Lasagna, school buses, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
These are just a few of the “American firsts” experienced by Dance of Hope performers who have been wowing Whidbey Islanders the past week with their artistry and enthusiasm.
“The energy is so good,” South Whidbey High School jazz director Chris Harshman said Monday as he watched the Ugandan group practice. Friday evening, the group’s public performance at the high school also features the school’s jazz ensemble.
The group, composed of 10 performers, ages 11 to 17, is touring schools in North America on a mission of both learning and teaching.
Last week, they visited two private South Whidbey Schools, Waldorf and Wellington Day School, and this week they are in residence at South Whidbey High School.
Tuesday, they met for the first time with the high school jazz band to figure out how to fuse their respective sound and spirit.
“To launch a collaboration with jazz and dance is unique,” Harshman said. “This is such high energy, it is a natural fit.”
Dance of Hope’s local visit is sponsored by Whidbey Island Center for the Arts with several supporting grants. A welcoming celebration, community potluck and bonfire greeted the group Thursday at the Northwest Language and Cultural Center where they stayed for several nights.
The dance troupe’s school program, called “Exchange and Connect,” exposes youth to the similarities and differences of countries and cultures. And they get to do fun stuff — like roller skating in the gym at South Whidbey High School.
Music is a meeting point. Making global connections the goal.
“Music in Africa is something you do every day. Singing, dancing is part of life,” said Bosco Segawa, Dance of Hope co-producer. “They’re here representing millions of children in Uganda.
“They are here to teach other children about our music, way of life and teach them our traditions.”
Gabriel Schiavone-Ruthensteiner, an eighth-grader at Wellington, said he appreciated the group’s recent visit. “They taught us about different instruments and they did a performance,” he said.” It’s really cool. They make the instruments out of cowhide and wood.”
His family is also hosting three of the group’s members in their home.
“We met them Sunday, took them to our house and they started playing hoops together right away in the driveway,” said Gabriel’s father, Sebastian Schiavone-Ruthensteiner. “It was really sweet.”
Taking a break from the rigorous, drum-pounding, heart-thumping, foot-tapping practice, dancers Jamilah Nambozo, Slyvia Nakyejjwe and Apio Lima Natako said in unison they’ve had “lots and lots of food” they haven’t tried before.
“Like lasagna,” Natako laughed. And in Portland, after performing at a homeless center, they were treated to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Refrigerators full of food, supermarkets as big as villages and “big, big houses” where few people live are also unusual sights.
“They wondered, ‘don’t people get lonely’? They can’t imagine not having all their family and ‘clan’ around,” remarked Josette Hendrix, executive director and founder of the cultural center.
They are not only musicians and dancers but also ambassadors of courage, hope and pride. Some are from orphanages and refugee camps.
“Coming to America is something they have worked toward for over six years,” said Segawa, a street kid himself and founder of the children’s home, M-Lisada, where many of the youth live. M-Lisada stands for Music, Life, Skills And Destitution Alleviation. Its motto is “music to the rescue.”
The Dance cast will be interacting with South Whidbey elementary school children and grades 7-12 until a Saturday early morning ferry departure.
Next stop: South Haven, Michigan.
Dance of Hope visited the desert city of Scotsdale, Ariz. before arriving on Whidbey right after a snow fall.
Many donated coats, hats and gloves are keeping them warm. “We didn’t know the theater at Waldorf School is outside so that was a surprise when we gave a workshop there,” laughed Dima Itskovich, who manages the tour’s schedule and finances.
Charles Terry and Betsy McGregor of South Whidbey, who first visited the Kampala orphanage some 10 years ago, also helped with support, Itskovich said. “Some of these kids still can’t believe they are here, they’ve been dreaming about it for so long.”
Smashing stereotypes is another goal. Americans and Africans often have slanted views of one another that are mostly based on the media, Hollywood and misinformation, Itskovich pointed out.
Friday night’s WICA-sponsored performance is aimed at sending audiences on a tour of Africa and to learn the triumphant stories of the young performers, said co-founder, producer and musician Kinobe Herbert. He has been mentoring the youth for years with the goal of global tour.
“Our children, the music, the dances and storytelling will captivate everyone who witnesses it,” he said.
Additionally, Langley’s public performance will not be repeated elsewhere, he pointed out, because each show caters to the local venue’s interests and passions.
“What will happen here Friday night, you’ll never see it again.”
Dance of Hope public performance, 7:30 p.m., March 9 at South Whidbey High School auditorium. Admission is free. Donations to help support the school residence program gladly accepted. Visit www.WICAonline.org or www.danceofhope.com for more information.