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Faculty Profile: Jesse Phillips-Fein ’97

Middle-Upper School Dance teacher Jesse Phillips-Fein ’97 traveled as part of an impromptu relief effort to Haiti in April, 2010.

She was already planning the trip to the beleaguered country with her Haitian dance teacher Peniel Guerrier, and when the earthquake struck in January BFS dance teacher Jesse Phillips-Fein ’97 and her colleagues decided not to cancel their plans to visit Haiti, or Ayiti as it is properly called, but to add a community service component to the trip.  “Peniel brings students to Haiti every year to study with master Haitian teachers, learn Kreyol, visit public Vodoo ceremonies, and put our study of the dances into the context they originate from,” she explained.  “It was not always a relief effort, and we were not associated with an agency.”Still, they went out of their way to offer assistance wherever they felt they could do some good.  Her online photo diary describes her experiences in detail.  “It begins with seeing tents.  Fields and fields of tents. Some are hearty, large, bearing the symbols of the aid organizations that gave them.  Others are just plastic tarps tied together.  The worst are patchworks of sheets upon wooden sticks.  It is sunny and unbearably hot, and hard to imagine what will happen when the rain comes…I do not know how anyone was rescued or removed, the slabs of concrete heavy, awkwardly jutting against each other, or sometimes whole floors stacked on top of each other like two pieces of sandwich bread, or the whole building tipped onto an unstable diagonal, dizzying and crude…So we hand out donations, clothes, food, medical products.  We pull over to the side of the road to tent cities and open up the back of the car.  People swarm around us. Sometimes I cry, handing them what I can, torn open by how they push each other, how they hide one thing behind their back to get another, how crushed they are by their overwhelming need…The UN workers tell us they have seen evangelical ministers make hungry children recite Biblical passages before giving out food aid.”

To put it lightly, the experience was overwhelming, and left an unexpected impression on her, despite the fact that in some ways her encounters had been years in the making.  Jesse started studying Haitian dance when she was an undergrad at Smith College where she majored in dance and anthropology with a concentration on the Caribbean and on activism in dance, an unusual combination of pursuits.  “I was drawn to Caribbean dance because of growing up in Brooklyn and living in a place where so many different cultures co-exist but don’t often mingle,” she said.  “The Caribbean is a place with a similar history of cultures meeting and interacting.”  During her college years she also traveled to the Afro-Caribbean Dance Festival in New Orleans where she met dance teacher and choreographer Peniel, who takes a group of students to Haiti every year to study the country’s dance, religion and culture.Despite the chaos caused by the earthquake, Peniel was able to arrange classes for Jesse and her 13 fellow travelers with Haitian master teachers.  They were all too happy to achieve some sense of normalcy and resume teaching even amidst the despair surrounding them.  “Several of the drummers lost family members and homes,” said Jesse.  “Their resilience is astonishing.  The spirit of my teacher, Peniel, moves me to my core.  He is willing to do whatever he can to ease the suffering, even though it seems so miniscule in the mountains of need surrounding us.”

At the National School of Arts and Trades in Port-au-Prince, which was destroyed in the quake, artists had set up a camp on the grounds.  “They sell their paintings to maintain a bare survival,” writes Jesse in her blog.  “Their work tells the story of continued struggle and hope in the midst of hopelessness.”  She and her cohorts also visited the 80 kids living in tents next to their collapsed orphanage to give them a dance lesson.  “When they dance, they light up with glorious movement, smiles spread across their faces, and we move together…As we leave, they crowd around the car.  One girl is wearing a the bright red tee-shirt froma Manhattan private school, and I pause on this odd moment of a privileged kid’s hand-me-down ending up on the flipside of our lifestyle of excess.  It is clear to me how distant and how connected our worlds are.  It is clear to me I have a responsibility to these people.”

Jesse is making good on that feeling of inspiration and commitment in a number of ways.  Peniel was a guest teacher in her Middle School dance class this semester, helping the students choreograph a piece which they performed in the school dance concert.  Her IB Dance students and Dance-PE students in the Upper School have completed units on Haitian dance, she worked with the Middle School student Council to raise funds for Haitian relief efforts, and she helped organize a Day of Concern for students to learn more about Haitian history and discuss other ways to help in the earthquake’s aftermath.

Can dance really have an impact on the lives of victims of such calamities?  You bet, says Jesse.  “While people living after disasters or violent conflict certainly need food, housing, medical care and shelter, they also need the expressive arts to help heal their spirits, and cultivate hope, meaning and joy,” she insisted.  “One of my big dreams is to work for or create a program like Doctors without Borders or Theatre Without Borders, that facilitates dance and movement experiences with people living in refugee camps.”  With that in mind she is currently organizing a visit to Palestine-Israel next summer. To read the rest of Jesse’s account please click here to visit her website.