Jumping from “sombra a sombra” as we walk down the street in the scorching heat. Shade is such a commodity here, a necessity for survival as a “chele” (slang for foreigner or light skinned person – slightly nicer then saying “gringo” – I think?) Eating frozen chocolate covered bananas, drinking Mexican Coke and “jugo natural” out of plastic bags. The locals turn the plastic bag (bolsita) up-side-down, bite off one corner and suck out the juice. It takes a couple tries before mastering the technique and not spilling sticky, sugary liquid all over yourself.
We have now been in Nicaragua for one month. On New Years Day at 6am, five of us got on a plane to Central America from London. It has been an amazing experience – one that I am already grateful I have decided to embark on, and we’re only 1/3 of the way through it!
The amount I have learned in the last month should be illegal. Not only have I learned all kinds of new circus skills, I have also continued to grow my Spanish speaking ability and team living/working skills. I’ve never worked, lived, traveled, taught, cooked, eaten and performed with the same small group of people in a foreign country before this. Whoa! The whole thing is intense and beautiful for both its successes and challenges.
The first ten days we were at Las Penitas beach which is about a 30 min bus journey outside of León, the city we are living in now. We stayed in a house on the beach with hammocks and a beautiful yoga deck, right on the sand. The beach was pretty much deserted the whole time we were there. It’s definitely an undiscovered paradise. Or maybe just not tourist season? The water was warm, the sun bright, the beach empty and the waves quite intense. One of my favorite memories from swimming in that sea was our last day there before we left for Granada. The whole team was in the water for one last family swim. Jake had the idea that we do our group dance routine from our show. We did it, stage placement changes and everything, while the crazy waves crashed on us, giggling all the while.
Those ten days were packed full of some of the most learning I’ve ever done. We had an amazing tropical fruit breakfast together every morning. After that we would take turns leading sessions for each other. We played lots of amazing games. We played improv games, name games and just plain ol’ fun games! We taught each other our own specialty in Spanish to get us ready to do so with the kids. Highlights include learning staff from Aileen Lawlor, diablo from Jake Holland and acro balance from Tilly Twist – all in Spanish! Our initial group acro sessions left me high as a kite. I learned to base a 2.5 person high pyramid with all 7 of us, and am now doing it in the show we perform multiple times a week. I also had to teach hoop to the team that week in my version of “Spanglish” which was a good way to break my fear of doing so, and get me ready with important words for our projects.
We also came up with our show in those 10 days. I am extremely impressed with what we came up with. It is a 10 act show with 7 performers, some of which had never performed together before. It’s about 40 minutes long and includes a group ball juggling/clowning act, a group dance routine, a staff trio, a 4 person poi routine, a diablo trio, a Magical Realism act (in which I belly dance, there is an Isis wing dance, contact ball juggling and floating wand), body percussion, rope walking, a club juggling trio, a hoop trio (Bags, Tilly & I – hoop juggling and multi hoop tricks!) and finally a group acrobatics routine to finish the show. The dance routine was a concept that I came up with at bootcamp. We were brainstorming Performing our dance routine about the show and trying to see if we wanted a narrative or theme for it. It came time for Aileen, Penny and I to create the dance routine before we had decided on a story. I was confused to as to how we could choreograph a dance without an obvious concept to work from. I was talking to Bags about it and he said something along the lines of, “Can’t it just be for the purpose of fun?” That got me thinking. What about a dance routine in which the theme is in itself dance. An homage to popular culture dance crazes! So I proposed the idea to the team and everyone seemed quite keen. It ended up with Jai Ho (Bollywood thanks to Penny), Madonna’s Vogue, a cheesy/clowning ballet to the Sugar Plum Fairy (I made tutus for the boys to wear and us ladies lift them up for a leap 🙂 then it goes into 80s hip hop choreographed by Aileen to MC Hammer’s 2legit 2Quit, after is the beloved Gangnam Style which was a big hit EVERYWHERE in the world apparently, Thriller by Michael Jackson, the Macarena and finally the Harlem Shake – the Harlem Shake is an opportunity for us to freak out crazily with no real choreography – organized flailing. In between each song is a robot-battery-dying moment where we all loose energy and regain it before the next part.
There were definitely moments in rehearsing these pieces in which the team as a whole was skeptical – were we going to look good doing this? Were people going to get it? Laugh? Love it? Hate it? Ahhhh! Not many of the team consider themselves dancers, but primarily circus performers. There were several times in which I wasn’t feeling good about this contribution. But the test came in our first show at Sonflora (a Swiss funded project for kids who have domestic violence in their homes) in the Las Penitas area. They absolutely LOVED our dance routine! They laughed and cheered 🙂 Since then we have performed it in every show and have received masses of positive reactions. One of the other participants at the El Berrinche Ambiental Festival in Granada saw a message in it – that everyone can and should dance their own unique way. Which I love. Yes, that is SO the message! Not only have the audiences loved the dance routine, we have also started teaching it to the kids. They have expressed the most enthusiasm about it out of anything I have taught them so far. Screaming “Otra Vez!” (Again!) after every time we run it. It was the most fun (and the most sweaty) I’ve had teaching here in León at El Barrilete.
El Barrilete is an after school program for kids who’s parents can’t give them help with homework – usually because of their work. Lots of them are extremely poor, living in conditions of abuse and/or drug addiction. They go to El Barrilete to get help with homework and eat lunch. We go there everyday for 2 hours to play games with them, teach them hoop, poi, staff, dance, acro balance, body percussion, juggling and diablo. We have now been there for about a week and a half. We have 2 more weeks with them and are planning to put together a show with them at the end – to perform all of the skills they have learned with us. I have created some serious bonds with these sweet kids! I love them! They are extremely eager to see us everyday when we show up at the school. Hearing them say “Valentina! Valentina! Mirame!” (Look at me!) every time they get a new trick down just melts my heart.
Before coming to León, we spent a week in Granada at the El Berrinche Ambiental Festival. It was held at the beautiful Casa de las Botellitas (House of the Little Bottles) – and it’s just that. A house painted in multiple bright colors, lots of beautiful graffiti, glass bottles in the walls and a wonderful training space. This organization, The Escuela de la Comedia y el Mimo, teaches local children from the barrios performance skills and they are serious little circus badasses! We got to see them perform their show which included fearless group acrobatics, juggling, poi, clowning and even a story!
This circus and performing arts festival was conceptualized around the ideas of recycling and Earth preservation involving performance artists from around the world – mostly from Central America. We took and taught workshops with the artists and local children. We slept in hammocks and performed twice. We paraded down the streets of Granada, to the Casa de Tres Mundos, the main square and spot of various shows that we watched and performed in. When we performed there, Jake set up a high line on the building and walked it with no safety! It was the highest line he’s walked sin safety and quite a scary/inspiring thing to witness. We also performed inside the Mimo y Comedia Cafe that the Escuela works with often. It’s a beautiful space with a large outdoor courtyard that serves as the stage. I had the opportunity to perform a belly dance solo at the Cafe. I don’t think there is very much belly dancing here, though they do lots of latin dancing which has much cross over with the isolations in belly dancing. It got a huge response, especially from the kids. Two little girls followed me around for about 30 minutes after I got off stage, they just kept staring at me and asking me questions, quite endearing. I was astonished by the thriving circus scene represented at the festival. It makes me wonder what other corners of the world are pulsing with the life of circus! You can see the video from our week in Granada here.
After Granada we came here to León to start our project with El Barrilete. We settled into our house here, it has been nice to have roots down in one place. Everyday we get into a “camioneta” (truck) to take us to the area Guadelupe where El Barrilete is. It is literally a truck with a cover over it, 2 benches and lots of people. Sometimes the drivers are crazy as they rush and lurch down the streets. It’s always an adventure – packed full of locals – I often find myself hanging on for dear life with our circus equiptment!
A highlight from León are the museums Bags and I visited. One, a Contemporary Art Museum called Foundatión Ortiz Gurdián showcasing Central American artists. I really enjoyed the interactive pieces. We made a spyrograph drawing from an installation of perfectly balanced objects. We also went to a museum of Nicaraguan Legends and Myths. We had a one-on-one tour in Spanish and a translator who told us all about these myths we have encountered here but didn’t understand yet. It was fascinating and I am intrigued to learn more about them. Lots of stories come from Spanish colonization and interaction with the native people. Some highlight issues in the culture – a woman who turns into a pig to follow her cheating husband around and catch him in the act, a dwarf that steals children from the rivers if their parents leave them there alone, a Day of the Dead carriage of skeletal horses and people representing how the Spanish settlers would cart around dead bodies of the indigenous people.
We have had some memorable shows since we’ve been here in León as well. We performed at a bus terminal in a half built concrete box with columns in the center, sharp pointy pieces of metal jutting out of the top, trees overhanging and a corner that had definitely been used as a bathroom once or twice. When we showed up I was skeptical to say the least. Picturing myself doing group acrobatics, standing on Bags’ shoulders in a twohigh, juggling and dancing in that space seemed impossible. It was the most challenging space I have ever performed in. But we figured it out. Adapted our show, bent back the pieces of sharp metal and absolutely rocked it. There was one kid in the audience who had clearly been sniffing glue. This is a common problem in Nicaragua. The glue makes them high and takes away their hunger, making it easier to survive starvation. It was quite sad to see. Lots of organizations that we’re working with here, like Las Chavaladas, take in children with glue addictions and help them get back to a healthy, happy life. We work with these organizations to teach kids like this circus skills – giving them confidence, fun playtime, a hobby to be passionate about, a way to connect with others, maybe a calling in life.
Another memorable show was a street show set up by Las Chavaladas. It was literally in the middle of the street, blocked off by trucks parked in the road. A massive sound system was set up and hundreds of people in the audience. We collaborated with a group of Salsa Stilt Walkers, called the Zanqueros who we met at the festival in Granada. Since we met them, we have been participating in skill exchanges. They teach us salsa and we have taught them circus skills and belly dancing. It is an amazing link to have made since they want to set up a permanent social circus program here in León. They are such a nice group of people. It really helps our Spanish and makes me feel like I’m a true resident of this country, being friends with the locals! For this show, the Zanqueros did their salsa stilting act at the end of our regular show and then we all rocked out a fire set. It was amazing how our tiredness before the show was turned around by an exhilarating performance into excitement and energy.
One last show of note was held in the large central square in the middle of León last weekend. It was a collaboration between us, the Zanqueros and El Nido de Las Artes (a group of circus performers from another town here in Nicaragua, Estelí). All three of us did a two hour show which included juggling, dancing, clowning/comedy, diablo, poi, hoop, contact juggling, clubs, rope walking, group acrobatics, salsa stilt walking and of course a fire jam at the end….all of the things!!! An amazing conglomeration of our combined talents and oh what an experience!
I am so grateful that I have decided to do this project and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for me during the next 2 months. I want to thank everyone who has donated to help me do such important work. I also want to let everyone know that I am still fundraising the rest of the money needed to do this project. You can read about my fundraising campaign here. Thank you!