Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dancing away prejudice against Down syndrome in Argentina with Tango

From The Earth Times in London, UK:

Buenos Aires - Four couples move around the small dance floor to the tune of a tango coming from a CD player. Students, who cannot yet dance well, wait their turn and sit on colourful plastic chairs lined up against the wall and watching their friends in the meantime.

One of these onlookers is Martina. She loves to tango, and she proudly shows off her new black leather, high-heeled shoes or real tango shoes.

Every Thursday, she spends an hour on the bus which takes her to the tango lessons offered by the AMAR association.

According to its website, AMAR seeks to "develop abilities." And this tango school is unique in the world because it teaches people like Martina and her friends - all of whom have Down's Syndrome.

Tango, an erotic, melancholy dance invented by nostalgic immigrants in the early 20th century, is inseparable from Argentina.

Tango dancers, through their unique performances, give their audience a glimpse of Argentine culture, says AMAR tango instructor Carlos Rodriguez Robert.

"It is exactly the same with these dancers. It's only that they have other mental capacities," he notes.

Rodriguez Robert is proud of his dancers, whom he describes as "artistas."

The four advanced couples form a dance group that has already toured the whole country. People in the audience are often moved to tears, an enthusiastic Rodriguez Robert says.

"Most people assume that people with Down's Syndrome are incapable of doing anything."

However, the dancers' performances prove this assumption wrong. And yet the students do not find dancing easy.

"People like you and I need a year to reach a certain level," the instructor says.

His pupils, in turn, need about 10 years to learn to tango well as many have motor system and hearing problem while others have difficulty making themselves understood. Three psychologists stand by the dance instructors during the lessons.

These particular dancers are not easily disciplined. Rodriguez Robert groans and smiles when he talks about how hard it sometimes is to keep his pupils under control.
As soon as the music stops, the dancers just leave their partners standing. The instructor and his assistants then have to build new pairs, but the pupils bustle about, hug each other and chat, and it takes some effort to get them back to dancing.

Thirty years ago, a programme like this would have been unthinkable, Rodriguez Robert says as most parents were ashamed of their "handicapped" children and would have kept them well hidden behind closed doors.

Pedro Crespi, of the association for parents of children with Down Syndrome (ASPRA), agrees that things have changed for the better. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner recently ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, he notes.

However, there is a gaping hole between legislation and reality. Although the law stipulates that every handicapped child has a right to special teaching, state schools fail to comply for financial reasons. Only expensive private schools offer such instruction.

"This leads to a situation where only the handicapped children of wealthy parents receive a school education," Crespi says.

Thus, only some 10 percent of all Argentine children with Down's Syndrome can attend school at all.

Such social discrimination continues into the workplace. According to Crespi, around 80 percent of all Down Syndrome sufferers in Argentina are unemployed.

The AMAR dance group, however, makes it remarkably clear to Argentines that people with Down's Syndrome should not be dismissed as clumsy as they can also become good workers, artists and even devoted tango dancers.