Project Archive: 2010

Project Title: International Youth Dance Exchange

Project Partners: Svitac, US Embassy

Project Location: Brcko

In post-war and conflict-ridden Bosnia-Herzegovina, organizations are working to bring children together with cultural, rather than national, projects. This RDDC program takes the next step by allowing students to develop and lead their own cultural projects, creating global artistic engagement as a path for transcending local conflict and developing youth as the next generation of community leaders.
This exchange program was initiated after Americans Rebecca Davis and Ashley Belyea spent the summer of 2009 working in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As international volunteers with Svitac in Brcko District, Rebecca and Ashley led dance workshops for the city’s youth at the municipal youth center. Within a week of their arrival, word had spread throughout the community that it was possible to take ballet, jazz, and West African dance classes and, despite the 100 degree heat, students came loyally every day. Youth arrived half an hour early to practice new choreography and talk to new friends. They stayed after to practice and recombine steps to create something new of their own expression. The RDDC was astounded by the level of enthusiasm, commitment, and raw talent these students demonstrated. None had taken a formal dance class before—because no such dance classes exist in Brcko. The time spent in the dance room was the highlight of each child’s day.
As the end of their time in Brcko approached, Rebecca and Ashley shared their frustration that, despite the structural capacity at the youth center and obvious enthusiasm for dance among Brcko’s youth, the war has crippled Bosnia’s efforts to support the arts as a component of civil society. Therefore, The RDDC decided to partner with Brcko youth to launch an international youth exchange program in 2010.
The first two candidates selected to participate were Masa Bacanov and Armela Mujanovic. After a full year of preparation, they arrived in the United States to begin their youth training program in August 2010.

Project Archive: 2009

Project Title: Nas Svijet (Ongoing)

Project Partners: Svitac

Project Location: Brcko

The RDDC partnered with Bosnian-based Svitac (Firefly) to establish a two-month dance program for Serb, Croat and Bosniak (Muslim) youth in the town of Brcko. The creative process and final performance work evolved from the theme of reconciliation and the issues facing youth today.

The program was summarized in an article written by Rebecca Davis and published in Broad Street Review:

Ending “Evil?” Youth Dancing in Bosnia-Hercegovina

July 31, 2009
The Box

Inside a box, we put a balloon and a pin. On the balloon was written the word zlo, which means “evil” in Bosnian.1 Twenty-six kids dancing to the song Scream by Michael Jackson lined up behind the box. Then, perfectly on time with the musical phrase, 13 year-old Nikola Mari popped the balloon and all the dancers jumped into their final pose. A surprised and engaged audience broke into applause as the ensemble took their bow. Their two-months of hard work had paid off.

So Much for Expectations

When I arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in June, I really couldn’t have imagined what would transpire over the next several weeks. Never did I think that our dance class would swell from 8 students to 26, with ages ranging from 4 to 30 years old. Male hip hop breakers were training alongside an African dance teacher and a Finnish volunteer mastering Baroque dance. This enthusiastic, eclectic group transformed an idea about reconciliation into the fruition of a multi-ethnic youth group dancing together about the same issues that face youth right here in Philadelphia.

A Short Background

Although it is – and should be – common knowledge, a short recap of recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina helps to provide context to this dance work. BiH is located in the Balkans and is bordered by Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. For centuries, three distinct ethnic and religious groups have lived side-by-side: Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox), and Croats (Catholics). A smaller proportion of the population is comprised of Jews and Roma (gypsies).
Ethnic tensions peaked in 1992 with the outbreak of a horrific war characterized by ethnic cleansing and massive land destruction. Up to 1.8 million people were displaced. As with Rwanda and Darfur, the international community failed to effectively act and genocide occurred in UN-designated safe zones. The flawed 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement now serves as BiH’s national constitution even though no official local translation of it exists.
In this aftermath, families, youth, victims and politicians are faced with the task of reconciliation. The country is divided into three-parts: the Federation, which is predominantly Bosniak and Croat; the Republic of Srpska, which is inhabited by Serbs; and Brčko District, which is a mixed composition of all three ethnic groups. For this reason, my work with youth was based in Brčko.

The Popularity of Dance

There must be something very special about dance itself because word quickly spread throughout Brčko that an American had come to teach jazz and ballet. Within a couple of weeks, my workshops had grown to about 20-30 kids, 99% of whom had never seen a professional modern, jazz or ballet performance, let alone taken a class where they could actually learn how to do the steps “we always see on youtube.”

When I was working with ArmelaMujanovi, a particularly committed 15 year-old, I asked how long she had been dancing; she was so good that everyone was impressed. She stared back at me for a moment, and I thought she didn’t understand my very poor Bosnian. Then she said, “Well, I never had a dance class before you came here.”

Nas Svijet = Our World

Every summer there is a citywide Children’s Festival held in Brčko. It was decided that we should prepare a dance performance for it. In collaboration with the students, we created a six-part work entitled NasSvijet (Our World). To start the process, I asked each of the students to answer two questions:

  1. 1. What is the most important thing to you in your life?
  2. 2. If there was one thing in the world you could change, what would it be?

The answers the students gave provided the choreographic impetus for each of the parts: porodica (family) and prijatelistvo (friendship) were important to them; ljudi (people), da rata ne bude (no more war) and zlo (evil) were things they wanted to change.
As we worked through the choreography, I was astounded at the rate of improvement and the emerging feeling of an ensemble. The students could easily follow my warm up, some were already doing double pique turns, and all 26 of the students mastered the ballet jump pas de chat(“mačka” in Bosnian, as little Ivana Maric yelled out daily)!

Teaching a portion of the classes in Bosnian language also helped me bond with the students – often in humorous ways. For example, I had a tendency to mispronounce the phrase “samuzikom” (with music) and mix up “ćevapi” (a national meat dish) with “čarape” (socks). Personal note: when in doubt, always stick with the international word: “super”.

An Enlightening Conversation

Even while I was immersed in my teaching, I found myself questioning whether dance really could play a tangible role in reconciliation. As if in answer to my doubts, the following dialogue transpired between two of my students after rehearsal. Armela is Bosniak and MasaBacanov is Serb.

Armela: Rebecca, I wish you were staying in Brčko longer because then I could invite you to celebrate the upcoming Muslim holiday with my mother and me.
Masa: In Brčko, we celebrate lots of holidays.
Armela: My favorite holiday is Christmas, but no one in my family celebrates it.
Masa: Well, Armela, I will invite you to come celebrate Christmas with my family this year.

I couldn’t have been happier to be sitting in the middle of that conversation and saying nothing except, “don’t forget about rehearsal tomorrow!”

The Performance

At the end of July, the students performed NasSvijet for the first time. To see how these diverse kids had grown to become part of one ensemble, sharing a common experience, is one of the most rewarding moments of my teaching career yet.
The dancers themselves told our story when they stood together with Nikola, and he popped the balloon representing zlo (evil). Imagine the power of a united youth when ending evil is the one thing they want to change in the world.

After the show, Armela turned to me and said, “I never thought I could do this. You believed in me. Thank you.” But now, as an international community, don’t we have that responsibility to believe in each and every Armela all over the world?