There it was. The ultimate treasure chest. Her grandma’s awe-inspiring shoe collection, shimmering in the room that served as her closet, just waiting to be discovered in all its glory. She double-checked to make sure the coast was clear and pulled out the first pair she could get her tiny hands on. Driven by juvenile curiosity and pure fascination, she shoved her little feet into the high heels to bask in the regal aura that surrounded her grandmother.
“Oana, where are you? We’re going out to the shops.”
Uh oh. The scent of fine perfume wafted into the room, signaling the emerging presence of her royal majesty. Oana was already ankles-deep in the heels, struggling to keep her balance while standing up. The moment she saw her grandma in the doorway – fur, pearls, and all – she gasped, tripped, and fell on her bum, sending the heels flying spectacularly across the room.
“For goodness’ sake, child, you’re going to break your ankles! How do you think you’ll be able to play tennis after that? Come on now, I’ll buy you a girls’ pair this afternoon.”
Oana’s guilt trip ended halfway through her grandma’s love-filled lecture. Her eyes instantly lit up just thinking about the next ladylike shopping spree they were going to embark on.
It was just another day in the life of the classiest woman in town and her granddaughter.
The next day, the next adventure in her childhood home of wonders. Her grandpa’s awe-inspiring book collection, flooding the room that served as his library, just waiting to be discovered in all its glory. She approached the shelves with the same curiosity, fascination, and insatiable thirst for knowledge, running her finger over the spines of the hundreds of books they had so meticulously arranged together.
They had just completed their annual grandfather-granddaughter tradition of updating their home library classification system. Each year, they would write down every single title in alphabetical order, creating a professional catalog just like in the big libraries. They were the coolest bookworm duo, and nobody could say otherwise.
It goes without saying that she already had a budding obsession for reading. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather naturally falling in the steps of her grandpa. He and her father had already introduced her to the likes of Jules Verne, Karl May, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
She had devoured Shogun in a heartbeat. It took her a weekend to finish the volumes. She was in the fifth grade.
“How about a game of chess before tennis, kid?”
The sound of his slippers echoed into the room, signaling the emerging presence of the most well-read person she would ever meet. Her eyes lit up again, and she pulled out the first chessboard she could get her small hands on. They swiftly glided through their chess game, relishing how time stood still. She won this time. He smiled, this time and always.
Today, it was chess. Tomorrow, it would be crossword puzzles. The day after, backgammon. In between, watching countless championships together, creating makeshift score boards at home, and falling in love with every sport in the book. There was always something entertaining to do, and she was learning every step of the way.
Next up, their weekend tennis practice ritual. She grabbed her equipment and hopped into grandpa’s yellow Dacia, sitting shotgun next to his small figure propped on three pillows in the driver’s seat. It was funny to see such a smart and educated man brewing an inner conflict about his height. She loved him so much.
She wanted to be just like him. An intellectual, a lifelong sports fan, and the hardest working man she knew.
She adored her grandparents beyond measure. They let her rollerblade around the house, exploiting the circular architecture of the four-bedroom apartment. They let her do pretty much anything in the house. Tennis. Handball. You name it, she wanted to see, try, and learn it.
As the years passed, tennis evolved into her young life’s purpose, motivating her to practice religiously. She was now 14 and had been playing competitively for 10 years when the only decent tennis club in town closed its doors forever.
Instead of driving with grandpa to the youth center, she spent the summer practicing behind a gas station on uneven concrete. A tennis ball machine was out of the question. They would resort to jumping fences and scrambling up wax cherry trees to search for the lost ones they often never found again. It had always been a ridiculously expensive sport, but recently even more so.
“Oana, we have to talk.”
She knew something was wrong when her parents called her in for a family meeting. It was going to be one of those grown up talks. She wasn’t ready for it.
With equal amounts of love and pain in their eyes, they sat her down and did everything they could to break it to her gently. They could no longer afford to keep her in tennis. Oana’s heart broke into a million tiny pieces. Theirs did too.
Deep down, she knew it was the right thing to do. Her parents had always provided and wanted the best for their daughter, but the financial burden that tennis had become was out of hand. She was mature enough to understand why the decision had to be made. It was the summer before 8th grade, when her focus would have to shift towards studying for her first big exams anyway. At least the timing was appropriate.
She went from mourning her first love to diving head-on into her rebound. Studying. Every waking minute.
That’s all she did throughout the 8th grade. Read, study, repeat. Naturally, she aced her exams and got into the best high school in the city. The competitive spirit she had inherited never failed her. She was an instant candidate for national olympiads and international contests.
Then came the day in which she met the unconventional best friend she never knew she needed. Eduard Mossang. The uber cool, uber smart, tennis-loving English teacher that would soon become her first mentor outside the family. Funnily enough, he had been her father’s teacher too.
She had 7 classes a week with Mossang and treasured every second. He accompanied her to all the major English contests, even if it meant traveling to London when she qualified for internationals. But his devotion went far beyond his main subject.
Mossang was a walking, talking encyclopedia.
No matter the field, no matter how far-fetched the question, he was always eager to provide an answer. Often in the most creative ways.
“Alright, kids, this is what today’s plan looks like. You’re excused from all classes, but you have a cool challenge to solve. Let’s go.”
“Challenge” was an understatement. A puzzle depicting a detailed map of the UK. Thousands of pieces. They were a handful of the smartest kids in school. Their jaws dropped. Six grueling hours later, the puzzle was complete. By then, they had learned all the cities, landforms, and bodies of water in the UK probably better than a native. It was awesome. But that’s how everything was around Mossang.
The annual olympiads were a piece of cake for Oana. With 4 months to go until the nationals, she made up her very own game to get through the exaggerated amount of books they had to read for the competition. Right by her bed, she stacked all of them into a “to-read” tower. The goal was to zoom through them, one by one, until she created the same tower on the other side. It was effortless for her.
Although she had been living with her parents again for some time, she was certain that grandpa was smiling back in her childhood home of wonders.
But she also ate. A lot.
It’s not that she didn’t have a hearty appetite before, just that cutting tennis out of her life made all the difference.
Amplified by stress and continuous study, the weight gradually started to show, to the point that she was on the verge of childhood obesity in the 10th grade.
Food was inherently soothing. It always would be for her.
Then dance casually popped into her life. It changed everything.
Contrary to the bookworm stereotype, Oana and her friends loved listening to rap music. They’d watch all the hip hop music videos on TV, mesmerized by the dancers even more than the musicians.
“Hey, watch this tape. You’re gonna like it.”
Out of nowhere, her neighbor had given her a video tape with Battle of the Year. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Dancing actually had a world of its own, and it blew her mind. She watched the tape over and over and over again until she knew every scene by heart. After she shared it with her friends, they were all irrevocably captivated.
They wanted to dance too. And they did. Every day, all through high school.
Then 12th grade came around. The year of final exams for everyone, but the year of crashing and burning for Oana.
She’s not sure when or how it happened. Losing yourself doesn’t always come with a timeline.
Maybe it was from all the years of incessant studying. Maybe drinking her first sip of alcohol on her 18th birthday had something to do with it. Maybe it was the constant nagging from her parents to study for her exams when she knew that she would nail them anyway.
Sure, she kept participating in extracurricular contests and qualifying for nationals. Knowledge was an intrinsic part of her being. But she went from top 3 every previous year to 0 awards this year.
She was bored with everything. She wanted to go out and have fun. Bad timing for easing into the edgy teen stage. She had to choose a university, without having even a remote idea about what direction to go in.
All her friends were going to law school. Okay, why the hell not. Who cared if it was the hardest admissions process in the country. They were the overachievers. After endless hours of tutoring, inhumane amounts of studying, and perpetual hate, they couldn’t even celebrate when they got scholarship spots.
Oana despised law school before she even got into it. Once she was there, the hatred only grew. The students were rich kids with sticks up their asses. The teachers had the sole purpose of making everyone’s life a living hell, throwing around failing grades like confetti. She missed Mossang so much.
It took her one semester of torture to realize that she couldn’t continue like this.
“Mom, we have to talk.”
Her mother wouldn’t hear of it. It didn’t help that she had no idea Oana was miserable in the first place. She couldn’t fathom how so many students could graduate this goddamn university and her ambitious daughter couldn’t.
Oana decided to take matters into her own hands. She just stopped going, without telling her parents that she followed up on her intentions. Lucky for her, she had been attending another college simultaneously, majoring in political science.
It was just as boring and ineffective for her well-trained brain, with poorly prepared teachers that couldn’t even hold a full lecture in English. So she drifted from class to class, paying just enough attention to pass her exams and get that worthless degree. Mossang remained in the back of her head at all times, a tombstone in the mental cemetary of education goals and the epitome of teaching she would never find again.
However, outside university, she continued to nourish her soul with streetdance. It kept her going. So much so, that she had made contact with the community that was starting to form in the new big city and was already on a roll, building relationships and mastering her craft with each passing day.
She also shaved her head and had the ultimate look, with killer skills to match. The jobs came pouring in like a waterfall. Commercials. Flashmobs. Corporate gigs. Nightlife mystery shopping, in which she would go clubbing, drink for free, dance, and get paid for it all. She aced castings like exams. She was making good money, the kind of money that any student would only dream of having.
Dropping out of law school was like some sort of divine intervention for convincing her that dance was the way.
Continuing to study law was out of the question, but she wasn’t 100% sure that dancing was a sustainable career path either. After all, the phenomenon was just starting to take off on a local level. Nobody knew that you could do this for a living, let alone with a long-term perspective.
It also helped that she had hooked up with the first dance studio that focused on the professional side of the art form. Ana Lungu became her business mentor, taking her along on client meetings, showing her the ins and outs of dance management, and putting her in charge of projects.
All of this happened while, at the studio, they were slowly forming the first generation of freestylers in the country. Driven by the desire to absorb knowledge about the culture from international sources and share it with the community, they became solid teachers in their respective styles and took the local scene to unprecedented heights.
But all good things come to an end. So did the initial crew.
Parting ways with friends that were once like family hurts. A crew breakup is even worse. But when both sides meet face to face at the biggest streetdance event of the year, there are no words to describe the discomfort.
It’s now 2013 at the national preselections of the SDK World Battle Tour. For the Hip Hop Female category, Oana found herself having to battle none other than her own former crewmate.
Tensions were at an all-time high. So were the stakes. The winner would go on to represent Romania in the top rankings of the world finals.
It was fierce, it was personal, and it was awful.
Oana lost the battle.
It affected her so much that she didn’t dance hip hop for a long time afterwards. She also stopped teaching the style altogether.
At the same time, the turning point helped her view the global hip hop battle scene through an analytical lens. As an unwavering traditionalist and forever a student of the culture, she observed how the original New York style was dissolving from the European scene. All the current trends were going in exactly the opposite direction of the values her teachers had instilled in her.
Something needed to change in her life. But the change would find her before she could even go looking for it.
Same year, same event, different vibes. She went to SDK in the end, attending the plethora of workshops the meetup offered. While strolling towards her go-to hip hop class with Henry Link, she noticed something from the corner of her eye.
She stopped dead in her tracks.
It was the iconic Javier Ninja teaching vogue. She had never seen anything like it. The dance was glamorous, hypnotizing, the utmost elegance of movement. She forgot how to blink, she forgot how to breathe, and she certainly forgot where she had been heading.
Without giving it a second thought, she walked into his class and stayed there. Javier would later introduce her to legendary Archie Burnett, the first Father of the House of Ninja, who guided her into the electric world of waacking.
She brought her new-found knowledge back to her home country and became the Romanian pioneer of voguing and waacking. It didn’t take long for them to become her life. Within the two styles, she found herself, a version of herself she didn’t even know existed. She learned about self-love, self-confidence, and self-awareness, all concepts that were previously foreign to her.
After everything she had been through, happiness – that real, raw, untainted happiness – finally seemed to settle in for good.
Then came the year of agonizing pain. The year that hit her family. The year that would break her heart into a million tiny pieces, even worse than when she had to give up on her childhood dream.
It all started with a phone call early in the morning. The kind of phone call you get out of nowhere, at an unusual time, from a close one. Oana squinted at the screen, rubbing the sleep away from her eyes.
“Honey… your father had a car accident last night. He just got out of a coma and is in the ICU.”
Every bone in his body was broken.
Right then and there, any other person would likely drop their phone, start screaming or freeze in shock.
In a zombie-like trance, Oana dragged her feet to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator door, silent tears streaming down her cheeks, and began eating mindlessly. Crying, eating, and listening to all the excruciating details on the phone. Crying and eating. Crying and eating.
Her father had been driving back home from a business trip on the other side of the country. It was late, the road was empty, the area was desolate, but he still drove safely, respecting the speed limit. Almost out of nowhere, a speeding car hurtled towards his vehicle, creating a crash impact of over 200 km total.
The other driver had fallen asleep behind the wheel. The aftermath for him would be complete paralysis, stuck in a wheelchair for life.
Despite all of his broken bones, her father made a full recovery. It was that kind of medical miracle that doctors still can’t wrap their heads around. Ironically, her father, a celebrated engineer, had invented a bone-testing device that would have aided his specific recovery after the accident.
He never succeeded in obtaining a patent for it.
During those heart-wrenching days, Oana’s mother was an absolute rock. She reacted with a detached, practical, and solution-focused approach, doing what needed to be done.
Looking back in hindsight, that was likely the moment that triggered her mother’s subsequent battle with bipolar disorder.
Even though her father’s miraculous recovery proved that he still had work to do in this life, loss struck another area of their family unit that year. But in a gentle, peaceful, and natural way. The right way.
At the age of 86, grandma passed away. Until her final years, she continued to go on fabulous weekly shopping trips, with lipstick on, freshly colored hair, and flawless outfits. Her life was long, beautiful, and rewarding, with grandpa by her side. He too would continue to work until the age of 80, with overwhelming client requests well after retiring. Ultimately, he would devote over 60 years of his life to reading.
On the day of grandma’s funeral, Oana’s grandfather leaned in and told her that he was ready to go too. She would never forget the serenity with which he mentally packed his bags, peacefully waiting to join grandma.
Less than two weeks later, he also passed away.
Throughout this time, there’s a good chance that dance kept her sane.
The respect, history, and structure of voguing and waacking were the discipline, rigor, and tradition she had been seeking the whole time. The values her grandparents had passed on to her. These dances are the same in 2019 as they were in the 70s and 80s, and they’re just as relevant today as they were back then. Of course, they evolved through the years, but they never lost their essence.
The houses, the hierarchy, the social value, the fashion, the drama, everything. She loved both styles dearly and dedicated her time, attention, finances, and energy towards studying them, participating in workshops and ballrooms, from New York to Norway and everything in between. She even became a mentor of her own, paving the way for Irina to become Mother of the Romanian Chapter of the House of Milan.
But waacking gave her the unparalleled freedom to be herself. Physically, mentally, emotionally.
When she danced vogue, her performance could be either spectacular or sub-par, all depending on how she felt about herself. In her ongoing unhealthy relationship with food, gaining 10 pounds equaled a massive drop in confidence – the defining element of voguing.
Waacking, on the other hand, was her safe space, no matter how she looked that day. As a result, she attained high performance at all times. She could slide in and out of characters inspired by Old Hollywood glamor, roleplaying, expressing herself without the limitations of external factors or inner turmoil.
After several years of rigorous preparation, she could finally become a member of an international waacking house. Her latest mentor, Tyrone Procter, became her Father at the Imperial House of Waacking.
That’s when Oana became Waana.
Every time Waana spoke to her Father, he would end the conversation with the same sentence.
“Thank you for keeping this art form alive.”
It didn’t even matter what they were talking about. Respect knows no time, place, topics, or details. Just like the status in a vogue or waacking house, it was forever.
But that’s how the culture she’s part of works. You dig deep into the foundation, study the history, honor the tradition, and keep the art form alive. The pioneers are more than willing to impart knowledge and encourage you to cross-check sources, from Mr. Wiggles to Storm, the Elite Force Crew, and countless others who contributed to the styles as we know them today.
Soon after entering the Imperial House of Waacking, Waana became Mother of the Romanian Chapter. She could now add members to the House, thereby extending the local outreach of the culture. Her growth was in full bloom, and so was the scene in Romania.
Just a year prior, she had taken probably the biggest leap in her evolution. Opening her own dance studio, together with her vision partner Cypher. They had no idea what they were getting into. They just had an idea. A big one.
Artizthick was born.
In 2016, they created the foundation for the first hip hop arts center in Romania. Artizthick.
Contrary to her father’s firm advice, they opened the studio with a loan. A big one.
“Oana, never start a business with borrowed money. You’ll never get out of debt.”
They never did.
Armed with enthusiasm and a big dream, they rented out a studio in an exclusive neighborhood to increase visibility and convenience. The expenses were numerous and unexpected.
Buy new flooring. Buy mirrors. Plan a legendary workshop with the global pioneers of streetdance and spiral into 10.000 € of debt in one single day.
That marked the winter in which they lived without heat at home. They were behind on the rent at the studio, they hadn’t paid the utility bills at their own apartment, their electricity and gas got cut off, their car had broken down, and they had just organized their first international event at the center.
That night, shivering at home, each with a phone in their hand, they made dozens of calls to borrow the money necessary for covering the expenses of the event. They succeeded. Thousands of Euros in one night, all because their close ones knew they had sacrificed everything for the cultural opportunity to be possible. Their friends believed in them, and they still do.
They survived the winter. So did the debt. But so did their idea.
Keeping the studio in the boujee neighborhood wasn’t an option anymore. But Artizthick was never about a specific place. It was always an idea. The idea of materializing your ideas. It was easy for Waana and Cypher to make the decision to relocate. Finding the new home was harder.
When they finally did, it was everything they had ever hoped for and more.
On the day of Waana’s 29th birthday, they signed the rent contract for Artizthick’s new home, at the gorgeous Universul Palace in the heart of the city. They knew it was the right place from the moment they stepped into it.
There, they began setting the building blocks for the arts center we know today. Monthly all styles battles. A library with hip hop history books. A corner with vintage streetwear. Regular workshops with international artists. Piece by piece, continuously growing, just like the founders and the passionate, tight-knit group that gathered around them.
Fuck the easy way out.
Throughout the rollercoaster of the last few years, Waana could have made a very good living as a backup dancer for pop artists.
She could have accepted the major business proposal she and her crew had received to perform for a dishonorable political party. It would have helped them pay back every single cent they had ever borrowed to maintain their cultural activities. Needless to say that her values prevailed once again.
She could have moved to London, or New York, or any other country where dance is perceived as a serious discipline, a strong career path, and an invaluable art form.
No debt, no stress, no sleepless nights ruminating over how the hell they were going to get out of the financial mess they were in.
But she has things to do here.
She has made peace with the idea of staying here, in this small corner of Eastern Europe, still plagued by the zeitgeist of the communist era. Despite the significant improvements in the past decade, the local streetdance and hip hop culture still has a long way to go.
Today, the insatiable thirst for knowledge Waana grew up with is stronger than ever before. So is her desire to share it with anyone ready to approach, embrace, and respect the art form in all its complexity.
Today, she has evolved into a resilient and relentless dancer, teacher, entrepreneur and human being. But her foundation shines through at every turn.
She still has boxes filled with her grandmother’s pearls and dresses.
She still has an entire storage unit with her grandfather’s incredible book collection.
She still runs into Mossang from time to time and they catch up like old friends.
She still plays tennis alone in her dance studio after everyone goes home.
She still sacrifices everything for strengthening the local culture at the risk of her personal wellbeing.
As for me, Gia, all I can say to her is this:
“Thank you for keeping this art form alive.”
Her name is Waana, and this was just the beginning of her story.
Pussy Power is a series that features the life stories of the strongest women I know. If Waana’s journey spoke to you, help keep it alive. Share her story with someone who needs to read it.