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Algonquin dancer Josee Bourgeois uses dance to heal, break cycles of neglect

Dance and actress Josee Bourgeois. Photo credit: Tracey Lynn

June is National Indigenous History Month. It is a time for all Canadians — Indigenous, non-Indigenous and newcomers — to reflect upon and learn the history, sacrifices, cultures, contributions, and strength of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. Throughout the month of June, we will profile Indigenous people, and share their stories and voices, so that we can celebrate the difference they have made in their communities and to our country.


June 24: Today, we celebrate Josee Bourgeois

(Josee has requested that her first name be used for the rest of the article. She will also be telling her story in own words at times.)

 

Josee Bourgeois is Algonquin from Pikwakanagan, Ont. She was born in Ottawa and resides there today. She is an accomplished dancer, actor and model who is very proud to represent her community. Josee didn’t take a typical path to achieve her education. At the age of 16, she dropped out of high school to pursue a modelling career. She wrote her GED (General Educational Development) test at 26 and graduated as class valedictorian at 28 years old.

When she was a teenager, Josee learned about her father’s Algonquin heritage. Her father was a Sixties Scoop baby adopted into an Irish family and her grandmother was a residential school survivor from the Ottawa Valley area. She decided that if she was going to be involved in her culture, that she was going to have to teach herself. Using the skills she had learned earlier in her life as a contemporary dancer to connect with others, she was able to teach herself how to become a pow wow dancer specializing in “fancy shawl.”

“The dance style has a history of evolution through movement that is very important to understand. This is the style that really brought women into the dance circle and gave them the freedom to express bigger and faster movements.”

“The shawl movements and footwork patterns have progressed from fast straight step and kicks to athletic jumps spins and footwork patterns that create an explosive coordination of movement. I enjoy teaching today how the foundations of many hip hop dance moves and choreography can have a symbiotic relationship with pow wow dancing. This is how I have arrived at teaching pow wow step groove classes, using mainly DJ Shub’s PowWowStep album,” Josee explained.

The other dance Josee connected with is “jingle dress,” which is an Indigenous pow wow regalia and dance.

“I started dancing jingle when I wanted to help transition my growth as a softer dancer in the circle. The jingle dress dance is a healing dance through the vibration given off of the metal cones (jingles) when dancing. This dress originates from the Whitefish Bay, Ojibway territory. The White Family. Maggie White was the original woman to wear this dress originating from a dream sent by Creator to bring her and others self-healing. At the age of 30, I wanted to begin bringing softer dance movements and prayer to the circle while still being able to express myself as a fancy shawl dancer when it felt right. The making of my jingle dress at 30 years old was also a tribute to my son and the bond I have with him, that’s something to always pray for,” she said.

For Josee, learning these two dances is something she is very proud of. She discovered she could use her skill as a pow wow dancer to heal others and work to break inter-generational traumas and cycles of neglect towards better health. She decided she wanted to help others on their healing journeys.

“I was first inspired to share what I had come to learn when I started my co-op placement for college at the Nova Women’s Correctional Facility in Nova Scotia. What began as a student placement quickly turned into full-time position immediately after my graduation. This is where I first worked in large groups and one-on-one with a variety of inmates, both First Nations and non. The women were a mix of the general population to maximum security inmates. I provided recreational activities and pow wow/dance/yoga/Zumba classes along with accompanying sweat lodge ceremonies and facilitated beading classes. This experience influenced me permanently to bring healing of movement, laughter, leisure activities and wellness inside the walls of institutions. The connections I made with those women and the healing I know that took place throughout work together was priceless and so obviously effective at rehabilitation. This work was mirrored at the Wanaki Treatment Centre in Kitigan Zibi, QC from 2016-2020,” Josee said.

Josee has shown herself to be a brave leader with a strong vision for change. She wants to work towards a legacy of influencing meaningful change to give First Nations people better quality lives and she does that by sharing her talent with others.

“Dance is a way of telling your story even if it takes years. You can never grow out of dancing, therefore using movement as a tool for self-love and healing is empowerment. Part of the revolution and reclamation as Indigenous people is to be better off then we have been in every sense. This way we can break the cycles permanently to start erasing the narrative of genocide that has been put on us for so long.”

“I find that I can use my leadership, passion and natural ability to move as a gift and tool to connect with people and our ancestors. Tapping into removing the negative energies stored inside of muscle tissue from inter-generational transfer of trauma, we as a people need to move, cry, hug and heal together. Dance and yoga are deliverable measures in almost any setting, therefore essential at integrating as the norm for daily life,” Josee explains.

In the last few years, Josee has made strides as an Algonquin dancer in Ottawa. She was invited to dance in productions at the National Arts Centre. She danced alongside her cousin at the 2019 Ottawa Bluesfest land acknowledgement and at the opening ceremonies ahead of the Backstreet Boys concert. She was also the cultural advisor and choreographer in the March 2020 production of the Indspire Awards, an awards ceremony to honour Indigenous people and their achievements.

Josee’s next goal is to become a certified yoga instructor. She has been inspired by Acosia Red Elk, a world champion jingle dress dancer and yoga instructor.

“I have a goal for my body and what I want to achieve with yoga. Yoga is a friend, a guide, a constant way of being in this life I have been given. I can forever challenge the limits of my mind and body bringing new strengths and experiments. I also have the goal of fusing dance movement and yoga, and continue the work with institutionalized First Nations people who are on a healing path. I will be doing a 200-hour Ashtanga certification class this July in the Palm Springs desert. I have every intention of growing the practice of self healing through yoga in as many first nations communities as possible. The sky is the limit.”

Josee said she would like to bring other important forms of connecting and healing back to her Algonquin territory.

Click here to watch learn more about Josee in her featured documentary.’