“Who can do this part of the choreography? I need someone who can flip, turn, leap and do hip hop—basically everything,” I said to my group of 30 students in Guinea, West Africa.
The kids all pointed to a skinny boy at the back of the training room. He walked forward.
“What is your name?” I asked. I didn’t recognize him as he was a new student.
“Hmmm…I don’t think I can pr
onounce that…How about I call you ‘Sergey’? Sergey is one of the most talented dancers in my USA-based company. And, it sounds like you have a lot of talent—like him.”
“Ok…Now, I am Sergey.”
“Great—let’s see what you can do.”
Apparently, he did so much that he earned himself a ticket to the USA.
Eight months later, Sergey was Rebecca Davis Dance Company’s first African student to travel to America to complete an intensive one-month dance training program in New York City.
Bangaly Traore, or “Sergey”, doesn’t actually know how old he is, but for all intents and purposes (ie – “passport”) purposes, he is 18. He was born in Kindia, a small city in the West African nation of Guinea. He has lived there all his life with his mother, sisters and brothers. There is nothing about Kindia that is like New York City. There is rarely electricity. There is no running water. The objective of each day is to put together enough odd jobs to be able to provide rice for the family. Some kids go to school, but many cannot afford the basic school fees—less than $100 per year. One of those kids is Bangaly.
When Bangaly was just a boy, his father died and he was supposed to go live with his uncle. In Guinean culture, a boy cannot live with his mother if there is no father in the home; he must live with an uncle or another adult male. Thus, Bangaly and his older brother went to live with their uncle. However, for Bangaly, this started one of the worst periods of his life as he was subjected to physical abuse.
Meanwhile, he would try to go to school when his family could afford the fees, but he found it too hard to concentrate because there were no meal provisions and he had no way to afford food. He dropped out of school after less than a year of formal education and began to wander the streets looking for a way to earn money for food for him and his family.
During this period, the relationship between Bangaly and his uncle became even more strained and finally his mother said he should move back with her even if it wasn’t “culturally accepted.” He did so, but he also was spending an increasing portion of his time on the streets of Kindia. Without a strong connection to schoolmates, he ended up running with a crowd that controlled the streets and was heavily involved in drugs. Bangaly developed an addiction, which further distanced him from his family and any sort of stable lifestyle.
When speaking with his mother a year afterwards, she described Bangaly during this period of time: “He just didn’t see any future for him in life so each day became meaningless. He just hung out with kids who were wasting their lives and he didn’t care about anything—us, school, sports…nothing motivated him. He slept all day or just wandered the streets.”
It was in this state that RDDC first discovered Bangaly. In fact, it was Eugene Dushime, RDDC’s Country Director for Rwanda, who first met Bangaly while he was in Guinea working with Rebecca Davis in August 2011.
Eugene re-told the story like this:
“I always saw Bangaly hanging around the door and watching Rebecca teach the kids. There are always lots and lots of people watching these dance classes taught by one of the lone white foreigners in Kindia, but this kid was different. He was always there and always watching intently. Then, one day, I saw him trying the new move—pirouette—that Rebecca had taught the previous day. He was just experimenting outside on the steep, stony hill and he could do it perfectly, better than any of the kids in the class! I went up to him and said he should come inside and try the actual class. He just shrugged, but the next day—and everyday after that—I saw him at the doorway watching Rebecca teach.”
After working with the children in August, I came back to Guinea in October 2011 to see their progress and give new dance classes. This time, I had a new student: Bangaly. Bangaly developed a lot during the two weeks I spent in Kindia and he seemed to become more motivated each day as he sensed he was good at something and he was also improving at it. I was happy to have a talented student in our group but didn’t give it much further thought. The real surprise for me came when I returned for the third time in January 2012. Standing in front of me was a reformed child who was probably the most naturally talented kid I’ve found in my last four years teaching around the world. In the three months that I was gone, he had earned his nickname: Sergey.
What happened? How did a street kid, a school dropout, a drug-addicted teenager become, well, Sergey? I would like to give some very impressive, intelligent findings from a scientific psychological study, but the answer is much simpler: dance.
When I asked Sergey what he did over the last three months, he said: “I listened to what you said—that I should work on pointing my feet—so I did that. I liked doing that. It was fun.” … “Wow,” I thought, “he doesn’t even know what he has done and what he can do…”
I started asking around Kindia, and people told me that Sergey was always at the training center working on dance movements. He didn’t really talk to any of the kids, but he just kept to himself and kept working—everyday, without exception. I also learned that he wasn’t hanging out on the streets anymore. He was tired at the end of his days training and just went home to sleep. Apparently, he was trying to break his drug addiction too…
“All of this because he wanted to point his feet like mine,” I thought. “I don’t even have good points!”
It was at this time that RDDC started to consider the idea of taking Sergey to the USA for training. It was quickly becoming clear to me and the other teachers working with me in Guinea that he was a cut above his peers. If he was going to continue to develop, we needed to find a way to give him access to multiple professional teachers, students at his level, and a chance to truly understand that he could build a future for himself with his talent.
In May 2012, RDDC’s Guinean Country Director, Ibrahima Mara, informed Sergey that he was invited to the USA to train for one month with RDDC. His life was about to change forever.