Education and Classes, Features & Spotlights

A Return to the Studios and Dancing Toward Graduation

April 27, 2021

“There are so many amazing things about the program. At GBD they teach us not only how to
be a dancer of a specific style, but to be complete artists.”

George Brown Dance
From left to right: Dancers Taisiia, Estelle, Valentina.

In 2020, GBC’s student newspaper, The Dialog, chatted with three international students, Estelle, Valentina, and Taisiia, currently training in GBD’s Dance Performance Program. We caught up with them again as they wrapped up their winter semester to learn what it had been like to dance from home during the pandemic, their return to the studios, and what they are most looking forward to as they head into their final semester.

GBC & CBJ offered Fall Engagement Classes for students to keep training during the pandemic. What was it like to train and create fully in a virtual setting?

Valentina Polanco: It was a challenge, not only to find the space at home to dance and in completely different conditions compared to the studios, but also to find the motivation to get out of bed, go to the living room to dance. It was frustrating to not be able to do all the exercises full out, but it was a blessing that GBC & CBJ offered those classes. Without them I know I wouldn’t have trained by myself. In fact, I was very impressed with the final results. It was incredible to see how many dancers connected from different parts of the world and how we all got inspired and the way we were super creative with that.

Taisiia Zamula: It was so nice to engage in virtual classes offered by CBJ and GBC. During the pandemic, with our semester being moved from September to January, I had so many months without dancing. I was getting demotivated easily and felt separated from the dance world. With Fall Engagement Classes I felt like a part of the community again, felt motivated and inspired to work on myself. There were some challenges in the way of attending classes, so I did not participate in all of them. I had a tiny space, and my work hours often overlapped with classes. However, the time spent online with such a professional team of teachers and dancers helped me learn many helpful skills, how to keep focus in a home setting, interact with others online, and be creative with the space I have.

Estelle Tang: I was luckily able to fly back to Hong Kong to be with family. That meant that there was a 12-hour time difference. I took some of the ballet classes and started creating with Hanna Kiel and Irma Villafuerte. At first, I genuinely enjoyed staying up until 4am for the sake of creating. Abruptly, health issues forced me to withdraw. The few classes that I attended helped me to stay in contact with my teachers and peers, as well as meet the incoming students. 

“I came to Canada with one specific goal in mind, to become a professional dancer.”

What has kept you inspired to keep working and training through the pandemic?

TZ: My family, particularly my mom, is someone who inspires me all the time. She helped me to pursue my dreams and supported me coming to dance in Canada at GBC. The path to becoming a professional dancer is very important to me, and I will not give up under any circumstances. 

VP: First of all, my goals. I came to Canada with one specific goal in mind, to become a professional dancer. Today I am opening my mind to new stuff, more than just performing. No matter what, I have to train hard in order to achieve any of my goals. Also, I want to prove to myself and the entire world that nothing, not even a worldwide pandemic, can destroy the performing arts industry. I want to show that artists are resilient, and even if we have to go against the grain, we will not give up. 

ET: I was discouraged at first. My health issues appeared very suddenly, and I wasn’t able to move or dance for about two months. During this time, I couldn’t help thinking, “maybe this is it for dance, maybe this will force me to take up a less physically active path.” I started feeling the pressure to return to UofT. I lost all motivation to even consider dancing. The good thing is that this left me a lot of time for self-reflection. I saw all the unrealistic goals I set for myself that cause unnecessary stress. Everyone’s body will break down at some point, but we continue to move forward. With these thoughts in mind, I returned to dance as soon as I could. It was like a wake-up call to be reminded that I’m dancing because it’s my passion.

What has it been like to return to in-person training?

VP: It has been amazing. I did not realize how many moments I took for granted before the pandemic. Now, I wake up every day excited to see my friends, committed to giving more than 100% in class, and ready to take advantage of every second I can dance in the studio. I learned that life is unpredictable, and things can change from one day to the other, so I better enjoy as much as I can now. It is incredible to see how we all have that positive and encouraging mentality towards dance, which is why in the studios you can feel such powerful energy full of passion and support. 

TZ: It has been amazing to return to in-person training. I thought about how I did not appreciate the studio space before and being connected with dancers around me. It was a great pleasure to see the familiar faces of my peers and teachers, creating, and working hard.

ET: There were a lot of uncertainties. I was happy to be back. At first, I was also afraid to be accused of going out for something non-essential, even though I know how hard it is to fulfill the program requirements without time in the studio. The college emailed us letters to prove we were required to be in-person, which we have not had to use so far.

On the first day back, I was reassured by the strict rules because it ensured we were doing the right thing. We had masks, sanitizing, 6ft social distancing at all times, and staggered start times so that we wouldn’t cross paths with other class groups.

I’m grateful for all that we have due to the strenuous circumstances. As the term progressed, I realized more and more we could’ve been refused any in-person class. It has felt isolating at times. I’ve been grieving the loss of pas-de-deux class that 2nd years usually get. We all miss dancing close to each other, but it’s miraculous that we’re able to be in the studio.

Has the pandemic shifted your goals for yourself?

ET: Somewhat. I definitely would love to perform, but I’m afraid of how the pandemic has affected job opportunities. Not to mention the anxiety that came with the health issues that are very slowly resolving. Before the pandemic, I put a lot of pressure on myself to constantly work at 100% and strive for a place in a company. COVID has forced me to slow down and take better care of myself. This has actually improved my dancing. I’m also less focused on what my career will look like. It doesn’t matter so much what I’m doing as long as I’m getting by. Whereas I used to get caught up due to stress, now I mindfully cherish all the opportunities and time in the present.

TZ: The pandemic definitely shifted my goals. With the closure of studios, I realized that anything could change any second and I must be prepared to adjust to those circumstances. Since access to the studio is limited, I started to think about moving toward a teaching career.

VP: During these difficult months I reconsidered my career goals. I was very insecure about the future of the dance industry, but I concluded that a pandemic is not going to destroy my dream, so in part, my main goal is still to become a professional ballet dancer. However, I did open my mind to other jobs in the industry. I realized I love teaching. I have taught ballet for a couple of years now and I love it. I also find out that I am very passionate about injury prevention in ballet. In the future, I would like to become a physiotherapist, not only to treat but also to train dancers to prevent injuries.

Applying to GBC was exciting. I remember so much joy when my mom and I were renting a studio to film the audition video.

George Brown Dance
left to right: Valentina, Taisiia, Estelle.

You have been through the process of moving from another country and attending GBD as an international student. What was the process like? Do you have any advice for students interested in doing the same? 

VP: The Audition process is pretty straightforward with information found here on the CBJ website and here. I completed my English exam, sent the video audition, applied for a visa, and a couple of months later I was living in Canada. The faculty at GBC is very supportive and were completely present throughout the application process. The hard part was being away from home, living and being responsible for myself. The best advice I can give is to always stay connected with your family. Nowadays, technology gives you the chance to stay close to your loved ones no matter how far you are. Also, let your new friends at your new home become your new family. In my case, other international students were going through the same processes, so we got super close, and we became family. This is what keeps me positive and makes me feel at home. 

TZ: Moving from another country was very exciting and challenging at the same time. I am from eastern Europe and adjusting to a different culture was something new for me. Applying to GBC was exciting. I remember so much joy when my mom and I were renting a studio to film the audition video. The only challenge for me was the English exam. I had to take TOEFL, and it was quite tough to get enough points to be accepted to the college. However, on the inside, I knew that George Brown would be the place for me. 

Estelle – you transferred from the University of Toronto. What was that process like?

ET: Although I had grown up in Hong Kong, the process was simpler for me because I’m Canadian. When I first got here in 2017, I had a huge culture shock. Life in Toronto was so different from Hong Kong but living in Toronto for 2 years prior meant that I was used to it when I entered the dance program. Initially, I moved here to study life sciences at UofT. I had never studied dance full-time, plus I had taken a 5-year break from ballet. Getting used to the schedule takes some time because it is exhausting. You also have to be proactive. When I came into the program, I had to remind myself that I needed to catch up because of the years of training I missed. One thing that really helped were transfer credits. By covering the electives requirement, I freed up time in my schedule. 

“The GBC dance performance programs are one of the best post-secondary programs in Canada with a strong ballet background.”

What is your favorite part of the GBD program and why?

VP: There are so many amazing things about the program. At GBD they teach us not only how to be a dancer of a specific style, but to be complete artists. We have ballet, jazz, modern, vocals, acting… all this knowledge opens a lot of doors for the future. After the program, you can go from classical to commercial dance, you can be a performer, an educator or a creator; there are so many fields you can go to after this, and that is what makes this program unique. For my career focus, what I love the most about GBD is the partnership with Canada’s Ballet Jorgen. That has been very helpful to prepare me for the transition between being a student to a professional dancer. We have the chance to take company class once, we are taught by company members, and they are always open to guide us and respond to questions about professional life. Having the opportunity to learn from them has been a great experience

ET: Composition is my favourite part. It is such an open, nurturing space to explore our own artistic voices and vision. I feel like you start to understand what you like through watching performances and taking part in a variety of dance classes, but you don’t fully realize it’s you until you have the chance to embody it. That’s where composition class comes in. It’s where I can combine movement and experiment until it becomes my unique style.

TZ: The GBC dance performance programs are one of the best post-secondary programs in Canada with a strong ballet background. I particularly appreciate the unique partnership between George Brown College and Canada’s Ballet Jörgen, and the opportunities to audition for the mentorship and apprenticeship programs. I also appreciate that company members teach some of the classes and share experiences about the professional ballet world.

What are you most looking forward to as you head into your final semester?

ET: As nerve-wracking as it is, I know that it doesn’t all end after I graduate and there are endless paths I could take. For my final term, I’m excited to polish skills, refine my personal artistic voice, and plan the next chapter.

VP: Honestly, I am a little scared about going out into the real world during this difficult time, but right now I am looking forward to starting a new term of in-person classes. I am preparing myself mentally and physically to start auditioning for ballet companies, and a goal I have in mind is to be part of the CBJ mentorship program for the upcoming season. I have already started teaching some ballet classes and I am looking forward to continuing to explore that world once I graduate. In general, I am looking forward to dancing and enjoying every second of it.

TZ: Heading to the final semester, I am mostly looking forward to expanding my artistic potential, and even more, being able to be focused and present in each class, work hard, and grow as an artist. Also, I want to be as open as I can for the new opportunities that will be out there, be creative to adjust to circumstances and take risks, both inside and outside of classes.

Are you interested in learning more about George Brown Dance? Click here and register to audition today!

If you have questions about applying as an international student, you can read more here.

Written by Elise Tigges.