The Blurry Mirror

Eight years after moving to Canada from Russia at the age of 13, a former dancer was still feeling lost, but a low-barrier dance studio in Winnipeg is helping her — and many others — rediscover the joy of dance and tap back into her relationship with herself.

Listen to this story:

I was desperate to find myself when I started going to Drop In Dance Winnipeg.

I had moved to Canada from Russia when I was 13 years old and had just been discovering who I was. But after I arrived, culture shock turned into perpetual freeze mode. I spent the next eight years going through life on autopilot.

Then after a break up, I realized I had to make some changes. I started putting in the effort to make the little kid inside me happy. I returned to dance, which allowed me to feel grounded, express myself, and come alive once again. Slowly I tapped back into my relationship with myself.

Growing up in Russia, I had done competitive ballroom dancing. I never got first, or even second or third place. I was taller than everyone in my level, and the judges didn’t like that — to win, you not only had to dance well, but you also had to look the part. No matter how hard I trained or how well I performed in competitions, I didn’t get the results I wanted. Still, I enjoyed learning new techniques and moving with the music.

After I moved to Canada, I stopped dancing in public. For eight years, I would only find the relief and rush of emotions of dancing in the privacy of my bedroom mirror. My teenage self couldn’t stomach being in a studio with a giant mirror and other people around. I thought if I was watching myself and scrutinizing every imperfection, surely everyone else was watching me with the same intensity.

Sasha, 11, in a pink dress, waltzing at a ballroom dancing competition in Moscow, Russia. (supplied by Alexey Kulachenko)

When I decided to return to dance, I learned that most dance studios in Winnipeg only offer classes with months of commitment and strict schedules. But I wasn’t ready for that. I needed to ease in and find my footing. I hoped that dancing again would help me reconnect with myself and discover the person I’ve become. That’s when I found Drop In Dance Winnipeg.

The one-storey building on the corner of Portage and Strathcona might look like any other little shop, but inside they provide a space where people of any age and background are welcome and encouraged to embrace the joy of dance. According to their website, the studio, which has been in the space since 2019, has a vision to make it easy for adults to access no-commitment dance classes. They want their dancers to have fun and try something new.

I was hooked from my first class, Grooving Basics — a fun and laid-back style with a lot of freedom to improvise and add your own flare to the moves. I went by myself. My goal that first day was simply to try and have fun for an hour. I didn’t feel shy, but I also didn’t feel like I belonged in the space until I started talking to another dancer. The class that day was tiny — only three people — which brought a sense of intimacy to our conversation. As the class began, I thought about how different this felt compared to the lessons from my childhood. The instructor was casual and easygoing — quite the opposite of what I was used to. In the first class, the combination of like-minded people around me, the challenge of learning choreography, and the loud upbeat music made me feel alive.

I started going to classes multiple times a week and recognizing familiar faces. One of them was Colette DeGagné-Neil, 50, whom I met at a Heels Basics class. The class invited dancers to loosen up and express themselves through soft yet fierce movements. The goal is to join a confident gaze with powerful, high-heeled steps and movements that flow to the beat of the music like ribbons.

Colette told me she couldn’t take dance lessons as a kid and struggled with self-confidence when she first joined Drop In Dance. “I knew I always had it in me to dance,” she said, but as she got older, she became more self-conscious and said she would spend her time sitting when she went to social events and bars, even though she wanted to dance.

But when she decided to take that step and drop into a dance class, she regained her confidence. “When I … noticed that there were older women dancing, I started feeling more comfortable and started feeling better about myself,” said Colette.

Heels wasn’t the first class at Drop In Dance I attended, but it was the one I initially felt most intimidated by. During class, the lights in the room would go down and the music would play louder — it was a fully immersive experience. Colette and I both felt a bit out of place at first, but our willingness to try mixed with the right atmosphere brought us closer to ourselves and the other people dancing.

A 2016 article about body image in older women explored the ways women over the age of 55 manage body image struggles. There are three main strategies women use: hiding their bodies, withdrawing from social situations, and, on the positive side, taking part in personal self-care or self-acceptance.

The women who use self-acceptance report lower issues with body image and greater perceived social support. One research participant, Samantha, described her experience with a strong support network at a healthcare centre specializing in exercise for older adults. She noticed how the student volunteers “don’t center anyone out … they just tell you ways to adapt.”

This practice is mirrored in what it’s like to dance in a beginner class at Drop In Dance. There is never any pressure to be the best dancer in the room. This helped me feel so much more assured in myself while in the studio — I never feel caged in or worry I’ll be made the centre of attention during a class. The focus is always on enjoying yourself and doing what feels right for you in the moment — if you feel energized, you dance; if you feel tired, you rest.

Maria Rawluk, the founder and director of Drop In Dance Winnipeg, also went through struggles with body image. Her history with dance began at the age of five when her parents signed her up for lessons. She was a competitive dancer from seven to 20 years old. “I didn’t realize how much of a toll the competitive part of [dance] took on me,” she said. Looking back, she says she was burnt out, constantly comparing herself to other dancers, and was dealing with an eating disorder.

It took years and the loss of her father for Maria to realize she had been going about dance all wrong. “It does not matter how well you point your feet or how high you can jump,” she said, “dance is natural and instinctive. It is for everyone.”

Maria’s insight is in line with what some researchers call “exercise identity.” In a 2005 Psychology of Sports and Exercise article, Sarah Hardcastle and Adrian H. Taylor described the term “exercise identity” as perceiving yourself to be able to move your body in ways that are beneficial for your health and well-being. It also means finding joy in exercise and feeling motivated to continue. This research found feelings of achievement, autonomy, social interaction, and a sense of belonging empower and inspire people to keep an active hobby.

In my first Ballet class at Drop In Dance I met Kaye Amira Quizon. Although she is not a professional dancer, she felt completely in her element and was not afraid to take space with her movements and ask for feedback from the instructor. She told me ballet was her first love — it was what initially made her want to dance. “I was drawn to the precise shapes — in ballet, there’s always a higher leg, a cleaner turn, a bigger jump to work toward. It appealed to the perfectionist in me,” said Kaye.

Expressing herself through dance is what motivated her to keep going, even though she had been “working through apprehension with being watched by others.” Nevertheless, she found her rhythm and now dances for herself. She reflected on the fact that the dance world feels like a community, “there’s no competition … we’re all there with our own goals and our own journeys.”

Some people in the room were trained in ballet and just wanted to keep up their skills. Other participants wanted to explore a new style of dance, almost as if they were trying on a new personality through movements. While there was a mix of pros and beginners, the instructor conducted the class in a way that made everyone feel like they could do ballet. No punishment for forgetting a move, no forceful corrections of form, and no competition — just occasional helpful feedback.

I wanted to try a Hip-Hop Basics class next. As I was lounging in the common area, waiting for the class to begin, a man sat down beside me. At that point, I’d been going there for a few months. While I had seen a couple of men in their 20s in some of my classes, like Contemporary or Grooving Basics, I’d never seen any men older than that in the studio.

Derek Pang and I started talking, and I found out that he’s close friends with the hip-hop instructor, GeNie, who invited him to try a beginner class. Derek had spent 15 years in martial arts and has a jiu-jitsu black belt. He suffered a brain injury at 26, which led him to yoga to help with recovery. Eventually, he became known in Winnipeg’s yoga community and trained to become a yoga instructor. Now, at 40 years old, Derek says the way you treat your body reflects your physical and mental well-being. “I’m in much better shape now than a lot of 20-year-olds,” he said.

He believes a person’s health starts declining the moment they say, “I’ve learned everything I need to learn.” He told me when you stay curious, life becomes fun and exciting. “It’s like you never stop playing,” he said. Derek became involved in dance by chance, and since joining his first class, he has tried every single style Drop In Dance has to offer. He is used to being experienced in martial arts and yoga practices, but he enjoys trying new things. He says it’s okay to completely embarrass yourself but to let it roll off your shoulders as long as you’re having fun.

Derek’s sentiment was reflected in chapter three of Adam Ellwanger’s book about personal transformation Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self. Ellwanger wrote that society has become very centred around being someone, locating a personal identity, and projecting it in a way others understand. But Ellwanger wrote that a good life is different from a happy life, a life of self-satisfaction.

In our goal-oriented society, people often believe that only when they get a certain house, job, or relationship, they will finally be happy. Derek believes the opposite. His injury made him realize that simply living in the moment is all you need to be happy. “Choose happy now. Choose love now,” he concludes. 

Eugene (GeNie) Baffoe is a hip-hop instructor at Drop In Dance. He is also a street dancer, a DJ, and an actor. He was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec and has been dancing since he was 12. He recalls being dragged to see his big sister’s dance recital and falling in love with dance.

He wanted access to the same expression. From then on, he taught himself to dance by recording music videos and dance commercials. He kept going, not only because he was naturally good at dancing but also because it sparked something in him he hadn’t felt before. “It was making me happy, it was making me whole, and it was making me discover myself at a rapid rate that nothing else that I’ve tried so far was allowing me to do,” said GeNie.

He said he tried basketball too but found “it was more competitive and frustrating than anything else.” Dancing allowed him to do his own thing and discover himself. When teaching hip-hop to others, his philosophy is about giving back. He’s not trying to make anyone dance better but instead, he’s teaching them to dance for themselves and discover themselves. He said, “I’ve never seen a bad dancer in my life. I’ve seen someone who is out there on stage, or in class, expressing themselves.” GeNie also reflected on the inclusivity of hip-hop, “the style and the culture was designed for everybody,” he said.

A collage with photos of a young woman dancing, a young girl smiling, and a man dancing.
Clockwise from top left: Sasha dancing at Drop In Dance Winnipeg, GeNie Baffoe teaching a Hip-Hop class, 8-year-old Sasha after a dance competition in Russia.

You can find dance, yoga, cycling, and pilates studios all over in Winnipeg. And while many of them have a sense of community as one of their main selling points, you might feel weary of not fitting in with the already established circle. Entering a new space can be scary, and it’s common to feel insecure when trying a new activity. “I wanted a space to dance in where I didn’t need to worry about being judged,” said Maria.

In 2001, Alaka Wali, an anthropology museum curator at the University of Chicago, wrote an article about adults in the informal arts. They observed that in urban regions, a community is built by breaking down real and perceived boundaries between groups of people. One person in their study, Leslie, a woman in her thirties, talked about how “the unrestricted access to the theatre group’s space in the church basement had allowed her to learn through experimentation.” Leslie added that college or high school theatre spaces often have limited access and learning opportunities.

Kaye, whom I met in Ballet class, reflected on her thoughts about the vulnerability of trying something new, especially as an adult. “It’s hard not to compare yourself to others when you’re not sure of yourself yet,” she said. Kaye believes the people you’re surrounded by can make all the difference — whether they’re cold and competitive or warm and welcoming. Maria shared this sentiment. She dances because it’s familiar, but it’s still hard for her to get into something new out of fear of not fitting in or feeling judged.

While it may not be stated outwardly, there’s a sense of exclusivity to some studios. You might feel like you don’t have enough time, the right clothes, the right body, or that you’re not the right age to go into that space. But Drop In Dance is creating a low-barrier environment. This inclusive atmosphere helped me rediscover dance and find myself in the process. I was able to let go of stress and reconnect with myself and the things that excite me. That’s what drives so many of us to walk into the studio.

Sasha dancing at Drop In Dance Winnipeg. (photo: Caleb Jutzi)

People like Derek, Colette, Kaye, Maria, and many others, like me, are dancing to build and solidify their relationships with themselves. Having a low-barrier, welcoming environment helps with the process.

The other night, I was in a group with three other women, practicing the choreography we had just learned, as the rest of the class watched and cheered. I didn’t really notice them – my eyes were on me and the rest of the world melted away.

The music starts playing and I count the beats. My body remembers the moves in perfect order. People keep cheering, but I don’t hear anything except the music. 

Headshot of Sasha Kulachenko

Sasha Kulachenko

Sasha (she/her) looks serious on the outside but a big softie on the inside. She is always in search of a new cozy study spot, and she is known for eating healthy and being an early bird.