Dancer, choreographer, educator and researcher Nefeli Tsiouti is dedicated to mastering all aspects of her craft and creating a better future for the next generation of artists.
She took a brief break from her current hectic schedule on a world tour with Project Breakalign – a dance science enterprise focused on preventing injuries in breakdancers – to share some of her experiences, thoughts, advice and ambitions with Georgina Butler.
Nefeli Tsiouti was born in Sydney, Australia, and has double nationality: Australian and Cypriot (Greek-Cypriot). When she was two years old her family returned to Cyprus, where she lived until she turned eighteen. Nefeli began taking classical ballet classes when she was nine. By the time she was fifteen, Nefeli was also learning contemporary and jazz dance technique and had experienced a year of hip-hop dancing. She simply loved to dance!
Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three, Nefeli lived in Athens, Greece. Although disappointed to narrowly miss out on winning a place to train professionally at the Greek National School of Dance, she eagerly completed a Bachelors degree in French Language and Literature at university while also working as a dancer and dance teacher. During this time, Nefeli started ballroom dancing but just a year into forging a professional career she sustained an injury that prevented her progressing. Unfortunately, this was not to be the only time that an injury would curtail Nefeli’s desire to dance. Only a year after rehabilitation, she rediscovered the hip-hop culture and began training in breaking, adopting the name Bgirl sMash. Ten months later, in 2007, she suffered a severe shoulder injury. She was forced to stop dancing immediately and underwent surgery in 2008.
In 2009, aged twenty-three, Nefeli moved to London to do a Masters degree in Choreography at Middlesex University, graduating in 2011. While studying, she formed hip-hop dance theatre company Scope Dance Theatre – enabling her to showcase her choreographic skills and perform alongside her dancers. Besides choreographing, Nefeli has been a lecturer in Dance in colleges and universities across London since 2011 and a freelance sports massage therapist for dancers since 2015. Currently completing a Masters degree in Dance Science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (supported by no less than three scholarships), Nefeli has devoted many years of independent research to the sector. In 2013, she founded Project Breakalign – a venture comprising a team of dance and medical specialists who are on a mission to reduce injuries among dancers.
Project Breakalign aims to offer conditioning, strengthening and injury prevention education to dancers (specifically breakers) through the Breakalign Method. The rationale behind the project was the fact that breaking has no established way, or step-by-step sequence, of being taught so it can cause frequent and chronic injuries. As research around breaking and hip-hop dancers in general has been very limited, the team behind Project Breakalign combine and adapt dance science and sports science research. Their approach is based on breaking technique and aims to prepare the body physiologically, biomechanically and artistically for the moves the style requires.
Nefeli and her Project Breakalign team are traversing the globe at the moment giving workshops, partaking in panel discussions and spreading the word about safe dance practice to b-boys and b-girls everywhere. Happily, she managed to set aside some time to answer a few questions!
Why dance? What is it about dance that excites you?
It’s what I’ve known since I was nine. That’s more than twenty years now for me. It’s a lifestyle and you get to love it so much that it becomes part of you. If I stop dancing, a part of me will change, and I am not sure I am ready for that. Age is definitely a number.
What excites me is that you keep developing. It doesn’t matter how professional you have become, how many companies you have toured with, how many mentors you have had. You keep developing every single day and you keep mastering your craft day after day. This has an effect on your personality as well. It’s a constant chase of your dreams. You can’t get bored, and time is never enough.
Your dance journey so far has certainly been busy, varied and not without its difficulties. How did you get to where you are today working as a dance scientist, dance educator and dance academic?
Hard work. I never did an undergrad in dance. I tried to get in the state dance school in Athens [Greek National School of Dance] with only twenty places and two hundred applicants, and I didn’t make it. I was eighteen at the time.
Vocational dance school is not the only way. Hard work can be done in alternative ways too. I was disappointed I didn’t get in the school and went through a small period of depression after that, as I thought that my life was over and I would never be a dancer. But I was eighteen. I saw reality a bit after. I saw that there is always a way. I knew that it would not be easy but I was willing to put in the work.
I studied French Language and Literature because I was good with languages and pretty fluent in French already. My parents wisely advised me to have something alongside dance in case I ever get injured, to ensure longevity in my career. Really, when I was younger I always wanted to become either a dancer or a doctor.
I have ended up having a completely spontaneous and unique career!
Do you still get much opportunity to dance yourself now that you are an established teacher and academic?
Yes, I train breaking consistently four times per week. While travelling it is a bit hard but I make it happen.
I teach a lot and I also take workshops from other teachers while I travel. I will always be a student no matter what. I don’t go to regular dance classes in London per say, that I don’t do, but I go to the training sessions we have and I also train with my coach DJ Renegade around two to three times per month.
In my bachelors I learned how to teach and teaching methodologies. Also, in my Masters in Dance Science we have touched upon teaching methodologies and it is something we have developed with my project the last few years too. I have definitely invested in my teaching methods. And it is very clear “good dancer” does not mean “good teacher” and vice versa. Teacher, dancer, choreographer, judge/critic – they all require different qualities. And they all need different critical thinking and development. That is not to say someone cannot do everything, but each require different qualities.
You seem just as passionate about academics as you are about dancing itself. What do you enjoy about speaking as a dance educator and researcher?
I love lecturing. It’s like being the queen of the stage, doing your solo, but verbally. I am very expressive when I lecture. This is especially so when I am doing regular lectures and I get familiarised with my students.
I love doing it because I know what I am talking about. I never pretend to know everything, but what I do know, I can elaborate on and really offer knowledge to my students, or audience. My purpose always has been, with project Breakalign, to create new work. To go to places where other research hasn’t gone yet. I can say with confidence that we are there already, but we have such a long way to go too.
One lecturer, Christina Kostoula, particularly inspired me. She was my supervisor for my first masters in Choreography. I can write a book about how she teaches. She teaches you how to be ethical about your work. How to be genuine and believe in what you preach, not follow a system. Without her I would have kept on being a young rebellious hip-hopper with not enough substance backing up my attitude. She mentored me for years and she is now a good friend. She is one of the best people I have met in my life. And educated beyond the roof and the sky.
Your current research interests are centred around injury prevention. Have you always been interested in anatomy?
I lectured for a few years in choreographic laboratories, choreographic composition, how to create movement material and dance work. I also taught breaking from a prevention of injuries perspective and gave prevention of injuries lectures and a series of workshops with different themes, touching upon all the elements that can affect a dancer.
My serious injury I obtained from breaking in 2008 is what led me in getting this extensive interest in the body and how to prevent injury. It has been a bumpy road since my operation and it will always be. But, I have found ways through my research to keep myself consistent and happy with what I can do while also aiming to keep defying it every day and working harder for more.
I always wanted to be a dancer or a doctor. Now I am a little like a doctor for dancers and I also dance, so it seems like your life trajectory takes you to places you never would have imagined. And, sometimes, what hurts us will bring a brighter day later on. We just have to keep at it, keep working hard and have faith that there is a bigger purpose for us. But it takes time to discover it and build it. Other times it’s in front of us and we just can’t see it.
You set Project Breakalign up after injuring yourself as you wanted to ensure other dancers had the knowledge to learn to dance safely. How proud are you of how this endeavour, which was inspired by such a low point in your dancing life, has progressed?
I came up with the idea for Project Breakalign in 2012 but I was scared to talk to anyone about it, scared someone would steal my idea. Then I realised I will never help anyone if I keep it all to myself and I started talking to the right people. In March 2013, I put together the initial team members (8 of us) and the journey started.
My baby is now a young adult! I am super proud. I put too much work into this, and I still do every single day. No day goes by that I don’t work on it – I now suffer from workaholism. But I am also super proud of the people who have invested in it and the organisations who either support us or fund us, it means that the work is legitimate and it speaks for itself.
But the vision was always to help the communities of dancers that haven’t had help yet, specifically b-boys and b-girls (breakers), and in the near future more hip-hop dance styles. We are yet to go to deprived communities to help the young people that need us the most. The work needs more development to get there and the funding is not enough to sustain this at the moment, but I am definitely working on it, and some amazing people from the breaking scene are helping my vision become reality. Because it’s not mine anymore, there are many out there who want to help. But some of us have acquired the right tools and education, so if we don’t do it, who will? It’s not a race, but someone has to lead.
I hope you are proud of yourself as well as Project Breakalign in its entirety. You have achieved so much and been awarded numerous scholarships – including the Lisa Ullmann Travelling Scholarship Fund, which supports individuals in their dance journeys.
Yes, that was the first big thing I was ever awarded. I was so happy and have been since the day I found out the news!
What is next for Project Breakalign?
The current Project Breakalign tour is stopping off at hip-hop events in Slovakia (Catch the Flava Breaking Camp, Outbreak), Holland (The Notorious IBE) and Italy (Massive Camp). Here, we will reach out to the dancers themselves with lectures, panel discussions, workshops and manual therapy treatments.
Then after that I am heading to Brazil, Los Angeles, Arizona, Canada and Hong Kong for dance medicine and science conferences, where I will present my research on breakers, teach the Breakalign Method workshops, perform two solo pieces I have made in relation to some health conditions, and also present a poster of the research in some of them.
After this tour, I need the next few months to finish writing up the research and analysing all the data to start publishing it. I also have to finish the making of the conditioning programme the Breakalign Method in order to start teaching it as a curriculum around the world to the community. In the meantime, I am also looking for a project manager. Someone with a business background who can help me set the project up in a better way to create more job opportunities for breakers and make it more sustainable for me and the people in the team. After all, it’s all about creating a better future.
How would you describe your work? What roles do you feel that you can identify with?
Recently, I was invited onto a panel discussion called “Quality Control in the Breaking Scene” in Holland, where we were described as entrepreneurs. I hadn’t realised it but because of the work I have created for Project Breakalign, I can be fairly called an entrepreneur.
However, I would never introduce myself as that, it sounds too business-y for me and this is why I want someone else to deal with the business side of Project Breakalign. It’s important for me to keep developing the artistic side and stay close to the artists. In this way, I stay relevant to their needs because I am still active.
Dancer, always, can’t stop. Lecturer yes indeed, I love it, but it is not very consistent. I have been trying to get a permanent lecturing job at a university but it hasn’t arrived yet. Some people judge from my social media and think it is all sunny days, but the backstage reality is a bit different. I am a dance scientist and researcher and, nowadays, this takes most of my time in the day and I love it. But it pays no bills unfortunately, at least not too many.
How would you describe yourself to a total stranger?
Depends on where I am and the context that I meet them! Professionally, I would introduce myself as a dancer and researcher/dance scientist. In a more casual context, I would say I am a dancer (I guess some things never change), educator and hard-working change maker.
I’ll never stop working hard until I feel like I fulfilled my dreams and goals, and we all know goals keep transforming, so I think I will just never stop. It’s who I am.
I come from a very hard-working family, it’s the only way I have known since I was a child. I think that as my father was a doctor who was getting calls at random times in the day and night to go heal sick people, it was always the norm to me that we have to always work and always be alert. And seeing the good things he did for people’s health, I always wanted to be like him and help improve people’s lives, to help them live longer and better.
What advice would you like to give to anyone who needs a boost to help them focus, be positive and get somewhere in dance (as a student, performer, researcher)?
Stop looking for the easy way out. Work hard and create your own pathway. There are enough possibilities for everyone to create their own future on this planet. Don’t copy and be genuine with what you do.
To do that you have to give yourself time to develop who you are and really get to know you, find your identity. Not just in your dancing, but in all the endeavours that you are involved in.
*Photographs of Nefeli Tsiouti by Peter Muller, We Own Cameras, Kien Quan Photography, and Pawel Katny.
Learn more about Project Breakalign by visiting the YouTube channel.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.