A new start after 60: ‘African dance helped me escape the bullies. Now I teach it’

Lifestyle

In Africa, when a baby is born, you dance. When you reach puberty, you dance.” Genny Jones grew up in Sierra Leone, and her childhood was full of “reasons to dance”. At 15 she moved to the UK and still, she says, “Dance was always at the back of my mind.” This year, shortly after her 60th birthday, Jones qualified as a teacher of African dance.

“My plan is to be a mobile Genny, going different places, stopping, dancing … I want to give back to the community, to lift people up through dancing and laughter,” she says. She already has the wheels, a Suzuki Liana she calls Good Vibes, and has added rainbows to the black paintwork.

It took Jones three attempts to pass the theory exam with the African dance company Kukuwa fitness. Since qualifying as a certified instructor in July, she has taught at community venues in north Kent.

“When people come to the class, I say, ‘Just wear what you want. If you’ve got a big belly, a big bum, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to shake it. Not in that provocative way,” she adds. “In a more elegant, classical way.”

Jones’s signature dance is “Move your boombsey … I’m doing it now”, she says, jiggling in her chair in the accountancy office in Dartford where she works three days a week. She likes this dance because, “You’re shaking yourself free of all your problems.”

When Jones came to Britain, she found it hard to adjust. She and her mother shared a one-bedroom flat: “I felt as though I was in a cage.” At school, she was bullied. “Even though I spoke English, it was a different type of English. People couldn’t understand me. They called me names.”

In fifth year at school, she had a breakthrough. “The only way I could escape, I realised, was dance.” She danced in the playground. Then a girl from Nigeria joined her, followed by two more girls. Sometimes they practised at Jones’s home. “It was something I owned. These were my dances, my culture, and I was teaching them. It was therapeutic.”

In Sierra Leone, Jones was known as Sunshine, a happy child. But in 2003, her marriage broke down, when her sons were aged three and five, and she became depressed. Then she was made redundant. “I had family I could speak to, but I refused. I felt I had failed.” Sometimes she would dance at the kitchen sink, but otherwise suffered in silence and cried herself to sleep.

“One day in the supermarket I saw a magazine article about a lady whose life had changed. She became a life coach.” After reading it, Jones enrolled on a similar course herself and “started to reframe” her experience. She told herself, “‘Look at your children, and have hope that the future will be brighter.’ I looked at them, and thought, ‘The future is brighter. Because they are here.’”

Jones came across Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, which sent her and her sons “on a holiday in Sandwich, Kent, for a whole weekend, free of charge”. Parents at the boys’ football club also helped. In 2012, in the ultimate turnaround, Jones sang If You’re Happy and You Know It on Britain’s Got Talent.

“Sometimes life gives us something really bad,” she says, “but out of bad can come good. I came out of those five years when I was really depressed thinking there must be other people needing help.”

Now her sons are 20 and 22, and Jones’s thoughts have turned to “empty nest syndrome … Reaching 60, what I’m finding out is, there’s really just me. I want to find myself and do something I always wanted to do.”

At her taster sessions, her staple song is Ambo Shekushe – “a bit like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. There are always some people present who know the song. “In Sierra Leone we sang it in childhood. I thought it was our song,” she says. But, as Jones knows, song and dance belong to those who know the moves.