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Why the name Dancing Backwards?

“Being a woman in politics is like being Ginger Rogers. You have to do all the same dance steps as Fred Astaire, but you have to do them backwards and in high heels.”

Ann Richards, former Governor of Texas

First Steps

A note from Dancing Backwards founder, Sandy Mayzell...

Some years ago, my interests in documentary film-making and in social activism came together in an investigation of the state of women in politics in Canada. I was shocked to discover that the female voice is still muted. I learned about the many obstacles women face when they try to enter politics, and how different their experiences are from those of their male counterparts. No wonder many of the needs of women and families are not reflected in governance and policy-making – there are simply too few women involved to insist that these issues be taken seriously. I was heartened to discover organizations that promote women’s roles in politics, leadership and governance (for instance Equal Voice, and The Canadian Women Voters Congress), and indeed, things have improved somewhat since my work began. Sadly, though, misogyny and violence against women are still rampant. With the level of representation of women in federal politics still stuck at around 26%, the struggle for an equal part in decision-making goes on.

The Inspiration

In the course of my research, I came upon a book called Dancing Backwards, by former Senator Sharon Carstairs and Tim Higgins. This book served as an inspiration for my work.

I interviewed Sharon Carstairs about her own life in politics, and about her motivation for writing the book. Her intention was to give women their long overdue place in history. Dancing Backwards into history, as it were – discovering the full story – will, she believes, help Canadians move forward with a better and more robust appreciation of how this country was built.

The Problem

The more research I did, and the more time I spent talking to women politicians, the clearer the picture became. The odds remain stacked against women taking a rightful place in governing the country. Where women do not have adequate input, the health and well-being of all Canadian citizens is not being properly championed. Clare Beckton, Executive Director - Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, Carlton University, maintains that men and women approach problem solving differently, and that in order to arrive at the best solution for the greater good, both approaches are required. I believe this to be true.

One of the things that undermines the engagement of women in contemporary politics is an under-appreciation of the contributions women have already made, and are currently making, to Canada’s laws and policies. It’s important to tell these stories in order to inspire today’s women and girls to step up and to help boys recognize that women have a right to be standing alongside them as leaders.

One Solution

After sitting on a panel for the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians in Quebec City, I hatched a plan to create an outreach educational program in citizenship and leadership role modeling for girls and boys. An audience member questioned the panel I was on at a University of Victoria’s screening of the documentary, Miss Representation, commented that in order to make profound change we need to introduce the concept of gender parity in governance at a very young age. Pre- puberty, if possible. That fit with my own observations, that grade five students have an innate sense of justice and fairness, and that this would be an ideal age group to start with.

sandyI’ve been involved in the arts my whole life, and the idea of using an arts-driven learning experience to introduce ideas of gender parity and political engagement to young students really got me excited. Dancing Backwards was born.

From 2013-2016, the Dancing Backwards educational program was piloted in schools in Victoria, BC for grades 5, 8 and 11 in French and English, and at a First Nations elementary school. During this phase, I personally led the program in the classrooms, bringing in a team to assist with the creation and filming of the final student projects, which are now the first entries in the Her Story Archive on this website.

The program got an overwhelmingly positive response from teachers and students, and my vision expanded. I wanted the opportunity to make the program available nationally. This required that I step back from the in-class process, and take greater advantage of technology. The result is DancingBackwards.ca, a program that satisfies many curriculum criteria (Social Studies, Arts Education: Fine Art/Dance/ Drama, English Langauge Arts, etc.) and that teachers can easily access on this website, free of charge, simply by registering. As the teachers on the testimonial video attest, Dancing Backwards is a memorable and satisfying project for students and teachers alike.

With its dynamic format, Dancing Backwards introduces students to basic concepts of governance and citizenship, female role modeling and creative storytelling. Students experience this process as transformational – they really get it. This value-based teaching method shows promise as a long-term attitude changer. It speaks directly to students, allowing them to understand the value of an equal partnership between women and men, and encourages girls to consider leadership as part of their lives and future. By calling on their powers of empathy and imagination, it puts girls and boys in a position to teach each other about equality.

In the last three weeks of the eight-week program, students study the political accomplishments of a woman of their choice, and re-tell the part of her story that most inspires them. They select a creative medium, use technology to do research, learn how to tell a story and produce a presentation of three minutes or less. These stories – missing chapters in our history – are filmed and uploaded to the Her Story Archive on dancingbackwards.ca. This archive becomes not only a record of Canadian political women and their work but also a validation of their existence as contributors to the fabric of the country. The Her Story Archive will expand indefinitely as teachers across the country register for the program. It will include women from all regions of Canada and all levels of governance, presented in a non-partisan way, to ultimately reflect our true diversity.

We invite teachers to see how Dancing Backwards fits into their provincial Social Studies, Arts, English and History education criteria, and then register for the program. The website gives teachers a dynamic step-by- step guide, with downloadable forms, assessment tools, sample biographies, games, videos, a 100-year clickable timeline, clear instructions on how to complete the process, and upload their students’ work to the Dancing Backwards Her Story Archive.

So here we are. Our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, explained his decision to appoint an equal number of female and male ministers in his cabinet by saying, “Because it’s 2015.”

Onwards and upwards!





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