As a member of American Repertory Ballet, Kristin Scott spends most of her days following a punishing routine of classes and rehearsals, sometimes followed by performances. No one could fault her if she chose to spend her layoff time sacked out on a beach.
But the 30-year-old dancer isn’t one for pampering herself. Though she admits to the occasional beach time, Scott spends much of her time away from the barre devoted to helping those less fortunate. Last summer, she volunteered for seven weeks at an orphanage in Kenya. She hopes to return this summer to help build a well – with money she is raising through an event being held Friday through Sunday, March 7 to 9, at Rider University’s Yvonne Theater.
"Dances for Africa" includes choreography and performances by dance celebrities, including former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Princeton resident Kyra Nichols, as well as members of American Repertory Ballet and students from Rider’s Dance Ensemble.
Nichols will appear on Friday in a special on-stage interview with Kim Chandler Vaccaro, director of dance at Rider and a teacher at Princeton Ballet School. Choreography by former ARB member Mary Barton is on the program, along with two pieces by current ARB dancer Laney Engelhard. Scott’s ARB colleagues Michelle Severini and Kevin Byrne will perform in one of those; the other features Rider students and alumni of the college’s dance program. Janell Byrne and Christine Bragg, Princeton Ballet School faculty members, have also choreographed pieces for the program.
"My hope is that people come so we can help raise the money to build the well right on site," says Scott, who will combine the proceeds with funds being raised by another woman, based in California, who worked at the orphanage last year. "The amount it will cost is well over $30,000."
The fundraiser is not the first Scott has staged. Before going to Kenya last year, she and ARB artistic director Graham Lustig collaborated on a performance at the Princeton Ballet School studios that raised nearly $6,000, a chunk of which she donated to the impoverished Oncata Rongai Christian Women’s Work of Charity Orphanage.
Scott says the experience of organizing the program, raising the money, and traveling to Africa to help pay teachers’ salaries, take children to the hospital, buy them backpacks, and provide three months worth of firewood, changed her life.
`Dancing is so much about yourself," she says. "You spend your whole day staring at yourself in the mirror. Here, you’re using what you have to benefit someone else. It’s very different from the normal mentality of what goes on in the dance world. With this group of dancers, lives are changing because of what they’re doing. They are really making a difference."
Scott grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the daughter of an optometrist and elementary school teacher’s aide, and trained at the Fort Wayne Ballet before winning a scholarship to the University of Indiana’s prestigious dance program, which she graduated from in 2000. She joined ARB in 2000 as a trainee and soon became a full-fledged member of the company. While dancing has dominated her life, helping others has always played a significant role. Scott is active in her church – Storehouse Church in Plymouth Meeting, PA – and has taught ballet in Belize and English in Peru.
Africa has long intrigued her. Last year, faced with a lengthy summer layoff, the Bristol, PA resident began researching and found the program at the orphanage. She signed up, then staged her first fundraiser with Lustig. All of the dancers who appeared volunteered their services. The money raised helped pay for the trip plus more to donate to the orphanage.
Scott flew to Africa by herself. "I was terrified," she recalls. "Finally I found a man (in the Nairobi airport) with a sign with my name on it."
After two days of orientation, she was sent to Ongata Rongai, a slum area about 30 kilometers outside of Nairobi. She began working at the orphanage, where about 80 to 90 children attend each day (the youngsters, called "orphans and vulnerable children," live at home). Scott’s experiences at the orphanage, in the village, and visiting some students’ homes introduced to her to a new world – disturbing yet rewarding.
"Everywhere I went I was sure there were lots of kids who had never seen a white person," she says. "Eyes were on me all the time. They’d tell their friends to look at me. It’s very strange but you get used to it after awhile. Every day people would come up to us and tell us their stories. Sometimes they just wanted to talk. Other times they thought we could help them. It breaks your heart, but after awhile it’s overwhelming. You wish you could help but you don’t know what to do. You kind of, in a sense, grow numb to it. Or you don’t know if they’re pulling your leg. You start to understand what corruption is all about. It’s just that they’re so desperate."
She said the language barrier was "often frustrating, but you quickly learn to rely on ways other than words to communicate. English is one of the two national languages in Kenya (also Swahili) so most kids are learning English. Most educated adults know some English. And I used my Swahili vocabulary of about 10 words. It’s ama zing what you can understand!"
In the future Scott wants to start a non-profit organization that will help educational institutions stage fundraising events such as "Dances for Africa." At Rider she has found an enthusiastic partner in Vaccaro, who jumped at the chance to combine Rider’s annual spring dance concert with Scott’s vision. "The time was right to do all of this," Vaccaro says. "I think there’s a collective call to action throughout the world. I gave money to victims of Hurricane Katrina and other causes and watched it embezzled. Here, we deposit the money directly into their account. There is no bureaucracy or huge administration, just a grassroots reaching out to do something. The students get to help while also working some of the best dancers in the area."
Social activism in the arts is nothing new, says Vaccaro, who incorporates the topic into the dance history course she teaches at Rider. "The first place there was integration was the jazz clubs, where there is a real history of forward thinking," she says. "Then dance – choreographers like Donald McKayle, Bill T. Jones, and Balanchine, who put African American dancer Arthur Mitchell on stage with Diana Adams, a white dancer, in "Agon" in 1958, before civil rights (legislation)."
Working on the concert has been "the best thing we’ve ever done (for the students)," Vaccaro says. "A lot of things can happen in a drama department – a lot of egos, territorialism. Ever since we’ve started this project, those problems get dismissed. We’re doing it for the kids. You can’t imagine how the environment is becoming so positive. People are looking outside themselves. It’s really helped create an incredibly healthy working environment here."
Scott’s own commitment to social activism will make the eventual transition from the world of professional dance easier, when it comes. "Part of this is that I’m definitely closer to the end than the beginning," she says. "You have to come to terms with what happens after dance. For me, I have this other passion, and if I can start a non-profit, it’s the perfect combination of both. I’m dreaming big, to revolutionize the whole dance world to organize things like this. That’s my dream."
Dances for Africa, Friday and Saturday, March 7 and 8, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 9, 3 p.m., Yvonne Theater, Rider University, Lawrenceville, Kristen Scott of the American Repertory Ballet joins the Rider University Dance Ensemble to present "Dances for Africa." to benefit Oncata Rongai Christian Women’s Work of Charity Orphanage. $10. Guest interview appearance by Kyra Nichols, former principal of New York City Ballet at the March 7 performance. $10; $5 students. 609-921-2663.