Monday, November 8, 2010

more dancing adventures

This month I had another chance to help out some students in the high school with a dance performance. As you may remember, the last project I helped with was for Dia de Maria Auxiliadora. Every grade in the school prepared a special performance of some sort to honor Mary Help of Christians, and the seniors chose to rewrite the lyrics to Hijo de La Luna, a song about the moon having a human child, which sends the mother’s husband in to a violent jealous rage, to honor Mary while they danced the waltz. Yes, you read that correctly. Believe it or not…they actually pulled it off. The students are so creative and I’m always amazed how willing they are to try something new, especially when it comes to dance.

I remember in high school how many people would laugh off the idea of dancing, especially in front of the school or community, with the typical “oh no…I’m not a dancer.” That attitude is hard to encounter here in our students, even amongst the uncoordinated or the particularly “macho”. In Bolivia, there are no “dancers” and “nondancers,” Just people. And Bolivia and I agree on the point that all people were born to dance in some way.

I should have had a little more faith in these kids this time around, but I have to admit I was worried. Before you scold me for underestimating them, let me explain…

A few weeks ago I was at the school for a parent-teacher conference when one of the high school teachers asked me if I had some extra time to help some sophomore girls with a dance they were putting together. She had seen me dance in the church before and said she needed some slow graceful steps for the girls, who would be dancing as “maidens” and planting seeds. I’ve stopped trying to guess about things like this, and even asking doesn’t get me far (Why are they constructing a huge swing in the road outside the church? Because cholitas or going to swing on it? Why? Because it’s November. Ah yes…of course, why did I even ask?). So I agreed (of course…maidens planting seeds…got it), and two days later one of the girls brought home the music. I put it in the cd player, pressed play, and was instantly assaulted by the worst music I had ever heard. It was essentially the same drab eight count repeated over and over. The only variation was thanks to the periodic switch between what sounded like a recorder, and a cheap keyboard set to “harpsichord”. It probably takes a special effort to produce music that creates new levels of awful, yet still manages to be painfully boring. And I get to make this fun for a few high school “maidens” dancing ballet for the first time?

As Hna. Leti would say “Gracias, Señor! For this wonderful new challenge!”

A few days later I had done the best I could to come up with some simple choreography for the girls. When the class arrived to practice, I was surprised to see not just the eight girls file in, but about a dozen young men and women as well. Okay…this was not part of the plan.

“So…why don’t you tell me a little more about this piece” I prompted the teacher.
“Well…” she began, “it’s for the environmental awareness fair at the end of the month. We’re going to be dancing about pollution. First, the girls will dance, and sow the forest. Then all these kids will dance. You’ll have to teach them some ballet too.”
“and they are…?” I started, bracing myself for what I knew was about to come out of her mouth.
“trees. I want them to dance ballet…but they can’t move around or anything like that.”
“okay…is that all?”
“Well, that girl’s a butterfly, and those two kids are birds”
Yes! Okay! Here’s my glimmer of hope! Butterflies and birds! They can move around and distract from the miserable trees attempting to dance ballet without actually ever moving their feet. Oh, but wait…
“The butterfly has really big wings. Like bigger than her, so she can’t really move too much. And birds, of course, belong in nests, so they have to stand on tables the whole time.”

Okay…let’s review…I now have the pleasure of finding a way to make something educational, entertaining, and not humiliating out of:

Eight dancing “maidens”
A dozen trees
A butterfly too hindered by her own wings to do anything
Two birds prohibited from flying
Music that was only burned on a CD because nobody would believe something that terrible existed without recorded proof.
Gracias, Señor, for this wonderful new challenge!

I did what I could, which, thanks to the enthusiasm and open mindedness of the students, turned out to be a fair amount. But when I saw the finished piece at the environmental expo, I was blown away. I should have known these kids would take something awkward, add all the flourishes, and make it part of something spectacular.

They opened with the ballet section. They had made some pretty amazing costumes, complete with face paint, and even gone so far as to turn the basketball hoops in to massive trees for the birds to dance in and fasten a few extra branches to the heads of our dancing forest. They really threw themselves in to the steps and made it look pretty darn good.

As the dancing forest finished up, the wind came in to wreak havoc (I didn’t have the heart to point out that wind, though destructive, isn’t a source of pollution) amongst smoke bombs and handfuls leaves flung by the waiting cast members.
Then came (dun dun dun!!) the garbage. Decked out in full recycled costumes (newspapers cut in to fringe, entire suits made of plastic bags, etc) and some pretty sick looking face paint, they crept in, some of them half swimming belly down on skateboards, to terrorize the forest. They pulled out some huge jump ropes and launched in to a sweet jump rope routine that lasted several minutes before…of course…transitioning to Michael Jackson.

I should have realized that this project would be a success simply because all dance related performances manage to incorporate Michael Jackson in some way. Anyway, the boys came in and rocked it.

Finally, a tight circle of guys shuffled in with their heads bowed together, while the music changed, promising something epic. They leaned back, spiraling open and balancing on each others’ stomachs until their bodies from the knees up were parallel to the ground. Completely unanticipated, a kid in a metallic hockey mask came crawling out of the circle like some sort of alien creature to deliver one of the most terrifying “don’t litter” messages I’ve ever witnessed.
To close, of course, the group lapsed back in to Michael Jackson to celebrate the rebirth of the forest.

You’d think I would have learned by now. Just because I don’t “get it” at first doesn’t mean it’s a waste. Congrats to our students on their hard work and creativity…and for proving me wrong once again.


  1. Coincidentally, I actually have a vacation to Bolivia planned for next month. I'd like to meet up with you and assist your students with dancing!

  2. That could be a great opportunity! Why don't you shoot me an email a and tell me a little more!