Vanessa Marian is an unstoppable force. We first encountered her company when we were looking for models for a current project; we wanted people with real bodies and real personalities. Part casting agency, part dance studio, part social enterprise, Groove Therapy charmed us and provided us with the right talent for the job. A dancer and choreographer, Vanessa uses her skills to inspire positive change within the community and empower our most vulnerable. A mental health warrior with a penchant for body positivity and a mission to create a global culture of dance starting with studios and programs in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Byron Bay, Vanessa seems to be always in a state of movement, and yet somehow always going with the flow.
When did you start dancing?
I started officially dancing at age 5, and for most of my life my main style of dancing has been Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance. I’m dying to go back to classes because that’s my main and strongest style of dance. I then fell into street dance, which is almost the most opposite thing. It’s not formal and usually outside of a dance studio context. I was really drawn to the socio-political contexts from which street dancing was born.
What exactly is street dance?
A lot of the styles fall under hip-hop. You’ve got house dancing, popping, break dancing… Then you’ve got funk, Brazilian styles, and reggaeton from broader Latin America – street dance is just an easy blanket term.
Is street dancing a form of revolution at origin?
Almost always. There are lots of moves in dancehall for example that are direct references to what’s going on politically. Pantsula in South Africa evolved in the same way. In the early days only coloured people or black people would engage in the dance. Now it’s much more inclusive; people from all walks of life and women do it now too.
“It was never my plan to pursue dance as a career. I just taught classes at my local dance school while trying to get my ‘real’ career to take off.”
Was it always your plan to start a dance school?
Not at all, it was never my plan to pursue dance as a career. I studied Law/Commerce, then Interior Design, worked as brand manager and started my own ethical online homewares store. I just taught classes at my local dance school while trying to get my ‘real’ career to take off. Then it happened organically because the other stuff wasn’t really working out for me. People would always be like, “Oh, you’re a dancer”, and I would be like, “Yeah, you should take a class”, and they would be like, “No way, I’m too old, I wouldn’t know what to do and I never took it as a kid, etc.” So there was this really obvious gap in the market that I filled by just starting a dance class at a local community centre.
Where did the name ‘Groove Therapy’ come from?
I literally just came up with it on the spot. I was named an ‘Unstoppable Millennial’ by Westpac, and they were like, “Well, if we were to fund your dreams what would they be?” So I thought I would formalise the community programs I was doing at nursing homes. ‘Dance therapy’ as a name didn’t sound quite right. Groove had more of a street dance feel to it. So the name was quite literal, honestly not that deep!
What is Groove Therapy working on at the moment?
We’re about to run our first training program, which is a key focus for the year ahead. We are going to teach people to facilitate these classes and help identify future leaders. You don’t necessarily have to be a dancer; you just have to be the right personality for it. It saves me a lot of frustration trying to convince dancers that physical therapy or mobility exercises are a meaningful thing to do in a class, when you can just ask other passionate people in the community.
How does recruitment work?
Well, we are targeting single mums and dads, new migrants, everyone and anyone. One of our newest team members is a single mum who was a regular in one of our weekly classes; we became really good friends through that. We have some really inspirational people on board, and the aim is that over time we can get high-needs people facilitating classes with their supervision, helping to get them employment experience.
How do you deal with cultural sensitivities, especially with your work on community projects?
Every community project is different and requires an understanding of unique cultural nuances. I’ve had to learn this through the years. When I first started teaching, I’d naively come prepped with a dance routine. Now I would never go in with such a set lesson plan. Coming into a community is about gaining permission from them to come in the first place, asking them what they’re going through and collaborating with them to come up with a solution through dance. For my first lesson with anyone I do ice-breaker exercises for at least 20 minutes to understand and get to know them.
How does a Groove Therapy class differ from a dance class in a fitness studio?
Our classes are super different from almost any other class in that we don’t learn choreography, we learn groove, which is the flavour that you put on top of your movement that makes it look good. It’s like an accent – when you speak the same language in different accents, you’re just learning the flavour. We learn three–four party dances and then we just put it all together, rather than a complicated choreography. Our famous party dances are the running man, the sprinkler, the shuffle. We try and make it very social as well. People will often stay back and have chats after, and I’ve made so many friends through it. Our Byron classes are held at the Arts & Industry Park, a ‘cultural hub’ with a real sense of community, and after class we always go jump in the ocean at Belongil.
Through your community work with marginalised groups, do you think dancing can impact mental health and wellbeing?
When you dance there are four main things that happen. First, you get out of your head and you’re very much in your body, so it’s a body–mind connection. Second, you’ve got a mix of endorphins and adrenalin in your body from the movement – it often happens that after a very hyped up dance class everyone stands and chats for an hour or two afterwards because you’re just buzzing. Third, it’s a powerful non- visual form of expression. Fourth, it provides a strong sense of community. Basically it ticks all the boxes that mental health experts tell you to engage in for a healthy mind, preventing anxiety and depression – you belong to a community, you’re doing exercise, and for me the big one is allowing people to express themselves freely.
“Our classes are super different from almost any other class in that we don’t learn choreography, we learn groove, which is the flavour that you put on top of your movement that makes it look good.”
“Basically it ticks all the boxes that mental health experts tell you to engage in for a healthy mind, preventing anxiety and depression – you belong to a community, you’re doing exercise, and for me the big one is allowing people to express themselves freely.”
You have become a role model to many. Can you explain how you deal with that all that responsibility?
Yes, I have a lot of Indian girls and girls of colour follow me on Instagram for instance. I try to always ensure social media is real and I try not to take it too seriously. It is a very honest, humanistic approach, and that’s part of the reason we decided to start a casting agency. We were getting inundated with requests for shoots and gigs, and I didn’t want to be the sole face of Groove Therapy. I knew there was great talent in the local community, and I wanted to create a democratic platform for castings, providing the best skills for the job, not just the right look. This is really important to us, and has really separated us from other casting agencies, while helping us break down stereotypes within the industry.
How did your work with nursing homes get started?
It was very organic. A friend’s mum approached me and was like, “Could you come in and do dance classes with my mum who is in a nursing home?” Over my nine or 10 years of teaching experience, I’ve worked in refugee detention centres, I’ve worked with kids with disabilities and at-risk youth in Indigenous communities, so I was like, “yeah, it’ll be easy”. The first one or two lessons were a bit of a disaster, so I had to go back and research dementia, and through that new knowledge those classes are now more about tapping into their long-term memory by playing music that they still remember. We had some amazing feedback with their families saying their relatives were talking again, when they hadn’t been talking for months.
You’ve lived in so many different cities internationally. Do you feel like a city shapes how the classes will be embraced?
Dance is a universal visual expression that transcends our verbal languages, which separate us from one another – that’s its beauty. I recently took a class in Paris and I realised then how little you need to talk in class, even as a teacher. I don’t speak French so I just smiled kind of blankly when the teacher was speaking. There was only one point when I couldn’t follow the routine, so I put up my hand to ask him to clarify, and he stopped the class and went on a massive monologue in French, and I had no idea what he was saying. When I responded in English, “Could you please repeat that?”, he burst out laughing. Another dancer translated his little rant as, “I’ve been trying to engage with this girl for the whole class and she will not respond to me, and finally we are going to hear her speak. What is it that she wants to say – go on.”
At the same time, there are definitely shifts and differences between each city. Byron Bay is noticeably more open. I hardly market the classes here and they just fill up, because everyone talks and supports each other. Nobody in Byron Bay reacts with ‘I would never do a dance class; I would look so stupid’. They are like, “Dance class? Yes! What time?” Which totally caught me off guard because Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are much more self-conscious like that.
Does that change the way the classes are run?
Essentially our lessons structure has been run past mental health experts, so we use ideas like ‘ice breakers’ at the beginning of the class. But, I would say more than city by city, its class by class. For the most part, because of our marketing and reputation, we attract a certain type of person so you don’t really get as many of the obnoxious ‘I want to be front and centre’ personality types that you can sometimes get in other dance studio contexts.
“Dance is a universal visual expression that transcends our verbal languages, which separate us from one another – that’s its beauty.”
Do you have specific goals for the future, or are you going to take it one step at a time?
We have evolved organically as an organisation, and we don’t want to lose that. So we have a strategy and goals to grow the business sustainably, but it’s all very achievable because work–life balance is very important to me. The dementia program is our main focus. I have a community projects officer who was one of the co-founders and clubhouse manager of Future Dreamers in Byron and one of the co-founders and volunteer manager of Kinfolk Café in Melbourne. She’s a massive pro when it comes to social enterprise, so it has been so nice to have someone like her come in and sit down with us and strategise for the future.
Do you plan on expanding Groove Therapy globally?
I am moving to New York in the middle of the year. I don’t know yet whether I’ll takeGroove Therapy over there or focus on growing it in Australia over the next few years. Going to the birthplace of hip hop and just learning, soaking up the energy, that’s the biggest thing. As a freelance dancer I’ll also be touring for a few shows and I’ll continue to work on Groove Therapy remotely.
Shenaz Engineer is a Researcher & Strategist at Right Angle Studio. A Brisbane local, her innate curiosity and fascination for cities has seen her live across Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, Paris and now Sydney. With a background in both business and design, she continues to collaborate with curious minds from different industries across the world, and has received both national and international awards for her work. Fascinated by the intersection of culture, architecture, health and technology, she is passionate about creating inclusive cities and crafting places for people.
Lily Keil is Senior Editor at Right Angle Studio. She trained and worked as an editor at Melbourne University Publishing before freelancing for diverse publishers for a few years before joining Right Angle. She has been published in magazines such as Meanjin, January Biannual and Higher Arc and was a co-editor of Good Sport magazine in 2016. Her childhood in remote Tasmania may be the origin of her abiding fascination with cities.