"I remember as a child sort of zoning out. I think that's a meditation. Our minds become free. They become un-tethered. I think it's a natural state of being."
I met Diana at a workshop for understanding your emotions (led by Mercedes Baines), and her self-introduction… surprised me.
Or perhaps a better way of saying that is, it caught me off guard.
“Hi, my name is Diana McKenzie” she started “and I am a dancer.” The way she said it… the word ‘dancer’ felt like it vibrated throughout the entire room, and I knew immediately that she was most certainly, in every meaning of the world, a dancer. And I had to speak to her. But when the workshop had finished I thought I’d missed my chance. She was gone.
Luckily, I ran into her in the woman’s washroom, and a couple weeks later we were sitting down together at the JJBean in Yaletown to chat.
Diana McKenzie is a dancer, choreographer and dance-movement psychotherapist
Living in Vancouver for most of her life, Diana worked for much of that time in addiction services as a counsellor. In 2011, she was accepted as 1 of 12 individuals to attend a post-grad science programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. The programme was Dance Movement Psychotherapy. She left to come home to Vancouver in 2013, only to discover that the job that was meant to be waiting for her was no longer there. It took a year of self-discovery to find her next calling, but now Diana works with behaviourally challenged children.
As a dancer, she does Contact Improv, Belly Dance, Flamenco, Morris and Historical Periods, from the Regency to Baroque to Elizabethan. She creates her own and others gowns and garb.
What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
Passion drives me forward. Love keeps me going – and I don’t mean love in a romantic sense necessarily. I’m referring to love for my fellow people, whatever shape or size they come in.
I’m a dance movement psychotherapist, and most of the work that I’ve done (in Scotland especially) is with substance effected children – although I’ve worked with adults as well.
People are so trapped in their bodies, but there’s this brilliant moving and dancing spirit inside all of us. Especially in all of those children who are somehow damaged.
Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
I’ve lived in Vancouver for most of my life, and worked in addiction services for many years as a counsellor. Because I’m a dancer, I started using movement and choreographically structured pieces with some of my groups in therapy. A lot of them were really stuck in their bodies, and couldn’t find a way to escape the trauma that held them.
I knew movement worked, but I didn’t know why. So, I found this post-grad programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. I applied and was accepted. They only accept 12 people per year.
So I graduated, and came home after doing this amazing work.
But when I came back, I found out that my manager was no longer there (she’d been pretty excited about what I was doing), and there were all sorts of new people there. I was told they’d be keeping a casual position open for me when I came back, but when I returned I was interviewed. I was told “I don’t think you have the necessary skill set to be working in this program, do you?”
I was dumbfounded, and quite crushed. And I thought for a period that it had all been for nothing – doing all this post-grad work, and leaving a really good job in Edinburgh working with the population that I wanted to be with.
At least for awhile, I thought that was a failure.
What made you shift that thought?
In large part, dancing and moving with this mixed ability improv group that I’m with now.
How long after you returned did that opportunity arrive.
About a year.
So what was that year like in between?
Really difficult. Soul searching. Feeling inadequate…while recognizing intellectually that I wasn’t. But there was still this emotional thing of believing that I wasn’t equal to the task, and that I was missing something.
Did you feel yourself growing or changing as a person during that year?
Yes/no. A piece of me felt very stuck. Thinking I’m just sitting here… but I think I stopped dancing too for that year.
When did you start dancing?
I started dance classes at 2, so I could say for my whole life. The great Isadora Duncan said that she was dancing in her mother’s womb, and… me too. I think we all are.
Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
I have no idea. A lot of the time I think that happy is a Hallmark construct. It’s something that we’re supposed to be conditioned to search for and to want to achieve. To think, “I’ll be happy when I do this,” or “that will make me really happy.”
I think being satisfied, and to be content with one’s heart with whatever one does in one’s community… that sort of contentment and satisfaction is more vital – more important – than ‘happy.’
What do you think is your greatest strength? On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
Empathy is the answer to both questions. It’s not difficult to get under the skin of people, and to be with them. Strangers talk to me constantly. It doesn’t matter where I am, whether I’m standing in the queue to get something to drink, or on the bus. I’ve missed stops because someone started talking to me – sharing something of their lives with me.
But if I’m staying on the bus so that someone can find some resolution, or just have the opportunity to share something of their life, and I miss a meeting, or I’m late getting somewhere… then that’s a weakness.
I’m not considering the opposite of strength as ‘weakness.’ Instead, I’d like to use the idea of a ‘personal challenge.’ Is there anything you’re struggling with right now?
I’m absolute rubbish at business.
All of it. Marketing plans, creating a website. I’m rubbish at that. But put me in a studio with people, or one-on-one in an office and I’m really good. So that’s a personal challenge. Now that our regional health authority does not want me back, the question is how do I make a really decent living doing what I’m passionate about?
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
[Laughing]. “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! I can dance!” Always. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to dance, and didn’t want to perform.
And dancing with people – that’s quite possibly more important than the dancing itself. But oh my gosh. When I’m dancing with other people… it’s transcendent. It’s fabulous.
What style of dance do you do?
The mixed ability stuff is contact improv. Good improv performance is actually not completely improvisational. There are choreographed elements and there’s space inside the choreography for completely spontaneous movement – there’s a structure.
And I do historical period dance – so, the Regency period, the Baroque and Elizabethan dance.
I also design and build all the costuming to wear. So I have gowns for every Period. It’s everything from the inside out, all of the under garments, the foundations.
I also do Morris dancing. It’s the traditional dance of the English Country side. It’s ancient and ritualized movement, dancing with your community; dancing with your friends.
On May the 1st we’re on a hill near UBC at 5:30, dancing the sun up. It is incredibly powerful magic. I always cry.
Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
Can I say coffee? The perfect cup of coffee: I really like Sumatran beans, which I grind fresh. Fragrant, organic beans. I’m really quite picky about that. Also, my meditation and yoga.
Do you meditate every day?
It varies on how busy I am, or how much I have to accomplish in the morning. Sometimes it’s a half hour, and other times it’s an hour or more.
You achieve a heightened state of consciousness when you meditate. It’s well documented. I can’t imagine my life without it.
I think it’s something that children do quite naturally. I remember as a child sort of zoning out, and I think that’s a meditation. Our minds become free. They become un-tethered. I think that it’s a natural state of being.
How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
I have a few friends who are my principle sources of support. Both of them, in their different ways, give me a kick in the arse. It’s nice, but they wear pointy shoes. They’re not mean about it, but it’s to the point. I know that I can speak to them whenever I seriously doubt myself.
And meditation! If I’m really in the middle of the negative self-talk, I will meditate on it until I find the answer. Or I’ll find a labyrinth, and I’ll do that.
What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
Commitment. Belief or Faith. And I don’t mean that in a religious sense at all. Belief/ faith – I’m not sure if there’s a line dividing them or if it’s one in the same thing. You have to have faith that you really are following the path.
I also think it has nothing to do with public recognition and everything to do with personal recognition: to be able to live within.
Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
Trust the process.
What do you mean by that? How do you trust the process?
You have to trust the process. You can’t say ‘oh, well… the process is this.’ You have to trust it, because it’s completely different for every single human. We all have our individual processes, our ways to achieving enlightenment (I don’t know if that’s really the right word… but something of that nature).
If one is continually negative self-talking, or doubting, or pushing against it, then I don’t think achieving it is going to be possible.
You have to have faith that yes, you’re doing the right thing. You must trust the process that your body is taking you on, and let go of the structures.
What are your thoughts on intuition?
And by that I mean, what is intuition in your opinion? What does it feel like in your body?
Knowing it’s right. Knowing that chatting to a lovely young woman in the ladies loo is the right thing to do because there is a sensation somewhere from my body that says hmm, this is something you should do [referring to how we met].
It just feels right. There is a rightness to it. I think it’s a fluttering sensation. I identify a lot of things like intuition or emotional states through the actual sensations that I have in my body, and I think that’s true of most of us if we stop and pay attention.
What would you say to people who have lost that ability to be intuitive?
Come talk to me [laughing]. Come dance with me.
Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to money?
Has your relationship to money changed over the years?
I grew up in a rather privileged household – hence the dance classes.
I never really thought about money until I came here to go to college. My father started putting structures around my spending, and I had to manage it. I had no ability with it.
Still, I did not do badly. I figured out how to budget so that I wasn’t eating peanut butter and toast all the time. In some ways – inside — I haven’t changed at all. I live within my means. I do my budget thing, but I freaking hate it.
And like I already said: I’m absolute rubbish at business. So maintaining this really steady cash flow has always been…stressful.
I had all these awesome savings, but then I went and spent it all in Scotland. And I’m so happy that I did. I’m so happy!! It was one of the best decisions of my life. It was the perfect thing to do, but it’s put me years back in the big plan. So here we go again.
That’s money. I hate money. I would much rather that we had a society – and I mean globally – that did not need a system of economy in order for us all to be well fed, well housed, healthy, and satisfied with life.
Ever experience flow/being in the zone?
What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
I experience it all the time in dancing, but thinking of a specific thing…
In my Morris dancing group, we wear bright red frocks with white panels and sleeves. They’re very full skirted, so if I do a little kick thing when I’m turning, my skirt and my white petticoat underneath come fluttering up. And I wear ridiculous bloomers underneath.
There’s a particular movement that we do in one of my favourite dances. The figure probably covers about 15 feet with four people, when we do a figure-eight weaving in and out shape. When I’m going, most of the time my feet barely touch the ground, and when I’m coming around the end, my skirt just flies, and I’m completely air born in that moment. That’s flow.
What is your favourite book? It could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story.
If that is too difficult to answer, who are your favourite authors?
Oh my gosh. I am voracious reader. I’m reading constantly.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
I wrote my first year English exam on her sexuality, and I got an A+ in University. How often does that happen? It was wild!
She’s such a repressed and abused person, but inside she’s this incredible butterfly in this hard casing. And she discovers her sexuality. She keeps her honour – and I don’t mean the honour of her virginity. She discovers her sexuality and realises that she can’t indulge it. She has to package it back up to be an honourable person… but she lets it out anyway.
Jane Eyre is probably on the top of my list. I have no idea how many times I’ve read it.
Author: Isabel Allende
Anything that Isabel Allende has written, for the magic in the ordinary, and recognizing that we are always surrounded by magic. She puts everything so eloquently.
Author: Ursula K Le Guin
Thank you to Ursula K Le Guin for raising my consciousness. She too recognizes the magic in everything but, for my consciousness of community and activism… I would have to credit her.
About The Creative Life Interview Series
“Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done” said John Patrick Shanley. Likewise, Creative Life is a safe place to share ‘unsafe’ things that need to be said.
The stories and interviews from this site share the personal experiences of courage, fear, vulnerability, flow, creativity, and happiness from the perspective of the artist.
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- “There’s this connection that happens when you write something you want down, and make it tangible in the world” – a conversation with Daniel Scherl - November 3, 2015