Wanting to experiment and develop new insights as a dance teacher brought Mercedes Balarezo to the Theatre Academy
“I was a really active kid and teachers were always complaining about me, so my mom started taking me to ballet classes. And it worked for me — well, at least for a moment”, reflects Mercedes Balarezo. Originally from Quito, Ecuador, Mercedes studies currently in the Master’s Degree Programme in Dance Pedagogy at the Theatre Academy.
She has worked in Ecuador as a dancer in a theatre company and has her own studio where she teaches dance classes for people of all ages
“I think it was one of the first place in Quito to teach contemporary dance to kids”, she says. “Nowadays there are more places that teach dancing in an organic and creative way with free movement, but when I started mine eight years ago, there was just ballet for kids.”
When she was younger, she left dancing behind, thinking she was done with ballet. However, she discovered contemporary dance at the age of 16. “They were starting up a school in Ecuador that taught contemporary dance. I gave it a try and fell in love.”
She recalls the moment when she decided to pursue dance professionally: “I went to Japan as an exchange student and my teacher took me to this modern ballet company. All the dancers were super engaged and so committed. I was amazed at their skill level and the atmosphere there.”
Following her intuition and looking for a curriculum that drew from a strong tradition of contemporary dance, Mercedes found herself studying in a school in Mexico. “I thought it would be a good place to learn some technique that I was lacking at the time. It was very traditional — it was ballet and Graham all day”, she says, referring to the influential contemporary dance pioneer Martha Graham.
What to teach?
After returning to Quito, she worked as a dancer and started teaching.
“What has always been my struggle is, what to teach?”, she ponders, “because there are so many styles of dance, and I’m always thinking, what to teach first? How to teach it? What is relevant? Why should I teach ballet — do you need to know ballet to know how to dance or is it just about the status?”
Having reflected on her background in dance, she came to a resolution that sounds simple yet revolutionary: “I made the decision that with kids, dancing has to be fun.” She approaches teaching dance, even teaching technique, through games and playing, with the participants, for example, choosing their own favourite music to practice to. “With games and playing you can promote development of their critical thinking skills. You can talk about values, tolerance, and all those things that you can teach through the body.”
Critical pedagogy was originated by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed was influential in Brazil and in Peru. While Ecuador is a different country, does Mercedes find these concepts to have influenced the understanding on teaching over there? “Some community art projects, sure, but sadly, the public education is not looking in that direction. I think we’re looking at the model of high-ranking schools in the United States instead of looking at our neighbours — or looking at what is successful in the pedagogical approaches that we ourselves are creating.”
When asked about what approach she herself would like to follow after her studies at the Theatre Academy, she mentions wanting to go back to Quito and bringing critically-oriented awareness to the grassroots level. “I want to develop this kind of local thinking — how do Ecuadorian people, or people from Quito, teach dance? What does happen in dance teaching here — how do we teach, why do we teach, and who is teaching?”
She cites the need to understand more about the various processes involved in learning to tackle harmful norms in dance education. “There are still these things in some dance schools and companies — you have to be skinny, you have to be white. And imagine: we’re a multicultural country and still we want the skinny girl who looks Eastern European to be at centre stage.” She finds that this system promoting exclusion continues to exist because teachers do not question the harmful attitudes and practices that they themselves have been victims of. “I want to provoke thinking around this subject with dance teachers — how come we are reproducing these things that make ourselves feel so bad about ourselves?”
Applying to and studying at the Theatre Academy
Back in Quito, as she was making most of her living by teaching, she decided to attend a school to get a bachelor’s degree in pedagogy. While studying, she came across a news clip about a Finnish school where the pupils were allowed to move during their class, doing balancing exercises beside their desks or doing movement while listening. “I was like, oh my God! Why didn’t anybody think of this before?” She recognises herself as a child who could have benefited from moving in class: “I was always moving, and being told not to move.”
After graduating with her BA’s, she was looking for master’s degree programmes, and found herself thinking about the Finnish school system. “I just decided to google ‘dance pedagogy Finland’”, she laughs.
This happened just before the 2016 application process which came about too quickly for Mercedes. As the programme admits students every two years, she now had to wait. “But it was a really good as I could work and save money.”
Mercedes found the application process interesting. She had previous experience of writing motivation letters and trying to make herself sound interesting to stand out from the other applicants but here, reflective essays were expected. “I felt sure that through this reflection the people here would understand how I see dance and how I see movement.”
Coming to Finland for the entrance examinations was a huge investment in itself. “I thought that I could do it by video”, she admits, having then found out that there is no such option. However, she doesn’t regret flying over for the examinations. “Those three days felt like a workshop. You get new insights, you meet new people. It was so relaxed. Even if I hadn’t been accepted, I would not have regretted coming here.”
She also admits feeling privileged as not everyone in Latin America has the means to come to Europe to study. “I want to share a little bit of the experience of freedom and dialogue in the Finnish educational system, and start applying it there.”
Mercedes finds that the focus of the studies in Theatre Academy is more practice-based and grounded in improvisation than in the places she has studied in previously. In Ecuador, the dance education has been more focused on perfecting one’s technique, or recently on questions on how Latin American people move without the influence of European practices. “There are questions of how contemporary dance practices merge with people with different muscularities, corporealities and stories, or how the way in which Latin American people move could also be a technique. To me, these go back to my fundamental question: what to teach?”
She finds her studies here to encourage experimentation: “This is an amazing place to be creative, and experiment with all the crazy ideas that you’ve always had but have not been able to develop.” In the studies, each student will lead sessions titled ‘laboratories’ where they hold workshops on whichever subject interests them. Mercedes mentions having used her laboratories and teaching practice to test new approaches: “I have experimented with using sound as a limb, and how that frees the mind.”
“There’s a lot of inspiration in here with the teachers and your peers committed to working on such interesting things — you get it through osmosis, from the air”, she laughs. “I’ve found out that I want to keep on working with voice, maybe with smell and taste with movement — and I don’t know what I will find out next!”
Mercedes Balarezo is a dancer from Quito, Ecuador, who is studying in the Master’s Degree Programme in Dance Pedagogy.
The Master’s Degree Programmes in Dance Pedagogy and Theatre Pedagogy invite new applications in January 2020. If international students are admitted, the entire class will be taught in Finnish and English.
Text: Kenneth Siren. Interview held in English.