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Dancing to connect

By Martin daly

 Many citizens are asking where is the hope for the future?  This is a response about hope and redressing the crime environment.

First, some background: I have repeatedly put the case for funding the performing arts in the context of a policy that recognises that participation in the arts can change the lives of young people by diluting the dysfunctional conditions under which they live, by raising their self-esteem, awakening ambition and thereby ultimately reaping a peace dividend.

I have described some of the work being done. For example I have referred to the birdsong and Skiffle music schools and to the Jamaican Area Youth Development Programme and the work of Sheila Graham.

Youths in volatile urban communities discover through the arts aptitudes that they did not know they had. Through performing together, bonds are created even across garrison or gang zones. Through the challenge to be creative they learn to deal with issues such as identity crisis and self-worth. The Jamaican programme, as I understand it, has had its participants produce their own videos of song and theatre. Every year birdsong’s summer camp graduates put on their concert.

Some time ago, while expressing my belief that this performing arts approach is a crime-reducing agent, I was guided to some published work about Adverse Childhood Experiences and Prevention Psychiatry.

Prevention Psychiatry focuses on interventions in communities against exposure to child abuse, substance abuse, bullying, domestic violence and teenage pregnancy. These interventions are thought to prevent or delay the onset of mental disorder.

On the physical health side, one study in the American Journal of Medicine in 1998 concluded: “We found a strong graded relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several leading causes of death in adults”.

It is well established that many (but certainly not all) young victims of abuse and severe household dysfunction, particularly those lacking affection, express their anger in criminal and anti-social behaviour before they become subject to health consequences in adulthood, if of course they do not die by the gun or knife much sooner.

I have just witnessed again the positive influence of the performing arts. It took place a week ago at The Little Carib Theatre where I saw first hand the output of a programme designed to reach out to youth at risk.

The Battery Dance Company of New York City has a programme called Dancing to Connect. It is an initiative engaging youth in creativity and team building through the art form of modern dance. The programme has been implemented in 40 countries.  Teenagers, most of whom have never danced before, work under the direction of the Battery’s world class dancers.

Here in Trinidad, within one week of such an interaction, 70 youngsters divided into three groups, one for each Battery Dance Company member put on their own dance performance on the Little Carib stage.

This came about through the good offices of the US Embassy who selected Vision on Mission to recruit the participants in the programme. UTT and Little Carib provided theatre space and technical and organisational assistance.

It would take many more words than the space allotted for this column to describe the joy and exhilaration of the participants, most of whom do not come from prosperous circumstances, and their scintillating performances. Two formerly homeless young men from Rainbow Rescue were among the participants.

At the top of the list are the bonds the youngsters made with each other, the affection exchanged with Robin, Mira and Sean, the Battery dancers and the obvious self-satisfaction that flowed from this. Each participant was awarded a certificate and responded to an individual questionnaire about their experience.

At the Little Carib we are working towards re-establishing a dance company not simply because that should be a legacy of Beryl Mc Burnie. Long term it is a vehicle capable of social intervention but we have little or no funds. Our next fundraiser is a lunchtime theatre event on the Wednesday before Carnival. Stay tuned and buy our tickets.

I cannot breach confidence about the individual circumstances of the youngsters who chat freely with us, but we are aware of how hard many of them have worked against anger derived from bad circumstances not of their own making.

Sadly these potentially very accomplished children represent the ones saved by the steelband movement, cultural and sporting groups, dedicated individual mentors and the NGOs of which Vision on Mission came up trumps on this occasion.  Those not saved are doing us harm or falling prey to predators.

When I thanked Mira for what they had done for Trinidad her reply was: ”They have so much ability.”

No top down, politically controlled or nepotistic creative arts state enterprise is required to find and nurture that ability. That is the business of communities. Give them the funding on openly published specified terms.

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