Barbara Land is an RAD ballet teacher and a renowned anthropologist, who teaches ballet in remote villages in the Amazonian jungle while recording the stories of the world’s last remaining shamans.
I started dancing at the age of five, and by the age of 13 I was studying ballet seriously at Point Park College in Pittsburgh, then the home of the Pittsburgh Ballet. I married a physician, and in 1980 I started the Dance Program at the University of Nevada Reno, where I was Director of Dance until 2015.
As an anthropologist, I was working in a remote village in the Amazon, doing field work and research. I sat with the children one day and showed them ballet on my phone. We had just had our studio dance recital and they said “Barbarita, we want to learn to do that”. That is how it started. In tattered clothes and with a makeshift stereo system, the RAD had its first class in the remote Amazon. Four years later, with support from dancewear brand Bloch and our local dance store, the children have leotards, tights, shoes, skirts, wings, scarves and little dots to stand on. They want their hair done in a bun and love free-movement! We use the RAD syllabus and they can dance to Grade 1. We also do a lot of creative movement, especially with the props.
The children, both the boys and the girls, have very little to do in their everyday lives: they go to school, do their chores, and play soccer. Our dancing has changed their lives, they are dancing and doing movements in and around the space, they are learning to listen to new types of music and finding new ways to move, they are working together in groups, learning new ways of thinking by learning and memorising dances and now they have a new way to express themselves in the most personal way, through their movement.
The love that those I teach have for dance [is the most rewarding thing]. I am in the village every three months. When I arrive, the first thing they want to do is show me what they have practiced while I was back at home in the US. They run from school to the community building for their daily dance class where I have their music playing and all their clothes laid out ready for them. I hear from tourists or see on Facebook “How wonderful to see boys and girls in the remote Amazon doing ballet!” We dance in a broken-down building, we jump over the holes in the floor, and it is 100 degrees with 100% humidity, there are bees, wasps, and mosquitoes… You would never know about the harsh conditions, all you can hear is laughter and enjoyment in every moment of their dance class.
Ballet as a movement science was not available to me as a young dancer in Pittsburgh. It was only with my higher degrees of education and working in the university environment that I looked at ballet differently. I knew that the career of ballet dancer was short, I knew ballet dancers were subject to injuries, and I knew that some body types struggled with the classical ballet technique. I started working in applied kinesiology and, through many years of research and working with my university colleagues, wrote a ballet floor barre program (before it was popular) that I still use today. I taught ballet to the university football team and, in collaboration with my colleagues, we found that the athletes taking ballet, supported by a floor barre program, cut their injuries by one third. The ladies (and the men) living in the Amazon endure a tremendous amount of physical work daily: carrying water from the river, cleaning fish, washing clothes on the riverbank, working in their jungle farms, etc. They complain of severe lower back pain and always ask me for Advil! Instead of Advil I gave them floor barre exercises with some stretching, I think it has helped. In February 2019, I had a physical therapist write them exercises in Spanish to help with their specific alignments. Last year we had a Pilates and yoga instructor on the team. The ladies not only benefited from the physical exercises but they laughed so hard and had so much fun, it brought tears to my eyes. A reminder of the many things we take for granted.
For 25 years I taught beginner through to advanced level ballet. I still do the same in my dance school and teach students the RAD syllabus. I believe it is about finding the right teacher – a teacher who loves the art form, loves teaching, and loves their students. I have taught the RAD syllabus throughout my entire career, and I have used the syllabus in the craziest ways! We, as teachers, must know who we are teaching and what we want them to learn. Since only 2% of students become professionals, it is our job, as teachers, to instil in our students a love for dance and to help build the next generation of dance lovers.
It is important for me to foster in my students, and the next generation of teachers, the love of sharing dance with those less fortunate. Our school has a group that performs only for the children at a school with severe disabilities, the VA hospital, and military veterans in-residence care and for seniors living in long term care.
All programs must be sustainable and hopefully, with my work, there will be others who will travel to remote parts of the world and bring a little dance!
A teacher Barbara has worked with in Iquitos, Peru – Sorella Melina Salazar Braga of Escuela Art Dance – has been accepted onto an RAD teacher training programme and will continue this in Lima.
And – as the first of its kind – Barbara has finished working on a new high school in the jungle with the community, and fundraising from Nevada Building Hope Foundation, in just four months. The school will service five communities of children that, until now, have only received primary education due to the proximity and expense of high school education.