Fighting Discrimination Against Disability Through Dance

People with disabilities have generally been kept on the side lines of societal life in Ethiopia, whether because of misconceptions of their abilities and personalities, or because of discrimination. But now, Destino Dance, an Ethiopian social enterprise born to support underprivileged young people, is taking steps to change popular conceptions of marginalised people by hosting intensive classes and training sessions to draw people into the discipline who would never have had a chance before. On the way, the Company is raising the stock of contemporary dance in Ethiopia and around the world. EBR’s Menna Asrat looks at Destino current and past projects and asks what’s next for them.

During her childhood, Medina Hussen contracted polio, which hit particularly hard in one leg, and affected her ability to walk. However, her path was not a typical one. Her love affair with dance started early in life. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in art, since I was a little girl. I was a founding member of a traditional dance group, and I was also involved in music before I joined Destino,” she explained.

Three years ago, she joined Destino Dance, an Ethiopian social enterprise born to support underprivileged young people to develop their inner potential through dance. She remembers the day she performed at Adey International Dance Festival, held in Ethiopia for the first time in October 2017. “We were all very nervous,” she recalled. “It’s hard to have to go out on stage. Even people who have been performing for 20 or 30 years still get nervous. And this was our first big performance.”

The dance festival gave her a chance to express her experiences on a larger stage than she had ever been on before. “Before that, we had only performed on small stages. So, Destino gave us training on how to be confident, how to carry ourselves and it helped us,” she explained.

Medina, amongst other groups of blind and disabled dancers took the stage to show off gravity defying contemporary choreography, fused with traditional Ethiopian dance to an audience of Addis Ababa resident, tourists and international guests held at Alliance Ethio-Française on May 11 to 12, 2018. The group was called ‘Active Bodies’ and were trained by Destino.

It wasn’t just the fusion of old and new that held the audience’s attention. “Seeing dancers with disabilities move in that way was new for them,” explained Medina. “The local people in the audience were amazed and they asked us many questions. The foreigners were a little more aware, but at the end everyone really enjoyed the performance.”
The event was organized by Destino, which works with dancers with disabilities and blind dancers to change to landscape of movement and culture in Ethiopia. Through working with community groups and disability associations, the company provided an opportunity for disadvantaged young people to reshape their lives and forge new pathways for themselves and others.

Mohammed Mekele, one of the group of blind dancers who took part in Adey, felt that was one of the most important aspects of the experience. “I was always interested in dance and music,” he said. “But with this, I could be a trailblazer for other people like me.”

Destino was founded by professional contemporary dancers Addisu Demissie and Junaid Jemal. The two childhood friends were also members of Adugna Dance and Theatre.

“We both came from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Junaid explained. “With Destino we want to give other children the chances that we were able to take advantage of. Through dance, we’ve been able to travel the world and change our lives.”

To that end, one of the group’s initiatives is the Give Back project, which trains 12 young dancers, selected from young offenders, orphans and street children, for an intensive three year dance training program.
“We selected six boys and six girls from vulnerable parts of the population to give them the basic skills and opportunities to change their lives,” Addisu explained. “It paves the way for the next generation to start getting involved in dancing.”

Destino was established with two aims. The first was to contribute to the social and physical development of the people through dance, which ties in with its work with disabled and blind dancers. “We wanted to give people something constructive to do with their free time,” explained Junaid. “Through dance, we want to build people’s confidence and creativity, as well as their physical fitness.”

Once Destino was formed, they started to work with woreda administrations, and held biweekly community classes. Although teaching dance to blind students was something of a novelty at the time, Addisu and Junaid jumped in with full commitment, and the results were very encouraging. “We have found some extremely talented dancers through those classes,” said Junaid. “People who came to see them dance at Adey thought that we were lying and that they could see, or that we ourselves were dancing with crutches. But as part of the effort to change peoples’ perceptions, we encouraged them to talk to the dancers and they believed it in the end.”

Despite its short history in Ethiopia, professional dance groups that work with disable people exist in different countries around the world. Thousand Hand Bodhisattva in China, the Candoco Dance Company in Britain, Dançando com a Diferença in Portugal, and Wales’ United Dance Organisation are amongst the renowned contemporary dance multinational companies working with both disabled and non-disabled dancers.

It is that confidence that most of the dancers took from the experience. “If you go into something thinking that it will be difficult, of course it will be difficult,” said Mohammed, commenting on his experience of learning dance. “But if you think that you can do it, there is no reason it will be harder than for anyone else.”

In spite of accounting for an estimated 17Pct of the population, in Ethiopia people with disabilities face many barriers and challenges, from experiencing difficulties accessing basic services, to stigma. Although people’s scepticism towards the capabilities of people with disabilities is changing, there is still work to be done. “There is a long way left to go,” Mohammed added.

The second aim of Destino is to help contemporary dance grow as a professional discipline and promote contemporary Ethiopian dance. “When we were starting out, we received training from Dance United, a British dance company. We were trained in ballet, contemporary dance, first aid, English, and many other disciplines,” said Junaid. “When we started Destino, we wanted to combine all those disciplines with the traditional dances of Ethiopia to create something new and unique.”

Contemporary dance in Ethiopia has not had a long history. In 1967, the renowned modern dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey came to the country at the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie I, to perform a show at the then Haile Selassie I Theatre. Since then, the country has been home to a few international dance performers, without having an established company of its own, until the founding of Adugna Dance and Theatre Company in 1996.

To raise the profile of contemporary dance in Ethiopia, Destino members put on a series of pop-up performances recently in Addis Ababa and other cities around the country. Pop up performances aren’t advertised to the general public. Instead, the group just performs on the street or in another public place. In addition to being motivation for the dancers to show off their skills, it is also a way to spread awareness about contemporary dance across the country.
“If we had advertised, only people who know about Destino would buy tickets,” explains Junaid. “In Addis, people stop to look even while roads are under construction, so doing a dance performance on the street would reach a lot of people who wouldn’t hear of us otherwise.”

However, making a living at dance is not easy. “There isn’t really good money in this field,” says Addisu. “We have been working on grants with international organisations like the European Union and various embassies. But it isn’t a lucrative field.”

When all is said and done, though, both men say that the work is important. “If even one young person can find the motivation through dance to change something in their life, it is worth it to us,” concludes Junaid.

6th Year . June 16 2018 . No.62

Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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