So I did what I always do: I danced.
Back in 2010, I became involved with a local nonprofit called World Dance For Humanity; a group that, at that time, consisted of Janet Reineck in her living room, asking herself why, in this town where fitness studios dot every corner, was she jogging on a Sunday afternoon? And furthermore, why did dance class seem to be more about one’s warped relationship to the floor-to-ceiling mirror than the desire to move, shake, and relate over our desire to heal ourselves—and our world? As Janet’s passion developed—and with it, a strong base of dancers—World Dance For Humanity became what it is today: a low-cost exercise class that donates 100% of its proceeds to small, sustainable grassroots projects locally and abroad, fusing the best of global music and dance to get women in shape and inspired. Thanks to a donation that covers administrative expenses, every dollar raised since 2010—at this point, totaling more than $100,000 for projects in Nepal, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda, and Rwanda, as well as our own Neighborhood Clinics and Boys and Girls Clubs—has gone toward building a brighter future for communities in need, as well as a deep connection with one another. All without worrying about our butts in the mirror, and all without needing to fanfare our goals.
This summer, I was given the opportunity to get it. I knew in my gut—or perhaps in my plastic zombie-guts, lying facedown next to Mayor Helene Schneider as we danced “Thriller” for World Dance’s annual fundraiser—just what makes this group special: the directness, the relationship of dance class to direct aid that gathers no asterisks, is exceptional. In 2013 we inherited the work of Goats for Life, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit that had been providing livestock to Rwandans for six years at the time of our merger. In the past year, we have expanded that work to provide goats, cows, educational stipends, and small business development to twenty different government-sanctioned cooperatives that banded together after the 1994 genocide. So when I was invited to visit Rwanda, following up on this work, I jumped at the chance: yet somewhere deep down, heard a voice of residual angst. Yeah, yeah, it gnawed. Privileged kid quells her guilt overseas. Just what makes you different? What I felt in my gut had yet to seep into my bones.
And then we touched down in Kigali, in that land where the air smells of fire, and it entered my soul. Without asking my name, without worrying how we could bridge the ocean of language and experience between us, the Rwandan women grabbed me by the arm and squeezed straight down to my spine; checking, it seemed, for the life that filled it. For the vitality that brought me there, looking at them, sweating and crying and wheezing with grief as the weight of their stories sunk in. Each day that we were in Rwanda, interviewing our sponsored students and checking in on each cooperative’s project—everything from sewing to fish farming, from Icerecyezo to Tubehotwese as we bounced through the hills in a van that took potholes like lead pipe—I became convinced of our work’s sustainability. Here is a country rebuilding itself in the wake of devastation, finding hope in the darkest of places; hope that is moving through the land like fertilizer, fuelling a brighter future in the same way that the goats from World Dance are fertilizing the soil. In Santa Barbara, when we throw a dance party and wire money for livestock, it’s more than the lives being saved; which, for the record, is about forty-seven families per cow. It’s one more opportunity for Rwandans to come together under the Umuvumu tree at Never Again cooperative, passing bowls of salted peanuts back and forth as they plan for the future: people who, twenty years ago, were embroiled in one of the worst atrocities in history. Though still reeling from the genocide, they are not content to be defined by it; and that concept, never again, is as pure as each sponsored student is brave. “I can’t wait to sponsor someone else,” they’d tell us, quaking in their delicate English. “I can’t wait to help another student to have the same chance as me.”
This selflessness is the opposite of apathy. This community-based thinking, innate in the new generation of Rwandans, is what fuels World Dance as well: we heal by helping others, looking outward while supporting one another in softening toward ourselves. Best of all, it’s because we dance—in Rwanda, until sweat poured down our faces, until our cheeks hurt from smiling, until a thin film of dirt coated our teeth—that this connection occurs. What defined this trip, forever separating it from the us-and-them volunteerism that had troubled my traveler’s soul, is the fact that we danced. We touched and were touched, losing ourselves in the wordless exchange of meeting one another’s deepest needs, using our common language to speak what we feel most: that we are one.
I don’t think I’ll ever know what the world’s medicine is, but if asked, I would say it is gratitude. Every morning that we woke up in Rwanda, seven women from all walks of life, I tasted it: sprinkled in my weak, instant coffee, over my boiled egg, and in the avalanche of bananas gifted to us, which we found—like leftover Fiesta confetti—in every nook and cranny. Gratitude. For what has come before, what has come between (us), and what ultimately brings us together: Love. In the end, whether this trip was two weeks or two years, it remains in the folds of memory: and even when the smoky smell dissipates, when the words begin to fade into a mush of soft syllables and sound, my body will remember. The heart remembers, even when the mind forgets; both good and bad, it’s all there. Through the body, we remember… so through the body, we seek to change. And that’s what World Dance for Humanity is all about, Charlie Brown. One dance at a time, one step at a time; full-hearted, forgiving, and forward.
Thank you, Rwanda.
“Mumararungu: One who, when you are together with her, you are not lonely.” Thank you.
Jenna is a storyteller, ninth-generation Californian, and full-time mischief maker. After graduating from Scripps College in Claremont, CA, she was appointed to the advisory board of World Dance for Humanity, the launching pad for many a flash mob and more than $100,000 of charitable donations at home and abroad. Inspired by the power of dance to heal communities, and continually fascinated by the mind-body connection, she went on to perform with AXIS Integrated Dance, UCSB, Santa Barbara Summer Solstice, and Lucidity Festival. In 2012, she received a blogging grant from Hostelling International to live in Bali for one month; and seven months later, actually returned home. She currently live as an artist-in-residence in a creepy old house, and teach improvisational dance as a way of life. She believes in loving, writing, and standing on her head; and, time and time again, finds preschoolers to give the best advice.For more information on World Dance for Humanity, and a full class schedule, visit https://www.worlddanceforhumanity.org.
All of Jen Pastiloff’s upcoming events listed here, including her two Tuscany retreats.
I love this story. I can feel it and taste it
Terrific story, Jenna! “Gratitude. For what has come before, what has come between (us), and what ultimately brings us together: Love. ” beautiful. (P.s. You have a great name, too). 😉
This was a great piece. Very inspirational.