Winning a Harry Jerome Award for excellence in the arts is quite an achievement for Andrea Douglas, who has whole-heartedly embraced dance for nearly five decades and offered young people in challenged communities an opportunity to express their artistic talent.
Of more significance to her is that she’s receiving the honour in the same year that the Children & Youth Dance Theatre (CYDT), which she founded as a community-based institution for children in under-served neighbourhoods, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Established with the aim of nurturing the dance talent of children over the age of four, the CYDT offers a structured program that prepares dancers for artistic involvement at the secondary and tertiary levels and engages them in learning for life.
The award-winning dance company was recently relocated from Driftwood Community Centre because of safety concerns.
“To be nominated by one of the parents for a Harry Jerome Award and for that submission to be successful in our anniversary year means quite a lot to me,” said Douglas. “All along, I have used dance to empower young people, but I now feel I have a bigger role to play in my community and the education of Black youths with this honour in my grasp.”
Dancing since age six, Douglas is a founding student of the Guyana National School of Dance, set up in 1973 just months after Guyana successfully hosted the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA). She quit her full-time job as an administrative assistant with the city to dance and tour Cuba and the Caribbean before relocating to Jamaica in 1985.
“I had done all that I could in Guyana with the School of Dance and I was looking for new opportunities to explore and extend learning as an artist, mainly in dancing,” she said.
Douglas attended the Edna Manley College of Visual & Performing Arts and taught dance at 15 schools across the country. Recognizing her passion and extensive artistic abilities, the late Rex Nettleford invited Douglas to join the internationally-acclaimed National Dance Theatre Company, where she performed in major repertoire pieces and performed extensively throughout North American and Europe.
After graduating with a Fine Arts degree in 1989, Douglas moved to the Greater Toronto Area.
“I just wanted more for myself and I felt that coming here would widen my scope of knowledge,” said Douglas. “I was also thinking at the time about opening a school for the Arts and I felt that I would be able to do this in Canada.”
In pursuit of higher education, Douglas enrolled in York University’s dance ethnology graduate program, where her artistic talent was quickly recognized. Encouraged to develop partnerships between the university and neighbouring schools in the Jane-Finch community, she also performed with the university’s dance ensemble, taught dance elective courses and was a teaching assistant to numerous professors in the university’s dance department.
“These opportunities paved the way for me to complete the Ontario Teaching Certificate and a Bachelor’s degree in Education at the University of Toronto and allowed me in the process to begin the transfer as a qualified academic and performing arts teacher,” said Douglas.
A Toronto District School Board vice-principal, Douglas still finds the time to work as an independent dance performer, choreographer and instructor while contributing to the success of Black youths in the community through the CYDT, which started with three students.
The group of nearly 55 students engage in modern dance, classical ballet, jazz, Afro-Caribbean dance and hip-hop; participate in cultural workshops and community performances and tour internationally. Four years ago, the CYDT made its first appearance at the Dance & Child international conference that promotes opportunities around the world for children and young people to experience dance as creators, performers and spectators.
Douglas is one of 16 distinguished Canadians who will be presented with Harry Jerome Awards on Saturday night at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
The other recipients are Alabaster Wellness Clinic’s chief executive officer and cosmetologist, Dr. Nadine Wong; University of Toronto linguistic anthropology doctoral candidate, Emilie Nicolas; Royal Bank of Canada regional president, Jennifer Tory; spoken word artist, Anne-Marie Woods; General Motors Canada president and managing director, Kevin Williams; Bay St. law firm owner, Tanya Walker; Grammy Award winner, Ray Williams; businessman, Vincent Lai; Dr. Roz’s Healing Place founder and executive director, Roz Roach; Toronto FC goalkeeper, Quillan Roberts; University of Alberta biology student, Monique Jarrett; media practitioner, Royson James; Barbados Ball Canada Aid assistant treasurer, Grant Morris; York University professor, Dr. Carl James and Kemeel Azan, who is a pioneer in Canada’s Black cosmetic industry.
Former track and field sprinter and professional footballer, John Carlos who, with fellow American runner, Tommie Smith, made the signature raised black gloves fist on the medal stand after the 1968 Mexico Olympics 200-metre final as a show of solidarity with oppressed people worldwide, is the keynote speaker.
The awards honour the memory of Jerome, who set seven world track records and helped create Canada’s sports ministry. He was slated to be the keynote speaker at a celebration to mark the record performances of Canada’s athletes at the 1982 Commonwealth Games when he succumbed to a brain aneurysm a fortnight before the organizers contacted him. They decided to honour the athletes with awards named after him.
Since its inception in 1983, a total of 355 Harry Jerome Awards (this year included) have been presented to individuals and one organization – Eva’s Initiatives in 2005 – for excellence in myriad fields.