Cultural Collaborations

NYU and Makerere University students performing the Gaze at the Uganda National Theatre. Photo by Bukenya.

Last January, while most college students were relaxing on winter break, a group of 15 dancers from New York University traveled to Kampala, Uganda, where they spent 16 days at Makerere University. Jenny Thompson, a former Dance Spirit intern and recent NYU graduate with a BA in dance studies, choreography and writing about performance (a self-designed major), was a senior at the time and the only undergraduate to participate in the annual trip. Jenny jumped at the chance to study abroad and work in a setting related to her major. For a week, the NYU students partnered with dance, drama and music students from Makerere University to teach each other traditional Ugandan dance and Western modern dance. The partners also created lesson plans, and during the second week, the college students taught children from local organizations. At the end of their trip, the NYU students gave a public performance with the Makerere students and the Ugandan children at Uganda’s National Theatre. Jenny documented her international adventure for DS. —Katie Rolnick

Friday, January 1
I just settled in for a flight from NYC to London. From there, I’ll fly to Kampala, Uganda. After all the preparations—applying for a visa, getting six immunization shots, buying malaria medication that I’ll take every day and stuffing my suitcase with clothes, books and gifts to donate to the Ugandan children I’ll be teaching—I can’t believe I’m finally on the plane to Africa!

Saturday, January 2
I arrived in Kampala, where I met up with the 14 other NYU students and our directors, Deborah Damast and Jenny Brown. For the first week, we’re staying at the Makerere University Guest House. Our rooms have beds with mosquito nets to protect us from the malaria-carrying insects. And when we shower, we have to be careful not to get any of the water, which contains unsafe bacteria, in our mouths.

Monday, January 4
This morning, coated in bug spray, we walked to the administration building on Makerere’s campus, where we’ll be dancing this week. To begin the day, one of the Makerere University professors taught us a Western Ugandan dance called the Kizino (chi-zi-no), which is performed at joyous occasions. It’s packed with stomping, clapping, jumping and singing, and requires a lot of energy. By the end, we were all sweating like crazy!

Wednesday, January 6
The second dance we’re learning for our big performance next Friday is the Gaze (ga-zay), a common children’s dance in Uganda. The Gaze’s mood is completely different from the Kizino because it’s usually performed by kids and is therefore very silly. Our Ugandan teacher, Herbert, led us through six of the movement sequences and songs.

After that, Deb taught the students from Makerere University her modern work, Ankole Modern. Deb’s piece is inspired by the Ugandan Ankole cow dance, during which a performer holds her slightly bent arms above her head to emulate the Ankole cow’s horns. The Ugandan students were eager to learn Deb’s interpretation and caught on quickly.

Monday, January 11
A couple nights ago, we moved into the Fang Fang Hotel for the second half of our trip, since it’s closer to the Queen’s Ballet School where we’re teaching this week. We’re working with about 40 students who range in age from 5 to 16 years old and have all different skill levels. Some are students at the ballet school and others are from the Life in Africa, Heritage Roots and In Movement organizations in Uganda. These organizations work mostly with orphans or kids who have grown up in difficult circumstances. I assisted in two classes this morning, dancing with the shy children and encouraging them to learn the dances they’ll be performing at the end of the week.

Wednesday, January 13
Today was my group’s teaching day! Last week, I was matched with two other teachers: Kate, an NYU graduate student in dance education, and Phionah, a Makerere student. We decided to use an instrumental hip-hop song for our performance piece. Phionah said the kids are interested in hip-hop music and dance because they don’t have easy access to them—and she was right. Their faces lit up when we played the music.

Jenny teaching Ugandan students a hip-hop combination. Photo courtesy Jenny Thompson.

Friday, January 15
At 9 am we went to the National Theatre, and although the kids were bouncing off the walls, we managed to squeeze in two run-throughs before people started to fill the auditorium for tonight’s performance.

We fed off of the kids’ excitement and energy throughout the show, which seemed to fly by. In the final number the NYU and Makerere students performed the Kizino together. Though I’ve been dancing and performing for 16 years, I’d never felt the joy and solidarity I felt during this number. By the end I could barely breathe, but we kept dancing as some of our phenomenal Ugandan teachers moved into the center. The audience roared!

After the show, we presented each organization with the donations and gifts we had packed (including some “I ♥ NY” T-shirts). It’s hard to say good-bye to these kids. 

Sunday, January 17
It feels like I’ve been here for much longer than 16 days. The thought of not waking up in my mosquito-net-covered bed and dancing with the Ugandan students breaks my heart.

On the plane, I looked out the window for my last glimpse of Africa—for now. I am going to miss the incredible people I met here. And I’ll especially miss their passion for dance. In Uganda, dance is vital. It’s community. Being here has made me realize how important it is to promote dance as a way to connect people. It’s a message I hope to share back in the States.

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