most of this was written after the trip- just finally had a chance to finish it!
When I got the opportunity to travel to Guatemala with JUNTOS, I was thrilled, excited, and overwhelmed- but most of all I was curious to see how the trip would change my opinion of dance. Up until then, I had always danced primarily for myself. I wanted to think that dance could be as important to the world as it is to me, but in a world where so many people lack basic necessities, I was never able to see true value in art. I was hopeful that the trip would help illuminate dance’s meaning in the world, but I have to admit I was skeptical- what could our dancing possibly bring to Guatemala, where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line?
What I found was a place and a reason for dance more powerful than I could have ever anticipated. It began on our very first day there, when we taught our first open workshop. At the beginning, we were just teaching a small group of dancers from the local ballet school. We started off with a basic ballet class, improvising ways to hold on to each other to balance since we didn’t have any ballet barres. As the workshop progressed, more and more people, both dancers and non-dancers, trickled in, and by the end we were teaching a large group. For four hours, two groups of vastly different people- different ages, religions, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, socio-economic backgrounds- came together and formed a shared community. As we all danced together, I realized that by exchanging our art we were creating a space where all those differences didn’t matter. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, I felt that we were communicating in a very powerful way.
The last performance we did was at an elementary school in Zunil, a beautiful but incredibly rural and traditional town (about 40% of the kids there don’t continue school past the 6th grade). Hundreds of students, told by their teachers to dress in their nicest clothes for us, sat on the periphery of their school’s sunny cement courtyard while we performed for them in the middle. As usual, the performance did not go according to plan: choreography had to be modified to protect our knees from the cement floor, and two of our dancers were sick and injured, throwing understudies in on the spot. I filled in and improvised most of a seven-minute dance. I found myself stuck in an unusual situation: when you can’t do all the steps, and you don’t know the rest of the steps, what are you left with? Going out on that stage, so different from any stage back in New York, I realized that I was left with the most important thing of all: spirit. I was the farthest I’d ever been from home, from all the things I use to define and create who I am, but I had never felt more like myself. When the performance ended, and the kids poured onto the stage, trapping us in a sea of grinning faces demanding hugs, I saw that in some way, the art that we had put out for them in that moment had been received.
I realize that one workshop is not going to change the quality of the participants lives once they return home, and performing at a school will not make more children there continue past 6th grade. Ultimately, what I learned from my experiences in Guatemala is that you cannot take all of the world’s problems onto yourself: it’s not realistic, possible, or effective. But that’s ok, because what you can do is take what you feel passionate about and figure out how to give it value in the world. For me, that’s dance, and I finally understand that the power of communicating through movement, and of sharing that with others, is extraordinary.
I learned the value of art, in a way that makes sense to me at least. Art is the fabric of culture. It gives texture, color, richness, and meaning to our lives: it describes and defines our human experience. When we share our art we share ourselves, and as artists, sharing our art is sharing the very best part of ourselves. Communicating through art allows us to open our hearts and our minds to each other. We learn about ourselves and those around us, no matter how different or inaccessible they may seem- art allows us to connect on a basic human level. At the risk of sounding naïve, I really believe that in doing so we can create a human community that transcends borders. And how else can we gain enough understanding of each other to achieve compassion and peace?
Of course, art is not going to solve all of the world’s problems- so much other work needs to be done, and that work is just as valuable. But my experiences in Guatemala taught me that for me, as a dancer, sharing my art is the most important way that I can try to bring any light into the world. I am so grateful and indebted to all the people I met in Guatemala, for dancing, sharing, smiling, and learning with us- they taught me infinitely more than I taught them. I am now certain that a life dedicated to illuminating the world with art will be a life well spent.