A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
In Bosnia: Dance conquers fearBY: Rebecca Davis 08.11.2009
When I arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina in June for a two-month humanitarian stint as a volunteer dance teacher, the challenge seemed daunting: In this tragic country, torn apart in the ‘90s by ethnic cleansing, could Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats possibly dance together, much less live peacefully together? Within a few weeks I got my answer.
A Bosnian Odyssey:
When I arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina in June for a two-month humanitarian stint as a volunteer dance teacher, I couldn’t have imagined what would transpire. The challenge seemed daunting: In this tragic country, torn apart in the ‘90s by ethnic cleansing, could Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats possibly dance together, much less live peacefully together?
Never did I imagine that within a few weeks our youth dance class would swell from eight students to 26, with ages ranging from four to 30. Male hip-hop break-dancers 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 confront youth back home in Philadelphia.
My work was based in Brcko District, which is home to a mixed composition of all three of Bosnia’s ethnic groups. On my first day there I was shocked for two reasons. First, the Omlandinski Centar (youth center) is a beautiful facility, with a large room equipped with mirrors and a CD player for use in my youth dance workshops. I heard very personal stories about how hard people had worked to create this center after the war. But now, because of what was described to me as “the political situation,” the center closes every day at 4 p.m. To finally have a good, safe, clean place for kids to go that is simply “locked” was heartbreaking. (One young girl stayed at the Center from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day because her mother locks her out of the house during the day in the summer.)
Word quickly spread
Countering this obstacle, though, was the special appeal of dance itself. Word quickly spread throughout Brcko that an American had come to teach jazz and ballet. Within a few weeks, my workshops had grown to about 20 or 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.”
I asked Armela Mujanovic, a particularly committed 15-year-old, how long she’d been dancing; she was so good that everyone was impressed. She stared back at me for a moment, causing me to think she didn’t understand my very poor Bosnian. “Well,” she said finally, “I never had a dance class before you came.”
A Children’s Festival was to be held in Brcko this summer, and our class decided to prepare a dance performance for it. In collaboration with the students, we created a six-part work entitled Nas Svijet (Our World). To start the process, I asked each of the students to answer two questions:
1. What’s the most important thing to you in your life?
2. If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
The students’ answers 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 astonished 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 (“macka” in Bosnian, as little Ivana Minc yelled out daily).
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 after rehearsal between two of my students: Armela (who is Bosniak) and Masa Bacanov (a Serb).
Armela: Rebecca, I wish you were staying in Brcko longer, because then I could invite you to celebrate the coming Muslim holiday with my mother and me.
Masa: In Brcko, 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!”
A balloon in a box
At the end of July, the students performed Nas Svijet for the first time. Inside a box, we placed a balloon and a pin. On the balloon was written the word zlo, which means “evil” in Bosnian. Twenty-six kids, dancing to Michael Jackson’s song “Scream,” lined up behind the box. Then, perfectly on time with the musical phrase, 13-year-old Nikola MariC 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.
After the show, Armela thanked me and added, “I never thought I could do this. But you believed in me.” As an international community, don’t we have the responsibility to believe in each and every Armela, all over the world? ♦
Respond to this Article