FEATURE

Building Bridges With Body Movement

See 'la bomba Puertorriqueña' in action!

"Rhythm of Resilience" Online Extra

The empowering experience at Escuela Morales Carrión occurred in a uniquely Puerto Rican context, the words and movement of the island’s folklore serving as a counter to Hurricane Maria’s wind and to the damage left in its wake. 

But Team Puerto Rico soon discovered the universality of their work. After a visit from the faculty of Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe Elementary (FPGB)—Escuela Morales Carrión’s sister school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina—the artists were invited to come teach their principles of resilience through dance, music and healing. 

Once again, it began with the faculty—a majority of whom are Latinx and many of whom had experienced trauma as immigrants to the United States. Team Puerto Rico offered workshops on how they taught resilience and social justice at Escuela Morales Carrión through fine arts. Not only did they share art—such as how to make vejigantes and cabezudos masks with students and families—but they also shared experiences. Much like their workshops with teachers in Puerto Rico, they offered FPGB teachers a space to express emotions and find their resilience. 

“I think we all cried in that workshop because it was something that touched our hearts and touched their hearts,” Zorimar Rosado says. “It was a moment to realize that the world is a big place, but a small one at the same time.” 

And though the unique tragedies of Hurricane Maria shouldn’t be minimized, one teacher’s comment truly struck a chord with Team Puerto Rico: “Each of us has a hurricane in life,” she said. Rody Huertas, Victor Serrano and Rosado all cite this as a moment that clicked with them. So many people have storms brewing within them, and this resilience work can be an opposing force. Just as the movement within la bomba Puertorriqueña had once been a common language for those facing hardship, here now it was a common language of trauma and feeling displaced from the life they knew.

“We had so many types of cultures, backgrounds, emotions—different hurricanes,” Rosado says. “But everybody connects at that moment. Everybody was just one.” 

Students at FPGB got half an hour of music and half an hour of dance each day. Like the faculty, many of them had stories of displacement and immigration that informed their own experiences of trauma. So the team designed a plan to teach resilience, social justice and body movement through la bomba Puertorriqueña

Rosado says they started with learning the basics of the body movement and the music before telling students the history behind the dance. They integrated the freedom of the bomba dancer into the activity itself; students were free to do music, dance or spectate. Their agency was vital. Their feelings informed their expression, active or otherwise.

“It was the key to success,” Rosado says, “because they have their own voice through that process.” 

In three days, the students created a piece to perform, even composing the music. Huertas says he watched students transform in that short time. They became more confident solving problems as they made the music better. Some found their voice and took leadership positions in creating the piece. With Team Puerto Rico’s emphasis on incorporating the diverse experiences of students, they saw kids take pride in the final product, which was uniquely theirs. 

“They felt motivated by creating their own rhythm through the piece,” Huertas writes in a follow-up report. “The opportunity to let them create their own piece of music empowered them to express their ideas and offers many rewards.” 

While it may be hard to replicate the incredible relationship that developed between Team Puerto Rico and FPGB, the experience does offer broad takeaways for educators hoping to instill fine arts as a tool for teaching identity and building resilience among students. 

  1. Connect to the cultures, folklore and shared experiences of your students. Team Puerto Rico helped students see their inherited strength and agency through the history of la bomba Puertorriqueña. For your student population, a culturally relevant and sustaining choice may look different. 
  2. Teach for empowerment and agency, not just skills in the given art form. Team Puerto Rico gave students a lot of freedom in their workshops and chose a dance that empowered the dancer rather than demanding something of them. This method may not seem “disciplined” to some, but in reality it teaches students critical skills in problem solving, leadership and self-affirmation. 
  3. Know the difference between sharing and appropriating. Treat traditional art forms with respect, never stripping them of their history, social justice themes or purpose. Being led in a workshop by a professional and member of that culture is different from dressing students up in stereotypical costumes and acting out your version of a traditional performance. 

Victor Serrano likes to say that “culture is to share”—a chance to reach out and “open the door for [people of different cultures] to show themselves as well.” That mindset helped Team Puerto Rico build a bridge—one that no wind or rain could break.