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As torrential rains drenched the Rwandan village of Rugerero, a boy named Mamoud, from the Twa population, felt nervous about joining a community dance lesson. Just moments before, he had told instructor Rebecca Davis that his mother did not want him associating, let alone dancing, with children of other ethnic groups, specifically the Tutsi. But the beating rain kept Mamoud from running home. He was forced to stay inside – and dance.
When Mamoud returned to class the next day, Davis was worried that he’d gotten in trouble. Instead, Mamoud had explained to his mother what he’d learned in dance the day before – the importance of working together to ration water for drinking and good hygiene – illustrated through dance movement.
This idea is what drives the international missions of the Rebecca Davis Dance Company (RDDC). Launched in 2006 by Davis, a 2004 graduate of the Fox School’s entrepreneurship program, RDDC runs ethnic reconciliation programs that use dance as a catalyst for community rebuilding and development in post-conflict countries.
During the past three years, the program has been implemented in Rwanda, Guinea and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“You’re not allowed to discuss some of these problems publicly,” Davis said, explaining the social constructs of Rwanda as a post-genocide country. “But you can change that polarized landscape by addressing other issues and by using other tools. Thinking in innovative ways is how you blossom as an entrepreneur and gain the motivation to build an organization.”
Growing up, Davis looked for a way to connect her love of dance to her fascination with history, literature and world affairs. When she didn’t find a company that allowed her to achieve this dream, she created her own.
For the trip to Africa in December 2010, RDDC partnered with the Red Cross, Engineers Without Borders, Barefoot Artists and the Amizero Dance Kompagnie of Kigali.
For two weeks, Davis taught daily dance lessons to an integrated group of Twa and Tutsi children ages 7 to 18. When they were finished and thirsty, the group sat down to discuss what it’s like to live day-to-day in a place lacking clean water for ordinary use.
At the end of the program, the 64 children performed a combination of dance choreography, rap songs and poetry that illustrated proper water usage for families and members of the town.
“At that point I don’t do anything. Now the kids are educating the community on water practices,” Davis said. “And this is only possible because dance is a rather benign activity – it’s not controversial, it’s not discriminatory, but it’s used to tackle issues in the wider community.”
When she’s not abroad, Davis is busy planning the next component of RDDC’s U.S. outreach. She most recently collaborated with The Carter Center in Atlanta on a Peace Program in Guinea to learn more about how to run a non-governmental organization and set up operations overseas.
Davis plans to return to Rwanda in November after a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina this summer.
“The ability to use the arts to produce tangible change is really, really rewarding,” Davis said. “We can use these skills to elevate society everywhere.”
– Julie Achilles