#AerieREAL Changemaker Katie Muckley is changing the world through her love of movement! As the founder of Imagine Dance Project Haiti, Katie, who is also a physical therapist, strives to help foster self-expression among the youth in Haiti through the art of ballet. Her dance initiative helps send children in the region to the Imagine Missions dance program, where young Haitian girls like Naisuze and Estephanie explain that they have learned discipline and become part of a loving community.
“I feel like I am part of a family here and they’ve welcomed me really well,” Estephanie, age 16, explained of how dance has impacted her. We caught up with more of the students from the Imagine Dance Project Haiti, along with Katie and some of the leading teachers from the Imagine Missions school. Read below to learn more about Katie’s experience and why she started the dance project, then get to know the students and teachers as they share more about Haiti and dance!
Katie Muckley, Founder, Imagine Dance Project Haiti
What inspired you to create Imagine Dance Project Haiti?
When I first met children in an orphanage in Haiti in 2014, I was devastated to witness the trauma that children go through when they grow up apart from their parents, either due to death or in most cases, simply due to poverty. But I realized that dance, an activity which in my own experience fostered a love of life, movement, and self-expression, could be therapeutic and empowering to my new Haitian friends.
So, using my (weak!) Creole and French skills, I gathered a group of girls who were interested and started teaching them ballet. Haitians hold a unique appreciation for ballet, and many love to dance! I noticed a sense of ownership and pride developing in the girls — and boys! — I was teaching as they mastered ballet steps. I taught dance daily each time I visited and created small ‘dance camps’ with friends who came with me that many orphanage and village children joined in.
I knew I wanted to do more to help them experience dance, and not just when I was visiting! So Imagine Missions’ director, Melissa Young, helped me connect with an incredible dance school, Institut de Danse Lynn Williams Rouzier, where Lynn and Marynn Rouzier offered scholarships and love (in equal parts!) to the Imagine students. Through Imagine Dance Project Haiti, eight children have attended their school so far, but I envision sharing dance more formally with hundreds of children in the small village of Despinos, Haiti as this project grows!
How do you balance being a physical therapist in America, while changing lives through dance in Haiti?
Sometimes it feels like operating in two worlds! Haiti is a developing nation where natural beauty and continual hardship go hand-in-hand. While I am there, I have to focus on what I can change when there is so much that I can’t. I have to shed my ‘American expectations’ when setting goals in Haiti. Back in America, it took me a while to learn to practice healthy emotional boundaries so I can best serve my hospital patients as a physical therapist.
My dance students go through unimaginable struggles in their everyday lives, which is why dance is such a gift and outlet to them. My patients go through unimaginable medical struggles in the hospital, which is why movement through physical therapy provides them strength and quality of life. I try not mentally ‘carry’ my students’ struggles at the hospital, or my patients’ struggles in Haiti. I have learned that compassion is not a limited resource, and that self-care and kindness to myself are essential in order to prevent burnout and maintain my passion for making change!
What has Imagine Dance Project Haiti taught you about yourself?
Imagine Dance Project Haiti has taught me to value my unique gifts and talents as a dance teacher, therapist and storyteller. Before this project, I didn’t fully appreciate that my specific gifts could be used in such a powerful way. But what I have learned is that we are each equipped to make change — whether it seems little or big — in our own unique ways.
Who knew that ballet would be valuable to children in an orphanage? Not me! But when I decided to just be myself and contribute what I knew how to children in circumstances I couldn’t fully understand, it grew into something bigger and more beautiful than what I could have possibly imagined. It led to children who are disciplined and empowered through dance, who belong to a Haitian dance family, and who have even had opportunities to represent their country in international dance competitions!
And when I told the stories of these beautiful changes, it led to others — like Aerie — believing in the project and coming alongside me to keep the changes coming! Through this project, I have also learned not to limit myself, but to just keeping loving in ways I know how, and to watch what grows from those small acts of love — like a simple ballet class for some kiddos in a dusty room at an orphanage!
Institut de Danse Lynn Williams Rouzier
What changes have you seen in the girls as they have joined your dance family and become more serious dance students?
Lynn Rouzier (teacher, director, school founder): We welcomed these children into our school that weren’t previously welcomed in Haitian society. Right now, these children in front of us are the ones we impact. At Institut de Danse, I am able to help these children become part of a community and be welcomed into greater society.
Marynn Rouzier (Lynne’s daughter, a teacher & director at the school): I’ve seen a lot of social changes. They were girls who were used to sticking to their small groups, and were really scared to interact with other kids. And now you see them walking to class helping out the younger kids. They have friends all over the school.
Also discipline; they are learning that depending on where they go there might be different rules. I’m really proud of the changes I’ve seen and how they adapt a lot more. We are getting them ready for the real world, not only preparing them for dance but for life.
How does dance help empower youth in Haiti?
Lynne: Right now, we are living in a troubled world. Dance requires discipline and I like the old discipline. Discipline is power!
Marynn: One word: confidence. Dance gives kids confidence. To be able to survive in Haiti you need confidence. To be able to survive in Haiti, you need confidence to be able to say I’m here, I want to be here, I’m going to stay here, this is my country, nobody is going to make me run. The confidence that dance gives us helps those of us that want to be in Haiti, stay here.
Why is it important to teach dance to children, and how does dance make real change in Haiti and beyond?
Lynne: Dance is an exceptional experience for children. Dance is discipline in action. Additionally, in a country like this, we have to provide equal opportunity, because we are all the same. Teaching discipline can do that. Discipline is hard to start learning, but once discipline is applied to life, there is freedom – you can breathe!
Marynn: Discipline. Discipline is something that every kid needs. Every sport, every art – a child should always have access to some sort of discipline because that will help them become a better adult. You’re tough on a kid today, you teach them to be a better adult.
Imagine Missions Students
What is your favorite aspect of being a dance student at Institut de Danse?
Naisuze (age 16): I am really glad because I have been taught how to dance!
What is something that dance has taught you?
Estephanie (age 13): Dance has taught me not to be shy — because I am very shy! I feel like I am part of a family here and they’ve welcomed me really well.
How do you feel differently about yourself now than before you started ballet and dance training?
Estephanie: Before I started dance, I was shy and disobedient. I wasn’t disciplined. Now I am not shy and I am more disciplined and more humble. (Teacher Marynn: Yes, Estephanie has become more gentle since starting dance!)
What is something you love about Haiti?
Estephanie: I love Haiti because Haiti is my country. There is some great nature, and it’s a beautiful country.
Belline (age 14): I love my country because it’s beautiful. I love this Black nation; I will never denounce Haiti!
What is something you want to do to make real change in Haiti?
Naisuze: I would love to help the kids who live on the streets who have to survive with odd jobs like cleaning cars. I would like Haiti to be healthy — to see change like we see in other countries.
Estephanie: I would love to build more schools to help the kids who don’t have parents. I would like to teach them how to dance ballet because it is a beautiful art form. I would like to help them not be shy and make them feel that they are welcomed into our family.
Belline: I would love to help the young kids on the street that don’t have parents. I want to do this by creating a successful business, so they will have future jobs!
Dani (age 15) loves children and wants to help them in the future!
How do you take care of yourself and your body now that you are a dancer?
Belline: As a dancer, I understand that I am supposed to love myself and eat good food. I always need to be exercising, showering after practice and taking care of myself. In my free time I am always thinking about and practicing the movement I’ve been taught at the dance school. When I get back from school, I practice with the other Imagine dance students!
(Teacher Marynn: If you don’t love yourself, you can’t dance well? Belline: No!)
How inspiring of Katie to share her love of dance with students in Haiti in order to help foster a creative community! What did you think of Katie’s story, Aerie fam? And what ways do you practice self-expression?
Share with us in the comments below!