Esie Mensah is a Canada-based dancer, choreographer, teacher, model and director. She uses Afro-fusion to explore personal narratives of her Ghanaian heritage, blackness and belonging. From working with megastars like Rihanna, Drake and Arcade Fire, to brands such as Coca-Cola, Luminato, the Toronto International Film Festival, Shaw Festival and 98.1 CHFI, Esie Mensah shows no signs of slowing down.
At the top of the year, we spoke with Esie about her journey as a leader on the dance and art scene. We also discussed her powerful production, Shades, which explores the complex reality of shadism within the African diaspora.
Your talent as a dancer is undeniable. What made you fall in love with dance and pursue it as a career?
I grew up with dance. My family is from Ghana and the Ghanaian community in Toronto that I grew up in really made sure that we understood our culture and our traditions. Because of this, I used to go to Sunday dance practice with the entire family and learn traditional dances. Dance was always around me but it wasn’t until later on in my journey that my love for it shifted from a hobby to a calling. I came into that love in university and knew that it was the real thing because my body surrendered each time I danced. One day I thought to myself, Let me see if I can make a career out of this. Then, I applied to the George Brown College Dance Program in Toronto, Ontario, where I still live actually.
What was behind the motivation to creating the play Shades? Why did you feel the need to tell this story? I remember auditioning for a film where there were so many Black girls trying out for a few select spots, and I remember saying out loud to a friend, “I wonder how many of us they’re going to take.” The assistant choreographer overheard that statement and later asked me why I’d said what I’d said. We started a conversation about the representation of Black women on screen. I talked about the trend I’d observed, not only of very few black women, but also of very few dark-skinned Black women on screen. This particular film was shattering many stereotypes, but at that point, I knew I needed to dive deeper into this story. I also knew that it wasn’t an easy story to unpack.
Throughout the process of creating Shades, there were times where I nearly gave up because I felt creatively blocked with the complexity of the topic. Having to turn the wheel of what shadism is was a difficult task not only for myself personally but also for those involved in the show. It was a worthwhile journey though.
You speak about the importance of allowing ancestors to guide us, and how your ancestors helped you through the development of Shades. Can you speak to that more?
Yes, I’m definitely someone who is guided by my ancestors. I’m always trying to find the lit path, the path that they’re guiding me towards. I’ve cultivated this relationship with my ancestors through building communication and being honest about my truths. It took years of intense listening - really listening to your body and feeling what it’s trying to tell you. If I listen to my body, it always tells me what I need to know. It’s been a process but an intentional one.
Let me share this with you. Whilst working on the play, I became ill– this was in 2017. I was in so much pain, yet I was still trying to get this play done even though my body was breaking down. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I was taken to the hospital because my body could no longer keep up. After much treatment, I remember falling asleep in the hospital bed then waking up and feeling like a brand-new person; I woke up feeling different.
Once again, through listening, I came to realize that because Shades was such a personal project, my ancestors were telling me to slow down, reflect and re-center. When you do intense spiritual work, your spirit has to go through a death in order for you to actually elevate. They were asking me to be more open and honest throughout this process and to allow myself space to breathe. As difficult as it was being in that hospital, it was exactly what I needed in that moment - to pause and listen to myself.
I think sometimes this learning can also come through other people. My coach for my TEDxToronto talk on shadism saw a light in me and pushed me to work towards what I was capable of. I was surprised by how much this experience impacted me. She wasn’t from my community but our souls connected. We connected based on our values and I now see that experience was such a blessing because it helped me come into my voice.
So, how do we challenge shadism and colourism within our own communities?
That’s a great question, and I don’t think there’s one answer. I think through honesty - being honest with ourselves, about the fact that it exists and about how deeply entrenched in systems it is - that’s a start.
I think we also have to take accountability for how we allow it to creep into our interactions with each other, who we chose to date and the opinions we form of others. It takes courage and bravery but this work is needed. We need to ask our ourselves the tough questions and challenge what we’ve been taught and what we’ve internalised.
At Children of the Dark Continent, we're working to redefine Africa's narrative and to highlight the beauty and success within our diaspora. If there was one lesson you could share with the diaspora, what would it be?
I’d emphasize the importance of Sankofa - looking back to know where you are headed. Like I said, my ancestors guide me and I believe that I solidify my connection to them through my art. When we listen to our history, our ancestors, our spirit and our bodies, we begin to walk towards our truth.