I often get asked what drives me.
I find this a particularly complex question (even though most people who ask seek a simple answer!) as there’s so much scope to what keeps me motivated, passionate, curious and steadfast.
The simple answer would be stubbornness. I simply refuse to believe that I am incapable of doing something, even more so if someone tells me I can’t.
This could be my Taurean nature, or the influence of my strong, independent mother, or perhaps that my family are migrants and had to work so much harder to make a new life for themselves on foreign ground – suffering discrimination, hardship, isolation and uncertainty.
I come from a family of stoic Dutch women. My Oma physically survived World War II, although the psychological trauma of it has stayed with her for her entire life, shaping her as the matriarch of our family – an authoritative and strong-willed woman who had to leave her family, country, language and customs as she followed her husband to the other side of the world.
My mother was born in Holland, but at 18 months old, endured a 6-week journey with her parents on an overcrowded boat from Europe to Australia, with everyone suffering from seasickness and dysentery along the way and not knowing whether they would even survive the journey. When they finally arrived in Australia, what they encountered was a barren, underdeveloped land that was in stark contrast to their beloved city of Amsterdam.
They were some of the first waves of migrants to Australia, and were often called “bloody new Australians” by the locals (many of whom were ironically descendants of convicts from Great Britain). Migrants were initially responsible for doing the hard manual labour (despite in my Opa’s case being a qualified architect) until they could get a grasp of the language (which was not at all like the British English they had studied in school!) and form a network to support themselves in their new home.
When I was in my early twenties, I lived in Rio de Janeiro for 2 years, and those were some of the most challenging days of my young life. Knowing that I would eventually return home was mainly what kept me going (as well as my dance studies and sense of adventure!), so I cannot begin to imagine how my grandparents felt arriving in a land they knew little about, with the intention of creating a new life and leaving behind their entire family, language and way of life.
My Opa often told the story about how, after the end of the war, much of Holland was destroyed and he saw no future there for his young family. Being an architect, he wasn’t allowed to leave the country, as they needed as many skilled professionals as possible to rebuild the nation, however he couldn’t bear the overwhelming task ahead, nor the general atmosphere of loss and despair that surrounded him.
Determined that his family would have a brighter future, and with the image of a sunburnt country with sweeping beaches, vivid oceans and tropical rainforests at the forefront of his mind, he marched himself into the Australian Embassy in Amsterdam to request a visa, and was subsequently escorted outside with a Big Fat NO. He remained there, on the steps outside the embassy, until the end of the day, and returned the very next day to do exactly the same thing. This continued for 2 long weeks, until eventually the embassy staff realised he wasn’t going to give up and so they relented and he gave him his visa.
How is that for determination?!
I often think of what my life may have looked like had I been born in Holland. Growing up in sunny Queensland, I had a blissful childhood climbing trees, swimming in the ocean, going camping by the beach with my family and playing lots of different types of outdoor sports. To this day I am drawn to coastal cities and the ocean, and crave sunshine and nature for relaxation, inspiration and grounding.
My mother had a harder time growing up here, as she was the main translator for her family, and always felt like she had one foot in Holland and one foot in Australia, but never quite fitted in anywhere. Interestingly, this is how I feel about Australia and Brazil, even though I don’t have an ounce of Brazilian blood in me!
During my teens, I went to a private all-girls school where I was bullied for being the teacher’s daughter. Despite doing quite well academically at school and excelling at sport, for whatever reason I wasn’t accepted into the ‘cool groups’ and spent most of my high school days playing sport or studying alone. When I was elected house captain by popular vote, I was accused of having my mother rig the vote and suffered even more bitchiness and ridiculous boycotting by my peers.
I suspect that my high school days were what set me up for my aversion to the hierarchy of the corporate world (along with a good dose of my Opa’s strong will!), and that this is where the seeds were planted for me to one day have my own business.
Being surrounded by ‘rich girls’ who were given everything from cars to credit cards and designer clothes by their parents definitely opened my eyes to the possibilities of wealth, but my hard-working, middle class parents made sure that I learnt the value of money by ensuring I always had a part-time job to pay for my own things.
Looking back, I believe these years fuelled my desire to prove to myself that I could achieve everything I wanted in life on my own, without having to rely on my parents or a partner.
University was a breath of fresh air where I could finally let my hair down, not have to follow so many rules and meet a new group of eclectic and multicultural friends who introduced me to the world of clubbing, world music, interracial relationships and Salsa dancing (which ignited my love of all things Latin!)
My first heartbreak was a Latin boy (of course!) who was still hung up on his ex-fiancé and was struggling with adapting to the Australian culture after seeking asylum from South America. His mother treated me poorly, despite me learning Spanish at university and trying very hard to communicate with her. It was my first experience with a controlling, judgmental mother-in-law, but of course in hindsight, she was suffering immensely at having to give up her country and family, and feared I would take her only son and support system away from her.
My second boyfriend was from Rio and despite us falling madly in love, we faced so many cultural barriers, including, you guessed it, his controlling and jealous mother, that we just couldn’t make it work in the long run. She did some pretty mean stuff to me, including sending me to a Catholic convent for girls in Rio to try to get me out their lives (can you believe it?!), and eventually she wore me down so much that I ended it, although we all (including her) suffered immensely from the stress, tension and ultimate heartbreak of the situation. Again, looking back with maturity and compassion, she was just a mother trying to stop her son from migrating to Australia and ‘abandoning’ his family in Brazil.
My next relationship was the most passionate yet catastrophic I have ever been in (and will ever allow myself to endure). We met on the dance floor in Rio, dated for 3 months, moved in together after 6 months and decided to get married after that. My poor parents almost had heart failure when I announced the news to them over webcam, and subsequently introduced them to my husband-to-be in the same conversation. I was 23 and he was 38. I spoke English and he spoke Portuguese. I had never been married and he had 2 children to 2 different women.
Oh how my parents must have felt! But of course, you don’t think about any of that at the time.
We had some great moments in Rio together, travelling far out into the more isolated suburbs where I experienced the grass roots of Samba – Pagode nights (a slower, more ballad-like form of Samba music) where we danced to live music until daybreak. We frequented slums where they held Funk parties (an underground form of Brazilian rap music) and where we were surrounded by locals dancing with their AK47s in one hand and a beer in the other. (I was actually more curious than scared as I couldn’t understand at the time why people would need to carry guns at a party!) How innocent was I?!
On weekends we danced all night at Carnival Samba schools, slept all day and did it all over again the following night. We also went to some incredible hole-in-the-wall dance studios in Lapa, the main Samba district of Rio, where we danced beautiful local dance styles such as Samba de Gafieira, Bolero, Soltinho and Lambada. It really was so magical to discover a whole new world of dance.
I was so young and so impressionable, and thought this was all a spectacular adventure until one day I ended up in a Rio hospital (trust me, you NEVER want to go to one) with a kidney infection. I had been dancing so much in the evenings, running from one side of Rio to the other teaching English at corporate companies from 7am to 7pm during the week, and spending the entire weekends at Samba events across the city until the early hours of the morning.
I was exhausted, my health was shot, and suddenly I was faced with the reality that I was all by myself in a country that wasn’t mine and had been running my health (and finances) to the ground. I missed my family and the standard of living that I was accustomed to in Australia (you can only slum it for so long!). It was time to go home.
The following two years are still a bit of a blur. In summary, I ‘imported’ my husband into Australia, we set up a dance studio together and everything just went downhill from there. He didn’t want to learn English, wasn’t interested in getting to know my family and friends, didn’t want to get a job (besides dance teaching) and started to be emotionally abusive.
He accused me often of cheating on him (although I later found out he was the one sleeping with a bunch of our students) and would whisper the most horrible insults into my ear when we were in middle of performing, making me freeze up and dance like a robot due to the stress, and then would lay into me even more once we got off stage for having embarrassed him.
During rehearsals, he was so physically rough with me, often dropping me on my head or violently leading me into the next move, that I now have permanent neck and back injuries. He constantly put me down for being too tall, not being flexible enough, not being fit enough, not having a Brazilian body, not having classical dance training…the list went on.
Some of crazy moves we used to do for performances!
He used to yell at me in Portuguese in front of our students, saying that they wouldn’t understand so he could say what he wanted, and pranced around like he was the Master of Brazilian Dance of the entire world. What a charmer.
Students stopped coming to classes (who could blame them?), people stopped hiring us for gigs and many of my friends couldn’t bare seeing me treated like that and felt that the only thing left for them to do was to remove themselves from my life in an attempt to make me wake up.
One of his dance moves that caused so many back/neck injuries.
My poor parents were so terrified for me that they even had their Will changed, removing me from it in case he tried to go after their finances. I stopped talking to my only sister, as she absolutely hated his guts and couldn’t stand the fact that I continued to go back to him after every fight, and I lost so much weight and even more self-confidence that I was utterly broken.
The nail in the coffin for me was the fact that even though I had spent 12 months training with the very best Samba Queens and passistas in Rio before coming to Australia (many of whom were his friends and he had personally organised the dance classes with them for me), once we got to Australia he prohibited me from performing Samba, saying that guys would leer at me and that I looked like a ‘slut’ in my beautiful new costume (my very first that I had bought in Rio with my hard-earned cash).
I just couldn’t understand how someone could switch so suddenly, from a passionate dancer in Rio encouraging me to learn and grow, to a controlling, abusive and jealous husband.
I was so proud of my very first Samba costume!
It was a very dark time, and the only time I ever considered ending the pain, suffering and ultimate failure I felt like by taking my own life.
When I finally gathered the courage to end the relationship (in spectacular fashion mind you, throwing his clothes over my balcony like in a Hollywood movie!), I felt absolutely empty. A shell of myself.
I couldn’t remember who I was. What I liked to do. What made me happy. Why I even danced.
It took me an entire year before I could listen to music again, and another still before I could go back on the dance floor. Every time I listened to music I would cry. Every time I thought about dancing I would cry. I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning.
Exercise saved me.
Every time I felt sad, I would march myself off to the gym. I would lift weights and cry. I would take a yoga class and cry. Everyone in the gym would try not to stare at me but they all knew I was a HUGE MESS. I didn’t care. It was better than being at home in my room stuffing my face with food. I was determined that if I was going to be sad, I was not going to be fat as well!
It was only when my friend Debby, who owned a well-known Salsa studio in Brisbane, got so sick of my moping and down-and-out attitude and decided to run a Zouk Lambada course (with me as the teacher), that things started to look up.
At first I said no. Of course I can’t teach Zouk – I don’t have a partner. I don’t want to dance it again, it brings back too many awful memories, I don’t want to be close to another person in a dance hold again bla bla bla. She took none it.
You are starting next week and I will be your partner.
But you don’t dance Zouk Deb!
No, but I dance Salsa and I teach the male lead, so I’m sure I can learn Zouk. Show me the moves and I will work it out.
This woman (who also happens to be Dutch!) kick-started my dance career again. I slowly began to build my confidence, connect with positive people and be valued for my work. People began to trust me again, students returned and my mojo started to reappear.
But was I ever going to feel the passion for Brazilian dance again and return to Rio?