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Voice of Real Australia: Love of dance builds community

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DECADES OF DANCE: Barbara Cuckson is the owner of the Rozelle School of Visual Arts which she has run for 50 years. Picture: Geoff Jones

DECADES OF DANCE: Barbara Cuckson is the owner of the Rozelle School of Visual Arts which she has run for 50 years. Picture: Geoff Jones

When I first spoke to Barbara Cuckson, the owner of Rozelle School of Visual Arts in Sydney's inner west, we were in the midst of Sydney's second round of lockdowns.

This year her dance school turned 50. She'd hoped to have a big reunion with students past and present coming along to share their stories, but COVID-19 had other ideas.

For the first time since 1971, when the school opened with just 15 students, the former Salvation Army hall the school called home was silent.

Barbara told me she believes "very strongly that everyone can dance''. Even before her school opened, she was using the "mother of modern dance in Australia"- Gertrud Bodenwieser's- teaching method to share her love of the art with others.

Barbara's father Eric Engel Cuckson was a political refugee from the second World War. He and his family arrived in Australia in 1949 and set up a zipper and machinery factory in St Marys in Sydney's west.

But the factory wasn't just a factory. Eric Cuckson also supplied social activities and housing for the workers. He invited Gertrud Bodenwieser, who'd also escaped the holocaust, to set up a school in his factory.

It was there, in her father's factory, Barbara learned to dance and began her journey as a teacher at just 14, when Gertrud passed away. When her father's ill health forced him to sell the factory, the dance school needed a new home.

Rozelle is now a trendy suburb but when Barbara set up her school it was known to be working class. It was full of people who'd migrated from Greece and Malta as well as poor Australians.

Coming from a refugee background herself, the area resonated with Barbara. "That was the sort of people I'd come from, poor people with high aspirations and a lot of energy and hope, and that was what Rozelle was like," she told me.

Now restrictions are lifted, and once again students are passing through the doors of Rozelle School of Visual Arts.

"People always say that when they walk in the door they feel like the world outside doesn't exist and they leave behind all their problems. And that's exactly what it's like," she tells me.

"How privileged I've been to be able to do that, and be part of the Rozelle community, for so long."

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