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Saturday, 20 April 2019 12:24 am

Top Whitireia dance teacher leaves her treasure of 21 years

WOWING ITALY: Whitireia dance students in Rome during their most recent tour.

THE founder of Whitireia’s first performing arts course, Gaylene Sciascia, is saying goodbye to what has been her treasure for 21 years.

A dancer all her life, Gaylene (right) set up the polytech’s dance course – her “sixth child” as her five children often say – in 1991, focusing on Maori, Samoan, Cook Island and contemporary dance.

Demand for the course saw it grow from a one-year certificate to a two-year course to a three-year one, to an advanced diploma, and finally to a degree.

“It was an exciting time,” she says. “I think some of those struggling times help you build the spirit and the passion.”

 The focus was initially on performance, but the course has broadened its scope to include units such as self identity, dance history, performance teaching, creative enterprise management and marketing.

“I was one of the ones that wrote the degree and we did it primarily because some students needed it, like if they were going to do teaching they needed a degree.

“But I think sometimes the degree can also stifle a little bit some of the creative opportunities that we have.

”Whereas before, with opportunities they’d just take them and go. But now we’ve got to get through this and this and this.”

Gaylene studied Physical Education at Otago University and during her degree was introduced to contemporary dance, quite a new form of dance at the time, and one which inspired her.

While on a scholarship to study dance at the University of Utah, she completed a Master of Fine Arts in dance.

After returning to Otago she lectured in dance and then later set up a contemporary dance company that toured New Zealand.

Gaylene became involved in Maori performing arts through her husband, Piri Sciascia, a performer and composer who toured Europe with the Maori Theatre Trust.

Piri set up a senior cultural performing group, Tamatea Ariki Nui, which is represented both nationally and internationally, and Gaylene has been performing in this kapa haka group since 1974.

Gaylene plans to keep close to the creative vibes of the country in dance and culture: “It’s something that sort of feeds the soul and the spirit.”

She moved away from administration work at Whitireia four years ago to work more closely with the students.

She has lectured in cultural studies, creative techniques and creative enterprise.

Her students’ successes over the years include winning creative business awards, being finalists in the New Zealand Tourism Awards and being finalists in the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

“I suppose the biggest success story is when you see people come back from their wananga, from their overseas trips, and you just see the growth.”

The Bachelor of Applied Arts includes taking part in an overseas tour every year, something that began in 1993 when they went to North Korea.

This year’s students toured Italy (above), with third year students planning and managing the tour, while second years took on leadership roles on stage.

“It changes their lives having those experiences, especially if they get those three trips over three years.”

The tours are organised by the Community International Organisation for Folkloric Festivals, which pays the tour costs after the students arrive.

Gaylene says overseas audiences love the energy, passion, openness and friendliness of Whitireia students. 

“They don’t want Swan Lake or the River Dance because they can get the world’s best to do that. They want our cultural difference.”

These festivals are a way for countries to come together and get along with each other. As Gaylene says: “If only our politicians learnt to dance, we could all dance together.”

Whitireia’s performing arts group is one of the major performing arts groups that work at Te Papa, and they have also performed at the sevens games, at WOMAD and at All Blacks games.

Graduates’ careers vary from entering professional contemporary dance companies or managing cultural companies of their own, to teaching and event management.

Gaylene says she sees students’ self esteem and confidence rise and they become empowered to enter the work force.

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