Dancing stirs community spirit: building welcoming neighbourhoods key to engaged communities

Flashmob dancers posing for a photo during practice. | Photo courtesy of Olga Shcherbyna

Flashmob dancers posing for a photo during practice. | Photo courtesy of Olga Shcherbyna

Instead of finding the right words to successfully belong within a community, a local group is using the art of dance to bridge the gap between newcomers and local politicians.

While many used the time to bond with family during B.C.’s Family Day long weekend, last week community bonds were strengthened when the Cedar Cottage Neighbourhood House hosted Vancouver’s first ever intercultural flashmob.

Olga Shcherbyna, co-ordinator of the Building Welcoming Inclusive Neighbourhoods project, says the goal was to create ways newcomers could integrate into society by connecting locals and newcomers to their community.

“It’s not just about newcomers, it’s about all of us,” says Shcherbyna.

A mosaic of communities united

Shcherbyna says immigrants arriving to the area and people relocating – with different languages and values – have many communities going through changes, and becoming divided along multiple cultural norms. To keep a united front, Shcherbyna says the challenge has become how to create a new community with our well-known Canadian tolerance while adapting to the vibrant energy of newcomers. Shcherbyna wanted to try an activity that did not require limiting communication bonds by depending solely upon language skills. Dancing is something that everyone can do, and Shcherbyna decided an international flashmob would become the planned event to unite people.

“The flashmob is supposed to bring everyone together, and not just people performing but those observing as well,” says Shcherbyna, referencing the handshakes and wave movements used to engage the audience in the dance.

City councillor as a neighbour

Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver city councillor, participated in the flash mob and also attended one dance rehearsal. Reimer says of all the events she has attended, the flashmob represented the diversity of a community the most: there were at least 10 different cultural groups, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and the group gathered ranged in age from seven to 80 years old.

“Several people [in the dance class] said, ‘In my country the government would not come to the same dance class’,” says Reimer.

During Reimer’s interactions with the other dancers, she noted they were surprised she also rents housing and lives in the same neighbourhood as them: despite her position as a city councillor, she faces challenges regular citizens face.

Reimer is also involved with the city’s Engaged City Task Force project. The task force’s objectives include improving the way the city engages with citizens and “enabling community connections at a neighbourhood level.” Reimer says research on how citizens connected with each other and community engagement was scarce. According to Reimer, a more engaged community needs to build knowledge and to build trust.

“If you don’t trust your neighbour, how are you going to trust city hall?” says Reimer.

Reimer says few newcomers feel they have the power to influence decisions at the municipal level. One solution is to work on finding ways to connect with others in the community, and ultimately build the knowledge and confidence needed to contribute to government decisions.

Reimer hopes in the future the impact of engaged communities will be more obvious.

“It’s [the flashmob] an amazing experience,” she says. “If we can get people into that class to have fun, we can rebuild an understanding of each other”.

Shcherbyna says the flash mob creates a feeling of equality as people relate with someone in power and connect with others – whether they are well known or not.

“One family, who has been here for six months or less, experienced dancing with elected officials for the first time,” says Shcherbyna.

Eleanor Hendriks, one of the choreographers and performers, says they included movements that would be easy for seniors to do with a low risk of falling. Hendriks says she did not expect seniors to get involved but found they were fairly committed to performing.

“People are willing to risk looking silly to try it,” says Hendriks.

Shcherbyna estimates they had over 200 visitors to their free dance classes over the past month with the majority being local residents around the neighbourhood house. With regards to the choreography, the dance moves are inspired by Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese and Ukrainian traditional dances. The challenge was to truly represent the fusion of new Canadians through dance. The resulting dance is choreographed to “Turn Up the Stereo” by Canadian music group Delhi2Dublin whose music style is a fusion of Indian and Celtic music.