August 15 2011

30 Inspirational Stories – Skin Deep

Drumming Hands

To celebrate Valley and Vale’s 30th year as one of Wales’ leading Community Arts for Development Charities, we are gathering 30 stories from our work over the years. We’ll be putting these on our website, and at the end of the year we will be putting them all together as a printed or online publication.

by Alex Bowen, Director, Valley and Vale Community Arts

Years ago I had been working with young lads that were troublemakers in their community; they were not interested in anything much, were often coming out with racist and offensive comments and were not engaging with many of the creative activities we were trying to offer them.

Then one weekend in early summer we brought some young men over from Uganda to facilitate African dance and drumming workshops and a performance at our Community Arts Centre.

On the day of their performance I took the Ugandan group for a walk and picnic by the river. The boys were hanging about up the street, saw us and then slowly gravitated towards us. Their usual bravado and comments were quickly replaced with shy interested looks and giggles. I encouraged the boys to come over to sit with us.

The Ugandan men were happy and confident and friendly to the boys, who were totally fascinated by them. Next the young African dancers spontaneously started dancing together on the grass, playing and dancing, jumping about and doing some amazing moves, really relaxed and having fun. The boys were a bit embarrassed at first, but soon sat watching them, entranced.

After that the boys started asking them questions, like ‘Do you live in mud huts?’, ‘Do you have mobile phones?’, ‘What food do you eat?’, ‘Do you have a TV and Play Station?’, ‘Is there anywhere to go out where you live?’, ‘Do people have cars?’ The young Ugandan men were polite and answered everything, surprised but not upset about their naïve questions. It was obvious that whatever they did or didn’t have, they had much happiness and joy in their lives.

The boys got closer and closer until one of the ‘toughest’ ones asked, ‘Can I touch your skin?’ (giggles from the others). I was surprised and wondered what would happen. One of the dancers just smiled and lifted his top up. The boys looked in admiration at his chest which was shining with sweat in the sun and very muscled and toned, which they were not expecting. The boy then moved forward and very gently touched his arm muscles. It was quite an amazing and innocent moment. Everyone was quiet.

After that the local boys jumped up and laughed, running off pushing each other around, waving and shouting loud goodbyes to our Ugandan group as they disappeared all the way up the hill.

It was quite a moment. That night the boys all came to the dance performance to see more, and stood open-mouthed at the back. They would never have come to a dance performance before.

Later in a break I heard them bragging to some other boys from the village that they knew the dance group and had spent the afternoon with them. I didn’t go up to them, just left them to it and smiled.

I didn’t see the boys again, but I bet they remember that day when the African dancers came to their village.