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Massy Interviews / Karen Kurnaedy

On Tuesday, August 9 at 6pm, join Massy ArtsMassy Books, and writer + dancer Karen Kurnaedy for the launch of her new book “Our Love Affair with Dance” (2022).

At the in-person event, the author will address how the book celebrates the lives of Vancouver’s innovative dancers and instructors, sisters Magda & Gertrud Hahn, who opened the first modern dance school in Vancouver – The Hanova School of Modern Studies in Body Sculpture and the Classical Dance.

The event will be hosted at the Massy Arts Gallery, at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.

This event is free + open to all of our community, and registration is mandatory.

Click here to register for the event

Click here to purchase Our Love Affair with Dance by Karen Kurnaedy

Click here to read excerpts from the book

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To celebrate the launch of Kurnaedy’s book, Rafael Zen interviews the author for Massy Arts, addressing the choice of the Hahn sisters as the focus of her research, and why it is important for new generations of dancers to know their work.

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Karen Kurnaedy / Dancing to experience the world in a deeper and more meaningful way

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Rafael Zen – Your new book, Our Love Affair with Dance, celebrates the lives of Vancouver’s innovative dancers and instructors, sisters Magda & Gertrud Hahn, who opened the first modern dance school in Vancouver – The Hanova School of Modern Studies in Body Sculpture and the Classical Dance. Why did you choose the Hahn sisters as your focus of research for this book? Do you think they can add to the discussions on the importance of arts on building healthier communities? If so, how/why?

Karen Kurnaedy – I chose the Hahn sisters as the focus of research for my book because the Hahn sisters were my dance teachers and mentors for most of my early life and I want people to know and appreciate the immense and positive impact the sisters had on myself and the Vancouver modern dance community for almost 40 years.

The sisters left me many of their photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, programs, lecture notes and mementos in the hope that I would someday preserve their legacy and work.

The sister’s work and expertise about dance can definitely add to discussions on the importance of the arts building healthier communities in that they taught somatic practices through yoga and dance instruction that promoted and addressed the physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual health of the whole person, and over the many years that they taught in Vancouver imparted hundreds of Vancouver dancers with the notion that ‘we are all dancers and have a dancer within us’, which is the viewpoint that all people should dance as part of their birthright, not just the highly trained or gifted professional.

The sister’s life work was communicating and offering the idea that moving the body, dancing, promoted health, vitality, and wellbeing.

And if you meant healthier communities as communities which are inclusive and welcoming, the sisters modeled and fostered a climate of acceptance of all people as they were immigrants to Canada and had lived in other parts of the world.

They brought a new global perspective to the emerging multicultural Vancouver of the 1950s, in that all were welcome at the Hanova School, regardless of age, cultural background, creed, gender, or sexual orientation, as long as one loved dancing. They believed that through the arts people are united.

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RZ – Magda and Gertrud Hahn came to Vancouver in the late 1950s and opened the first modern dance school in the city. How was your research process? Where did this project take you and who did you interview in the hopes of putting this historic puzzle together? What do you think will be of upmost interest for readers? What is the passage you – as a writer – are actually excited to share with your readers?

KK – My research process was interviewing and recording the sister’s anecdotes and memories directly with them through many conversations and meetings during the 1990s before they died. Together we went through their photograph albums, old programs, newspaper clippings, and lecture notes so that I had an understanding of when and where the major events in their lives took place. They kept scrupulous records and I was allowed to keep or make copies of much of this material.

With some of this material, in 2013, I initially wrote a short chapter in my doctoral dissertation, titled Uncovering the Essence of What Animates Us Beneath the Dance, about the sisters, but in telling their story for this project focused more on how the power and spiritual nature of dance was part of their dance philosophy and something they imparted to their students.

My book takes a different direction and focusses more on the rich history of the sister’s lives as dance students, dance teachers, and dance artist’s. Topics such as the woman as artist, the emergence of feminism, the refugee surviving war and upheaval, and a dance artist’s immense fulfillment, created through their moving body as choreographers and dancers, are woven throughout the book.

As part of my research, I also read many papers and books about specific historical periods in the world to add accuracy to the Hahn sister’s story, such as books and articles about dance in the 1920s Weimar Republic, events in pre and post WWII, life in the 1930s and 1940s in colonial and post colonial India, and post war London.

I think of upmost interest for readers will be that I take a creative nonfiction approach, and while still providing many details about dance pedagogy and the historical facts of each period, I insert many pictures, often coupled with poetic renderings, imagining myself as one of the sisters, expressing their true stories and memories.

I want the reader to experience how it feels to be a dancer, a woman in changing times, an artist, a person who may be persecuted for just being themselves. People need to be reminded that the struggle for liberation is ongoing.

Our freedoms, not just for women but for all people, could be reversed. Reading about how it was in the past will educate people to see a bigger picture historically and politically.

When the Hahn sisters grew up in the early 1900s, it was the beginning of a time of immense liberation for women. A time of changing perceptions about a woman’s role in society and women becoming artists of any kind without loosing their reputation, status, or being considered unwomanly because they wanted a career and not marriage or children. The sisters were on the forefront of these changes and I want readers to ponder that these changes are still in flux and ongoing.

The following is one of my favourite passages as it expresses how the Hahn sisters captured images of the body in nature.


Gertrud 1968: As we drive by English Bay, the blue expanse fills me up with divine remembrance of lost landscapes and beaches. So with delight, Magda and I have found a modest penthouse apartment nearby English Bay and Stanley Park. The landscapes in the park are stunning and perfect backdrops for combining the dance with the natural configurations of the sea, rock, and forest.

We are attentive to how the dancer may juxtapose so harmoniously with nature. The photographs we have produced are sensuous images that call to the viewer to experience the contrast of the human body set artfully against formations in the natural world. These visual representations preserve moments of motion, freeze its beauty, so we may ponder the expressive essence of our bodies.

We are now enabled to see the body differently, no longer as pedestrian but something more which beckons us to rethink the body as only functional.

We may now recognize the similarities of the body and the Earth, both possessing gentle and voluminous curves, sustained pulses and rhythms, and a solid but flowing core. (pp. 378, 379)

And I cannot leave out a favourite quote from my book by Ida Herion, which I see as especially apt for today as we are in the midst of much turmoil and hate in the world. We must remember why we are here. I translated this from German.

Dance is a cheering embrace of this all too fast fleeing, luminous
life—yes, yes, to the glory of the young-flaming arc between
body and spirit. Dance is the quiet, priestly walk to the
holy self—to solitude and clarity. Where dance flows from the
inner experience, a wave glides silently into the current of the
stream of creation (eternity). (p.185)
Jsenfels, P., Herion, I. (1927). Getanzte harmonien. Stuttgart: Verlegt Bei
Dieck & Co.

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RZ – Why do you claim in the book’s synopsis that the Hahn sisters had their own unique style of modern dance, which was innovative and ground breaking for its time? And also, why do you think it is important for new generations to know their work?

KK – I claim in the book’s synopsis that the Hahn sisters had their own unique style of modern dance, which was innovative and ground breaking for its time, because the Hahn sisters had lived and studied dance in many parts of the world before moving to Canada in 1957 and blended these somatic practices and dance experiences into something unique and original.

The sisters were born in Bohemia in 1903 and 1905, and studied and performed ballet and modern dance in Vienna, Paris, Dresden, Berlin, and Karlsbad in the 1920s Weimar era in Europe. As the Nazis moved into Bohemia, Czechoslovakia in the early 1930s, being Jewish, the sisters managed to escape to India.

In India they studied Indian dance and yoga for sixteen years and combined their knowledge of western and eastern dance styles to create the Hanova method. When they first came to Vancouver in 1957, yoga, Indian dance, and modern dance were still largely unknown and they were on the forefront of teaching this to the public.

While many yoga studios and modern dance companies are now present in Vancouver, I think it is important for new generations to know and appreciate the Hanova sister’s work and other dancers and choreographers of the past. The modern dance we enjoy today has been built on their expertise and efforts. To know a wider history of dance can be informative, fulfilling, and set a standard for new excellence.

In my research about dance in the 1920s in Europe and India in the 1930s and 1940s, I discovered that there are very few complete biographies about dancers of these eras, outside the big names like Laban, Wigman, Shankar, Gopal, and Devi, and despite that there were thousands of dance artists during the innovative Weimar era and in India, most evidence of their work and lives has been lost or destroyed with time and the upheaval of war.

I was fortunate in having so much detailed and chronological material to write a complete history of the Hahn sisters, celebrating their dance lives and illuminating glimpses of important periods in dance history in Europe, India, and Canada.

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RZ – You also say that this work invites the reader to celebrate the sublime and nuanced inner and outer experiences achieved through dancing. I am sure this is something you can relate to, being a dancer yourself. In your life, what do you think was the power of dance – and how did it shape your inner and outer experiences? Who do you dance for?

KK – My 2013 doctoral dissertation at Simon Fraser University, Uncovering the Essence of What Animates us Beneath the Dance, defines, clarifies, and describes, in a scholarly way, what I believe the power of dance is.

The first chapter explores the work and writings of well-known philosophers, phenomenologists, dancers and choreographers, who mention ‘the power of dance’, and argues that the concepts of the sublime and nuanced inner and outer experiences while dancing are well documented and thus legitimate and important, in that humanity recognizes this power and is made better by rendering, receiving, and taking part in dance activities and creating dance.

Dance (and the power of dance) “is difficult to describe in words because it is not a verbal language”. (Lewitzky, 1975) But I love this quote from Sachs (1937) who manages to capture some of the essence of what and where this power comes from:

The dance, inherited from savage (sic) ancestors as an ordered expression in motion of the exhilaration of the soul, develops and broadens into the search for God, into a conscious effort to become a part of those powers beyond the might of man (sic) which control our destinies. The dance becomes a sacrificial rite, a charm, a prayer, and a prophetic vision. (p. 4)

Dancing, and especially my time dancing with the Hahn sisters, shaped my inner and outer experiences in that I have often reflected that ‘the dance’ in the sister’s studio was my salvation in that through dancing I experienced the world in a deeper and more meaningful way, and especially as a teen was able to turn away from harmful activities, as I had something I valued that was better.

The dance continues to shape my inner and outer experiences by allowing me an expression, a means of channeling my creative energies, and to have a healthier and more active body as I age.

I dance mainly for myself and still receive that feeling and connection to the mystical, that higher something when I dance. I feel this perhaps even more strongly now that I am older. I no longer perform modern dance, but dancing is definitely still part of my life and I dance mainly with my husband, Argentine tango, swing, rockabilly, and other ballroom styles and revel in the feelings of motion and movement.

And when publicly dancing my husband and I often receive a lot of thanks and positive comments, which let us know others appreciate people dancing.

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