Do you feel connected to your body? Not everyone naturally does. To harness the power of self-expression through the body is a powerful, magical act. Thankfully though, it’s one you can easily learn. You just need the right teacher.
Meet Vanessa Marian. She’ll be your dance coach on your path to unstoppable-ness. A true creative and a core member of Westpac’s Unstoppable Squad, Vanessa spends her days inspiring people of all backgrounds and ages to develop the confidence to express themselves and in turn, fulfil their dreams. It’s just what she does. And to accomplish it? She basically threw the rulebook out the window.
Dance is a special kind of movement
Call her an idealist, call her a rebel, but Vanessa believes that dancing is for everyone. Just as everyone can dance, everyone can benefit from dancing’s multitude of positive impacts. A professional dancer and art director, Vanessa runs classes called Groove Therapy for people who’ve always wanted to go to a dance class, but were too scared to try.
Held in a supportive, judgment-free space and teaching a mixture of Hip Hop and street music from all over the world, a class with her is an opportunity to get out of one’s head. To completely let go of anything and everything that might be holding you back.
Vanessa also holds weekly dance therapy sessions with elderly dementia patients and has witnessed first-hand the incredible connection between dance, music and memory.
The path is never a straight one
Born in Dubai, Vanessa discovered classical Indian dance while still a toddler and by age five, she’d met her long-time teacher Jayalakshmi Raman. “I was absolutely mesmerised by the costumes and insane amounts of jewellery. It was nothing more than the vanity of being decked out in glittery stuff,” she says. But despite a sartorially disappointing first lesson (spent wearing a plain white cotton outfit without a speck of glitter), Vanessa spent the next 15 years in training.
While Vanessa has always had a love affair with Hip Hop dancing, she never saw it as a legitimate career path. “Hip hop tends to translate to commercial dance, you know like back up dancing for pop artists? That’s never appealed to me. So I stubbornly went and got myself a Law Degree, a Commerce degree and then went and got an Interior Design diploma.”
It took a steady amount of passion to make the move from stylist, brand manager, producer and “owner of an underwhelming fair trade online homewares store,” to become the dancer she is today. But now that she’s here, it’s completely on her terms.
“Dancing is just a physical manifestation of feeling good.”
Vanessa’s style of dance is a genre-blending potion of cultural and street dance, embracive of sub-cultural self-expression from all over the world. Just blend Indian classical with Hip Hop street styles like house, popping, lofting, waacking, voguing, waving and sprinkle in some Afrobeats, Afrohouse, Brazilian baile funk, samba and Jamaican dancehall. “This is what I live for,” says Vanessa. Although she admits she’d like to improve her samba skills; “I’m rubbish.”
But doing what moves you, moves you in the right direction
When it comes to sage advice, the creative chameleon has always heeded to words of one mentor. “‘Don’t do what’s trendy, do what moves you.’ People will always see the integrity in that.” And there’s no denying that in her case, they do.
Despite Vanessa’s deft teaching skills (equal parts empathetic, supportive and riotous) Vanessa didn’t always dream of being a teacher. She was first able to attend dance school after winning a scholarship, and then after participating in casual classes the following year, Vanessa says, “I had the job handed to me when I was 19 because [they] desperately needed a substitute.” Putting energy into following her passion opened up the opportunity to pursue it.
“When other kids worked retail or hospitality on the side to their studies, I got my student pocket money by teaching night classes at The Dance Collective in Perth,” says Vanessa. After-hours classes meant dancing flowed easily with her life when she wanted to study.
And it’s just as well; both teaching and dancing bring their own set of joys these days. “It was over these last 10 years that I began to grasp the psychological gravity of teaching,” says Vanessa. “Teaching is about facilitating an environment of expression for others. Dancing alone is about challenging yourself to self-express in new creative ways.”
We all speak ‘dance’
As for her democratic model of dancing, it’s damn hard to argue with. And who would want to? “Dancing is just a physical manifestation of feeling good. You dig a song, you won lotto, you’re singing into your hairbrush because, Kanye, and it makes you feel so good that you do a jig. You’re a dancer. I’m a dancer. We’re all dancers. I’ve just been practising it more intensely for longer, so I get paid for it. That’s all.”
And not only is dancing the quickest way to feeling good, it’s literally a universal language that connects us all. “I spent hours in the depths of a favela in Rio De Janeiro once, dancing with locals to the awesome ratchet style of baile funk. I made so many friends that night as the music blared and babies were handed to me to dance along with. It was only at 4am when the music turned off and we tried to converse that we realised we didn’t speak the same language,” says Vanessa.
Some dance to forget, others dance to remember
And dancing doesn’t just transcend nations; it moves people across generations. A woman once asked Vanessa if she would dance with Vicky, a 93-year-old dementia sufferer. As Vicky has impaired short-term memory, every week when she meets Vanessa, it’s for the first time. “By playing music of her yesteryears, we trigger her long-term memory and watch her transform into a dance goddess in slow motion,” she says.
The experience of dancing with dementia sufferers like Vicky, Vanessa says, “moves everyone in the room for different reasons. I can’t really articulate it, but patients spend more time thanking me than they do dancing because they don’t really get visitors anymore and are so lonely. Also they have dementia so they forget that they just thanked me five minutes ago. It reminds you to call your mum.”
Connection to yourself helps you keep it real
As an unstoppable talent and inspiring woman, Vanessa has her fair share of young Instagram fans, and takes her position as a role model as seriously as any class. “I get to rock my baggy tees and fresh kicks whilst teaching boss power moves. This is profound for young teen girls who are so used to seeing the cool girls of Instagram rocking bikinis.
“When you come to class and tell kids to travel, be nice to other people and wear whatever makes you feel comfortable, you give them permission to explore other alternatives to being cool,” she says.
Dance is an avenue for expression
Furthermore, Vanessa is acutely aware of the role she plays in broadening wider Australia’s interpretation of dance and dancers, and aims to encourage the dance community get woke and stay that way. “I don’t fit in at all. I’m a female Indian who was born in the Middle East, practises Jamaican dancehall/Afrobeats and street Hip Hop, with a background in Law. How do you navigate such a cross-cultural mess in a place as homogenous as Australia?”
“When you come to class and tell kids to travel, be nice to other people and wear whatever makes you feel comfortable, you give them permission to explore other alternatives to being cool.”
On cultural appropriation, she takes a lead. “Many people call themselves Hip Hop teachers, but do you really know your Hip Hop? Do you know the history, the pain, the oppression of the African-American community from which it was born? Do you know your different eras of Hip Hop dances? Have you ever learnt from an African-American Hip Hop dancer who comes from the era in which Hip Hop was born? If not then please stop calling yourself a Hip Hop dancer. For me, this is about spreading your love for dance through an informed place of inclusivity, not a romanticised appropriation of ‘cool’ elements of a culture just because it’s trendy.”
Considering Vanessa aims to create a “weekly community and safe space that encourages exercise and fun,” through her classes, their impact has been massive. “I get emails almost weekly that go into depth about how tough someone’s week has been and how much dance has helped them. I’ve even had people tell me that dance class has pulled them out of depression.”
Inspiration is your fuel to be unstoppable
So who inspires the girl who’s so inspiring? Vanessa’s answer keeps it disarmingly real. “Hands down my boyfriend. I hesitated to say that because it’s PDA, but he honestly is. His work as a film director inspires change through creativity and his life choices are always dictated by his values.”
Feel the need to be connected to your body yet? Just think, what would Vanessa Marian do? She’d probably finish reading this article, stand up and do a mad-crazy dance right on the spot. So go on. Nothing’s stopping you – you’re actually pretty unstoppable, too.
Check out Vanessa’s story, plus be inspired by the epic tales from Westpac’s Unstoppable Squad here, and if you want to catch a dance class, find more info at Groove Therapy. Make sure you’re as unstoppable as Vanessa with Westpac’s Everyday Banking.
Lead image: Mitchell Tomlinson
Jerico Mandybur is a Sydney-based freelance writer and editor, interested in pop culture, feminism, fashion, social justice and radical ideas. Especially when they intersect. In her spare time, she produces community radio and hugs other people’s dogs.