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Doing good through dance: My father’s storyBY: Dan Rottenberg 05.17.2011
Rebecca Davis and Ashley Fargnoli, two 20-something dance activists from Philadelphia, head for the world’s hot spots armed with choreography. My dad did something similar nearly half a century ago, when he quit the rat race to start a dance company, for his benefit and the world’s.
He found his niche, through danceDAN ROTTENBERG
Some people head for the world’s angriest corners with guns and bombs. Others send diplomats, Peace Corps workers and foreign aid. Others send medics and therapists.
As Davis has described it in occasional pieces for BSR, she has used dance to rekindle hope in the wake of Rwanda’s genocide of 1994, and also to conquer ethnic hatred in Bosnia-Herzegovina, another land plagued by ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. This week she recounts anther small success in Bosnia, where Fargnoli assembled a dance troupe consisting of young Muslims, Serbs and Croats to perform together in three otherwise antagonistic Balkan cities. (Click here.)
When I read Davis’s accounts, I find myself thinking, “This story sounds familiar.” And then I remember…..
The family was stunned
In 1962, when he was only 46, my father, Herman Rottenberg, stunned his family and friends by selling his prosperous knitted wear manufacturing company in New York in order to devote himself full-time to spreading international goodwill through what had previously been only his hobby: folk dancing.
At first Dad taught a weekly folk dance class at International House, the residence for New York-area graduate students from more than 100 countries. He soon discovered that many of his students there were major talents studying at Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music and other top-drawer music schools. So Dad’s entrepreneurial instincts quickly surfaced, and he assembled his best dance students into a traveling international folk dance company.
Over the next 35 years, this eclectic “Allnations Dance Company,” as it was called, traveled the globe from South Africa to Romania to China, performing as many as 300 shows a year for schools, colleges, corporations, civic organizations, foreign governments and the U.S. Armed Forces, all in the service of spreading its motto: “Joy in Every Land.”
Filipinos in zoot suits
The show followed a basic formula: A small but eclectic troupe of dancers from different countries— usually eight, and rarely more than a dozen— performed perhaps two dozen dances in succession, changing costumes for each new number. At first they’d perform their own native dances; then they’d perform each other’s dances. If a particular dance wasn’t to your taste, not to worry: Within three minutes or so the number would be replaced by something else.
By the end of the show, you’d be watching Filipinos, Africans, Koreans and Russians doing the Charleston in flapper dresses and zoot suits. The cumulative effect, after 90 minutes, was to infuse the audience with a sense of the joyful possibilities of opening themselves up to other cultures.
Unlike Davis and Fargnoli, who focus their attention on bridging cultural differences among dancers, Dad’s primary target was his audience. What they shared in common was a perception of art— in this case, dance— as a vehicle for human betterment rather than an end in itself.
In the process, Dad inadvertently became a role model for the notion of doing well by doing good. His work with much younger dancers kept him physically and psychologically young himself, so that he was still teaching dance at International House until three years ago, when he finally hung up his dancing shoes at the age of 91.
Many of the dancers and International House students who crossed Dad’s path during his 45 years there subsequently returned to their native lands, where they became celebrities, government officials, corporate executives, kings and queens— you name it. As a result, Dad was able to travel the globe and find a red carpet waiting for him wherever he went.
An old competitor
Years after his mid-life career change, Dad ran into one of his old competitors from the sweater industry.
“Herman,” the man reproved him, “you got out just when business got good. If you’d stayed in, you would have made millions!”
To which Dad replied: “What would I have done with that money that I haven’t done already?”
Rebecca Davis and Ashley Fargnoli, I suspect, are experiencing the same kind of high by putting their chosen art to work to change some of the world’s seemingly most hopeless places for the better. And they’re still in their 20s— years ahead of my Dad. What will they be up to when they’re his age? The mind boggles.♦
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