Battery Dance Company worked and performed here in 2012.
Overview Iraqi Kurdistan is very different from the rest of Iraq. While the rest of Iraq remains relatively dangerous to travel through, Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys a bourgeoning economy and peace and security. There are also very important differences in rules and how things get done. This Dancing to Connect program was led on the ground by, Robin Cantrell, a veteran Battery Dance Company dancer and teaching artist, and Roman Baca, an Iraq war veteran who is also a dancer and through a fellowship from The Mission Continues was trained to be a teaching artist at Battery Dance Company’s Dancing to Connect Institute.
Important Visa and Travel Information According to the Iraqi Embassy and the U.S. Department of State, to gain entrance to Iraq you must complete a multi-step visa process which includes having the Iraqi Embassy send your visa application to a Ministry in Baghdad. We never heard back whether the applications were accepted by the Ministry. What is not advertised however is the loophole when entering Iraqi Kurdistan. Although it is official policy to receive visas (which all official representatives will tell you), the airport authorities at Erbil airport will only require you to purchase a $20 visa at the airport. However, without the pre-stamped visa you will need an official local letter of invitation in order to board the Erbil bound plane at your airport of transfer. This may change however, so be sure when travelling to Iraq to talk to someone who has just recently travelled there to find out what the on the ground visa policy is. If you’re planning on travelling to Baghdad, try to apply for visas at least 6 months before your departure and be prepared for the trip to be cancelled by relevant authorities up to 1 week prior to departure.
Travel Insurance Travelling to Iraq, or any other conflict zone or area, requires a special type of travel insurance. In the fine print of most available travel insurances will be indicated that the insurance does not cover injury resulting from conflict, war, etc. in a previously known conflict area. Instead, search online for travel insurances for Iraq or ones that specifically cover conflict zones. Purchasing these insurance options will also allow you to cover kidnapping if you choose.
Bring Lots of USD US currency is widely accepted in Iraqi Kurdistan, although there is a lack of safe ATM’s for cash withdraw and credit cards are not accepted everywhere. Instead plan on bringing in American cash the amount you will need on the ground. This may also include program expenses that have not been paid. Be sure not to violate US travel rules on currency amounts for travel. Also, you should plan ample time for the settling of bills which usually occurs over a cup of tea.
Security vs. Reach Although as a whole Iraqi Kurdistan is safer than the rest of Iraq, there are variations between the cities in the region. Originally we had planned on doing the program in Kirkuk with a group of students there. However due to security concerns the program was moved to the safer Erbil. Rather than sacrificing the students we had originally wanted to reach, we transported the students to Erbil and through the U.S. Embassy and Consulate provided accommodations for the students. Security is paramount, but you do not have to sacrifice reach if you have the right local partners.
Reach out to Veterans
For the program, Roman an Iraq war Marine veteran who was previously a dancer and a choreographer participated as a teaching artist and fieldwork project manager. Veterans not only have skills that can be applied to your program, but also possess incomparable experience of how to work in conflict zones, how to recognize and deal with potential risky situations, and may have greater insight into local culture and experiences.
Keep Abreast of Current Events One week before our departure to Iraq, an American English language teacher was killed by his Iraqi student in a nearby city in the Kurdish region. Also one week before departure, news organizations reported that Iraqi ‘Emo’ youth in the city of Kirkuk were being murdered for perceived homosexuality. Learning about these events and understanding how they relate to your program are essential to understanding whether project plans need to be changed or not. They are also essential for understanding the risks of the next lesson learned: to photograph or not to photograph.
Marketing versus Security Despite the perceived security in Erbil, local partners informed us of the potential security risks of those who are found to be working with Americans. Every organization has a need for photography and video for marketing and fundraising purposes. However those needs come secondary to the health and well-being of your stakeholders. Before you take any photographs or videos, understand the risks by talking to local sponsors and partners and staying on-top of the news. Make sure to get photography and video waivers from participants and the families of minors, to add a secondary level of risk evaluation. Always err on the side of caution. This applies to photographing, videotaping, and identifying your local partners as well.
Working collaboratively with American and local partners, Battery Dance Company used the art of dance as a medium for healing and youth empowerment in Iraq. Employing Battery Dance Company’s signature arts education methodology, Dancing to Connect (DtC), a pair of American teaching artists engaged with 28 Iraqi students, ages 17 – 22, and two local teacher trainees over a period of one week. They worked in a group that crossed gender, religious, social and geographic boundaries. Together and under the guidance of BDC’s teaching artists, the students created choreography that spoke to the issues of inclusion/exclusion, the struggles of living in a war-torn country, and their hopes for a better future. As the process went forward, the initial differences between the students melted away.
Roman Baca, a choreographer and a Marine veteran who had served in Fallujah, approached Battery Dance Company to host him as a Fellow of The Mission Continues. TMC is a non-profit organization founded by Eric Greitens, a former Navy Seal, that provides support for Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans, funding their service in community organizations in the U.S. to regain their strength and purpose.
Beginning in January, 2012, Baca was trained by Battery Dance Company in leading Dancing to Connect workshops for youth and young adults and eventually worked side-by-side with BDC teaching artists in New York City public schools. Given his earlier experience in Iraq and his concern for the Iraqi people, Jonathan Hollander, Artistic Director of Battery Dance Company, posed the question, “Would you like to return to Iraq?” Baca’s affirmative answer prompted Hollander to approach the NEA/PPD Office in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to propose a Dancing to Connect program. Knowing that Baca would need the support of at least one of BDC’s experienced teaching artists, Hollander asked the Battery Dance Company members for volunteers to go to Iraq. Each and every member expressed an interest in going. Robin Cantrell was selected – in part because of the fact that Hollander wanted to have a man and a woman lead the program, anticipating that there would be mixed genders among the workshops participants. The Embassy in Baghdad forwarded BDC’s proposal to the Consulate in Kirkuk, where Susan Harville, the Public Affairs Officer, responded enthusiastically. Sue and Jonathan began putting the plans in place. Sue was already working with a group of young people in her English language program and felt that the DtC workshops would be a great experience, a reward of sorts, for them. However, because security conditions in Kirkuk wouldn’t lend themselves to an easy flow for students coming into the Consular Compound, or for the American teaching artists to go out into the City each day, she proposed to move the venue to Erbil. This required the active cooperation of her counterpart at the Consulate in Erbil, Matthew Ference. He agreed on the condition that students from Erbil could also participate.
In the end, a group of 19 students from Kirkuk drove up to Erbil with a teacher from the Institute of Fine Arts and Helen Patou from the Consulate. They stayed in a hotel for the duration of the program. Ten students from Erbil and one teacher formed the complement of the group.
Over the course of the week, the students worked with Baca and Cantrell, learning the craft of choreography as a vehicle for expressing their emotions and creative visions. None of the participants had taken formal dance classes in the past. Many were students at the Institutes of Performing Arts where they were studying acting or directing. As such, everyone began the process on a similar, very fundamental level. They knew very little about the medium of dance and even less about the art of choreography. Baca and Cantrell coaxed the students into devising movement by giving them a variety of tasks that built from individual creative movement phrases into group choreography. The differences between the students from the two cities were noticeable at the beginning of the workshop. They ate lunch on different sides of the courtyard and expressed passionate opinions and observations about one another in discussions. As the workshop developed, and the teaching artists initiated the mixing of demographics, the differences disappeared. On the last day of the workshop the students from both cities and religions were intermingled, professing friendship, and singing traditional songs together.