Ola Skanks (née Shepherd) (1926-2018) was a fashion designer, dancer, choreographer, and teacher who played an integral role in Canada’s African diasporic and modern dance scenes. Ola’s dance life started as a child when she watched Fred Astaire and other tap movies and learned to copy the steps. Her parents were from the Caribbean and often hosted international students from Africa over the holidays since they had no relatives in Toronto. Ola would talk and dance with these students, and became invested in discovering her culture’s artistic heritage. She took a correspondence course on African traditional art with a Ghanaian university, and began exploring African dance language alongside her tap work. She assembled her knowledge about these dance forms into a professional career performing around Toronto in the 1940s. After taking time off for the births of her four daughters, Ola launched herself into a renewed period of study in the 1950s. She connected with international students from Ghana and Nigeria, learning dances directly from them in Toronto. She studied with Pearl Primus, a Trinidadian-American choreographer and anthropologist whose work challenged colonialist views of African dance and was instrumental in spreading education about and respect for Black diasporic dance in the United States. Ola also trained with Willy Blok Hanson, a Javanese dancer who had settled in Toronto and appeared on CBC variety shows; Blok Hanson ran numerous dance and fitness classes in Asian, South Asian, and Western dance forms. In the mid-1960s, Ola spent a year in Regina, Saskatchewan where she opened a studio in her home to invite Indigenous children from the nearby reserve to take lessons; her proposal to give lessons on the reserve had been denied by local government officials.
Throughout her life, Ola’s goal was always education and imparting the value of dance. She choreographed for and danced on television, including the CBC, and appeared at festivals and events throughout Toronto and the United States. Her first Toronto studio, which also offered courses on deportment, fashion, and modelling, opened on Yonge Street in 1974. Throughout this period she performed at Toronto high schools, working to ensure students saw themselves represented and had opportunities to learn about their cultures’ dances. Ola was also on faculty at the University of New York in Buffalo and taught at the Three Schools Artists’ Workshop in Toronto. Ola made a space for herself, her culture, and her art in places where it had not been previously, and encouraged others to do the same. Her legacy lives on in the people and work she inspired.
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