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Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
Dancing helps to heal broken lives
By Frances Byrnes

Rehearsing a scene from Fall And Recover (Picture: Mike Walker)
Rehearsing a scene from Fall And Recover (All pictures: Mike Walker)
In a small Dublin theatre Kariba moves her hands through the air as if she is scooping gossamer.

"When we dance, I could say I'm in heaven because I'm mingling with so many people others can't see," she said.

"In the dance is how my life was before everything went wrong."

Kariba's husband was shot dead in front of her.

When she fled her country she left behind some of her children.

"I like to open my hands, it's like beginning a life. I want to be free, with just purity in the air.

Your body is the one talking, not you
Kariba

"I'm mixing with people who are dead, it's like I'm talking to them with my hands."

Kariba hadn't considered herself a dancer.

But when Spirasi, Ireland's Centre for Care for Survivors of Torture, asked its clients which kind of performance workshops might help them she suggested dance.

Painful memories

Drama, she reasoned, would involve talking about trauma. In contrast, "dance would make you do things that really don't remind you of other things because your body is the one talking, not you".

So, in May 2003, the modern dance choreographer John Scott was invited to Spirasi to meet torture survivors from ten different countries.

John Scott works on breath and movement with clients. (Picture: Mike Walker)
John Scott works on breath and movement with clients

The idea of his workshops was to help the clients feel comfortable within their bodies again.

Kariba believes it worked.

"You go to a psychologist and you talk - it is like rewinding the tape of your life. They tell you to talk everything from how things went wrong, and that is sad.

"But John told us, "Just do anything you want," and that allows us to choose what we say.

"I've been going to counselling for two years, but the counselling didn't help me the way the dance helped me."

Rediscovering identity

Although their bodies may have been very damaged, it's through their bodies that the refugees have rediscovered themselves.

You can speak with your body in an involuntary way, things that you're not ready to speak about yourself
John Scott

They are able to express things in movement which are too buried or too painful to be put into words.

As John Scott puts it: "You can speak with your body in an involuntary way, things that you're not ready to speak about yourself."

The survivors' identities were in shreds. So John explored signature gestures with each of them, out of the shape of their names or out of memories from 'before.'

He was amazed: a man waved into the distance, just as he waved his last to his family.

"I saw Kariba lift her arms over her head and look up and it made me want to cry, the look on her face when she raised her arms over her head," he said.

"I saw Sebastiao open his arms and breathe and I got shivers up my spine."

Memories of home

One rainy night, when transport was running slow, only Sebastiao Mpembele Kamalandua turned up for the workshop.

Dress rehearsal of a joyous scene called Reunification. (Picture: Mike Walker)
Dress rehearsal of a joyous scene called Reunification

He had been waiting an hour when John, drenched, suggested they give the class a miss.

Sebastiao cried. So John asked him to close his eyes and breathe.

"I remember that night," said Sebastiao. "I closed my eyes and I was doing that movement with the arms, thinking about my homeland, about my past, everything what happened in my country in Angola since 1975, the civil war.

"I was thinking about it moving the arms, to tell people look what's happening, look, look what is happening."

All the dancers seem to want to embody the home they have been wrenched from.

The dance has also allowed them to be more than just the story of their torture.

Brighter future

Though Kariba daren't use her real name, she can imagine a future for herself when she dances.

"'In my heart I say: "OK. It will be OK. I open my arms and say it's alright, that's my past. I have to move on."

At the end of Fall and Recover, the dance they show the public, the survivors pour salt into their hands, lie on the floor, and outline their bodies with the salt.

When they stand up and leave the stage they leave their body shapes described, hauntingly, on the ground.

Sebastiao feels it is as if he leaves his personality on the stage and that the salt heals him.

He has had deportation orders but, with John Scott's support, currently has asylum seeker status.

The community of the dance - working in circles, or making a piece in which each person was at some time lifted up by another - brought trust back, too, to people who had learned not to trust.

In Fall and Recover the dancers find others there to support them when they lose their balance.

Kariba said: "You know someone will be out there looking for you; when I fall I won't really fall - someone will be there.

"We don't imagine we are by ourselves. That is how the dance healed us. It allowed us to open ourselves and reach out for help."

The Dance Saves Lives series will be broadcast from Monday 21 to Friday 25 August at 1545 BST on BBC Radio 4.

You can also listen online for 7 days after transmission at Radio 4's Listen again page.


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