New London’s Adam Schmidt and David Dorfman bring dance program to at-risk youths in El Salvador
A group of dancers traveled to violence-plagued El Salvador in late May to lead a weeklong dance program for at-risk youth. It was a journey initiated by two men with New London ties.
Adam Schmidt, who grew up in Sterling, Connecticut, and has a home in New London, has been working in El Salvador for four years with the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. The organization works with local government and civilian counterparts to support the growth of safer and more prosperous Salvadoran communities. Schmidt is deputy mission director of USAID/El Salvador.
Schmidt invited David Dorfman, who lives in New London and is head of the Connecticut College Dance Department, to bring his acclaimed modern-dance company to El Salvador to work with at-risk youths.
El Salvador is a country that has been struggling with gang-related violence within its borders. Two gangs — MS-13 and 18th Street — control a good deal of this Central American country, Dorfman notes.
“At the same time, it’s a robust, super-active country with a lot of great people and great art,” he says.
USAID has been striving to give kids safer places to gather and take part in healthy activities away from gang intimidation. Toward that end, the organization, with assistance from municipalities and community organizations, has established youth outreach centers to provide extracurricular options including music, dance and sports. And USAID supports efforts led by Glasswing International to offer after-school activities in schools.
Schmidt started in El Salvador when the child migrant crisis was surging, and he notes that, with new opportunities and safer communities, Salvadorans will also be less inclined to migrate out of the country.
The programming already seems to be helping kids.
“What we find from it now is this network of youths are doing some pretty spectacular things,” Schmidt says.
Fifty youngsters — some coming out of the youth outreach centers and some coming out of schools where USAID and Glasswing support after-school activities — worked with members of David Dorfman Dance for a week in May. The DDD folks served as coaches, choreographers and facilitators.
The culmination was a May 26 outdoor performance in Plaza Libertad in downtown San Salvador, and it was attended by about 500 people.
The park is in a key area where gangs operate, Dorfman notes. There are a lot of small businesses operating out of stalls around the park, and “a lot of extortion occurs via gangs,” he says. A lot of city residents who attended the show said they hadn’t visited this park in a long time. There was armed security at event.
“In a place like El Salvador, where the gangs control territory, it’s really a challenge to ensure that you can retake public space, secure it and put on a presentation like this,” Schmidt says in a phone interview from El Salvador. “I think that was an important message that was sent … It’s terrific that David Dorfman Dance and others would take part in that — be pioneers, to a degree, in working with us.”
Schmidt says everything went very well, with “lots of positive energy. It was a pretty phenomenal opportunity to have the company here and working with our at-risk youth beneficiaries.”
The kids are self-taught as dancers, but they created some fairly advanced choreography, he notes. The talent exists, but, he says, “the question is how you find a way to expose that, and so working with local governments and the national government here, we’ve been able to do a lot as USAID … investing in crime-prevention programming that supports positive opportunities for at-risk youth.”
Schmidt says they are collaborating with their government counterparts to ensure these crime-prevention efforts are sustained.
A show of talent
The show, which was titled “Dilo Con Movimiento” (“Say It with Movement”), featured the 50 youngsters whose dances mixed urban styles, including hip-hop forms, with movements from cultural dances in El Salvador. Numbers were performed to music ranging from Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 to “All You Need Is Love” to “Que Rico el Mambo.”
A youth orchestra consisting of 45 musicians played, and several rappers performed. David Dorfman Dance did a 15-minute piece based on their works “Aroundtown” and “Lightbulb Theory.”
The finale encouraged audience members to dance the mambo together, and a great many of them did.
Dorfman says of the event and the reaction, “I keep thinking of the term heartwarming, but it just really was.”
“Adam was just so encouraging. He said, ‘You have no idea what this means for this population, for this city, for this country,’” Dorfman says.
While Dorfman leads the dance department at Connecticut College, there were other Conn College connections with this project as well. David Dorfman Dance is company-in-residence at Conn College. The 14 people who went on the trip (eight were dancers) included Dorfman’s wife, Lisa Race, associate professor of dance at Conn College; Conn College assistant professor of dance Shawn Hove; Chris Considine, an intern from Conn, who helped with video and sound; and Conn College alum Liz de Lise, a singer/songwriter who works with David Dorfman Dance.
Dorfman notes that Connecticut College’s mission is putting the liberal arts into action, and that’s just what this trip was about.
“For me, it was very fulfilling to have David join us,” Schmidt says. “He’s one of the preeminent modern dance artists in the country.”
Schmidt said it was wonderful for the Dorfman dancers to share their talent and knowledge with some professional dancers in El Salvador but, more importantly, with kids who are looking to express themselves through dance.
“You’re a youth who maybe doesn’t have a lot of opportunity or confidence, but having interface with the Dorfman dancers and El Salvador professional dancers, you see a possibility,” Schmidt says.
In addition to working with the youngsters, David Dorfman Dance performed on their own, doing “Aroundtown” on May 22 at a San Salvador theater; they had previously staged “Aroundtown” at Connecticut College and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
Meeting in New London
Schmidt and Dorfman have known each other for years. Dorfman recalls that they met when their children were both in a preschool program at Mitchell College (those kids are now in their late teens).
Schmidt and his wife, Kelly, have children Phineas, Eleanora and Owen.
The Schmidts decided to buy a house in New London because of what the city offers.
“It’s a great little city with a lot of artistic and cultural diversity, and great beaches. It’s been our home base for the past 14 years, and it’s a great place to return to every summer or during holidays to reconnect after being abroad in the Foreign Service. We’re proud to be New Londoners!” he says.
He adds, “There is nothing like a good meal at Captain Scott’s or the Yolk Café.”
Schmidt had long spoken to Dorfman about the possibility of Dorfman bringing his dance expertise to USAID programming. USAID workers do four-year stints in a given country, and Schmidt is about to move on from El Salvador to the country of Georgia. He got David Dorfman Dance to come El Salvador before he and his family made the transition to Georgia.
David Dorfman Dance took part in a similar humanitarian trip as part of the DanceMotion USA program in 2015 to Turkey, Armenia and Tajikistan.
“What we’re doing is we’re providing activities that might fill a void and create interest and create understanding through the body. I call it kinetic diplomacy,” Dorfman says. “… We’re just trying to achieve peace, caring, empathy, non-sexualized intimacy through our dance.”
On an advance trip, Dorfman and DDD managing director Erin Roy visited a USAID center where young dancers performed, and Dorfman and Roy were the first people to see their choreography, which was mostly hip-hop-inflected but was also influenced by El Salvadoran dances.
“They were just incredible,” Dorfman says. The leader who choreographed most of it “was so present and responsible and assertive, and some of the dances were really, really great.”
When Dorfman and Roy made that initial visit to El Salvador, Dorfman recalls,
“The countryside is just beautiful. As soon as we arrived, they whisked us off to this place overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s just a gorgeous country that has so much to offer and also has a lot of strife due to complicated politics. But the young people shouldn’t be denied unbelievable opportunities and shouldn’t suffer due to some poor choices by adults. We’re trying to encourage good choices by young people.”
He adds, “The amount of forward motion and momentum that I think is gaining in El Salvador ... is pretty amazing.”