Authenticity, Transformation and Wellness: Tuesday Morning Coffee with Desirée Dunbar

Interviewer: Jenna lee Hay

Interviewee: Desirée Dunbar

Location of Interview: Acme Cafe, Vancouver BC

Time of Interview: 10:00am

Over bottomless coffee at Acme Cafe in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, I spoke with the ever-inspiring Desirée Dunbar of her wildly successful dance career in performance, choreography and education, as well as her aims to bring wellness and joy to others. Having been a student of Dunbar’s for the past three years, I entered the interview thrilled to gain a greater insight into her practices and the respective intentions behind them. While speaking to Dunbar, it became clear that she was not only a successful multifaceted businesswoman, but an integral component to Vancouver’s dance community as well. Our interview soon became a curious conversation between dancers, as in several occasions Dunbar humorously reversed the speaking roles, prompting me for answers instead. Dunbar’s commitment to finding wellness, authenticity and fun within dance is truly commendable and highlights that she is truly a force to be reckoned with.

JLH: Over the span of your extensive and influential dance career you have drawn upon multiple art forms and practices to create an extraordinary and transformative impact upon the Vancouver dance community. In your words how would you describe what you do?

DD: Yes, I have been thinking about this a lot lately and I often ask myself “who am I?”. I believe I will always be asking myself this question. Currently my purpose is to guide others in the experience of transformation, as well as to assist them in moving into their own purpose. I feel that if everyone is really solid in their purpose, we will all be contributing equally, and there will be more flow and expansion within the world. I feel that leading by example is really the best thing I can do. l try to be as conscious and aware as a woman, as an artist, and to embrace life fully. Which to me means having fun. So, allowing myself to have fun and do all of the things that I find most enjoyable, things that I could do all day long. For me that is making art, creating.

JLH: That’s great! You have lead an immense dance performance career, having worked with many acclaimed Canadian choreographers, most notably as a dance principle for Judith Garay’s contemporary dance company, Dancer’s Dancing. How long were you with Dancer’s Dancing? Are you still with them?

DD: I started in 1999, right when the company was essentially conceived. My first performance was at the Firehall [theatre] onstage with the artistic director, Judith Garay. [It was] three solos, one for Holly Bright, one for myself, and one for Judith. That piece was Judith’s last show she did before her retirement. From that death-into-birth she retired and completed that circle for herself. [Dancers Dancing] was born from there. That was a really nice transition to be involved in. So, technically I am still with the company. That’s a long time! [Laughter]. I don’t know how many years that is.

David Cooper. Desirée Dunbar in Exiled. 2011. Photograph. Courtesy of Desirée Dunbar.

David Cooper. Desirée Dunbar in Exiled. 2011. Photograph. Courtesy of Desirée Dunbar.

JLH: Continuing with that, you have had quite a connection with Martha Graham and therefore Judith Garay, how has that translated into your practice?

DD: I have also been thinking about that a lot lately. Martha Graham has been a huge influence in my dance career, as she was the reason why I started modern dance. I had only done ballet and jazz before. My first Graham technique class was with David Earle in 1992 at a summer school in Victoria. I totally fell in love with the technique, my mind was blown. I didn’t know it was possible to move like that, and that my heart could expand so wide from dancing. I feel like my body is a similar type to what Martha’s was with long torso and open hips, so my body just automatically [went] into that technique. From there I arrived at Simon Fraser University and Judith was my teacher. I found myself in the Graham technique again and not by any plan that I knew of. I connected with the passion in which Judith gave us lessons, she was just so dedicated to her craft. She was still dancing and still in her prime when I took her class. She’s like the Wayne Gretzky of dance [Laughter]. I’m not kidding, her technique was just incredible – amazing. I didn’t know a human body could do that.

JLH: Wow. I can still see it when she moves. That’s really amazing. What provoked your inspiration to move towards dance education? 

DD: I’ve actually always taught along the way. I’m one of those kinds of people that when I teach, it helps me to learn the subject matter too. I started dancing when I was really young, and I started teaching when I was fourteen. I taught a hip-hop class [Laughter]. Yes, hip-hop. So for me it’s been really important the whole way long and I think I naturally find myself in leadership roles. I like that responsibility and that connection with other students. It’s not a one-way street with teaching. Every time that I go into a class to teach I feel like I’m [also] gaining so much new information.

JLH: You never really felt nervous? It always just came naturally to you?

DD: Oh yes, I feel very nervous [Laughter]. But I started early, so I just found it so fun. It wasn’t something I thought a lot about at the time, it sort of just happened. I started with kids and kids are so naturally playful and open, so they are an easy group to work with.

JLH: Yes, that is very true.

DD: But of course it can be daunting. I remember teaching my first professional class where I was teaching one of my peers, and that definitely made me nervous [Laughter]. But a good kind of nervous, a nervous that makes you step up your game.

JLH: When did you start teaching professional classes?

DD: That’s a good question. Maybe about ten years ago? I’ve taught some company classes for Dancer’s Dancing and also through CADA, [Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists], the professional class in town here.

JLH: So, along with dance, as we have been talking about, you also practice energy healing techniques such as Reiki and Energetic NLP. How have these techniques informed your dance teaching methods?

DD: Yeah, I started exploring healing methods right in my early twenties because I didn’t want to be in pain [while] dancing. Dancing is a very challenging, athletic activity that puts a lot of load on our body. When I first started experiencing pain in my body I started getting massages and I met my friend, Laurie McEwen. She did a lot of healing work with me that helped more than just my body. [The healing work] was on a personal soul level as well, which only infused my dancing with a deeper wisdom. I got to know myself better through the healing methods and my dancing became enriched. Eventually I went on to become a Reiki master, learning different types of Reiki methods with the intent to be able to heal myself. That went way further than I knew was possible. It opened me up to a higher power that I wasn’t aware I had a connection to. My faith in God, in Source, became very apparent and my whole life changed.

JLH: Wow. What age were you during this time?

DD: That would have been 2008-ish? Yes, so not that long ago. Then everything changed in my life, I broke up with my boyfriend, I moved out of my house that I was in for ten years, I took a break from Dancer’s Dancing and I went and lived in Bali for a while. I practiced yoga everyday, I saw a Balinese healer, and just connected to spirit on a really deep level.

JLH: When you came back to Vancouver, how did that feel?

DD: Well, I didn’t come back to Vancouver right after that. I actually went to do my Masters degree in Tucson, Arizona right from Bali. I asked the Universe for a teacher, as I really wanted a teacher to come into my life that would help me move forward in my path. I just assumed it would be in the University [Laughter], but it actually turned out that it was more in the spiritual realm. My friend and teacher in Tucson, Jeff Tambor, does Energetic NLP and I became his student. He taught me the tools, and again it was life changing. It allowed me to start to feel more comfortable with myself and read more into the feeling of taking off masks, to be more authentic, which is really the best thing I could ever do in terms of my art practice. I wasn’t trying to be somebody else, I wasn’t just doing Martha Graham’s work and I wasn’t just a dancer in Judith’s company. I really started to see the worth in living as an artist, and it just gave me the confidence to step forward into that role as an artist.

JLH: That really sounds wonderful. It sounds like it all came together with your modern dance practice. What is the “Dancing the Wild Method” and how does it differ from other methods of dance?

DD: The “Dancing the Wild Method”, or the “Graceful Awareness Method” is always evolving, or “du jour”, because my ideas and philosophies are constantly transforming. I don’t necessarily adhere to one idea at a time, I try to keep my mind open to different things. [“Dancing the Wild Method”] is a method to move into authenticity. In the studio I bring in energy work methods, meditation, movement meditation and inner-work tools, so that we are bringing forth ourselves expressively through the body. It feels good to bring things out that may have been locked away and to move into a deeper awareness – a deeper sense of believing in ourselves and opening more to joy. That is what interests me. So it’s kind of selfish in a way because that is just what fascinates me, the process of transformation and the process of-

Waitress:   More coffee?

JLH and DD:  Yes, sure!

JLH: Coffee break! [Laughter]

Allison Mullally. Desirée Dunbar. 2012. Photograph. Courtesy of Desirée Dunbar.

Allison Mullally. Desirée Dunbar. 2012. Photograph. Courtesy of Desirée Dunbar.

DD: Yeah, so I’m just fascinated by transformation, it’s what I want to do for myself. So when I’m with other people who want to do the same thing, it just reinforces what I’m already doing.

JLH: I think that’s really important. I believe you’ve said that dancers give a lot and there’s not usually a lot left over, so it’s nice to make sure that you give something back to yourself, without that feeling of guilt.

DD: Thank you for validating me!

JLH: [Laughter]. Well I have certainly found it helpful.

DD: So you have done Energetic NLP processes through movement and through the meditations, what do you think the benefits are? – Now I’m interviewing you!

JLH: No, this is great. [Laughter]. [Energetic NLP] has been huge for me. It has enriched my performance, my technique, my self and my daily life. Dancer’s tend to end their [dance] classes and go on with their day, but with your techniques you leave still feeling the wonderful and positive effects. It makes you want to dance for your entire life. [Pause] – this is a hard thing to articulate! It’s really nice to integrate healing with athletics, and [these techniques] are hard to find, that’s why it’s nice to have you in Vancouver.

DD: [Laughter], thank you.

JLH: Can you give a background on [your contemporary dance company], Dezza Dance?

DD:  It is very new, formed just in the last year, right around the same time that I started the Catalyst Performance Program. [The Catalyst program] is a group of SFU grads that I had worked with all through their time at SFU. [This performance group] gave me work and I started to really practice the method of “Graceful Awareness”, or “Dancing the Wild” with them. It was an awesome opportunity for me to really hone my skills and to learn, I feel grateful to them. I started to think more about how my choreography could manifest in the professional realm, and what it would mean to have my own organization. I think my idea of a dance company is different than when I was five years old when I started dancing [Laughter]. This vision of a New York dance company and that’s your job and that’s is all you do – it’s not really like that anymore. So for me this organization is a way to facilitate my purpose, which is to facilitate other people on their path. So for instance in May I’ll be holding a workshop on body image that will be facilitated by renowned psychotherapist Rose Matovitch and myself. It will be aimed at dancers, but will be open to the public as well. With Dezza Dance I will also be doing a solo in early April and there will be a dance lab where I mentor emerging dancers in performance as well.

JLH: I think that what you are doing is really wonderful, because there are large voids between the completion of a dance program and the professional world in Vancouver. In University we don’t learn about issues such as body image, we don’t get taught about all of these things that are integral [to dance]. It’s really important that you are coming in and helping us along. I think what you’re doing is really special for Vancouver.

DD: It was not that long ago that I was in the same boat, so I feel like we have to help each other. With dance there’s no manual, you need to connect with peers. I feel that it’s part of my job. And it’s fun! [Laughter].

JLH: You’re right! I recently had the pleasure of viewing Dezza Dance perform “Flap and Whirl” in April 2014. Your performed your choreography alongside six dancers with the accompaniment of Iffy South in the intimate Moberly Arts & Culture Centre in Vancouver. How have collaborations such as this, with dancers, musicians and other artists augmented your own practice?

DD: I would actually say that my practice is to collaborate with other artists, especially musicians, because honestly music is the reason why I dance. My love for music comes before my love for dance, if I am honest with myself. It is what inspires me. Feeling the resonance of the energy and the emotion in music, feeling it vibrate through me and bringing it forward through movement. That is what really fuels me as a choreographer. I love working with musicians and composers, because they do the same things that we do. They are expressing themselves through tools that bring energy forward in the moment. I also like collaborating with someone like Iffy South, [also known as] Elliot Vaughan. There’s a really nice co-creation, a flow of ideas between us to create something new. It’s always so surprising to me what comes out of it. I love the spontaneity of that. Also, working with other dancers is totally fascinating to me. How can I bring out the best in all the dancers so that everyone feel validated and comfortable and grounded?

JLH: Do you usually come with choreography in mind or do you do more of an improvisational process with the dancers?

DD: That’s a good question. I do both. I feel like there are so many tools that I have in my kit that I can draw from. I love seeing dancers move in their own way, a way that’s most authentic to them. I don’t always like to enforce my movement on other people. For one thing, it doesn’t necessarily feel good on other bodies. What feels great for me might not feel great for someone else, and I’m really not into suffering. If we can all find our own ways and if I can somehow make it all gel together, that [would be] ideal.

JLH: Going off what we’ve been talking about, you have many exciting projects in development  what are your goals or dreams for the future? 

DD: Oh my! [Laughter].

JLH: I know, it’s a big question.

DD: No, it’s great to think about. I like to daydream about what’s possible [Laughter]. I guess my method is to follow the energy and let it build naturally. I’ve definitely done the opposite. Now I’m just being more discerning about what feels really good to me and not caring about what other people think. I’m also doing more one-on-one sessions in “Graceful Awareness”, which is fun for me because it’s totally different than teaching a big class. Teaching a big class takes a huge amount of energy, it’s like doing a little performance all the time [Laughter]. I’m thinking about longevity and what I want to be doing all day long. What I really want to be doing all day is making dances [Laughter]. That’s what I love.

JLH: I know what you mean about teaching. I find it exhausting! [Laughter]. So that’s a great way to look at it. You have successfully managed your own career as a dance performer and educator as well as run several businesses including your company Dezza Dance, what advice would you give to aspiring dancers such as myself who are entering the professional world?

DD: Well, I’ve learnt that persistence is huge. Resilience. Don’t let anybody take you down, and find ways to love yourself. Deep self-love, self-worth, is huge. Also to know that self-doubt is normal, and actually a good thing. Within every creative process there is always self-doubt. [Soon] we actually begin to recognize when it appears, like “Oh, I’m in the self-doubt phase now – awesome!” [Laughter]. Just knowing that you’re not striving to feel super-awesome all the time. All of those moments where you’re not sure what you’re doing, you don’t know how your dance is going to turn out, your family thinks you should have a different job, “is anyone going like it?”, “am I even supposed to be doing this?”, just remember to keep doing the inner work to find the self-love. The more stable we are inside, the more stable our environment will be too. As artists we deserve to have that stability so that we can be at our best.

JLH: Yeah, I’ve found that you have to remember that if you do one yoga session or one Reiki session you can’t be just like,“Oh, well now I’m good for life”.  

DD: I know! [Laughter]

JLH: Even the next day you might feel crappy for no reason but you have to keep going.

DD: That is a really good point. It is a practice over time that takes baby steps. And dance is not balanced. Especially doing choreography, you may kick your leg eight times on one side and that’s your day. And the goal [of dance] is not balance and wellness. – What do you think the goal of dancing is? If you are in a company?

JLH: In a company? I’ve often seen dancers referred to as interpreters, or expanders.

DD: For what purpose, do you think?

JLH: [Pause]. For the director’s vision, to be communicators.

DD: For what reason?

JLH: For expression, for art? [Laughter].

DD: Yes, for art and for the director’s vision. You’re allowing the director’s vision, and energies, belief systems, their soul, to move through you and to co-create with your energy. So there’s a creation that’s going on between the two of you and you’re communicating it outward to create art. That is the goal, and that’s amazing.

JLH: Yeah, you’re right! 

DD: But it’s not wellness. So with other methods like yoga and Pilates, the goal is balance. So as dancers, or for me personally, I feel the need to support my ability to be that communicator, by doing things outside like yoga, Pilates, Reiki and NLP. [These practices] will keep my body, mind, spirit and soul as balanced as possible so I’m better able to do my job. We can’t expect that it’s going to happen in the studio. We can’t expect that our directors will take care of us, in most cases they will, which is really generous, but it’s our responsibility to take care of ourselves.

JLH: You’re right. And just to finish up, you’re a very successful businesswoman making huge strides in Vancouver, what kind of advice would you give to women – to business women?  

DD: Entrepreneurs?

JLH: Yes, entrepreneurs, that’s a good word, yes!

DD: Well, [Laughter] I think studying the business side is good, and fun! Just like we study how to do [dance techniques such as] tendus and plies, why not learn the secrets to success? A lot of people have paved the way to do that. Three people that I look up to are Marie Forleo, Gabby Bernstein, and Kris Carr, all who are successful, young entrepreneurs. What I notice with all of them is that they’re all authentic and their businesses come from the heart. They’re all very bold with their choices. They’re not letting the self-doubt voice stop them, because guaranteed they have it. So that’s what I kind of strive to do – and I’m scared every day! [Laughter]. It’s not easy!

JLH: That’s really good to know. It’s ok to be doubtful or scared.

DD: It’s ok! And it’s going to happen and to not have an expectation that it shouldn’t. It keeps me honest and keeps me questioning what I’m doing. “Am I serving myself? Am I serving the world with this?”. You can make a lot of mistakes, and that’s ok.

JLH: Yeah, that’s how you learn and progress.

DD: You try out one idea that doesn’t quite work, but then the next idea builds on the last one and you see it in a different way. Yeah, it’s fun!

JLH: Is there anything else you’d like to add to finish up?

DD: Hmm, I don’t think so. This was fun to do, thank you! It’s always nice to hear if you’re having some sort of impact on people in the world.

JLH: Well thank you for your time!

DD: It was a pleasure!

Works Cited

“Dancers Dancing | Vancouver Contemporary Dance.” Dancers Dancing | Vancouver 

     Contemporary Dance. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

“Dezza Dance Catalyst Program with Desirée Dunbar.” Vimeo. Web. 31 Jan. 2015.

“My Story.” Desirée Dunbar, MFA. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.

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