When ArtCorps Artist Naphtali Fields started choreographing a dance for the Las Palmeras youth group, she chose the three-count stomp as the base beat, assuming that it would be easy for the group.
“Stomp, stomp, CLAP. Stomp, stomp, CLAP.” I remember countless basketball games my high school gymnasium as the bleachers erupted with the sound of feet stomping and hands clapping their three-count beat for the team. I’ve always thought of this rhythm as the most basic of beats, good for encouragement, intimidation or amateur rap.
“It can’t be that bad,” my visiting friend Junia chided as I mourned over my group’s lack of rhythm.
“You have no idea!” I replied, “the boys have an amazing ability to mess up the beat in a different way every time. First they lift their foot wrong, then they forget to clap. The third time they start two counts too late. It’s incredible; they’ve found every possibility for error and make them all.”
We were walking the fifty minutes towards Las Palmeras for the second session with the group’s boys. They were cast as the farmers in our play about sustainable agricultural practices, performing a dance/rap number that promotes native seeds, organic fertilizers and more communal farming techniques. As all eight of them lined up with the broomsticks we were substituting for their traditional planting sticks, Junia flashed me an encouraging smile and began the stomp. I led the girls in the rap as the line haltingly marched forward, hitting their broomsticks against the ground as they tried to keep up with Junia’s rhythmic marching. One verse in she called for everyone to stop.
“This isn’t working,” she stated. “Let’s divide up and have them watch us as we walk through it.”
Then we grabbed partners and made them do the routine with us. Then we all just tried to clap the rhythm. Three hours later we were still working on the same one-minute song. The clouds suddenly broke over our heads and as we started to run the long, muddy way home we shouted encouragement at the tired boys. “You can do it! We’ll see you next week!”
Stomp, stomp, CLAP.
Five days later a girl from the group told me that every night the youth had been meeting on their own to work on the rap/choreography. The girls were learning it, the boys were getting better, and everyone was excited to show off their skills to me on Saturday.
“We’re not going to embarrass ourselves,” she told me confidently. “We’ll practice every day if we have to.”
I congratulated her on her commitment to the play but couldn’t stop thinking about the awkward dancing boys. Is there another rhythm that would be easier for them? Am I imposing some kind of American beat that doesn’t fit with the movement of Salvadoran culture?
Saturday came but instead of showing off their practice, they wanted to work on the choreography for our second song. I spent some long minutes trying to get us lined up on the right beat, kicking at the same time with the same leg and twirling in the same direction.
Then, I stood back and watched for a minute. Fourteen boys and girls were singing loudly about their dreams for their rural communities as they linked arms and danced enthusiastically. What is rhythm after all? If it is the base, the pulse behind the song, then these kids have figured it out perfectly. They might not kick or clap or march on time, but they know what they’re singing about. And they know that stepping on beat is not the most important thing—it’s stepping together.
This project is being carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita and Oxfam America.
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