Name: Dainty Tonya-Marie Smith
DOB: November 20th, 1979
Place of Birth: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Astrological Sign: Scorpio
Creative Field: Storyteller, Curator, Burlesque Performer

Wayne

As someone who is quite adept at spacial curation for others, how did you begin cultivating space for yourself?

Dainty

I was desperately seeking it myself. I cultivated something I needed.

Wayne

Right.

Dainty

I was looking for spaces in art, in storytelling, in performing, that would be safe for me and for folks that looked like me. And I didn’t really see that. I had this soul longing for these spaces and no one was going to give them to me. So I had to make them myself. When you don’t see a version of yourself, you can feel really lonely and lost for a long time. There’s sort of this idea that like, where do strange black women go? Where do you grow up to be? How do you become, right? I’ve been a lone femme wolf for most of my life in one aspect or another. So cultivating and creating these spaces of representation, of reflection, of the ways that vulnerability connects us with intimacy has been really necessary for me. And I have found, that in the multiple ways I continue to try and heal and save myself, what ends up happening is that it goes outwards and happens to heal or save others as well.

Wayne

How do you get people to trust you?

Dainty

I don’t know! I honestly don’t know. I’m just grateful that they do. I truly don’t know how I get people to trust me. I know I ask them to. And sometimes it’s as simple as that. I’m honest and I ask people to come with me on a journey. And I tell them I don’t have all the answers that I’m also looking, but we’re in it together. Whenever I take someone under my wing, whether it’s acting, producing or someone who wants to start performing, I’m continually asking them to be in the work with me, because I’m there too. And I think that’s part of it. I wish I were a better liar, or wish I were really good, or I was cooler –

Wayne

At what?

Dainty

I don’t know! At not getting so emotional! Sometimes I think about, you know, what it would be like to be a fun girl. What are those people like? How do they live their lives?

Wayne

What do those people look like to you?

Dainty

I don’t know! When I go on Instagram, I imagine these people living these glossy lives that don’t have heavy souls or heavy spirits. I have a friend of mine that says there are two types of people in the world: if you imagine the world as a pool, there are people who are in the shallow end, and there are people in the deep end. The way he described it was not to say that those in the shallow end are shallow, just that their souls are lighter, their spirits. They don’t have as much baggage, scarring, or whatever; they’re lighter. And then there are the people in the deep end, and they come with a whole bunch of intensity and vulnerability. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a shallow end soul. But that’s not who I am.

Wayne

Right.

Dainty

And so when I think about trust, really, I ask people to trust me. I’m honest in that I’m also going to be in it with them. That I’m also scared, that I’m also lonely, that I’m also worried, that I’ve also had doubts or fears, but that I dare to imagine that I’m still lovable. Or that or I’m still worthy. The stories I have to tell will mean something to someone other than myself. That other people will listen if I say something.

I think that if you give people enough of an opportunity to speak out or speak up or shine. When you allow people to feel safe, when you allow them to feel that they have a right or a chance, that they’re allowed, that they have permission, you’d be surprised at the wealth of genius that explodes out of people. It’s about feeling safe, it’s about feeling like you have permission to be wrong, it’s about feeling like you have permission to feel good, or be good, you know? There’s this idea that we’re all restricted or trapped or policed by various things and so when you give someone the permission to be themselves then you find this glorious being that was always there. And so I ask people to trust me, and I also ask people to trust themselves.

Wayne

When did you start trusting yourself?

Dainty

I think I’m always asking myself to trust myself; art is an exercise in trust. It’s a continual conversation where you’re always asking yourself, “Okay, do we have what it takes? Are we going to do this?” I think that’s the same thing with life. I’ve not reached a point where I’ve ever really felt safe in my life, and I think because of that it makes me continually always ask myself how can I trust myself to be safe or make decisions that impact my life and my art. I’ve been trying to find safety my whole life.

Wayne

When did you feel safe last?

Dainty

I don’t know. That’s an honest answer. I don’t know if I have ever felt entirely safe. I have pockets of safety, which I think applies to most marginalized people, or people of colour, or people who do not look a certain way. I think we find moments of safety.

Wayne

When did you last experience a pocket of safety?

Dainty

Performing last night, doing my show. Having tea or coffee with someone. Going to the movies. Turning my phone off for 2 hours. Those are great pockets of safety. One of my guilty pleasures is to buy a fashion magazine. I know they’re bad for you but I love them. I only buy them now if there is a woman of colour on the cover. I take myself out on a coffee date, and not take care of anyone else, just take care of myself and look at these beautiful images. I mean they’re still problematic, but I enjoy them.

Wayne

It’s an interesting contrast: the idea that something problematic can also be a source of deep comfort.

Dainty

Yeah. Absolutely.

Wayne

The idea of indulging in something that perpetuates an ideal that I do not agree with, but at the same time it brings me so much joy.

Dainty

So much joy, yes. It’s so hard. And then you sit in this uncomfortable pleasure.

Wayne

When was the last time you surprised yourself?

Dainty

The last few years have been transformative for me. I’m a late bloomer; I didn’t have my first major relationship until I was 33. And then my heart got broken.

Wayne

As they do.

Dainty

As they do! Two days after my 36th birthday we broke up, and my heart split in two. Since then my life has been transformative. I’m a Scorpio, so I’m intense, obsessive and I get fixed easily, so it’s irritating when I get to a point in my growth or evolution process when I think I’ve figured myself out and it’s not true.

After that relationship ended, I realized that I would have to admit how clear it was that I was attracted to women and men. That I was attracted to different genders and bodies and that was okay. Because when I was in my 20’s, I was like, “Okay, I’ve seen the L Word, and I’m pretty sure I’m a lesbian.” Like, I was so sure. And then, after this breakup, I was like, “Okay, maybe not.”

It seems so incoherent, but it is still something I’m piecing together, it was something that happened during that period, in that relationship, that I guess I started realizing that my sexuality was fluid, realizing that I’m not set in stone, was surprising. I think I was surprised to know that I had not reached the end of my sexuality or myself. It was quite irritating to me, to be honest.

Wayne

It’s interesting how we can take on roles for a period, and how they will reintroduce themselves to each other. Like you are meeting yourself again.

Dainty

Yes! Oh my God, yes! That’s exactly how it felt. Like I had returned back to myself. You know, I’ve been very proud to call myself a self-made, self-taught artist, and, honestly, really defiant about it. I kind of saw myself as this outlaw artist, like “Fuck the rules! I’m just gonna do me,” because I had to for such a long time. But I’ve always secretly wanted support. And then when I got it, from Obsidian Theatre this year, I had no idea how to accept that support or help at all. It surprised me that I was so resistant to the thing I’d actually asked for. Sometimes we get so married to versions of ourselves and it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Wayne

No, we have to be changing.

Dainty

All the time.

Wayne

But, I admit, it’s a tough thing to accept. I was talking to someone the other night about how we create ideas around ourselves, concepts, and it reminded me of this thing Katie Sly said to me a few years ago, “There is nothing wrong with continuing to create masks until you don’t need them anymore.”

Dainty

I love that.

Wayne

Right? It’s something I keep going back to this idea of, where am I creating artifice? Where do I deny myself from being seen? There’s nothing wrong with making masks, but eventually, the strongest thing you are going be is without a mask.

Dainty

I know! I know! That discovery happened for me when I discovered glamour. I grew up loving old Hollywood films, so I always loved that beauty, that aesthetic, the way that the women dressed, and looked. I just adored it. The way that Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth dressed, I’ve loved it forever, but I had never seen someone that looked like me. So when I discovered Josephine Baker, it opened up this portal that allowed me to discover Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge and I’ve since just loved glamour even more. I’ve always been a fan of the beauty and the power and the armour that glamour is, but I remember discovering that glamour was also a mask in an of itself, that it was a kind of shield I could hide behind when I didn’t want to be open or vulnerable.

Wayne

It’s a double edge sword. I remember my mom pulling me aside one day when I was feeling stressed out about a role I was playing, and she said, “How the hell are you gonna play someone else if you don’t know yourself?”

Dainty

Yeah.

Wayne

That was always her thing: “Know yourself. Just spend time with yourself.” Because, you know, if you want to add layers after that point, that’s fine, but you have to have established a base to come back to.

Dainty

It’s so true.

Wayne

And so many of us are working from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

Dainty

Yes. Yes.

Wayne

Which is why I think it’s so cool to me that you were able to establish the space that you felt you needed really. Like, I’ll be honest with you, a lot of the burlesque I had seen before, on perhaps a more amateur level, came across to me as deeply troubled, or rather I felt very troubled watching it. It seemed more like a cry for help, rather than a source of empowerment. Where when I watched the work you do with Les Femme Fatales I felt this wall of power come hurtling towards me. I’m curious about whether that is your curatorial eye, or whether the message you preach of reclaiming one’s body and taking space is intrinsic to the art form of burlesque?

Dainty

I wouldn’t say it’s intrinsic to the art form of burlesque, unfortunately. It is, however intrinsic to what Les Femmes Fatales does. I’m not trying to throw the entire art form under the bus, because I do believe burlesque is an incredible art form and there is an incredible wealth of beauty, knowledge, information, self-love and education in the art form. And in the art form, I think you can absolutely find yourself, be affirmed and empowered. But that sometimes doesn’t happen; the ways it’s practiced. And so for me, I’ve always been intentional about how I do burlesque and how my troupe does burlesque.

Wayne

Which is?

Dainty

I have always approached burlesque from two points of entry, one being the spiritual and one being the feminist point of entry.

Wayne

Was that something that you felt you discovered yourself?

Dainty

You know, I’m an ex-pastor’s daughter. I grew up in the church, and you know, I don’t really know anybody like me. I don’t know any Hebrew, Pentecostal, black girls that grew up in working-class white suburbia. That are queer and femme and that wanted to tell stories and believed in magic and believed in the spirit and sexuality all at the same time. And didn’t think that they were contradictory. So I intentionally did a lone wolf thing, I went to George Brown for one year, and then I just taught myself because I really felt like I had no choice. I didn’t seem to fit the particulars of what a legitimate artist was, or whatever a legitimate queer person was. I was a feminist, so not queer enough or black enough. And so, in some ways, I kind of felt like I had no choice but to go my own way, to be a lone wolf. Because it was not as if particular spaces or people were inviting me in; they weren’t like, “Come and sit with us.”

Wayne

How did you maintain morale?

Dainty

I mean its stubbornness more than anything else. It’s stubbornness. My father is an old-school, Old Testament, Jamaican man; I grew up in a very restricted, religious household. I’m not exaggerating. So as a black woman, and people who are immigrants or children of immigrants, my parents, and my father particularly, had a very particular vision for the life he wanted me to live. So to leave and to choose something else, took everything I had. To choose my own path as a storyteller, as a black woman, as someone who was trying to figure out what my sexuality meant, that I was not going to be a normal girl, I kind of felt like I had no choice. I had to save myself. And that meant when my emotions crashed, when I realized that the world was not safe or was not particularly kind, it meant that I would have to pick myself up after I fell apart. It meant when I didn’t have enough money for rent I was forced to leave my tiny apartment, that I had found and scraped together. It meant that I had to pull myself out of poverty time and time again, and make it look glamorous, and make it look like I wasn’t struggling or suffering. It meant buying lipsticks from the Dollar store until I could finally graduate to Shoppers Drugmart, which was a huge deal for me at the time.

Having to perpetually save myself has taught me to trust my instincts, it’s taught to me to trust myself above all others. It’s taught me that it didn’t matter if it didn’t make sense to anybody else; it only had to make sense to me. I had to keep asking myself, “What do I really want? What do I want? What is my vision for my life?” And maybe I’m generalizing here, but my experience with black parents, or parents who are people of colour, they raise their kids in a way that’s kind of ferocious. They do that for multiple reasons; intergenerational trauma, PTSD, that’s the way they were raised… Which is why the cycle continues on and on. So for me to create my life meant that I would have had to dramatically change and shift the life I already knew, and the thing is, I had nothing in my life when I was younger to say that it was even possible. It really was the first great divorce of my life, to leave the church and defy my father.

Wayne

I admire your perseverance.

Dainty

It had cost me so much to choose myself, to choose my life, what else was I going to do? Turn back? Because I had already done the hard thing, which was to say no to someone who is important to me and my life. Everything else, choosing the life of an artist, was kind of easy. And that’s not to say that it hasn’t been hard, but you know, my father is a giant in my life; I learned a lot from watching my father on a podium, watching him control a crowd. I learned about the power of telling a good story from watching my father, preaching about the God that he believed in every Saturday for 20 years. It’s like: if you believe it, they believe it. I know that sounds cheesy, but that’s what happened. I don’t think it’s any accident that I turned out to be exactly who I am as a storyteller, as a performer.

Wayne

That’s so interesting, because, yeah, there is a massive feeling of a congregation at your shows. I love that you preface the night by saying, “All you need to do is worship!” You hold space in a kind of pseudo-religious, spiritual way, but the religion seems to be based in sexuality and the spirituality of that.

Dainty

I don’t think there is any separation between sexuality, holiness and spirituality; I don’t think they are oppositional; I think they make perfect sense. I believe that sexuality is holy and sacred, just like I think glamour is a form of magic or witchcraft. I think the act of loving someone, the act of making love, or fucking, is incredibly holy; it’s spiritual. I think the act of loving myself is incredibly divine and spiritual. I believe in one’s own inherent God-ship. I resist the idea that there has to be a middleman between me and my God. I’ve realized that that was a huge part of my rebellion, that was why I said no to my father, I resented someone else having control over where my soul went.

Wayne

You know, it’s fascinating to think that society has been built on a vengeful, angry, smiting God.

Dainty

I resented it so much, even when I was younger, I was like, “Why does someone else, the bishop of the church, or whatever, get to tell me how to live a spiritual life? Why does someone else get to tell me what is sacred? How do you know what the path is to God? What if you are lost? Why should I follow you?” So I have just been trying to find a God that I understand, a God that makes sense to me, that looks like me in my own way.

Wayne

Which, counter to popular belief, is deeply intrinsic to finding out who you are and is deeply based in love.

Dainty

Yeah! To me, it’s important that black people, POCs, fat people, queer people, disabled people, poor people, that we understand that we have a right to be here. That we deserve to be here, that we are incredible, incredible, incredible, magical beings, and that we are unfuckable with. So, for me, if no one has told them that, then I will tell them that. I want them to believe they are all those things. Sometimes when I ask certain people if anyone has said to them that they are lovable, that they are worthy, many of them will say no one has ever told them that. I think that’s one of the saddest things that I could ever hear in the world, in my lifetime, is to understand that there can be a person in the world that has never heard that.

The thing is, I had to tell myself those things. I’ve had to find ways to save myself, and so I became, I’ve become, in a sort of strange way, addicted to how I can save others, so they don’t ever have to feel as lost, desperate, spiritually hungry, and in a lot of ways hungry, as I have been. I don’t want people to feel that way. And every single person who went up on that stage last night was magnificent, and believed in their own divinity; it was beautiful.

Like, what if it’s possible that we are all these incredible forces of nature and these incredible Gods and Goddesses in our own right? What if your God was a taxi driver? What if your God was the dishwasher at the restaurant you went to every day? What if your God is you? What if we could be all of these amazing things and still be scared and still be insecure, and still be complicated and still be in processes of healing all the time? What if we could be all those things at the same time?

Wayne

It’s like that line from Janet’s Velvet Rope “We were born with the blood of kings and queen/And we can’t be stopped.”

Dainty

Absolutely, yeah.

Wayne

I mean that’s something I come back to, like yes, there is ancestral trauma, but there is also ancestral power. And, yet, even though there are all these things that we can channel, we are still afraid because of mediocrity, or because of assimilation –

Dainty

I think it’s also because of a lie. It’s a lie; at some point, someone told you, or told me, or told us, that we aren’t good enough,

Wayne

Or something was bad about you.

Dainty

And that’s the thing, so what if you’re bad, so what? You’re bad. You know what I mean? I don’t want to be a good black woman I want to be great. Those are not the same things! I want to be the best version of my own self, my own complicated self.

I think about the lies that are told to people, to particular people, and I just don’t want us to believe those lies anymore. We’re constantly talking about our trauma; how black women are resilient, how black women and black femmes, how we’re full of survivorship, and that’s good, that’s great. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, but I want to encourage the possibility, or I want to welcome us to celebrate that we’re already victorious. We are more than just our trauma and pain, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t still there, or that we are continually healing, or growing, but we are also these magnificent sources of pure magic, of possibility, potential and great talent.

Wayne

I love that we have more resources then we think we do.

Dainty

I refuse to die – If that makes sense – Like; I’m still scared all the time. That being said, I still believe that l have this unshakable faith in the life that I create for myself, that I can be greater than I thought. I think about what Audra Lorde said, “We are powerful because we have survived.”

Wayne

Totally. I keep going back to that image of a swimming pool, and the idea that people in the deep end are always going to be treading water.

Dainty

Yeah.

Wayne

And the people in the shallow end are always going to have ground to stand on.

Dainty

I know!

Wayne

As emotionally deep individuals we will never be able to stop treading water. But I think that the more people in your particular deep end, the more people there are to hold on to, to look to for guidance.

Dainty

It’s a beautiful image, right? Like the truth is, I wouldn’t trade who I am or the kind of person I am, really, and I think that for deep end people, I think that even our easy is still hard. So yeah, you’re right, we will always be treading water.

Wayne

But we will also be stronger because of it.

Dainty

Yeah. And also I think its still pretty glorious, its still a wild ride, but I think I’m okay with that. I’m okay with the wolf pack I create; I’m okay with the people that I meet through work or life. I’m okay with realizing in the deep end there is rest, there is space, there is comfort, and that there are people that will hold you up, that you are not in it alone. You learn a lot about faith in the deep end.

This conversation was recorded on March 22nd, 2018 at Home Baking Co. in the west end of Toronto.

All photos by Yuli Scheidt