Surprising Expats: Liz Sweales, Dancer, Founder Of Love Dance

  • 8 Sep 2023 8:02 AM
Surprising Expats: Liz Sweales, Dancer, Founder Of Love Dance
This is part of a series of in-depth interviews with some surprising members of the community, written by Marion Merrick.

Expats the world around eventually face the question of whether to return to their home countries, or to settle in an adoptive land which will constitute home for them and their families.

Nowhere, perhaps, is perfect, and the chosen city almost always requires making some compromises – just as living in one’s home country may have done. But the unexpected challenges of starting anew – possibly necessitating a re-evaluation of one’s goals and career – may result in unexpected personal growth and professional satisfaction.

Now, after seven years of living in Budapest, London-born Liz Sweales still appears somewhat bemused at finding herself living happily in a foreign country which she has come to regard as home.

“I was working in an inner-city London school teaching drama and dance, I was Head of Performing Arts,” she explains. “I was lucky – there was funding for dance there. I did a project with the Royal Opera House, and one with the Serpentine Gallery.”

However, after some years of what Liz describes as a “very intense yet a wonderful and educational experience” in the London school, she and her husband Jon, a chemistry teacher, decided to try an international posting to Shanghai.

The five years in China provided Liz with both an opportunity to become the Co-ordinator for Performing Arts at her international school, as well as producing a huge project featuring students dancing on film at various locations around the city.

The birth of her daughter, Isadora, brought into focus the realities of living far from grandparents and more familiar surroundings, and together with Jon, they set about considering a move back to Europe.

“Budapest popped up – we’d both been here before and we said, oh, now that’s a city… We loved the culture and the arts, it has a really cool vibe, and we thought: how about there?

“Jon got a job and we moved here seven years ago – and here we are! With a family, everything changes
[their son, Winston was born in Budapest]. We put both children into the Hungarian nursery system – they just settled, they’re happy. We started to make a home, we bought an apartment and we made lovely friends. I started a business, and after a while you think: this is our home now.

“The longer you stay, the longer the roots grow and the more content you become. Budapest changes every year, it’s always evolving. It’s exciting when you see a new caf
é pop up, or a building that’s been renovated to its former glory.”

The fact that Budapest’s international schools do not include dance as a part of the curriculum, led Liz to start a workshop for one of them. The endeavour proved successful but required a re-think following the birth of her son.

“I wanted to do something with him, but I couldn’t find anything, so I thought maybe I should start my own classes for mums and their small children.”

Liz soon initiated her Yo Baby group: nine young women with small babies who met weekly in her flat, and who engaged in music and movement sessions which then spilled over into coffee and cake.

“It started to grow, and I thought I should do a second morning and develop it into more of a dance programme. The young children were getting older and needed a separate session from the babies, and that’s how I started a new On the Move class. That’s how the dance gradually started up – I wanted to teach older children so I also worked briefly in a school doing dance and drama.”

In common with many, Liz’s developing project was severely affected by Covid. She started to teach dance online, “which was a bit of an experience,” she laughs. “I was prancing around the kitchen, with kids online doing superhero dances!”

While Covid restrictions persisted, the young mothers met on Zoom and continued with their sessions, but as the situation eased, Liz realised that she could not work in schools and also maintain her private groups.

“I decided I was going to do my private work full time,” she says. “I quit my job and launched LOVE.DANCE as a full-time project, adding classes to try and offer something to as many age groups as possible. It’s a buzzing and bright community that is growing.

“I found a studio in district 13 and developed the Mums and Babies sessions to two hours, so we could socialise properly afterwards. After Party was developed to include those parents that had to return to work, and the children in nursery – Yo Baby and On The Move are run from my flat. I’m constantly on the lookout for new studios. Whenever I walk down a street, I look in the basements for possibilities.

“I’m trying to add all the time because one of my philosophies is that dance is for everyone – and I want to be available for everyone. When I studied dance, it was Community Dance – I taught kids with learning difficulties, adult dance, trying to get more boys involved in dancing…

“This year, my aim is to form a Dance Company. Most of my experience lies with teenagers. I absolutely love that age group. In China I set up my own, and we did dance on film projects. This is where LOVE.DANCE was born, really. My first independent LOVE.DANCE project.

“I call it a Youth Dance Company because at this age it’s a bit more serious – a bit more committed. You are working on choreography, you’re part of a company – everyone has a place in that company, we’re a team. This is the age group where it becomes more artistic, where they are creating choreographies. For me, this is Youth Dance.

“This is what I’d love to do. It works well with this age group because they get to do the technology, and they make the decisions. They decide ‘where’, ‘what sort of dance?’ and ‘what is the message?’

Currently, Liz has after-school dance groups at the British-Magyar School in Pasarét where they participate in school productions, and she is also starting a club for the 14-16 year-olds at BISB this term, “So I will be finally launching my first of hopefully many Youth Dance Companies with them,” Liz enthuses.

As regards daily life in Budapest, in common with many expats, she struggles with the language – though not with communication!

“My Hungarian’s at an embarrassing level really,” she admits, “but I can get by with ordering a coffee…I try my best to pronounce the words I know as well as I can. I’m constantly falling between the two languages, but I’ve found there’s actually a lot of English spoken here, even when they say they don’t know any, they can speak enough to help you.”

Though culturally much more familiar to a British person than China, living in Hungary has its own quirks. “I’m a Brit, and when it’s 17 degrees, we’re in shorts,” chuckles Liz. “I’d send my child into the Óvoda in a pair of shorts and sandals, and they’d come home with a hat on and socks on inside the sandals!”

Alongside many parents, Liz and Jon’s children have experienced their share of accidents. “My son fell and broke his collar bone and we went straight to the Baleseti [Accident] hospital,” says Liz.

“We’ve been there a few times, and the doctors spoke perfect English. They were calming me down and they dealt with my son very quickly. The follow-up visits were perfect, the doctors all spoke English; they were wonderful. Hand on heart, we’ve always had brilliant experiences.

“I feel we’ve genuinely experienced so much kindness here from people. They go out of their way to help us…the staff at the
óvoda, the parents… even our neighbour when we were away, dealing with the traffic warden who wanted to put a ticket on our car!

“It feels like it’s endless. That’s partly how we’ve managed to make this our home.”
Here, Liz stops and her eyes mist over. “I feel quite emotional about it,” she continues, “because it’s just so kind. We really feel a part of this community; district 8 is special to us.”

Seven years have not dulled Liz’s enthusiasm for this city. “I can get a tram at any time of night and feel completely safe. There are many cities where you couldn’t say that. It’s a small enough city, but a big enough place to get a bit of everything: you can grab a coffee, you can be in the forest within thirty minutes, and then get back and go to the opera in the evening. Not to mention the arts and culture – there’s a lot of young, cool people trying new things. It’s exciting. There’s always a lot happening.”

Click here to know more about Love Dance Company or to see her youtube channel

You can also find Liz on Facebook and Instagram

Marion Merrick is author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards and the website Budapest Retro.

If you would like to be interviewed as a Surprising Expat, please write with a few details of what you do, to: Marion by clicking here.

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