Putting their best foot forward - Migrants in Cork bonding through dance

Participants and organisers at dance classes in Cork Migrant Centre tell Ellie O’Byrne how it’s a win-win set-up for all concerned

Putting their best foot forward - Migrants in Cork bonding through dance

Participants and organisers at dance classes in Cork Migrant Centre tell  Ellie O’Byrne how it’s a win-win set-up for all concerned

Around forty young people, ranging in age from 14 to 18, from backgrounds including South Africa, Brazil, Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are hanging around in clusters chatting in the centre, located in the freshly converted Nano Nagle Centre on Douglas Street.

Dance instructor Andrea Williams is organising one group into a dance class, while outside in the former convent gardens, well-known Cork DJ Stevie Grainger (Stevie G) is accompanying another gaggle of teens on a makeshift photography tutorial.

“Hip-hop is a very loose term that encompasses dancing, rapping, DJing and also artforms like graffiti,” Grainger explains, in between banter with the group he’s leading.

Two years ago, Grainger led a workshop based on the musical elements of hip-hop culture in Cork Migrant Centre, focused on teaching rapping and DJing skills; it spawned the group as it stands today, he explains.

The group was mostly girls between 12 and 14 and it wasn’t really clicking. At the end of the first session, I just played some music, and they all started dancing, and I realised I had to get a dance element in.

Enlisting the help of Andrea Williams, the Cape Verdean-born dancer who heads up the Hot Sauce dance troupe with whom Grainger frequently works, the Cork Migrant Centre dance troupe was created.

Some of the young people are living in Direct Provision accommodation in Cork, while others got involved through attending Cork Migrant Centre.

In September, a core group of dedicated dancers performed in UCC amphitheatre for Cork Discovers day of events and also held their own at a Culture Night performance in Nano Nagle place.

Now, the weekly get-togethers might be becoming a victim of their own success; following summer workshops in collaboration with rapper GMC and Music Generation Cork, this term-time the class size has mushroomed, with a large group being bussed from Millstreet Direct Provision Centre to attend the dance class after school.

The CMC dance classes are supported by St Vincent De Paul, but Grainger says one of their options is to seek further funding to secure enough space for the high numbers.

“We don’t really have the space in there so it’s a bit of pressure at the moment,” he says. “Ideally, we’d like to get funding and there are people behind the scenes who are brilliant at that stuff.”

ENRICHING CORK

As a DJ, producer and radio host, Grainger says one of his main motivations for involvement in the project is the potential to enrich Cork’s music scene. “The talent is the rewarding thing for me. I’m always looking for the next big thing; dancers and singers and so on. And there’s mind-blowing talent.

“When we live in a climate of negativity and there’s people stirring up right-wing stuff all over the place, without getting too political about it, we’re trying to show that these are the people, this is the music: we’re all about showcasing Cork and this is the new Cork. Cork being multicultural is a lot more exciting for me — the music, food and art are all better.”

Andrea Williams with her charges at Cork Migrant Centre, Nana Nagle Place.
Andrea Williams with her charges at Cork Migrant Centre, Nana Nagle Place.

Grainger returns to shepherding his charges, who are doing a pop-up photography demonstration with photographer and videographer Luke Kelly Wilmot. The teens are shy: many don’t want to talk about their backgrounds or current situations. “I always say ‘USA’,” one tall boy of 15 says, when asked where he’s from, before, “I’m from Nigeria though.”

Ardinie Mulanga, known to her friends as Maria, is not shy. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 14-year-old only joined the dance class a month ago and has been living in the Millstreet Direct Provision Centre, with her parents and sisters, for a year.

Upbeat and bubbly, Mulanga has caught instructor Andrea Williams’ eye not only for her natural dance talent, but also for her propensity and ability to teach others.

“I started dancing when I was three years old,” Mulanga says with a grin. “Andrea’s style is a different style, but I like it. She’s very high-energy dancing, but I’m mostly about legs and hands, less of the whining and stuff like that. It’s not traditional Congolese dance that I do, though; it’s just my own way of dancing.”

Mulanga wants to be a doctor when she grows up. “But if it doesn’t work for me I will open my own dance class,” she says.

REWARDING EXPERIENCE

Inside a packed classroom, Williams is running through dance moves with the rest of the group, but she’s battling to be heard and the room is crowded with chatting teens. “We need a bigger room, or they need to split the group and come on different days,” Williams says.

She may be working under less-than-ideal teaching conditions, but she says the dance class is so popular precisely because of what it brings the teens, and that it’s a rewarding project to be involved in.

“You can see the difference in their confidence. When they performed in UCC, I felt so proud to have had something to do with that. It’s like they all have it inside, but it just needs to be brought out.”

Creatively, the diversity of styles present in the group is also exciting for Williams, who works Afro-Brazilian, Angolan and Caribbean influences into her hip-hop routines.

Andera Williams and Stevie G.
Andera Williams and Stevie G.

“It’s amazing because every time I bring something different, they’re really into it,” she says. “There are kids from Mexico, all over Africa, even Europe. They’re all teenagers, they’re really eager to learn, and they connect straight away; they’re instant friends.

I think that’s the power of music and dance: it shows you that we’re all the same. They have different cultures but they’re celebrating dance and music and they don’t see the differences. You put on music and it’s like, ‘Guys! Everyone dance’. This is community.

In recent weeks, the debate surrounding the protests against a Direct Provision Centre in Oughterard, Co Galway, raised questions about the Irish Direct Provision system. Add to the uncertain living situations faced by those in the centres, and the ‘normal’ day-to-day challenges faced by teens, and Williams says that sense of community is a lifeline for kids whose struggles may lie beneath the surface.

“The other job that’s less visible is when they text and you ask them if they’re ok and they tell you about their problems,” she says. “They’ll tell you they’ve been bullied in a new school, that they’re worried about someone in their family. Here, they feel included. They feel like they’re a normal human being, not different from anyone else.”

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