Raleigh Dancer Reaches Out to Kids in Africa

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Michelle Pearson, founding member and one of four artistic directors of Even Exchange Dance Theater in Raleigh, will be in Freetown, Sierra Leone, from Jan. 15 to 29 as a cultural envoy. She is being hosted by the U.S. Embassy to lead a dance project designed to convey a social message to women and children ages 8 to 11. (Photo of Michelle Pearson, with hands extended, in Sierra Leone courtesy of Even Exchange Dance Theater)

The project got going when Mark P. Carr, public diplomacy officer in Sierra Leone, saw an opportunity for action-in this case dance-to speak louder than words, as he explained in his invitation to Pearson.

“In a society where nearly 80 percent of the population is illiterate, dance, music and theater are invaluable methods for disseminating information,” he said. “The vast majority of local artists have no formal training or technical knowledge in any of the performing arts. Whatever skills they have acquired have come from improvisation, practice and watching others. An envoy who specializes in using dance to convey social messages would have a great impact on the community.”

In inviting Pearson, he said that of the many topics that could be covered, the U.S. Embassy in Freetown would be most enthusiastic about a program that focuses on combating violence against women and the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Estimates put FGM prevalence in Sierra Leone at over 90 percent, and girls as young as 3 undergo the procedure, despite the illegality of subjecting minors to harmful traditional practices, he said. Domestic violence and FGM are intimately connected with the abysmal state of women’s health in Sierra Leone -young girls often experience blood loss during the FGM procedure, infections afterwards, and/or long-term health consequences, he said.

Pearson has a history of working with groups-both in her home state of North Carolina and abroad-who would not ordinarily get to create with a professional dancer, teacher and choreographer. They include folks of all ages and abilities, from veterans and inmates, to retired clowns and preschoolers. In turn, Pearson gathers information and material from those with whom she dances.

“As a choreographer, I often learn about the world by dancing and creating dances,” she says. “I believe an artist’s job is to provide an understanding of common issues in a different, deeper, or new way. Making dances about meaningful, difficult, surprising, and human issues with a range of people is one way to meet this challenge.”

In Sierra Leone, Pearson will be working with children who belong to a troupe that presents traditional dance performances as well as adults who are directors, choreographers, teachers and performers.

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