Lots of kids think they can’t dance. They can’t move, they can’t do steps. But they love music, love the beat of music. Independent artist Ghenoa Gela is the dancer and choreographer-in-residence at this year’s Moorambilla Festival. Ghenoa has an incredible energy and talent for getting kids to move, and when they do, they lose their inhibitions, shyness and forget themselves. Using electronic and dance combinations, for example hip hop, electro funk and techno dance music, Ghenoa gets kids moving and physicalising music.
Ghenoa starts with games, for hand coordination and listening and focusing. “You can quickly tell the children who are switched on and the ones that are thinking ‘Oh I’m just here’. Where she had a room full of rowdy boys, who didn’t know each other, she ends with a room of 50 boys who are totally focused, working together – quiet, disciplined, not talking, not mucking up. Where she had a room full of girls who didn’t know each other, she has a group of 75 moving together.
“Moorambilla is different to what I usually do,” says Ghenoa. “I love doing community based projects – they bring you back to reality. For me it’s like I am learning a new Aboriginal language group or nation. And I love working with young people – they are so honest. These regional and remote kids are different to the city kids – their attitude is a lot more humble. That comes through their body language and the way they talk to you. There is a different energy. “
The kids at Moorambilla are from a variety of backgrounds – Indigenous and non-Indigenous. “We are growing slowly into a different nation,” says Ghenoa and Moorambilla is a small expression of this.
“My parents are both very creative – my Mum is into crafts and my Dad is into dancing – well they both are. My Dad has always been a phenomenal traditional Torres Strait Islander dancer – that’s where I learnt all my hand eye coordination and being able to watch someone dance in front of you and copy them. When we got together as a family we passed on histories and stories and danced together – it’s like the equivalent of a family barbecue. Later on, Mum and Dad made a little troupe of dancers from our family and we toured all over Queensland in the schools, doing story telling, artefacts, weaving and Torres Strait culture.”
“I would have loved to have experienced something like Moorambilla when I was a kid. I originally wanted to be an athlete, as I was winning a lot of trophies. Then I had a job in a night club that had lots of competitions on a stage – I started helping some of the girls who were going into modeling competitions like the Miss Indie Competition or Miss Formula Fever and I helped them to feel more comfortable in their bodies. I also won an air guitar competition and made it to the national championships.
“I was starting to feel pretty good about myself on stage, which was good because I had a massive shame factor when I was a kid – you know, don’t stand out, don’t make anyone think you are too good. I struggled with it and got over it gradually, especially when I went to an Indigenous dance college in Sydney.
Ghenoa makes the girls and boys keep moving – she keeps changing the steps, the dance cells. “It keeps them mentally alert, it keeps them interested. Because they are smart, they can pick up movement in a second, so you have to stay one step ahead. Keep them thinking ‘what is she going to do next?’.”
Ghenoa is a strong, female role model for the girls of Moorambilla. This is one of the aims of the program, it’s about making the girls and boys resilient, to believe in their own capacity. “It is extremely important to build self esteem and that innate core of belief that they are capable of dealing with change and, particularly for girls, making decisions based on their own needs and not the needs of others,” says Artistic Director Michelle Leonard. “Ghenoa is a strong woman and her movements are empowering, highly physical, rhythmic and inclusive. That’s unique and it’s what I really like about her work.”
“We are crossing musical genres,” says Michelle. “Choral singing is so different, but actually we are both approaching the art form the same way. We are training their brains to do two, three or four things at once. Move and feel the beat, or sing in parts, We are both demanding a higher order of thinking from them – we are not dumbing down the art forms, and they are rising to that. So by the time they are working on any of the art music choral works they realize they are using things they have learnt from Ghenoa.”
“To have the opportunity to do that in a safe and supportive environment is incredibly empowering and so very different to the stereotype of many dancers you see on television.“