The Toronto Sunday Jam

There are many special things about the Sunday Toronto contact jam, celebrating its 35th anniversary on Sunday, September 8, 2013.

The space

The first, and one that lingers strongly with me, is the space. It’s not clear what Dovercourt House, the building that houses the jam, was originally meant to be. Was it always meant for dancing? It’s sort of blocky and built out of brick, like a 1950s schoolhouse. But inside, three dance studios, spacious but not cavernous, clean and calm but not sterile, new-feeling but not cold.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether the third floor studio is bigger than the second floor studio. But it feels bigger somehow — is it that the third floor gets more light? or the ceiling is a little higher? or it’s two or three feet longer? Oh, the second floor studio is perfectly nice, and gets a decent amount of light. But the third floor feels special, magical, sacred like a church — I’d think Dovercourt House was a converted church, except there’s no sign of a steeple on top.

The Toronto Sunday Jam at Dovercourt Penthouse

The Toronto Sunday Jam at Dovercourt Penthouse. Photo by John Oswald.

You can get some sense of the beauty of the third floor studio (also called the “Dovercourt Penthouse”) from the home page photo of the Sunday contact jam’s new Web site, but the angle’s a little wrong. To experience it properly, you need to climb up the stairs to the Dovercourt House entrance on a sunny Sunday morning; then walk up three flights, ascending in anticipation; turn the bend at the top stair, look through the door to the dance studio at the end of the landing, only seeing a small glimpse of what’s inside — and then walk down the landing to the entrance to the studio and look in, seeing the windows on both sides letting in lots of light and the beautiful, neutral tones of an expansive dance floor stretching out in front of you, waiting for you.

In February 2010, during my first visit to Toronto, I had spent a week in the second floor studio, in a Scott Wells workshop. And yeah, it was nice space and all. But I remember much more fondly, or more vividly, walking into that third floor of Dovercourt House on a Sunday at the end of a week of dancing, on a cold, cold, February morning. Sunlight streaming through the windows,  the heaters starting up, curling up in the patches of sunlight.

The floor is, well, a bit crazy. It’s not beaten up or irregular at all — quite the contrary, it’s smooth and even. Too smooth — a distinctly slippery floor, one that’s actually a bit dangerous, but which can be quite fun once you get used to it. (Does it account for, perhaps, the somewhat light weight-sharing and vertically-oriented dancing of the Toronto community?) It’s a quirk that I love, and will happily embrace next time I return there.

To me, it’s one of the most inspiring dances spaces in North America.

Everybody dances

But this is not to undervalue the people of the Toronto contact community, which is also one of my favorite contact improvisation dance communities. And here is why — in Toronto, it feels like everyone dances.

In far, far too many cities in the world, contact improvisation feels like a sub-group, or a secret society, in large part due to the shocking lack of diversity. Lack of racial diversity is, of course, most apparent — the contact community in Los Angeles was by far the least racially diverse group I regularly encountered living in Southern California, and contact communities around the world are very, very white. And I recall that the Toronto dance community is majority-white. But there’s a decent representation of other ethnicities, black and brown and yellow and what-have-you, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the city. And unlike here in the United States, I observe less of the low-level racial tension or discomfort in racial intermixing that I usually see, even among contact dancers. (Canadians generally seem to have less racial baggage than we do, for largely historical reasons I think. )

But I actually mean every type of diversity. In Toronto at the Sunday jam, I don’t feel like there’s only one type of person there. In most jams, it’s a type. Sometimes that type is a 32-year-old hippie computer programmer. Sometimes it’s a 24-year-old aspiring dancer. Sometimes it’s a 42-year-old massage therapist. Or maybe all three of these. But the types of people you meet all seem to be a bit similar, with the same leanings, and the same backgrounds, and the same beliefs, around the same age.

It’s different from jam to jam, of course, but in most jam cultures, you don’t feel like you’re getting a cross-section of the city where you live in. You feel like you’re getting exposed to folks who are outside of their city, or different from their city, or a niche group of that city.

It feels different in Toronto. There are all sorts of different ages and different physical abilities. There’s a sense of people having found contact through new and interesting ways. There’s all types of different backgrounds, and educations, and vocations, and backstories. There’s a sense that I’ve gotten of the community there being part of the city, or a reflection of the city. There’s a sense that it’s not private, elite, inaccessible, or failing to catch on. There’s a sense that it’s thriving, and welcoming, and exciting. There’s a sense that you’re dancing with Toronto.

Golden Years?

It’s been about two years since I was last in Toronto, so I suppose some of these things could have changed, and admittedly my experience has been limited. But from what I hear, these positive traits have continued and thrived.

I think these are possibly Golden Years for the Toronto contact community. When I was there first in 2010, there was a group of about 8 to 10 dancers, in their late 20s and 30s, who had been dancing between 8 and 15 years, who were all active dancers and starting hit their stride — let’s call it their Advanced Dancer Second Gear. They were starting to teach, and dance together, and form a nucleus for the years to come. I won’t name any of them for fear of leaving someone out, but if you know Toronto, you know some of them. At the same time, there are jam elders like Pam Johnson and John Oswald who still teach and set the tone for the community. I’m increasingly convinced that the nicest, deepest dance communities have experienced dancers with 20+ years of experience who anchor things, who by their presence keep the jams from getting too status-conscious, or hook-up-conscious, or cliquey, or insular.

A beautiful space; an uncommonly diverse, rich dance community; young up-and-coming dancers; experienced, wise and established elders. Also — conveniently located off a major subway stop, with decent, cheap food nearby (jerk chicken anyone?). That’s the Toronto Sunday jam.

* * *

I should mention that the Toronto Sunday jam happens every Sunday (as it has continuously for 35 years). It goes from 11am to 1:30pm, and is on the third floor of the Dovercourt Penthouse, 805 Dovercourt Rd. in Toronto. Check out the Web site for the latest.

The jam celebrates its 35th year on Sunday, September 8. The jam will go until 2:30pm, and have a special presentation at 1pm. Dancers are encouraged to bring some food and/or drink to share. Details can be found on the Facebook invite.

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