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Day of Dance Brings New Life to Burma’s Cyclone Victims

(Photo: Hilary Schwab)

Dance and relief work don’t generally go together.

But Simone Jacobson turned a day of dancing into a new life for people in the flooded villages of Burma.

The cyclone that devastated Burma in May struck close to home for Jacobson. She’d just returned from her first visit to her mother’s native country when the storm roared in, leaving 100,000 dead and missing, and affected as many as two million people.

Jacobson’s first instinct was to drop everything and return to Southeast Asia to help. But she wasn’t a doctor or a relief worker. She was a dancer about to start a graduate degree in arts management at AU.

“I realized it’s not helpful, flying out there and being a burden. I thought, ‘What can I really do?’”

What she knew how to do was reach people who love to dance. Jacobson, while juggling her first weeks of graduate school, organized a benefit master class series with Washington’s top modern dance company at CityDance Center at Strathmore that raised more than $2,000 for the Foundation for the People of Burma.

The U.S.-based humanitarian organization is helping people recover in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the world’s largest natural disaster since the Asian tsunami in 2004.

One of the challenges in organizing the benefit, Jacobson said, was that the people who like to dance aren’t necessarily the same people who are passionate about Burma.

But for Jacobson, both Burma and dance have always been part of her life. Her journalist grandfather spent five years in the 1960s as a political prisoner of Burma’s military junta. Jacobson’s mother, coming to the US as a teenager, became a teacher in Washington, DC and practiced Burmese traditional dance on the side.

Jacobson inherited the love of dance. “I’ve pretty much been dancing since I could walk,” she says.

As for Burma, she heard stories about it all her life. This winter, she was finally able to go.

Then the cyclone hit and Jacobson’s interests came together. She managed to gain the help of an impressive roster of dancers for the benefit, including CityDance Ensemble, which donated its CityDance Center studios at Strathmore.

It was the right thing to do, said artistic director Paul Emerson. “What she’s doing is complicated, ambitious, and very necessary—not only for the people we’re helping, but for those who need to understand there is a need.”

Workshops in hip-hop, modern, and Burmese traditional dance were held for local dancers, including many members of Washington’s hip-hop dance group Culture Shock and its youth wing, Future Shock, for which Jacobson previously danced and served as director.

Not all the dancers were familiar with the issue. Hip-hop dance is Joshua Gilmore’s life; he sheepishly confessed that he doesn’t watch the news, and that “I’m not up on current events. My grandma disses me about that. So I was like, ‘Burma, what’s that?’ But when I found out it was a dance workshop, then I was interested.”

Jacobson took the opportunity to brief him about Burma—the decades of military rule, the suppressed revolt of the monks last year, and the devastating cyclone—as dancers practiced their moves nearby. Gilmore, who was astounded to hear about Burma’s tragedies, said he was glad that his workshop fee would make a difference.

And it would. Around 150 dancers came to the workshop, raising enough money to buy 15 boats to replace those lost by village fishermen, rebuild eight flooded homes, or stock health clinics with needed supplies.

For some dancers, the master’s series was an education on a distant country. For Jacobson, it was a demanding and meaningful start to a career in arts management.

And for people in the storm-washed villages of Burma, it will mean homes and boats and medical treatment. They’ll get a new life, thanks to a day of dance.