Transcendent, Twirly dance by Madelaine Empson
Emma Watkins can’t remember a time when she wasn’t obsessed with dance. At about four years old, she saw Irish dancing on The Wiggles and asked her mum if she could do it too. Of course, she had no idea she’d be part of the world-famous Australian children’s music group one day – and the first woman Wiggle to boot. With ballet and Irish dancing zigzagging through the fabric of her childhood and more styles still to come, Emma was able to study dance after winning a scholarship to a performing arts school in Sydney, which she says changed her whole life. Teaching six-year-olds jazz, tap, ballet, and Irish dancing in high school infused her love of dance with an appreciation for what it can bring to children’s lives.
It’s a passion that launched a prolific career in children’s entertainment, with Emma becoming a household name with The Wiggles from 2012 to 2021 before debuting her own children’s entertainment character, Emma Memma, to empower the next generation through movement, creativity, inclusiveness, and friendship. With an ARIA Award-nominated debut album, a YouTube channel with views in the millions, a number-five BookScan Bestseller book, and more to her name, Emma Memma brings visual communication to the forefront of children’s media and theatre spaces. And speaking of theatre…
After taking her Twirly Tour across Australia throughout 2023, Emma Memma and her friends Elvin Melvin, BB Butterfly, and Waffles The Wombat are boarding their Green Plane and heading to New Zealand! We caught up about the journey so far, the importance of sign language, and the sparkling live show, which will fill Shed 6 with song and dance, joy and laughter on Tuesday the 12th of December.
How did it feel to become a Wiggle – and the first woman to join the group?
It was a surprise, and not just to everybody, but to me! When I joined, there was such a longevity in terms of the line-up. It was very surprising that anybody else would be a Wiggle. Even though they’d had the change with Greg [Page] at the time, when Sam [Moran] replaced Greg, I think people knew that Greg wasn’t well, so it was really understandable. When I joined, I was obviously a lot younger. I didn’t really think about what was ahead of me and stepping into a brand that is so well known with such a big fan base behind it. In this case, it was a bit of a shock that I happen to be a female and some people tended to feel like I was ruining their childhood. I understood that because I also watched The Wiggles as a child! So I was trying to reflect on that – yeah, how would I feel if somebody else was doing that role? But then over a couple of years, that changed very dramatically. We had almost a rebirth of the brand, and I was so fortunate to even have that experience that I would have never, ever believed would happen to me.
What were some of the highlights of your time with The Wiggles?
It was always performing with children. It’s such a thrill to see people joining in with the music. It’s really interesting that now with Emma Memma, we have the opportunity to not travel as much. That gives us a chance to go and visit preschools, libraries, which I didn’t do a lot of in the last 10 years. I think that has helped our cast and crew as performers in children’s entertainment to try and work out what they are really connecting to. It feels like a big learning year and I’m really grateful for that.
That’s a great way to segue into the Twirly Tour. Please tell me about the show and what it’s all about.
It’s been such an amazing experience being able to draw upon what we’ve learned and, of course, what we’ve seen. Watching the same kind of audiences for 10 years is a really unique experience. Even though I was performing [with The Wiggles], I was really observant, trying to see what people were connecting to. I think dance is something that transcends age groups, but it also transcends cultures, countries, languages, and so that’s why I was particularly interested to study it for my PhD. How does dance help people understand language, in particular sign language? How can that actually change the way that we look at children’s entertainment?
I was studying for my PhD at the time and I was thinking, I really need to finish this because there’s a lot here that we need to uncover, particularly in Australia – a little bit in New Zealand too, but New Zealand is very progressive in the way that it integrates culture. Australia is perhaps not as open or as aware. We started to see lots of families with children who might need visual communication, and that may not necessarily mean that the child is Deaf, or has a hearing loss. We saw so many different family structures that had children who were nonverbal, or on the autism spectrum, or with a physical disability who needed to use sign language because they couldn’t speak, or use spoken language for that matter.
Out of that research came Emma Memma. How can we visually describe everything that’s going on, in an auditory perspective? How do children respond to that? The movement of what’s happening on stage and the colour and the lights are generally the primary focus for children. How can we make our show [communicate] the clearest possible information, where people from the Deaf community as well don’t have to watch somebody on the side of the stage? Of course they can if they need to, but how can we put it on the actual middle of the stage so they’re watching the show, not a separate one? And so we started to test the ways that we could integrate movement and gesture in a more prominent way. Now using Australian and New Zealand Sign Language, those signs form the choreography, which is then accessible to people who are sitting down as well. A lot of parents are like, ‘Thank you, because I was too embarrassed to stand up and dance along’.
Now that I can see from the stage again, I’m looking at a really different kind of engagement. I can see pretty much 95 percent of people actually doing the actions. Instantly, you can see the way that people go, ‘Oh, I see, that’s the sign for 12,’ or ‘Oh, that’s the dance for 12’. So it’s not a didactic way of saying ‘This is the sign language for this’. That has changed my perception of children’s entertainment so much.
I was going to ask what the coolest feedback you’ve received from kids or grownups has been in relation to that thread of inclusivity that you really value and integrate into your shows.
Most of the time, because we’re meeting so many people – teachers, carers, educators in every library, preschool, daycare centre – I think it’s more about the awareness that these gestures are actually helpful for children across the board. Whereas people within the Deaf community, they’re already doing it. They’re already fabulous. It’s everybody else in the hearing world that is not being proactive enough about using their body to express themselves, their facial expressions and their gestures. We need to be a little bit more responsible by being more clear. I think it’s really allowing people to know that they can absolutely do it, and it’s not too difficult.
What are you most looking forward to about bringing the Twirly Tour to Wellington?
Wellington is one of our favourite places. A lot of people in Australia who get to visit New Zealand would probably say that Wellington is very similar to places like Sydney or Melbourne. There’s a bond! I think Wellington is such a beautiful city. We performed and then had a tiny little meet and greet in Wellington last year, and we met so many families that were so open to learning the gestures for the show and then feeling like they were part of the dance. Everyone was just so enthusiastic. We had some children from high school who also came because they wanted to learn sign language. The show isn’t specifically about sign language, it is a musical journey for a preschool audience across the board. But it was so lovely to see people from the Deaf community also coming and sharing their appreciation that it’s a show they can actually understand. I guess that really is the point.
What is the driving force behind Emma Memma?
The philosophy of the team at Emma Memma would be about allowing children to express themselves in any way that they feel comfortable. Our job really is to provide all of the options and let them go for gold. If we can do that, then we’re in the right spot.