and have no kind of direction, it won’t give you feedback. What I mean by that is you won’t get a sense of whether or not you like it there or not. Say for instance, if there is a workshop or a summer school or something happening in Toronto that you can invest in, that is good. Find something like that so you can go and be part of something immediately. So make a plan first, then you’ll get an idea right away of “how do I like this particular aesthetic?” You’ll notice right away how it’s different. If you’re going some place you’re going to find out two things. Whether you like it or you don’t. Then it will just clarify whether or not you want to be where you [currently] are or not. Or something else might happen.
DC: In classes you have mentioned “embodied movement,” this is a term that could be interpreted many different ways. What is this concept to you?
HA HAH! That’s the question, what is embodied dancing? You don’t know what that is until you bring it into yourself and explore it and bring it out. And then you have the epiphany “Oh! That’s what embodied dancing is for me!” It doesn’t matter how many teachers tell you about embodied dancing. You can hear it a million times and never get it. Until you figure it out yourself. What that means is if I’m constantly taking information from an external source all the time, I’m not necessarily in touch with the internal feelings or expression of myself. I see that as two dimensional, working very linear or just without really expressing or finding something that is expressive. When I go into myself and bring myself into the movement so that I’m in it and feeling a sensory exploration of dance through these movements that I have been given, then that’s when I start to feel embodied. That’s when I’m bringing myself into the movement versus I’m just moving like a puppet.
*grabs notebook* Let me read you something. This has to do with living [but] I’m going to superimpose it into dance. And it’s talking about authentic. So embodied and authentic to me are kind of interchangeable.
“So to live authentically is to embrace continuous evolution, realizing we are always in flux, always a work in progress. Authenticity requires us to access that deep silent aspect of our being that is nevertheless audible beneath the worrying din of whatever may be happening in our life.” External, external, external. “While supported and guided by the external environment, this authentic state requires a synchronicity with our mind and a moment by moment connection with our body.”
A moment by moment connection with the body. So how are you connected with your body? By your senses! You feel your hands, you feel your breathe, you see through your eyes, you hear from your ears. But what can happen is you can shut that all down, and be moving cerebrally through a combination just based on, step left, step right, step up, step down, and that’s the only thing that you’re doing. So if you can step left, step right, feel my arm, breathe in, exhale, soften, how do I feel, what do I hear, what do I see? Then you start layering your senses into it and then you go from one dimensional, or like a picture on a piece of paper, into flipping out of the paper and becoming more real. And that to me is embodied. (laughter) That was a really long answer
DC: Well there’s never going to be a short answer for that question. I feel it’s similar to “what is contemporary dance?” or “what is art?” There is no simple answer.
SE: So I was reading actually a book by a philosopher, and thought this person isn’t talking about dance, they’re talking about being authentic in life okay. But when I read it it’s exactly like being authentic in movement as a dancer. So to me authenticity is embodiment. The embodied dancer is authentic. The words interplay with each other. It has to do with the senses! Does it not!? Embodied. In your body. How do you know anything or feel anything. How do you feel anything? Through your senses. And what you feel through you hands and your feet is different from what you see, then what you hear, then what you smell. But those are all giving you information.
DC: Do you figure it’s a sort of experience or maturity thing for dancers to get to embodiment?
SE: It’s an investment in going into that exploratory place. So for instance, you could go to a voice and movement workshop, and actually find a door into that place more effectively than taking a ballet class right? Because it’s asking you to go through movement and expression from a different door, a different perspective, which gives you more information.
N.d. Vancouver. Shauna Elton. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://www.trainingsocietyofvancouver.ca/2014/09/27/shauna-elton/>.
Welland, Ben. The CAO Congratulates Peter Boneham on Receiving the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Achievement. N.d. Ottawa.Peter Boneham’s Governor General Award. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://www.arts-ottawa.on.ca/news/2005-10-01-en.php>.