‘We have become like a family’: This free dance class brings the loneliest generation together

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‘We have become like a family’: This free dance class brings the loneliest generation together

Words by Kaya Martin

On late Tuesday afternoons at a community centre in Braybrook in Melbourne’s west, boxes of cookies and fruit line the walls in case anyone gets hungry. 

There’s not much to set up other than a Bluetooth boombox. The students trickle in, hugging each other hello. Dressed in hoodies, sneakers and oversized pants, they practice their moves in the mirror while dodging playful pokes from their fellow dancers.

Watching through the windows, it looks a little like a scene from Step Up. But for some, this weekly session run by L2R Dance is more than just a regular dance class. It’s a place to connect.

Recent data shows two thirds of Victorians aged 18 to 25 feel lonely – a rapidly growing number that’s earned them the label of the ‘loneliest generation’. It’s in part due to an increase in time online and a decrease in face-to-face interactions.

A VicHealth survey of 1,000 people aged 18-25 found the majority agree socialising is good for their mental wellbeing. Those surveyed believe it’s important to be involved in offline groups, yet more than half feel like finding such groups isn’t so easy.

Not-for-profit organisation L2R Dance aims to break down barriers by offering all of its classes for free. By waiving the typical hefty price tag, the lovely folk at L2R open their arms to dancers of all backgrounds and skill levels.

Some of my best friends Ive met through L2R. It’s kind of sad because all of my friends are dancers… I dont know why I say it’s kinda sad, because honestly it makes my life more interesting,” says Emily Zdavevski.

Emily arrives early with a large iced coffee in hand – fuel to help her get through her second shift of the day. She joined L2R in 2016 as a teacher to check off her required community service hours as part of her teaching degree and she hasnt left since. She says coming to class helped her destress from the relentless university grind.

Everyone looked like they had this friendly nature and family vibe about them. I had never come into a place and itd be like everyone looks so different but everyone fits in at the same time,” she says. Also a lot of dance schools are very like, you do what you do when you’re told, but this has got that relaxed energy and everyone is welcome to add their own little spin to things.”

After a stint of volunteering, she stuck around and became a program teacher and professional dancer. As well as teaching routines and refining technique, L2R helps students navigate the Australian dance industry and find paid work. Their professional crew has  performed at Moomba Festival and Melbourne City New Years Eve, and they have also featured in campaigns with Bonds and Platypus.

I didn’t really know that dance could be like a job. I always had it as a dream in the back of my mind, but I didn’t know it was achievable. L2R has opened me up to the different communities and opportunities in dance where I can make income from it, and I can meet new people and see these new cultural styles of dance,” says Emily.

Singer, songwriter and dancer Urlik Iradukunda found out about the program a month after immigrating to Australia with his family in 2016.

In Uganda I used to be a dancer, so I was kind of missing a place where I could express myself creatively. It was only one month, but it felt like a really long time,” he says. We were in a very new country so we either were going to school and coming back home or just staying home, so it was a very good activity for me to find my crowd.”

He met up with his brother, some cousins and a few friends from language school and together, they rode their bikes to their first L2R class.

I was nervous, but I was more excited to be hanging with my friends outside of school and also finding new places where they had what I’d been yearning for.”

Urlik has been with the company for seven years now and his creative commitment shows. Although he started as an afrobeat dancer, he has now branched into hip hop, contemporary, jazz, house and musical theatre. He recently dropped his debut album Prison Of Your Love – he says he often brings his L2R colleagues in as backup singers or dancers on his projects.

The community has helped me grow in very different ways,” he tells me. Mainly for me, its having people I can relate to and who can relate to my experiences and being surrounded by like-minded individuals helps me to find inspiration in them. Also that helps me to push myself in the outside world.”

Shortly after speaking to us, Urlik will head back to Uganda for the first time since moving seven years ago. He plans to link up with the dance crew he was in as a kid and show them some of the tricks he’s picked up L2R.

It’s a very loving space where you can freely express yourself and there is a lot of encouraging going on within the L2R community, so you kind of feel like you have to be the best version of yourself,” he says, because everybody believes in you so eventually you get to believe in yourself.”

To those wanting to join a new activity or community but feeling a little shy, his advice is to go in with no expectations and to bet on yourself first.

I live my life on DND,” he laughs – Do Not Disturb. What I mean by that is you never really know what you’re doing until you try, you never really know what to expect until you try.

I feel like if you stop thinking about all of that and bet on yourself first and be like I may not be the best, but I will become the best when I get there. Through the classes, I’ll become the best. Through being around these people, theyll get to know me and we can create all these new bonds.”

At the end of class, the dancers gather in a circle. Its cypher time. They each take a turn in the middle, showing off their skills and cheering each other on. When it’s Emilys turn, they grab onto her, lifting her in the air.

People often say dance is a language in itself and we use dance to communicate,” she says. When you get to share a room with someone and dance with someone, it’s going to uplift you just that much more,” says Emily.

For more info about L2R’s dance programs, head here.

Need some more inspo for connecting with other people into the same sorts of things you are? Check out the map of free in-person activities on offer as part of VicHealths Future Healthy initiative

This article was made in partnership with VicHealth. VicHealth is the worlds first health promotion foundation focused on promoting good health and preventing chronic disease.