Dance in Palmerston North: A Cultural Melting Pot
By Tania Kopytko
Manawatu has always been a strong multicultural, migrant region. From the 1870s the early settlers brought their dance – the Danish, English, Scottish and Irish, and there is still a strong tradition of Scottish and Irish dance. The arrival of Chinese market gardeners saw the beginnings of a now strong Chinese community. Since the 1960s, Massey University has created a blossoming of cultural groups as international students from Africa, Asia and the Pacific come to study science and agriculture. During the 1990s, IPU New Zealand Tertiary Institute, a Japanese and New Zealand tertiary educational institution based in Palmerston North, established dance groups and the nationally known Kodama Taiko Drumming group.
The longest dance whakapapa comes from our tangata whenua, the Rangitane, who like all iwi are now deeply engaged in regional and national kapa haka competitions (locally held in March). These groups are creating new innovative work out of their unique traditions.
Palmerston North has also become the home of many waves of refugees and migrants since WW2, bringing dance from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, Latin America, the many cultures of Asia, and more recently Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.
There are many opportunities to see these groups showcase their culture through the medium of dance. In March, the annual Festival of Cultures is held in the central gardens of The Square. Instigated in the 1990s, it programmes over 30 different cultural performances, as well as food and craft areas. The IPU Cherry Blossom Festival held in September each year focuses on Asian dance and this year the 12th annual Pasifika Fusion Secondary School competition was held in July. These diverse dance performances represent an affirmation of local heritage with huge public support and interest.
The studio sector in Palmerston North started around 1919 when performers from the famous Australian J.C. Williamson touring company found themselves without variety show and dance work, as the popularity of cinema quickly grew in New Zealand and Australia. A few of these women – Cicely Tabor-Gregory, Jean Muir and Gwen Gibbs – stopped off in Palmerston North to start the first studios. They in turn trained some of our current senior studio teachers, who have gone on to inspire and train our current new generation of studio teachers.
With such strong foundations, Palmerston North has continued to attract new, diverse genre, dance teachers. Dance activity in the studio scene is thriving with the Dance NZ Made schools competition held in October, the many annual studio recitals and numerous community dance group performances filling the city’s dance calendar. Hip hop in Aotearoa has dominated the world stage for many years, and Palmerston North is no different with Anomaly Dance Studio’s Tribesman Crew placing 3rd at the recent Hip Hop Unite World Championships held in The Netherlands.
With at least three ballroom studios now in the city, plus Ceroc, Salsa and other Latin forms, the social dance sector is growing; and with it, the development of new initiatives to include people of all ages. There are also many special community dance projects providing opportunities for people with disabilities, mature dancers, refugees and migrants to participate in dance.
Palmerston North has had a long-standing supportive relationship with the ballet company ever since local dance supporters undertook well-appreciated fundraising in the early 1970s for Poul Gnatt’s embryonic New Zealand Ballet Company. On 3 October 2016, the Palmerston North Dance Association (PNDA) celebrated its 40th anniversary with a superb gala performance, featuring guest performers from the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the PNDA Senior Ballet Championship. This was part of the larger annual PNDA competitions event, attracting young dancers from around the country. On 20-22 October 2017, Palmerston North hosted the 41st year of the PACANZ National Young Performer Awards co-hosted with PNDA and Manawatu Performing Arts Competitions Society.
The PNDA, whose patron is Sir Jon Trimmer, like many other dance groups in the Manawatu, demonstrates a long- standing commitment for dance in the area. Comprised of dance supporters and studio teachers, PNDA exemplifies the huge volunteer effort that sustains all the diverse local dance organisations and activities that happen here.
It’s heartening upon my return to Palmerston North to see the region committed to dance. It is certainly a city a-buzz with dance, a cultural melting pot as is fitting for a city that carries a long, diverse, tradition of dance.
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