ESIE MENSAH ROLE MODEL & AMBASSADOR
Officially Inducted into the “National Wall of Role Models” on June 7, 2014 ( See full list www.BlackCanadianAwards.com )
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Esie Mensah. I’m the youngest of 5 children (3 sisters- Ameley, Akua, Afie and 1 brother - Bogaah) and have two loving parents Michel and Theresa who paved the way from Ghana and Togo in order for their children to be successful.
I am a professional dancer/choreographer within both the traditional African and Commercial dance industries. I was Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario then came to Toronto where I graduated George Brown College’s Commercial Dance program in 2007. Since graduation, I have extensive resume built on a foundation of hard work. Dance is my passion and career. As such, I’ve dedicated myself to building a career that has led me to work with icons such as Janelle Monae, Nelly Furtado, Deborah Cox, Jully Black, Flo Rida, Mariana’s Trench, Coca Cola, Estee Lauder, iSkin, and so many more.
My journey of dance began with a community-based group called the Ewe Canadian Organization of Ontario, made of extended family members and elders that wanted to ensure their children knew about the African culture. Every Sunday we would rehearse in Toronto and learn traditional dances of our Ewe tribe in Ghana/Togo. This beginning impacted my life as I developed my brand of dance over a decade later. The other major influence was Urban culture. I was mesmerized by music videos and spent hours memorizing the words and dance moves to almost every video out there. While the dance was something I always loved, I never really considered it as a future career. I danced from elementary school to university until one day after the third year I choose happiness over academics. This was a big step for me and was counter to what my African parents had in mind. So with the help of my oldest sister, we found a program that best fit me. Following my intuition that dance was a path that I needed to consider, I enrolled at George Brown College. I prayed and worked hard from the audition until my graduation day and gained the foundation of new vocabulary in dance. It was the only program that did not require previous dance training (i.e ballet or jazz) because the program included Musical Theatre, Acting, Vocal, and Hip Hop. With my faith and my work ethic, I graduated at the top of my class and went on to become one of the most successful students from that program.
I currently work with a community-based company - Children and Youth Dance Theatre in Jane and Finch area. Working with these young ladies allows me to give them something I never had, proper dance training and mentorship. I want these girls to know that working hard now it will make a huge impact on their life in the future. My goal is to motivate, educate and guide them towards their own greatness. I never had access to dance training as a child and I want to give them something they will utilize going forward.
As I reflect on my career, one of my proudest moments was the response of my first choreographed piece 3 years after moving to Toronto. The creation was based off the movie Avatar for a dance show called The Bazaar. From all the pieces that I have done thus far this is still my favourite one. It holds a special place in my heart because I wasn’t sure how people would respond. It was my first attempt at solidifying my identity within the dance community and I am thankful to have been allowed to create such a work of art.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FR7yUWfQz50 (Avatar – starts at 1:45)
Tell us what many people may not know about you? (Hint: what you love to do but never did or what you did as a kid and no one noticed)
What people may not know about me is that I was doing a double major in Women’s and Cultural studies. Even though that was the original career path, dance was always present in my life. Dance and I were attached at the hip and for some reason, my love for the art never dissipated. During my time in school, I formed my own dance group with Nadine Lamanna called ‘Xklusiv’ and helped organize OUCH – Ontario University Competition for Hip Hop. Towards the end of my third year, after a semester of only academics, my grades suffered and I felt like I was hitting rock bottom. I asked myself am I happy? I replied no then asked what makes me happy…dance. The rest is history.
What's your inspiration and how do you get motivated?
Inspiration can come in many different forms – conversation, images, performances, etc. For me, all it takes is that moment where it feels like time stops. Thoughts, feelings and images are imprinted onto my brain. That’s when I know I’ve absorbed something really special.
What gets me motivated lies in understanding the “where I am now“ moment which is leading me to where I want to be. My vision and values are solid so I keep pushing, knowing that I still have great things that lie ahead of me. Everything I do is a learning experience for me and I use it all. Like dance, life is progression and may I never stop learning.
How did you get to where you are now and what more should we expect?
I got here on a lot of hard work as well as meeting and working with the right people. I either excelled or failed and took them all as learning lessons. I learned what works and I learned what doesn’t. I learned that authenticity is an essential ingredient to what I create. What you can expect from me is passion, perseverance and production. Currently, I am planning a full-length production to be launched in 2014. It’s called Akuma – A journey into the heart of Africa. Preserving our culture of pride, diversity, strength and history so we honour a past that cannot be forgotten. My hope to invite people who may not be aware of this history and have them a new understanding of Africa’s past, present, and future.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I would like to be remembered for a presence that went beyond dance. By that I mean, acknowledging the part of me that makes me human. I want to be remembered for being an authentic influential being that helped people and made a difference in her community. My dance career is a way to help facilitate this. If I can leave a footprint on the lives of the people I have come in contact with then I know I have made a difference.
How do you balance work, family, friends and leisure?
I do my very best yet something always gets sacrificed. It is inevitable if you are dedicated to your career. Your loved ones see you during the chaos and when the dust settles. Those in my life understand my schedule and we either plan in advance or I will sacrifice something in order to make time. Something always tends to suffer but it’s all about balance.
I sacrifice a lot for my craft. However, within the past year, I’ve tried to change the way I look at my work/life balance and not be so consumed with work at the expense of family and friends. Making time for friends and family is a must to maintain real relationships. I focus my energy into positivity especially when stress gets high. I have to center myself or else nothing will get done. I am still working on being efficient with my time so I know ‘x’ time is dedicated to friends and ‘x’ is dedicated to work. It will be an ongoing process but promoting a healthy mind with love and passion for my work will help maintain that balance when its needed.
What's your favorite food, book, music and movie?
Favourite food- anything that tastes yummy in my tummy!
Favourite book – The Zahir by Paulo Coelho
Music- R & B, Hip hop (old school), House, Jazz, Pop, 80’s British Pop, and more (Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest)
Movie – The Matrix Trilogy
What's your experience as a Black person in Canada? (Also suggest solutions if any challenge in the community or as a black person)
I am a dark-skinned lean African woman. My shape is not seen often amongst African woman and my skin complexion is not accepted in mainstream Canadian media. Many people have to think twice in casting a ‘dark skinned’ woman in fear of how the public will accept it. Yes in 2013 this is still an issue. There is a comfortable shade of blackness that goes no darker than caramel that you find all over Canadian media. I have been told that I am too dark for many projects, videos, etc. There is only room for so many black women in this industry, We often make jokes about only having room for one black girl but there is a lot of truth in this joke. It’s pushed us to constantly strive for greatness in ourselves and recognize what opportunities are for us. Like any other issue that is based on bias, one looks to see what can be created out of learning. All of my lessons made me the strong and determined individual that I am. It’s motivated me to work harder to ensure that the focus is on my talent and not my skin colour.
I understand that I can’t eliminate this blindfold that many people chose to wear but I feel that it serves no purpose pretending that this doesn’t exist. We have to allow all those around us to continue to work hard and let our work speak for itself. Unfortunately in this commercial industry, talent isn’t the only factor but we can put our best foot forward to ensure we are content with the work we do.
One solution would be by acknowledging that these prejudices exist. The Canadian media need not be afraid to cast people of darker complexions.
Are there as many opportunities for Blacks in Canada that can produce role models and institutions like TD Jakes, Beyonce, Tyler Perry, Obama, BET, etc.
In Canada, there are many black role models. However, additional black owned/operated institutions are necessary in order to see it happen at a growing rate. One city in the U.S. was responsible for great artists like James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Tribe Called Quest and so many more. That doesn’t occur in Canada. Many artists leave Canada to acquire international success in order to gain proper recognition in our own country. If we invested in our talent as America does, Canada would have the development we need. More role models would be present on TV, radio, and businesses. Our future generations would have the resources to take their dreams to a new height. Choosing to remain here happens at a cost but the future of youth is in turmoil if we do not do something about it.
Mention a few of your favorite Black Canadian Leaders, Artists and Role Models?
Black role models are present in everyday people that want to make a difference in their community. Opening art-based programs (Sketch and Believe, Children and Youth Dance Theatre, Remix Project, Nia Centre for the Arts, etc) are all making a difference in the lives of someone today. These programs help mold black youth into great leaders and pioneers. If we can do our part to help be a mentor to the upcoming generation we will help give back what someone has given us.
Should & do Blacks support / patronize black music, events and businesses?
I believe we should support our music, events and businesses but I don’t think we do it enough. Support needs to be more than just a ‘tweet’ or ‘Facebook like’. It needs actual well-wishing, supporting and elevating those around us as we gain notoriety in our careers. We need to encourage one another if we wish to grow as a community. That may sound redundant but its true. The black community is very disconnected and it’s not allowing us to move forward in a healthy way. We need to appreciate our work and not demean our efforts. By correcting this major flaw we would finally see the changes we have been waiting for.
What’s your understanding of Black History in Canada?
I wish I had a greater understanding of black history in Canada but I don’t. I am aware that our accomplishments expand further than pioneers like Lincoln Alexander (first black man in Parliament) but the lack of support contributes to the lack of knowledge of our generation. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of pride in ensuring the history of BIack educators, entertainers and innovators get passed on. As a community, we need to find a solution so we don’t keep perpetuating the same mistake. If we were aware of the greatness that we have achieved may be more black Canadians would want to aspire to the same greatness. We will never know until we try.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPmtsXGKExY - Azonto Canada