Becky, Indian Dance and Uganda

So, this is pretty cool. I taught a former Peace Corps Volunteer, Becky Roberts, Indian dance. Specifically, Bollywood style and bhangra. She then taught her community members in Mexico and afterwards took it to Uganda. She recently shared some photos with me of her performances with community members in Uganda and it brought a big smile to my face. Hope it does for you too.

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New Post-Starring CJ Hamilton

My 9-5 job is working with the Mexican equivalent to the US National Park Service, CONANP. However, living in a small town has its perks as it’s easy to network and I have also been able to create side projects. Three days a week, I teach English to a group of university students in the morning before my 9-5 gig, and once a week in the evening, I teach a Zumba class to a group of women in a small town nearby called Amajatlan.

I’ve been really lucky to have a number of people from the US visit me in Mexico. All of them have been friends from the town I grew up in, Gainesville, Florida. I love living abroad, but it is always a comfort to have a visitor from home. These guys have known me since high school (or longer) and have seen me grow from a teenager into a young professional. We share a rich history and they provide advice and perspective that you can only get from people who know your whole story. It means a lot to me when they spend their time, resources and energy to travel to Mexico and be a part of this chapter of my life. This post is about one such visitor, CJ Hamilton, a good-hearted and caring friend, who besides coming to Mexico to enjoy the experience, donated his time to my community.

CJ is an optometrist, and prior to his visit, he spoke about offering free eye exams and donating glasses to people in my community. I immediately took him up on his offer, choosing Amajatlan as my community. I took the help of two dear friends from Amajatlan, Pablo Verde Fuentes and his wife, Juana, to create a list of people who had eye problems and needed to be seen by an eye doctor. Pablo and Juana graciously offered their house as the location to conduct the eye exams as they had a large, dark storage room, which CJ needed to effectively do his work. I also got the help of a young, 18 year old guy called Javier, to help me in translating. CJ needed the help of a couple of bilingual speakers and Javier speaks English very well. Together, we would be CJ’s translators for the day. In addition, my friends from Amajatlan kindly volunteered to cook for those of us who would be working all day. We ate so well- Juana made the best tamales for lunch, Selene and Armando gave us fish, and Beta and Bety prepared one of my favorites for dinner-mixiotes- steamed chicken with vegetables.

I have to pay my respects to CJ, because we had him working pretty hard that day. I took full advantage of his visit. On the same morning at 8am, February 15, 2017, prior to conducting the eye exams, CJ made a visit to my English class where my students interviewed him. They asked him questions such as “What do you like about your country?” “What do you know about Mexican culture?” and “What do you think about Donald Trump?” You can ask CJ about that last one. It was a great opportunity for my students to speak to a native English speaker, learn about American culture and share their culture with CJ.

My English students with CJ (if you are wondering about the hearts and balloons they are for a presentation my students had for Valentine’s Day):

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After class, we headed to Amajatlan to set up for the eye clinic. People started arriving at 10:30 am and we didn’t stop until 9:30/10 pm. I know-poor CJ. But he was great, greeting everyone with such warmth, making jokes in Spanish and giving it his all. That day he examined 69 people and was able to provide almost all of them with glasses.

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We all learned a lot that day. As people arrived, Pablo had them fill out a form which asked general questions about their eye health. Afterwards they entered the storage room where CJ was set up. I read over their form and translated it to CJ, who then examined the patient. After examining, CJ had Javier check with them for which glasses best suited them. We were a pretty good team and after a dozen patients or so had a good grasp on the process. CJ was also very patient with us. There were recurring problems among patients such diabetes (which after cataracts is the second most common cause of blindness) and high exposure to sun and dust. CJ even mentioned that in addition to glasses we should have collected and donated sunglasses. Most patients work on farms and so are exposed to the sun, wind and dust on a daily basis. Interesting cultural note though, is that when we asked people why they don’t use sunglasses, they said it’s because they feel embarrassed to use them. I have to figure out a way to overcome this-any ideas?

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The community of Amajatlan, my English students and I, are forever grateful for CJ’s kindness. We thank him from our hearts.

Viewpoints from community friends

The director of Peace Corps Mexico asked for short videos about working in country. As part of the assignment, I asked two community members to share their views on our accomplishments. We took the videos with my smartphone, but unfortunately the files were too big to send over the internet, and after waiting 2+ hours for the videos to load at the internet café, the electricity cut out. I was unable to make the deadline, so I am sharing the videos now on Chai Time.

The first video is of my coworker, Pablo Verde Fuentes. We work with CONANP, La Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (similar to the US National Park Service), to improve livelihoods while protecting a region rich in biodiversity. Pablo is not just a great coworker, but a great friend. If there is anyone that has my back, it’s this guy. The video was shot in his home in Amajatlan, Hidalgo, Mexico.

The second video is of a woman I met in a dance class that I teach, Beta. Beta is one of my closest friends now and I spend a lot of my free time with her family. The video was shot at the community gazebo, with the church on the right hand side, cemetery on the left, and mountains with species of cacti in the background.

A big thanks to Pablo and Beta! Muchas gracias a Pablo y Beta.

English Translation: “Hi, I’m Pablo Verde Fuentes. I’m Priyanka’s coworker in the Metztitlan Canyon Reserve. Well, Priyanka and I have accomplished various things related to environmental education. We’ve supported each other, I have participated in in some schools with her in environmental education with children and young people. We’ve worked hard to promote conservation.”

 

English Translation: “Well, when I met Priyanka I invited her to my home. I introduced her to my wife and my mom who have spent the last seven years performing traditional dances from our state. Priyanka said she would like to participate with them (and teach Indian dance if they were interested). The group was originally between 10 to 14 people. When Priyanka first joined, well, no one wanted to participate, they were unaware of her culture. However, after three classes the women of Amajatlan were ready to dance her dance. Today, from 10 to 14 people, minimum 20 people show to the class and maximum 45. The women of Amajatlan have already performed a dance in public that Priyanka taught them. Well, I think Priyanka leaves in July. I would like for her to return some day to visit these women and see if they have continued practicing what they have learned of her culture. This is all Priyanka, bye!”

English Translation: “Well from Priyanka we have received a lot of good things. Let’s see, she came to teach us dance from her country and talk to us about her culture. It’s something very beautiful, it’s a motivation that us helped us, as women from this village, well, to be more united, and it’s something very beautiful that I will always remember and even though when she is not with us we are going to continue with what she has taught us, enjoying the beautiful dance that all we women who participate with her love so much. It’s something very beautiful. My name is Beta Hernandez Cruz and I am very grateful that she has come into our lives.”

Disclaimer. The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Bollywood Zumba in Mexico

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Bollywood Zumba in Mexico

Goal: Dance.

Obstacle: There are no dance classes where I live, or at least at times where I am free.

Solution: Start my own dance class.

I’ve always enjoyed dancing. While living in Nigeria my mother would choreograph dances for my classmates and I. In the United States there was a large Indian community so I got the opportunity to participate in every talent show and cultural function we had. In college I was on an Indian competitive dance team. However, when I moved to a small town in Mexico, there were no dance classes of any kind available after my work hours. When discussing with a friend about some of the things I missed most, I mentioned that I missed dancing. She suggested that I start my own class and teach women in my town how to dance. We’d gone to Zumba classes together in the city before and I had choreographed a dance for my colleagues to perform at a work party which she participated in, and thought I could make it as a dance teacher. Plus, it could be a lot of fun, not just for me but for the women who would have the opportunity to learn something new, as I could add some Bollywood flare to it. I agreed with the idea, and formed a plan to get my own class going.

 

dressed up for a dance competition back in my undergrad days

Dressed up for a dance competition back in my undergrad days.

The first step in the plan was to design the class. What would I teach exactly? I decided to focus on my strengths. Since I was best at traditional style Indian garba and Bollywood style dancing, I would focus on these two styles. Because I had never taught my own dance class before, I followed the structure of classes I used to attend. One hour total, with a brief warm up and cool down at the beginning and end, respectively. I designed the class Zumba style, blending exercise and dance moves together, with usually no more than 4 different moves in one song so that it would be easy for learners to pick up. I choreographed the songs myself, and used songs that were upbeat and fun (i.e Chikni Chameli and Lungi Dance)-aka item numbers. This was the general idea I had of my so-far imaginary class, which I was open to modifying, but wanted to be ready with an organized description of what I had to offer when speaking to potential participants.

The next step in the plan was to talk to everyone I met about my Indian heritage (because of my ambiguous skin tone a lot of people think I am Mexican, or Colombian, or another kind of Hispanic) and make it known that I loved to dance and was interested in teaching others. I also made sure to add in the fact that I would teach for FREE. There was really nothing for people to lose, except a little bit of time for trying out a class.

The third step was to sit back and wait for a group to organize themselves. This is an important (and difficult) step I have learned in my experience in developing community projects. When starting up a project, the most you can do is be as organized as possible and give the best pitch you can, trying to convince whomever you can. But, you must be met halfway by the community for the project to be successful. People have to either have some sense of ownership over the project, or really see it as a benefit to them. Especially if it is free. Being patient for the right group is totally worth it, because when that group does form itself (and it will if you’ve done your advertising right), they will do most of the work for you. Now I wasn’t completely uninvolved. While speaking to people, I learned of natural leaders in the community, people who were known to organize and enjoy similar activities. One such person was a lady in a town about 20 minutes driving. She was known to organize cultural dances in her community. Even better-she is married to my coworker, Pablo, who is also a good person to talk to if you want to make things happen. It was him who mentioned that she had a dance group and was interested in learning new types of dance. I confirmed to visit his home and meet his wife, where I could pitch the idea of a Bollywood Zumba class. Luckily, the community had a public space where we could have the class and they even had their own music system. When I met Pablo’s wife, Juana, she said, “Well the girls don’t come to the Zumba class. We have one at 6am in the morning and only 6 girls go. But maybe they will want to do this because it is something different, you will be teaching the class in the evening when most of them are free and at no cost to them. A lot of the women here want to participate in exercise classes, but they either don’t exist, or if they do, their husbands don’t like them spending money on it. I will talk to them. Pablo will let you know.” So this is where I sat back, and waited for the group to organize themselves.

Step 4-show up. Juana, in a very short time frame, one week I think it was, spoke to all the women in her community and told me to come over after work with Pablo on a Tuesday and that we would have the class at 7pm. I would need to bring nothing but my music. This is where identifying and networking with the right people is very important. Juana, being an experienced organizer, called for the class on a day when all of the women would be at the community center, because that was there cleanup day and had to be there anyway. A lot of the families there are on government assistance, and have to clean up the streets in exchange for the support. So at 7 pm (precisely the end of the community cleanup) I was there at the center, ready to give the class. There were a lot of women there, at least 50, in their aprons, flats, hair up in a bun and holding brooms. If there is one thing I regret, it is that I did not get a picture of this scene.

No one was quite ready to dance however. Even after Juana presented me to the group and I gave a small introduction of myself, I had a lot of shy, timid faces looking back at me. This always amuses me, the fact that community members always feel more shy and timid than I do-when I’m the stranger, the one in front of the crowd, and the non-native Spanish speaker. I looked to Juana for suggestions on how to proceed next, and she reassured me that when I started they would trickle in. So I started the music, and we started to dance, all 5 of us in a room of more than 50 people. But Juana was right, in the next 5-10 minutes they all did join in, a couple at a time, and finally everyone was up on their feet, dancing to the music and having a really good time. First I couldn’t believe the number of people who showed up, and second that they liked it so much. At the end of the hour they all stood in their places, waiting for more… including the 70-year old in the room! When I announced that it was the end of the class they asked when I was coming back. From shy, timid women, they all huddled around me and transformed into excited, smiling, liberated women. I could feel their energy and their joy. I am lucky in that I have had a lot of high moments during my 2+ years in Mexico, but this is a memory that is high up above.

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Getting our zumba on.

Now I teach the class on a regular basis, twice a week, 1 hour each class. Participation is not at 50+, but at least 25 women show up each class, from high schoolers to women in their 70s. The older women have told me that dancing helps with blood circulation and has helped them get rid of back and joint pain. They say it destresses them. Others say they are losing weight, becoming more fit and simply feel better. They enjoy it so much that when I can’t make it to teach the class, they have the class without me, putting on the music and dancing to the steps I taught them. When phones ring, you can hear Bollywood songs as ringtones. Husbands tell me to teach new songs because they are tired of hearing the same ones being blasted in their home all day. People are going on Youtube and Google to find out more about Bollywood, India and Indian culture. There is a middle school dance teacher that comes to my class. He also choreographs for quinciñeras (epic birthday celebrations for girls when they turn 15 years old), and at the last one, incorporated one of my songs into the choreography. For the spring festival in March I am helping him teach his 7th graders a Saif Ali Khan and Jaqueline Fernandez number, and in the new year, Indian dance will be part of the physical fitness curriculum at the middle school.

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First quincinera in the history of the town to include desi music and dance!

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Middle school teacher and his students learning a Saif Ali Khan number to showcase at the spring festival.

If you were to ask me if I expected all of this, the answer is no. Honestly, I just wanted to dance. But the fact that it has, makes me feel good to know that I’ve inspired curiosity in others to learn about my culture, and that when I’m gone they’ll continue dancing.

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Bollywood Zumba en México

Meta: Bailar.

Obstáculo: No conozco de ninguna clase, además, me gustaría bailar la música hindú.

Solución: Empezar mi propia clase.

Siempre me ha gustado bailar. Cuando vivía en Nigeria mi mamá organizaba danzas en la escuela. En los estados unidos había una comunidad grande hindú, entonces siempre tenía la oportunidad de participar en los eventos culturales, en la universidad formé parte de un equipo de danza hindú. Estaba platicando con una amiga de las cosas que extrañamos, y le comenté que extrañaba mucho bailar la música hindú. Ella me sugirió empezar mi propia clase. Podría ser divertido porque sería una oportunidad para las mujeres en México aprender algo nuevo, y casi a todos les gusta la energía y ritmo de la música de Bollywood. Así que, decidí empezar mi propia clase de Bollywood Zumba.

 

dressed up for a dance competition back in my undergrad days
Vestida para un concurso de danza típica en la universidad.   

En el diseño de la clase, decidí enfocarme en mis fuerzas. Como tengo experiencia bailando danza tradicional de garba, y al estilo Bollywood, me enfocaría en estos dos estilos. Y como nunca había enseñado una clase formal de danza, seguí la estructura de clases que había asistido en el pasado. Seguí el estilo de Zumba, mezclando ejercicio con pasos de danza, con no más de cuatro pasos cada canción para que sea mas fácil aprender. Hice la coreografía yo misma, que no era difícil porque yo automáticamente hago coreografías en mi cabeza cuando escucho música. Escogí canciones divertidas y energéticas, como Chikni Chameli y Lungi Dance.  Eso era la idea de mi clase, aun imaginaria.

Después de diseñar (más o menos) la clase, hablé con todos de mi herencia hindú y que me encanta bailar y tengo el interés en enseñar a los demás de manera gratuita. Así que no había nada que perder.

Solamente tuve que esperar para que un grupo se organizara. Ese paso es importante (y difícil), algo que he aprendido en mi experiencia en el desarrollo sostenible. Cuando empiezas un proyecto, lo más que puedes hacer es planear y organizarse bien, y convencer a la gran mayoría que puedes. Pero, la comunidad también tiene que trabajar y tomar responsabilidad para que el proyecto tenga éxito. Esperar que un grupo se organice vale la pena porque va a ser un trabajo de mejor colaboración. Claro, hay cosas que uno puede hacer para adelantar el proceso. Cuando platicaba yo con la gente, investigué para buscar líderes en la comunidad, personas conocidas para organizar y disfrutar actividades similares. Aprendí de una persona de una comunidad veinte minutos de mi pueblo. Y la mejor, era la esposa de mi compañero de trabajo, Pablo. De hecho, Pablo era quien me sugirió la idea hablar con ella. Además, la comunidad tenía un espacio público con luz en donde tener la clase, junto con un sistema de música. Cuando hablé con la esposa de Pablo, Juana, me dijo que ya había una clase de zumba, pero que el maestro solamente estaba disponible en la mañana a las seis y por eso solamente iban cinco a seis mujeres. Ella pensó que sería posible que las chicas tendrían interés en una clase de Bollywood Zumba, porque era algo diferente y además sería en la tarde cuando están libres de sus trabajos. En general había interés en clases de ejercicio, pero no existían, y algunos esposos no les gusta que gastan dinero en esto. Como mi clase sería gratis, sería un plus. Me dijo que me avisaba, así que esperé la llamada de Juana con mucha anticipación.

En muy poco tiempo, una semana creo, Juana organizó las mujeres en su comunidad. Ella me dijo que venía después del trabajo con Pablo un martes y tendríamos la clase a las siete de la tarde. Yo solamente tendría que traer mi música. Eso es porque identificar las personas clave es muy importante. Juana, listamente, organizó la clase el mismo día de la limpieza de la comunidad. Como muchas de las familias están en un programa de apoyo del gobierno, tienen que mantener la comunidad limpia para recibir el apoyo. Entonces, fuimos a la cancha de la comunidad a las siete, justamente cuando la limpieza terminó, para empezar la clase. Había muchas mujeres presentes, por lo menos cincuenta, en sus delantales, zapatitos, molotes y cargando escobas. Si hay una cosa de la cual me arrepiento, es que no tomé una foto de esa escena.

De cualquier modo, nadie estaba lista para bailar. Aun después de que Juana me presentó al grupo y platique un poquito sobre mí, había muchas mujeres todavía tímidas. Eso siempre me parece interesante, de hecho de que los miembros de la comunidad se sientan más tímidos que yo, cuando yo soy la extranjera y desconocida, que no habla bien el español.  Juana me sugirió empezar la clase, y que las mujeres participarán poco a poco. Entonces, empecé la música, y empezamos a bailar, cinco personas entre más de cincuenta.  Pero Juana tuvo la razón, porque en cinco-diez minutos, poco a poco, empezaron a unirse al grupo, hasta que todos terminaron en pie, bailando la música y disfrutando. No pude creer la cantidad de gente que llegaba, y que disfrutaba tanto. Al final de la hora todas quedaron en su lugar, esperando más, ¡incluida la que tenía setenta años! Cuando anuncié que ya había terminado la clase, me preguntaron cuando regresaría. De empezar con tímidas mujeres, volvieron mujeres emocionadas, sonrientes y liberadas. Pude sentir su energía y felicidad. Tengo suerte de que he tenido muchos recuerdos bonitos en mi tiempo aquí en México, pero eso es uno de los más memorables.

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¡Finalmente bailando!

Ahora enseño la clase dos veces a la semana, una hora cada clase. No van cincuenta, pero por lo menos veinticinco, y van chicas en la prepa hasta mujeres de mayor edad, de 60-70 años. Las mujeres mayores me han dicho que bailar les ayuda con la circulación de su sangre y con dolor de espalda y articulaciones. Dicen que se desestrezan y que están bajando de peso, mejorando su condición y sintiéndose mejor. Disfrutan tanto que cuando yo no puedo ir, ellas hacen la clase sin mí, bailando los pasos que les enseñé. Cuando suenan celulares, escuchan tonos de canciones de Bollywood. Los esposos me piden enseñar nuevas canciones porque están cansados de escuchar las mismas en sus casas todos los días. Están investigando en Youtube y Google sobre Bollywood, India y la cultura hindú. Hay un maestro de danza en la única escuela secundaria en mi pueblo, que viene a la clase. También hace coreografías para los quince años, y puso una canción hindú. Para el festival de primavera lo estoy ayudando enseñar a sus alumnos de séptimo grado a bailar una canción hindú, y en el nuevo año el baile hindú será parte de su programa de artes en la escuela.

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Samara bailando una canción hindú en sus quince anos.

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Armando, maestro de danza en la secundaria, bailando con sus alumnas una canción hindú. 

Si me preguntaran si esperé todo esto, la respuesta seria no. Honestamente, yo solamente quería bailar. Pero de hecho el resultado me ha dejado muy contenta y satisfecha al ver la curiosidad e interés que los demás tienen para aprender de mi cultura, y saber cuándo me vaya, la gente seguirá bailando.

 

Disclaimer

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.