By Sherry Lucas
Kinetic Dance Malawi
It started as an invitation to teach political science in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. But once mention of dance entered the picture, the conversation—much like the doors in one of the world’s least developed countries—opened up to embrace a whole new exchange.
Paul Chinchen, president of African Bible Colleges Inc., approached Amile Wilson about the class, after hearing him speak at a Hinds County Republican Party event last year. Their connections include First Presbyterian Church in Jackson and more.
“It was an answered prayer,” said Wilson, who’d studied comparative political and economic theory at Georgetown University through the Fund for American Studies, earned a master’s from Reformed Theological Seminary, and had wanted to work with African Bible College for years. That wasn’t all.
Wilson and his wife, Kathryn, both Belhaven University graduates, direct the two-year-old Kinetic Etchings Dance Project, a contemporary dance company they hope will provide opportunities for Belhaven dance grads and Ballet Magnificat! trainees. Once Chinchen found out Wilson’s wife was a dancer, he wanted the company to come, too. African Bible Colleges’ ABC Christian Academy has Malawi’s only ballet program, yet kids had never seen a performance.
Three of their dancers committed to the three-week trip, too. Churches and relationships helped the crew raise the needed funds.
“It was a mission trip with a Christian objective, and it was an arts exchange,” Kathryn said. Dance classes, community performances and other outreach spread the message beyond the school.
“Being over there, as soon as you said, ‘Hey, we’re a dance company. We’d like to perform, we’d like to teach,’ doors just flung open—some of them to Christian organizations and some that were not,” such a refugee camp.
The country’s official language is English and yet dance, so ingrained in the culture, became a greater connector, “a universal language of sorts,” Amile said.
The group worked with students at African Bible College, Malawi campus, and at its international school in Lilongwe, the ABC Christian Academy. The school’s five-year-old ballet and dance program, started by Chinchen’s wife, Laura, with the help of Ballet Magnificat!’s Keith and Kathy Thibodeaux, has more than 120 students. “It was a great encouragement to the kids in the program to have ‘real’ ballet dancers from Mississippi come perform and assist in training,” Chinchen said, including modern dance and the use of “silks” in dance.
“Their visit was a great success. The Africans love dance and although ballet is new, they have seen it on TV and in movies, and are eager to learn.
Like any education, the more variety and exposure to dance, the fuller the understanding. Children might’ve seen videos, but they’d never taken hip-hop, jazz, or aerial classes. “They got to try new things and expand their view of what dance is,” Kathryn said. They were guest artists with African Bible College’s dance showcase at the Bingu Center (akin to the Kennedy Center here) that, as one of the country’s top universities and K-12 schools, drew top officials and embassy representatives, including those with children in the show.
In the community, where the emphasis was more on the native culture and dances,
“They wanted to know we did things, ‘How do you make that line? How do you do a double turn?’”
“In both cases, we were able to bring Christian dance—something that was made with the intent to lead to deeper conversations.”
In an exchange with Girlshine Academy, a village school founded by an ABC alum, the school’s dance team shared native Chichewa dances and Kinetic Etchings performed and taught one of theirs. Such relationships open the door for more, Kathryn said.
“Those girls, they just wanted to learn, learn, learn,” said Kinetic Etchings dancer Derwin May. At a refugee camp, where guys had started their own dance team, “It was just very cool to see them being open to learning new dance styles.” Back home, he said, it’s tough to get beginner dancers in the door. “Just to see them try, and for us to be vulnerable as well, too, to try their dancing and look like a total fool—nobody really cared,” he laughed. “That really made me happy—to see everybody have fun, just for the love of dance.”
He was struck by the warm embrace of community in Malawi and the different families who welcomed them. “We were always fed really well, and we were always loved. That’s something l took away as far as the Christian aspect and how you really need community to just survive.
“Everybody’s just for one another,” he said, much different from the competitive edge he sees in the United States. “That’s something I try to hold onto.”
Amile was overwhelmed by the engagement and enthusiasm of men and women in the young and poor democracy, wanting to make their country better.
They were particularly touched by a missionary family, the Viljoens, whose oldest daughter, Sarah, 14, is in the dance program. “She just really blossomed over those three weeks we were there. She reminded me a lot of myself,” said Kathryn, who also grew up in an area with few dance opportunities, and at 14, wondered about her options.
In a poor, underdeveloped country, does a short-term arts mission matter? Don’t they need water? More practical help? “They also need hope,” said Amile, who saw value in interactions with the people in Malawi, and even more in encouragement and support to missionary families making sacrifices to be there.
“They need something that’s inspiring and inspirational.”
For more on Kinetic Etchings Dance Project, visit kineticetchings.weebly.com. Their next Jackson performance is in September’s Third Thursday at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Amile Wilson plans to return to Malawi to teach political science, and it’s likely the dance company will return, too.
Sherry Lucas is a freelance feature writer, copywriter and copy editor with 30-plus years of reporting and writing experience and a passion for sharing Mississippi’s cultural wealth. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.