What is dance?
On a soft-sprung floor in Athlone, South Africa, six professional dancers from the United States are discovering the answers.
Led by Claire Sheridan, the founder of Liberal Education for Arts Professionals, an innovative degree program operating out of Saint Mary's College in Moraga, and by Kristine Elliott, a LEAP graduate now on the faculty at Stanford University, the American student-teachers have won what could be called the Dance For All lottery.
Dance For All, a barrier-busting Cape Town initiative, offers hope, life skills and employment to some of South Africa's most disadvantaged young people through dance. LEAP provides professional dancers in the U.S. with a bachelor's degree and, for many, a springboard to a second career.
This summer, for two intensive weeks, LEAP and Dance For All are extending Elliott's ongoing work in South Africa while bridging the great divide between the two continents.
"Kristine's work was the driving force behind this effort," Sheridan acknowledges in an email from Cape Town, where the group is housed. "She based her senior project on teaching ballet in the townships of Cape Town. Together, we created the Dance South Africa course. It's consistent with our mission to serve the underserved."
Sheridan put out a questionnaire to determine student interest, hoping for one or two responses. She received 40; Winnowing it down to six was difficult. Choosing a balanced ensemble
In a building fortified with steel bars, razor wires and guards, each well-balanced day for the approximately 54 students in the intensive session begins with a ballet class. The hand-picked students are bused from nearby townships to the warm, music-filled studios that belie the dance center's stark exterior.
LEAP teachers rotate, teaching or taking the class to maximize their interactions with the students. Rehearsals, where dances by American choreographers like Mark Morris are taught, precede workshops in jazz and contemporary styles, and dance history. Yoga completes the day.
It sounds exhausting -- until you listen to Kristine Elliott.
"This visit marks my eighth visit to South Africa. The first day was action packed,! It was a thrill to witness the reciprocity of learning and enthusiasm," she said.
Not content to stay within the confines of DFA's studios, the LEAP teachers are also traveling to Khayelitsha and Nyanga, townships where crime, poverty, AIDS, missing or abusive parents and hunger are daily experiences for their young students.
"This is an AIDS-friendly classroom" reads a battered sign on the classroom door. The teachers carry tables and chairs outside to make way for movement. Because some children are thin and malnourished, lunch is fed to everyone.
Olivia Ramsay, who trained with the San Francisco Ballet and performed with the Smuin Ballet among others, feels dance's profound impact, even on day one.
"I have learned that ballet can save lives," Ramsay wrote within 24 hours of arriving in South Africa. "Coming from such destitute townships, ballet has given them a chance to rise up and focus their energy on something positive."
Garen Scribner, admiring the South Africans' "unbelievable attack, musicality and abandonment," is learning to click -- literally.
In the Xhosa language, of the tribe most of LEAP students are from, "You use your mouth to make clicking noises along with words. To even say 'Xhosa,' it's (click)-oh-sah," explains Scribner, the San Francisco Ballet soloist.
The young dancers, described by their visiting teachers as "vibrant," "brave," "coordinated" and "disciplined," are appreciative -- and not intimidated.
"These kids have an unparalleled natural rhythm and love for dance, and are more eager to improvise and make their own dances than I ever could have imagined," says Lucy Van Cleef, currently a member of Los Angeles Ballet.
Added Scribner, who taught the 2 1/2-minute dance by Morris in one hour, "These guys can really kick it. They're quick!"
Dance South Africa could be a fleeting novelty, or a fancy dance project for privileged Americans or a photo op for a college's PR department if it wasn't for its legacy. A number of Elliott's South African students now dance professionally in Ballet Rambert, the Cape Town City Ballet and the touring cast of "The Lion King".
And Dance for All is continually training teachers and arts administrators; providing jobs and inspiring thousands of disadvantaged students to believe in a better future.
In Moraga, Los Angeles, and New York, LEAP's three locations, the program's resounding impact is harder to quantify. Buzzwords like "cultural exchange" and "international cooperation" fail to describe the hollering and cheering Scribner's ballet-with-African-drumming inspires, or the burbling giggles as a student coaches Ramsay to pronounce his name without the American accent.
Perhaps it is enough that these teachers vow to return to their homeland carrying a message. Dance, they have found, is more than exquisitely pointed feet and practiced, polished pirouettes. Dance is a gift, transcending racial, economic, and social disparities. Dance is a language of peace.