ChildsPlay International is a champion of play-based learning, and a significant part of this approach is the incorporation of song and dance. These traditional cultural expressions, sometimes even hallowed by religion, are embodied in joyful performances.
Singing and dancing invite children to improvise, making even the hardiest tradition an opportunity for fun and self-expression.
In Kenya and Sri Lanka, children made tradition something of their own, perpetuating but also enlivening it.
Activities in Kenya centered around traditional song and dance. However, the traditions did not seem so much tribal as Christian, that is, colonial. But even these went back to the nineteenth century, and had taken on local a character. Girls and boys each had separate choirs, though these choirs were hardly staid. Kids would stand up, bust out of their places, sing and dance. The “spirit” felt charismatic, a style of exuberant Christianity that was now pushing aside the mainline denominations.
The songs performed by vulnerable children in Kenya, revealed whole conversations, a type of back-and-forth reminiscent of call-and-response. The songs contained spontaneous narrative, demonstrating the kids’ capacity to tell stories. This was a creative play effort, not just the rote repetition of traditional hymns. It showcased an element in the kids’ personalities that was encouraging. That is, if these kids mostly kept their heads down for the most part, they still had ways to express themselves. Sometimes among the girls, spontaneous singing groups literally erupted, while the boys drummed on any surface they could find. There was no conductor, a lot of improvised call and response. Everyone got into the act, one way or another. The scene was festive, social, and decidedly playful – no guide, no script. The kids were in charge.
We soon realized that the resilient children, many of them orphaned, had no intention of being passive victims of an awful scourge due to AIDS. They were eager to learn and made plans for the future. Some hoped to become engineers. So, in this spirit, we sought to teach them a useful, technical skill: videography. How about filming their own songs and dances? It seemed like a natural. In fact, we had brought film-making equipment as part of our recording project; if the kids took to the process, we could leave the equipment behind. Actually, they loved it, and started to tell their stories about losing their parents, on camera.
The coastal city Jacmel, part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, is famous for its artisan traditions and Haiti’s Carnival, which happens annually. It’s a celebration of masks, music and dance. Dancing is an important part the Haitian tradition, and kids start young. There is a lot of role playing as well. As carnival season draws near, the children at Didier’s mask-making workshop, practice their steps for the big day.
We went to Sri Lanka a generation after the fierce civil war mounted by the Tamil Tigers. Whole villages had been burned. Crops had been decimated. The children whom we met, too young to have experienced fighting, were nonetheless in recovery. Effects of the fighting were everywhere. Parents were traumatized; the economy was struggling to get back on its feet. There was a sense of liminality in the culture, as if tradition still mattered but, equally important, everything had to be repaired and adapted.
In Sri Lanka, dance in performance (which was, in effect, traditional dance) was mainly for girls. That’s not to say, however, that boys couldn’t get involved in the performance – in their own high-spirited way. They loved to mimic a performance. It was so easy! There were no constraints (like actual choreography) and they could poke fun at the girls (as boys are wont to do). But in fact, all the kids – girls and boys – could get into the act, one way or another. The ones not taking part in the performance could learn the steps by watching the instructor. Then they could turn up the amplifier, and dance on their own. No costumes, no formality. Kids wanted to color outside the lines.
The dance performances in Sri Lanka were elaborate, and many girls wanted to participate if for no reason other than the showiness. But the instructor could choose only eight – pre-teens up to around 14 – because there were only eight costumes (each a work of art in itself). Choosing participants in a performance, whether a cricket match or traditional dance, always results in disappointment. But the kids usually understand; their lives are defined by material limitation and consequent accommodation. Once they were chosen, however, the girls worked extremely hard. They paid enormous attention to getting their make-up right, to the elaborate choreography and, of course, to the demands of performing. In a traditional art form such as this, participants do not have much discretion.
They did, however, want a say in the accompanying music. Incredibly (to our ears), they wanted modern disco. Disco? We wondered if they understood the concept of tradition? Well, actually, they did. “Tradition” was already being violated by staging these dances at all and, moreover, without reference to their temporal associations. These were agrarian dances, performed out in the open to mark the spring and the harvest. The girls’ request, though apparently outrageous, was a kind of reality check. It brought home to us the cultural displacement that, in effect, we had sponsored. Under our auspices, the dances were still Culture, but not as much as they had been. We wondered what to do.
The dancing teacher was averse to anything but traditional music. But we found a way to compromise with modern versions of traditional songs. We had always supported an evolving, living tradition interpreted by children, and here was an arch-example of the phenomenon. In fact, once the performances were held, they were a hit – nobody seemed perturbed by the dances’ uncommon staging. Everyone knew the songs, and clapped along. The music was easy for the girls to dance to. They knew it from the radio.
Yet even before the challenge of choosing the music, the girls demonstrated an ability to take charge. When the instructor took a day off, they handled their own instruction: “Do this,” “Do that.” They appeared remarkably confident, perhaps because they had already shaped the dance (at last somewhat) to their will. They were disciplined, and willing to accept discipline. They got to practice for ten days, until everything was close to perfect.
CPI is all about empowering vulnerable children, so we were thrilled to see the girls thrive. All the girls loved the experience, which gave them the rare opportunity to show off. Maybe, a couple of times a year, they could perform at a festival or wedding. So, this was a big deal, in front of a large crowd. We hired a rickshaw with a loudspeaker to broadcast the performance. Flyers were stuck on trees, and an announcement was made at the temple. Not just parents, but a great many people came.
When it was all over, we were thrilled. Did we help instill a sense of pride in the girls? A look-at-me sense of accomplishment? Perhaps. But primarily, what we think the girls felt was more subtle. They had shown themselves grown-up enough to perform in front of a crowd. They felt important, elevated, ready for acceptance into the community.
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