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Dance brings joy to Dunedin mums

Friday 30 October 2015 11:35am

The Bulletin met 2015 Caroline Plummer Community Dance Fellow Uzo Nwankpa and learned more about her maternal-baby dance project.

Uzo Nwankpa (centre) with some of the Dunedin mothers she has worked with during her time on the Caroline Plummer Community Dance Fellowship. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Uzo Nwankpa and the late Caroline Plummer would likely have been great friends.

Ms Nwankpa, who is this year’s holder of the University’s Community Dance Fellowship in Caroline Plummer’s name, agrees wholeheartedly with Caroline’s belief that dance can promote health and wellbeing.

A community health nurse usually based in the United States, Ms Nwankpa has spent the last five months on a dance project with some of Dunedin’s new mothers and their babies in a bid to prevent postnatal depression.

“Depression is the most common complication of pregnancy,” she explains. “It’s not surprising. Pregnancy brings with it a surge of hormones – you are up and then you come down. We need to be empathetic with women, educating them on its prevalence – it’s OK to cry, rather than telling them to get over it.”

Ms Nwankpa’s Dunedin dance project stems from work she has done in the United States at an emotional wellness centre for new mothers in Arizona. The centre offered alternative activities to new mothers, including aromatherapy and massage. Ms Nwankpa provided dance classes.

"I really agree with Caroline’s mission, her vision. If she were still alive, I’m sure we would be buddies. I feel like her spirit is working through me as I do this work."

Although the centre closed down due to lack of funding, her belief in the “Uzo method” of getting mothers moving and dancing remained, and the Otago Fellowship provided the perfect opportunity for her to continue to explore this idea.

However, she would not be here but for the persistence of a friend, she says.

“I was telling a friend about what I do, and my ideas about health and wellbeing through dance and movement, and she told me about this fellowship in New Zealand. I actually didn’t even look into it. Then she called again and said ‘I think you should really look it up’.

“The more I read, the more I felt that what I do is a perfect fit. So I went for it.

“I really agree with Caroline’s mission, her vision. If she were still alive, I’m sure we would be buddies. I feel like her spirit is working through me as I do this work.”

Over the course of her Fellowship, Ms Nwankpa has worked with about 30 mothers and their babies across three different groups.

Some mothers have come to every class, some to just a few.

“There is something special that happens when a mother holds their child while she dances. No matter how loud the music was, or how vigorous the movement was, these babies fell right asleep,” she says. “What more could baby want than to be with mum when she’s having a great time?”

Ms Nwankpa says even the mobile babies, who had crawled away from their mothers, came back when she started to dance.

"You always feel better after you do an hour of a form of exercise ... you leave there feeling uplifted."

“These mums were laughing and jumping around, and their babies wanted to be a part of that. It was really cool watching some of the bonding and attachment that took place in that time.”

Alongside the dance Ms Nwankpa talked with the mothers. She asked them how they felt both before and after dancing, and began to see the impact the dance was having on them. Being able to quantify the impact was important.

One mother who attended the classes at the Dunedin Parents Centre was Tania Hunter, who brought her young son CJ.

“You always feel better after you do an hour of a form of exercise,” she says. “Even if you are really tired – and I have a baby that doesn’t sleep very well – you leave there feeling uplifted.”

While it wasn’t something she would normally do, she now believes there should be more activities like this in Dunedin which mothers can attend with their babies.

“I really did enjoy it, and I appreciate what she is trying to create from it.”

For Nigerian-born Ms Nwankpa, the experience of relocating her maternal dance ideas from the United States to New Zealand has been fascinating, and has involved a steep learning curve.

“In the US I was able to measure a shift in the emotional effect of the dance just by the body language. People’s shoulders come down, there is no longer a wrinkle on their forehead … in New Zealand, not so much!” she laughs. “It is different. They body language is different. In the US people are very loud with their emotions but here they are more subtle, quiet and protected. I had learn to discern it in other ways.”

"It has meant so much to me ... I’ve been able to follow my passion and you don’t get that opportunity all the time."

But relocating has also allowed her to apply different ideas to her theories – in particular she has been heavily influenced by the Māori model of health and wellbeing “Te Whare Tapa Whā”. In this model, physical health (taha tinana), spiritual health (taha wairua), psychological health (taha hinengaro) and family health (taha whanau) dimensions must all be supported or a person may become ‘unbalanced’ and subsequently unwell.

“The Māori culture has so many correlations with my own indigenous people who are from South-East Nigeria,” she says.

“Some birthing practices are similar. And also the ways in which we view the value of the child, the value of family, and wellbeing are also quite similar. When I’ve been reading about it, it feels kind of like home.”

Ms Nwankpa will finish up her fellowship next month – with a performance at the 10-year reunion of the Caroline Plummer Fellowship.

She says her time here has been invaluable and has taught her so much. Not only about dance, health and wellbeing, but also about herself.

“It has meant so much to me. I have been able to travel, do what I love and learn about myself as I relate to the world around me. I’ve been able to follow my passion and you don’t get that opportunity all the time. It has also allowed me to grow professionally – and merge what I love and my passion with my career as a nurse.”

While she says her career will always involve dance and wellbeing, this fellowship has given her a platform to focus on it.

“It has validated it for me.”

Come to the performance:

I am Here, We are Here
Wed 25 Nov, 5.30pm to 6:30pm
Allen Hall Theatre

A performance by the 2015 Caroline Plummer Community Dance Fellow Uzo Nwankpa and the Dunedin community members. Directed by Jessica Paipeta Latton. Bringing African music and dance as mental, spiritual and physical medicine for wellbeing, Uzo Nwankpa works with community members to tackle the grief of postnatal isolation, depression and anxiety due to hormone changes and lack of support. With live music, text and choreography, I am Here, We are Here, is a tribal celebration of the power of motherhood, sisterhood, dance and community. Limited seating available.


The Caroline Plummer Fellowship Reunion:

Moving Communities conference
26 to 28 Nov 2015
Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences

Ten years of the Caroline Plummer Fellowship will be celebrated next month with a three-day international conference bringing together practitioners, academics and students to celebrate the diverse field of community dance.

The conference will be co-hosted by the Dance Studies at the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, and the Caroline Plummer Fellowship in Community Dance Committee.

Nine of the 10 people who have held the Fellowship since its inception in 2005 will attend, present keynote presentations and master classes, and participate in panels and plenary sessions to discuss and debate the current practice and future trends in community dance.

There will also be a celebratory reunion dinner hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne and the Plummer family.