“Our bodies are the libraries of our stories”: How Pretty Wings TO Offers Soul Opening Space for Dancers To Heal from Traumatic Experiences.
We as human beings harbor within us a myriad of experiences, memories, thoughts, and visions. As the world goes through a period of isolation and disconnection, perhaps in this pause, we have realized the importance of our experiences and their impact on our mental health. The need to express ourselves is even direr now than ever, whether we draw through it, write it out, paint to our heart’s content – all these modes provide a soulful connection that mirrors our experiences and how our body’s keep score.
Sometimes, we cannot envisage the harm these experiences and thoughts can bring to our physical health if manifested. In the mundanity of everyday life, zoom meetings, virtuality – we tug for a sense of longing and belonging. More so, a sense of first belonging to ourselves, our stories, because – who are we without our stories?
We must own, acknowledge and validate them. Pretty Wings, Toronto is a small but massively impactful initiative that uses dance to bring its participants a safe place to heal their physical and mental trauma, express, be vulnerable, and hopefully resolve embedded negative trauma. We connect with Jena Alma and Cassey Andrews, the female power pair who founded Pretty Wings TO, having met serendipitously for their love of dance, shared lived experiences of trauma and chronic illness, and the vision to help people through their hardships.
How was Pretty Wings conceptualized?
Jena: The program’s original concept was born out of a need for a type of space that I couldn’t find. I have always been an artist and grew up in community arts spaces. The arts and dance had always been my safety blanket, but many of the trauma and abuse I endured happened in those communities. I wanted and needed a place where I could have both; safety and my art, communities and traumas, creativity, and healing. I fumbled my way through figuring out how to bridge them for myself, and then, with a few friends in my living room, Pretty Wings TO was born in 2015.
Back then, it was a little mentorship project with only 5 participants and microgrant funding from the Children’s Peace Theatre. When it did well, we applied for and were selected to get our first significant funding through ArtReach; this expanded both our team and the number of participants. We moved from a living room to a proper studio space! Since then, we have been actively applying to ArtReach for funding for and were selected – through which we were able to scale up our program. Since then, we have been doing more seasons with increased participation. Having also received success, being selected by Toronto Arts Council (TAC), we have been able to add much value to our programs with unique add ons. We are currently in our fourth season and are now planning for a fifth season this fall!
Cassey: I was doing a co-op at ArtReach when Pretty Wings was given a grant and being a dancer myself, the initiative so inspired me. For me, the safe space where I danced, where soulful expression trumped technique, was Jo Read Dance in London, Ontario. I understood immediately how impactful this space could be for those seeking to be vulnerable in their dance practices. I decided to partner with Jena in 2018 for Pretty Wings.
Tell us a bit about your background and yourself:
Jena: I am a multi-racial Guyanese-Canadian disabled woman. I am an artist, activist, arts educator, motivational speaker, and facilitator who has had a long, fruitful career as a professional competitive dancer and coach. I am a survivor of sexual and domestic violence and an advocate for my communities, and I am passionate about creating accessible and healing trauma-informed, anti-oppressive arts spaces.
Cassey: I found social work and psychotherapy because I needed it, frankly! My inner realms manifested somatically, and not many medical professionals carried that understanding. Self-development led me on a path to holistic understandings of health and, eventually, brought me back to the power of dance.
Describe a Pretty Wings Session.
We run a circular program where everyone has a say in what goes on. Individually or collectively (depending on the program’s component we are running), we choose themes we’re hoping to express and unpack. Next, we find a song that reflects those feelings. Tuning into our bodies as we listen to the music, we embody the emotions that present themselves and use that to build our choreography.
How have you had to shift gears during the COVID pandemic?
Cassey: We were unsure about running an embodiment program online. It seems counterintuitive. Nonetheless, we were sitting on an ArtReach and a TAC (Toronto Arts Council) grant, and folx expressed their need for the program. So, we shifted gears! We put the call out and filled our fourth season. Naturally, everything fell into place. Participants have expressed an extreme appreciation for a community-based in vulnerability during this time, and we feel the same. Virtual programming has still carried the essence of our practice.
How has Pretty Wings positively impacted its participants?
Through mentorship, the participants have found so much peace, solace, and authenticity in their lives – they cherish the community’s wholesomeness and support that Jena and Cassey have created through Pretty Wings TO. A space that has indeed proved to be safe, with the ability to let all its participants be unique, individualistic, and empowered. Some participants have said that through the sessions, they could narrate their story through dance, and it helped them express themselves better with their partners. They have felt that Pretty Wings has directly impacted learning how to communicate differently with others around me.
They genuinely feel that the program is unique as it gives them a voice when they have not been able to find their own. Some participants have also mentioned that through the safe space created by Pretty Wings TO, they have started taking a lot more care of themselves, their physical health, their diet, their confidence has increased, and they are more open to exploring different genres of dance. Some have also found this love within their practice both solo and as a group and they have found within them a remarkable amount of self-compassion and love.
Some participants have said that they felt empowered by choosing themselves and putting themselves first while in sessions with Pretty Wings TO – many can find their authentic self and are so incredibly grateful that they have found a support group of sorts Pretty Wings TO company, building better-improved relations. Some were so touched by Jena and Cassey’s hands-on and compassionate ability to make them feel included, to let them express themselves through body movements without being judged.
What is the plan forward for Pretty Wings TO?
Jena: For folx who are ineligible for subsidized spots, we are developing a paid program for our services that follows the same blueprint as our not-for-profit program. We are also looking to be more active on the grant writing and fundraising front and be more marketable to avail more funding linkages.
It so inspiring to see businesses that focus on empowering individuals through a fusion of dance and mental health. With the pandemic, there is more of a need to be vulnerable, not retreat, and isolate oneself emotionally and mentally.
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In the meantime, if you would like to support our work, donations can be sent to [email protected] via Interac e-transfer with the password: pretty wings. Or, if anyone would like to connect to a funding or corporate sponsorship opportunity they feel would be a good fit for us please also email us at [email protected]