How can an experience prepare you for your life’s work? I am the Founder and Executive Director of MindLeaps, a non-profit organization that uses dance as an entry point to education and skills development for some of the world’s most vulnerable youth. How I built MindLeaps is deeply rooted in my Fulbright experience.
In 2004-05, I spent ten months in Russia as part of the Fulbright Graduate Student Program, studying Classical Ballet & Choreography at The Saint Petersburg Conservatory under Nikolai Boyarchikov. Even as a child studying ballet, I knew I wanted dance to be about real world issues, not fairy tales. As an adult, I was determined to start my own dance company and create ballets about social justice. To do this, I needed to be formally trained in choreography: Fulbright gave me the opportunity to study how narrative ballets are constructed.
Training at The Conservatory was more rigorous than I could ever have anticipated. The rigidly structured environment was very different from what I had known – an exacting system where criticism was unforgiving and praise rarely handed out. I was in an environment that required daily precision and perseverance. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, physically and mentally. Yet, it toughened me and built my resilience, which became clear near the end of the program. I was told by my director that I wouldn’t be able to participate in the final student showcase. The reasons why weren’t clear, but I wasn’t going to be stopped. I have a vivid memory of standing in the hall in my warm-ups and worn ballet shoes, speaking up in my most forceful Russian – “I am not asking for any special treatment; I’m just asking to be treated the same as my peers. I deserve to have my piece performed!” Director Boyarchikov respected me for my determination, simply saying, “OK.” I realized I could connect with someone in a difficult moment, and we could reach a mutual understanding.
My time at The Conservatory gave me the strength I would need to run an NGO. Two of my greatest takeaways from the Fulbright experience are today core principles of MindLeaps: the power of positivity and the importance of structure. From the rigorous training I received, where compliments were rare, I also learned to appreciate the flip side – I understood that positivity could be a tool to build confidence in vulnerable youth. I also learned the value of structure, that a fixed curriculum could give at-risk kids the consistency their lives were missing.
Boyarchikov’s parting words were, “good luck in your life.” It was such a simple phrase, but it meant that I had earned his respect. From Russia, I had learned precision and perseverance. From the USA, I had learned creativity and innovation. I started my own dance company, and eventually launched projects abroad that would give children a pathway to education through dance. This was the birth of MindLeaps, an organization that now serves 2,000+ children annually around the world.
Rebecca Davis – Fulbright to Russia (2004) and The Crimea (2012)