Ascential Dance Theatre Colorado (ADTC) is a professional dance company, service organization, arts advocacy & historical society providing classes, performances and lectures. We visited with Founder and Curator, Jennifer Fagan Archer, of ADTC to discuss their Ascential Language & Arts School (ALAS) program in Ometepe, Nicaragua that teaches villagers English through a unique curriculum combining elements of Dance, Art, Music and Martial Arts.
BOC - From watching your video and visiting your FB page it appears that the art of dancing triggers some sort of "magical" receptors into the students. My guess is that if you make something fun then the student success increases. What are some other benefits of your model?
Solid guess, Jon. :) The children on Ometepe do not have many options for after-school programming, so our classes tend to be disciplined and engaging by default. When I arrive in Merida each year, the families find me in the streets to give them solid start dates and schedules. Once classes begin, I account for what amount of instruction each learner has already had with me in the prior season and then I tailor the classes specifically for all attendees. The 'magic' is in the dedication to each individual's needs. I have the full attention of every student because they are learning so much information in a single minute. Sample Dance/Music/English Class: The song starts as we sit in a circle. We introduce ourselves and mention how we are feeling today. We count the beats by number in English & Spanish. Then we start clapping the tempo, adding poly-rhythmic sequences. Next we add movement and say the movements in both languages. Older student may add lyrics or complex patterns. We incorporate all of this while warming up the necessary muscles used in dance class. It's intense.
BOC - We hear so much about the interplay between the mind and body. What does it mean to your instructional philosophy?
Combining movement, music and language practice helps the students remember with ease. The secret ingredient is repetition.
BOC - How are you able to provide so many classes at no charge?
Thus far we are supported by mostly friends and family. Burners Without Borders (BWB) is our first official "sponsor" awarding us $500 in 2016! Honestly? I basically starve the entire time I am down there. Eating only two small meals per day as we ration donation money, we also live in a house with a dirt floor, no electricity and little water. We wash our clothes by hand and cook over one good eye on a gas stove. These sacrifices are necessary because we do not want to have future debt. We build as we earn money. I haven't owned a cellphone in 3 & 1/2 years and we have no US mortgage, loans, liens, car payments or credit cards. When ALAS started in 2013, we had 10 students and now we have over 250! The way I have managed is, I personally fly down and teach every class and design the curriculum in real time. 2016 was the first year I had help from other instructors. Chris Meis, Alyssa Graves, Jennifer Puig and Kelsey Kiernan all donated their time to help ALAS. All four instructors have tenured positions with ALAS.
BOC - What is the literacy rate in Nicaragua and what is your personal connection to Nicaragua?
The public and private schools on Isla Ometepe are really great, actually. Several areas in Nicaragua are struggling, but contrary to popular belief, Nicaragua is rather diligent and mindful of their education programming. Some villages simply lack the marketing savvy necessary to attract the teachers they need, but the funding is there. Teachers are highly respected and compensated in Central America. The challenge is, many locals cannot afford to pay for college in order to achieve a teaching degree. My program is on its own without any subsidies from either government. I came to Nicaragua to divorce my husband Jamey in 2013, never knowing I would eventually make it my home. He accepted a position house-sitting for a con-artist American who scammed us into helping him. We accepted responsibility for our ignorance in the situation and did not get divorced. Instead, we made the most out of a bad situation. We fell in love with the island and each other again. We have many friends and people we call 'family' on Ometepe. Our son and moon, Jeylin, is now 17 years old. He is cyber-schooled and has so many new friends in Nicaragua. He loves traveling and can't imagine his life any other way.
BOC - Tell us about the villages.
El Congo: El Congo is the village we live in...where we are building a home, dance studio, recording studios and aquaponics farm with very little money. I have the keys to the Escuelita there.El Congo is pretty upbeat place and there are a few steep hills that run through it. Because we ride bikes, this is great for exercise. ALAS has 81 students there.
San Ramon: ALAS are visiting artists at the public Elementary School in San Ramon. We have 90 students there. San Ramon has restaurants, lovely houses, sweet beaches, a helicopter landing pad and a world famous 'cascada' at the Ometepe Biological Station which is the home of the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy. MRC donated four bicycles to ALAS for our teachers to use when they are on the island.
Merida: Merida is the village where ALAS was born and where we have another small piece of land. Volcan Maderas, the smaller volcano, has a fresh-water lake at the top of it instead of smoldering lava. This is comforting to my family back home in the states. Nature trails and tourist treats are sprinkled here and there while ancient petroglyphs, the ones that haven't been looted, still pepper the area. Merida is a colorful and dramatic little slice of heaven. There are wonderful, quaint and varied restaurants, hospedajes, shoppes, schools and activities in Merida. It is the place you want to book when you come visit us. Merida has a strong belief that recycling and low-waste living are the future of the island's tourism successes.
Altagracia: Altagracia is on the “other volcano” and we have to ride a bus for over an hour each way to back and forth from there. Concepcion is an active volcano and this eclectic little town is on the east side of island. Our classes are taught in a private home at present, but we have an offer to give our 2017 classes at the Sandinista head quarters starting in September. I am a guest artist in a local band in town called “Evolucion”, so I rehearse with them after teaching all day each Friday. It is great because I can get "get away" to visit friends and buy school supplies, fried chicken, photo copies, peanut butter, wine and chocolate while in town.
BOC - I notice you are teaching Dance, Art, Martial Arts and Music. How did you come up with this unique multidisciplinary curriculum?
The curriculum is formulated using many variables. The two dominating factors are space availability (there are no studios on Ometepe) and the profesores/subjects we have presenting class material. Teachers must commit to the time they promise us and then actually show up down there in Nicaragua. It’s not so easy to do if one is not used to traveling. Our school schedule remains consistent and the attendees are typically open to any subject given to them.
Children ages 3-6 have class Monday through Friday from 2:30 pm - 3:30 pm. Student ages 7-12 have class from 4-5 pm and Teen/Adult classes are from 5:30-6:30 pm. As long as the classes are professional and include English language component, the parents are game. Families in Nicaragua do not usually have “disposable time” or “down time.” Kids are expected to work around the house or in the family businesses at a young age. I believe we would have full classes without the language offering, but the appeal of learning English is big in our rapidly growing tourist destination.
BOC - What is your spiritual philosophy? (or do you feel this is private)
It is private, but I tend to believe what I was told by one of my Lakota elders. I was told that I "do not exist on this earth for my own personal gain or legacy. (I) am here to shepherd others toward the light of truth.” He called me Heyoka. His point was that I unknowingly and selflessly help others without considering if it will benefit me. I remember telling him, "I can't help it." Consequently, one year later an Islamic elder called me "Jinn" because of my name. He told me, “Jinn are not human and have a debatable identity.” Haha...I don't know, but the truth is I love teaching, being with my family and singing cover songs with my band. The three basic "religions" on Ometepe are Catholic, Evangelical and Jehovah's Witness. I will divulge that I identify "Messianic Jew", but my program is not missionary. In fact, Nicaragua is banning missionary efforts right now.
BOC - How is your fundraising going on youcaring.com ?
GREAT! It's a lot of work to get $20 which is about a minimum wage, weekly salary in Nicaragua (580 cordobas). A pound of rice is 11 cords or 33 cents. An egg is 5 cords or 15 cents. A loaf of bread is only 30 cents, but a jar of peanut butter is almost $20. We have made $2,740 of our original $5,000 goal and we actually need $10,000. I make about 50 cents/hour, but I have been able to survive so far. :) We are so excited that you are giving us a BOC spot because we need donations to close out this cycle and get my husband home. He refuses to leave until the first teacher house is built. Talk about devotion!
BOC - What are your goals for 2017?
We are building teacher's housing! We have a REAL block (press) machine on the island as of February 2017. This is a big deal as our building costs are cut in half. We just wrote a request for cement donations to a new, young Nicaraguan construction company and should be hearing soon if they will partner with us. ALAS hopes to add classes in Balgue and Moyogalpa this year, but without a car, we are limited to where we can go. It would be nice if we could raise$2K to buy a quad. My husband has been approached by a dual American/Nicaraguan citizen to build a theater in San Ramon, and it will be the very first civic facility in the island's history! Because there are few artistic options for communities, I constantly feel responsible for helping to pioneer these endeavors. The center she proposed will include four private dorms for resident and teaching artists. Her land is owned, debt free and is right on Lake Nicaragua's shores. We are praying this works out because it will directly align with ALAS' vision. I met with a lawyer in January 2017 and was given a thumbs up to apply to be a Foreign NGO, the Nicaraguan government's equivalent of a 501(c)3. Our lawyer said that because we have almost 4 years proof of sustainability, it should be easy for us to be granted a 10 year license!
BOC - What are the steps to travel there? What is the average price each way?
To get to Ometepe, Nicaragua, I believe it is easiest to fly into Fort Lauderdale or Miami and then on into Managua. The flights are usually reasonably priced, save for the Christmas/NYE holidays and Semana Santa in the spring. For anyone who wants to come, we help arrange all of your travel and accommodations for you. We just scored one way tickets from MGA to MIA for $150 (without seats or luggage cost included yet). Once you land and get through immigration and customs, (DO NOT BRING MMJ PRODUCTS), a taxi scoops you to the ferry. (2 hours). Then you catch the ferry to Moyogalpa, our "big city" on Concepcion. (1 hour) Then it takes 1 hour in a taxi or a 2 hour bus ride to get to my village of Merida/El Congo on Volcan Maderas. Come visit and bring your family & friends. You can spend a month on Ometepe for a family of four for what you pay for two to go to Europe for 10 days. My recommendation is to come September through February for the mildest weather.
Ascential Language & Arts
Learn More & Donate - http://ascentialdance.com/ alas