Devika Chandnani: Casa de la niña
Oaxaca, Mexico: August 2019
July 29th 2019
After months of fundraising, planning and anticipation, I have arrived in Mexico. A huge shoutout to everyone who donated to my fundraiser and made my being here possible. It’s been a wonderful first day in the city of Oaxaca, home to the Zapotecs – an indigenous community who’s culture dates back to 2500 years. My host family has been incredibly kind and I feel lucky to be sharing a home with them – the grandmother, her daughter and her two son’s have welcomed me with an open heart. They are helping me by teaching me their language and culture. I am excited to learn more over the next 5 weeks of my stay with them! My teachings at Casa de La Niña begin next week, I look forward to sharing more experiences and stories with you. Visit this page again for more updates on my trip.
August 5th 2019
Welcome back everyone!
I’d like to give you a quick highlight of my first two weeks in Oaxaca. My days would always start with a lovely home cooked breakfast. Señora Clara and I would always greet each other and talk about our previous day in Spanish. It encourages me to listen closely and be quick with forming my own sentences in the language, I have found that the best way to learn a language is to force yourself to converse in it, it seems to be working really well for me! Post-breakfast with the family, I would head to Oaxaca Spanish Magic for a 4 hour long group Spanish lesson. My teachers there are very kind and have a unique strategy of teaching the language, the class structure, in general, was 2 hours of speech, 1 hour of grammar, and 1 hour of private lessons catering towards teaching me the vocabulary I would need to teach dance classes to my students.
I would usually spend the rest of the day trying local street foods and beverages in the company of a book. My enthusiastic self brought 5 books to Oaxaca, and Devika from week 3 would like to tell you that she is through with 3/5 books! As you all know, my JUNTOSAmbassador project was catered towards teaching dance as movement therapy to women in Oaxaca who’ve been subject to domestic violence. In time, I’ve come to understand that the concepts of gender, race, sexuality, religion and political identity are all just ways in which human beings like to organize themselves and categorize the ‘other’. In recognizing that, I have also been able to conclude that those boxes have absolutely no meaning to me. Having said that, I feel compelled to justify why my project caters to solely a group of women.
Although the concept of gender and gender roles have very little significance to the way I behave, I understand that society still distinguishes woman from man. The ways in which this simple binary has caused the lives of many to be affected is frightening. Women all around the world are treated differently and there is no denying that. Every human being should be treated with compassion and love, but there is a life threatening polar dynamic that exists between some men and women that repeatedly shows itself in real life through violence. There is no doubt that every woman experiences this dynamic, however, some have it dramatically worse than others. In some ways, I can say that I understand that dynamic, perhaps in the form of empathy. On the other hand, I am not slow to realize that I have experienced nothing of that extreme.
The 5 books that I have brought with myself are all written by female authors, all 5 of them memoirs. It reminds me that there are some women in the world who have the courage, tenacity and strength to fight for their existence in their own families and in the world of arts, sports, military, medicine and business. There are others who can’t do as little as speak up to the men in their lives. I have spent a decent amount of time pondering if these opposing experiences between women from different parts of the world are different because they are different individuals. That would make the most sense logically, and it would allow me to forget about the suffering of women altogether. It would bring to life a dream – that is to see them as individuals rather than women, giving importance to their individual identities rather than their gender. Another part of me argued that the differences in their lives lie between factors such as education and income, I was almost convinced. I then came to realize that the fact that some women are fighting whilst others remain silent, means that there is something we all, together, as women, have to fight for or remain silent towards. This unifying factor is undeniable in my mind. No matter how hard I try to get rid of the binary in my head, the split still exists in the world around me. I feel unified with other women not because of my gender, but because of our unifying experience as the “other” to a man. I have identified something that affects me very deeply, and I would like to use dance as a way to leave a positive impact on women who’ve experienced gender-based violence. I wish to empower my students and remind them that their individual voice matters. Dance up and speak up!
My teachings at Casa De La Niña, an orphanage and safe house for girls, and Ciudad de Los Niños, an orphanage for boys, begin next week.
Do come back for more stories!
August 12th 2019
It’s Sunday and I am reflecting back on the wonderful week I’ve had with my students at Casa De La Niña, Ciudad De Los Niños and a Folklorico dance group! I’ve been teaching a variety of different groups and all of my classes have shaped up very uniquely.
Let’s start with the Baile Folklorico dancers! They’re a group of extremely talented dancers who practice traditional Mexican dances and work for paid gigs. They found out I was here and we were able to set up 2 hour long sessions twice a week. Our classes are usually advanced level and I teach them everything I know ranging from Ballet, Horton and Contemporary floor work. Next week, we will be working on improvisation with partners and come up with a group choreography that will be presented at the Zocalo – the city center – in Oaxaca. I love working with them and hope that I leave behind a sufficient amount of information for them to be able to integrate it into their professional work.
On Monday and Tuesday mornings, I teach classes at Ciudad de Los Niños – an orphanage for boys between the ages of 6-15. The classes have been full of high energy and focus. We developed 3 major goals that we hope to work on over our time together; Connectivity, Skill and Voice. Class is organized in a way that I introduce a challenging, physical warm up to push their endurance and help them develop and understanding of their body. That is followed by various partner/group activities. For example, this week we played the mirror game, this gives them an opportunity to work in partners and take on leadership roles. One partner leads a movement and the other tries to follow at the same time – like a mirror! This game also accomplishes the goal of creativity for the person playing the leaders role. We usually end class with a fun choreography that we repeat the next day – working their memory!
Wednesday through Friday, I spend my mornings at Casa De La Niña. The girls here are between 5-16 years old. Each class, we work on similar goals as the other group – connectivity, skill and voice. This week, we worked with partners by sharing each others weight and developing trust. We end class with a choreography starting and ending with simple improvisation. We’re having a blast.
August 19th 2019
Week four may have been my fastest one in Oaxaca. My morning classes at Casa de La Niña and Ciudad de Los Niños went excellently this past week. In addition to those, I had 2.5 hour long classes/rehearsals with the Folklorico group since we had a show coming up on Friday. On Tuesday, I was able to start and finish a 2:15 second long piece and on Thursday, we spent some time on reviewing and playing with compositional elements of the piece. They had been rehearsing the Folklorico dances day in and day out and we would work on our contemporary piece together in the evenings from 6:30-9:00PM. Friday came and hence went by too quickly. Faster than I would have wanted it to – the end of this week meant the beginning of my last week in Oaxaca with my students.
Our show on Friday took place at the city center; the Zócalo or the ‘Plaza de la Constitución’ of Oaxaca. It was constructed in 1529 and has since been the home to many musical bands, folk dances, and cultural events. The Folklorico dancers that I work with perform here often since dance is an integral part of the culture in Oaxaca. I may have forgotten to mention this to you all in week 1 as I rightfully should have, but Oaxaca is home to the month long cultural festival called the Guelagetza which features dances from all seven regions of Oaxaca. Dance here is very meaningful and highly valued by the people.
Our show this week was taking place at government organized back-to-school fair set up at the Zócalo where stationary and other school supplies were being sold for lower prices. I believe that the festival also marked the end of summer because school’s here were about to begin on the coming Monday. I’m extremely happy that I got to choreograph and perform here, they also had me do a solo. I was most happy about getting the chance to watch all the Folklorico dancers do their thing. Not only were they excellent on stage, they were also so seamless with their costume changes. It couldn’t have been easy since their costumes and skirts are very intricate.
I wish there was a way for all of you to see the wonderful dances performed by the Folklorico group! The contemporary piece I choreographed and my solo were amidst of many other dances, such as the Danzas Huaves, Miahuatlaán, Pochutla, Jarabe Mixteco, Danza de Viejitos, Polkas Chihuahua and Bailes del Norte! I’m glad I got to be a part of their show and present a short piece. The experience was fulfilling, I admire all of their passion, dedication and professionalism.
The performance on Friday was excellent but Saturday morning marked my best experience in Oaxaca. Alberto, one of my students from the Folklorico group, is also a dance teacher at a women’s prison called CERESO Feminil. He teaches Baile Folklorico there 3 days a week. His students at the prison were having a presentation and he invited me to come watch. I was at a loss of words, Alberto’s excellent work ethic showed through in his students. We got there with 3 suitcases worth of skirts, tops and accessories needed for Folklorico dances. We went through extreme security checks before entering inside to find all the students with their hair and make- up perfectly done. They dressed up in the costumes we brought with us and so, I watched my second professionally done Folklorico performance within 24 hours. The sound of the music buzzing within the vast empty space where the women lived almost made me forget that we were currently boxed inside by walls.
I can’t wait to see what my last week has in store.
August 26th 2019
I can’t believe my fifth and last week in Mexico has ended, I have 3 more days until I wrap up and fly back to the New York. I’m in Oaxaca sitting in a park near my homestay realizing how precious my remaining days feel. The past week was incredible and in honor of our last few classes together, the girls at Casa de la Niña and I started painting the walls and writing one word affirmations. We would usually take a moment after class to reflect on our experience and write a word about how we each felt and those were the words we brought back to write on the walls. The boys at Ciudad de los Niños were anticipating performance day, we performed a little dance we had been practicing in front of everyone else who worked inside the orphanage. The Folklorico group and I had an amazing last day together too. All the students cooked something at home and brought to the studio for a pot-luck, I was told this was a very common thing to do in Mexico to welcome somebody, celebrate a birthday or sometimes, to say goodbye. Their kindness made leaving feel extremely difficult, I found myself in tears multiple times this week. Every single person here was so kind and warm, teaching them was an honor! I loved that I could be here. By the end of this week, so many changes had occurred in me and my students that I almost forgot that there was a time, not too long ago, when we didn’t even know each other’s names. They told me that Oaxaca would welcome me with open arms if I were to ever return and that I have friends here to come back and visit. I was told that I was the best teacher some of them had ever had, but I had to explain to them that the only way that was possible was because they were my students. They made me feel full and whole. The kindness I received reflected in my daily interactions and therefore my teaching style. Oaxaca taught me so much.
From New York
September 2nd 2019
Welcome back everyone.
Now that I am back in New York, I feel like my life on Oaxaca was a dream. I find myself on the subway often thinking about a place I am no longer in, wondering if everything I experienced was even real. Leaving New York to go to a town like Oaxaca and then returning can feel like you lived a short dream. Once you return to this city, it takes less than a minute to be pulled back into it’s rhythm. The two feel very different to me but it’s been on my agenda to hold on to all the good things I learnt in Oaxaca. I felt so easily moved by good things in Oaxaca, this is not a complaint, I am happy to be basking in the little things in life, I just wish I could stay a while longer to be hit by kindness and love enough times so that something so essential to humanity could stop swooping me off of my feet every time I came to face with it. I will continue to live in New York now how I spent my five weeks in Mexico – with love, kindness and generosity. I want to thank all my donors one more time for making this project possible, because of your generosity, I was able to go to a magical place like Oaxaca and bring the joy of dance to such incredible people who in return, gave me so much love.