Ease the separation

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Erzsébet Virágos is a teacher of Hungarian in Salgótarján and the main co-ordinator and mentor of the local youths who have become the driving force behind the towns community programmes. She helps the secondary school students organise and run the preparatory activities for children in Salgótarján participating in the Dancing on the Square project. We asked the soul of the programme to tell us about her experiences so far.

Today, children arrived here from three places: one group from the dormitory for out-of-town students, the other from the Dornyay Béla Primary School and some kids came from Uzoni Péter Primary School. They are all preparing for the concert this summer on Heroes’ Square, where they will all dance together to live music played by the Festival Orchestra. They have a dance class each Friday and they are lucky enough to also have some additional special activities and games to help in their preparation.

This year on Heroes Square, the Budapest Festival Orchestra will play the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernsteins West Side Story. How do you help the kids connect with the story of the play and the music itself?

Erzsébet Virágos: First of all, we wanted every participant to understand and empathise with what is important in the play, which also makes the music more accessible to them. Our other aim is to help children coming from different places get to know each other better, and to bridge the gaps between them. This activity was preceded by a longer preparatory process, because we what we wanted – and what we have achieved – was to have a good, cohesive team that is willing to work together before we started working on the actual theme. So we organised two meetings in the autumn and at Christmas, where the aim was just getting to know each other.

How did the team of secondary school student helpers, who work together with the children, get involved?

E V: Last year we already managed to include them in a very successful activity, which mobilised a lot of people here in our town. It introduced children to volunteer work, and to how wonderful and exciting it can be. We organised the “Speak Smart” programme together with the Foundation for Democratic Youth. The programme focussed first on mapping problems that had come up in the town, and which only needed enthusiasm and volunteer work to solve them, not any significant human or financial resources. They then worked on developing the solutions to those problems and solving them while also involving a number of people. There were several success stories, which also means that now the students are willing to participate in new tasks. That’s how they joined those preparing for the Dancing on the Square programme.

Is this the first time that they have worked on this type of project?

E V: I’m sure they have already done some activities involving dancing, but this is the first time that they have come into contact with such a multidisciplinary and high-quality programme.

How were the kids participating in the Dancing on the Square programme chosen?

E V: The principals and teachers of the schools advertised the opportunity and those interested applied. A large number of children wanted to participate, since the project is really attractive. Of course, many of them realised that it is not that easy, so only half of the applicants came to the first occasion and some more have left since then. Now the final number of participants is around twenty and at least ten high school students work with them.

How did you start the preparation?

E V: First we went to see West Side Story, the musical film, together. Of course only the older kids, from the eighth and seventh grades of elementary school along with the secondary school students were invited to come. I was very pleased to see that nobody left the cinema and they all watched the film patiently and intently until the end, although it was made in a way which is different from the modern films that they are used to, and although adults play the roles of adolescents. The film is also rather long, so I was afraid they wouldn’t be able to follow it all. Fortunately, that was not the case; in fact they watched the film in absolute silence.

Am I right to say that most of the kids preparing for the Dancing on the Square project come from Gypsy families?

E V: Yes, although I couldn’t give an exact number, as we don’t ask them about their background. But there are definitely a lot more Roma than non-Roma children among them. And it is also true that in this town, like in many others, the Gypsy and non-Gypsy populations lead separate lives. One of the benefits of this programme is that we can try to somewhat ease this separation and bring them closer to each other without actually emphasising that goal. Instead, we handle the whole thing in a way that reflects what we in fact think about it, that it is a high-quality programme for children. It seems strange though that the applicants were almost exclusively from institutions where disadvantaged children study or live, whereas it would be wonderful and important if those from a more privileged background could meet and spend time with underprivileged children. Therefore, we make specific efforts to include students who originally did not apply, but whom we managed to convince that it was worth participating in this joint project.

This is the first time they will meet after watching the film. What will this afternoon be about?

E V: Of course, we’ll try to thoroughly process and understand what we saw. I’m curious about what impression the film made on them, what they have been thinking about since then and where it has lead them. We are going to use different methods to try to reflect on it. There will be fun quizzes and role plays, and we are planning some storytelling and analysis and also use other methods to help them understand the messages of this wonderful work. And of course, it is also our aim to help those kids who could not see the film, because they are too young, understand what exactly the whole thing is about. I hope we can do it.

The activity went very well, the high school students arrived thoroughly prepared. First, everybody was asked what made them happy at that moment and what they were looking forward to in the afternoon. Then the plot of West Side Story, divided into short, concise sentences, was distributed among the children who took turns to read out their text. This helped everybody to understand the story. After that the most important roles were written on separate pieces of adhesive paper and randomly distributed to the children as name tags. From then, on they all started preparing for the play, acting in their roles. Of course, the high school students and Erzsi Virágos offered them plenty of advice and help. Eventually, at the end of the second hour, West Side Story improvised by the Salgótarján Dancing of the Square group was ready. It was obvious that the kids extremely enjoyed the acting, taking at times a rather serious tone. In the end, they were ready to tell their strongly-held views about the basic question. What are the consequences when people from different backgrounds are unable to accept one another?