Londonderry woman tries to teach the language of dance
Sarah Hersey, 19, a sophomore at Northwestern University and talented local dancer, showed some Indian currency to a group of former teachers, classmates and friends at Londonderry Dance Academy Tuesday night. Hersey spent 10 weeks in rural India last summer, where she shared her passion for dance with leprosy patients and their children. (APRIL GUILMET/Union Leader Correspondent)
Volunteering at an outreach center for children from a nearby leper colony, Hersey, 19, shared her love of dance in a place where many citizens are shunned by society.
“Dancing makes you more confident; it gives you a reason to set goals for the future,” the 2011 Londonderry High School graduate said. “And that is the purpose of this program — to give these people something to live for.”
Hersey, who finished her freshman year at Northwestern University in Chicago last spring, stopped by the Londonderry Dance Academy Tuesday night to share her experiences with those who were once in her shoes.
A dancer since age 3, Hersey attended classes at the Buttrick Road dance school for 15 years and has appeared in many local and regional productions.
Her former dance instructor, Barbara Mullen, said she invited Hersey to speak to younger students because she wanted them to fully understand the healing power of art and dance, while encouraging them to be more accepting of people who don’t fit society’s mold.
“She’s a beautiful dancer as well as a person who cares about others very much,” Mullen said of her former student. “So I’m hoping this will catch on with some of these other kids, to let them know there are so many opportunities out there that we don’t always consider.”
Hersey, who is majoring in anthropology and international studies, departed for India in late June and returned to New Hampshire earlier this month.
The volunteer experience touched her deeply, she said, and she’s hoping to one day return to the country where people have so little but were so eager to give of themselves.
“Every spare moment I had, I spent with those kids,” said Hersey.
Located in a poor section of southern India near several leper colonies, the Rising Star Outreach Center includes a school for children in kindergarten through 10th grade, a children’s home and a dormitory for visiting volunteers.
Though the majority of the school’s students don’t have leprosy, their parents or grandparents do. Families in such situations often suffer due to the negative stigma attached to the disease and without the school’s services, many of the children would be headed toward bleak futures.
According to the Rising Star website, more than one million Indians suffer from leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease.
If untreated, the condition has devastating consequences, including loss of limbs, muscle paralysis, loss of nerve sensation and skin ulcers.
Experts estimate that about 95 percent of the population have natural immunities to the disease, while the remaining 5 percent must be in constant close contact with an infected person to be at risk.
Hersey said she wasn’t afraid of catching the disease, though her first visit to the nearby leper colony was a bit of a shock at first.
Sacred cows roamed the streets, and men without legs sat on handmade scooters, propelling themselves with blistered fingers.
“I was surprised at the poor living conditions. Many of the people there were blind or missing limbs,” she said.
For the duration of her stay, Hersey’s days were spent teaching modern, contemporary and tap dance to schoolchildren, visiting those in the colony and immersing herself in local culture.
She learned traditional Indian folk dances, ate plenty of homemade curry, attended a local wedding and, in true Indian fashion, even had her nose pierced.
Though the language barrier presented a challenge, Hersey found a perfect solution.
“I smiled at them. I sat down on the floor and held their hands and looked into their eyes,” she recalled, remembering how she’d play Indian songs for the patients on her iPod. “After a while, they’d come right up to me and start dancing,” she said.
“After India, I’m more thankful for everything I have,” she said. “I have two living parents that love me, an education and a closet full of clothes. I grew to appreciate human connections.”
- - - - - - - -
April Guilmet may be reached at AGuilmet@newstote.com.
Symphony NH plans pair of holiday events
Hooksett man arrested on assault charges
Keene to appeal Robin Hood rulings
Big tipper stops for lunch