Report by Pacific Media Centre
“Pacific communities don’t have a lot of role models leaving behind legacies for young Pacific …” Susan Epskamp of Asia-Pacific Journalism reports on one strategy based on dance.
Walking into a dance studio for the first time can be daunting, but all expectations and fears evaporate as soon as you hear the laughter. And there is a lot of laughter coming from a New Zealand dance studio every Thursday night.
“Poetry in motion, straight up contemporary techniques, and then we will finish with some improvisation to make everyone feel all good.”
This is how Jahra Wasasala, associate artistic director of Ia Manuia, starts her dance class in Auckland’s Wellesley Dance Studio.
Ia Manuia is a dance initiative for Pacific communities started by three friends with a passion for Pacific youth and the continuation of Pacific values.
Executive director Veronica Ng Lam explains: “My very good friend, Thomas Fonua, rang me and said ‘You know how we always said we would create a dance company when we were old? And provide opportunities to young Pacific people who wouldn’t otherwise have these types of access?
“Well yeah, that time has come now.”
Thomas Fonua was a winner in the Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Awards last December, which landed him a cool $10,000 prize from the Creative New Zealand fund.
He has transformed this into providing a space where it is possible for young Pacific leaders to pay it forward.
Ng Lam says “paying it forward” is the vision behind Ia Manuia.
“Pacific communities don’t have a lot of role models that leave behind legacies for young Pacific people to pick up the reigns and carry on with,” she says.
“Most people know statistics about Pacific people are not necessarily positive. So our dream has been to leave something positive for the next generation to pick up and move forward again.”
Phoebe Carr, who identifies as Tuhoe and Ngati Awa, heard about Ia Manuia through social media, and loves the class for its celebration of Pacific values.
“I really love the concept of it being a special space for Pasifika people.
“I think that is real cool for any space to build on our common ground as Pacific Islanders and Māori.”
Jahra Wasasala couldn’t say yes fast enough to the opportunity to bring back what she has learnt over her extensive career to her people.
“It’s a traditional thing, where when you leave the village to go off and learn and grow, you bring back what you have learnt to your people and share it.
“It’s a remarkable thing.”|
Wasasala wanted to open doors to contemporary dance and make it more accessible to the community.
“We want to make it part of the people,” she says.
In an Ia Manuia class, Wasasala will use text, language, pictures, and combine them with movement to create contemporary dance.
This is to make the process of contemporary dance visible, and seem transparent to those who attend.
“People who turn up to their first dance class are really scared,” she say.
“This way, they can see it is normal, organic and intuitive to create contemporary dance.”
Ia Manuia is not appropriation as the class does not use direct traditional movements that would appear in cultural Pacific dance.
“I am figuring out how to ingrain Pacific ideology to feed into our work naturally. I try to include Pacific values holistically to the class, making them aware of our faith.”
Ng Lam says that Pacific people attending the class are the lowest in the numbers they have. But, she says, this is a reflection of the dance industry.
“While it is about Pacific, we are still encompassing those who aren’t,” says Ng Lam.
“What is important to us, more than anything, is that our Pacific values are displayed and honoured.”
This is something that has struck long-time member, Linda T, a New Zealand-born Samoan who tutors at Future Skills in Manukau.
“It’s open to anyone, and anyone has been coming!” she laughs, “Although they say that it’s for Pacific, it’s all encompassing.”
Although with no dance background, Linda feels Ia Manuia is a safe place. No-one is there to judge or watch you.
“I am not a dancer. I just thought – there are no watchers here. There is no-one who cruises in and starts from the sidelines.”
Ng Lam says Ia Manuia is a space that exists for young people, especially young Pacific people, to feel like they can participate in an underrepresented area.
“This is what makes me really proud of Ia Manuia.”
Creative New Zealand’s Dance Review Report 2014 says that it recognises that heritage and contemporary Pacific dance are not separate and unconnected, but instead operate on a continuum of practice.
“Our recent Pacific arts review has retained as a priority that Creative New Zealand should continue to support projects and activities that assist New Zealand’s Pacific Island’s peoples to create, present, and participate in.”
Susan Epskamp is a student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism Studies paper at AUT University with a passion for people.