Creative Calgary Congress — Exploring ways that the arts and artists can play a leadership role in making Calgary a more curious, compassionate and creative place for all citizens.

The Dance Expert — Anne Flynn

My area of expertise is dance, and I have taught thousands of dance classes…

Art, Community, Change: Creating Something From Nothing

What happens in processes of community engagement if we start with moving together rather than talking?

Anne Flynn, Professor Emerita (Dance) in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and Member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, posed that question.


East side West side all around the town
The kids sang ring around rosy
London bridge is falling down
Boys and girls together
Me and Mamie O’Rourke
We tripped the lights fantastic
On the sidewalks of New York

This is probably the earliest song and dance routine that I learned in the Brooklyn home where I was raised with my first generation immigrant parents, five brothers and sisters, and my Grandma. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had music, we had singing, we had storytelling, and we had dancing. I had no idea at that time that I would grow up to be a contemporary dance artist very far away from those musical theatre traditions but that experience in my kitchen has continued to inform my work.

So the question that I want to ask is what happens in processes of community engagement if we start with moving together rather than talking?

Open Session #1

Dance is all or nothing. You have to commit. You don’t have to be good. What is good? You just have to own it.

● It is the great common humanity: Our body. There is no stuff: It leaves nothing behind.
● Buddhist notion of common humanity: BREATH.
● Sit and breathe… there is so much space inside.

Comments from participants after breathing exercise:

● We had a moment of mindfulness, in the moment
● Value of taking a rest, it was so good just to take a moment
● Anne: We spend more time in exertion and not enough in recuperation. We promote exertion. Muscles can’t exert unless they let go [rest].

Anne then gave us a choice as to what kind of dance ‘class’ we wanted:

1. Gentle facilitation of self-expression, personal creativity, or;
2. Command-style (i.e., teaching structured steps: take two steps right, tap twice, turn left, etc.).

We chose the creativity one.

Anne gets the group up and moving | Photo: Calgary Arts Development

Anne asked us to write on a card why we came to the congress. Then she asked us to draw what that looked like. We then put the cards on the floor, drawing side up. We all circled around them. Picked one that wasn’t the one we drew.

Pull one word from what was written. Express it as a movement. We all worked on this individually.

Then we shared, in a circle, one after the other. Then Anne had half the class ‘perform’ together their movements for the other half of the class.

Then: What was that like?

● Amazing how when we did them together they actually came together, became something together.
● Individual, but when you work together, something happens.
● Much more intimate than talking.
● Open, not usual. Vulnerable.
● Simplicity. Elegant. It cracks my heart.
● Sometimes there are just too many opinions.
● Movement cuts to the core.

Sense at the end, as we wrapped, was of a terrific bonding. Deeper than if we had been talking together. We created something together, went beyond our comfort zones. Publicly. Together.

Open Session #2

It was very hot in the room.

Anne again started with the breathing exercise. A maintenance man ended our meditative states when he came in to turn down the heat.


● Letting go was so good.
● Taking a moment.
● Idea of leaving the ‘stuff’ behind, of ‘parking’ whatever angst you’ve just been dealing with.
● Anne: Do that. Then breathe, move. …people feel differently after they move around… The stuff in the parking lot doesn’t have the intensity any more.
We are so sedentary — it is easy to get ‘fixed’ in a position.
Moving is a great interruption, it creates space.

Anne again gave the group a choice, per the first session. The group was excited about the structured dance steps, wanted to learn the Marvin Gaye riff.

Off we went.

As posted on the Clothesline | Image: Calgary Arts Development

Comments at the end:
● There is nothing like feeling you have mastered something!
● Transitions are the hardest…
● Failure is so public — success is so shared, so awesome.

Anne: Imagine if we got the entire group at the congress doing this together. …

Participant: It would be so amazing if people could come together and do great things!

Anne: Human beings have been coming together and dancing together, and making noise together for eons. No training. No lessons. No right or wrong.

We have segregated our bodies from everything. We have segregated dance. We have colonized our bodies to our minds, to our voices/talking.

We have undermined our trust in our embodied experience.

Findings from engagement through movement:

● It builds friendships (many examples from Dancing Parkinson’s classes).
● With dance, the learning is public — there is nothing comparable to the spirit that is created when you accomplish something, the collective learning…
● There is transformational change in group movement, in DOING things together. Not talking. Words don’t dominate.
● At a cellular level, cells must move, or they decay.

Physical movement has a tremendous opportunity to be a great and positive possibility to be a disruptor. It actually transforms a conversation or transforms a relationship or a dialogue. — Judy Lawrence, synthesizer for this session.

Anne’s Comments at the End of the Day

The idea of people not coming to a movement workshop is what I’d just like to leave in the room. It’s really interesting. My takeaway, and people who were in the room — to have such a small number of people come, speaks to me of people’s discomfort around the idea of moving together. As a movement educator, I’m remembering that I’m not used to this because I’ve worked my entire life in an environment where I facilitate people’s happiness in moving.

So I’d like to leave a couple of things: the domination of language in our culture is so excessive, we cannot imagine getting together and just shutting up and problem solving by moving together. It’s a radical idea to us.

And, secondly, I’d like to suggest that the colonization that has gone on around the world has its roots in Cartesian dualism and the colonization of the body by the mind is so in“sinew”ated in ourselves, we cannot even conceive of knowledge that is not language-bound. It is not in our conception. And the same MO that is that colonization of the body, that drives us to do all of the things we do with the natural world, it starts internally. So I’m sorry for lecturing, but I found myself at the end of the session thinking that I just have to try to explain and unpack why it’s so uncomfortable for people to just sit next to each other quietly in silence.

Anyway, the takeaway for me is that sometimes I have really profound gratitude to people who are activists and really profound gratitude to people who choose spend their time in this world sitting still for the rest of us.

Anne Flynn

Anne Flynn is Professor Emerita (Dance) in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and Member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

She has been part of the Calgary dance community as dancer, artistic director, scholar, administrator and dance education advocate.

Her research on Canadian women in dance, multiculturalism and performance, and dance in health promotion and education has been presented and published internationally.

She is currently co-investigator on a national SSHRC partnership project on Arts for Social Change, collaborating on research programs on dance for senior citizens, and for people with Parkinson’s disease. Flynn created Calgary’s Dancing Parkinson’s program along with Vicki Adams Willis, Founder in Residence of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks. She is serving as President of the U.S. based Congress on Research in Dance.

About the Creative Calgary Congress

Calgary Arts Development produced the first Arts Champions Congress in 2011 as a meeting place for people who make Calgary’s arts sector a vibrant and exciting place to work and our city a great place to live.

Renamed the Creative Calgary Congress in 2014, it returned on November 22, 2016 as a place to share ideas and explore ways that the arts and artists can play a leadership role in making Calgary a more curious, compassionate and creative place for all citizens.

Learn more about the day and add your voice