Whether paired orchestral or contemporary pop music soundtracks, ballet takes audiences on a journey – through urban skylines, picturesque dreamscapes and beyond. On a darkened stage, the movements of dancers have the power not only to transport audiences, but to invigorate and inspire as well. What might happen if those watching could experience dance for themselves?
Ballet Edmonton has made that possible through its Arts Connects program. Through instruction from its professional dancers, the company offers all Edmontonians the opportunity to experience the art of movement through ballet first hand.
Thanks to support from the Social Enterprise Fund and a partnership with Canada’s National Ballet’s Sharing Dance initiative, Art Connects offers no- or low-cost ballet classes to those in need. Although the program serves a diverse range of individuals, it centres on programs for seniors and at-risk youth.
For seniors, Art Connects offers an hour-long chance to move to the rhythms of classic, often long-forgotten tunes, guided by a trained Ballet Edmonton dancer. The classes offer significant emotional and social benefits by bringing seniors out of isolation and encouraging them to engage in a shared, positive experience. And by activating a number of brain functions at once – including the kinesthetic, musical and emotional systems – the classes help to increase neural connectivity, combatting the effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
For at-risk youth, the program is a welcome respite from the challenges of a regular school day. Professional dancers visit the school, and although the class is usually held after school hours, it’s a chance to ignite a spark of hope in place of what siblings or peer groups before them may have seen. In addition to being an interesting and unique way to get active, the classes foster creativity, resilience and confidence.
“This is not about creating dancers, this is about giving kids something to hang onto, something to redirect them away from negative thinking, from negative patterns. It’s about giving them community,” says Sheri Somerville, Ballet Edmonton’s Executive Director.
Not everyone understands this transformative and uplifting power as much as Somerville. Introduced to the arts as a child, Somerville credits the experience as a lifeline that altered her path and ultimately opened her eyes to new opportunities. “The arts empowered me as a little girl to calm myself and have confidence,” she says. “When I was seven and began to sing, I was swept into the world of the artist and rescued from outcomes that wouldn’t have been very good.”
“The arts were my way out,” she says. “I’ve seen people around me wander off into addiction and illness… but I know now that the arts are a gateway. For me, they offered a new community; I could reinvent my life and have tremendous amounts of hope. I knew what I wanted to be, and I was unwavering.”
In her role with Ballet Edmonton, she seeks to bring the beauty of dance to more diverse and underserved audiences. The company, originally known as Citie Ballet, began offering reduced-price tickets to groups such as newcomers to Canada, families with children at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and senior citizens. The response was overwhelming.
“I realized what a beautiful community engagement this is, and I knew I wanted to do more. These groups were all connecting in the lobby. They banded together to enjoy shared experiences, feel safe together and find fellowship together,” she says.
Having already developed a relationship with SEF, Somerville saw the potential for a greater community outreach program. Years earlier, the company’s initial agreement with SEF had allowed it to expand operations and become a fully professional organization, complete with salaried dancers. With that initial engagement now several years in the past, Somerville was ready for the next frontier: bringing ballet to the greater community.
Looking back on the chances she’s been given, Somerville is grateful for the opportunities she’s had. She hopes to pay it forward and her confidence is growing. The future of Art Connects offers hope for both the community and the company.
“It’s limitless in terms of what we can do,” she says. “Arts are an essential service in communities and we want to impress upon people that dance and arts are healing. They have the capacity for emotional wellbeing, and they carry incredible weight.”
The Sage Seniors Association was one of the first organizations to work with SEF back in our earliest days.