TV

The moving reason behind Dancing With The Stars winner Manu Vatuvei's vow to keep dancing

Manu also hopes to give his children dance lessons.

By Karyn Henger
Manu Vatuvei is tired. He keeps looking at me, cross-eyed.
It's only 10.30am but he's been doing media interviews with dance partner Loryn Reynolds since 5.30am this morning, following their win on Dancing With The Stars 2019 on Sunday night. There's been little time to sleep, a lot of excitement, and there are still five hours of interviews to go.
They will get a bit of a break before their final interview at 7pm tonight, their publicist assures them, and then after that Manu can finally go home to collapse on the couch with his family.
He and Loryn have arrived at Bauer Media to speak with myself and another journalist.
I apologise, 'I'm probably going to ask you exactly the same questions as everybody else,' but he's characteristically gracious and so is Loryn.
If you'd asked this former Warriors player 10 weeks ago if he'd become the eighth New Zealander to win Dancing With The Stars he would have laughed at you.
But life took an unexpected turn last year when "The Beast", as he became known for his fearlessness on the rugby league field, was forced to step away from the sport he loved following an Achilles injury. He admits he became "down" after returning home from England - "I was doing nothing" - and had only just got back into working in construction when he got a call to join the DWTS cast; the rest of the story we know.
He and Loryn laugh, now, about how "bad" their first few training sessions were and Manu admits he was very nervous about taking up ballroom dancing.
But the father-of-four had also wanted to show his daughters that his softer side was not only reserved for times at home.
To begin with, learning to dance was incredibly taxing: "I could only last half an hour at a time," he says. "My body wasn't tired but I was mentally tired. Just remembering the steps, posture, frame, footwork, I was thinking 'agh can't do this'."
But Loryn says Manu always had musicality and he always had rhythm, so she just had to find a way to help him connect with dancing.
Each week the duo held their own in the competition – and we could all see Manu's rhythm and musicality too. But it was in week seven that the magic happened. The couple performed a foxtrot to Elton John's Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me that clearly moved Manu. He was unable to hide his tears, and New Zealanders responded in kind.
From then on he became a sort of accidental poster guy for men's mental health.
At the time I wrote, "Moments like this on live television are powerful. They're raw and rare and they can make a difference.
"It's not often we get to see Kiwis that we look up to, and especially Kiwi men, stripped back to their true emotions…. What Manu and Glen [Osborne] have been able to show New Zealanders, perhaps better than any mental health campaign encouraging men to speak up, is that men shouldn't feel they have to hide their emotions; that there is a strength in tapping into your feelings and allowing yourself to feel them, in the process showing your softer side - and we should be encouraging and supporting our boys and men to do it more often."
"People used to say to me that I'm soft every time I used to cry," Manu tells me. "That's why I've hidden away from showing emotion. I used to just have a laugh and then go home and everything would break up after that."
He says, "I never knew dance would bring out my emotions but every dance has its own story and you need to tell that story. Loryn always says to me, 'dance how you feel'. I'm not a person who talks a lot but there's a lot of things you can do to bring out that emotion… sport, singing, dance…"
"Movement can heal someone without words and it's quite a powerful thing," Loryn offers, and Manu nods his head in agreement.
Manu and Loryn's winning dance was choreographed completely by Manu; it told the emotional story of how he is coming to terms with no longer being able to play rugby league.
To choreograph an entire dance is an accomplishment very few amateur dancers could lay claim to, but Loryn says Manu was ready for the task.
From the very beginning she'd encouraged him to be part of that creative process, and the judges have more than once commended her for knowing when to guide Manu and when to follow.
Manu says he's going to miss, more than anything else, the intense training sessions with Loryn, saying, "We've banged heads a few times and just been tired, but we always end with a laugh."
This past week has been "the toughest because we knew it was all coming to an end".
But Manu has vowed to continue dancing with Loryn and jump on board New Zealand's competitive ballroom dancing circuit.
"My goal is for next year but Loryn's is for this year," he says.
He also plans on taking his younger two children to dance lessons, because they showed a particular interest in watching their dad dance on TV. He says they would often practise his routines at home with him, and critique him, giving him advice like 'just keep smiling even when you make a mistake'.
"They loved it," he says with a smile. "I just love watching them and having a good laugh.
"This is something 'I'm really passionate about now."
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