Termini Underground: (a) Movement beneath Rome’s central train station

I am one of the 480,000 people passing through Rome’s Termini Train Station each day. Like most tourists, I regard Europe’s second largest train station as a portal: a chaotic, drafty gateway into the Eternal City or to other romantic Italian destinations. Termini’s cavernous halls are full of impatient locals and flustered foreigners hustling in different directions.

The station hosts 150 million people annually, yet it is not a space where I have witnessed much meaningful, positive human interaction. More often than not, the moment I step into the station, I am swept into the commotion, weaving in and out of the crowds, jostling and being jostled, and rushing to my next mode of transportation.

But behind an unassuming door located between tracks 24 and 25 in the basement of Termini is a place where humans are interacting in a much different manner than the passengers on the floor above. Tucked away from those of us getting from point A to point B is a sanctuary, a place of underground movement. In this quiet, barely-trodden end of the station is a haven where a community dances together.

Through the unremarkable brown entrance is a single room that feels like grandpa’s den or a run-down Wisconsin supper club. The room has painted wood paneling on its walls, an antiquated, slightly warped mirror in the back, and a slowly-whirling ceiling fan above its tiled floor. The room was formerly used by railroad union employees.

Roman and immigrant youth practice dance in this underground studio

A union lounge no longer, the space is now a dance studio and vibrant community called Termini Underground. Funded by local government, the National Dance Academy in Rome, and private donors, Termini Underground offers free dance classes and performs annual productions. According to founder Angela Cocozza, it is a place that is “opening worlds and changing lives” by providing at-risk Roman youth with an outlet for creative expression and a sense of belonging.

Cocozza, a warm, energetic woman with smiling eyes and a ballerina’s stature, stands with her feet in third position and speaks with graceful hands as she emphatically describes this hidden studio:

She founded the studio when she was a 38-year-old choreographer. At that time, she often overheard dancers talking about hanging out in Termini Station. One night at 3am, one of Cocozza’s dancers called her, asking her to come to Termini with a car. She was heavily intoxicated and vomiting; Cocozza brought her home. Another night, Cocozza witnessed a friend’s daughter there, drunk and hardly conscious on the floor.

Termini had become a dangerous environment where youth squandered their time and energy. Cocozza recalls, “Everything started that moment at a place in my heart.” Shaken by what she had witnessed, she sprang into action and addressed the issue through the one way she knew how: dance.

Angela Cocozza, Termini Underground’s founder

Today, ten years after Cocozza started Termini Underground, its core mission, which “aims to help young people to be architects of their own destiny,” has shifted in response to societal changes in Italy. It still targets all marginalized youth, but to Cocozza, that means also supporting young immigrants and refugees, whose risk is magnified by the “growing racism” she sees in her country. It does so by providing a welcoming space and empowering them through experiential learning and community-based practices.

As Cocozza narrates, she pauses every few minutes to avoid competition with the many trains rumbling overhead. Despite the noisy interruptions that shake the room, Termini Underground needs to be at this central train station, the end-of-the-line for many buses, and the intersection of Rome’s two metro lines, as it is where the youth “fall into my trap,” Cocozza explains with a wink.

Since it is creative expression and both personal and group development that are most important to the studio’s mission, Termini Underground offers classes in whatever style dance the youth want to learn. Cocozza puts aside her professional background in modern ballet and is open to what they demand, which currently is b-boy (breakdance) and hip hop.

To teach this, Cocozza has an expert: Brancy Osadare, a Nigerian hip-hop instructor. When his lesson begins, the music’s beats instantly drown out those of the trains. He periodically stops the music to correct, tease, and encourage his students. “I believe!” he chants in Italian at a discouraged Philippine dancer who is new to the studio. With this, Osadare draws a smile.

Instructor Brancy Osadare teaches hip hop during an evening class

Osadare learned to dance on the streets of Rome and is the reason why many young men come to Termini Underground. They claim to be inspired by his technique, but Osadare recognizes his role is more than that. He explains, people come from different places and with different ideas. And his job is to help “construct unity. They now have something greater than their differences. And that is dance.” After all, Osadare is not just training bodies how to move- “They are dancing souls, really”.

Cocozza and two of her students engage after class. Photo by Ellen O’Leary

Today, there are upwards of 500 dancing souls in the community, preteens through twenty-somethings. Cocozza refers to these dancers as her family, and they call her mama. “An artistic mother,” she clarifies with a laugh.

Like the trains upstairs, Cocozza’s family arrives and departs as she speaks, and she pauses to welcome each affectionately and by name. They rock dreadlocks, messy buns, stylish glasses, and mismatched sweats and have the uniquely grimy, graceful appearance of modern dancers. They greet Cocozza and each other with hugs and kisses.

They are of different races and nationalities. They are one-hundred-percent Italian, second and third generation immigrants, and recent migrants. They are Cape Verdean, Russian, Chinese, Columbian, and Cameroonian, but where they come from does not matter. “Here, we are human first,” Cocozza proudly proclaims. The warm interactions of Cocozza’s multiethnic family suggest it is “a real space of freedom…a genuine lightweight space, where you can live together without tension.”

Grace Munoz, one of Osadare’s hip-hop dancers, agrees. “It is a real intercultural atmosphere and I love it. Termini Underground is like a second family and for me family is the most important thing in life. Before, I danced for myself. But now, I want to share my passion with others.” Munoz is an Ecuadorean who has been living in Italy since she was nine and dancing at Termini Underground since last March.

Grace Munoz (left and front) receives feedback from Osadare at the end of the lesson. Photo by Ellen O’Leary

Once they have the resources to do so, Cocozza’s vision is to form a company that can travel internationally. She dreams that Termini Underground will perform globally, and, with “no sermons, simply [by] being,” be a testament to their experience. Cocozza knows they can show the world how creative expression can change destinies and exemplify how people can unify around a common cause.

When I emerge from Termini Underground, ascending to the callous turmoil of the Station, I am disappointed, instantly sensing the disappointing discrepancy between reality and Cocozza’s sanctuary. I see people glaring at potential pickpockets, witness “random” police searches of foreign-looking folks just trying to get somewhere, and get bumped into and brushed by. But I know that there is a seed of hope planted below Termini’s tracks. And despite realizing that the rest of the world is not yet in sync with Cocozza, the underground movement of her dancing family, an Underground movement of humanity in an unsuspected place, gives me faith.

Photo by Ellen O'Leary

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