Colombian Dance School Saves Lives

In the nation of Colombia, a dance troupe known as "The Body School" is gaining widespread attention for helping members of the company to escape lives of violence and hardship.

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Further south now to Colombia where beauty sometimes sprouts from conflict. There, a modern dance company is thriving and winning fame the world over. Some of the dancers fled their homes because of war. Others come from violent, teeming slums. They're showing that adversity can also produce hope.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Cartagena, Colombia.

JUAN FORERO: It's called the Colegio del Cuerpo, The Body School and it's located in a nondescript storefront in a neighborhood that was once home to runaway slaves. On this day, a dozen dancers rehearse, moving together in a dark studio, whirling and leaping to an Afro-inspired beat. Colombia is a country of music and dancers, everything from salsa to cumbia from Vallenato to the folkloric Llaneras of the Great Plains. But it's here in the heart of this colonial city on the Caribbean where some of the most intriguing, even beguiling dancing is taking place.

(Soundbite of dance rehearsal)

FORERO: The brain behind the cutting-edge choreography is Alvaro Restrepo. He was a disciple of Martha Graham, the American pioneer of modern dance. Restrepo spent years dancing in New York. But his native Cartagena beckoned and Restrepo returned to found the Colegio del Cuerpo in 1997. The guiding concept has been the splendor of the body and that it must always be treated with dignity.

Mr. ALVARO RESTREPO (Dancer, Choreographer): We really want them to understand that they have an incredible tool in a country that has treated the body with so much violence. I think that is of great importance.

The dancers come from what Restrepo calls the deep Cartegena where sewage runs down dirt streets and mangy horses pull flimsy wagons, where violence is a part of everyday life and where many of the residents are refugees fleeing from war. It's a far cry from the colonial jewel known to tourists. Dancer Nemesio Berrio says the school opened a new world to him.

Mr. NEMESIO BERRIO (Dancer): (Through translator) I come from a poor barrio of Cartagena where there are many dangers and problems, where you have to be strong to continue existing, and where you use muscle to defend your dignity. There's another path. Another path exists in which you can do things in a more satisfying way.

FORERO: Teaming up with the French dance director Marie France Delieuvin, Restrepo built a dance company that taught not just dance but values. Five hundred children showed up at the first tryout. Whittled to a group of 16, those dancers are now in their early 20s, most of them about to graduate from college. Restrepo says the school's first decade is a milestone.

Mr. RESTREPO: Last year, we called it our harvest year. Martha Graham used to say that it takes 10 years to make a dancer, and that's what it took us to get to the point where we are right now.

FORERO: Restrepo, with help from the World Bank, is expanding the dance program to 18 of Cartagena's poorest schools and also planning to build a new dance studio on a lush expanse on the city's outskirts. But what the body school is best known for are its performances; eclectic, acrobatic, whimsical. They've been a hit, not just here, but in Europe, Brazil, New York, and Washington.

That's what drew Gina Carrasquillo(ph) to the dance company. She'd been a ballerina.

Ms. GINA CARRASQUILLO (Ballerina): (Through translator) In contrast to classical dance, which is more restricted, it's not so much work with the body. Here there is so much more freedom of motion, more improvisation. You learn more about yourself.

FORERO: The dancers spent hour upon hour every day in grinding rehearsals, no more so than for Bogota's recent international theater festival. On the day of the performance, Marie France Delieuvin stands on a stage as a half dozen of the dancers spin and roll. The choreography, everyone knows, has to be just right. And she worries that there's too much spinning. Moments before going on stage, Restrepo joins the dancers in the dressing room for their pre-performance pep-talk.

(Soundbite of Restrepo speaking in Spanish)

FORERO: He tells them they're creators and that they're about to perform their creations. The dancers must defend them, he says, and live them. In the performance, the music goes from boisterous to somber.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: The dancing closely approximates the mood. Sad one moment, full of cheer, full of life the next. The theater is full and the enthusiasm builds with the show. It's a response the dancers have come to expect.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Cartagena, Colombia.

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