Tag: Dance (page 2 of 2)

Teaching to the Test

When I first walked in to the Academy of the Arts, High Institute of Ballet, I had some reservations about the facilities and was honestly intimidated by the prestigious reputation and name.

I have never been known for my technical prowess, but I am a passionate and strong dancer. Still at my age of 34. And I do pride myself on being a dance artist invested in areas of civil society. I bring dance to people in order to help with illness such as cancer, to help divided communities in places such as Belfast and Bosnia, prevent and reconcile conflict, reform education, build trust across religions and cultures, help the human development of teens, toddlers, leaders, professionals, and elders.

To help people find new understanding of themselves and their crazy world.

To help people find some joy and freedom.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan


After three months of teaching here in Cairo, both friendships and pedagogical differences have surfaced.

In November, I was told to choreograph a 30min modern dance performance for the students and to help them rehearse. The performance would be in December. A nearly impossible task given the circumstances. But we kicked into gear to make it happen. Then classes were unexpectedly moved to an hour earlier and a half hour shorter. Then I was told the emphasis should be THE EXAM and that the performance may be in January. Or not at all.

I was frustrated. I admit it. But you see, the Ballet Institute itself is at the whim of the umbrella Academy and the Ministry of Culture. When they found out things, they let the staff know. And they put signs (in Arabic) all over the hallway walls in order to inform people. My Arabic was not nearly strong enough to follow developments.

No other faculty member seemed concerned over these changes. I was the one having to learn to be much more flexible, more of a team player dealing with things as they come. A hard but good lesson.

The faculty and administration are also not worried about safety, like in the U.S. Gun violence is of no concern. The dance faculty are also free from the major issue facing educators in Egypt…class size. With a population this booming, a class of 30-35 is a dream come true. Sometimes repetition and precise testing are the only ways to reach hundreds of students.

Back to the Institute of Ballet. For THE EXAM, there are certain ways this is traditionally done here. The dancers are assigned places, with the strongest students in front to lead. The exercises should be well-polished, set to music, and require no cueing from the instructor. The students will be wearing numbers and a panel of examiners will sit at a table in front. Very Flashdance. Each semester, the technical exam is worth 50 points, for a total of 100 for the year. The students pass to the next level with a score of 70 or more for the year.

My Fulbright grant only covers me teaching here for the Fall semester. So I wanted to have as big an impact as possible with the 50 points I was responsible for.

I was asked to bring new moves as well as new thinking. So that’s what I tried to do.

5 points – Two writing assignments: a letter to me on how they feel dance is important here in Egypt after the January 25th Revolution, as well as a review or research on Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Urban Bush Women, BattleWorks, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Akram Khan Dance Company, or any modern dance organization in Egypt. Prior to this assignment, the students were unfamiliar with any of those names.

5 points – Class attendance, conduct, and participation.

5 points – Performance Routine we had been practicing for the performance that may or may not happen.

35 points – THE EXAM on December 30th

And I made an actual rubric, breaking down each of those categories for the students to understand what I was getting at. Normally, I would like to create the rubric with the students, but time and resources were short. And there is no translator.

Year 8 students in Modern Dance class at Egypt’s High Institute of Ballet in Cairo.

And now THE EXAM is a week and a half away.

Yes, what I am working on with the students is somewhat polished, set to music. But I have the dancers rotating lines with every exercise, so every student is responsible for being a leader at some point. I have faith in them.

And I gave solos to students I saw as struggling but with potential to grow as a performer if they were pushed out of their comfort zone and into the spotlight.

And there will be improvisation task. No, I will not give them the instructions a week earlier as co-teachers requested. It will be true improvisation and might completely flop. But the students and I been practicing with the structure, so I think they are up for the challenge. Cross your fingers.

Yes, this will all be messy. Yes, it may not look too impressive to the examination panel. Yes, I have been (and might continue to be) openly criticized for not being a strict enough teacher and not pushing the best students.

But it is my sincere hope that during my time here, I have had a great impact. That each and every student learned something.

Taking risks,

stepping up,

being humble,

caring for their peers,

listening beyond the language,

respecting a foreign movement vocabulary,

dancing with their full selves,

finding value in clean technique over tricks,

and finding a role for themselves as dance artists in an ever-changing nation.


And on my way out of the Institute after class today, I saw this:

On a walls in the High Institute of Ballet.


***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Cancer on Two Continents: A Dancing Day at 57357

When you are 4-years-old and there is some beast inside you that you don’t understand. When you are told you are sick and you don’t feel sick. When you are 13 and facing chemotherapy and puberty simultaneously. (Well, some version of puberty.) When you are 7 and your limbs don’t respond the way you want them to. The way they used to…when you used to be able to swim and run. When you don’t feel comfortable in your bones. When the adults around you offer you strange smiles. When the tumor on your little head is obvious for all to see, and your classmates stare at where your eyebrows used to be.

That’s when you boogie.

Dancing at 57357 (Photo by Mohamed Radwan)

I met a young dancer named Donna Quirke Hornik back in Chicago a few years ago. She stepped into my dance class at age 3 and changed my life. She danced every week even though her small body went through surgeries, transplants, chemo, radiation, and treatments I can barely imagine. She had an aggressive brain tumor. I saw how dancing gave her both a physical therapy and a sense of being hopeful and happy in her body. Because of her, I got involved with Children’s Memorial Hospital, now Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. I joined the Young Associates Board and kept on teaching dance to current and former patients.

Donna taught me to say yes to all of life’s experiences. She taught me to feel fears and pain fully, then move on. She taught me that when there is misbehavior all around you, stay focused and wait it out. She taught me that when you fall, you have two choices: get yourself up or ask for help. She taught me to be articulate and positive in explaining what I need. She taught me that there is no excuse not to dance and laugh. She taught me that each day counts, so ask for the good macaroni ‘n cheese.

Donna passed away peacefully at home in October 2009, between her loving parents. When she left, they vowed to keep doing good things in her name and founded Donna’s Good Things. When I came to Egypt, I brought a little bit of Donna with me. Her courage, her humor, her energy and empathy. I signed on to volunteer at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt as a dance teaching artist, providing both dancing sessions for different groups of patients and dance therapy for the teen peer support group. All good things.

Childhood cancer is the same here in Cairo as it is in Chicago. It is the same beast. Although, lymphomas are more prevalent and rates of survival are generally much lower. Fundraising via social media is almost unheard of here. And there is mistrust of health care directors who people believe profited during the Mubarak regime. Religion, corruption, and politics are huge factors in both countries. But the child superheroes are the same. They are joyful and generous even under the most difficult of circumstances.

This past Thursday, I was honored to bring about an event that was pretty much my dream when I came here. To bring together the faculty and students of the Academy of the Arts’ High Institute of Ballet where I am teaching, and the world of 57357.

The primary school students of the ballet institute came to the hospital and performed three numbers: a lively folkloric routine, the Russian Trepak from The Nutcracker, and a pop jazz routine to Mambo No. 5. They performed three times total: once onstage in the auditorium for the out-patients, and then twice on different in-patient floors for the patients too sick to leave the ward. The staff at the hospital were kind enough to provide full support for the music and lighting. It was a real show. Rock concert quality.

High Institute of Ballet performing at 57357 (Photo by Mohamed Radwan)

After each performance, the staff gave out the Twinkies and treats they had brought for the kids, and I led the patients, parents and nurses in a participatory dancing session. This was similar to what I regularly do at the hospital, but this was the first time the faculty of the ballet institute had seen such work. I looked to my left and there were all they were by my side, on their feet, joining me, engaging with the patients. They were hooked. I think these faculty members will definitely continue this work and a strong partnership will develop. Inshallah.

At the end of the day, the faculty had to get the dance students back onto the bus, so I stayed on to lead the last dancing session on my own. There was a girl of about 12 years. She had a hair net, a slouched and weak posture, and was in a wheelchair pushed by her father. She sat on the far side of the audience on the in-patient lobby, clapping along to the healthy kids in their sparkly costumes dancing to Mambo No. 5. Then I started to dance with all the patients, many moving just one arm cause of the IVs. I walked over, grabbed the arms of her wheelchair, and pulled her onto the dancefloor. We span in circles, wheelchair and all, together with the other dancing patients. Unable to speak the same language except for the one in our bodies. Her father beaming from the side. Her face all smile and her arms outstretched to their full potential. That is what this is all about.

Dancing at 57357. (Photo by Mohamed Radwan)

Following the event, I received this message on Facebook from a friend working at the hospital, “57357 and its children are grateful to you : ) . You drew smiles and made a lot of people and children laugh. Can’t imagine that you will leave us one day 🙁 .. Love you.”

Don’t worry, my friend. With these kids, there will always be dancing.


* For more photos, please visit the Facebook album.

**This post is a follow-up to a previous post, Dance and Cancer.

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.


The Health and Hope Oasis

25 Egyptian teenagers with different cancers at different stages, 35 siblings, volunteers, nurses, oncologists, social workers, and one dance educator from Chicago spend 3 days in a remote complex on a fruit farm in Wadi Natrun, about 2 hours northwest of Cairo. This is a place where you can see the stars at night. 4 people per room. Each room making a new camp family. No cell phones allowed.

We board a quiet bus on a Thursday afternoon in Cairo and drive out of town. As we pass the great Pyramids of Giza, no one on the bus says a word about them. These great wonders are old news for the children who live here.

Pyramids of Giza. A view from the bus. On the road to hope and health.

We arrive at the Health and Hope Oasis to applause and a brilliant traditional meal (sort of a sauceless lasagne) followed by rice pudding.

This trip is the first of its kind for the Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt 57357. The hospital is completely free for the patients, all of them, and so is this experience at the Oasis. The staff hope to hold camps as often as possible throughout the years, but there are too many cancer patients to reach. They’re not sure what will be possible without full-time camp program staff. The Oasis facility and farm, from what I understand, were built with help from the Presbyterian church and is run by an organization called Friends of Children With Cancer.

The Health and Hope Oasis, Egypt

Night one, as we are all sitting around waiting for the campfire to come to action, I lead the group in a lively, goofy kids’ game I learned from Bosnia. Later that evening I will have a long discussion with two of the patients about Bosnia, of which they have only heard of vaguely and of which they have many questions.

Sticks are found around the grounds and then Patricia, the head of the hospital foundation, approaches the campfire to roast her marshmallow. There is a hush. Then one of the patients asks me why Pat is doing that. I explain the concept of S’mores as the staff bring out biscuit cookies and Cadbury chocolate bars. The next couple hours are pure magic as one-by-one they each delight in their first S’more.

The rec room building is opened up around 10:00 pm. Along with air hockey, ping pong, board games and a sound system, it has a full size trampoline with safety net. Inside the building, mind you. Awesome. I was one of those gymnast kids who grew up with a trampoline in my backyard. So I jump right in and start teaching the teens some of the jumps and games from my childhood. After just a few minutes, I was politely instructed that I shouldn’t be bouncing on the trampoline with boys. Almost everything is allowed here at camp except for littering, cell phones, and co-ed trampolining.

Later, I go up to a young man who’s always sitting alone and he tells me he “loses all his happiness” when he’s on his chemo treatments. Another volunteer joins us to help with some of the translation and I show them a pic of my bald head from the St. Baldrick’s event. My new friend understands what I did, and why I did it, he pauses with a tear in his eye, says it was one of the most beautiful things he’s seen. Then he gives me a friendship bracelet off his own wrist. And I cry a little.

My New Friend and I

Camp activities include a personal development session with Quest, journaling (during which I share stories about Donna and Shea), art therapy, football, Friday prayers, jewelry making and social times at the canteen where they have fresh guava juice with milk and little cakes. I lead stretches every morning, creative dance sessions every afternoon, as well as guided breathing and movement exploration before bed for those still up at 2:00 am, which is most the campers. I learn new games from the staff, and  by the second day, I find them facilitating the games I shared. Love when exchanges work.

There is a session early on the second day where we are each given a blank piece of paper to tape to our back. We go around the room writing descriptors on each other’s papers. Most write in Arabic, but not on my sheet. At the end of the activity, we remove the paper and see what people have written. Mine says…

  • Open hearted for all
  • Good spirit & lovely presence
  • …ا ِحنا َ  ِحنا َ (Some beautiful, generous statement I am having trouble reading and remembering the translation of.)
  • Funny
  • Cute & Active
  • Active all the time
  • So pure
  • Energetic
  • I hope you like us as well as we like you.

These statements call for me to read them twice. I am incredibly humbled. Open hearted for all. These new Egyptian friends understood me in less than 24 hours. I hope they like me as well as I like them.

I spend some of the down time learning Arabic from the girls, practicing my numbers, making sure meds are in the right hands and watching how the docs check blood pressure. Other free time is spent coaching one of the staff’s son on cartwheels. He was crashing to the ground and frustrated. We didn’t speak each other’s language, but eventually he was landing all his cartwheels on his feet. Proudly.


There are two spontaneous Arabic dance parties on the second day, where I am the student. Belly dance is approved. But I guess there are some arm movements the girls taught me which the staff do not approve of. Still trying to figure that out.


And by Day Three, the campers show that their spirit is much stronger than the cancer inside them.

(If you look closely, you can see I’m wearing his friendship bracelet.)

Day Three


Dance and Cancer الرقص والسرطان

As alumni fellows of the UN Alliance of Civilizations International Fellowship program, me and my colleagues have recently made an official declaration that was delivered to the Heads of States and Governments during the 67th General Assembly of the United Nations.

I’m proud to have signed this declaration advocating dialogue of the #TrueMuslimWesternMajority, but understand my ongoing contribution to this dialogue will be less about religion and free speech, and more with dance and cancer.

I went to observe classes at the High Institute of Ballet in Cairo, where I will be co-teaching with grades 7, 8, 9 (ages 14-17) modern dance classes in addition to workshops on community arts with the undergraduates.

The faculty are contemporary dancers with well-established performing credits. Much more so than I. Their teaching methods are also very different than mine. One is laid back, sits back, calls out the warm ups and lets the students go home early. Yet, I understand this was the first class back after two months summer/Ramadan vacation. Another teacher is a man I am going to have to work harder to understand. He smokes during class in the hall, he is extremely hands-on forcing students into stretches and slapping kids alongside the head, and he indulges an elitist approach. But he is an exquisite dancer and cares a lot about his students. So I’ll start with those assets.

All the students are Egyptian, but a few are from Russia here because of the Institute’s deep history and continued connection to the Bolshoi. Most faculty slip between Arabic, Russian, French and English during their instruction. The head ballet master for the boys’ classes is extremely polished and I admire his teaching style. I asked how often he changed-up his barre exercises. He replied, “Oh, it’s not about time. It’s about progress. When I see the results in the students’ technique, either positive or negative, then I change as necessary.”

Yesterday, the two male modern dance teachers sort of challenged me to teach a few minutes. I had the students stand in a circle (rather than the standard lines) so that their would be more equality between the teachers’ pets and the slackers, between boys and girls; so that there would be more self-critique and peer support rather than dictatorial direction; and so that we could see each other’s faces when laughter broke out. Accidentally, my portion of the class went over 8 minutes. It was unclear if any of the students or faculty enjoyed it. Few emotional cues. One female student later requested to add me on Facebook, so there’s that.

In any case, these are dance trainees working every weekday from age 8-20 at this Academy in order to make it into the Cairo Opera Ballet or international companies. And yes, the school has grades with nearly twice as many boys as girls.

Grades 7 and 8 (Ages 14-16) at the High Institute of Ballet, Cairo


After class, I walked around and picked up the few scraps of paper, left-behind ballet slippers, and a used tea cup. I took the tea cup up to the main office and asked where I should put it. The Dean got a bit upset and asked why I was cleaning. “That’s not your job!” He then demanded to know which studio was dirty so that he could have a word with the janitorial staff. I felt awful and explained that I believe everyone should lend a hand, that I enjoy cleaning, that the studio wasn’t very dirty at all, and that it was all ok.

There is definitely a thing here in Egypt about everyone having a job. Yes there is an unbelievable high rate of employment, but almost everyone has “a job to do.” As I was walking home, looking around, it came to me that protest & graffiti tagging is some people’s role here, as is the policing & the painting it over.

Graffiti on Kasr Al Aini Street

Back to the dancing in Cairo.

Today was a very different experience… the first dancing session at Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357 and it went beautifully. As expected, there was a bit of a nervous start but then many children jumped in and started dancing. After we convinced them to turn off the TVs and Play Stations, we found lots of joy.

We boogied, we balanced, we stretched, we sat still, we leapt in the outpatient playroom with different groups of patients awaiting their treatment. The staff offered me the much larger lounge with extra space but that is a peaceful area with sofa chairs where kids are getting their chemo; would feel weird to dance and play in front of them.

Many of the parents took pictures the whole time from the playroom doorway and watched with smiles on their faces. After the session, a woman with full niqab and abaya came up to me and asked my name and where I was from. She held her 1-year old daughter in her ams. Too young to dance with us, the baby girl watched transfixed. She had a lovely, layered pink dress, bald head, gold earrings, cancerous tumor somewhere near her brain, and the biggest smile I’ve come across in quite awhile. Her mother thanked me much more than I deserved. There were plenty of thanks to go around.

The Communications team at the hospital plan to do a feature on the dancing sessions, so I will be sure to share that with you. I’m also excited that some of the older students and faculty at the Ballet Institute are interested in coming to the dance sessions at the hospital.

Beyond just the joy of the patients, what I love about being here is that these parents at 57357 get it. Dance is so important for kids to get to know their bodies, to relate to other children, and to explore the freedom the revolution gave them, no matter what cancerous beast may be inside.

In Egypt, everyone has a job to do. I think this is mine. Well, ours. Me and the kids. Our job is to dance.

Patients/Siblings/Dancers at Children’s Cancer Hospital Egypt 57357

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.


Foyer of the Academy of the Arts’ High Institute of Ballet in Cairo, Egypt

In the Dean’s office at the High Institute of Ballet today. I am there to get acquainted with this academy where I have been placed to lecture. My proposal, which won me this Fulbright, was for a project I titled “Artist as Catalyst.” But I soon realize no one is familiar with my proposal or my CV. They think I teach at Columbia University.

I know pretty much nothing of this academy. The website has been under construction all year and I have received little to no response from my e-mail communication. I don’t speak enough Arabic, and the Dean is uncomfortable with English. Turns out he is gracious, productive and joyous.

The office, which had been abuzz with activity of both female and male faculty rushing around negotiating student files, now becomes unusually still and quiet as the Director of Cairo Opera Ballet enters. He is a bit of an aloof and cultured character. I cannot figure him out just yet but am impressed just by the aura. He wears a brown vest and light wash jeans, is gallant yet slim, and when introduced to me, says nothing, kisses the back of my hand, slowly and certainly.

Prestigious. A long tradition of it.

Both the Opera Director and Institute Dean are men in their late 50s. But I’m bad at guessing ages.

I feel awkward and nod my thanks to the hand kiss, whispering some mumbled combination of Assalaam, marhaba, and So happy to meet you meet you. But no one notices my blunder because I have somehow managed to pull it off with a little luck and Chicago charm. Then this man leaves the office with many of the faculty following him.

The Dean and I are now alone in his office and he asks me to sit. He is more relaxed and asks for his colleague, who speaks English, to join us. He asks that someone bring me tea. And when we move from one office to another, someone is asked to carry my tea for me.


One of the many dance studios inside the Institute. A sense of pride and no acknowledgment of the need for repairs. Rumor is a whole new building will be erected in the future.


I learn that the students here at the High Institute of Ballet (in the Cairo suburb of Giza) must pass a difficult exam in order to enroll. The faculty audition 7-year-old children from around the city and country, looking for technical capacity, body shape, and musicality. Students all pay a reasonable tuition; no scholarships or work-study programs exist. Males and females equally eager to enroll.

All students must take 9 years of intense study of classical ballet (Russian method), modern dance (mix of methods), ballet partnering/lifting, music theory, piano, folkloric and historical dances, and dance appreciation, focusing on story ballets. These students are in the dance studio 3 hours a day and then take their academic classes in another part of the building. During my meeting, there was a reference to boys and girls being in separate classes, but I don’t know if I heard wrong.


High Institute of Ballet

At age 15-16, after 9 years of training, some students continue on to undergraduate level (either the choreography track or the more conservative, pure-lecture track in teaching). A select few dancers become graduate students with research and choreographic projects, and perform with the Cairo Opera Ballet or major dance companies across the world.

The students, parents and faculty here are some of the most liberal-dressing and socially open Egyptians I’ve run into so far. There is laughter. The genders mingle in equality and everyone seems to have a bounce in their step.

Except the custodial/janitorial staff. They don’t have the same bounce.

Hallways inside the High Institute of Ballet

When I asked about students cleaning their own studios, the response was pretty much a spit-take. My assumption is that the students think it is someone else’s job and they are used to just waiting for renovation, maybe it’s a class/privilege thing, about liabilities, or maybe there is too much red tape in such a traditional, large, and selective institution.

I got the same sort of spit-take when I asked about bringing non-students from the community here for classes or a community-dance project. Looked to the custodians right away, thinking they should be honored and dancing. But I had the feeling my idea was not ready to be introduced.

I asked about outreach projects and was told their idea of outreach is putting audition notices in the newspaper.

At the end of the day, it sounds like I will be teaching modern for the teens. Then starting in October, offering workshops about whatever community arts theories I want. But those workshops can be no longer than 2 hours. I said I might invite some undergraduate students to volunteer with me in the children’s cancer hospital and alternative venues in the city. That was promising and exciting.

As a community-dance practitioner, I have to find a way not to be intimidated in an environment like this. Not to shrink from their technical prowess and knowledge. Remember that I am a good teacher and have merits. I have to find a fine balance between learning the Egyptian way and challenging their thinking.

Dance can revolutionize public education, youth development, community development, healthcare, cross-cultural and inter-religious understanding, conflict prevention and resolution…

Teaching dance in a Northwest Bosnian village in 2011

Dance can revolutionize. That’s what I know.

Semester starts September 22nd.



***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

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