Why do we dance? Why do I dance? I often try to reflect on this question. It is exactly 20 years ago that I discovered my love for dance. And I still tend to ask myself that same question. The answer often changes, but like most of us I always come to the same simple conclusion: because it makes me feel good. Yet this conclusion has become more refined over the years. I believe in dance. I believe in how it heals us. I believe it helps us deal with loneliness, depression, physical limitations and so forth, I believe it can be a tool for communication. I lost my faith in dance for a while. I went off track: I was thinking of photo shoots, youtube videos, what workshops would sell, what would be successful. I thought that's what differs a professional dancer from a hobbyist. And perhaps in a way it does, but in that journey I lost something very important. Why do I dance?
Movement For Humanity - Kigali, June 2016
In June 2016 myself and my friend and colleague Tjarda Van Straten (NL) went to Rwanda to work intensively for 3 weeks with a group of local dancers, working towards a performance that was going to be staged at the amphitheatre at the genocide memorial in Kigali. No pressure... A place so powerful that symbolizes the failure of humanity. The journey leading up to this trip really started when I saw the image that circulated social media of the 3 year old toddler Aylan Kurdi that washed up on the shores in Turkey in September 2015. All I could think of was: enough. Enough of turning the other way and staying in my wonderful bubble of sequins and spotlights. I wanted to find a way to bring my love for dance together with current affairs that were happening in the world today. Not with any illusion to change the world, but to perhaps make even the slightest bit of difference to just a handful of people. Some of you might have read about my experience in the Calais Jungle, where I taught a dance workshop at Good Chance Theatre. Some of the stories I gathered there as well as the stories of refugees I read or watched online were the inspiration of the work in Rwanda. So when I found out that curator of the Ubumuntu Arts Festival in Kigali Hope Azeda was interested in showcasing some work I decided to call Tjarda and proposed the idea of creating work together.
Collaborating with another choreographer in this way, choreographing in a different country with its own systems, working intensively for 3 weeks with people we had never met before,... all of this was new to me. And looking back, it still amazes me how we pulled it off. Not only that, but the result of this collaboration exceeded my expectations far beyond I could even imagine. The ripple effects of this trip will continue flowing for many years to come. This experience has changed me on such a deep level and I know many of our dancers felt the same way. The many challenges we faced didn't stop us from making this happen. After failing to get arts funding in different avenues, we decided to speak to our online audiences and set up a kickstarter to raise the funds needed for this trip. From where I was standing: this project was bigger than us. It was not about the next step in our career, it was about creating work for humanity that sent a strong message across on a symbolic stage at a festival that had humanity (ubumuntu) as its theme. So one thing that was important to me was truth. And working with an incredible artist like Tjarda, who I admire for her integrity in the arts, was just what I needed. For her this piece symbolized something else than for me, but for me, this piece was about giving a voice to refugees all over the world. Those that suffer from loss of identity through their displacement and those that find humane moments by working together through their suffering. And that was the beauty of this piece: each dancer was dancing for their own cause, bringing truth and integrity to the performance.
We wanted to offer something else for the dancers, not only a piece that they could perform again after we have left but clear tools in how to create dances so that they could use these tools for their own work in future. Both Tjarda and I are Laban trained. We are from different schools, yet many elements overlap. We used these tools to create work and explained the processes we used. Through the use of stories and imagery the dancers created solo material in their own style of dance. We had 2 dancers specialising in traditional Rwandan Dance, one dancer that specialised in Acogny's African Modern technique, one breakdancer,... in other words: a really mixed bag. The struggle but also the exciting part of this piece was to bring each individual style to the surface while making it work as a whole. That alone sends out a strong message, I believe.
I want to say a thing or two about Tjarda, an excellent coach and I believe one of her major strengths is to really get the best out of dancers in a short period. Part of our dance was very contemporary, a very different style than some of our dancers were used to, yet through very well thought out games and exercises she brought the attention to what each dancer needed to work on, something that worked so well that I certainly intend to apply some of this to my own teaching. (thanks, Tjardaken!)
One of our dancers really inspired me and I wanted to share his story with you. Alex Heskey (aka Dance Machine), a dancer from Uganda, left behind his life there to move to Rwanda. I was inspired by his dedication during our rehearsals and I was impressed by his work ethic. An incredible breakdancer, Alex had learnt most of his skills from youtube or from sharing with his other dancer friends as finding dance classes in Rwanda can be a challenge. After talking to him I discovered he taught breakdance to children age 6 - 16, many from poor backgrounds. I decided to come to one of his teaching sessions and participated in the class. What I observed was that many of the children didn't have shoes or had dirty clothes and they didn't even have a sound system to play music to dance to. What I also observed was that there was no sense of competition. Instead the better dancers would help out the weaker dancers with their moves, which seems like such a basic thing when I think about it but I had never seen that on this level.
The care Alex put into each and every one of those kids was beyond moving. This trip for me was not only about the project, but about discovering the meaning of Movement For Humanity. It was a joy to see the work Alex had done with the children and he really inspired me a lot during this trip.
Friday 15th July was our performance day at the Ubumuntu Arts Festival. We were opening the show with our piece. When our dancers stood there on stage in silence for the first two minutes, it filled the space with a sense of unease yet it caught the attention of the audience. Our dancers danced their heart out and I was overwhelmed with their energy that now was filling this massive amphitheatre. They were not dancing for themselves, they were dancing for humanity. And it was the most powerful thing. Dance transcends. When Ego disappears it brings the dancer in direct connection with a stronger force that I cannot explain. And when it is done right, that force is felt by each and every one of us who witnesses it.
Why do I dance? We all have our reasons, but for me, at this moment in time it is to find that truth. That connection to what is bigger than me. Because when you connect to this source, you connect to the Self of every person in your presence. And it's the only hope for humanity that we have.