This is Part II of a three-part series that chronicles the experiences of Bangaly Traore, a young boy in Guinea who came to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming a professional dancer and teacher with Rebecca Davis Dance Company (RDDC).
In Part I, Bangaly (nicknamed “Sergey”) was selected from RDDC’s program in Kindia, Guinea, to travel to the USA for one month of intensive dance training. Understanding his impoverished living conditions and family responsibilities back in Guinea, Bangaly was ready for the chance to see if he could take the first step in developing his talent into a career.
I went back to Guinea on June 13th to finalize Bangaly’s visa application and travel with him from West Africa to New York. I will always remember the smile on his face when we were sitting together at the U.S. Embassy in Guinea, and I turned to him and said: “your visa is approved. You are going to America!”
As the plane touched down at JFK Airport, Bangaly tried to look out the window a thousand times over. He didn’t ask many questions; instead he wanted to soak in as much as he could through observation. After traveling by airport shuttle through Manhattan, he did ask one question: “is that person on the street from Pakistan?”
“Wow,” I thought. That is never the first question I would have predicted from my Guinean dance student. This was going to be a month full of surprises.
In New York, everything was new for Bangaly. He had never seen credit cards before and was confused at how some things required money, but other times I just showed people a colored piece of plastic and then got stuff. When we into Duane Reade pharmacy for him to pick out a drink, he told me to do it because it was too confusing looking at an entire aisle of various juice drinks. I saw him hesitate at the edge of the elevator door, but I assured him that this was a normal, safe contraption when we first rode up to the studios. I showed him how to lock the bathroom door by pushing in the metal knob, and how he could adjust the temperature of water from cold to hot. While dealing with all these instructions on how to live the basics of life in America, Bangaly never once had any problem concentrating on his mission: “improve as a dancer.”
Bangaly’s training schedule was a mixture of private lessons with guest teachers and open classes at New York’s main studios: Broadway Dance Center, STEPS, Alvin Ailey, and Peridance. I tried to expose him as much as possible to the plethora of styles of dance in New York. In Guinea, everything is just known as “danse classique” unless it is traditional West African dance. Here, Bangaly had a chance to understand and study the differences between jazz, modern, classical ballet, and contemporary ballet. In general, he had four classes a day, averaging about six to eight hours. Over the month, there were only four days he didn’t dance at all, and he complained about it being too many!
In between dance classes, Bangaly spent a lot of time on my phone speaking with his older sister and one of his brothers in Kindia. This wasn’t because he was homesick or wanted to catch up on gossip; instead, nearly every conversation was him trying to “manage the household” while abroad. His sister would explain that they did not have money for rice that day and wanted to know what she should do. His brother would explain that the family gave the saved up money for a repair to their mud house, and there was still another repair needed with all the rains. Bangaly did his best to encourage his brother and sister to help their mother as much as possible and that he would try to repay any credit they could acquire when he returned, but he also wanted them to understand that he would be able to help more in the future if he focused and worked hard now in the USA. For me, as his teacher and his friend, it was amazing to watch this young man bear so many responsibilities at once. It also made me recognize how important it is for my organization to leverage talent and hard work into solid careers for kids like Bangaly so that they can fulfill their familial promises.
All of Bangaly’s teachers commented on his quick improvement. After the first week and adjusting to the schedule, he began to improve day-to-day. He was exceeding everyone’s expectations – including my own, which were abnormally high. What made this Guinean boy so successful at his training program in New York? Two things: interest and focus.
First, Bangaly was interested in everything related to dance: every type of dance, every type of dance supplies or materials, every dance studio, every dancer, every performance, every piece of music, the history of dance styles. If it had to do with dance and he didn’t know it, he wanted to know it. Similarly, if it didn’t have to do with dance, he really didn’t care.
For example, Bangaly had never worked inside studios that had mirrors and ballet barres before coming to New York. At the end of the first week, he turned to me over lunch and said, “I am going to build ballet barres for the centre back in Guinea.” After once again being in awe of this boy’s proactivity, I said, “Great! So what you are eating today is called ‘pizza.’”
His response, “…but the mirrors will be more complicated. I still have to think about that one.”
In addition to his vast interest in dance, Bangaly had a remarkable approach to viewing the differences between Guinean life and American life. He would explain it like this: “Here, you have everything. You have all that you could want and that is just what it is like here. In Guinea, we don’t have everything we need.”
He never tried to understand “why” there are more material goods in the USA than in Guinea, or “why” food is so much more accessible here. With that type of general acceptance, he was able to completely focus his efforts on the world of dance. From the first class we took at Gibney Dance Center to our last farewell class of the month, Bangaly applied himself each and every moment inside the studio, which, after all, is what makes him “Sergey”!
As his time drew to a close in New York, Bangaly and I spent an increasing amount of time discussing plans for his return to Guinea. Together, we decided that his new knowledge could best be applied by starting an additional evening dance program for the youngest children in the RDDC program as well as new children who would like to join, especially other street children. This way, Bangaly could really start to explain fundamentals of Western dance styles for young beginner students interested in dance. Over time, this could build into a solid program. Additionally, Bangaly would teach the older students already in RDDC’s program during the times when there was no international dance teacher in-country.
With this type of forward thinking, it helped Bangaly understand that he wasn’t really “leaving” New York or his new friends and teachers here. Instead, he was collecting experiences here to extend to his family and community back home where he could start to pave a path for himself.
Bangaly is now part of the international RDDC family. He and I have made a bet. RDDC will book him another plane ticket to New York as soon as he shows me eight perfect pirouettes in Guinea. Knowing Sergey, that might be sooner rather than later!