Written & Edited by Jessica Cen
Questions by Michael Derworiz September 2020
Hello Frog in Hand friends!
My name is Jessica Cen (she/her) and I am the Business Manager of Frog in Hand. I recently had the great pleasure of chatting with Alex Pollard (he/him) on the current state of our world, and Alex’s own experiences as a BIPOC artist. Alex is a dancer, choreographer, and instructor, and is the owner and Artistic Director of City Centre Dance, an innovative and vital dance studio in Mississauga. City Centre Dance offers a wide selection of dance classes in styles such as hip-hop, jazz-funk, contemporary, heels, and dancehall in various levels for people of all ages and abilities.
First, some important notes & trigger warning Please be advised, there are sensitive topics discussed in this interview, including racism, sexual assault and the #metoo movement. There are links to resources at the end of this blog post. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Jessica Cen (JC): Thank you Alex for chatting with me today! May you please introduce yourself, your pronouns, and the background of your practice?
Alex Pollard (AP): My name is Alex. My pronouns are he/him. I’ve been a professional dancer, choreographer, and instructor for eight years now. I am the owner and Artistic Director of City Centre Dance, which is located in Mississauga. A lot of my training has come from cultural practices and I’ve borrowed a lot from cultures that I’ve learned from and that’s kind of what encompasses my styles. Even though I am a commercial dancer, a lot of what I do has come from various cultures. For example, the Black and Latinx communities - that’s where most commercial styles come from. We even take from African cultures every day as well. I am a commercial dancer, but I have to acknowledge where all of that comes from and that it’s more so a fusion of various cultures rather than specific styles and genres of dance. I have done a lot of different shows, festivals, film and television. I’ve been on YTV and Much Music. I’ve performed at the Indian International Film Awards, the Juno Awards, The Next Star, Filipino TV, and much more. I did my Bachelor of Arts at York University and I also did some training in New York City – Alvin Ailey, Peridance, and Broadway Dance Centre.
JC: Wonderful! We are living in very extraordinary times right now. What is something you have learned in isolation through these challenges, and what are you grateful for or have found appreciation for in this time?
AP: I think isolation has allowed the entire world to stop and slow down. And the beauty of that is because of everything going on in the world and because everything is very heavy and it affects the Black community, especially directly and it hits a lot of people close to home, including myself. We have to do a lot of self-work, so we’ll be able to identify anything within ourselves that could be discriminatory that we may not know of subconsciously, like habits or micro-aggressions that we could have ourselves. We’ve been able to identify that by seeing what that looks like on other people. We’re able to unlearn a lot of those things and relearn new ways of approaching others, confronting others, thinking, teaching others how we should think as a human race, and things to be considerate about. I think that’s been a huge lesson. We’ve just had to take a step back and do self work to be a better society. We want a just society. We want a society that promotes equality and equal rights for every person and race - no matter where you come from, what your background is, and what the colour of your skin is. We’re all deserving of the same opportunities, love, and respect.
I’m grateful to be someone in the BIPOC community. We’re a mix of Black, Caribbean, and others in my family. It’s been interesting to sit back and spend time to talk with my family in these times and see how it’s been affecting them and myself. In the Caribbean community, there is a lot of racism between the West Indians, Black, and Latinx people there. I’m able to have those discussions with my family and try to understand why that happens and then, helping and assisting them in their process of trying to unlearn what they’ve been taught growing up. Also, realizing that right now with everything that’s happening, we can’t really disassociate ourselves because we are also of that background. No matter what the percentage is, it’s still going to affect us as people of colour regardless of how dark we are. Just trying to put things into perspective has made me pretty grateful because it’s allowed me and my family to think, and it’s allowing us to do better and be better people.
JC: Yes, absolutely. This has been a social issue for over a hundred years with the civil rights movement that has roots from the late 1800s and it’s sad to see that it’s still happening today. As you were talking about what you hope will change in the world, how do you see that reflecting in the future of your work as an artist?
AP: I have always been someone who tends to highlight those who are in the BIPOC community more than white artists. It’s not that I want to exclude anybody. I believe in putting BIPOC talent at the forefront because it’s never the case especially in commercial and contemporary dance. You see a lot of white artists and what changes them in distinction is their hair colour or something really minor like hair length, one has freckles and one does not, one is more pale or one has more tanned skin. That has tended to be how people cast and that’s their diversity. Given the platform and power I have within my company and my studio, City Centre Dance, a majority of my faculty are from the BIPOC community. I have been devoted and I will continue to highlight those who need to be highlighted because opportunities are so far and few in between. It can be difficult pursuing the arts especially in an art form that is white dominated, especially in dance, and being a person of colour and trying to make it happen for you. As the years go on, I will continue to highlight my community and those who are of a minority. What we’ve been doing is hosting panel discussions, covering different topic such as colourism, systemic and institutionalized racism, recovering, sexism, the arts administration world… We’ve been covering those different topics even with those who are in LGBTQ+ community and the BIPOC community. It’s kind of like the combining and intersectionality of the two communities just to hear different voices and each of these mediums and how it is across the board. It’s relatively the same over ending and over arching issues - that our voices are not heard, there’s not enough opportunity, and it’s a challenge to make a change. Often times, in the arts admin world, people at the top are white and you could have a position that could be for example, the assistant to the director, and it could be a great position as a person of colour, but that doesn’t mean you will be heard by those above you. It’s not the case ever. I’m devoted to trying to create opportunities for the BIPOC community and uplifting them and highlighting them first and foremost. And it’s not to exclude white people – I do have white staff. I believe in people who are talented, but within all of this going on, I feel also that white people need to realize that sometimes there needs to be spaces without them because they dominate almost every space that exists. So, it’s important to have spaces where other people can be at the forefront and lead that space.
JC: That’s really wonderful. Those are really big things to take on for change, especially finding ways for how people can be better accomplices for the BIPOC community. It’s so important. What kind of resources do you find helpful in this time and what kinds of advocacy and activism do you participate in?
AP: I’ve been sharing a lot of different resources on our Instagram through our LinkTree on City Centre Dance. I’ve provided different resources not just for Black Lives Matter but also the LGBTQ+ and Indigenous communities. What I find that to be the most helpful are resources that include petitions, places to donate, articles, video links of protests and discussions. Also, I love resources made for newcomers maybe those who are new to Canada or are from other places in the world or identify with certain communities. They provide accesses to different community and recreational groups to get them started and help them feel settled and integrated within the society here. In terms of activism for myself, I’ve been protesting - attending different protests in Mississauga and Toronto. I’ve been donating and signing petitions. I continue to share different links and posts I see floating around social media that are credible. I also share emails and phone numbers of various governors in the USA so people can take actions for certain injustices that are going on over there. I’m trying to continue to use my voice to make sure that everyone is aware of what’s going on and doing their due diligence.
JC: That’s great. These issues are frequently buried under the carpet especially in the media with the unjust deaths of many young black folx in the community. These events are not talked about often. I think at this point, silence is unaffordable. People should become more involved.
AP: … Yeah, I feel that if you remain silent, then you are definitely a part of the problem. People of colour and black people don’t want to be the only ones who constantly post about that or feel that they need to fight. You also need your white allies to do a lot of the work and not feel that you aren’t expect to learn or take any emotional labour for everyone else. It has to be on your white ally to do their own research and homework, find resources and do their own advocacy for the black community. That’s what really needed because white allies – if they are posting and sharing and tagging and promoting this movement and this change that we want, other white folx are going to probably be more responsive to seeing another white person sharing these things. From different conversations and what I’ve noticed myself, any white folx don’t really listen to they don’t ay attention when it’s people of colour or black people who are fighting the fight. Our point is to make our white allies realize what’s going on and identify the privileges they have within themselves and their advantages in society. So, we need them to do the work, we need them to speak to one another, hold one another accountable and make their community do better. We can’t do that for them.
JC: I agree. It’s also like what you’ve said earlier: “unlearning what you’ve been taught your entire life,” which is unfortunate that we still live in this system where it’s very much shrouded in injustice, mistreatment and discrimination towards BIPOC folx. You also mentioned accountability just now. What are your thoughts on cancel culture, growth and accountability, especially with social media now that everyone is online during this pandemic?
AP: I am someone who always wants to see people grow and do better. I’ve been sexually assaulted by someone in the industry. There is still the #METOO movement within the dance industry and community. A lot of artists are coming out with statements and their stories. I don’t believe in cancel culture to an extent. I want to see people do better and I want to see them grow. I want to see them hold themselves accountable, take responsibility for their own actions, vow to do better, and seek help and professional services and treatments. Anyone who has done something or said something terrible repeatedly regarding sexual assault or racism, they need help. Of course, we will be upset, angry, sad and feel all of those different feelings. But at the end of the day, that person needs help. To some people, my abuser could be a great person. To others, he could be terrible. To me, he’s terrible. You don’t really know someone as well as you think. If you’re on the friendlier side of someone who could be doing wrong, you as being relatively close to them, you have to hold them accountable and make them do better if you’ve been hearing things they’ve done or said that are really problematic. You have to make them do better if you are going to be their friend and if you want to be their friend. I guess I feel the cancelling needs to happen when people don’t want to hold themselves accountable, they don’t want to seek help, and they stand by what they’ve said or done. In that case, what else can you do? You don’t want to be helped and you don’t want to do better. To me, that makes you a bad person. It sucks because I want to see the good in people. But… I do trust and hope for the most part people will change. We shouldn’t cancel immediately because it’s like giving up on the person. I believe that people deserve second chances, but they need to take the necessary and appropriate steps.
JC: Absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing your story and for your courage. You’re right, we all want to see the good in people, we want to give people chances and for them to grow because we’re all human beings. There’s only so much you can do to help somebody, so if they don’t want to help themselves, then you did all you could. As you were talking about this movement and your experiences in the community, I’m wondering: what do you want people to take away from the Black Lives Matter movement and all of the other current intersectional protests and activism?
AP: I just want people to realize the world we’ve been living in and the ways we’ve been taught things. Our whole lives, so much of it has been a lie. So many things that we were taught to have certain viewpoints on and feelings on: that’s all wrong. A big takeaway from the Black Lives Matter movement is for people to realize, mainly white folx to realize, that the point of it all is for us to get to a place where the world doesn’t contain any bigotry, discrimination, racism, sexual violence. We want a world without any of that. We want equal opportunities, affordable housing, jobs that have livable wages, and universal education and healthcare. The Black community often gets the short end of every stick. We’re not considered first for opportunities, we’re not taken as seriously, our voices are not heard in various industries. At this point, it’s just frustrating, especially with police brutality. Defund the police and put funds into other areas that will help to uplift the community. That’s the point. The point isn’t to take away all of the police money. That’s not the point and that’s what people are thinking. I also do believe that police need stricter training. If you need eight years to be a lawyer, you need eight years to be a police officer. I don’t think a six-month college level program is sufficient enough. There are no admission requirements to get in. You should need to have good grades and go through really intense schooling to get to the point of being responsible for the wellbeing of others, their lives and their safety while enforcing the law. It’s crazy to me when people think it’s propaganda - it’s wild. I just want people to realize what it is we want as a society and it’s for a better society. It’s not necessarily to bring one community at more of an advantage than another community, it’s so that we are all on the same playing field and move towards the goal of a world where we’re happy and equal. That’s what we need to remember.
JC: Yeah, definitely. It’s kind of like seeing something weighted more on one side and taking that weight and putting it so it’s on the other side…
AP: Yeah, spreading it out! We’re all equal. That’s really all it is. It’s equal in a lot of ways, like I just said. It’s not all just about, “We don’t want to be shot by police.” No, we want these opportunities, we want our voices to be heard, we want these platforms to uplift our talented folx, and trans folx. So much of everything in the world is white dominated and we need more represented across the board.
JC: Yes. You were talking earlier about having conversations with your family about what’s been going on in the current world. What other conversations inspire you and what are things that you are talking about now that wasn’t a part of your daily life before, or had more stigma? What were some of the topics that came up?
AP: Any conversation that is enlightening that I can learn from or take something away, that is always inspiring. I want to always be learning about things. I want to be able to take away things to apply to my life and thought process and change my way of thinking on a certain topic. Mainly conversations surrounding the BLM movement, the LGBTQ+ community and especially lately, Indigenous communities. That is where my main tackle is right now. I have to acknowledge I don’t know enough about history, about what the Indigenous community is facing and the struggles they’ve had. I know a little about it, but I don’t know as much as I’d like to. That’s an area I know I need to do work in. Now what’s especially not a stigma anymore is mental health and sexual assault, harassment and violence. I no longer feel that there’s a stigma when I talk about it. I just talk about these things so openly, having gone through both and identify with both. I want to help others and share my story and hear others’ stories to help myself continue to heal and help others heal. And raise awareness about these things that so many people face in the world and stay silent about.
JC: That’s very inspiring. Who is someone you admire in the community and who you look up to in the dance community?
AP: There are so many people who inspire me! The one person who really inspires me is Tasha Tazz. She is like a legend in the Toronto dance community. She’s been doing this for over twenty years. I’m always inspired by her as a human being because she’s beautiful inside and out. She has always had a human [sic] approach at things, she always treats everyone with love, compassion, patience, and kindness. She always wants to help people do better in their practice. She really cards about her students and she cares about making a change in dance communities. She has had various initiatives that have led her to advocate or fair rates, for more jobs in our city. She recently started her own agency with a partner that’s part of [sic] and they’re trying to uplift Black and BIPOC talent within their roster because they know it is underrepresented. So, she’s someone who lives, breathes, and does all of the work that’s necessary for a better, well-rounded industry. She’s also aware of everything that’s going on with the #METOO movement in the dance community. She wants these people to be better because these could be people who we know, we’ve worked with, and might have learned from. She’s in this to make change. How she approaches her everyday life is incredible. I don’t know how she does it. You have to be a strong person to be able to tackle all of that every day and integrate it into your practice, goals, and future. I really admire her for her work and what she’s trying to do right now.
JC: Wow, she sounds so amazing, definitely a trailblazer in the community.
AP: She is!
JC: What resources do you find helpful in this time and what are you inspired by lately in pop culture, like movies, music, tv shows, podcasts, books?
AP: Yeah, I’ve been watching @Ziwef on Instagram. She does an IG live every night at 8 pm. She brings on anyone who has been problematic and racist to the platform and asks them questions. She does it in a more comedic approach. She’s calling them out, but it’s intended to be funny. I really love that because often the guests does not know the context of the interview, so that makes it even funnier. It’s like you have to come into her space that is Black-dominated to hold yourself accountable and be wrong about many things. I love that because it forces these people who are racist and problematic to hold themselves accountable live in front of thousands of viewers. She’ll ask questions like name five Black friends you have, who is Martin Luther King Jr., who is Rosa Parks, who is Malcolm X? And she’ll ask like, what are five qualitative things you like about Black people? And you really shouldn’t answer that, but when they do, it’s funny (laughs). I love her approach and, in a way, she’s teaching people what’s right and wrong right there on the show. So, that’s something I’ve been into in the pop culture realm.
JC: (laughs) That’s so funny! Just putting someone on the spot. They just walk into a room and they think they’re going to get a cheque or something, but then it’s…
AP: (laughs) Yeah, it’s like - no!
JC: (laughs) … Getting a check on life instead!
AP: (laughs) That’s exactly what it is!
JC: (laughs) Yeah! So, what is a short-term goal you wish for in your life? They can be for the Black Lives Matter rights movement or in your personal life.
AP: For my personal life, I want to continue to grow my studio and I also have an agency. I’m hoping to book more high-profile jobs like for Netflix because it’s important if I can represent people who look like me in my community. And for the BLM movement, I don’t want the momentum to die down. I don’t want it to be treated as a trend, I hope it continuously grows. There’s been a lot of conversation, but I want to see more action and action planning with those in power so they can create a change that we can see and a change that people can benefit and use those resources that can change people’s lives. So, that’s short and long-term what I’m hoping for.
JC: Definitely, it’s what I would like to see, too. So, what are any projects you’re working on if you don’t mind sharing?
AP: (laughs) No problem! I just did a gig for Calgary Pride, that was really fun. I co-choreographed and danced for a South Asian artist, it was for the South Asian stage and it was a virtual event. Right now, I’m focusing on the studio. We’re doing a gradual reopening with all the precautions for COVID-19. Were going on a part-time schedule, and two times a week is what we’ve been doing so far. We’re launching a six-week program and lowering the student capacity to ten. So, we can have something to work on rather than one-off classes. It makes sense for business at the moment to have these programs. We’re doing two dancehall programs, which is really awesome. We’ve been doing different pop up classes in different styles like Bollywood, heels, jazz funk, and reggaeton. I’m also in the process of auditioning for films.
JC: That’s awesome! I wish you all the best in that!
AP: Thank you!
JC: That sounds so exciting and to have these gigs during this pandemic is wonderful.
AP: Yeah, I’m very grateful!
JC: My last question is: what inspires you, what gets you up in the morning, why do you do what you do?
AP: It’s been really hard lately. To be honest, I haven’t been the most inspired (laughs). Normally what gets me up is thinking about where I want to be, and the kind of world I want to live in and hoping I can contribute to that in some way shape or form. It’s getting to where I want to be in life and hoping I can make some change along the way.
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2021 Update A reader of this blog, Shelly, is an advocate for Black Lives Matter. Shelly recently reached out to Frog in Hand to share an article about protecting ourselves online as supporters of Black rights. You can find the article by clicking here. Thanks Shelly for reaching out and sharing this important resource.