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African Eagles:

Street children grow wings in a dance workshop

Street children
Place of Safety
Sherborne Developmental Movement

I was invited by the dance director of the Playhouse Company in Durban, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa to work with their two dance companies to introduce them to the possibilities of dance in special education, and to work in schools in and around Durban myself with children and their teachers. The visit took place in March 1996. The dancers from the Playhouse Company, and from Siwela Sonke Company took part in some of the school workshops as part of their training experience. In addition to schools for deaf children, children with learning difficulties and schools for children with physical disabilities, I was asked to work in two "places of safety", called Valley View and Ocean View and wondered what these were as I had never come across the term before.These were places where street children lived.

Street children are children from various backgrounds and circumstances whose reason for being on the street vary widely.Many of them are working on the streets, sent out by their families to help supplement the family income, and they return home at night. Others stay for much longer periods, returning home when they want to.Some, however, actually live on the streets, and are victims of poverty, abuse, neglect and violence. KwaZulu Natal was badly affected by recent political violence, and many young people ran away or became separated from their families, were orphaned when their parents were killed, or were abandoned. Some suffer from mental illness, and the effects of traumatic experiences.Street children can be as young as two to three years old, up to eighteen years, and are of both sexes. The places of safety that I visited attempt to locate family members so that children can return home, and to offer basic schooling, counselling and support.

Even coming from the centre of London, where I feel ashamed to say I am used to seeing homeless adults and teenagers, nothing prepared me for the shock I felt seeing young children wandering the streets of Durban, begging, sheltering and sleeping even in the doorways of the Playhouse Theatre where I was working. I felt apprehensive about working at the places of safety, but agreed to visit before taking the workshops, talk to staff, meet the children and get a feel of the place in order to plan the forthcoming sessions.

Valley View Place of Safety, as the name suggests, overlooked a spectacular African valley. As I was walking around, thinking about the children and the most appropriate activity for them, the idea of EAGLES came to me. Here were children literally "in flight" from something that hurt them. Eagles are strong and brave, and something told me instinctively that these children were too. I later read something that backed up my intuition.

'Street children should not necessarily be seen as drop outs of society. Instead they should be recognized for the exceptional fortitude, creativity and astute knowledge of human nature that they must possess to survive life on the streets.' (Swart 1988) I was assured by staff that the children would love a dance and movement activity, and were full of energy !

It is always difficult to describe dances in words, and I have included here a diagram of the type I use to brainstorm activities and ideas stimulated by the central theme I have chosen. The activities were planned for a group of eight to twelve year olds, with staff support.

In the dance workshop at Valley View I attempted to provide the following:

  • Activities which the children could undertake independently.
  • Activities with a child or adult partner.
  • A sense of connecting to the centre of the body
  • Nurturing or containing experiences, with gentle and stronger energy
  • Experiences of leaving, and returning, (gentle) and struggling free (strong)
  • High energy activities incorporating the familiar one of running away, turned into a tag game for fun, with the added ingredient of the helping hand. Children are asked to reach out for help, and reach out to give help. The helping hand grip is a double hand to wrist grip for extra support.
  • The sensation of flying, with all the risk and excitement that involves. The child lies spread-eagled on the floor, and the adult partner grips one hand and one ankle, sliding the child around, and taking off into a "leg and wing " ride. A prop such as a sheet of lycra can be used to lift and swing heavier children.
  • High energy activities incorporating running towards or to someone. I sensed a desperation in the familiar running away energy, and wanted to give a sense of there being someone to run to. Again I built it into a fun game. Catching those little eagles as they hurtled down the room, and spinning them up high was a joyful experience for children and adults alike.
  • A quiet activity to centre the children again, this time involving a partner in a counterbalance requiring trust, soaring over the African valley with their wings spread wide.

I told the children how looking over their valley had made me want to spread my wings and fly,and had inspired the idea of eagles for their lesson. They all looked very proud,and very beautiful.

The dance workshop combined elements of Sherborne Developmental Movement, with high energy games, and elements of pure dance inspired by the context I was working in. The children were extremely agile, very self-contained and moved with great skill. I believe that dance is movement with meaning; that in dance we literally embody thoughts and feelings. My role as an artist and teacher is to create with the group that sense of shared meaning. A teacher commented that the work had been "psychologically valuable", and she could see the benefits.

Most of the children at Valley View were Zulu speaking, and I am extremely grateful to my percussionist Thabani Sibisi for translating for me, as well as accompanying the dance workshops. I would also like to thank Lynn Maree, the dance director of the Playhouse Company for the invitation to work with her department, and Gerard Samuel, the dance education co-ordinator from the Playhouse Company who organised the workshops, and was my companion, driver, and helping hand throughout my stay in South Africa.


  • Swart, Jill. "Street wise: Opening the Way to Self-actualisation for the Street Child"
  • Africa Insight. Vol 18, no 1, 1988. quoted in:
  • Taylor, Jyll . "All the Children must go to School" A study of the non-formal education of South African Street Children. This research was done at the University of Durban, Westville in 1993. Michael Samuel of the Education Faculty acted as the advisor for the study.
Jasmine Pasch 1996

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