One of the most profound lessons we can learn is empathy.
Miss Laura talked in the DAREarts opening circle about the discovery of a new land. What it was like for those new people in the Americas. She talked about the slave ships and how the disease that was carried in those ships killed the people who lived here first. By the millions. She also talked about the people who were kidnapped from Africa and brought here in tiny ships. By the millions. The two sides of discovery. The good and bad side of the story… both sides of a story.
Four volunteers held a sheet about three feet from the floor. One by one, students crawled under it until everyone in the circle was crouched in absolute silence for 30 seconds. Laura counted down and released them. They went back to their circle and she asked them to describe their experience. In one word.
Cramped. Awkward. Tight. Stinky. Crowded. Claustrophobic. Suffocated.
Miss Laura explained that this was being under a sheet for half a minute. Imagine being in a slave ship with less space than that. Conditions far worse. About half the people would make it here alive. The wonderful discovery of a continent is tainted by the knowledge that it was taken by people who stole someone else’s homeland. The flip side of Discovery is Loss.
But the good part of the story is highlighted by Melissa Noventa, our Afro-Cuban dance teacher. She told us about how African and Spanish styles and traditions meshed in Cuba. How, at the end of a long hard day in the fields, the slaves found comfort in their stories, traditions and music. She asks the class at large if anyone has been to Cuba. A student describes it. Hot. T-shirt and shorts all the time. Beaches and dancing. Spanish spoken by everyone.
Melissa asks, “Can you imagine working in the fields in that heat?” She talks about where most of the Slaves came from. Western Africa. Nigeria. She talks about traditions “They brought their memories, stories, religion, language, that’s all they had. Nothing else. Nothing but inner strength.“
The kind that these kids are igniting in themselves.
The dance the kids are learning isn’t just a dance. It’s story-telling.
Elegba is a protector of children. He likes to get into mischief. He’s red and black. A little good…a little not so good. Kind of like our Turtle Island Trickster. Helps us to grow into better people. He’s from Nigeria. He wears a special hat. Red on one side, black on the other side. He walks down the middle of the village and all is well. That is, until he leaves the village for a day. In his absence, a conflict arises. One side thinks his hat is red, the other argues it is black. Things get out of hand. Elegba hears about the arguing and returns. He takes off his hat so they can see his hat is both red and black. A different perspective. Things aren’t always what you perceive.
That’s a good hat!
Each child is given a “garabato” – a stick with a hook on it. It’s a privilege to hold it, because it represents something important to the people of Cuba. They wave it away from them to clear the path and wave in towards themselves to gather challenges.
One two three hop!
Cross back, cha cha cha! The chicken is the best move ever.
Be your own trickster.
Looking for trouble. Use your face; tell a story with your body. Use different levels. Put a little of yourself in there. Stay low to the ground.
Melissa sings the accompanying song in a beautiful voice that fills the Enoch Turner schoolhouse and gently reverbs in that beautiful space.
I see a little girl in blue and green. She’s pulled up proud. She does the chicken beautifully. She’d had a little trouble getting the idea of the cross step back, but she eventually nails it, and this big smile fills her face.
I reflect on what these teachers have taught us today.
“Digest the movement and reflect. Be aware of what your body is feeling.”
The morning’s success is bringing a huge history into a smaller frame. Something as vast as a population that was uprooted and placed into unbelievable circumstances in our world is illustrated by holding a sheet three feet above the floor.
Introspection. Thoughtfulness. “…say the dance steps out loud. Then your body will hear.”
Music and language are fused together to create a new culture.
Going into the body and out of the head.
Dates and places are useful, but much more useful if you have an inkling of what to expect. Empathy is the greatest teacher. Even if you have to be tricked into seeing things differently.
Cathy Elliott, DAREarts Director of Communications firstname.lastname@example.org