Honduras: dance as a school of life

Honduras: dance as a school of life
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Over the past ten years, Honduras has been struggling with a complex social situation: corruption, gang violence, a precarious health care system, poor job and educational opportunities (only 40 per cent of adolescents are enrolled in secondary school, according to UNICEF, and primary school is only held in the morning). It is difficult, in such circumstances, for the young people of Honduras to escape from reality and imagine a real future ahead of them.

And yet, in the alleys of the troubled neighbourhoods of Tegucigalpa, the capital, some young people have found an escape, an antidote to the urban violence: ballroom dancing. Dances such as the waltz, the foxtrot, tango, chachacha and many more are supplanting the typical reggaeton in working class neighbourhoods. It was at the initiative of 41-year-old Mathilde Thiebault, founder of the Paris-Tegu Association and the Cultural Centre for Arts and Friendship (CCAA), from which this project to create a ballroom dance school emerged.

The young woman, named Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (Knight of the French National Order of Merit) in August 2018, is of Honduran origin and was adopted by a French family at birth. In 2005, she returned to her native country to rediscover her roots. Struck by the lack of opportunities and hope for young people, she decided to engage with youngsters from the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Tegucigalpa by creating the CCAA, a unique place for training, culture and social interaction, which now welcomes more than 250 young people a year.

The centre, which is open every day of the week, provides a safe and supportive environment for young people aged between 13 and 22 from the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Tegucigalpa, offering them a wide range of cost-free cultural and educational activities: music, theatre, cooking classes and, last but not least, ballroom dancing, a trailblazing project in Honduras.

Chaperoned by Mathilde and her team, chiefly composed of former students who have become support staff, the youngsters attending the centre are expected to take part in its day-to-day management (logistics, cleaning, reception and tidying away equipment.). “Everyone has a role to play and everyone takes part in something,” explains Mathilde. “It’s a project that helps shape future citizens.”

Dance is therefore used as a vehicle for education, social integration and personal development. Educating young people and enabling them to flourish requires ‘deconstructing’ negative, self-destructive ways of thinking, often inculcated in them by their peers or the hostile environment they live in. That is why shows are held once every quarter. Each performance is an opportunity to invite parents, friends, neighbours or former students. These regular events showcasing the students’ collective endeavours help to create a real sense of community, fostering social cohesion as a way of reducing levels of violence. And, simply by example, new youngsters are in turn inspired to sign up for activities. The holistic approach to artistic training helps develop new habits and a different mindset. The drivers are friendship, support and joint endeavour.

The results can also be seen in the young people’s day-to-day lives. Many parents have noted the positive impact on their children’s behaviour: they rediscover basic values such as respect and the importance of building a positive self-image and male-female relationships based on gender equality.

When Mathilde and Brayan, the CCAA’s leading couple, dance on Plaza Los Dolores in central Tegucigalpa, time is frozen: passers-by stop, intrigued, and watch, their eyes filled with surprise and admiration. For the two dancers, “a moment of waltzing: it is timeless, it is a universal language that brings a sense of peace to an otherwise hostile world”.

Photo: Mahé Elipe

Students review the technical elements of their latest performance in the centre’s multimedia room. Twenty-four-year-old Orlin is in charge of leading the session that day. As well as helping his mother in a local café, this former student at the CCAA became a volunteer and then a member of the team. “I received a lot from the centre at a difficult time in my life. That’s why I also give my time now. I want everyone to benefit from what I’ve learned by coming here. It’s for the young people who’ll come after me that I keep going.”

Photo: Mahé Elipe

In the Guanacaste neighbourhood of Tegucigalpa, 17-year-old Luz and her dance partner Orlin practise in the corridors and gardens of their apartment block. In 2014, Luz’s mother moved to Spain to find work, leaving her alone with her older brother. She sends them a little money every month to help them get by. For Luz, dance is an outlet that has allowed her to express herself and her feelings.

Photo: Mahé Elipe

That day, the girls from the CCAA met in a shop in the city centre to look for a dance outfit for their performance the next day. In the end, they didn’t buy anything, and used the second-hand dresses they already had at home. But the outing was a real moment of joy for the young dancers.

Photo: Mahé Elipe

The sense of wellbeing extends to life at home: 19-year-old Andrea’s mother looks on with pride as her daughter gets ready for her next rehearsal. Clearly moved and grateful, she talks about the evolution she has seen in her daughter who, thanks to dance, is blossoming and expressing herself more and more every day. For Andrea, dancing is “one of the only chances she has to enjoy a sense of freedom”.

Photo: Mahé Elipe

Rodwin is 19 years old. He lives with his four siblings and his parents in a two-room dwelling in El Chimbo, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. It takes him a good hour to get to the centre every morning, and then there is the cost of the bus there and back, which leaves a significant dent in the household budget. But it is a price well worth paying. Dance has helped Rodwin to overcome his lack of confidence and has provided him with some of the key tools he needs to tackle life.

Photo: Mahé Elipe

Seventeen-year-old Darrell Palencia practising with his dance partner Luz in front of his family. Darrell, who started to dance three years ago after being invited to the centre by one of his friends, lives in one of Tegucigalpa’s poorest areas, controlled by gangs, with his parents and two brothers. In dance he has found the freedom he lacks in his neighbourhood.

Photo: Mahé Elipe
This story has been translated from French.