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Suzan Richards is the Artistic Director of the Cultural Arts Studio at the School of Afro-Caribbean Dance, a creative space that mixes and celebrates African and Caribbean traditional dances. Trained in jazz ballet at the Montreal Jazz Dance Academy and then at the West Can Folk Performing Company in Montreal, Suzan is an accomplished artist and a seasoned teacher and choreographer. She recently appeared on CTV News Ottawa and will be offering workshops through MASC’s online program and the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms.

MASC: Let’s start with a simple question. Do you believe dance can change the world?

Suzan Richards: Absolutely! Dance has the ability to change the world because anyone can dance, with music or without. All it takes is listening to the rhythm of our soul and the whispers of our ancestors.

Suzan Richards. Photo provided by the artist.

You’ve said that your philosophy is that everyone should have the chance to tell their story through dance and movement, regardless of age, size, fitness level or disability. Why is it still important to say that explicitly?

We often put limits on ourselves. I feel that it’s important to voice what I still hear as reasons not to dance, to encourage those that see themselves through that lens to dance. I want them to know that our space and programs are inclusive and don’t conform to traditional dance margins.

You have Dominican roots and teach Afro-Caribbean dance to children and adults. What can people learn about a particular culture by learning its dance?

There’s a saying: If you know where you are from, you know where you are going. The roots of cultural dances are fascinating: From rituals to celebrations, you can learn so much about a time, a region, and its rich traditions.

Suzan Richards in action. Photo provided by artist.

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community?

I gain the ability to reach out to students and participants who may never have had exposure to Afro-Caribbean culture through dance. There is nothing better than having the opportunity to provide a window of learning through the arts.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

There are so many talented artists in the region, and I believe the journey goes both ways. The local community benefits from the richness and diversity of the artists and local artists have a chance to share their art through local endeavours, inspiring even more artistic works. It’s a win-win situation!

An Afro-Caribbean dance class in progress. Photo provided.

Since COVID-19 began, you’ve been offering “Soul Stretch Live” and “Saucy & Sweaty” sessions on Facebook. What advantages have you found in sharing your workshops online, and what can we look forward to from you in the near future?

This community partnership with Mikey Wizdom of Caribbean Flavour on CHUO 89.1 FM gives me a virtual studio to encourage the community to get up from the couch and move their bodies. The reality is that, at the beginning of the pandemic, many of us—myself included—needed comfort and found it through the art of baking and cooking. Plus, we were glued to the television or radio, receiving constant updates.

I felt it important to encourage the community to counteract these stationary activities and “change the channel” by focusing on their wellness through movement. We mustn’t let the couch win! The classes are fun, free, all levels, and can be done from a chair, all while moving our bodies. We sing along and groove. Participants are encouraged to drink lots of water, which is one of the recommendations to help the fight against COVID-19.

We mustn’t let the couch win! The classes are fun, free, all levels, and can be done from a chair, all while moving our bodies.

Next up, I’ll be leading Afro-Caribbean dance workshops in French with the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms livestream initiative every Friday morning for the month of June at 11am. That means we’re starting tomorrow!

In addition, I will be teaching an Afro-Caribbean dance workshop titled “The Virtual Movement for Seniors,” an online project hosted by the Bronson Hub and Flo’s Seniors. This project aims to support the resiliency, wellness, and community engagement of older adults in neighbourhood life through the implementation of senior-driven community projects.

Lastly, I’m one of the MASC artists offering workshops through their new online program for schools and community organizations. It’s great to have so many different ways to reach new audiences!

These activities are largely run through Zoom and thus are easiest to access for those with a smartphone or computer, but they are also accessible by landline, and we are committed to working with participants on an individual basis to make the activities as accessible as possible.