Her hand sweeps up quickly and curves in front of her body. Street dancer Lilli Huttula take a firm hold on the ground with her palms and pushes up with her legs. Her expression does not change. She has been swept up in the music and her head is empty of unnecessary thoughts. The only things that matter now are the movements that originate from deep inside.
After her hour-long training session Lilli wipes the beads of sweat from her forehead and sits down to stretch. She grabs an apple and jots down her thoughts in a notebook: what moves she just did, what thoughts came into her head that could be of use later.
Ten years ago Lilli would never have imagined that she would get swept up in the world of street dance. So, how did this happen?
Lilli’s skating career ended at the age of 18 in an operating theatre when she was diagnosed with chronic Achilles tendonitis caused by loose ligaments. Her journey from skater to dancer has been an emotional one.
From professional athlete to complete beginner
In September 2007 Lilli stood in the back row of a dance studio at the Helsinki Dance Institute. It was her first hip hop class and she felt very self-conscious.
“I felt like I didn’t know how to do anything and that my clothes were all wrong too. I felt embarrassed in my tight t-shirt next to everyone else in their loose tops.”
As a professional athlete it was not easy getting used to being a beginner again.
This girl from Espoo, Finland, grew up on the ice. Skating school led to figure skating and all the way to the world champion level. I trained professionally and hard. The ice rink was my entire life and the focus of my dreams. However, Lilli’s sporting career ended at the age of 18 in an operating theatre when she was diagnosed with chronic Achilles tendonitis caused by loose ligaments.
“After my operation my physiotherapist suggested I take up dancing as an exercise to support my rehabilitation. That was a turning point,” says Lilli.
The journey from skater to dancer felt an impossible one at first.
“I fought an internal battle with myself over whether to continue skating or to stop. During my summer break I noticed, to my surprise, that I didn’t miss the ice rink anymore.”
I was both scared and excited about embarking on a new sport.
“When I was a skater I was used to reaching out, holding myself upright and that each move had to be strong and clean. Now I had to be as relaxed as possible and round my back,” says Lilli.
“It was a humbling experience and I had to admit to myself that I don’t know how to do this. I could not be top of the class straight away. I assumed that as a skater I’d already know how to move in the right way. But I started to appreciate the fact that there are different patterns of movement.”
Street dance has helped Lilli to let go and feel free. “In street dance you are encouraged to find a way of training that suits you best.”
Just be yourself when you dance
Lilli went deeper into the world of dance and soon found herself at small dance school doing street dance in a special teaching group with 24 dancers of different ages. The group regularly practiced hip hop, funk-based locking and house moves and went on to become the Finnish champion in street dance in 2010.
“I also went to street dance events and got into the world of freestyle. I watched the dancers at the events and thought this is so cool. I wanted to get over that fact that I sometimes felt embarrassed and I wasn’t able to do all of the moves.”
The thrilling feeling of freedom through dance and the people who exuded pure happiness also encouraged me to keep practicing.
“At the events everyone danced with such passion and they were not afraid to be themselves.”
Lilli Huttula is executive director of the Vantaa street dance association. She can often be found at the association’s dance studios in Myyrmäki in Vantaa where she takes care of routine matters before taking her dance classes.
Ambitious go-getter learned how to let go
When two dance teachers who had been in the same formation team as Lilli asked her to help coach a new street dance formation she enthusiastically took on the challenge. This was the start of her career as a dance teacher.
“I hugely enjoy drawing dancers’ positions on paper and moving them about choreographically.”
Street dance was rapidly becoming a way of life for Lilli. She was involved in coaching, went to dance classes and trained independently with her friends. Though Lilli’s calendar was full, the ambitious go-getter side of her personality had loosened its hold on her over the years.
“I was more laid-back and had more self-confidence. In street dance you are encouraged to find a way of training that suits you best. Throwing yourself into the moment is more important than the perfect performance.”
Lilli is now executive director of the Vantaa street dance association and she organises street dance events. In the week you will find her at the association’s dance studios in Myyrmäki in Vantaa. Lilli still competes but has also taken on a greater role as an employer.
“I am mainly responsible for the operations of our dance school. I never planned on being in this position, but this is where I ended up,” Lilli says with a laugh.
“Sport has played a huge role in moulding my self-confidence and self-image,” says Lilli Huttula.
Psychology brought meaning to my life
Dance also has a strong connection with Lilli’s other professional field. In autumn 2010 she started studying psychology at the University of Helsinki. Lilli focused on neuropsychology and graduated last spring.
Dance crept into her studies in 2015.
“I was just starting my bachelor’s thesis, which dealt with dance therapy and the mirror-neuron system. This was when I started working with a dance rehabilitation project.”
The project studies the effects of dance in intracranial injury rehabilitation and is developing a related rehabilitation method. Lilli has a strong desire to do good and she wants to continue to work in the field of science.
“I feel like psychology has brought more meaning to my career as a dancer as well. I have seen in reality the way in which dance also helps to improve quality of life for people.”
This is also true in my own life. Dance involves things like planning and emails, but there is also the best part: my training and holding classes for other people, at least until 9 pm.
When they have finished, Lilli tucks up the dance studio for the night, turns off the lights and locks the doors.
“I can’t imagine my life without dance. Sometimes I feel like crying when I think about how lucky I am.”
Read more: "You can come as you are"