LEAP’ing Through South Africa

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It’s great to be back. I love this part of the year – we’re back to work, rehearsing and creating new work for the coming 2011/2012 season.  My summer was fun-filled, but the most memorable part of it was traveling to South Africa.  In June, I participated in a LEAP course called Dance South Africa, which includes the creation and implementation of  a two-week intensive program for the Dance For All organization in Cape Town. The trip was a culmination of work by Kristine Elliott (co-professor, master teacher and former soloist with American Ballet Theater and Stuttgart Ballet), who has been to South Africa many times over the past ten years to volunteer her time with Dance For All. Kristine and I also just graduated from St. Mary’s together in May, and this trip accounted for my last three units towards the completion of my requirements for a Bachelor of Arts. It was the perfect way to complete my undergraduate degree.  Dance South Africa took six LEAP students along with Kristine and Claire Sheridan (also a master teacher, founder of the LEAP Program, and professor for the course) to Cape Town from June 24th to July 10th to teach young South African dancers. I couldn’t have asked for better colleagues – Olivia Ramsey, Alejandro Piris-Nino, Annie Colbeck, David Tamaki, and Lucy Van Cleef.  It was incredible and eye-opening to experience how the art of dance can nurture an underserved population of youth.  Honestly, it’s hard to capture the spirit of this trip in words.

The mission of Dance For All is to “provide children in historically disadvantaged communities with the opportunity for enjoyment, empowerment and promotion of self-esteem through the medium of dance, as well as training professional dancers and developing a unique, indigenous dance company.”  To facilitate this mission, Dance for All teachers go into the townships in and around Cape Town (Khayelitsha, Nyanga, Gugulethu) and conduct outreach programs, teaching dance to kids of all ages.  Our LEAP group did the same.  If the students from the townships have the talent and motivation, a small number of them are accepted into the full-time program, and train for many hours a week in the Dance For All dance studios in Athlone.  Our LEAP Intensive included over 50 full-time students, as well as two groups of students from each township. We worked from 10 am until 5:30 pm every day, teaching ballet, contemporary, jazz, and repertory.  The program concluded with two incredible performances – we were so impressed with the students’ talents and artistry.  They had a remarkable sense of rhythm, unity and collective energy.  It was overwhelming and life-changing to see the growth over just two weeks with these students.

It’s important to understand that most of these dancers come from the worst areas and townships in Cape Town. The mark of apartheid is unfortunately still palpable. The students we were teaching are the first generation of children to be born without its choking grip.  After all, it was not that long ago that the country was officially segregated by color lines. That grip is letting go with every day of a free South Africa.  Equality is on its way, but slowly – nothing happens overnight.  South Africa is an incredibly diverse place, with eleven official languages. It was so fun to try speaking the language – complete with clicks.  I talk about it in this Contra Costa Times article. Visiting the townships where the students lived informed us of their life experience, and gave us a sense of what it means to be a black South African. It isn’t easy. Many of their homes are tiny shacks; the bathrooms are shared by many and are accessible only by dirt paths. The township visits also gave us a sense of what Dance for All means to the young dancers. It’s an opportunity; a safe place to learn, grow, make friends, and expand their world.  This program, and others like it, are very important. Actually, they’re vital.

We were working with the kids for the majority of the time, but we took a drive one day, and were able to see some of the surrounding natural beauty of Cape Town, which resembles the coastline of California in many ways: the coastal cliff drives, windswept “golden hills” and salt air.  We went to the Cape of Good Hope, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, an absolutely beautiful place.  Baboons were running around, stealing food and cameras from unsuspecting tourists!

All in all, it was the trip of a lifetime.  I blew off my teacher ‘training wheels’ and now feel prepared to take on new and challenging environments.  I learned that it takes creativity, determination, and discipline to be a good teacher. Watching the smiles on those kids’ faces and witnessing their confidence and self-esteem build with every new step was beyond rewarding.  For me, the most crucial aspect of the trip was knowing that our presence there exposed the students to new things.  It was a cultural exchange, but above all it was it was about growth.  I truly believe that art (which includes dance) is a catalyst for transformation, growth and hope.  Small changes, like the ones inspired by this trip, are the seeds that enact progress in our world.

With more initiatives like the LEAP South Africa course, the world can only become a better place – and I hope to be a part of future initiatives.

Students in class.

Me warming up with students (Photo by Annie Colbeck)

Rehearsing choreography (Photo by Annie Colbeck)

 

I'll never forget these students! (Photo by Annie Colbeck)

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6 Comments

  1. avatar ASJ
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    SO beautiful!! Thank you for your good work!!

  2. avatar Susan S. Briggs
    Posted August 11, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Garen: I’m so glad you had a chance to teach at Dance for All in Cape Town. I know the program well and have visited the school myself. The program is so vital to the well-being of the students, who are truly remarkable.

    Susan S. Briggs
    SFB Trustee

  3. avatar Mugs
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    This is terrific, Garen. A great read. Sounds like an amazing trip.

  4. avatar Megan Sitrin
    Posted August 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    your wonderful!!! Way to make a positive difference!!!!

  5. avatar robin elam-rye
    Posted August 13, 2011 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    An excellent article Garen! I’m so pleased I was able to do a few pics on the final Friday……the video also came out well (Phil has copies but our system is PAL so might be a problem for you)….Hopeto see you in Cape Town again one day.

  6. avatar hilde gard
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much Garen, I love South Africa ¡ I was in JohannesBurg in 1994 for the Inauguration of President Nelson Mandela¡¡¡ So you have a fans in Buenos Aires,,,friendly yours, violetta

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