Australian Peni Waqairatu comes to Cornell College to play football, dance

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MOUNT VERNON — Teammate Andrew Joseph was about the only one who knew. None of his coaches did.

Peni Waqairatu is a dancer. A good one.

Just search for his name on YouTube, and you’ll find video after video of his contemporary, jazz and ballet moves. You’ll also see some where he sings songs like James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” and “This Is How A Heart Breaks” by Rob Thomas at talent shows.

He loves performing, and he loves playing football. That’s why he’s doing both at Cornell College.

“I started dancing when I was about 8,” Waqairatu said. “My mom took me to a dance class, and I just loved it from the start. It took off from there. I have danced and done sports pretty much my whole life.

“Everyone is like ‘Oh, you dance and play football?’ They are not two very common connections. But I like doing it, so I keep doing it.”

Waqairatu is a freshman from East Melbourne, Australia, of all places. He wanted to come to the United States to study dance and play football, sending out highlight videos of himself to many schools.

He got some responses and eventually a phone call from Cornell defensive coordinator Don Dicus. The two hit it off, and, bing, bang, boom, Waqairatu decided Mount Vernon, Iowa, was the place he wanted to be.

Never mind that he was going from a major international city to a small, rural one. Never mind that he never saw the Cornell campus until he moved here this summer for classes.

“I got a nice vibe from the school, and I like the block schedule, taking one class at a time,” Waqairatu said. “That was a big thing, so I could really focus on doing well in school. I just decided that I was going to come here, it looked good, and it checked out.

“It’s pretty different because I’m from a city. But it is pretty nice out here, it’s pretty peaceful, everyone is pretty chill. I do like it here. It’s not bad.”

Despite being only 5-foot-7 and 215 pounds, Waqairatu is on the defensive line for Cornell (2-5), which plays Saturday at Knox. Primarily a running back in Australia, he believes the nimbleness developed from dance has helped him make the position adjustment.

It hasn’t been easy, as you’d expect. Waqairatu said the pace of the game, even at the Division III college level, is significantly faster than what he was accustomed to back home.

But he’s keeping up and getting playing time.

“I’ve never played D-line before, so just learning the techniques and everything is pretty new to me,” he said. “I think I’m doing all right with it. It’s good.

“My dancing has definitely helped me adjust into football pretty well. Just agility wise. In dancing, you have to be pretty agile, be able to jump and everything. That’s pretty similar to playing football. You need to be able to jump, run quickly and everything. And dancing keeps me pretty fit in the offseason. Keeps me in shape pretty much.”

He said only Joseph had knowledge of his dance background, which is why the fellow D-lineman called him out last month at a homecoming pep rally on campus. It was a dance off, of sorts, and Joseph volunteered Waqairatu to take part.

Let’s just say everyone was impressed.

“Yeah, A.J. ... knew that I was a dancer, so he kind of signed me up for it, to see how I good I was,” he said. “I killed it.”

Waqairatu hopes his love of song, dance and theatre pays off in the long run. He wants a career in it, whether that’s in the United States or back in Australia.

He’s not allowed to dance during football season, but that will change upon its completion.

“I will be doing probabably a couple of shows for sure,” he said. “I’d love to stay in the States because it’s kind of the mecca of dance. The center of it. So I’d really love to stay here. But if I have to go back home, I’ll go back, then maybe travel back here and get some jobs and stuff. Do whatever I can.”

“Either way is fine with me. Dance here, dance in Australia. Whatever. I just want to dance.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

 

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