SaMel Tanz’s CHAMPIONESS, is a captivating performance that combines boxing, contemporary, street, and Latin dance to explore notions of identity and mental health.  Curious, right? But what also makes this intriguing is how this production reflects on the power of solidarity amongst women as they face fears and navigate life-changing experiences. CHAMPIONESS reminds audiences that the most personal adversities can be celebrated as achievements, challenging society’s perceptions of winners and losers.

CHAMPIONESS is presented by DanceWorks from November 16-18 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto. Choreographed and performed by Sam Schleese and Mel Hart, CHAMPIONESS features a multi-generational cast including Lilly Giroux, Lauren Lyn, Renee Smith, and Irma Villafuerte.

We had a chance to chat with Schleese and Hart to learn more about this performance.

What inspired the title of the production?

The title was one of the first things decided. In some of our first rehearsals exploring boxing and dance we felt like conquerors of our destinies (thus champions) but wanted the name to feel more feminine so we added “ness”. We researched and learned that it was a real word to describe a female champion but also in the late 1800’s female boxers & title winners were named “CHAMPIONESS” in the sport.

There are several styles of dance woven into telling this story, including boxing – can you tell us more about that?

We, Sam and Mel, are versatile dance artists, trained in Contemporary, Hip Hop and Latin dance forms. We strive to include these dance styles in our work because it has been monumental to our development as artists.  We prefer not to be labelled as one type/kind of dancer, and we want to invite people from different communities to see dance forms that are relatable to them thus connecting to the show. 

How are identity and mental health explored in this piece?

With our 6 dancers, we share a multitude of emotions and parts of our identity, unapologetically making space to show our vulnerable parts of us as well as the parts that make us feel like champions.  In CHAMPIONESS, we talk about what winning and losing can look and feel like which can deeply affect our mental health. This performance ultimately highlights the impact of community support and brings awareness and thought to audiences to check in on yourself and others. 

Can you tell us more about how this also explores society’s perception of winners and losers?

In sport there is usually a clear winner and loser. But in life, things are not so black and white. We want to celebrate personal challenges even if you haven’t fully surpassed them yet. We want to celebrate the risks people are taking to change where they are in life.

We also want to give space for the times where life drains you – Who said that you are losing? You keeping up with life is still a win! Essentially – reframing  smaller, chaotic or emotional moments presents more opportunity for growth versus a state of winning or losing,  allowing us to play the long game of life. 

The cast is multi-generational – can you tell us about the oldest and the youngest? And what they bring to the stage?

Our youngest dancer is 24 and our oldest dancer is 38. Age is really just a number as all our dancers bring professionalism, insightful questions and suggestions to the work with caring and supportive spirits. Each dancer brings their own unique personality and experiences to the stage. What’s beautiful to see are dancers with humble spirits, exchanging knowledge to help everyone grow no matter where they are in their dance journeys. 

Who do you feel should see this? 

Anyone! People who like to see conventional boundaries of art/ dance broken. People who want to be inspired. People who appreciate the physicality of the human body. People who want to see women of diverse backgrounds, cultures, body shapes, ages coming together to support one another – a positive representative of what a community can look like!

What do you hope audiences would get out of this performance?

We hope audiences will feel inspired, entertained and wowed by the physicality and vulnerability of the work.  We also hope audiences will reflect on what kinds of support they might need in their lives (community support, therapy, physical outlets) and where they can give themselves and others more grace for all that they manage and face on a daily basis.  We also hope audiences might want to sign up for some boxing or dance lessons! 

And for you? What do you hope to experience with this piece?

This project/ performance has given us the opportunity to develop as dance artists, (choreographically, physically, emotionally) and learn how to develop a project over 4 years. There are no guidelines or manuals on how to build a show through a pandemic and we are super proud for making it to this point!

It’s also been cathartic to release some personal experiences through the work and build a wonderful community with our cast and production team, building bonds we hope to have for years to come. 

You can learn more about the choreographers here.

For more information and tickets, visit the site here.