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Meet Brown Girl Boss Jessica Persaud: Founder of Footsteps Dance School

Written by: Suhana K. Rampersad

Jessica Persaud is a mother of two, professional dancer, and the owner of Footsteps Dance School. Located in Scarborough, Ontario and founded in 2004, Footsteps is a space for young Indo-Caribbean dancers to train in Bollywood, Soca/Chutney and Semi-Classical Indian dance. With students ranging from 3 to 30 years old, this Brown Girl Boss is passing on artistic heritage while teaching young women self-confidence.

Jessica established her dance school at the age of 21. Having trained in Western dance styles since the age of 3, taking up Kathak and then Bollywood at 7 and 9 years old, she always knew she wanted to become a dance teacher. Training with Saveeta Sharma, Puja Amin, Janet Naipaul, Shiamak Toronto and many others, performance arts enveloped her life and acted as an escape from hard times. She made a name for herself as a local talent by performing at various cultural events in the Greater Toronto Area, yet still faced doubt from teachers and peers when it came to teaching. She was also isolated and ignored by her South Asian dance mates, and was teased for her skin tone at ballet class.

“Growing up, dance gave me so much confidence and boosted my self-esteem. However, in elementary school I was very embarrassed that I did Indian dance. People made fun of me. hey would laugh and say “oh you do Indian dance? You’re Indian?” and I would say, “No, I’m not Indian, I’m Guyanese, my mom’s from Guyana,” and then they’d ask, “then why do you do Indian dance?” People never understood why I was doing it. Even my Indian friends would question how I could know and sing the songs if I couldn’t understand the lyrics. I remember being so offended when they said that, because [dance] is my culture too. Our ancestors brought so much of their culture to the West Indies. Just because I or my parents weren’t from India, didn’t mean it meant less to me, as an Indo-Caribbean girl, than it did to them.”

Though Jessica faced doubt and adversity, she finally became a dance teacher when asked by a family friend to teach their daughter “maahi ve.” She was thrilled to start teaching. When she took her first student to perform at a local Diwali show, many parents were blown away by the unique choreography. Afterwards, Jessica received many phone calls from parents asking her to teach their children too. She was delighted and took the opportunity to establish her own dance school. Over the course of a year, Jessica took on more and more students as more people discovered Footsteps; by the school’s first anniversary, she was training 60 students.

Jessica and her first student

Shortly after establishing her dance school, Jessica choreographed and performed at the Bollywood Awards, hosted at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. She shared the stage with some of Bollywood’s biggest stars, even meeting Hrithik Roshan, Preity Zinta and John Abraham.

“I got to teach dancers at the show, and we danced backup for singers. It was so cool, just knowing that what I choreographed was on this big stage. That’s when I thought, ‘oh, I’m pretty good at this!’ even though I was still new to teaching.”

The Bollywood Awards, 2005. Kareena Kapoor (middle) with Jessica (right of Kareena)

Jessica knew she was doing something positive when she noticed that her choreography brought such joy to people. The young dance teacher felt motivated to keep improving, keep building her brand, and to become the best dance teacher possible for her students.

In the school’s 16-year run, Footsteps Dance School has made a distinct name for itself in the Indo-Caribbean community. Named Best Bollywood/Chutney Dance School by the Caribbean Music and Entertainment Awards in 2013, the dance school is thriving thanks to Jessica’s passion and leadership. Footsteps dancers have also danced backup for Caribbean artists like Terry Gajraj and others. They have performed at festivals like Chutney In De Park, SOS FEST, Chutney Soca Monarch Toronto, Durham Caribbean Carnival and the Three Rivers Foundation Dinner and Dance.

Jessica ensures that youth have opportunity to network, showcase their talent, and be exposed to culture by performing at community events. She also provides performances for local Diwali and Holi shows for the same mandirs which supported her as a young dancer and dance teacher. With the support of her community, this Brown Girl Boss continues to achieve.

Footsteps dancers at SOS FEST 2015

Jessica notes that the most rewarding part of her job is as a mentor for young Indo-Caribbean girls.

“Personally, I went through a lot growing up and dance was my escape, but I remember I could never really confide in my dance teacher. I couldn’t talk to my mom because some things were so personal. I had nobody to reach out to as another West Indian mother figure. That’s why when my dance students confide in me, I listen to them. I really try to enlighten the youth that are coming in and out of my doors. I just feel good knowing that my students have an outlet; hopefully, it helps them stay away from negative situations.”

Jessica and her students

It is so important for Indo-Caribbean girls to have safe spaces to express themselves, and Jessica strives to make Footsteps just that.

“Footsteps is a place to build your self-confidence and learn that you’re worth something. I try to instill self-worth in every one of my girls so that they know they are valued here. Whether they are dealing with self-esteem issues, mental health, don’t have a proper home or are missing love, with this type of dance community, girls know they have somewhere safe they can be. I’m here for them, not only for dance but in every aspect of life. Our footsteps family is all about self-value, togetherness, culture, and of course, a love of dance!”

WI Can Dance Competition 2018

Footsteps dancers use the training and confidence instilled by Jessica in many avenues of life, and some have even won major titles. Kristiana McCarthy used her dance training to win Best Talent at the NCIC Divali Nagar Pageant 2019 in Trinidad, as well as 1st Runner Up overall. She then won Miss Teenage Ontario 2020, and 3rd Runner Up Miss Teenage Canada. Emily Teresa Singh was named Miss West Indian Canadian 2019, competing in the pageant’s talent portion with Jessica’s intense choreography. Their journeys demonstrate the paths that can illuminate from engaging in cultural dance. It also shows that when communities of colour invest in girls, the outcome is pure brilliance.

Miss West Indian Canadian 2019
Miss Teenage Ontario

To Jessica, the only thing that holds West Indian dance schools back are the rivalries which exist between dancers and schools. Her personal stance is that no one is better than anyone else.

“I find a lot of girls wanting to outdance the next girl, and they are missing the bigger picture of the community. This style of dance is for our culture and for our community. So, let’s share that with each other! Sadly, there always seems to be issues between dance schools. Nobody can compliment each other. But by laughing at or criticizing each other, we are allowing our students to be nasty and unsupportive. Dance teachers need to be role models for our students and for the community. There should be no tension, drama or negativity. There’s room for all of us to shine! I find it is getting better because dance schools are connecting a bit more- I think we realized that we share the same passion. We each have our own individual dance styles, and we should celebrate that.

From her days as a passionate dancer to a choreographer with an established dance school, Jessica continues to use her position to be there for others. She is empowered to share her knowledge and guidance as well as her love of dance. Her success proves that with passion, talent, and leadership, Indo-Caribbean womxn can achieve their grandest dreams. Her advice to girls who want to start their own dance school: work hard, and never give up.

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