Monday, April 7, 2008

The Korea Herald: Regina Walton's Expat Interviews - A way to break down prejudices


[Regina Walton's Expat Interviews] A way to break down prejudices

Adalia Ellis came to Korea in 2002 as an English teacher, but left a completely different person. "The first year and a half to two years I was here is was what gave me meaning for being in Korea beyond just teaching English. I loved it. It was a magical time."

Adalia and I met when we attended a get together for blacks who where living in Seoul. Over dinner, I found out that had been an avid salsa dancer and also a dance teacher. Like me, she'd also been in Korea for a few years. When you talk to Adalia you immediately notice her open and welcoming spirit.

Ellis left Korea just last month but while she was here, she was active with one of her other passions -- dance. Her earliest memories of dance are when she was a young girl. Se said that at "five or six I would make up dances in the living room. Ever since I was little I've been really drawn to movement and was in love with dancing -- unfortunately, though, where I grew up in South Carolina there weren't opportunities for children who were biracial (or) for children who were not wealthy to really take dance classes and get experience in dance training."

At an international high school on Vancouver Island, Canada, which had a very strong dance program, she gained a lot of experience. "We would do performances for schools like elementary schools and high schools on lots of different social issues. When I was in that group, that's when I had a lot of exposure to dance. Just being able to see how movement can be used to tell a story, to express emotion and to educate. So that was my first real experience as a dancer," she said.

"I did that for four years and traveled all over Canada and western America." Before she came to Korea she had been working with a youth group in South Carolina called Youth Out Loud. This group is a performance art group and she worked as their coordinator for about five years. "I would choreograph dances, teach them and they would perform them." When she came to Korea she said she thought she had hung up her dancing shoes for good. "(I) wasn't thinking, actually, that I would be dancing."

It took a traumatic experience to inspire her to take up dance one more time. "It was very by accident, but some of the most wonderful, beautiful things that happen in a person's life are seemingly by accident." She was in a restaurant and looked up at the TV and saw what she described as one of the most disturbing things she'd seen in her life. "The Bubble Sisters, these Korean women dressed up as the extremely stereotypical black women. I remember standing there and I was fighting back tears. I was standing there and seeing them act -- it was the worst portrayal I'd seen of black people probably in a long time and it shocked me."

She noticed that people in the restaurant were laughing. She went home that evening frustrated and angry. She was already annoyed with how hip-hop was being sold and portrayed in Korea. She said she was really angry but realized that education was a way to overcome these sorts of prejudices. She remembered that she had her African history course notes from university with her.

Those notes formed the foundation of a course she later taught on the history of hip-hop.

A friend put her in contact with Park Young-min of the MIZY Center. The MIZY Center -- Myeongdong Info Zone of Youth -- is a youth cultural center formed by the Korean Commission for UNESCO. Park was very interested in her forming a history of hip-hop course. Adalia stresses that although hip-hop appears to be a very modern form of music, that it has a deep history tied to African culture, slavery, reconstruction and black American history.

The course she created was called HipHopUcation and she taught it for about a year and a half. She said through the course, she'd formed friendships that will last a lifetime.

"I was amazed by their willingness to understand and their desire to understand the history of hip-hop so they could better understand not just hip-hop, but the history of African-Americans." She felt that it was a way to break down prejudices. "If you understand the history of someone, if you understand where they're coming from, it's hard to be fearful and it's hard to have prejudices about them." She was very happy because it encouraged open-minds and a willingness to learn.

She stressed that she also learned from her students. "I learned from my students the value of taking a step back, not becoming overwhelmed with the emotion of anger -- and say 'okay, what can I do to change it -- even a little?'"

In addition, to teaching the history of hip-hop, Adalia is passionate about salsa dancing. "Falling in love with salsa was definitely unplanned." She was first exposed to salsa in South Carolina through friends. In Korea, she was invited by a friend to come to salsa classes with her. From there, she just fell in love with it and eventually started to teach people after getting positive feedback on how she was able to break down dance movements into easier steps that people could understand.

Adalia is now back in the United States where she will start studying for a master's in teaching to become certified as a social studies secondary education teacher. From there, she said she wants to "start a program for young people using the arts, and it would be a leadership development program also connected with the arts, which would eventually become a school."

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