Dancing is a great way to get moving while enjoying and letting the music flow through your body. For Mélissa Peng, it is something she has always known. From a young age, Peng was immersed in the different dance classes which included ballet, tap, jazz and traditional West African dance classes. This is where her love for dance began.
For Peng, dance has always been something that she enjoys and an integral part of her life. She has always been interested in dance and different cultural dances.
“In college, I was part of a Haitian dance troupe, where we focused on Afro-Haitian dance, and a Bollywood dance group,” Peng says. “I went to an absolute beginner’s intensive Dancehall class, and it was with two women who danced with Sean Paul. That was amazing.”
Since then, she has moved around from New York to Los Angeles, keeping up with dance in her life. Then, she and her husband finally decided to settle down in Austin, but something was missing in her life.
“When I got to Austin, (after) the last eight years in LA and New York where we had cool access to the Afro-beat community, I found that there weren’t that many resources of dance here,” Peng says.
That’s when she decided to start Pon Di Beat, a Round Rock-based dance company, in January 2019. “Pon Di Beat” means “on the beat” in Jamaican – the beat referring to Afrobeat.
In the beginning, Peng wanted to make sure that all classes were taught by professional choreographers who understood the culture’s dances.
“I started Pon Di Beat to highlight some local dancers here and some from New York, LA, all over the U.S. We even have international people to bring in that flavor,” Peng says. “In the first year, we had 19 dancers – most of them hail from either Caribbean lineage, first-generation Jamaicans or people born in Ghana or Nigeria that came to share their culture (and) dance steps with us.”
Thus began the beginning of Pon Di Beat where the Austin community could come together and spend an hour to dance and learn another culture. Peng wanted to create a community where not just children were invited to come dance but also adults.
“The beautiful thing is that it’s for everyone in Austin,” Peng says. “We had 250 people in Austin come to classes locally. Since COVID-19, we’ve done tutorials and online dance intensive classes where they sign up with us on our website, and they dance for eight weeks with one of our choreographers.”
When it comes to music, Peng really enjoys supporting local Afro businesses around the Austin area. Being a part of the community has allowed Pon Di Beat to create a family that can continue to grow and help the community grow.
“We, as Pon Di Beat, support our local businesses,” Peng says. “We would do dinners at the new Jamaican restaurant, and we would participate in a lot of Afro nights at Club Bantu.”
Supporting these local businesses also allows for all dancers in the Austin area to get out and see what the culture is like through food. The dancers and community not only get to dance but immerse themselves in the Jamaican and Afro culture.
This is fun for Peng to watch as her company and dancers go on retreats. She invites members of the community and takes them on retreats to truly get the full experience of the culture.
“Once we can travel again, we hope to make trips that center around Jamaican Dancehall and Afro dance styles and do them with the best of the best,” Peng says. “For now, we organize regular classes and online intensive classes.”
Until then, Pon Di Beat will continue to allow people from across the world to join in and learn Jamaican Dancehall and Afro dances from the online website where anyone can learn to love dance, just like Peng.
“Dance means so many things to me,” Peng says. “As I’ve spent time with Pon Di Beat, dancing is an amazing space regardless where people are from. We can all just dance and enjoy the vibes. It’s community, connection; it’s all love.”