Cork-based dance teacher Andrea Williams is on a mission to get Irish women moving to multi-cultural rhythms, writes
“THIS is going to be easy.” In front of the mirrored wall of her dance studio, Andrea Williams smiles reassuringly at her students and launches into a one-minute choreographed routine for her class to learn, ripping out a rapid-fire selection of pelvic thrusts and fluid shoulder moves, finishing with a little floor work.
It’s incredibly fast and high-energy, a fusion of Afro-Brazilian, hip-hop, dancehall and good old-fashioned twerking. It requires thighs of steel and massive core strength, as well as grace and flair. For the uninitiated, it’s anything but easy.
I’ve joined Williams’ monthly Dance It Up session, where DJ Stevie G spins tunes and Williams runs an informal class to a combination of her experienced dancers — some of whom are in her Hot Sauce dance crew — and red-faced newbies. Like me.
We’re dancing to Loko, by Major Lazer and Brazilian superstars Tropkillaz and MC Kevinho. At times, it’s tempting to stop battling with the moves and just watch: Williams and her regular dancers’ fluid and flexible movements pack a fusion of the athleticism of African dance, street-wise hip-hop attitude and the sexiness of Latin styles.
They’re gorgeous too, not least Williams herself, who manages to combine a fine-featured, elfin beauty with the kind of toned body that, let’s face it, any woman on the planet would be only too happy to have.
It could be easy for beginners to feel intimidated, but for the happy atmosphere and the sense that anything goes: one woman has her new baby sleeping next to her in a car seat for the session. The two hours wrap up with free-style dancing: Williams turns the lights down low and dancers form a circle, where everyone gets dragged in, to much whooping and cheering. Suddenly, it does almost feel like dancing in a club. Sober.
From belly dance in the Middle East to Brazilian samba to Hawaiian hula, dance traditions all over the world teach women to move their hips. But not in Ireland. So, I admit to Williams over coffee on a Saturday morning, there’s a bit of a cringe involved in being asked to stand in front of a full-length mirror and shake it like the proverbial polaroid picture.
She laughs. “I remember the first few classes where I taught Irish girls, and they all said that,” she says. “Culturally, they are not taught to move their bodies from their hips. But I think it’s changing. It’s a matter of empowering women. It’s hard to overcome centuries of people telling you how your body should be and how you should behave, so I’m super happy when I see people lose all their shyness in class: they’ll go on the floor, they’ll twerk, they’ll try anything. And I’m really happy that I’ve had something to do with that.”
Williams herself hails from Cape Verde, the North African archipelago and former Portuguese colony with a sunny climate and a dark past as a hub of the global slave trade. She speaks Portuguese, but also Creole.
She was raised by her paternal grandmother. “The story I was told was that when my parents divorced when I was two, I didn’t want to stay with either of them,” she says. “They took me to my grandma, and I didn’t want to leave. So I stayed for 18 years. She was amazing, but she was super tough.”
Dance was a natural part of life for Williams, and by the time she was in her teens, she would organise shows with friends, asking local businesses for sponsorship to set up a stage, hire a DJ and buy material for costumes, which the girls would make for themselves.
“I was always the dancer,” she says. “We’d have fashion shows too. It was basically a bit like what I’m doing now.”
Having moved to Portugal at 18 to study law on a scholarship in Porto, Williams met her husband. Ten years ago, they moved to Cork. “I think my parents were disappointed I didn’t practice law. In Africa, having a degree is a huge thing: they never saw being an artist as a true profession.”
The exuberant Cape Verdean love of music and dance, and the fusion of cultures that comes with growing up in a former colony, are still at the core of Williams’ work today.
With no formal training, Williams developed her own style through workshops from various African and South American instructors. But her career in dance didn’t begin until after she arrived in Ireland, where she began practising Brazilian martial art capoeira. She graduated to becoming the troupe’s official dancer. At the same time, she was hitting the dance floor in Cork nightclubs, where friends would tell her she had to start teaching.
Williams has no patience for charges of cultural appropriation: her interest in dance ethnography has led her to infuse her dancehall-based style with elements of hip hop, samba and street styles from around the globe.
“When people ask me what my dance style is, I just say it’s Andrea Williams style,” she says. “I’ve learned traditional African dances, Afro-Brazilian dance, Angolan, and then I mix everything I know.”
This global fusion is also evident in her eight-strong dance troupe, Hot Sauce, which she formed after she began working in tandem with Cork DJ Stevie G.
“I wanted people watching to be able to identify with the dancers, so we have girls from everywhere,” she says. “Ireland, Brazil, Korea, Italy, Swaziland, Algeria and Finland.”
This summer, Hot Sauce were kept busy performing at music festivals with Stevie G.
In combination with modelling work, appearing in music videos, and teaching classes, Williams says her life is increasingly becoming a whirl. But she’s hungry for more: her greatest ambition is to join the ranks of the dancer / choreographers who work with big-name musical acts.
She’s a particular fan of New Zealand hip-hop queen Parris Goebel, the self-taught dancer who now works with stars like Justin Bieber, Rhihanna and Kanye West.
“The level of training of those guys is unreal though. They live for it. With social media nowadays, how it works is that you just get noticed. Someone calls you, and you do something for them and that’s it.”
With 30,000 followers on Facebook and 11,000 on Instagram, it’s hopefully just a matter of time for Williams before that call comes. But if it does, she says, Cork will always have been the place where her dance career started.
“No matter where I am ten, fifteen years from now, I’ll always remember Cork as the place where I was finally allowed to be myself.”
- Andrea Williams’s dance classes take place on Mondays at Hot Sauce dance studio near Justfit in Blackpool, Cork