Dance is a wonderful human connector. In the case of Barbara Land, ballet became a bridge between her life in Reno, Nevada, and the deep jungles of the Amazon rain forest in Peru. As a dance anthropologist, Land first arrived in the Amazon 14 years ago to study shamanic rituals and the influence of Western dance forms. Seven years ago, as she was spending time with local children, she showed them a video of the ballet La Bayadère on her phone. The children were hooked.
“They loved it and said they wanted to learn ballet. That’s how it all started,” recalls Land, who is certified in the Royal Academy of Dance methodology and owner of The Conservatory of Movement in Reno. “The very next day after watching the video, we did a little pre-primary ballet class.”
Now Land finds herself in the Amazon every few months, teaching ballet to the residents of three remote communities along the Yanayacu River—Ayacucho, San Juan de Yanayacu, and Junin. Classes are taught in the communal huts used for meetings in San Juan and Ayacucho, and the children from Junin travel to Ayacucho to take dance lessons. The nearest city to the villages is Iquitos, which is located 12 hours by small boat from the capital of Lima.
“There is no electricity [in the villages]; no TV. It’s very isolated,” says Land.
Whenever she travels to the Amazon, she provides the children with ballet slippers donated by Bloch, tutus and other supplies for their class. While the children had never been exposed to ballet before, the classes were met with interest and curiosity from the parents. “Whenever I teach dance class, all the parents come to watch and are fascinated to see their kids,” says Land. “Now even the mothers participate with their kids.”
In order to make classes sustainable when she is not in the country, Land began teaching the RAD methodology to ballet teachers at dance studios in Iquitos, with the expectation that they go into the jungle to continue teaching the kids while she is away.
Land started dancing at the age of 5 and completed her studies at Point Park College in Pittsburgh. After marrying a physician, she relocated to Nevada and began teaching ballet at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she eventually became director of the dance program until 2015.
Aside from teaching ballet, Land has become an integral member of the communities she serves. “It’s not so much the ballet or bringing donations. When I’m there, the kids love playing with me. The mothers love telling me what’s been going on and sharing their stories,” describes Land. “We have so much fun!”
Like the rest of the world, the communities were also impacted by the COVID pandemic. Through Land’s work with the Nevada Building Hope Foundation and a generous grant of $15,000 from The White Feather Foundation, founded by Julian Lennon, the communities were able to receive food and supplies for four months. The foundation was also instrumental in opening the first high school in Ayacucho.
Land has been back to the Amazon about three to four times since the pandemic started and continues to travel there every three months. What began with watching a video on an iPhone has led to greater education, community building and hope. “One little dance class has changed this entire community, and we brought them into the 21st century with dignity,” says Land.