Francis Lawrence, a final year Parade College student of 2004 and now the Principal Dancer of New York’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, has talked candidly of his lifelong journey from Northcote to New York, in a history-making video hook-up convened by the Old Paradians’ Association.
On a day in which Parade College teachers, staff and students took a knee in supporting the Opening the Doors Foundation and the Black Lives and Indigenous Matter Movements, Francis addressed his own lifelong exposure to racism both here and in the United States – much of it levelled at him by those in law enforcement.
Reflecting on his days at Parade from his Harlem apartment in the borough of Manhattan, Francis said the memories evoked “are “really great”.
“I felt that I found a lot of my passions at Parade, from learning first of all (because I always took my studies seriously) to my first-year involvement in the school musical Pippin,” Francis said.
“There were a lot of really cool people involved in Pippin and it was where I realised I could do this as a job. It really gave me direction.
“Dance was my outlet. For a lot of other guys it was sport, but I liked to dance and I did my stuff . . . so my advice to today’s students would be to not worry about what other people say and do what you want to do.”
The son of a Calcutta-born father and New Delhi-born mother, Francis’ parents were writing buddies who actually met in Australia through the nuns. It was Francis’s Dad, himself a former student at a Christian Brothers’ School in India, who identified Parade as his son’s place of secondary education.
“That was important to him because he was an electrical engineer, was really successful in his field and he just wanted that for me,” Francis said.
“I was worried that because I was living in Northcote I might not get in (to Parade) because I was living on the edge, but I remember I had a great interview with (College teacher) Mr. Cicutto, and I think he approved . . . ”
Francis talked of his career pathway from Parade and the Australian Ballet School as a graduate through to the world-renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem – a group of dancers who perform to packed houses in various locales around the world.
As with everybody else, Francis and his fellow performers have not been untouched by these dark times, for COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t play favourites.
That said, Francis, with his passion and positivity, has still found a way.
“Dancing has been my form of income for 12 years and to now not have an income is hard,” he conceded. “Unfortunately the sports and arts areas are going to be the last to get back up and running because they’re live events and people have to sit together,” Francis said.
“It’s changed everything, but what I do now is coach people to dance and I work as a fitness trainer as well. I set a business up about a month ago and now have 12 clients, so I’m improvising . . . and I’m hoping that by 2021 the dance world will return to normal, although the world won’t return to normal until there’s a vaccine.”
In respect of the Black Lives Matter movement, triggered by the appalling death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Francis too has been terribly affected.
“I’ve experienced a lot of racism in America, but it all began in Australia where it was something I just stomached and dealt with,” he conceded.
“As I dealt with racism my whole life it’s why I felt so comfortable in coming to America and dancing for a black company, because I felt that I’d finally find a workplace where I wouldn’t have to question whether a person was talking to me like I was the gum beneath their shoe . . .
“Seeing George Floyd knelt on reminded me of my own police experiences, and for someone who’s a ballet dancer and who doesn’t go out of his way to cause trouble I’ve had 20-plus incidents with the cops – and I have written an article about this which I hope you can share.
“Until we all recognise that this is a problem then it remains a problem – a societal, cultural thing – that needs to change.”
Francis gave generously of his time for the 40-minute webinar before answering questions from a number of Old Paradians involved in the online forum – amongst them Pat Mount (1962), Noel McClelland (1962) and Dominic Spillane (1979).
Questions were also put to Francis by College teachers Jim Seymour and Maurice Petruccelli – the latter in the presence of the Year 7 Tutor Group watching on from their classroom at the Bundoora Campus.
Parade College Principal Andy Kuppe was also an interested participant in the webinar, as were past teachers and friends of the College network.
Images - @vandyphotography and OPA
"Onstage, I'm a Professional Dancer. Offstage, I've Been Racially Profiled by Law Enforcement". To read Francis Lawrence's harrowing story of his encounters with the police, the concept of "white privilege" and how he views the world, click on this link - https://www.pointemagazine.com/francis-lawrence-2646223380.html