Traci / Nica 64 / TEFL

A while ago my friends Emily and Andrew Nilsen invited me to a Noche de Ruben Dario (Ruben Dario Night). I accepted the invitation with the thought that it’d be a night of poetry, as Ruben Dario is a famous poet from Nicaragua. Once I arrived at the event with Emily and Andrew I knew it couldn’t just be a poetry night because of the turnout. The line went down the block and once everyone entered the school, it was completely full. We soon came to realize that it was a cultural night filled with dances, costumes, and poetry.

So far in Nicaragua when I had attended a cultural night, I had seen performances that included people talking on the stage, people stopping in the middle of the dance to laugh, or simply people leaving the stage when they forget the dance. I was shocked, however, because this event was nothing of the sort. All of the dancers had costumes, they smiled while they danced, they didn’t talk or laugh, and they had a professional composure. I immediately was drawn in and felt an ache for art and performance. It reminded all of of the times I have performed on a stage. The lights that block out the faces in the audience, the loud music, your heart racing right before you enter the stage, the beautiful and colorful outfits, and the culmination of all of your hard work.

Right then and there I knew I would need to put something together in my own town. I knew it was something I wanted and needed to experience again, and I thought, something I could share with some of the girls in my town. We also had the perfect event coming up in the next month, the International Music Festival in my town! Perfect, I thought to myself. Just as if it is meant to be.

As soon as I got back to my sleepy cowboy town, I decided to reach out to my site mate, Mary. I told her my idea and she was immediately on-board. Then I talked to my counterpart and asked her if she could get some girls together who might be interested. She immediately pointed out a few girls in my classes. I told them when the first practice would be and they agreed to show up.

Then I had the difficult business of deciding what type of dance we would do. Should I learn a traditional dance from Nicaragua and teach it to them? Should I find a popular pop song from the States and choreograph a dance? There seemed to be so many options, but so little time. I was currently busy finishing up two of my English groups, planning for my mom’s visit, and finally, spending time it my mom when she came to Achuapa. So I decided I would use a dance from the multicultural dance group I was a part of in college, Kaotix. One I already knew really well and that would be simple enough for the girls to learn.

The dance I chose was one of my personal favorites, called choli ke peeche. This is a song from a bollywood movie. Here’s the link to the music video. My friend Sapna Khatri, who lead the dance group, Kaotix, choreographed the dance. I decided to introduce this dance to the girls in my group, and ultimately to the whole community at large, because I wanted to demonstrate that there are many cultural traditions and diversity in the United States. Many Nicaraguans think that there are only white skinned, blue eyed, and blonde haired people walking around in the States. I wanted to break this stereotype and demonstrate a dance style they may have never seen before.

I taught the dance to the girls fairly quickly. My site mate, Mary, picked it up the fastest. Since she learned it so fast we shared the leader role and taught the dance to them collectively. The girls seemed to like the dance but expressed that they were embarrassed. When we discussed what kind of costume we would like to use, the girls said they wanted masks for their faces. I told them that masks weren’t really culturally appropriate, but Mary and I decided that if they’d feel more comfortable with the masks to hide their faces, that we would pay for them. We had beautiful skirts made (based off the skirts I wore in the college dance group) and we had matching masks. We practiced everyday for about three weeks.

During the practices the girls seemed unmotivated and disinterested. So much so that I had to ask the girls if they wanted to do this. I explained that I was doing this for them and if they didn’t like it we didn’t have to do it. They all told me they wanted to continue, but Mary and I were unconvinced. They would whisper to each other during practice, and my host mom later told me that they were nervous and embarrassed.

I was afraid they’d stop coming to practice, but they continue on and even got their measurements in for the costume. Each practice went by and they would giggle at the different dance steps and sometimes look so bored. I didn’t know if it was just a teenage thing, or if they really didn’t like it. They also continued to talk about how they wouldn’t perform without a mask. They said they didn’t want anyone to know who they were. We continued on.

And so we arrived at the day of the performance. There was no dress rehearsal, so we had to do a mock one right before we left for the stadium area. A few Peace Corps volunteers were in town and helped us get ready. People were sprawled all over the house putting on makeup and comparing hairstyles. While we were getting ready an afternoon rainstorm started. It was so loud, pounding the tin roof. We all wondered what would happen to the event. Would it get postponed, or maybe even cancelled?

We all felt a little worried, but we continued to get ready despite the gray skies. Once we were all ready I pulled out my bright red lipstick I had just gotten in Managua. All of the girls watched me carefully apply it to my lips, and many of them asked if they could borrow it. Once they tried it on they felt nervous. “!Es demasiado!’ (it’s too much) they protested. I told them they could take some off, but they all started looking at each other and at the mirrors, and I saw a change in their eyes.

They admired themselves with their stage-makeup, and one by one told me they didn’t need or want the masks. The girls started nervously and excitedly chatting about how they felt beautiful and that they would feel comfortable if the audience knew who they were; we tossed the masks to the side.

I felt so happy and proud at their new-found confidence and I knew the dance group was such an excellent idea. In Nicaragua there is a type of embarrassment we call pena. It is a big problem in my classrooms and at events like these. Nicaraguans usually have a hard time doing anything like this because they feel nervous or embarrassed. It felt like such an accomplishment when they all declared they didn’t need the masks anymore and were ready to perform!

For the performance Mary and I each prepared a speech. I never do public speeches, so I felt so nervous. I carried my little paper with the words I’d say to the event and I practiced over a hundred times. The girls would look over at me every once in awhile and would think I was talking to myself, but I was really practicing what I’d say. There were hundreds of people in the crowd so of course I was nervous! And the speech was going to be in Spanish, which of course isn’t my native language.

When our turn came we all proudly walked onto the stage. Mary went first and introduced us as “Las Estrellas de India” (The Stars of India) and said each of our names, and then it was my turn! I started the speech how I intended, but then I realized I just started talking! I have no clue what I said. I could have been talking about outer space for all I know. But once I stopped talking everyone clapped (I asked people later what I said and if it made any sense, and everyone said it seemed super natural and the Spanish made sense! Yay!). Then it was time to perform!

We all danced our hearts out and as soon as the dance was over we all ran off the stage laughing. The girls were delighted and I felt so proud of them. Seeing how confident the girls were and how proud they felt of themselves made me so overwhelmingly happy. This has by far been one of my favorite Peace Corps experiences and I know the girls will carry that feeling with them for a long time! And plus they got to learn about different cultures and more about the United States! Second goal (to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served), check!