In chaotic Colombia, a dance of hope

[30 April 2007]

By Gary Marx

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CARTAGENA, Colombia—Viridiana Calvo dropped gracefully to the ground, her body twisting and turning, as she performed with a dance troupe last month before more than 100 people in this historic coastal city.

Like many dancers, the 19-year-old Calvo has spent the better part of her life training so that one day she can join a world-class company.

She already has come so far.

A decade ago, Calvo’s family was victimized like so many others by Colombia’s chronic violence. Shortly after her father died, her mother, a supermarket cashier, lost her job when the store was bombed under unclear circumstances.

Wrenched from a middle-class life, Calvo moved with her mother and two siblings to a Cartagena slum with dirt streets, open sewers and right-wing militias that target residents for assassination.

Then, one day, a renowned Colombian dancer named Alvaro Restrepo visited her school and organized a performance. Restrepo’s goal was to recruit a group of talented kids and provide them a way out of poverty by turning them into world-class performers.

“I loved it,” Calvo recalled of that first performance. “I knew nothing about contemporary dance. The movements and the music were something super new for me. I was just a little girl, but I was hooked.”

Calvo is now one of 16 dancers who form the main troupe at El Colegio del Cuerpo, or The College of the Body, a thriving company that has performed in Europe and Latin America and made its U.S. debut this week (April 29) in New York.

Headquartered in Cartagena’s picturesque colonial center, The College of the Body has overcome financial setbacks and the prejudices of Colombia’s conservative society to become one of the nation’s most important artistic institutions.

In the process, it is turning into a model for using dance to improve the lives of impoverished youths and help them tackle such daunting issues as sexual abuse and child prostitution that social workers say are rampant in Cartagena.

In addition to providing scholarships and training to about 50 students seeking a career in dance, El Colegio offers children as young as 7 workshops that use movement to teach them to respect their bodies and resist unwanted sexual advances.

Restrepo said the academy is using a $950,000 grant from the Japanese government and the World Bank to expand its outreach to include several thousand youths in Cartagena’s poorest neighborhoods.

“The idea is ... to educate kids and give them the tools so that we can prevent these grave social problems,” said Restrepo, 49. “The reality of Cartagena is very, very heavy. This is something that we have to confront.”

Elvira Cuervo de Jaramillo, Colombia’s minister of culture, praised Restrepo’s work and said she wished there were more institutions like The College of the Body to bring art and education to the poor.

“This is a unique project, not only because of its social mission, but also because of its artistic role,” Cuervo said. “It’s really marvelous.”

Born in Medellin, Restrepo studied philosophy, theater and piano before discovering dance. He traveled to New York, studied under such greats as Martha Graham and developed a successful international career.

But in 1991 Restrepo decided to return to Colombia to start a contemporary dance company in Cartagena, where his family has roots. Restrepo teamed up with Marie-France Delieuvin, a French dancer and educator, and in 1997, El Colegio del Cuerpo was born.

From the start, Restrepo and Delieuvin faced obstacles. Cartagena’s light-skinned elite did not embrace the troupe’s mostly poor, Afro-Colombian dancers - though over time the group has gained acceptance. And while cumbia, salsa and other dances are part of the popular culture in this Caribbean city, many Cartageneros are unfamiliar with the abstract language of contemporary dance.

“The elite in this city are a little ignorant,” said Yorneis Chiquillo, a 21-year-old dancer with the company. “They are more interested in fashion. They like reggaeton. This is not culture.”

Restrepo also encountered opposition from some parents because of gender and cultural issues. In Colombia’s macho society, it is culturally acceptable for men to dance at parties, but it’s generally not considered an appropriate career.

“Contemporary dance encourages the development of sensitivity, and boys in this culture are taught they shouldn’t be sensitive,” said May Posse, a teacher at the academy.

Some female students also face resistance from parents because the traditional role of impoverished girls in Colombia is to do housework and care for siblings before marrying as teenagers and having their own children.

“My mother complains that I spend all day here and don’t help in the house,” said Yarisel Castro, 18.

Still, Castro and other dancers say they’ve come too far to quit in the face of social pressure.

Jhader Palomeque was 7 when leftist rebels entered his town in northwestern Colombia, assassinated two of his father’s co-workers and vowed to kill more civilians.

Palomeque’s family fled to a Cartagena slum where his father struggled to find enough work to support six children. Heavily armed gangs roam the neighborhood, assaulting residents and peddling drugs.

“I don’t hang around with these people because they are losers,” said Palomeque, 18, a fifth-year student at the academy. “My dream is to improve the living conditions of my family, get them out of the neighborhood, and I want to do it through dance.”

Restrepo ensures that education and dance training go together.

On a recent morning at the academy, a dozen students were busy jotting notes during a class analyzing the work of Colombian writer William Ospina, while Calvo and other dancers trained in the school’s cramped studio.

Restrepo says his best dancers could soon approach world-class status, but an equally important goal is convincing them that the poor are as good as the rich and that art and spirituality are more important than material wealth.

“Our biggest achievement is to demonstrate to our city and our country that, no matter what their background, what our kids need are opportunities,” he said.

At the start, Calvo, then 9, traveled alone through dangerous streets three hours each day to study at the academy. The school paid Calvo’s bus fare because her mother didn’t have any money.

Now, as one of the company’s principal dancers, Calvo receives a monthly stipend of about $180 - enough to help her family move out of the shantytown and into a better neighborhood near the school.

She has already danced with the ensemble in Germany, France and Spain.

“I give thanks to God because I’ve had the opportunity to understand that I can succeed,” Calvo said.

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Want more information on El Colegio del Cuerpo (The College of the Body)? Go to www.elcolegiodelcuerpo.org.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/in-chaotic-colombia-a-dance-of-hope/