For Rowdy and myself to travel to Cali, Colombia to deliver a series of Hip Hop Dance Workshops and to provide history and support to help educate and inspire some of the most underprivileged and vulnerable young people.
Rowdy, “I am originally from Colombia and I wanted to go back to the land I was born, to understand my culture and why dance was in my blood”.
We discussed the idea of travelling to Cali some time ago, the initial discussions were early 2012 between Rowdy and myself and in may 2012 I remember being given some advice and told to find a dancer named Griff Wilkinson as he was currently working in Colombia…
I contacted Griff via facebook and explained whom I was and that I wanted to do a project over in Colombia, which would involve dance and disadvantaged kids. He told me to search for Ayara, a Hip Hop organisation that was based in Bogota, who worked with street kids and vulnerable teens.
I distinctly remember a conversation with Rowdy that took place in a coffee shop on Pentonville Road back in August 2012. We got together and started to Brainstorm, extract our ideas and set each other tasks.
The main one would be to research and make contact with Ayara, and discuss the project and get a feel for where they were with it and if they would be interested.
This task actually proved to be one of the toughest yet as Colombians are beautiful people and are seriously relaxed, so to them it is quite acceptable to reply 5 weeks after the initial email request. This was actually quite challenging because I am quite on the go and am used to a fast paced environment.
The Overall Manager for Ayara finally came back to us and suggested a Skype Meeting to discuss the project further, several weeks later the meeting eventually took place and we had officially started the ball rolling.
Rowdy had also made contact with another organisation, Bayailo. They were based about 10 mins away from where we would be staying and so we would now work out a route and schedule to include them. However Ayara had not given us a definitive schedule so we were a little apprehensive about how it would all turn out.
We started our fundraising campaign very late in the year; the reason for this was because of the response time from our overseas friends. Looking back, this just added to the pressure, We weren’t sure we would hit our target of £1600 but we did and we where surprised how much support we had behind us.
The first leg of our Journey seemed to be going well, we had reached Miami safely and everything was in place. We had two hours to reach our connecting flight to Cali, and despite us constantly speaking to Passport control, we were told,“I’m sorry Ma’am” and had to remain in a queue until it was our turn. Needless to say we missed our connecting flight to Cali and was told that there was not another one until the same time the following day.
After much back and forth with the staff at the departure gate, it was evident that there was not much that we could do. We had no phones on us nor toiletries because that was in our main luggage which had already departed on that connecting flight….yeah the one that we just missed. We were facing a pretty difficult situation as the guys at Ayara were due to pick us up in a few hours, the payphone was swallowing quarters like no tomorrow yet still not connecting the call to Ayara. It was a complete nightmare. In the end we found an Internet connection and managed to get an email over to Ayara to let them know we would be a bit late…
Twenty Four Hours in Miami.
Right then, find a map, find somewhere to eat, and find somewhere to stay. All achieved within 3 Hours, thanks to a tip from an airport worker. We jumped on a bus and headed down to the famous Ocean Drive, it was a school night so no mad partying for us, but did walk around for hours sight seeing. We checked into a cheap B and B and got our heads down. Then next morning we got up super early and continued the sight seeing and headed down to the beach. We saw so many people walking dogs and working out, it was totally like the films and CSI series. After a couple of hours we headed back to the air port to continue where we left off twenty four hours before…
Hitch Hiking on Miami Beach
Alfonso Bosello Airoport was so small and confined, the security was non-existent and it took a matter of minutes to get out to the street. We were greeted by hundreds of people standing outside waiting for other passengers. Rowdy’s bright pink hair was an instant attraction and the people began to stare. It was quite intimidating as we had been on Colombian soil for 7-8 mins and could already feel some tension. The Manager had arranged for Victor, an Ayara representative to pick us up from the airport, however in true relaxed fashion, this had not happened.
Outside CLO airport
We waited outside the airport for almost an hour and then opted to get a taxi as standing around like blatant tourists didn’t seem like such a good idea. The driver quoted us COL$70,000 (£25) to drive about an hour away, we agreed and got into the cab. We had a self made map with the address we were given, however the arrival was not the intended destination as we arrived to a neighbourhood rife with prostitutes?. From the initial landing the experience was for sure hostile and the rough reputation we heard about started to show signs of becoming a reality. After the bitty conversation of broken Spanish we got the driver to call Victor and find out the correct address and get us straight out of here. The correct address was no where near our location, but another 30 mins away. Needless to say the driver was not impressed, but he still took us anyway.
Sometime later we arrived at 51-59. Calle #9, home to Ayara. A very tired Victor greeted us, He was a small character, very sweet, positive and spoke with the fastest Spanish dialect I had every heard. “DI-SPA-CHIO Por Favour” became a key phrase and much cherished part of our linguistic arsenal. He showed us to our room where we would stay for the next few weeks and we all went to bed. Sleeping was very difficult, the heat was absolutely stifling and the air was so dry. My throat felt like sand paper and the noise outside was so loud, but because of the heat you couldn’t close the window.
The next morning we woke up early to the sound of several puppies continuously barking and the neighbouring dog, who would bark back in response. The first thing I did was tour the building. Made up of three floors, the building had so much character and great energy, I started at the top floor, the roof garden which was fitted with a bench, table and meters of free wall space for the Graffiti students to use. The views were fantastic as you could see so far into the city.
The floor below the roof had 3 bedrooms, a bathroom, a private office and an open desk space. The private office was for Pantone, a digital arts company whom rent the space. The next floor was a very basic kitchen, washroom and a huge mirrored space with a giant ‘Wild Style’ Muriel on one of the walls.
This room had 4 large windows that offered a nice view to the street below. As you walk down the stairs to the ground level, there are more hip hop and graffiti references memorabilia hung up as you enter the paint store. The Store is a small little counter where paint, Tshirts and sketch books are sold to the graffiti students.
2 Old style Ghetto Blasters were used as Stereos and posters about break dance were hung up.
We headed back to be greeted by Repso, and Angelik. The two owners of Pantone, design company. Repso, is the resident grafitti artist who runs the workshops upstairs and owns the store below.
He also offers free Grafitti classes to local kids and also engages in outreach work for street children. He is known throughout Cali and is a very talented artist. I never got to see any of Angelik’s graffiti, but I did see her graphic design, which was fantastic, again very talented.
The next day he gave us a briefing about the class at Siloe. We would be working outside and to avoid taking any valuables and should there be any gunshots, yes gunshots, then we were to get down immediately and stay on the floor. We were a little shocked but the warning wasn’t entirely unexpected, as we knew of the areas reputation. Guerrilla activity is heavily rooted in Siloe, drug dealers, shootings and all sorts of criminal activity are everyday life. It is a big slum near the mountain and the higher up you go more dangerous it gets. You will need permission and a paper pass from some of the gangs if you want to go into the higher parts of the mountain.
When we arrived at there the atmosphere was different, you could sense more unrest and slight tension but Victor was great, very talkative and he stayed with us at all times. Rowdy would teach in a large open space, gifted to teens by the government. There was no water, changing rooms or sprung floors, just straight street style
Despite the violence and crime, when lit up at night the area is beautiful. The large Christmas tree was still up following the festive season…
Jaqueline Rentería– From Siloe
We watched some of Boons Breakin’ crew practice and met his younger students, whom would take the workshop. They were approximately aged 10-15 and seemed quite shy. I filmed quite a bit, but at times would have to put the camera away as some times I received unnecessary attention from others in the area. This class was held in the evening around 8pm and even outside it was still very hot. The kids enjoyed the class and it was a nice initial icebreaker for everyone and a nice start for Project Sonrisa.
The next day we were briefed again for the second workshop and Pantone was asking us for photos for the flyer design. I almost fell off my chair in shock as I couldn’t believe they would start to promote the day before the event. I did become a little nervous about how this would turn out and if anyone would attend. The contrast between London and Cali is so different. London is so fast paced and Cali is so relaxed, for someone like myself it is initially hard to adjust to this. After all this was a working trip not a holiday, and as my nature is to plan and make sure that things are organised, I came with the same mindset I have back home.
The first class at the House was Locking and social Dance.
When you are standing outside and looking in, you notice the difference in a number of things. One was – how the rhythms were interpreted, in contrast to how we in the UK count, they were felt in a different way, thus the students picked up differently. The second was how easy and comfortable the students were when it came to partner up with the opposite sex. I think this is because of the Salsa influence, even those who don’t dance, can dance Salsa in Cali. We were lucky enough to be invited to watch a rehearsal by a well-known Salsa company, “Stilo Y Sabre”. Kids as young as 5 were literally on fire, its like someone put pins in their shoes.
Through out the trip the schedule was decided a day or 2 before and we had to adjust and make sure we were ready as and when needed, On call so to speak.
Rowdy taught several classes throughout the next few days, and it was fantastic to see the numbers grow and be part of the buzz and excitement. Word had got around that she was here and by the 3rd class, the room was absolutely packed. She taught a basic house and hiphop class and the students absolutely loved them, the energy and sweat was just immense. What was interesting is that they said they had never seen house dance before, yet ironically were very good at it. Again from the salsa foundation and strong footwork.
Some members of Boons crew, ‘Upper Skill’ also took a class from Rowdy; it was really nice to watch, as there was a lot of creative exchange as well as education. This class lasted for hours and seemed to spread over the number of days as and when they were in the House. So even our days off were dance filled.
Rowdy had practiced a little Spanish before the trip but said that she realized that even with not much language skills, she could still make herself understood easily with movements and visual sounds. “Dance is incredible like that…no matter where you are in the world dance can always make it self understood.”
A few days into the trip we arranged to Chiquitines orphanage to drop off the toiletries you had donated. We had exactly 23kg and 18kg bags loaded bursting at the seams. We had Victor call up the orphanage for us and arranged an appointment, We took a taxi up to the Chiquitines as it was about 30 mins away and we had no idea where we were going.
We were met at the gates by guards who escorted us in and we waited for Maria, the vice president of Chiquitines. After a lengthy wait she surfaced and offered a warm greeting.
Maria gave us a tour of the orphanage and explained that they had moved from their original site 30 mins away and that they still had some of the existing staff working there. The Laws had now changed in Colombia and putting up a child for adoption is much harder as the State now calls upon relatives to intervene and will make assessments before agreeing to an adoption. This new law has seen a decrease in cases, thus a much smaller and more manageable orphanage. The children were off on a day trip but some the workers were still there minding the toddlers. They seemed happy and content and by looking at the facilities of the site they had all their basic needs met.
Due to child protection laws we were not able to film once on the premises but were allowed take a few photographs as long as children were not in the shot. Maria, was extremely grateful for the donations and she was thankful that we had considered such a practical necessity. I felt good knowing that we really had helped out and even though it was a small gesture, it would really make a difference.
During the tour there were some things that felt so loving and warming to watch and hear and there were moments I could feel myself choking up. I reminded myself that this could potentially offer a more stable life for a child and held it together. Rowdy’s life and upbringing is an example of a success story as she was once a resident at Chiquitines.
We headed back to base and began arranging a schedule with Yami Lozano, A Local Dance Teacher that was putting on a workshop for Rowdy….(They were both Yami and both Yami L, so for confusion purposes I will refer to our new friend as Yami#2)
Yami#2 arrived at Ayara to meet us for lunch, and informal get together to get to know us and to give us a brief. She took us back to her house, an apartment with a very nice home made studio underneath. A motorbike sits quietly in the entrance, it was once owned by her late husband and is a daily reminder of what they had built.
She told us her story, and shared with us her vision. During the meet both women spoke about choreography and Yami #2 showed off her kids crew and her portfolio. She showed us some workshop footage that she and her students had paid for last year, and unfortunately the price did not reflect the content of the lesson. It was quite apparent that some cowboys from overseas had seen an opportunity to make a quick buck or two by charging high prices and yet deliver nothing, not even correct foundations.
Rest assured, Rowdy would heal that wound at the upcoming workshop.
Baiyalo Dance School
Yami#2 would talk and express her deep love for dance, which at times made her well up and stop her communicating. She would have to breathe deep and continue. It was overwhelming to hear someone talk so freely and be so passionate about his or her art.
I would scan the room and note pieces of wall/whiteboard/mirror at how she had written down the names of moves, names of styles. It was quite apparent that she had gone to extraordinary lengths to self educate and really understand hiphop.
Due to Language barriers and misinformation there were mistakes she had made but was always willing to correct and revisit her knowledge. I remember I turned and said, “I think we have found our teacher”.
“Yeah. I think so too”
Rowdy turned to Yami#2 and said, “I would like to give you some private classes for you to learn more foundations and to then teach your classes”
Yami#2 had a face on her like she just got picked for the Olympic Team. Wow. She was so shocked and taken aback but so unbelievably happy. It was a nice moment and she could not wait…She made us lunch and we agreed to come back early Saturday morning and start classes.
The Guys took us to watch a jam/battle in an outside barrio about 40 mins drive from our house. I got there and instantly noticed…every dancer rides a motorbike, Geared motorbike, not moped. I felt happy and that I had found new friends. J
We were accompanied by Mauricio, a good friend of Victors and also his student. Mauricio was born in Cali but grew up in Miami, where there is a very heavy latino population. He kindly translated a lot for us and helped us around.
The jam was held in a very basic building/possible youth centre and cost $3000PES (£1) to watch. It was a great vibe and atmosphere and a lot of the Bboys had brought their babies and wives, so it was a real family event. When all had settled and the event was about the start, and then everyone went silent to pray. This was a complete new experience for me, but it seemed to be the standard practice for these guys.
Many people would speak to me, and they were very friendly and welcoming.
We watched all the battles and Victor aka Bboy Boon took part and we cheered him on, It was a nice evening and was great to see how the dancers exchange first hand. Due to the heat I went to go across the road to the local shop..instantly Angelika was holding my arm to escort me. Although it seemed fine, we were actually in a really rough Barrio and so I asked no more questions.
As the days went on we would spend time with Victor, Repso and Angelik getting to know more about Ayara and the work they do. They would take us around the city showing us some amazing sights and have us try different foods, a truly amazing and unforgettable experience. We would spend time with the boys Boon, Mr Rata and Maurico and experience their way of living, watching them cook, watching them draw. The lifestyle out here is so modest and humbling compared to back home.
Repso gave us our own graffiti class too;
Rowdy would teach more workshops and notably a lot more girls would start to appear in the classes. During an interview with one student, she commented that the reason for the increase was just because of the teacher. To hear that was a real sealer for me because I could feel that her work was inspiring others and that was always the crux of Project Sonrisa.
We also became students of the art and took a lesson, A local Teacher holds a class every week and we decided to join in and learn. Again, the counts are done differently so I struggled to hear the same rhythms, but adjusted after a while.
Back to Baiyalo
Saturday came around and we hit them with a challenging class. Yami#2 was filming every moment trying not to miss a second of information; I had to tell her off because she was missing the feeling of the class. Something you couldn’t capture through a canon. I opted to film for her so she could get back to the physical learning.
Rowdy made the class very informative and I used the mirror as much as possible to write down all information. The students would then copy up into their note pads.
Unlike Ayara, Baiyalo was charging for the classes. I queried this charge as I was on the understanding everything was being done for free???. Yami#2 explained that the money from the workshops would be used to by food for the Brizas de pais project. We were pleasantly surprised and would chip in any other cash we had in our pockets. This class was broken into 4 and went on from 10am to 5pm…long tiring day for us, especially Rowdy.
Yami Lozano w/Rowdy
We had spoken about this project a few days earlier and knew that we were scheduled to go there on the Sunday. Brizaz de pas/ Breezes of Peace is a project that Yami#2 works on every Sunday. Its an outreach programme for venerable children that live in Aqua Blanca, a ghetto and wasteland area. They are not all schooled and some have no parents, the area is extremely poor and crime is high.
Yami#2 teaches the children dance and encourages participation from other students and teachers. With whatever money she makes that week she will use to pay for food for the children.
We arrived to the area and the first thing you notice is the waste and endless amounts of rubbish and the modest huts. Initially there were not many children there during the set up, but within 6-7 mins the flood gates open and we were surrounded.
We got the stereo set up and Yami#2 Started the session. Rowdy and I then played a call and response dance game, which was real fun and taught them some of the Michael Jackson thriller routine. They loved it and were so embracing and affectionate and it was such a humbling experience because they had nothing. Literally some kids were appearing without full clothing and were unkempt, yet were so full of life and smiling.
We danced and sang with the kids and played many games whilst Yami#2 set up the snacks. We only had enough money to buy bread rolls and make homemade juice, which was put into a large bucket. All the children came rushing up with their empty beakers and plates ready for their share. It was another teary moment to witness a 5 year old child beg you for food, and you just want to save them all but you cant and you always wish you could do more. This experience was hard, but really positive at the same time.
Rowdy even got a lesson in salsa by a young boy and he outdid her easily!
We had to leave the area very quickly as news of us being there and food being handed out compromised our safety, and some dangerous characters started to come over. The kids know the signs though and warn Yami#2. We said goodbye and rushed into a taxi and as Rowdy said, “I realized what true passion is, what yami#2 does is for no other reason than passion and the work she does is remarkable” She has love and dedication for everyone, her students and the Brisas de la paz children. She has a great heart and it should be recognised.
We continued on our stay in Cali with another workshop in Ayara and once again the studio was full and we had another amazing session and once again I felt the extreme love that was in the room.
Teach the Teacher
Yami#2 came over to Ayara for her private lesson and I dropped in and out filming and taking photographs. I could see Rowdy take her back to basics and discuss the history and techniques. Yami#2 was overwhelmed with all of the information and truly appreciative for the time invested in her. The class was a few hours long and the work had paid off by the end as you could really see differences in Yami#2’s technique.
Teach the teacher was something that we wanted to really focus on. Travelling abroad to deliver workshops is great, but we wanted to leave them something more. It was important to us to hand over the tools so that we could continue to grow and share the dance.
Yami Lozano was definitely the correct teacher to work with. Her dedication and commitment, and sheer hunger to learn was very powerful and it only seemed right to pass on the knowledge with a person so intent on sharing.
I asked Rowdy, “How did today’s lesson go?”
“ She is beautiful soul and keen learner so even though this was a lesson it felt more like an exchange of a equal soul and I was more than happy to take my time with her. We went through different teaching techniques and how she can develop her crew that she performs with and she was more than happy with the lesson telling me she never have had a Real teacher until me and that I share my soul not just my knowledge. I believe in Yami and in the legacy she is trying to keep up in her husbands name and I hope her school will go on for many years.”, she replied.
We did a little sight seeing in Cali, and all experienced as much as we could in between classes. The city is and its beauty is breath taking. The walls are covered in amazing artwork and the streets home beautiful sculptures.
People are friendly and curious and the food is amazing.
Mr Rata, Boon, Maurico, Rowdy, Carly
We took a trip to Christo Rey, a large statue of Christ, which is visited daily by both tourists and locals.
We got to taste Fruit we never heard of or seen, the flavors were so rich and delicious. We got to smell fresh coffee straight from roast and sample local produce…. the list goes on what Cali had on offer and if this is just one city in Colombia I can just imagine the rest!
I loved and wholly believe in the entire project and am so proud of what we have achieved. The whole experience has been a mixed bag of emotions from times of great joy to deep sadness. I have learnt a lot about dance, another culture, another country and myself. I am especially gratefully to all of our sponsors who donated money, toiletries, pastries, needles, time, advice and support to Project Sonrisa. Remember you made this happen…
Until next time,
Love and Sonrisa (smile)
Passion and Purpose