What do you say on your last day in India?

Last day for this trip, that is.  Whether or not you plan to return to somewhere or not, I think foreign countries have a way of sucking you in, especially if you meet it’s children.  How could I not pledge my return at the faces of so many big white smiles from around my hips as clammy hands grab my arms and say “Auntie, why?  When coming back? Auntie, so sad!”   So I told them I will return, though I know not when.  And had it just been the Indian countryside asking me this question, maybe I could have restrained and said ” I am not sure that your mosquitos and palm trees and mangoes have tempted me enough to promise return.”  But in the face of children that one has let into the heart, there is no chance for no’s.  They will grow so much, and if I am able to return in a year to dance and share and laugh and grow with with them again, they be only that much more wise and joyful and loving.  What I can’t bear is that I would never again see the faces of these bright souls I have treasured so deeply.  They are not merely kids.  They are kids who have no REASON to be sweet and kind and giving.  They have been given little by India, and their caste will continue to shove them into a corner.  But they DO give of themselves, not realizing that their love is more valuable than all the rupees they can earn, and that their education is the foundation for changing the world.  I can do nothing but love them and pray to and with all gods and goddesses that I will see them again.

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Some days you will remember forever

If someone asked you now to make a list of the most memorable or important positive days in your life, how many would be on the list? Depending on age, are their 5, 10, 20 that come to mind?  Instantly I can think of about 5-7 and then there are others that I could add if I thought about it.

It’s special when you can have a day and know that this will be one of those days that will be in the top list of days of your whole life, no matter what happens from then on.

I would love to write more, but I have been awake for 20 hours, and spent the day in a sari (which is about 6 yards of material wrapping you to your feet) in the sun and on my feet, hoping and praying that things would close enough to plan that everyone would enjoy this ceremony and performance.  Unlike just any event, we were dedicating a new few new buildings on campus, which rarely happens, and all the parents, students, teachers, and many many donors and officials and respected individuals were in attendance.  The surprises of the day were the music not working until about 30 minutes before the program was supposed to start, the power going out about 5 times within a 5-minute period during the speeches, and the most surprising of all, that the audience never actually stopped talking during the speeches, so that most were not heard.

Our part of the program, the dance and performance portion was a hit because not only were the students amazing, and I was so proud of all of them, but the music was loud and everyone actually paid attention.  Parents stood to get a look and for the first time that day, all eyes were on the stage. Despite minor difficulties, no dance stopped, all girls got into their costume, and the students even managed to smile now and then.  After 4 weeks of work, I was so proud of my leaders and their hearts pouring out on stage.

There is so much more to share about this culminating amazing celebration, and it will come, but not tonight as I force my eyelids open.  I am not attached to India, but I am attached to these children and with one day left to play with them, I must sleep so I have enough energy to give them.


A few of my favorite things…

The way the girls scream “Shiloh Auntie!” when I walk by the school or the student hostel and say “Dance today????” or just grab your leg and grin up at you

How the power goes out and no one flinches, says anything or moves… happens often enough, even now at 10:30 at night that all goes on business as usual.

How there are goats EVERYWHERE!! Today we even saw a baby goat laying next to a puppy.  Can you get any cuter??

The way that all Indian people bob their head from side to side in a not-yes, not-no sort of way that makes it truly difficult to know if any question you ever ask is going to get done or not.

The huge bright smiles of the kids and the way you instantly become a mother figure.

The Indian mornings, with birds singing and the sun gently rising, before India gets hot and loud, it’s a land of peace and the essence of inner peace.

The way all the boys insist on showing me their straddle stretch whenever I walk into the houses, after we taught it to them in classes.  They always want to show that they can reach farther than yesterday.

Watching the residences of the leprosy colonies painting with peace in their hearts.  They paint every day at the Bindhu Art school in Bharatanapuram and you can tell they have opened their hearts onto their paintings.

That I will get to wear a sari for the first time this Saturday.

That I have physical proof of my hard work by the way I tumble into bed at 10:30 most nights and am out within five minutes.

That eating off of banana leaves has becomes completely and totally normal.

The taste of the mangos

The magnificent Indian way I have learned how to de-pom a pomegranate that is SO much easier than ours!

The gratitude it has given me to be an American woman who has amazing rights, won’t be burned in my kitchen if I disobey my husband and who doesn’t sit separately from men in public settings and who can wear whatever she likes and choose whatever career she likes.

Megala, the 13-year-old philosopher

Last night after dinner, as I was cruising the kids’ rooms helping with homework and singing songs, I stopped to talk to Megala.  Don’t mistake me when I say “kids’ rooms.”  One “family” has about 25 kids of all ages in it, with one house mother that share three concrete floor and walled rooms.  There are no beds and no furniture, just mats and pillows that they pull out for sleeping.  There are no desks, no bookcases, no dressers, but shelves on the wall for clothes and shoes and everyone sits around on the floor doing their homework, playing games, and generally happy.

Tonight Megala decided to share some of her poetry with me.  At 13, my poetry was overly dramatic and petty, so I expected little more.  She explained that her poems are in Tamil, so she would just have to explain them to me in English.  Even through her accent and grammatical errors, my jaw dropped lower and lower as I listened to each one. This brave young girl, who lives far away from her parents at this school, from a leprosy colony, who is learning to dance with me, is a magnet for truth.  I taught her the word philosopher, and told her “Megala, you are not just a poet, you are a thinker for the world.”

Megala’s poems

Your friends may love you

Your mate may love you

Your teachers may love you

All people may love you

But nothing equals a parent’s love


you and I can both read

you and I can both write

but it takes a good hard working person to help another


Like an eye is to the body

Like the root is to a plant

So is love and friendship to life


We can eat a sugary thing

and we can love each other

But when you compare the two

the love is sweeter.

(The above photo is the only one she wrote in English:)

Choose the Right

When we take, chocolate we have to remove the paper and eat only the chocolate

When we take fruit, we have to remove the seed and eat only the fruit

When we take our life, we have to remove the bad and take only the good thing

Heart matters, pitch doesn’t

One of my daily delights is singing the Rising Star song with the kids at their prayer time before dinner.  This song “I’m a Rising Star” was written by Shaun Parry, the director of my program, Promethean Spark, specifically for the children of this school.  Katie and I began teaching it to them a few weeks ago and they already love it.  Words and motions they can do full out with all their hearts.  Correct pitch, not so much, but their voices are beautiful all the same.  We are so looking forward to singing it with them at the dedication performance next Saturday, when all the parents and dignitaries will be present to hear them proclaim that they are the next biggest thing for the world to watch out for.


I am free to be all I can be.

I love life and I love being me.

I can choose to let my light shine.

The world is waiting.

Whose turn is it? Mine!

I’m a rising, rising star.

I’m a rising, rising star.

Spread the word near and far.

I’m a rising rising star.

I will live like the sun sharing light.

I will shine in the darkest of night.

I will laugh and learn and through any strife,

Live a long, happy, healthy and loving life.

I’m a rising, rising star.

I’m a rising, rising star.

Spread the word near and far.

I’m a rising rising star.

Choke me up

It’s the little moments that get me here.  Fridays are one of my favorites.  We teach four classes of the older students a class we call here “Moral Science.”  It is one of the only times in their day that they get to talk about how they feel and learn values and lessons that are different than “OBEY the teacher” and “OBEY the housemother.”  Today we started something called “The Kindness Bank” and explained that even though we know all the rules, we can still do things that are just from your heart that no one tells you to do.  Any kinds things they tell us that they have done go on a slip of paper and in the bank (a plastic tub) and when the tub is full, we all get a prize.

Indian students are fantastic memorizers.  But they are not usually asked to think creatively.  When you ask a question with no right answer, the students are often stumped until you give them a hint.  Today 7th Standard was no exception, but once they got going, we had lots of talk of loaning each other pencils and helping younger students with homework.  We work everyday with these bright, loud, fun, sometimes disobedient, vibrant children, and it is easy to forget that most are from leprosy colonies all over India.  Not only are they from colonies, but they are from the most worse-off families, often no parents, one parent, or parents missing limbs from leprosy deformities. But we don’t see that daily, and the colonies really don’t come up in conversation.

Today in 7th Standard, Deepenraj, also known as Steven, raised his hand for the kindness bank, stood up and explained through imperfect English that “I am from colony, leprosy colony, and I give to my street… mmm… new years time we always eat a cake, but there is no money there, so I go and I give a cake to my street for new years.”

I just spent yesterday in colony, taking blood pressure of those with no fingers and and no hearing, the disease having claimed all the most important parts of their body except their life… when Steven stood up today in class to share this tidbit like it was as obvious as sharing his pencil, all I could imagine was him bringing a simple cake probably worth $2 to people just like these with so little that five Rupees for medicine (2.5 cents) is hard to find.  Right in the middle of class I wanted to let my tears run down my face, and just hug this bright young student who stands out as a leader and an all-around good guy in everything he does with a genuine smile that matches his heart.  We forget they are from colonies because of their light, and with this bright bright light, maybe the rest of India will begin to believe with us that these children are just as special as anyone else.

Our dear Steven, or Deepanraj

Beyond the school gates

Weekends are a time that we sometimes leave the school to see and learn more about the country our kids are from. This Saturday we went to Mahibilapuram, also known as Mamalapuram.  Yes, only the cool towns have two names.  It has a temples from the 600’s, lots of icecream carts, a wonderful shopping street of 3 dollar pants and hand made leather shoes and men chiseling away at half a Ganesh, and resort you can pay a few dollars to get in and go to the ocean.  I came here hoping to spend every day with the kids, all day.   But after a hard, amazing, but exhausting week, it was rejuvenating to spend a few hours somewhere else.

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We may not have much, but we have joy

After the emotional experience last week of going into the leprosy colony, and then being sick all this past week, the idea of another trip was not appealing.  After stomach flu and tiredness, it was difficult to convince myself that traveling two hours to connect with those who have far little than myself was going to be uplifting at all.  Boy, was I wrong.

If you think of the most joyful times in your life, often they are with those we have known for a long time and treasure.  Laughter at the family dinner table, great times with friends, moments of pure joy.  And yet the joy that I experienced this Friday in the Moot Colony, was that of long lost friends.  Where they get such a stockpile of laughter and smiles, I am not sure, but it made me think that maybe us Americans should change our bank.

The Moot Colony is a tiny colony in the middle of nowhere, with seven residents. Only seven. The live in a tiny row of cement rooms out in the middle of pastures and rice fields.  We bring them food and medical care and they take care of their small homes and each other.  Krishnan has no hands and no legs and moves himself about on a cart.  Jihanraj loves to laugh and dance and his wife, who has does not have leprosy, also lives here at the colony, which is very uncommon.  Another beautiful lady is so crippled she cant walk but hobbles on all fours, with one half of her face paralyzed.  The half that can smile does brilliantly as she explains through gestures that she always feeds the birds, and they are her friends.  She looks like she never gets enough to eat, and yet she shows us how to feed the birds and we all wait silently for them to come.  She is so beautiful even though this disease has ravaged her body.

Besides supplies and company, we bring music to this small group, which creates  an instant party.  I sat with Krishnan who is deaf in one ear.  I turned our traditional Tamil songs all the way up and we sat right in front of the stereo together.  When he could hear the music, he looked up at a me with a grin and begin to move his shoulders and arms to the rhythm.  We clapped together, rocked back and forth, and to us it was dancing.

Jihanraj was the life of the party.  He welcomed us with shouts and laughter, an immediate jolly disposition, and it was quickly apparent that he was the “super dancer.”   As soon as we turned on the music and began to move, he laughed heartily and showed us his own Indian moves.  Most of the afternoon I spent following him, learning from him and his rhythm based arm shakes, accompanied with faces galore.  I can’t explain this man’s joy, but it was so robust, I spent the afternoon laughing as if we had been long time friends.  His english was poor but enough, and he kept saying “Super super dancer!”  Halfway through the afternoon our stereo ran out of batteries, much to all our sadness. We then started coming up with imaginary instruments we could play and pretending on our guitars and trumpets and pianos.  We also sang a song written by my program’s founder, Shaun Parry, called “I’m a Rising Star.”

To say it was magical is not enough.  This tiny colony, having become tiny only from members dying, finds more joy in a simple afternoon sitting around with friends, music, some mango, dancing, and the birds, than many of us find in our fancy food and nice apartments and big cities. Not to say that we don’t feel joy, but that this joy was truly unbridled, even toward strangers such as myself.  I arrived a stranger, and I left an endeared long-time friend.   To say I laughed more heartily and joyfully at a leprosy colony than I often do at home, says so much for these colonies.  Yes, it is a very hard road.  But they are not just walking it.  They are dancing down it, hard or not.

You named your kid what??

One of the most kind and adorable children that I work with is named Joseph.  Joseph Stalin. What was that? Oh, yes, not Mussolini, but Joseph Stalin.  Joseph is in the LifeDance troupe and always a leader but with a soft voice and a creative heart.  He always does his homework, loves english, and knows how to share.  With a troupe full of kids named Krishnamurti and Deepanraj and Vijayalakshmi, it’s easy to remember Joseph’s name, even though it seems out of place.

I like to imagine that Joseph’s parents really wanted to name Joseph something American sounding, so he could get a good job, or just because they like the sound of English.  Maybe they picked up a newspaper, or a book, or even just thought back into all the English names they had ever heard and when they came to Joseph Stalin, something clicked.  “Joseph Stalin!” they must have said, “What a perfect name for our gorgeous son!  He will grow up to be such a virtuous young man.”

India, you never cease to amuse me.  Any time you need a laugh, just go find Karl Marx, kindergarten student, and watch him share his toys among his friends, making sure that everyone gets one.


Joseph stretching his hardest in class

You’ve haven’t been been to India until…

… you wake up with diarrhea and stomach cramps at 6am wondering what you ate that could have caused this.  Commonly known as traveler’s sickness, both Katie and I were taken down, her Monday night and me Tuesday morning to this rite of passage.  When she got sick, I felt so bad and prepared myself to teach alone the next day.  Upon waking, I discovered that there would be no chance of teaching.  It has been a while since I have spent literally the entire day in bed.  I could see the heat building outside and was grateful to be under the covers in air conditioning, only to run out to the bathroom every 10 minutes.  We are pretty sure it was a Indian snack we tried on Sunday that did us and only us in.  It’s called Chat and it is a hollow potato chip filled with chickpea mixture and spices and dipped in water and sauce.  What was that, water?  Yes, apparently it is also dipped in water, though I am not sure why.  What is the one thing you are always supposed to avoid in India?  Unbottled water.

40 hours later, we are recovering, eating a little and trying to summon the strength to go teach a rehearsal in a few hours.  Tomorrow we will go back to the colonies.  Being in India is joyful, hard, sometimes painful, and certainly memorable.  Times like this make me appreciate home.  I will be home so soon, that I don’t have time to miss it, but I am so glad it is there.  My boyfriend shared a beautiful lyric with me today, “Because you have your home, you can travel.”  I am so grateful for the home, family, friends, and love I have at home, that allows me to go places and try things that are hard, that make me sick, that are unknown.  I will travel the world around, as long as I have somewhere to return to.

Buy a Stereo for class? No Problem!

For all your travelers and hope-to-be travelers, there are a few things your guide book can’t offer you.  Temples, ruins, buildings, mountains… all very important.  However, when traveling to a country that is truly different than your own, the only real way to learn about the country is to try with all gusto to do something that would be simple and clear-cut in your own country.  There is nothing like trying to actually LIVE as a person somewhere else to the discover the personality of your new home.

Sunday’s mission:  To get a stereo with cd and ipod capability for the school, preferably with a rechargeable battery because there are often no plugs where we are dancing.  Simple! Best Buy, anyone?

The Indian version:

The day begins with a two-hour drive, half of which is over bumpy roads and dodging cows, to Chennai–the nearest big city.  We wait 45 minutes for our Indian friend to meet us, knowing that having a local with us is essential.  Getting in the car would have you sworn you were on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland but with no rules and no guarantee of surviving.  There are no traffic laws and as our trusty friend Madhav says, “I like it that way.  I don’t want to have to stop at lights or wait for cars.  Here whoever can get there fastest is the best driver.”

We arrive accident-less at Ritchie street, the electronics street in Chennai, where there are hundreds of shops, most dusty and sweaty with piles of inventory, but each only selling one thing, so the search is one for the ones that have stereos.  Unfortunately, it’s Sunday and half are closed, but we are grateful for the lack of crowds.  After three stores telling us they don’t have rechargeable battery stereos, we find one that might work even though it’s not exactly what we want.  “Let’s go to Spencer’s, a giant 5-story mall-type building, and see what they have,” Madhav says, so its off with Mr. Toad again to try to get to Spencers.  At Spencers, we find an electronic shop that again doesn’t really have what we are looking for but close.  Not sure if we should trust the store or the box, we make them pull out each one we might want to buy and play loud music in the store so that we can hear the volume.  Do they have batteries? No.  Do they have a universal plug?  No.  We realize we can get the same thing for cheaper back at Ritchie street so its back to where we started.  Madhav is so kind to take our time limit into consideration by driving even faster.

At Ritchie Street, we find the one we want and Madhav barters down the price with the shopkeeper, as we stand among Indian men trying to pretend we fit in.  We find a CD player along the way, and surprise, it has a warranty! Amazing!  Katie pulls piles of rupees out of her pocket and we have two stereos for a good price! We go back to the car happy, only to find that an autorickshaw, a tiny taxi, has parked behind us and we are blocked in, while the rest of the Rising Star volunteers are waiting for us.  No driver to be seen, we enlisted the help of a guy nearby and pushed the box on wheels out of the way so we can race back to the van that is waiting for us. We thank Madhav profusely because we truly would have been helpless without him, only for him to say “You thank too much, already 100 time thank you, it’s enough, no more!”  Two hours back to the school and we had accomplished our mission.  One CD player and one set of Ipod speakers, no rechargeable batteries–And it only took us 7 hours!!

And we say here, it’s India!

Power in the tiny things

Never again will I walk into the colonies for first time.  I will do it again next Thursday, but never again will it be the first time to spend time with these beautiful people who have been served truly a terrible hand.

I have no photos from the colonies because there was no moment to be a tourist, a documenter, or the Shiloh that most of you know in New York.  There was only the present, where I found that I might be able to share a moment of joy with a some people who don’t move much because their hands and feet had been stolen by leprosy.

Our visit was to Bhatalapuram, a leprosy colony where there is an elderly home and a arts class for the elderly.  The paintings they create even with missing appendages are clearly the work of those who have seen the world through aged eyes.

Most of the people living here hardly move at all, so our goals and actions were so simple they seem almost petty.  Walk into the home.  Introduce ourselves.  Smile.  Shake hands. Try to speak english or convey love in any way possible.  Turn on music.  Demonstrate simple movement with joy and encourage them to follow.  Just BE with them.   Easy things.  Things anyone can do.

Now add the following elements.  A dirty dusty home with a men’s open room full of cots, and a woman’s open room full of cots.  No A/C, no doctors, no food that I could see, flies having a ball and the snores of elderly that seem to have nothing to do but sleep.  As I sit beside one woman, she just looks at me with no english and no teeth and a sad puzzlement in her face.  Over on the men’s side, I talk to Sari, who seems to have some english, but no toes and no desire to move to music.  I go to the back of the room and sit down next to a man with no fingers and no toes with a pleasant face and try to introduce myself.  He smiles slightly and touches his ears with his hands.  Leprosy has taken his hearing. I convince him to mirror me as I reach my hands in the air. When I try to get him to lift his foot off the ground from sitting, he seems to have trouble getting it back down, and forcing his knee to bend with his hand.  Once he doesn’t want to move any more, I gently touch his forearms, not knowing if he can feel it or not.  His face looks slightly tortured and I can’t tell if it’s because no one touches him this way and he is very happy or whether it hurts or makes him uncomfortable.  I stop, unsure what to do.  And only smile. Smile with him.  It seems to be the one thing we know how to do together.  He takes something out of a makeshift pocket created by his scarf that serves as a shirt, and I see that it is an extremely tattered old Christmas card.  He hands it to me and points upward as if indicating God or Gods. The American message on the inside seems silly, consumerish and yet poignant in this hot and sticky moment.  It is signed by a family.  I have no idea if it was given to him or found but it seems to be his only treasure.  He keeps offering it to me and I wish very hard in my head that he is not trying to give me the one thing he holds dear.  I give it back and he stashes it back in his scarf, to settle back into a handless, feetless, pleasant face.

I am here to help, to bring my heart and joy to those who need it, and yet in this moment, there is nothing I can do to bring back his appendages.  There is nothing I can do to help him hear the Tamil music we play.  But I sat with him and just held his hands for minutes and minutes, and it may have been years since someone has done that.  It is an overly simple task to touch what India has deemed “untouchables,”  but the power lies within.  I had to leave not knowing how the man felt, not knowing his name, or if I even helped.  But I whispered “Vanaccam” as I left with hands in bowing position at the chest, hoping that he would know that despite all my efforts to give him something, he truly has the power because of so much that he gave to me.  He raised his hands to chest as well and bowed, mouthing a combination of letters that could have very well been “Vanaccam.”

It’s not enough. I can’t take away the disease, and I can’t give him or anyone back their missing parts and senses.  But maybe that tidbit of joy was enough to feed of off until the next.  Maybe the tiny act had power just by it’s simplicity.

We will be able to go to this same colony this coming Thursday.  I hope to see my friend again.

“I want to be a Dance Master!”

After the success and enthusiasm of auditions, Katie and I hoped we had picked the right students for the dance troupe.  Will they actually come to rehearsal? Will they be ready to perform in three weeks?  Will they be ok giving up their playtime?

Wednesday afternoon we began the first meeting of the Promethean Spark LifeDance troupe, after watching the kids run back to the school in anticipation after doing their chores and changing into their non-school outfit.  We sat down and in a circle and congratulated them for being leaders and for being part the very first incarnation of this troupe.  Just the act of giving them simple placards drawn in crayon with their name and giving each child a round of applause was enough to light up each face with joy.

We asked everyone why they were excited to work in troupe and got more than one “I want to be a dance master!” which is what they call us and Shaun, the founder of the program.  We explained that they are not only dancers, but leaders, and that our purpose, as the paper says, is to heal the world.

The most magical moment of this introduction was a tool I learned in my California Youth Council days.  “This is YOUR troupe,” I said, “So we want YOU to make the rules, so you can all agree to them.  What do you think are some good rules?”  To my surprise the answers flowed like a dam had been unleashed.  I don’t think their teachers ever ask them to take the lead, because they are always taught to Respect your teacher, and Respect authority.  Giving them the power was the most powerful thing we could have done.

Some of the rules they created were:

Be on time

Focus on dance

It’s ok to ask questions

Never give up

No talking when someone else  is speaking

Be respectful and kind

I am already blown away with the young group of leaders.  After now three rehearsals they have learned some choreography and are enjoying it, but more importantly are trying harder every day, learning how to be on time, learning how to choose with their mind and body, and stepping up to lead the group when asked.  Their faces are joyful and even when it hurts they are proud that they are trying.  Even when they fall they are trying again.  THAT is what we are hoping will stick in their heart and bones, and we see growth every day.

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“God, I hope I get it, I hope I get it”

For those of you Chorus Line fans, we had our very first AUDITION on Monday for the Promethean Spark LIFEDANCE troupe.  These will be the kids who dance and learn with us in afterschool time.  They are giving up their play time to come be with us, and we will perform at the dedication ceremony on July 10th for the new building.  The goal is to create a show that is not only satisfying and fulfilling for the students but that educates the Indian public about the children from leprosy-affected families.  So we held the audition the very first day I was here!

We invited the three oldest grades plus two younger boys that are just so good we couldn’t help to ask them to come.  These 25 kids have never auditioned for anything in their lives, but we tried to encourage healthy enthusiasm, assuring them all that they are ALL rising stars, and that just coming to the audition was something to be very proud of.  After an hour of hard work and sweat, making them to randejambs and sittups, and taking lots of video, we had a hard decision to make.  There were lots of fabulous girls, and the boys that came were SO enthusiastic.

After the group was done, a few boys stuck around and we tried to do cartwheels and tricks together.  That is when Ashok grabbed my hand and said “Shila, Shila (they are working on it), this is my yoga! I practice every day like this!!” and proceeded to pull himself into a steady handstand and stay there with his legs crossed like he was seated to meditate.  This 12-year-old also showed me how he crosses his legs into lotus pose and hands crossed behind his back and then “close your eyes… and relax!” Yes, he gets up at 5am to practice yoga every day.  No wonder he is so flexible and strong in dance class!  I can learn some discipline and spiritual attention from these young beautiful leaders-to-be.

Beginning the troupe is one of the best ways to work on the purpose for this trip.  We are working with the students who show the most leadership and dedication several days a week after school.  They will become much better dancers, but they will ALSO become leaders for their generation in their classes, homes, lives, and eventually jobs.

The feelings of gratitude and knowing I am supposed to be here are around every corner, hanging on every tree, coming out in my sweat, and in every childish laugh and spontaneous hug.  Truly magic.

“What is your name?!”

As I begin my fourth day at the school, I have finally found a moment to blog.  With the amount we do every day, I could swear its been at least over a week already.  This magical place, this school out in the jungle in India, is it’s own world, and new york is a wisp of something that might have once existed.   I will probably have to take a break in writing shortly because the power is out, a common thing here and who knows how long it will be gone for.

There is nothing like meeting 180 Indian kids for the first time.  After seeing the school, moving into my hostel room, and asking a million questions, we walked over to the hostel where the kids live… around 4:30 they are outside for play time and the playground is alive with shouts and voices and games and bare feet.  A blonde newcomer was welcoming with hugs from unknown children, and almost every single child running up and looking up into your face with a curious, stubborn, or playful face and saying with almost forceful blatancy, “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”  Maybe it is the English phrase they have learned as most important?  I answered each with “My name is Shiloh, what is yours?”  To which I would receive a highly accented and unintelligible version of “Deepenraj!” or “Tamilsilvi!”  Being swarmed by all the new kids is such an amazing welcome because every new person is an opportunity for them.  They love unconditionally, but they aren’t sad when you leave.  They will hug you or grab your hand, but walk away mid conversation.   The children are the heartbeat of this school, the reason that every volunteer and Indian teacher gets up early, sweats and teaches all day, plays with them, eats with them, helps them with their homework and continues to try to become stronger and better.

With the school up and running, and so many things to do all the time, I was nervous to jump in on Monday.  First thing right away, 3 dance classes in the morning, lunch, another class, and auditions for the after-school dance troupe in the afternoon.  What a whirlwind!  By the end of the first class, the nerves melted away with sweat, dirt, music. movement and the fabulous smiles of the kids when they dance.  Often they talk, often they get distracted, often they don’t want to try a stretch because its too hard.  Each moment of teaching I have to be 100% present to figure out what I might be able to say or do that second that will keep them with me on the same page and learning something.  After those first three classes, I was drenched with the same huge silly grin on my face.  Days pass in one day because every minute there are more things to do.  I meet teachers, and students, play games, try to eat and stay dry-ish, and at night the moment of falling into bed is one of bliss.  I came here to work hard and get worn out, and that doesn’t seem to be a problem!

India from the Inside!

After 27 hours of three flights and waiting two hours for my bag, praying it wasn’t still in Dubai, I came out into the hot but pleasantly breezy Indian air to the joyous face of my co-teacher Katie.  I could not have been more happy to be greeted by her!  My first whiff was everything I imagined… bright, loud, colorful, busy, dusty, hot, and yet somehow cheerful with a sass that slips in now and then.  We were driven to our errands and hotel in Chennai by Mani, the school driver, who never stopped smiling, and laughed when I asked about words in Tamil, the language spoken in this area.  Just like Japanese, things sounds just the same to my untrained ear… if I say “ama,” meaning yes, with too much “m” suddenly it becomes “mother.”


After a brief shower and a change of clothes we are ready to embark on an afternoon in Chennai.  Mangoes, chutidars (traditional light and airy Indian dress), curry, a Bharatanatyam performance, and lots and lots of talking about the school and the kids.  Katie has done a wonderful job getting our schedule and classes running for the summer.  When I join on Monday, we are going right into class and auditions for the after-school performance troupe that will eventually tour India with performance-based educational programs about leprosy.  My first day with the kids will also be the very beginning of this exciting development.  It will actually be the first youth dance troupe from the colonies… ever.  Good way to start the first day!  Here’s to making history, feeling history, living our own stories and being in the moment.

One third of the trip

As I sit in Heathrow Airport in London, I am boggled by how easily I got to Europe. Everything is just a matter of perspective, isn’t it? I have never been to Europe and always wanted to. However, now that is just a stop on the way to India, it seems simple, easy, and just a little pit stop. Wish I had time to stay! Maybe next time. Truly amazing to realize that our lives are truly the picture we choose to paint.

Excited, calm and on to the next flight!

What and Why?

I have always wanted to combine my passion for creative expression with the desire to contribute to the world.  When my friend Shaun, founder of Promethean Spark, looked at me this February and said, “I think you are going to India,”  I got a feeling that it was time to bring these dreams to fruition.  Will it be part of my future? Probably. What I know now is that I am going for a month to see how much I can give, what impact it has, and learn as much as I teach.

The short and skinny is that I will be teaching Promethean Spark classes at the Rising Star School for leprosy-affected children.  The children at the school are healthy, but have grown up in the colonies with a dismal chance of getting an education or a job. What is a Promethean Spark class?  It is a performing arts class, mostly dance for now, structured entirely to teach and reinforce essential life skills. Whether or not they ever dance again, we are providing language and tools for them to become confident, respectful leaders who can go after dreams and change their situation for themselves. The kids are all ages, 4-16ish. I will be teaching with another wonderful woman named Katie who spent a month at the school last year, and will be spending the whole summer at the school.

Besides the regular classes, it is our hope that by showcasing the talent of advanced students at the school, the students will help peacefully break down the barriers and social stigmas attached to those who suffer from this disease. At the same time, they will also learn a greater sense of discipline, creativity, confidence, and inner peace. In order to make this production a reality we will do the following:

  • Teach daily classes to the children attending the Rising Star School in the Village of Thottanoval.
  • Establish an advanced dance troupe of students under the Promethean Spark name by holding auditions on the RSO campus. Then conduct rehearsals after school and on the weekends for the production.
  • Choreograph an educational production explaining that leprosy is not a curse from God, but is a sickness, which can be cured by a series of multi-drug therapy.
  • With the help of Rising Start Outreach and Promethean Spark, establish venues in nearby villages and colonies where the company of advanced students will tour and perform the production.

Leprosy in the world today

Leprosy… not something we think about much here in America.

Though there are few cases left here, India still has a large population of leprosy-affected people who are forced to live in colonies away from the rest of the society.  Even children without leprosy often end up as beggars or prostitutes because the community they were raised has taught them that they have nothing and are worth nothing.  Though legislation in India is changing to improve the treatment of those with leprosy, the stigma that those with the disease are cursed by the Gods still runs thick.  At Rising Star we are educating the next generation from the colonies in order to begin to truly change the way leprosy is viewed in India.  More than the circumstances, it is the prejudice that needs to change.

The following is some information about leprosy and curability that is also available on my co-teacher, Katie Winder’s, blog.

Effective treatment was developed in the 1930’s, however it was not until the introduction of multi-drug therapy (MDT which consists of rifampicin, dapsone, and clofazimine) in the early 1980’s that the disease was successfully diagnosed and treated.  Patients are treated over a 12-month period and by the end of the treatment, patients are no longer contagious and continued nerve damage and loss of limbs is prevented.  Although, through medical treatment, the disease itself can be stopped, a deeper healing must take place in order for these individuals to lead lives of dignity and productivity. The patients often believe the stigma society has put upon them; that they are worthless, despicable and untouchable. An even greater task than medical treatment lies before us; the challenge of curing the leprosy patient’s self-image and on a grander scale, curing the general population’s misperceptions connected to leprosy and its victims. Combating the social stigmas and self-esteem issues that develop within the patients, colonies, families, and communities due to a lack of understanding and fear are the greatest battles that must be won.

Some important facts about leprosy today include:

  • Within the first three months of treatment the patient is no longer contagious.
  • 95% of the general population is not susceptible to contract leprosy.
  • Leprosy patients are mentally normal and able to function in society.

After thousands of years of inhumane treatment, many areas of the world have opened their eyes to the fact that leprosy is nothing more than a disease requiring medical attention just like many other diseases we have on this planet. The people of India are on the verge of this awakening and are poised to take great strides forward if properly educated. Currently, there are an estimated one million cases of leprosy in India.  A number of these cases are no longer active. However, due to the disease’s visibly deforming effects, ancient history, and to the social and cultural stigma that continues to follow these patients, they have nowhere to turn and continue to be cast out as the dregs of society.  Even in this, the 21st century, replete with advanced medicines, technologies, worldwide human rights activism and enlightened humanitarian efforts, those who suffer from leprosy live in the greatest forms of social, economic and personal poverty extricating these individuals from lives of dignity and forced into lives of filth, begging, and poverty.