Isn’t it odd how the world will occasionally give you exactly what you need, even when you haven’t asked or realized what that thing was?
I just returned from 2.5 weeks of teaching and dancing in Uganda in the NYU Global Studies Program directed by my professor, Deborah Damast. I travelled with about 16 other NYU and Columbia University students and faculty to focus on community building through dance. The goal was learning how to teach, create, and perform through the lens of another culture. You can read more about it here.
I’ve been teaching since 2008 and dancing since….forever. But let’s be clear, not this style of dance. While learning some of the Ugandan dances, I could pick up the footwork and where the arms went, but I think the lifetime of a vertical ballet torso did not serve me well while attempting the Ekitaguriro or Acholi dances. Somewhere around the end of week one, I began worrying if I had anything in my metaphoric dance bag that would fit in a lesson with my co-teachers and that our Ugandan students would enjoy trying. I wondered if there was really a place for me in our little Global Studies Community. What did I bring to the table?
During the second week, about 50 children from various centers and schools came to learn and create dances with us. Here’s where the magic of the universe comes in…
One particular student had shown up to the class thinking it was going to be a ballet program. She came with her hair in a bun, pink tights, pointe shoes tucked away in her bag. By Thursday, program directors Jill and Grace asked if I would take her aside and just talk to her -one ballerina to another- as she had been relatively upset the first day and was feeling shy in the group. Thus began a lovely relationship with Carol Ann, a very sweet thirteen year old who loves ballet, but also decided that it would be fun to try new dance forms and make new friends. Is anyone else seeing a connection here?
Looking at Carol Ann was sort of like looking in a mini-mirror. It was interesting to be in the teacher role, and helping someone navigate the feelings of being outside their comfort zone, finding a place within this new community. We ended up performing a duet together, an adapted version of the Act 3 Kitri variation from Don Quixote. The program contained eight collaborative pieces with everything from African dance, Chinese traditional dance, jazz, flamenco, and samba, all forms which might not have been our speciality where dance is concerned. And that is just fine.
The best thing I think I did on this trip, the thing that made me feel the most valuable to my group, was helping to extend the circle so that one more child felt like she had a place. I went in thinking that I wanted to teach the BEST lesson that ALL of the kids would adore, and I ended up feeling the most positive about helping one person, one piece of our group to feel more included. I enjoyed feeling like a connector more than focusing on being in the center.
You know that thing I said about the universe? Funny how being put in the teacher role gave me the chance to look at relationship and contribution through the eyes of a student. This is something I will remember from this experience in future teaching and citizenship.