By Mia Johnson

Oleg Kasynets begins his jazz-funk class with a vigorous and unapologetic warm-up. He flips his head from side-to-side and around in a slow circular motion. There are high knees and jumping jacks. “Get on the floor!” Kasynets instructs. He leads the class in deep lunges and quad stretches. A girl with a pink mask, one in a blue mask and one with no mask follow along, watching him with an intense focus. The dancers speak their own language. As he walks through his choreography, Kasynets not only counts out each move, but uses distinctive sounds to emphasize the rhythm: “Ki-ki-ki-ki-go-go-step!” The students’ sharp and decisive movements cast shadows on the wall as their bodies move in unison.

Almost two years into the pandemic, The Underground Dance Centre, part of Toronto’s Waterfront community, is once again buzzing with young people eager to dance. They are ready to forget their problems, for an hour or so, and engage with what is right in front of them.

The journey to this moment has not been easy. For dancers and choreographers working in Toronto, repeated lockdowns have been both physically and emotionally trying. In these negative headspaces, choreographers were forced to ask themselves — can I even do it again? But with renewed passion, Toronto dancers have now thrust themselves back into their art, eager to work again. They are lifted up and empowered by the energy of their students.

Shamar Ramsay is a 27-year-old dancer living in Toronto. During the pandemic, Ramsay’s worst fear was the thought of falling out of love with dance. Through shared experiences at The Underground Dance Centre, his drive to continue choreographing new pieces and coming together with friends reignited that spark for him.

Kasynets is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist. Before COVID, he taught eleven classes a day. But, when the pandemic hit, artists like him that worked tirelessly and non-stop for years, suddenly had to put their lives on hold. To return to in-person sessions after so long pushed these artists to their breaking point. “I had a moment in my life when I would come home and, like, cry from how tired I am,” Kasynets said after his Friday class. “I felt completely exhausted, like, beyond normal.” 

Kasynets struts over to the sound board to change the song. He moves with purpose, popping his hips back and forth to the tune of Rihanna’s S&M. He is overflowing with personality – always playing a character. It is “musical Gucci” or “sexy spy,” depending on the day. His face is full of emotion, keen and posed. He raises an eyebrow and smoulders at the full-length mirror. In a sideways lunge, with sweat dripping from his forehead, he looks over at me from the door and winks. He is completely in his element. “That’s what my classes are,” Kasynets said. “It’s not just like dance as a physical form. It’s a lot of emotional development, and it’s a lot of finding who you are as a person.” Kasynets encourages his students to bring their headspace into the performance. “I know it’s a hard part to be vulnerable but the beauty of moving and the beauty of being an artist, is being in that vulnerable state.”

“I know it’s a hard part to be vulnerable but the beauty of moving and the beauty of being an artist, is being in that vulnerable state.”

Oleg Kasynets
Oleg Kasynets speaks about what he hopes his students will take away from his classes (Mia Johnson/T•)

Mo Mo is an entertainer and dance instructor in Toronto. He teaches heels and jazz-funk lessons of varying levels at the studio. In September 2021, he jumped at the opportunity to be a regular teacher and wanted to take on as many classes as he physically could. “I just wanted to be where people gathered, where people were uplifting each other, where people were smiling,” he said.

The familial and professional connections made at The Underground Dance Centre can’t be replicated to the same degree in online spaces, said supervisor Colin Ferry. “We do the best we can, but it’s nowhere near what we’re able to do and what we’re able to share in-person.” The studio provides an intimate setting where young dancers can meet high calibre performers to further their careers. The dance studio is its own community that generates close friendships and a real sense of comfort, a second home for dancers who work there. “We do have, like, a small family,” said Ferry.

Compelled by their passion to keep the scene alive during lockdowns, dancers sometimes took risks – and faced authorities’ wrath. Kasynets had “been through it all” with classes on Instagram Live, Zoom and in outdoor spaces. In the midst of the pandemic, he felt compelled to keep people moving. “I couldn’t just leave people in their hardest times,” he said. In August 2021, Kasynets taught an hour-long dance class outside of Roy Thomson Hall. A Toronto Police officer approached him and asked if he had a permit to dance there. Confused at that moment, as many fitness classes had moved outdoors, but hesitant to argue, Kasynets and his class stopped peacefully.

Unlike Kasynets, Mo Mo refused to teach any classes online. “It just isn’t the same for me. I need to see you face to face. I need to see you live in action,” he said. He felt a lack of connection with his students in online spaces. 

During longer lockdown periods, Mo Mo re-considered his creativity when it came to choreography, holding himself to a high standard. “It has to be something that is lit, that is hip, that people are going to love,” he said. Stuck in his head, Mo Mo found himself questioning, “do I really love to dance all the time?” 

For Mo Mo, his love for performing eliminated that anxiety and fear that manifested itself during the pandemic. “I knew at the end of the day, no matter what happens, I’m still going to want to perform, I’m still going to want to entertain,” he said. Dance is a form of expression and a release, he explained. More than anything, he wanted his students to have fun in his classes and be challenged: “As we progress, we learn and we grow together.”

“I knew at the end of the day, no matter what happens, I’m still going to want to perform, I’m still going to want to entertain.”

Mo Mo
Mo Mo addresses the physical barriers he faced when getting back into the rhythm and flow of the dance room after Ontario mandated lockdowns ended. Rumour is (and it’s no secret) that he prevailed (Mia Johnson/T•)

Kasynets could not wait to get back to live classes either, to feel the energy of the space. In the tiny, cramped office at The Underground Dance Centre, wedged between two on-going dance lessons, music blares in a kind of chaotic symphony from every direction. In the noise, Kasynets grasps tightly onto his jacket, ruminating on the past. “You need to have this ‘go get it’ attitude for life,” he said, “COVID is a challenge for everyone, and I think it’s important for people to find that fire again.”