By Graeme McNaughton/Active Senior’s Digest
Jennifer Dance has seen and experienced her fair share of injustices in her life.
But it is because of those adversities – and the hope that the future can learn from the past – that Dance has taken pen to ink. And the Province of Ontario noticed.
One of the winners of the province’s Ontario Senior Achievement Award, honouring her work, Dance is the author of three books – Red Wolf, a book about the residential school system set in the late 1800s; Hawk, on the oil sands in Alberta and the effect it has had on local indigenous populations; and Paint, the tale of a wayward horse in the Great American Plains during the westward expansion of the late 1800s – targeted towards younger readers with the hope of teaching them of the struggles of others and to avoid prejudice.
“They are the leaders of tomorrow, they are the ones who can change the world. Children are inherently passionate about what is fair and what is not. They are not born racist,” she says.
“They learn racism and hatred, but they can be steered on a path to equality and compassion if their hearts are touched. The feedback that I get from students and teachers is that my writing is able to do just that.”
Dance says her drive to right the wrongs in the world began when she was a teenager living in Trinidad and Tobago and met a boy named Keith.
“Ever since I was 17, I’ve had a passion for justice and equality,” she says.
“It goes back to 1966, to that pivotal moment in my life when I met the boy who I would later marry. It was not a time when white girls dated black boys, but I was naïve and I really thought that we could make a difference, and show those around us that skin colour didn’t matter.”
However, as Dance learned, her relationship with Keith was not something many were on board with.
“The reality was harder than I imagined. When I was on my own, I was treated completely differently from when I was with Keith. I heard things that people may not have said if they had known my husband was black,” she says.
The couple later moved to Great Britain, where Dance was originally from – however, it was there that the author saw those racist slurs turn violent.
“The day-to-day racism that we experienced as a couple culminated in an unprovoked attack by skinheads. Keith was left with a fractured skull and broken ribs. It took a while, but he recovered and we came to Canada looking for a safer place to raise our mixed race family,” she says.
“Shortly after we got here, Keith died unexpectedly…a complication from the earlier head injury. I was 30. I had two toddlers and was five months pregnant. It was hard. But life went on and I came out of it with an even greater passion to fight racism.”
A single mother living in a new country, life moved on for Dance, although she knew she wanted to teach the younger generation to not repeat the mistakes of generations past. It was then that the idea for her first novel, Red Wolf, began to grow in her mind. Over the years, the idea grew and grew until she finally put pen to paper and wrote the tale.
By the time it was complete, Red Wolf was a story that took over 30 years for Dance to tell.
Now with two more novels – those didn’t take near as long to go from the idea stage to paper – Dance is returning to her original passion: musical theatre.
“I wrote for the stage, first. Musical theatre is my thing! I was a songwriter long before I was a novelist. Music combined with lyrics can be extremely powerful,” she says.
“But unfortunately, stage shows, especially musicals, are very expensive to mount and you need a lot of people backing you – creatively as well as financially. This wasn’t happening for me so I started writing books, always hoping that someday my books would come to the stage.”
While her new project, Dandelions in the Wind, is not based on one of her literary works, it does deal with a prejudice that Dance has personally experienced.
“It is based on my life story as a white woman married to a black man in the 1960s. I have transplanted the racism that we experienced in the UK into the backdrop of the American Civil Rights era, creating a vehicle that sheds light on the history of racism and its legacy. It really is my life’s work,” Dance says.
“I think that the message will be more powerful on the stage than it could ever be on the page. Music, drama, lyrics, lighting, and archival photographs all come together. It’s incredible to be on the brink of achieving this dream, but it’s scary too.”
Dandelions in the Wind is coming to Daniels Spectrum in Toronto from Feb. 8 through 19.