Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of articles highlighting educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole. By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.
“I’ve always been a dancer,” reflects Tamara Bliss. “I was the kind of kid who would gravitate to any kind of dance, movement or performance.” Ms. Bliss grew up in the small town of Newport on the Washington-Idaho border, where options for dance lessons were often limited. “My training was wherever I could grab it,” she explains. “I remember a choreographer who came to our neck of the woods to teach contemporary modern dance. He was amazing. It was the first time I’d had a teacher that really choreographed and did original movement other than teaching us routines. I still remember him, and thinking, ‘I want more!’”
With a penchant for the fine arts, Ms. Bliss continued to dance throughout high school, but thought her journey would come to an end as an undergraduate. “I thought I needed to grow up and be a human being and contribute to society in a practical way,” she remembers with a laugh. Thanks to a professor who noticed her passion for dancing, she switched out of her music program and attained a degree in dance. Upon graduating, she performed with companies in St. Louis, Seattle, Salt Lake City, New York and Philadelphia, also touring the United States. “My best performing years were my thirties,” she recalls. “I was at my fittest, and really doing my best at that time.” Wanting to embark on graduate studies, Ms. Bliss was initially drawn to Edmonton while visiting a friend, and then became interested in the University of Alberta. “I was able to direct my own Master’s focus and have a teaching assistantship. I was asked to teach, so I did, I got entrenched, and I’m still here.”
Today, Ms. Bliss is a Faculty Lecturer in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta. As Director of the Orchesis Dance Group, which recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary, she oversees the annual production of Dance Motif, a collection of jazz and contemporary performances. As a leader, Ms. Bliss has a strong, calm and ready presence. In addition to directing Orchesis, she is thoroughly involved behind the scenes by mentoring new choreographers and cultivating the creative spirit in her dancers. Equipped with a degree in fashion design, she finds new ways of creating and re-inventing costumes to keep the cost low for students. She fosters a warm and inclusive environment for a diverse group comprised of current students, alumni, and members of the community, all united by their love for the performing arts.
Ms. Bliss notes that kinesthetic intelligence is a kind of education unique to dance that cannot be learned in the classroom. “You can’t separate the mind and the body and the spirit – it’s all one. You can learn a lot straight from a book, but part of what really gels it in the body is movement, connections and that kinesthetic sense. I’ve worked with a dance educator whose mantra for teaching is ‘Hear, see, say and do,’ and indeed there’s a lot of scientific evidence that points directly to that. Movement education is so vital because the brain responds to movement, and movement is an extension of our feelings. You know how people are feeling by the way that they might hold their posture, or the way that they walk.” Attentive and perceptive with a keen eye for detail, she often reflects on the relationship between people’s movement and their inner world. “I’m constantly analyzing what people are doing, their alignment, what makes them stand the way they do. It affects everything we do in life.”
One of Ms. Bliss’s most memorable experiences was a collaborative piece with poet Gerald St. Maur, a dance accompanied only by voice and the sound of poetry being read. “I found it exciting and challenging because there was no music. The sound of poetry gave the dance layers of new energy and different visuals, so we could build off of that. It was lots of fun.” Her choreography is often a direct reflection of her personal experiences and insight into the human condition. “A piece that I really enjoyed which was a social commentary, but more tongue-in-cheek, was called ‘In the Formal Setting.’ It was about people who dress up and take on affectations in their jewels and their diamonds, while there may be somebody getting drunk and falling under the table. It played on a story my grandmother had once told me. She’d gone out to this hoity-toity dinner with friends and started giggling and laughing. There was a gentleman across the table from her, they started making jokes, and then they started crawling under the table. That was a life story I put into dance.”
Reflecting on the effect dance can have on its audience, Ms. Bliss emphasizes the importance of using dance as a social commentary to empower others. “You can do a lot with dance – you can create a mood, images, social energy, even humour. Movement is our first language, before we ever learn to speak. People communicate through movement. We’re just going back to the things we’ve known all of our existence as human beings, using those tools, fine tuning them, and making sure that everybody still has that knowledge and the right to express themselves in movement.” As an example, she cites CRIPSiE, the Collaborative Radically Integrated Performers Society in Edmonton that performs in Orchesis’ Dance Motif recital. “So much of society doesn’t see an individual in a wheelchair. People just ignore them, or they can’t get into buildings because they aren’t accessible. Sometimes we don’t think about what doesn’t affect us because we’re mobile without any kind of aid. CRIPSiE has been very good at bringing that to the forefront – giving a voice to people who might not otherwise have a platform to express themselves – and it’s beautiful.”
More than anything, Ms. Bliss values the important role dance plays in personal expression. “Sometimes you’ll get a student who comes in and says, ‘I have to take this course because I need this credit. I just want to get this over with; I’m not a dancer.’ But by the end of the term, they’re enjoying themselves and they love dancing, in spite of their initial take of what dance was. I love to see dancers really light up and connect their total being when they’re doing something, and seeing them reach the next level of expressive ability.”
Ms. Bliss’s outlook on life illustrates the unity between the physical, mental and emotional. “Just keep moving. Movement is the key to longevity. Even if you have any ailments, if you keep moving it’s only going to make life better and easier. Dance is a really natural way to do it because it belongs to everybody; it’s our original language. Take that ability and use it to express yourself in a variety of ways. When you’re stressed out, get up and dance! Just keep moving and keep dancing.”
Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photographer Risheng Lin; banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.