“I’m a very, very busy guy, and the truth about it is that I sometimes look at my diary and go, ‘Oh, God’, and I drive to these things thinking, ‘Yeah, here we go’, but it’s actually, honestly, the best hour of my day every time I ever do one.”
So says Jason Coleman, the man behind Ministry of Dance, a former country kid who grew up to become one of Australia’s most successful dance entrepreneurs. And “these things”? The classes he now takes with kids at small regional and outer suburban dance schools. Sessions that he hopes will inspire young dancers living outside of the inner city, far away from the readily accessible opportunity and expertise, to keep believing.
It is a path, a struggle, he knows well. As a young boy growing up on the Mornington Peninsula south of Melbourne, Coleman was an oddity — the guy doing ballet. However, once a year, a rep from The Australian Ballet would come down to Rosebud to take a class. “I can’t tell you how, as a young man and the only boy in my school at that time, how this amazing man who was colourful and successful inspired me,” Coleman recalls.
Then, five years ago, Coleman came to understand that he had become that man. He recounts meeting one particular boy. “He looked up at me, and I had this sort of visceral moment and I thought, ‘Wow, I have become that very inspiration that fired me up.’ It was a really incredible epiphany for me.”
Since then, he has dedicated six weeks a year to teaching kids in the country and outer suburbs, carving time out of a packed schedule (which includes running a huge business and producing multi-million dollar shows in Abu Dhabi) to go right back to the grassroots.
It’s not just about the easy dazzle of visiting celebrity and associated role modelling, however. As Coleman explains, “I also invite the parents along because most of them just drop their kids off at dance school and think it’s a just a hobby, and they don’t understand all the other major benefits that are going on. Major life skills: hard work, dedication, passion, repetition, friendship, confidence. You know, I believe that these things help them to make better choices about drugs and parties and boys and other things in their lives.”
In an era of health awareness and ballooning waistlines, an age of sedentary digital natives, Coleman argues passionately for the all-round benefits of dance, not the least of which is psycho-emotional. “Dancing is very cathartic because you’re in your mind and your body at the same time,” he says. “You know, I run the largest dance enterprise in the country and all sorts of other stuff, but the best part of my day is still that hour in the studio.”
Having visited schools in places like Morwell, Echuca, Wodonga and Shepparton, he is also re-encountering attitudes that he himself confronted as young boy. “There is definitely a different perspective for boys out there in the country, as there was for me personally with my own dad,” he recalls. “I definitely encroach upon that.”
He reveals that he recently called one boy’s father to assure him that not only are there possible careers in dance, but that it also has lifelong physical and mental health benefits. Moreover, he recalls a particular experience from his own childhood. “There was this one kid, I still remember his name, and he punched me, called me a poof every time I walked past him, and every day on the bus he really hassled me; and I used to look at this kid and say, ‘Do you know what’s going to happen? I’m going to grow up and I’m going to get to do what I love and I’m going to travel the world and be rich and famous.’ And guess what happened?”
But of course, not every dancer can be rich and famous, and not every kid will become a professional dancer. So, aside from pushing the kids hard physically in his classes, Coleman considers that he is also helping to tune them mentally. Indeed, at its core, he contends that there is something bordering on the profound about the practise of dance. “A good performer is actually channelling,” he declares. “You’re not conscious of yourself, you’re actually giving; and that in itself makes it almost like a religion. You know, it’s the only time in my life when I’m a hundred percent giving. When I’m selfless.”
This alone may be reason enough for a very busy man to take long drives to teach kids he doesn’t know in rooms a million miles from the high profile glitter of the Ministry of Dance. Because it’s not always about stars.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.