Dancing to Connect Paraguay 2015
Media and Press
Battery Dance Company’s team of 7 arrived in Asuncion on June 7 and immediately embarked upon one of its most demanding programs in the nine years since having launched the Dancing to Connect℠ program. Since 2015 marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the US Embassy, our primary partner in Paraguay, decided to use Battery Dance Company to spotlight the ADA and raise consciousness around the rights and capabilities and needs of people with disabilities. Paraguay has a long way to go in equipping buildings with ramps, accessible bathrooms and all of the services that make a level playing field for people with disabilities.
Although BDC had employed the DtC methodology to work with a range of participants with mental and physical disabilities in the past, the program in Paraguay proved to be the most concentrated and focused approach to date. The Embassy identified Fondacion Saraki among the NGOs that serve the disabled in Paraguay as the key local sponsor. Saraki has been the recipient of USAID grants in the past and is well-managed and accountable. Maria Jose and her husband Raul are the leaders of Saraki and are highly professional and committed individuals. Maria Jose’s brother has Down Syndrome and the couple have a son also with DS. A former ballet dancer, Maria Jose understood the value of dance as a medium for enriching young people with disabilities, so she came to the project naturally.
Saraki helped select dance studios and conservatories and foundations in and around Asuncion to source participants on both sides of the ability/disability spectrum and to identify studios with facilities appropriate for the dance workshops. The result was that five groups were constituted with 20 – 25 participants in each, half of whom were disabled and the other half were dancers from the studios where the workshops took place. BDC President Jonathan Hollander had been asked whether it would be desirable to fill the groups with a mixture of disabilities – but he suggested that a concentration on each group around a particular impairment would yield the best outcomes. Thus we had 1 group with blind students, another with deaf students, and one with youth with various levels of intellectual impairment from mild through DS. Two groups had more mixed characteristics – one had 4 participants in wheel chairs, 2 of whom were also severely intellectually impaired, and others with Cerebral Palsy and so forth. The last group was composed of psycho-socially challenged young people from a slum 2 hours away from Asuncion and local DS youth and young adults.
The involvement of young capable dancers could have been a deficit, if their attitudes or maturity caused them to respond to their disabled counterparts callously or impatiently. It could have been anticipated that such relatively privileged young people would feel stalled in the creative process by the slower learning pace necessitated by the involvement of disabled participants. On the contrary and much to their credit, these young dancers revealed reservoirs of love and compassion and sensitivity which provided the glue that held the groups together. In repeated visits to the programs, Hollander witnessed an atmosphere of cooperation and sweetness of disposition throughout.
Some of the groups had a local dance teacher assisting the BDC teaching artist, in the role of a teacher trainee. Others had young dance teachers actually participating in the workshops and performing as members of the groups. It is thought by the BDC team that its methodology will be carried on by all. Each of the groups had an interpreter to assist with the Spanish. The interpreter for the group with blind participants was, herself, blind.
The Embassy arranged for motorpool support to take each of the BDC crew out to their receptive studios and back to the hotel each day. The schedule was particularly hard on the morning shift of three teaching artists who had to leave the hotel each day at 7:15 and begin teaching at 8 a.m. The workshops lasted 4 hours each day over the 5 weekdays; Saturday was reserved for spacing rehearsals at the theater, and Sunday included a dress rehearsal and final performance.
The theater was a conference hall located within the theater complex belonging to the Banco Centrale of Paraguay, (the Banco Conference Hall).
Ambassador Leslie A. Bassett showered unusual attention on the Dancing to Connect Paraguay program. She visited one workshop midway through the week and two the next day, addressing the participants with genuine warmth and appreciation, eliciting deeply moving responses from abled and disabled alike. At one point, a young dancer choked back her tears as she described her feelings in the workshop; and the blind girl, next to her, followed suit. The Ambassador kept her composure but all the other adults in the room were less successful, even the heavily made up owner of the dance company and studio couldn’t prevent her mascara from running.
On the night of the final performance, parents of the young participants were allowed into the theater, even before the VIPs, since they were the evening’s true VIPs. Well before curtain time, every seat was filled in the auditorium, and the balconies and booths were jammed. Even technical and design-oriented folks who had attended one or two of the lighting workshops provided by BDC’s first-time but supremely professional and talented technical director Calvin Anderson, found their way into the lighting booth and hitch-hiked a ride with Calvin, who thoughtfully kept his elbows tucked in as he ran the lighting board.
The performance itself was a triumph for all involved. The Ambassador spoke passionately at the beginning, as did Maria Jose and Hollander, with a wheel-chair bound interpreter translating Hollander’s address into Spanish; and a sign-language interpreter making all of the speeches understood by deaf audience members.
The audience cheered each of the DtC groups enthusiastically, often clapping in rhythm to the music. One unforgettable moment occurred when a young man; Emilio, an extraordinary dancer seemingly unhampered by his DS condition, ran out in front of his group during the ensemble bow, like a Mick Jagger, beckoned more applause and jumped several times in a cheerleader’s spread eagle high in the air. The audience went wild.
The second half of the program had all of the young participants finding places on the carpeted steps of the aisles and in the well in front of the stage, squeezed tightly together, and yet completely silent and attentive until the end of each of the three BDC pieces at which point they erupted in ecstatic applause and cheers.
Certificates of program completion had been printed by the Embassy and signed by Arthur ‘Tuck’ Evans, the Public Affairs Officer, who had been the project chief from the Embassy side, Maria Jose of Saraki and Hollander. Voluminous bouquets were handed to each member of the BDC team, many of whom re-gifted them to their interpreters or the students themselves to pass on to their parents.
Calvin Anderson, Battery Dance’s Lighting Supervisor and Touring Tech Director gave two lighting workshops. The first was to a select group of film, architecture and art students at Casa de Artes Visuales with an audience of approximately 15. The second was to a group of dancers at the Municipal Theater. There were about 50 in attendance, including about 6 of the production staff of the Municipal Theater.
Arts Management Lecture
Jonathan Hollander gave a 2-hour illustrated talk on arts management for a group of dancers, architecture students and designers. The audience was very engaged and the event was more of a dialogue than a speech. Julian Armoa, the professor who brought his architecture students, wrote this touching note afterwards:
"I attended your lecture yesterday with a group of architects, remember? This is tell you that yours was an enriching, inspiring lecture, indeed. Your words and insights about arts as a whole were quite inspiring for my group. They got a full plethora of interesting info. They told me it was great for them to attend your lecture. Thank you for tailoring your lecture in architectural terms. They really loved that gesture from you. Thank you for sharing your insight and know-how with us!" Julian Armoa