17 January 2024

How Fresh Funk went from accidental first to Canberra institution

| Dione David
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dancers on stage

It seems like everyone knows someone who has danced at Fresh Funk. Photo: Fresh Funk.

There’s generally no more than two degrees of separation between anyone in Canberra and Fresh Funk, according to Leena Wall. It’s a source of enormous pride that brings a tear to the eye of the founder of a company billed as Canberra’s leading street and contemporary dance school.

In the 20-plus years of the business’s operations, tens of thousands of students have gone through its programs granting institutional status in the nation’s capital – but Leena reckons there are many measures of success more impressive than sheer volume.

“We’ve operated at capacity for 24 years, and most of our students stay with us at least 10 years,” she says.

“I have students who’ve been coming every week for 20-plus years. That’s just the nature of this place – people come, fall in love and stick with it.

“Everyone in Canberra knows someone who’s been to Fresh Funk.”

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The company started in 2000 in the Tuggeranong Arts Centre shortly after the not-for-profit facility launched. Leena’s exploits in student-led work at high school preceded her, and she was approached to help bring a dance offering to the beautiful lakeside studio.

At the time, Leena had begun exploring outside of her ballet, jazz and contemporary roots, delving into the hip-hop phenomenon that was already huge overseas and in other big capital cities, but hadn’t quite reached the ACT yet.

“Fresh Funk accidentally became the first taste of hip-hop in the ACT, and the original source of “street dance” was born from our modest program,” Leena says.

“People loved it because while some of our students are trained dancers who want to learn to move their bodies a different way, others come for fitness or any number of other goals. You didn’t have to have ballet training or have money behind you. This was and still is a community program.

“Our goal is to foster a love of dance and a healthy and inclusive dance environment. The style we do is something every type of body can do.”

Fresh Funk started as one weekly class of 12 kids. By term two, demand was such that Leena had to expand to two weekly classes. By term three it was three and by term four it was four and so on. Within two years, it was a fully fledged organisation that has run at capacity for more than two decades since, and been an essential part of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre program.

The 300-plus participants are generally split into classes across two streams. The “Littlies Programs” accept students as young as 18 months.

“They come with mum and dad and basically dance to the Wiggles,” Leena says. “We call them our funky monkeys and they are amazing.”

From age 10, students enter the “Performance Programs”, which cater to all levels and age groups. This includes male-only classes and a thriving adult class.

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The emphasis is on fun, fitness and friendship, but students gain a strong training foundation while learning choreography.

“Our students get a kick out of learning the kinds of routines they see in movies and video clips,” Leena says.

”We sneak in basics of all dance training but work it into a cool routine they can take home, practise in the bedroom and show their families.

“It’s really fun and it’s done to the music we all get a kick out of dancing to naturally – we just train them on how to respond to that musicality.

“Hip-hop is an active, aerobic form of dance that doesn’t necessarily require specific flexibility and above all, it inspires confidence.”

Fresh Funk dancers on stage

Fresh Funk has built an environment where students “go off” in support of each other. Photo: Fresh Funk.

For Leena, the organisation’s impact on the region has eclipsed anything she could have imagined when she took that first class of 12 students.

“I literally thought I was teaching a dance class alongside my university studies,” she says.

”I always knew teaching of some kind would be my pathway – it sounds cheesy but I love watching people grow and thrive, and dance is such a good vehicle for that. But there was no possible way to know it would grow into what it is.

“It’s this place where people discover the excitement of performance and cheer each other on. It’s not cliquey, it’s not competitive – everyone goes off in support of each other, and it’s been such a privilege to watch over the years.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Fresh Funk changed the dance landscape of the ACT over 20 years.”

For more information on Fresh Funk, visit Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

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Thank God for Leena and Fresh Funk! Well done Leena and Co.!

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