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One Man’s Pride: From bullied teenager to dance artist

One Man’s Pride: Chris Olwage’s remarkable journey from bullied teenager to dance artist and Mr Gay World

Six years ago, Chris Olwage never imagined he’d be performing his gender-defying blend of contemporary dance and ballet at festivals around the world.

He had never taken a formal dance class. He didn’t know much about form, or technique. But at the age of 22, he had finally realised that he loved to dance.

‘I was fascinated by the way movement can encapsulate an inner world,’ says Olwage. ‘Movement can express things that can’t be said with words, but can only be felt.’

Olwage, who rose to fame with his ‘Black Swan’ performance during the 2012 series of New Zealand’s Got Talent, is returning home next month as Unitec’s ambassador for the Auckland Pride Festival.

For Olwage, who is also the reigning Mr Gay World, representing Unitec at the festival is an opportunity to offer a positive role model for gay youth.

‘Empowering gay youth and working to prevent suicide are personal causes for me,’ says Olwage who struggled with obesity, bullying and depression as a teenager growing up in South Africa. It was only after the family moved to New Zealand in 2002, when Olwage was almost 16 that he grew to accept himself and his sexuality.

‘Coming out is a very scary process,’ says Olwage. ‘Sometimes you feel you are going to lose everything by admitting that you are the way you are. But in the end, the need to be honest outweighs the fear.’

Olwage was in his first year at university when he discovered the transformative power of movement and fitness. He trained as a group fitness instructor and a personal trainer, but soon realised that his true passion lay in dance.

With no formal training, Olwage decided he needed a crash course. In 2008, with encouragement from the renowned dance artist Tai Royal of the Okareka Dance Company, Olwage enrolled in a full time Performing Arts Degree at Unitec, majoring in contemporary dance.

‘After the first week I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into,’ says Olwage. ‘I was the only student with no formal training, most of the class had been dancing since childhood.’

Charene Griggs, Unitec’s curriculum leader for dance, says the three year degree course requires ‘exceptional dedication and commitment’ and students are selected on the basis of talent and potential. ‘Chris was passionate about dance, and this combined with Tai's recommendation earned him a place in the programme’.

Olwage had to learn a range of dance techniques from scratch, including contemporary dance, ballet, muscle and bone, and partnering. He created his own work inspired by Men in Tutus and his love of theatrical style, and was encouraged to collaborate with other students through choreography and performance classes.

The course is both physically and emotionally challenging. Passion, humility and dedication are essential, as students must develop the physical and mental fortitude required to achieve success in a notoriously disciplined and demanding industry.

Olwage dedicated long hours to practice and to perfecting his movements, training for 8 hours every day, and as many as 10 to 11 during performance season.

‘Chris is a joy to work with, his positive attitude is infectious,’ says Griggs. ‘He is a hard worker, very reliable and dedicated to his art form.’

It was not until the third and final year of the degree that Olwage caught up to the skill level of his peers. His hard work was rewarded when he graduated in 2010, the only male out of five in his original class to complete the course.

‘Chris managed to create a unique identity as an artist’ says Griggs. ‘That takes commitment, perseverance and many hours of practice. He is also a wonderful role model with a true passion to make a difference.’

After his appearance on New Zealand’s Got Talent, Olwage went on to represent New Zealand and win first place at the Mr Gay World pageant in Antwerp, Belgium, in July 2013.

The title Mr Gay World has not only given Olwage international exposure as an advocate for gay rights, but it has provided him with opportunities to take his talent to the global arts scene. Olwage has performed his ‘Black Swan’ dance at festivals in Europe and Canada, including the recent Whistler Pride Festival in January.

‘Even though the physical training can be really tough, I still feel so grateful to have a career I feel passionate about,’ says Olwage.

Olwage is equally passionate about his role as an advocate for gay youth. His experiences as a young gay man have moved him to support gay youth in New Zealand as they come to terms with their sexual identity in what can be an alien environment. He believes it’s vital to use social media and television to reach those who most need support, particularly in the smaller, more geographically isolated parts of the country.

‘While there are good face-to-face supports in the larger centres, smaller towns, or more conservative places don’t offer the same networks,’ says Olwage. ‘That can make for a very lonely place as a young gay person.”

It was his desire to be a positive role model for gay youth that led Olwage to partner with Unitec, the major sponsor of Pride Festival 2014. He’s looking forward to the Pride Parade on 22 February, when he will ride down Ponsonby Road on a rainbow rocket ship designed by V3 and Unitec students.

‘Festivals like Pride are an extension of the work we’re doing on campus and give students a deep sense of inclusion, says Matthew Farry, Unitec’s manager of equity and diversity.‘

“We don’t want our staff or students to leave any part of themselves at the gate or the car park. We want them to bring it into the classroom, and into the working environment. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the bright thing to do.”

In 2012, Unitec joined the Ally Network Programme, an initiative that aims to create a more inclusive working and learning environment by promoting greater awareness of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) staff and students. Unitec is the first tertiary institute in New Zealand to implement the programme.

“We’re proud to be the principal sponsor of the Pride Festival, supporting the Ally Network’s vision of gay and straight staff and students who want to build an inclusive working and learning environment for all,” says Merryn Statham, Unitec’s manager of partnerships and community engagement.

The 2014 Auckland Pride Festival features a gala event on Friday 7 February, The Parade and After-Party on Ponsonby Road on Saturday 22 February and the iconic Big Gay Out in Point Chevalier’s Coyle Park on Sunday 9 February. It also includes a diverse range of theatre, music, visual arts, debates, discussions, workshops and activities spread throughout the West, South and Central Auckland from February 7 – 23rd (see for more information).


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