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Teuila Rankin - Cu­ra­tor of Pa­cific Dance

Teuila Rankin, née Hughes, grew up in Suva, Fiji un­til her fi­nal year of high school when she moved to Auck­land, then en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Auck­land to pur­sue her ca­reer in dance stud­ies. She has col­lected impressive aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tions and ac­co­lades, with a Bach­e­lor de­gree in Per­form­ing Arts (Dance Ma­jor), Post­grad­u­ate Di­ploma in Cre­ative and Per­form­ing Arts, Masters de­gree in Cre­ative and Per­form­ing Arts and a Grad­u­ate Di­ploma in Teach­ing (Dance and Drama – Sec­ondary School) from the Univer­sity of Auck­land. She con­tin­ues to strengthen her ex­per­tise as a cur­rent PhD stu­dent in the dance stud­ies depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Auck­land while also teach­ing there. Over warm cheese scones on a rainy win­ter day, I sat with Teuila to hear tales of grow­ing up in Fiji, her in­tro­duc­tion and in­flu­ences in the world of dance and the in­ner iden­tity chal­lenge she faced be­fore em­brac­ing Pa­cific dance as her strong­hold.

You have been danc­ing since a young age - are there are piv­otal in­flu­ences that re­ally shaped your view on the art?

I started danc­ing at the age of six with a small group of girls or­gan­ised by my mum and a few other moth­ers who wanted us to learn the Samoan siva. It soon de­vel­oped into learn­ing Cook Is­land dances, Hawai­ian and we even had some Bol­ly­wood thrown into the mix. Over time, we came across op­por­tu­ni­ties to show­case our rou­tines at var­i­ous events such as wed­dings, par­ties, cor­po­rate events and even once for the Hibis­cus Fes­ti­val. This is the point where I be­gan to fall in love with the stage and the idea of per­form­ing for oth­ers. Even though those ex­pe­ri­ences have con­trib­uted to the pas­sion I now have for dance, a ma­jor shift dur­ing my early teenage years was learn­ing ‘con­tem­po­rary’ Pa­cific dance from the late Al­lan Alo at the Ocea­nia Cen­tre at USP. I was drawn to his pas­sion, pres­ence and ap­proach to Pa­cific dance. He re­ally pushed me to my lim­its in terms of mov­ing in new ways and the in­tro­duc­ing me to new per­for­mance qual­i­ties that went beyond just smil­ing (which was the only way at the time that I knew how to per­form). With that I came to ap­pre­ci­ate per­for­mance aes­thet­ics and the huge role it has in move­ment and com­mu­ni­cat­ing ideas through dance. I be­lieve my ex­pe­ri­ences with Al­lan and the val­ues he held for dance played a big part in get­ting me to where I am to­day.

Tell us about the ex­pe­ri­ence of study­ing per­form­ing arts at the Univer­sity of Auck­land - what has been the most chal­leng­ing as­pect and the most re­ward­ing as­pect?

Study­ing at the Univer­sity of Auck­land has been a mixed bag of ex­pe­ri­ences. My first year in 2008 was prob­a­bly one of the tough­est and chal­leng­ing I had to go through. I was pretty much a ner­vous wreck and had no idea what I was do­ing and where I fit­ted in terms of my danc­ing abil­ity. Be­fore be­gin­ning univer­sity, I had al­ways dreamed of at­tend­ing a dance school like the ones I saw on movies like Cen­tre Stage and Save the Last Dance. The whole idea ex­cited me be­cause it was go­ing to be at the place that would make me a ‘pro­fes­sional dancer’. I looked at the Univer­sity of Auck­land as ‘that place’ and that per­cep­tion led me to dis­re­gard, right from the start, all my Pa­cific dance ex­pe­ri­ences, ev­ery­thing that made me a dancer in Fiji, be­cause a lot of my peers were stu­dio-trained and I saw that as more rel­e­vant within the con­text. There was no way I was go­ing to cre­ate a Pa­cific piece for my chore­o­graphic as­sess­ment be­cause in my own mind I didn’t think it fit­ted. I was think­ing that to be a pro­fes­sional dancer meant mas­ter­ing the tech­niques of the com­mer­cial styles such as bal­let, jazz, and con­tem­po­rary (ev­ery­thing I saw in the movies) and Pa­cific dance didn’t re­ally count for any­thing. It was like start­ing from scratch for me; some­one with no dance ex­pe­ri­ence. This made my chore­o­graphic as­sess­ments such a strug­gle be­cause I felt I needed to come up with fancy move­ments and look ‘pro­fes­sional’. It was def­i­nitely a year where I was con­fronted with so much self-doubt that al­most caused me to drop out, but luck­ily there was still that push for me to chase a ‘pro­fes­sional dancer’ abil­ity. Look­ing back it at all and even though I didn’t re­ally achieve that dream of be­ing a ‘pro­fes­sional dancer’, do­ing fancy stage shows and get­ting my right leg ver­ti­cally into the air, I have been re­warded with so much more! I have had the op­por­tu­nity to share dance with so many dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple, in­clud­ing the el­derly, those with spe­cial needs, early child­hood, school stu­dents of dif­fer­ent lev­els, and pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ments for school dance teach­ers. All have been such hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ences in ways that showed the trans­for­ma­tive im­pacts dance can have on a per­son’s life. It is more than just ex­e­cut­ing tricky move­ments and be­ing on fancy lit stages, it is a tool to ac­cess so much more in this life. I have also had the op­por­tu­nity to travel abroad dur­ing my stud­ies. Dur­ing my third my class went on tour to China where we per­formed in sev­eral places. In my post­grad­u­ate year, we spent one month on Koro Is­land. Chore­ogra­phies were to be cre­ated by the ocean and we spent some time teach­ing at Nabasovi District School. This was so re­ward­ing be­cause I felt like I was giv­ing back to Fiji, a place that con­structed such a big part of my iden­tity. What’s also been re­ward­ing is that I have been for­tu­nate to teach along with my stud­ies right from my post­grad­u­ate year. I de­vel­oped so much more con­fi­dence be­cause of it and the op­por­tu­nity to share my ap­proach to Pa­cific dance with the stu­dents. This has been so ful­fill­ing, try­ing to break the bound­aries or stereo­types of dance and de­velop the rel­e­vance of our cul­tural Pa­cific dance prac­tices, along with other dances that are be­ing marginalised. The most re­ward­ing as­pect for me, how­ever, would have to be learn­ing so much about my­self along the way. My stud­ies made me think crit­i­cally about my iden­tity and how I per­ceived it. I have be­come so in tune with my ex­pe­ri­ences and how they im­pacted on me. Even with my rough start to stud­ies, I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate and em­brace my ex­pe­ri­ences that con­trib­uted to who I am to­day. I have de­vel­oped so much value for the con­cept of dif­fer­ence and im­por­tance of find­ing your own voice.

You were re­cently awarded a full schol­ar­ship to do your PhD in dance, how has this ex­pe­ri­ence been dif­fer­ent to your un­der­grad­u­ate and masters stud­ies?

Do­ing a PhD is a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I found that com­plet­ing my un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies was for my own de­vel­op­ment, sim­i­larly for my Masters be­cause my the­sis was based on my­self as the re­search sub­ject and an­a­lysed my jour­ney as a dancer in Fiji and at the Univer­sity of Auck­land and the trans­for­ma­tive shifts that oc­curred along the way. It was a process where I learnt so much about my­self. With my PhD how­ever, even though my re­search in­quiry has been in­flu­enced by my own ex­pe­ri­ences, it em­braces other voices rather than just my own. I am writ­ing for th­ese voices to be heard, I am cel­e­brat­ing the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives that ex­ist within our com­mu­ni­ties and I am writ­ing to strengthen our cul­tures and the be­lief sys­tems we hold within them. My topic fo­cuses mainly on Samoan dance prac­tices within the broader dis­cus­sions of ‘Pa­cific dance’, so I am bring­ing my Samoan cul­ture and the wider Pa­cific com­mu­nity that I am a part of and con­tribut­ing to de­vel­op­ing our knowl­edge and its rel­e­vance within our cur­rent so­ci­ety. At this point of my life I am lov­ing aca­demic re­search and the abil­ity to broaden my un­der­stand­ings and re­alise the end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties that dance can have within di­verse con­texts. I am hop­ing that in 10 years I would have es­tab­lished my­self as an aca­demic through var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions, par­tic­u­larly within dis­cus­sions of Pa­cific dance

and I hope at the same time to be lec­tur­ing at a Univer­sity (wher­ever it might be in the world).

What is your great­est hope for the fu­ture of dance in the Pa­cific?

My great­est hope for dance in the Pa­cific is that it will be recog­nised as a valu­able ed­u­ca­tional tool and that it will be­come an es­tab­lished sub­ject within schools and uni­ver­si­ties across the Pa­cific. I hope that one day dance will not only be recog­nised for its phys­i­cal na­ture but also for its in­tel­lec­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties of fos­ter­ing pos­i­tive per­sonal de­vel­op­ment and pro­vid­ing an aware­ness into so­cial, cul­tural, and po­lit­i­cal is­sues we are con­fronting within our so­ci­eties.

If you could go back in time seven years and give your­self a piece of ad­vice, what would it be?

I would prob­a­bly tell my­self to keep be­liev­ing in my­self and hav­ing cer­tainty and trust in ev­ery de­ci­sion that I make. I would also tell my­self that the mis­takes and fail­ures that I was en­coun­ter­ing back then were all worth it and they are ones that will even­tu­ally open doors for new and valu­able learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. I think re­cov­er­ing your­self from fail­ure is where the magic hap­pens.

What would your ad­vice be to young peo­ple in the Pa­cific who have a pas­sion for dance?

Be­lieve in your­self and be­lieve in your abil­i­ties as a dancer. I have grown over the years to learn that the western or com­mer­cial styles of dance don’t de­fine what it means to be a pro­fes­sional dancer. Don’t let the stereo­types de­fine you or limit you, find your own voice and cher­ish all of your ex­pe­ri­ences. Re­mem­ber to al­ways em­brace and ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ences that sur­round dance. Value and re­spect our cul­tural dances, pre­serve them, share them and take them wher­ever your dance jour­ney leads you.

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