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.