In last week’s Sunday column, we traveled to Peru with Crow Woman Alane Brown to hear about her life changing journey with the Peace Corps. This week we’ll go to the other side globe where a New York dance school is engaging in a cultural exchange with the single goal of making a difference in the lives of local youth. From the high mountains of the Andes to the picturesque lakes of Northern India, there are individuals making small changes to affect positive change.
Udaipur, called the “City of Lakes” is located in the state of Rajasthan in North Western Indian. It is a cultural center, intellectual hot-spot, and tourist destination. With its striking landscape, dotted with majestic places, Udaipur has been the backdrop for many films and has become a popular wedding destination for the world’s wealthy. In 2008, London Times freelance journalist Max Davidson wrote:
Every image seems eerily familiar, an echo of old Europe in modern India: that glorious cacophony of mooing cows and hooting mopeds and noisy street markets. Udaipur, the Venice of the East, is living up to its name.
But Udaipur has another side. Despite its myriad of schools and Universities, Rajasthan has a 67% literacy rate which is 7 points below the country’s average (74%). For women the outlook is worse with a meager 52% literacy rate, 13 points below the national average of 65%. The 2011 maternal mortality rate was 318 women per 100,000. That is more than 100 deaths higher than the national average – one of the country’s worst.
The discrepancy between the statistics and Udaipur’s glorious reputation tell the story of India. It is a country of economic extremes – the likes of which are not known in the United States. Today India is struggling with legacies left by the British occupation and its own restrictive cultural baggage. India’s leaders are arduously working to repair the damage and reverse negative trends. However, strict socio-economic boundaries still remain very much intact, making it difficult for those of different classes to regularly interact within a healthy community atmosphere.
There are a host of India-based organizations working to mitigate the pervasive social burdens. One of these organizations is Big Medicine Charitable Trust (BMCT), a non-governmental organization (NGO), founded by several women whose original mission was the “greening of India.” In 2010 BMCT representatives attended the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. While there, they watched a performance called Earth Beat presented by The Vanaver Caravan.
The BMCT reps were so impressed with the performance that they immediately approached director Livia Vanaver to discuss a possible cultural exchange with Udaipur. Livia had already done similar work in Sweden and was excited about the possibility of visiting India. Later that year she invited the BMCT reps to New York’s Hudson Valley to fully experience The Vanaver Caravan’s work and mission.
The Vanaver Caravan is not a typical dance school. As stated on their website:
Peace is an ongoing process. We recognize that cultural and traditional differences can divide us. Our mission is to celebrate those differences through dance and music in an effort to unite the world and give hope to our communities.
Founded in 1972, The Vanaver Caravan dancers have traveled the world to teach, perform and learn traditional dances from the depth of the world’s cultures. Returning to the United States these dancers share their experiences with others through their studio classes at Columbia University, where Livia Vanaver currently teaches, or through classroom outreach programs. In the past The Vanaver Caravan has also partnered with the Friendship Ambassador’s Foundation and performed a healing program for victims of the 9/11 tragedy.
For founder, dancer and choreographer, Livia Vanaver dance is more than just movement. She says:
Dance and music transcend everything. [They] offer an atmosphere of possibility that doesn’t necessarily exist in our everyday life.
In 2012 BMCT welcomed four of Livia’s dancers to Udaipur for a trial pilot program. The Vanaver dancers worked with three different schools representing three different socio-economic backgrounds. Their work was to culminate in a single final performance bringing all three schools together. Initially there were strong reservations from both the administration and students. For example the students from the lower-income girl’s school were terrified of being mocked during the final performance. However the dancers pressed on. Livia wrote:
As our program unfolded we witnessed the change in the way students, teachers and administrators thought about teaching and learning. The culminating performance had the entire audience cheering – the children of each school watched in fascination as their peers brought dances from around the world to life. What we did was use dance to unite three school communities of varied social castes in a celebration of arts culture and diversity.
The startling success of the pilot program paved the way for the full program which is now scheduled to begin in January of 2014. The Vanaver Caravan is currently raising funds to support their travel expenses and that of additional college students.
BMCT already lined up 5 new Udaipur schools for the January project, one of which will be from the outlying farm lands of Udaipur. However they expect more schools to sign on over the next few months. In fact the organizers may open the program to the public as well. Livia says,
[Performances like the one in Udaipur] provide such a feeling of can do and self-esteem that pure love fills the room. It is a tremendous feeling of joy that we are able to inspire and help other people in a transformative process.
During upcoming trip to Udaipur, The Vanaver Caravan will have two additional projects outside of teaching children. First, they will be assisting in the support of a new school called The Shakti Academy of Dance, Circus Arts and Energy Healing in tandem with Shakti Works, a collaborative project between BMCT, a US/Japan environmental think tank and several other Indian cultural financiers. Shakti Works’ mission is to “reconnect the magic of performance, healing and the Natural World” through the divine spirit of Shakti as the Earth Mother, “the feminine incarnation of creative, healing and protective power.”
Secondly, The Vanaver Caravan will engage in an extensive cultural exchange with a local Udaipur professional dance troupe. When The Vanaver Caravan dancers return to the United States, they will share their experience with students and children at all levels and with audiences throughout the world. Livia says:
We aren’t becoming a global community. We are a global community. For students to experience that through their bodies is why we do what we do.
As with work being done by Alane Brown in Peru, a cultural exchange begins as a personal journey but evolves into so much more. It is a transformative experience that can be shared. Through dance and music, it is possible to appreciate and experience another culture in an almost transcendental way without feeling the pressure to assimilate or convert, if you will. The arts have the power of bringing people together because they are universally enjoyed. They can be understood beyond the boundaries of language, culture, religion, and as shown in this story, even economics.
Through individual blogs and their own website, The Vanaver Caravan has shared much of their experience with this project to date. You can read more about it and about their other progressive project through their website.