Flexibility is the key
The Swaziland program was shorter than we would have liked and the conditions were very rough. However, given the lack of resources in Mbabane and the fact that we were working with young unemployed adults, the impact seemed to have been very powerful. Enforcing standards that would have seemed appropriate from our vantage point in New York – vis a vis the number of hours and participants, type of facility – as well as rules and regulations that would have prohibited new people to join on the second day and so forth – would have capsized the program. Likewise if the teaching artists themselves had held to a pre-determined standard, either literally or in their minds, they would have been disappointed. In the end, we felt that we reached goals of interpersonal connection and encouragement that exceeded our expectations. We were open to the differences and reaped the benefits.
Bafana Matea and Sean Scantlebury arrived in Mbabane in the early afternoon on October 17, having been delayed due to weather conditions, they were met at the airport by Marjorie Balarin of the Embassy’s Public Diplomacy Staff. Marjorie escorted them to the hotel, Ezulweni, where they checked in and rested. Afterwards, Marjorie and her husband took them out to dinner at a local Portuguese Restaurant. On the morning of October 18, they were picked up at 8:30 a.m. from the Hotel and escorted to Mbabane Theater Club.
The first morning workshop was scheduled for 9 a.m. Participants arrived a bit late and the session began at 9:30 a.m. Some were wearing jeans and boots and their preconception was that the workshop would be in the hip-hop style (a misunderstanding that the teaching artists have experienced elsewhere in the past.) There were 25 participants the first day, 23 young men and 2 young women. A few people drifted out of the workshop as the day progressed; otherwise, the session went from 9:30 a.m. until 3, with a 1-hour lunch break. “The food was delicious; everyone ate together, which provided a nice opportunity for socializing.”
The participants were interested in knowing how Matea and Scantlebury had gotten started in their careers as dancers. They also wanted to know about different styles of dance and methods of training and were curious about the project itself, wanting to understand what were the goals and expectations as well as how it would be accomplished.
Some of the participants expressed the fact that they didn't have opportunities in Swaziland to pursue the arts. This pertained to performing arts such as dance, theater and music, as well as the graphic and fine arts. The content of the first day consisted of a warm-up, stretching and exercises of moving across the floor (i.e. basic modern dance elements.)
The teaching artists were assessing the abilities of the participants; and the participants were getting a clearer sense of what the project was all about. Already in the afternoon of the first day, the teaching artists were gathering material created by the participants and showing how different phrases could be put together in order to build choreography.
The participants who appeared on the second day were far better prepared in terms of clothing and attitudes. Six young women joined the workshop on the morning of the second day. Clearly the word got out into the community that the program was going on and that the teaching artists were open to accepting new students. In essence, the workshop stayed at the same number (24 +/-) because for every participant who had dropped out the first day, there were new entrants.
The teaching artists decided that it would be advantageous to split the group in two, having the women working with Matea and the men working with Scantlebury. In this way, the teaching artists felt they could make the most headway by catering to the particular skills and techniques of each group. It seemed important to the confidence and comfort of the participants to clearly define the style by gender.
Since the program was so abbreviated, it was important for the teaching artists to begin stitching the material together even at this early point, because they knew that at the end of the third day, the dance would be performed. The participants were young adults, ages 19 – 28, and were able to handle the pressure of quick creation and nearly instant performance. They had a lot of self-confidence, high level of dance, theater and musical talent, and at the same time, were open to the new and different ideas and styles that were being introduced.
Since many of the participants already had fixed ideas of what they wanted to accomplish and perform, the teaching artists had to discover a way to incorporate the existing material and ideas and at the same time, build new understanding about the range of dance expression and technique. They were sensitive to the feelings and background of the participants and showed respect for what they came with. Therefore, the end result contained a mixture of what had been known and what was new.
The performance piece was completed and polished; the order of the program was established incorporating pre-existing dances and music by the participants and solos by the teaching artists. Scantlebury was interviewed on local radio with two well-known performers of Swaziland who were participating in the workshop and there was coverage in the local news. The advertising and outreach for the performance was modest, given the fact that everything was so new and no one knew in advance what the results would be. However, the artists guess that over 100 people were in attendance.
The U.S. Ambassador and representatives of the press also attended. Bafana and Sean sum it up: “We came to Swaziland as professionals and teachers; but we left as students. We learned so much about the life and challenges of the Country; particularly the struggles that artistic people face there. We feel that we left the participants with a sense of optimism and opportunity and new dreams. We were asked repeatedly whether we would be coming back. As far as we are concerned, we would love the opportunity to do so.” The next day the teaching artists departed Swaziland.