Words || Sara Zarriello
Redfern station at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon. There’s a hum of voices coming from the platform and a train guard waves their red flag at an old woman huddling too close to the side of the platform. Outside the station, the streets come to life.
At a first glance Redfern is all lines and corners with tiny laneways growing weeds between cracking pavement. There’s a fork in the road, Little Eveleigh Street on the left and Lawson Street on the right. Squashed in between the two is a cafe, the Pride of Redfern. Rock music plays as a barista invites everyone in, dancing as the coffee grinds and the milk froths. As the milk overflows and the chairs rattle with the sound of reggae, a woman with a shaggy fluoro jacket and straight hair walks in. Meet Amy Zhang, general manager and dance teacher at Groove Therapy.
Focusing on street dance styles, Groove Therapy offers what they call a “judgment free” zone where people are able to express themselves without distractions and awkwardness. It invites adults to attend a range of street style dance classes in Redfern every week. Zhang credits its success to visionary founder Vanessa Marian’s dream to “bring dance to all walks of life…” It seems fitting, Redfern isn’t like anywhere else. There’s an updated old-timey charm to it. Kids still skateboard down the streets while people in technicoloured outfits with sunglasses hanging from their noses cross Little Eveleigh.
The World Happiness Report of 2019 revealed that Australia had fallen down two spots since 2016 and is now at number 11. As unhappiness rises so too does loneliness. According to the ALR, released in 2018, one in four Australian adults are lonely. Dr Robert Eres, a clinical psychologist as well as a research fellow at the Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory (SHAW) at Swinburne University, attributes a pervasive loneliness epidemic to its inherent unobservability: “It is quite difficult to see if someone is lonely just by looking at them… [It is] hard to understand when someone is lonely because everyone experiences loneliness differently.”
After Zhang ruffles her hair and takes a sip of her chai-flavoured cappuccino she proceeds, “there’s a lack of genuine connection and quality time because we are so busy.”
She hugs her mug. The table it’s resting on leans against a vintage motorcycle now cramped between her and the wall. Space seems minuscule. It would be difficult not to talk to someone here. Especially when walking past the dancing barista on his way to clean a table. It seems strange to think anyone could be lonely in a place like this.
“Loneliness is not the same as being alone or socially isolated,” writes Dr Eres, “[It] relates more to the quality of connections people have.”
The ALR defines loneliness as “a feeling of distress people experience when their social relations are not the way they would like… loneliness signals a need to form a meaningful connection with others.”
If creating meaningful and worthwhile connections between people is the answer to Australia’s loneliness problem, what’s stopping people from doing so?
“I think we’re not really taught how to reach out and communicate in the way that we used too.” Zhang stares straight forward, hardly ever dropping her eyes. She is to the point; technology has made the world both smarter and faster, but it is also disrupting the level of intimacy in human relationships.
“You can’t replace human connection.” Zhang takes another sip of her coffee. The café hasn’t quietened. If anything the American lady now talking about where and what she studied at university talks louder and the dancing barista has turned the music up. A cacophony of sound erupts.
Zhang moved to Sydney two or three years ago and shared a flat with the founder of Groove Therapy, Vanessa Marian, who had just launched the company.
“What drew me to this in the beginning was… that she was sharing [dance] with everyday people,” says Amy. Talking about their focus on street styles specifically, she notes that “when a style is founded outside of an institution there are different things people value… we value… being yourself, having fun, loving dance, being creative.”
The classes themselves focus on creating a group atmosphere, they specifically have no mirrors in their classes, and they dim the lighting. In explaining these choices, Amy reveals “you hinder your movement by judging yourself… If you are free and just feeling it that’s when you dance the best.” She continues with an analogy, “we all see that uncle [dancing] at the barbeque that’s a little too drunk that’s just feeling themselves… Not because they’re thinking oh maybe someone’s gonna think I look stupid if I get on the table and dance!” Instantly the dancing barista comes to mind.
Dr Eres digresses, “Humans are inherently social beings… without strong social connections our sense of belonging and self-worth can be compromised.” According to the ALR, 55% of the Australian population have been recorded claiming they feel as though they lack companionship sometimes. While one in four experience “high levels of social interaction anxiety.” Statistically one quarter of Australian adults are lonely, resulting in and from human connections which are not meaningful or worthwhile.
The ALR finds that people who are lonely will engage in less social interaction and have an overall poorer quality of life. Dr Eres continues, “regular exercise is particularly important because it maintains positive feelings over time… [and] can be… useful to help people connect.” Engaging in physical activities which promote social interaction may be the perfect partnership to combat loneliness in the Australian landscape.
While its title lends itself to thoughts of mental wellbeing, Groove Therapy engages on a deeper level with the mental health of its students to allow them to benefit from both a physical and mental workout. “Dance is scientifically known to be one of the best forms of exercise because it helps with physical health as well as mental health.” The sun is setting now, and the American lady talks a little slower. Amy continues after a final sip from her mug, “if you come to class there’s that sense of community, there’s the physical benefits of just moving your body… and there’s the mental health aspect… [we’re] asking you to think creatively, be open, don’t judge yourself, meet someone new… Ticks all the boxes.”
Soon enough the fluoro jacket wearing Amy Zhang walks down Lawson Street and out of sight. The kid on the bike in the picture across the street still stares through the grimy window in the café as people in suits walk across Platform 5 of Redfern station. There are more people now but it’s quieter than before. The shouting guard with the red flag is out of sight. People with earphones in their ears stand in lines facing the train tracks, zombie like. The sun is lower and as the last remaining zombies file onto the train as the doors disrupt the silence with a warning beep. They eventually close and the train pulls away from the station. Now it’s all whooshing trees and houses in the distance rushing across the train windows. The heavy silence is broken as the train arrives at another station and a group of kids get on. They laugh and sing and dance like the barista from the café in Redfern. As Amy said, “everyone should dance.” So let them dance.