People of SFU

Celebrating the interdisciplinary intellect and career of SFU Distinguished Professor Henry Daniel

August 01, 2023

Throughout his tenure, SFU Distinguished Professor Henry Daniel has created waves of influence and nurtured community growth.

And now with his retirement looming in August, Black students believe it’s an opportune time to celebrate the career and achievements of the long-time professor of dance, performance studies and new technology and reflect personally on his impact on the Black community at SFU.

“Henry was my supervisor and a strong mentor throughout my program,” says Shauna-Kaye Brown, a graduate student in SFU’s School of Communication. “What I admire the most about him is that he provides real, unfailing support to everyone around him—he is as brilliant as he is generous.”

For more than two decade’s Daniel's work has epitomized the dynamic and evolving role of faculty by challenging conventional norms with radical mentorship and by fostering an atmosphere of groundbreaking thought and innovation.

It’s no surprise that Daniel is being celebrated for his contributions to the Black community at SFU. He also partnered with SFU professor Dr. June Francis to co-found the SFU Black Caucus, a critical haven for Black students, faculty and staff and an active force in dismantling systemic issues impacting Black individuals within the university.

“I don't think I have met someone who so embodies the idea of community as collective growth and nurturing. He’s a model in so many ways – inspirational and aspirational,” says Adjua Akinwumi, a PhD candidate in SFU’s School of Communication, who worked with Daniel and Francis to help establish the Black Caucus.

“Henry’s deep commitment to breaking departmental silos allowed him to be a mentor and advocate for Black students from diverse disciplines, including myself. The sense of community and intellectual curiosity cultivated through his mentorship truly goes beyond disciplinary limits.”

Recently, an intimate dinner was held in honour of Daniel’s retirement. More than a shared meal, the gathering was an exchange of intellect and illumination, guided by a collective reading of Daniel's influential book, Going West to Find East. This event, which was supported and funded by SFU Student Services, saw a diverse and interdisciplinary community coming together in a demonstration of unity and dialogue, key elements in Daniel's vision for an inclusive academic environment.

“When it comes to the retirement party, we saw an opportunity for the community to come out and celebrate Henry,” says Brown. “He’s always supporting everyone, all the time, and we wanted to support and honour him in an appropriate way.

In conceptualizing the event, Akinwumi had the idea to reflect the Black studies intellectual tradition of breaking bread and having an exchange over a meal. So it was positioned as a conversation with Dr. Henry Daniel. During the event, Henry read excerpts from his books, and participants talked about some of the main themes and ideas and had a meaningful conversation that was seasoned with memories and classroom encounters from his time at SFU.

'Henry’s deep commitment to breaking departmental silos allowed him to be a mentor and advocate for Black students from diverse disciplines.'

Adjua Akinwumi, a PhD candidate in SFU’s School of Communication

During his more than 20-year career as a professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts, the Trinidadian native supervised dozens of graduate students, offering unyielding and all-encompassing support. Known for his brand of thoughtful vocational guidance, he also provided a launching pad for emerging talent in the early stages of their career.

For his part, Daniel says his approach to teaching has matured over the years.

“As a dancer, I was quite privileged to have been given a lot of individual leeway when working with choreographers,” Daniel says. “Somehow they trusted my instinct and helped me develop it. Some of that instinct was to sense what they themselves were thinking and to help them explore a particular creative direction. I try to do the same for my students. Since they are all different, I try to sense what they are interested in and to help them along the way, even when they themselves are very unsure of what they want.”

Students who had Daniel as a supervisor were guaranteed a mentor who was truly in their corner. This level of support was often offered to people outside the SFU community. For example, Daniel has hosted visiting scholars through his own funding to create opportunities for Black scholars to flourish at SFU.

“It was a magical evening,” Brown says. “Often, these kinds of intellectual events can be so serious, but we were talking, laughing—it was an organic expression of respect and care in a very safe space. We were so glad that we could honour Henry in that way.”

Daniel's academic journey began in childhood when a broken radio, belonging to his grandmother, sparked an enduring interest in electronics and physics. His fascination with the flow of energy has been a driving force throughout his professional career. It can be witnessed in one of his foundational works, “Shango Meets Ogun”, a transdisciplinary work that highlights the West African legend of two Orishas. Daniel skillfully fused his interests in new technology with dance as he carefully engineered and choreographed a riveting number that shared this legendary fable with the West through dance. His burning zeal for cultural retention and innovation continued to underpin the depth of his influence during his time at SFU as he crafted monumental works such as “Out of Body” (2002), “The Touched Project” (2007-2010) and Nomadas (2019).

Daniel's legacy hinges on three guiding principles. First, the recognition of our capacity to generate power in both humans and systems through controlled resistance. Second, the belief in our ability to self-transform by manipulating our internal chemistry. Lastly, an emphasis on deepening our understanding of space, time, and conscious awareness.

He advocates for the African philosophy Ubuntu, which can be translated to "I am because you are," underscoring the importance of community in academic and personal success. As a stalwart believer in this principle, Daniel's wisdom and guidance continue to provide a positive flow of energy that creates ripples throughout SFU's community and plays a positive role towards shaping its future. This radical act prolongs his enduring impact as a transformative force in the academic landscape and in the Black community.

It is for these reasons that Black Students at SFU are celebrating a professor who made an incredible impact on their lives. Daniel's tireless effort to educate, inspire, and guide has left a significant mark. 

“I am fascinated by the human potential, by our ability to make, do or accomplish things that might even surprise us,” Daniel says, who plans to keep working as long as he is in the creative business. “I would like to think of my legacy as having helped someone find their own ‘way', even when they do not know what that goal might be.”


For more information about Dr. Henry Daniel and his work and career, visit his website.