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Dancing through the darkness

Charlie Wan’s story is one of beating all odds. Describing their life as ‘colourful’, Charlie will tell you they have lived several different lives in their lifetime, writes Hannah Head.

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TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of sexual assault

Subsdance Dance Studio owner, Charlie Wan, has built a queer, accepting utopia, far removed from the life they once lived.

Coming from a broken home and a low socio-economic background, the Chinese-Hong Kong drag star describes their childhood in one word: rough.

“Essentially, I was trafficked. As a teen, I was involved in both consensual and non-consensual sex work.”

Clawing their way out, the studio owner is often compared to a rescue pit bull. A difficult start, a bit tough looking and very soft on the inside. 

“I think my past has really built up my tenacity. I really don’t buy into the whole learning from terrible life experiences. I would have learnt a lot more if I got to experience a proper childhood. I think silver linings are bullshit created to stop people from changing the system.”

Having had experience teaching exotic dance, Charlie yearned to find a community that they could be a part of. That’s when they found the Subsdance Dance Studio in Canberra.

“I basically called the owner, Kate, and begged to dance in front of her,” says Charlie. “We ended up developing quite the friendship and when Kate decided to sell in 2019, buying the studio was a no-brainer.”

Being over a decade old, Substance Dance Studio has transformed under its new ownership. Moving away from competitive dance, Charlie wants their studio to be about freedom.

“It’s not about being the best. It’s about having a space that allows people to have pride in who they are and how they move – regardless of body, gender, sexuality, and identity.”

The Subsdance Studio is comprised of two distinct spaces. The Sunlight studio is for joyful dance styles that would be seen in the day i.e. Zumba, Afro beats, Chinese classical and hip hop. Whereas the Moonlight studio is for ‘dance after dark’ including burlesque, lap dance and stripFIT. Both spaces focus on encouragement and acceptance and aim to create a safe environment for the 350+ participants to take part.

Representation continues to be a key goal for Charlie Wan, who states how important it is for the studio to actively promote open and welcoming spaces. 

“People who sit outside the norm have always been here and we will continue to exist. Just our existence alone makes us entitled to having a safe space. I am deaf in one ear. I have an autism diagnosis. It should not be a special thing to be inclusive. It is the bare minimum.”

With these values at the forefront, Charlie is setting new standards in the dance community, ensuring their events are as accessible as possible, including an AUSLAN interpreter. 

“We want this to be the space in which our community can come together. Where people can heal, explore their identity, and be free of judgement. I feel so lucky that I get to be a part of that.”

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