Montreal percussion dancers perform to tell stories about black art and history

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Children are always on the move. Yet when they experience it rhythmically, they are intangiblely connected to their peers, says Kayin Queeley.

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Kayin Queeley speaks with her whole body. You can feel his enthusiasm in every movement of his hand, in the play of his shoulders and the widening of his eyes.

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He uses language that echoes his passion in phrases such as “exploit” and “take the lead” and “resonate”.

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Queeley is the manager of the Montreal Steppers, a team that uses his body to create beats and beats. The nonprofit percussive dance group performs for itself, for the community, and visits schools for workshops and talks that Queeley says are quickly becoming “next level.”

Percussive dance has its origins in West Africa. It was a form of celebration and communication among slaves in North America and became popular among black brotherhoods in the 1940s and 1950s, making its way to Canada in the 1990s.

Queeley, who is now a student crisis case manager at McGill University, joined and led a relief team while doing his undergrad in upstate New York in 2007 .

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“What I didn’t realize then,” Queeley says, “is that walking was going to introduce me to a part of my history, a rich art form rooted in blackness, rooted in black expression, black healing. It’s ways we communicate with each other. For me, it was very superficial at first. It was cool, it sounded good. Yet it meant so much more to us. .

Although he stopped walking when he moved to Montreal with his wife in 2014, the need to “keep the art form alive and keep the passion for using my body to make music” n was never far from his thoughts. Montreal Steppers was formed in 2019 and has 18 members, 13 of whom are active steppers, while the rest handle management, music direction, media, photography and spoken word.

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When Queeley visits a school for a workshop, the children learn to walk. Yet the first thing he tells teachers is that he will allow students to ask anything they want. Such a statement makes teachers nervous, he says, but he’s blown away each time by the depth of the conversation the kids are setting in motion.

He introduces himself and, with middle-elementary and older children, will begin: “About a hundred years ago (I’m just being generous), I wouldn’t have been allowed to be in your class. The kids stop and say, ‘MK, why? I say, because of my skin color. At that time, although slavery had ended, there was segregation. Some ask, ‘What do you mean, what is it?’ This immediately raises questions. As a black man, I would not have been allowed to enter a white school. I would only have been allowed to teach in a black school.

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In this way, the Steppers are bold in centering black history and acknowledging what some children might not have had to think about. Children, with their keen sense of justice, “say what’s wrong,” he says. The workshops conclude with discussions about people’s differences and the importance of appreciating them.

Children stomp and clap, they walk and clap, they are almost always on the move. Yet when they experience it rhythmically, they are intangiblely connected to their peers, Queeley says.

“We use our bodies to tell the story of progression and history. We use the art form as a starting point to have dialogues and conversations about blackness, black art, black history, the importance of black people, about creating a safe space and taking room for ourselves.

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It’s been healing for the Montreal Steppers, Queeley said.

“As we dissect deeper into the stage, we connect the story. We recognize that this is not new. It has always been part of the expression of our ancestors. Going back to the 14th century, in South Africa West before these people were moved against their will and brought into this North American context, these are elements of expression that they were exploiting.

The only time Queeley catches the words is when he tries to define the connection his team experiences while walking.

“Some people say, ‘When you step on the ground, when you strike your body, you activate your earth and awaken your ancestors. It’s something you can’t really describe. … We tap into something that our ancestors established.

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The team has held more than 300 workshops and met with nearly 10,000 students, Queeley says. It’s a way they want to sow in Montreal communities.

“We want people to see us and know who we are: ‘This is in response to everything you said about black people and believe about us. We are amazing. We are gifted. We are smart. We are impressive.

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IN ONE LOOK

The Montreal Steppers are part of the English Language Arts Network’s education program, under which schools receive an amount to invite artists to organize workshops.

The Steppers made the intentional decision not to hold workshops during Black History Month, to avoid being tokenized or becoming a checklist item. They use this time to focus on their own healing.

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The group has set a fundraising goal of $4,000 for the month of September. The money will go directly to four community groups that have identified specific needs. The Steppers want their performances to be accessible and therefore unrelated to fundraising, so donations are accepted online only. The beneficiary groups are: the robotics program of the West Island Black Community Association; the Côte-des-Neiges Black Association’s teenage program; the South Shore Youth Organization’s tutoring program; and the Tinsdale Community Association’s school retention program.

“We want to continue to find ways to serve, to teach, and to heal ourselves,” Queeley says. “Wherever it is, if they feel the need to connect with us, we are happy to do so. We have seen the impact. We are very optimistic about what lies ahead. »

To donate, visit gofundme.com/f/q3pusj-back-to-school-fundraiser. More information can be found at montrealsteppers.com.

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