How the Goebel sisters are helping young women dance their way to success

PHOTOGRAPHY Pati Solomona Tyrell

Stand up sisters

At The Palace Dance Studio in Penrose, the Goebel sisters (one of whom is pretty famous) run workshops with young Māori and Pacific women, helping them dance, sing and talk their way to better self-esteem.

Three young, Samoan-European sisters are busting out beats and tapping their toes with fists clenched in the air as Beyonce’s ‘Run the World (Girls)’ blasts from a boom box perched on a stool in the corner of the room. In front of them are a group of young women so focussed on mimicking actions from a video clip that none of them seem to notice that strangers have entered the room. Kendal is the older and wiser sister, the director who makes sure the ship runs smoothly. Narelle is the bubbly middle sister, the design guru that makes everything look pretty.

Parris – you might twig at this point that the sisters share the surname Goebel – is the youngest, and doesn’t mind being called the freakiest. She is the globe-stomping choreographer and the mastermind behind all things creative. Together, the sisters are encouraging young Māori and Pacific women to stand up and prepare to change the world. 

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Today, the sisters are at The Palace Dance Studio in Penrose, more commonly known as the place where hip-hop dancers’ dreams come true. But as the young women are dancing in front of the studio mirrors, it’s obvious that they’re not preparing for a competition or championship trophy. They’re part of something much bigger. The movement founded by the Goebel sisters is named Sisters United, and its mission is clear: They want to encourage, empower and raise confident young women. To achieve this, the organisation provides creative workshops specifically designed to address issues that affect young women, such as bullying, low self-esteem and abuse. Finding a way to tackle these issues is very important to the Goebel sisters.

“We need to really change how we interact with our young people,” says Kendal. “I think we’re really unique because we bring in all these creative arts like photography, dance, music, spoken word and it really teaches them to express themselves in different ways other than just talking. I hope that young women would feel a bit more confident about going to chase their dreams, about standing up for what they believe in – but also we hope that they become proud of who they are.”

The workshops are held every fortnight, with schools from all around Auckland participating. Some of the young participants joined Sisters United through a referral from a social worker, and the rest voluntarily nominated themselves. By joining Sisters United, they are all encouraged to participate in activities such as music, dance, spoken word and photography – exercises that are the Goebel sisters’ creative skills combined.

Paperboy went along to one of the workshops, and asked 10 young women from Sisters United to share their stories.

Stellei Masealii

16 / Papatoetoe

“There are some things that I would never talk about with my family. It’s like a cultural thing, like there are some subjects that I wouldn’t talk about with my parents because it’s too uncomfortable. I like Sisters United because I can talk to these girls about anything and I feel safe. We talk about all sorts of things, like one week it would be confidence, another week it would be like learning to love yourself or love others. Just being able to talk about things like that can make a big difference. In society today, we tend to look inwards and only focus on ourselves. What we need to do is be aware of the people around us as well. I love that I am part of a group of females that are always looking out for each other.”

Leonie Stewart

16 / Ōtara

 “My mum was recently diagnosed with cancer and it was hard for me to go through exams with that in the back of my mind, always worrying about her. I think that’s why school is just hard for me at the moment. Being the middle child, my older brother and I have to step up. My mum isn’t well enough to look after our little brother so we have to look after my little brother and our mum at the same time. Being at Sisters United has helped me realise that I’m not alone and that I don’t have to keep things to myself anymore. I have people that I can talk to and trust at Sisters United. I feel like most teenagers feel like they’re alone and that others won’t be able to relate to what they’re going through, but it’s important to surround yourself with really supportive people to help you realise that you will get through it.”

Kalani Rogers

16 / Manurewa

 “Growing up, my parents didn’t set the greatest example for us. They had issues with drugs. It was scary because I’d stay up late and then when I’d hear my dad leave in the middle of the night, I’d never know if he was going to come home. When my parents made the decision to be honest, everyone found out about it. I was scared and really nervous because people on the streets would stare at me or look at me funny. I always thought people had something against me because of my past. Sisters United has taught me to be comfortable with what I’ve been through and the woman I am today. And I should be proud of that.”

Grace Aumau

16 / Ōtara

“I was really lazy at school. I didn’t really see the point. I wasn’t paying attention, I was easily distracted because I didn’t like it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the future. I only started engaging with school when I joined Sisters United. They gave me motivation because they helped me realise that I can have a better future and live a good life. I actually want to become a cop now. I really like how cops help others. I like that I’ve fully come out of my comfort zone and I’m using my talents to help others come out of theirs.”

Punipuao Lavea

18 / Māngere

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to never ever judge a book by its cover. We see so many different people everyday and we just assume things about them. But what we forget is that everyone is going through something. Whether you’re famous or in politics or at school, everyone is always going through at least one thing. As a young woman myself, I’m happy that I’m learning this lesson at a young age because I feel like I’m now in a better position to support others.”

Mele Maka

16 / Ōtāhuhu

“I don’t have the same features as models on Instagram and stuff so I thought, if I can’t meet those expectations, then I’m not beautiful. I had low self-esteem, I didn’t think that I was smart, I thought I was ugly. I thought that people didn’t want to talk to me. This programme has helped me gain that confidence. It has helped prepare myself for the real world. I love that it’s by women, for women, because now that I’ve learned how to express my confidence, I can inspire other women to be strong and confident too. Everyone has some sort of talent or feature that they’re holding inside and don’t want to let out, and I feel like the world needs to see that.”

Shaylah Mokaraka

14 / Manurewa

“I’ve never really had much of a father figure. He has been in prison throughout my whole life. I’m the oldest so I’ve always had to look after my sisters. Trusting people and letting them know about what I’ve been through, it’s like really hard. I always just stuck to myself, I never trusted anyone until now. With Sisters United I’ve learned that I can actually be myself whenever I want. I don’t have to cover it up or anything. I’ve learned that it’s just as important to love myself as it is to love others.”

Odille Maeataanoa

15 / New Lynn

 “I’m actually a very introverted, very shy person. Before Sisters United, I found it really difficult to talk to people my age. I used to feel like I was such an outsider because growing up I had to put on this show and become this other person just to fit in. But when I joined Sisters United, I realised that I don’t have to change who I really am to become a better person. Now, I am unafraid to speak my mind. I will say how I feel and I’m not afraid to go after things I want anymore.”

Jessica Jerry

15 / Manurewa

“I was bullied throughout primary school. They bullied me because of my appearance. They would say that I was really fat. I became really shy and didn’t want to talk to people because I was afraid that they would judge me. When I first joined Sisters United, girls just came up to me, said hello and started talking to me. I’ve never had that happen before. At Sisters United I feel like I’m part of a family. I feel loved and appreciated. If I saw my bullies now, I wouldn’t want to say anything to them. I am not going to acknowledge anyone who treats people badly. It makes me feel really confident and proud to say that.”

Nele Morris-Meredith

15 / Manukau

 “On Instagram and Facebook, there are all these beauty standards and that’s what we, the younger generation, see all the time. So I didn’t feel confident with the way that I looked because I know I’m not the skinniest person and I don’t look like other girls online. I was really worried about the way people perceived me and I let it get to me too much. But ever since I came to Sisters United, I learned that it actually doesn’t matter. I am me. I’ve learned to love myself and what the meaning of beauty is and that everyone has their own meaning. For me, beauty means having self-confidence, as long as you have that, you’re going to be good. I’m good.”