I was born with a baton in my hand. My mom started her baton and dance studio the year I was born and I have been dancing and twirling since I could walk. I twirled competitively my entire childhood, I twirled at my university, and when I was done twirling and dancing I began coaching. It’s easy to say that baton twirling and dancing is a major part of who I am. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready to give it up completely when I decided to join the Peace Corps, but I soon learned that I wouldn’t have to.
My mom came to visit me in Jamaica in October and brought with her lots of old batons donated by some of my former students and even some of the girls I used to compete against. My mom taught a few after-school baton classes during her visit and we were surprised at how much the students enjoyed it. My fellow teachers were surprised to see what I can do. This sparked a conversation about my background before joining Peace Corps. I knew that I wanted to bring something that I love to my service, but I didn’t think for a second that baton and dance was something that I would be able to. You can imagine my delight when my counterpart suggested that we attend a JCDC (Jamaica Cultural Development Commission) workshop for dance!
We spent hours laughing and learning all kinds of moves with other dance teachers from our parish. After the workshop, we were eager to get started on forming our own dance team for the upcoming season.
We quickly hosted after-school auditions and had over 70 students show up. We chose 20 students, boys and girls, and began rehearsals right away. We had less than three months to learn a creative Jamaican folk dance and perfect it before auditioning for the competition. Endless hours were spent watching online videos of Jamaican Folk dances until I finally felt ready to begin choreographing the dance. My counterpart and the students had a lot of great ideas for moves that helped shape the routine. Their knowledge of Jamaican-style dancing paired with my background in choreographing and coaching – and my online research – seemed to be the perfect combination.
For over two months, our students attended after-school practices 2-3 times per week and even during their Christmas break. My counterpart worked hard on all of the logistical aspects for the team: permission slips, collecting money, and securing the bus to carry us to the competition. Competition day quickly crept up on us and all of the students were excited to show off their dancing skills. We loaded up in a bus and made our way to the competition in our school uniforms because we did not have costumes to dance in. The team got on the staged and shined! With a lot of hard work and a little luck, they passed the audition! However, it was clear to all of us that their routine was very different than the others. We had a lot of work to do.
Shortly after the auditions, I had a trip scheduled to visit home for, you guessed it, a baton and dance competition. I was lucky enough to get to visit my former studio and teach the Jamaican folk dance to the students there. It was such a fun experience to teach them something that they had never seen before and see their faces light up when I told them that it was the same dance that my students in Jamaica learned. We created a wonderful partnership and now both teams are called “Superstars,” named after my former studio in Florida.
When I returned to Jamaica, we spent the next few weeks making changes to our routine, practicing, fundraising, and preparing for the Parish finals. The teachers hosted “Crazy Hat Day” and “Crazy Sock Day” to raise the money that we needed. With a few donations and our school fundraisers, we were able to purchase material and have costumes made.
By the time finals came around, they were ready to show the judges how much they had improved. As they dressed in their new costumes and we began decorating their faces with rhinestones and eye shadow, you could see the excitement welling up inside of them. It was almost time.
As they stepped on the stage, I was holding back a few tears as I watched this team come to life right before my eyes. And they crushed it! They performed with confidence and smiles on their faces. It was one of the best moments of my Peace Corps service so far. Most of these students had never taken a dance class before and here they were performing their hearts out on stage. Our likl but tallawah (small but mighty) dance team was rewarded with a SILVER MEDAL! They even received special recognition for the improvements that they had made over the last month since the auditions. The head judge took the time to big them up for taking the comments from the audition and what they had seen and turn it into a great performance.
Next year, we are hoping to start earlier and have weekly dance classes in which the students can learn all kind of dance skills, ranging from folk to contemporary, from hip hop to baton twirling. We plan on having a community member begin choreographing and coaching to ensure that the program is poised to continue for many years after my service.
This post was written by Leah Stoffel, Education Volunteer, Group 87, ’16-’18.