Ballet boot camp: Marine uses dance to reach youth from Iraq to New York
NEW YORK — It’s one thing to keep the peace in Iraq clutching an M-16. It’s quite another to do it wearing dance tights.Roman Baca has tried it both ways and says he got more accomplished in tights.
“Art is an incredibly powerful crowbar,” says Baca, a Marine Corps reservist from Connecticut who did a tour of duty in Fallujah and now translates those experiences into modern dance through a group called The Mission Continues. “You can pull apart a lot of boundaries with it.”
Think of it as ballet boot camp. Baca recently went back to Iraq to teach young Iraqis how to create dance out of life in a war zone, and the trip went so well that Baca is using the same techniques with high school students in New York City.
“Kids are kids, man,” Baca says, sitting down to spicy chicken kabob at a Middle Eastern restaurant a few blocks from Thomas A. Edison High School in Queens. “They’re worried about the future.”
Actually, Baca was a little worried himself, flying into Erbil with a suitcase full of dance gear, lighting gels and gaffer’s tape.
“No body armor, no weapons,” Baca says. “All my buddies asked me, ‘What are you taking?’ I said, ‘I can’t take anything.’”
He soon realized this would be a much different experience in Iraq. Before he even made it to his hotel, an Iraqi woman on a bus smiled at him and said thank you for picking up her fallen luggage.
“Nobody in Fallujah ever did that,” Baca says.
And so he set to work. The 30 young dancers Baca trained were far from a cohesive group, coming from both Erbil and Kirkuk and representing the full spectrum of Iraqi ethnic groups and religions. The Kurds and the Arabs wouldn’t even sit together.
What’s more, there were technical issues: no sound system, no lighting system, a stage nailed down with carpet, rehearsals moved outside in the heat. Baca’s Marine training came in handy yet again, as he improvised his way through each day.
He discovered, to his surprise, that years of warfare left young Iraqis with an untapped yearning to be creative. “They pounced on it,” Baca says. “They tend to have a really strong sense of humor and emotion and expression.”
The group gradually bonded and one young man, Hunar, channeled his jumbled feelings into a dance so beautiful and fluid that Baca gave him his own solo.
The trip culminated in a performance that included Baca getting up on stage and telling about his experiences in Iraq as both a Marine and an artist. Afterward, he went to an Iraqi professor’s house and talked with local folks nearly all night. One person told Baca, “That dance is what we all lived through and what we’re all coming out of.”
Likewise, Baca is emerging from his own emotional turmoil. He continues to mold a new identity for himself as an artist and a combat veteran, combining elements of both personas while dealing with the grueling toll it takes on his time, his finances and his relationships.
He and his wife, dancer Lisa Fitzgerald, currently own a condominium in Connecticut and rent an apartment in Queens. Performances with their dance troupe, Exit 12 Dance Company, take them all over the Northeast. Lisa teaches dance and works as a waitress while her husband pursues his artistic dream.
It is a full-throttle life. The latest stop is Edison High School.
“I’ve been working with 14 young people,” Baca explains. “The one thematic element is, what do you want to be? What’s your passion?”
Again, the kids surprised him. Where the Iraqis had been unafraid to express themselves, the Americans worried what their peers would think. Baca had to coax them, challenge them, lead them, the way he did as a fire team leader for an anti-tank missile assault force in Fallujah.
“He relates to them and he’s interested in them as a whole, not just as dancers,” says Erin Pinto, who runs Edison High School’s dance program. “He’s pretty amazing.”
It all builds to a pair of Friday afternoon performances. Hundreds of students file into the school auditorium, abuzz with the charged chatter that only teenagers can generate. Pleas for quiet seem futile until Baca takes the stage, wearing military fatigues.
The room hushes instantly when he points to the hole his M-16 wore into the corner of his shirt from so many patrols in Iraq.
“When I got back, I didn’t really know what to do with my life,” he tells them. “It was really hard, that transition back to civilian life.”