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One to Watch: Vanessa Marian

21 November 2017 at 8:43 am
Wendy Williams
Vanessa Marian is a 29-year-old dancer from Byron Bay and the director of Groove Therapy, which aims to make dancing accessible to people from all walks of life. She is One to Watch.

Wendy Williams | 21 November 2017 at 8:43 am


One to Watch: Vanessa Marian
21 November 2017 at 8:43 am

Vanessa Marian is a 29-year-old dancer from Byron Bay and the director of Groove Therapy, which aims to make dancing accessible to people from all walks of life. She is One to Watch.

A total of 60 of Australia’s brightest young changemakers have been selected by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) to take part in the 2017 Young Social Pioneers (YSP) program. It is Australia’s first, and only, national youth entrepreneurship incubator designed exclusively for young people leading initiatives that respond to society’s most pressing challenges. In this mini-series Pro Bono News speaks to a pioneer from each of the nine categories across the program about the differences they are hoping to make.

Marian has been dancing since she was five years old, but until recently never considered it as a career.

Having trained across New York, Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Brazil and regional Australia, she was fascinated with street dance and the way it is born outside of the dance studio context, often by an oppressed people in reaction to political and socio-economic turmoil.

But it wasn’t until she had tried her hand at a few things that she turned to dance and in 2016 founded Groove Therapy, aimed at making dance accessible to people from all walks of life.

The program has since brought dance to at-risk youth, Indigenous communities, dementia sufferers, refugee girls and the everyday person, using the political and healing foundations that these street dance styles are built upon and mindfully appropriating it in new communities to help spark global conversation and cultural understanding.

She has now been selected for the Young Social Pioneers program as part of the arts stream, which is supported by Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.

Here she talks to Pro Bono News about a Robin Hood business model, how learning the running man can foster mental wellness, and giving dementia patients a meaningful way of interacting in the present moment.

What motivated you to start Groove Therapy?

That is a long story. It is a long story of failures really, I tried so many other things that I now see as experience and character building, ranging from completing my law and commerce degree, I worked as a brand manager, I worked in marketing, I tried to start my own online fairtrade homeware store and there was this point at which nothing was working out for me, so I fell back to the one thing that I’d always done at a professional level but never thought of as a real career which was dancing.

And it was my coping mechanism and always has been my coping mechanism for stress or escapism or dealing with anxiety and things like that, and it just never occurred to me that it was a feasible career because until that point dance to me was only being a backup dancer for a pop star which never has, and still doesn’t, interest me.

So this was this chance where I could start a dance class that brought these mental wellness benefits of dance to all walks of life and make it accessible because dance class as it stands right now is something that most people want to do and is a skill set that most people admire or wish they could do, or enjoy in the privacy of their own bedrooms but feel completely intimidated or unwelcome in a studio because they feel like they have missed the boat, they’re not the right body shape, they’re too old. And so it is about making dance accessible for people.

How does dance foster mental wellness?

In so many ways. There are all the obvious ones; when you come to something regularly and see familiar faces, you become part of a community and there is a sense of belonging. When you exercise you pump your body with endorphins. And the other is that it is an expressive art form, so it teaches you a way to express yourself without necessarily needing to talk it out. Not everyone is ready to come and talk about the fact that they have anxiety, or fears or negative internal monologue, so it’s a really powerful way of getting people to just express and let it out. And lastly it gets you out of your head and into your body, and it fosters that body mind connection which so many people have lost touch with. They’re so articulare, they’re writers, they’re poets, but they really don’t have that connection to the body and that is truly lacking. So it kind of combines that trifecta of the arts, exercise and mind body connection. So that’s why I think it is so helpful.

What sets Groove Therapy apart from other dance classes?

There‘s a few things. First of all on a really basic level, it is no mirrors, dim lights. Then on top of that, our marketing shies away from that health and fitness industry of just one type of race, hot babe in yoga pants, instead we’re like look at all these amazing dancers who come from all walks of life and look like all types of people. So it is very inclusive in its marketing, which is so subtle and so powerful and so subconscious as well. And the other thing is we have actually run our class and lesson plans past the mental health industry. So there are things that we incorporate in class that make it different from a normal dance class. We do a lot of ice breakers in between songs. We don’t do any choreography, we teach you dance moves, so party dance moves, and we give you a historical context as to what marginalised community or group this comes from, so instead of learning a complicated choreography to Rihanna, you might learn the running man and the sprinkler and the moonwalk, so you learn moves, and we say it is much more practical, you can actually use them on a dance floor, it is like a life skill.

How do the community programs fit in?

Well right now we’re gearing up to grow these weekly classes, in what I call a Robin Hood business model, so the profit from these classes goes into our community projects. And there’s a bunch of them. So we’ve done a lot of trial classes and projects at this stage, so that means that we’ll go out for an eight week trial or a four week trial, and for the most part they’ve been quite a success.

Our biggest success of all has been our dementia classes which we’ve run for several years and the only reason we’ve discontinued them is because I’ve moved to Byron Bay. They’re happy and ready for us to roll it out nationally, across all the RSL Lifecare nursing homes, so right now it is just about me building up the resources to train people. And so that’s a program specifically designed to tap into long-term memory through triggering memories and eras that these dementia patients haven’t lost yet in their memories, because we’ll play Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and things from the 1930s and 1940s that they still remember and that are still intact, so we give them a meaningful way of interacting in the present moment and pull them out of that state of confusion.

What are your aims for Groove Therapy?

I think for Groove Therapy the aim at the end of the day is to foster mental wellness amongst I guess privileged middle class, the “worried wealthy” we like to call them, and use a lot of those profits to put into community projects and bring the benefits of dance to the less fortunate and marginalised communities and groups. It is something I am good at, it is my strength and it is my way of contributing to the world in a powerful and positive way.

And then the last thing, is we are gearing up to officially launch an agency and that’s really about championing the best person for the job. I find that if you get the best person for the job by default you have a diverse cast of movers, you’re not getting the best looking person, so that’s a really big one, because we like to represent all ages, body types, races and abilities and we’ve landed some incredible campaigns for like Nike and G Star, Adidas and that has been really exciting for us.

What are you hoping to get out of the YSP program?

What I really like about Young Social Pioneers is that it is not just about patting each other on the back and stroking everyone’s egos and telling them they’re great young Australians, it is about believing in who they are as a person and investing in them as a future entrepreneur and arming us with practical skillsets and life skills to go forth into the world and in a very real and practical way, implement our ideas instead of just being dreamers. And that is just so refreshing.

I’m all about it. I have been a few conferences recently and they have all been poser theme fest, patting each other on the back a little bit and this has just been so authentic and you can just feel the heart and the care and the thoughtfulness that just goes into every aspect of what they do.

How do you find leading an organisation at a relatively young age?

It is quite lonely actually because my industry is younger than me. So I am 29, everyone else in the dance industry in Australia is not really older than 22, at most 23. Because if you are really good you go overseas or you start like a conventional dance school like a dance mum, or you quit because there is not enough work for dancers. So often I am treated like a big sister or an aunty, and that’s nice in theory but it’s really lonely and quite isolating because sometimes I just want to be the kid that gets mentored, and gets to look up to someone else. It is really cool to be inspiring to other young dancers and set the bar and set the precedent that you don’t just have to be about wanting the spotlight and being on the stage to be a dancer you can actually do something meaningful with a job that for the most part exists in quite a shallow industry to be honest.

If you could go back in time and speak to your 15 year old self, knowing that there are other options, would you do things differently?

No. Not at all. To be honest I wouldn’t appreciate what I do know if it wasn’t for all the mistakes I’ve made and the HECS debt I collected. Yes I did law school, but that taught me how to hustle and work hard for things. I don’t feel I am the slightest bit entitled, I am so ready to work so hard for a dance career and I don’t see it as a privilege or like I fantasise that I want to make come true, it is like a real thing, it has this work ethic that needs to go behind it to affect it and make it something powerful and that comes from my background in studying, my background in marketing, especially all the jobs that I worked at in fashion industries and what not, that taught me I don’t have the heart for things that don’t have heart.

Dance has been in my life since I was five. I have been dancing and training at a professional level since then and never wanted it as a career until recently because I tried everything else first. And realised that I could make something of dance. So I wouldn’t change a single thing. I think I’m all for the mistakes, as long as you dive in head first and give everything a shot, failing doesn’t feel so bad.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

For Groove Therapy I want at least 30 classes nationally, but also internationally, and I want it to be a full blown agency and I want us to be able to be one of the leaders, at least in Australia, in community based projects with the arts and marginalised communities.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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