A dance class in Sydney’s western suburbs is helping young refugee women find community inclusion and cohesion through hip-hop beats. By Elfy Scott.

Groove Therapy for migrants and refugees

Vanessa Marian leads a Groove Therapy class in Auburn.
Vanessa Marian leads a Groove Therapy class in Auburn.

It’s Wednesday evening and the streets of Auburn are deserted in a quiet lull following the mid-afternoon rush of school traffic. Passing the Auburn Centre for Community, however, one might notice the loud intermittent thump of bass expelling from one of the halls. It’s an absurdly cheerful Afro beat song and within the walls of the centre, tremendously loud, it is propelling a small group of girls and young women to their feet in a synchronised hip-hop routine that each is working devotedly to perfect. At the front, directing and cajoling enthusiasm from the more shy members of the group is Vanessa Marian, dance teacher and founder of Sydney’s urban dance revolution, Groove Therapy.

While Vanessa spends most of her working life spurring on a carefree passion for hip-hop among inner-city crowds, this venture in the heart of Western Sydney is altogether different – it is exclusively for girls and women who have recently migrated to Australia or entered the country on a humanitarian visa. Auburn Centre for Community’s Groove Therapy class is an opportunity for refugee girls to work with one another and participate in a weekly hour of hip-hop integrated with public-speaking skills.

The group is a proud motley crew, with an unpredictable rotation of cultures (including Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, Pakistani, Afghan and Iranian participants), ages and backgrounds appearing each week to stomp and twist along to the choreographed dance Vanessa has devised. This particular Wednesday, the group comprises four young Turkish girls, all approaching their teenage years and evidently keen to display their gymnastic skills, as well as 25-year-old Maria, a recent migrant from Pakistan, with her 11-month-old daughter, Aila, in tow (who is oddly soothed by the loud thumps of the track).

The session begins with a group circle seated on the floor as Vanessa prompts the class to remember their public-speaking cues: no crossed arms, upright posture, no mumbling. Each girl takes a turn on the microphone to stand up and introduce themselves as well as answering this week’s impromptu question, “What is your greatest fear?” Tuana, 11 years old, responds with “clowns” and the class temporarily dissolves into a giggling outrage about the internet’s clown phenomenon. These moments are important for the girls; they’re finding their feet in a room full of strangers, practising a language they don’t necessarily experience at home, and ultimately boosting employability. Ella Sutton, a youth transition support worker and one of the program’s directors, asserts that the class is not a regular hip-hop class with its public-speaking component benefiting the girls through community “inclusion and cohesion”. Groove Therapy works by instilling regular skills in an utterly irregular environment.

The Groove Therapy class for recent migrants and refugees (or Groove Rising as Vanessa informally refers to it) is a relatively new project, put into development earlier this year and nearing the conclusion of its first semester in November. The class is funded by Auburn Diversity Services and was developed under the Youth Transition Support Program, a multicultural resource and social service program that aims to support its clients by offering a wide variety of support and opportunities, from assistance in writing résumés to accessible gym memberships, and even English-speaking cafe trips.

Vanessa’s involvement and the concept of Groove Rising came about partly as a result of an intense feeling of powerlessness as she was confronted with the refugee crisis through social media – “I’m so sick of feeling sorry for ‘these people’ that I don’t even know, and I didn’t feel like ranting about it without having any sort of personal connection” – as well as her own cultural background. Born in the Middle East with Indian heritage, Vanessa grew up in a community very much like Auburn’s with its cultural mishmash of Turkish, Lebanese and Vietnamese influences. She feels more at home here than the inner city and came to recognise that “these people” she’d read so much about, “they’d just be like all of my mates that I grew up with”. She teamed up with Ella Sutton to produce the proposal for funding and integrated the public-speaking component to make this a dance class with a point of difference. One that “aims to teach people conversational English, confidence skills, teamwork, give them an extracurricular activity that they can put on their résumé and teach all of the other things that come with dance like self-expression, performance, and a sense of assertiveness”, says Vanessa.

Vanessa is also quick to assert the cultural importance of what she teaches in Groove Therapy – she rejects the common mode of teaching hip-hop in dance and instead emphasises the importance of cultural heritage. In four-week blocks, the girls will learn styles from Afro beats to dance hall as well as their historical significance. “It’s really important that I teach part of the culture when I teach a style, that I don’t appropriate it, and in that way people don’t just flippantly say, ‘Yeah we do the hip-hop class and we dance to Drake’, which is all well and fun but Drake’s pop, so let’s learn about hip-hop here.” Vanessa believes in the fundamental importance of hip-hop because it was, as is the case for most street styles, born out of an oppressed people expressing the experience of life on the fringes. For the girls who enter the room with chequered backgrounds, full of hardship, oppression, and a sense of cultural marginalisation, this sense of history and expression through dance can be invaluable.

However, Vanessa also maintains the importance of freedom that the class offers. “You almost don’t want to know their stories because this is escapism in a way and a form of healing,” she says. The success of this ethos is clear, with the comfortable environment that Vanessa fosters. Away from the eyes of boys and men, the girls often feel comfortable abandoning hijabs and, quite literally, letting their hair down. Ten-year-old Kayla, a first-generation child of a Turkish family, says, “Before I started doing all of the dance I was quite shy and once we got to public speaking, I sort of got used to it because it made me go away from my comfort zone.” While for Maria and her child who are often confined to their home, Groove Therapy simply represents a “great opportunity for people who like dancing, don’t want to go far away from their houses and enjoy the facilities available in the local area”.

Vanessa and Ella originally predicted some apprehension from parents about enrolling their children in a hip-hop class that was so culturally removed from their experience, and perhaps involved a little too much gyration of the hips, but they have received nothing but support. “It’s interesting with the parents, they are very supportive, they actually asked if they could have a dance class for parents as well,” says Ella. “Obviously they think it’s a really good opportunity for their daughters.” The two women are now hoping to develop a hip-hop program for boys using male B-boy teachers, but for the moment, this program is all about helping the girls learn the steps and find their own groove.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 26, 2016 as "Giant steps".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription