From bedridden to Latin rhythm, Nita Henry has poured her passion for dance into a new community trust that aims to bring dance to the people and in turn, bring people to the dance.
In 1995, with several Benson & Hedges Fashion Awards to her name, New Zealand designer and painter Nita Henry was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the height of her career. A plethora of drugs and frequent hospital stays followed.
“I had to restructure my whole life, which went from full on and stressful, to spending years mainly lying in bed” says Henry. “When I got better and discovered dance, it was such an exhilaration to be able to use my body again.”
Dance knocked on Henry’s door in the form of a friend who wanted moral support to learn salsa (a synthesis of European and African musical influences that originated in Cuba). Attending classes with him, Henry soon became addicted to Latin dancing and found herself immersed in the wider dance scene around Christchurch, which offers a wealth of dance parties and pub dancing events.
“Dance is such a social thing – you get to meet people in a friendly, non-threatening environment and keep fit at the same time. And it traverses all cultures because dance becomes the universal language.”
But what Henry also discovered about the dance market, was the lack of an integrated information source about dance events.
“When you belong to a dance school, you know what events your own school is holding but you don’t know what other schools are doing, so three years ago, my partner Dave and I began a free email service to notify people of events. Eventually we decided that we needed a web page, where we could post the information for people to self-monitor.”
The natural progression was to set up the recently formed Dancescene Trust, a non-profit community trust with the aim of bringing dance to a much wider audience – providing links to nationwide events and promoting all forms of dance.
To raise funds to enable this aim to be met, Dancescene held its inaugural showcase party in Christchurch in mid July. With a fashion parade, a guest appearance by international Latin dance star Oliver Pineda, and displays of various dance forms that included everything from salsa to swing, and hip hop to rock and roll, the evening ended with the audience joining the myriad of dancers on the floor to sample the pleasures of different dance experiences for themselves.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to get so many people involved. It brings people out of their usual square and gives them the opportunity to experience different styles, from beginners to advanced dancers, and whatever their age.” Some of the money raised from the party will assist a group of 18 Wanganui youngsters, who, having received accolades for their salsa and hip hop routines at this year’s Jambalaya, were invited to attend the Los Angeles Salsa Dance Congress – the biggest of its kind in the world. (Held in Rotorua, Jambalaya is the annual New Zealand festival of Latin rhythm and dance that features full-on days of dance parties, workshops, shows and a street parade.)
“We want to get people of all ages involved,” says Henry. “Dance teaches you how to interact with others, be confident with your body and encourages a healthy lifestyle. When I started, I didn’t know how to utilise my body and I wasn’t very confident, but it’s made remarkable changes to my posture and frame of mind. Dance brings joy to me and I want to pass that on to others.”
Having already been heavily involved in a voluntary capacity for Jambalaya, Henry says that setting up Dancescene was something she wanted to do for the community. Serving the community is something of a family tradition that includes her great, great grandfather, a Christchurch City Council member who received honours for his bravery in the Lyttelton volunteer fire brigade.
“Given my family background of selfless service to the community, I feel that if I hadn’t done something I wouldn’t have honoured my family.”
Work has already started on putting together Dancescene’s next major event – a summertime street carnival at one of Christchurch’s beachside suburbs, with marquees, food stalls and performances on the beach. But in the meantime, the trust’s biggest challenge at present is finding either a volunteer web designer or the funds to employ someone suitable to develop the website further.
“Through sheer determination I’ve put it all together myself so far, but I have had to teach myself everything as I knew nothing about web design to begin with.”
Having used her own money to bring Oliver Pineda to New Zealand, Henry is full of gratitude for the numerous sponsors who helped with the recent dance party.
“All these people said yes because they could see the benefit for everyone in the community. The whole project has brought the community together in such a wonderful manner and I thank them for allowing me to provide this gift.”