The Next Step
dance4life, a global organization empowering youth in the fight against HIV, gains a foothold in the U.S.
by Chip Alfred
Ten years ago, it was just a dream. Dennis Karpes and Ilco van der Lind, two Dutch marketers concerned about the AIDS pandemic, imagined a world united to push back the spread of HIV. Using the slogan, “Start Dancing. Stop AIDS,” dance4life, headquartered in Amsterdam, was founded in 2003. It is now the largest youth movement in the world focused on HIV awareness and prevention—inspiring and educating hundreds of thousands of youth in twenty-seven nations on five continents.
The founders “wanted to come up with something really cool for young people which could influence them to change behavior,” says Eveline Aendekerk, forty-one, international executive director. Partnering with local and regional organizations, dance4life engages young people by following four basic steps: Inspire, Educate, Activate, and Celebrate. The organization’s Heart Connection Tours reach out to schools and youth organizations in large groups with a fun, upbeat approach. Featuring music and an interactive dance lesson including content about sexual health, young people living with HIV also share their stories. The tour teams follow up in smaller groups with education about life skills, human rights, and safe sex negotiation. “Self-esteem is still one of the best predictors for safe sex,” Aendekerk states. “The more you have, the more likely you are to make the choice you want to make.”
The next phase motivates youth to take action and become dance4life “agents4change,” leaders who raise awareness about HIV and AIDS among their peers and families, and initiate fundraising and advocacy projects. Once the young people involved complete the first three steps of the program, it’s time to celebrate. Every two years, select youth from each nation participate in a global dance event. Via a satellite link, young people from all over the world perform the dance4life moves together. “This creates an enormous feeling of solidarity—a sense that we’re all in this together, that we can stop HIV all together.”
In 2010, dance4life began its expansion into the U.S. with the search for a major city to host a pilot project. With one of the highest rates of new HIV infection in the country and an organized youth program already in place, Philadelphia was chosen to launch the pilot. In partnership with Philadelphia Fight’s Youth Health Empowerment Project (Y-HEP ), the project reached more than 1,000 young people. It was deemed an overwhelming success. According to Y-HEP’s Director, Katie Dunphy, thirty-one, dance4life opens more doors than traditional HIV prevention education. “Dance is a universal language and it will really create a global movement to push back the spread of HIV,” she says, adding that initiating the discussion with dance makes it easier to communicate the key messages: “Take responsibility for your life. Let your voice be heard.” Mark Seaman, twenty-eight, Director of Development and Communications for Philadelphia Fight, explains why Y-HEP’s approach (which essentially mirrors dance4life’s philosophy) is effective. “It’s an environment of young people for young people. Youth are much more likely to talk to someone who is a near peer.”
In 2012, dance4life added the U.S. to its roster of participating nations with the establishment of national headquarters in New York City. The vision for dance4life USA is to roll out Heart Connection Tours in ten major cities in 2013, and thirty more in 2014. A few staff members have been hired, with executive director Michele Giordano at the helm. “I come to this work really from a personal experience,” says Giordano, thirty-four, who lost her father, a heroin user, to AIDS in 1996. Realizing she was the only one of her friends impacted by HIV, she knew she had a voice that needed to be heard. Remembering her father’s own lack of HIV/AIDS education and his fears about hugging her and sharing food, Giordano began speaking publicly about what she encountered. Her aim was to increase awareness and dispel the myths about HIV. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but she didn’t anticipate some of the hurtful reaction she encountered. “I would tell my story and people would come up to me and say, ‘Your father deserved to die. He was a drug user.’ It really was shocking to me,” she recalls, her eyes welling up with tears. “It still upsets me.”
Looking for a comprehensive HIV/AIDS awareness platform that would reach a wider audience, Giordano was drawn to dance4life because it picks up where schools sometimes can’t or won’t go. They’re teaching students about abstinence and preventing pregnancy, she asserts, but “not giving them tools to know when you feel comfortable in a relationship, tools to know how to say no, tools to understand what it means to have HIV, how you contract it and how to prevent it.” With the dance4life approach, students get this information in a way that’s more likely to capture their attention. “It can feel cool; it can feel fun. It doesn’t have to feel like you’re hearing something that’s a taboo or that should scare you.” The dance4life objective is to encourage youth to initiate the dialogue on a broader scale. “The conversation is bigger than HIV and AIDS. It’s really about sexuality and reproductive health—getting youth to be more aware of their own decisions and their own bodies.”
In every nation and in each community, the presentation necessitates flexibility, as the rules and cultures vary widely across the globe. Unlike the Netherlands, where dance4life is overwhelmed with invitations from schools, U.S. schools aren’t always so welcoming to sex education beyond their approved curriculum. In Philadelphia, when approaching a new school, “We would have to convince them that the information we’re going to impart is long-lasting, life-changing, and that it’s going to work,” says Seaman.
Giordano, a dedicated AIDS educator and activist, is confident dance4life will work in the U.S. “If this can happen in twenty-six other countries, it can happen here.” She describes the organization as nontraditional and “a bit rebellious” in its fundraising efforts—using models, rappers, and hip hop stars as role models to promote safe sex. Dutch supermodel Doutzen Kroes has been a devoted ambassador since 2009. Giordano hopes to continue this tradition and recruit icons for America’s youth as U.S. ambassadors. “The way to communicate to youth is through their passion points—that is music and dance. It hits the nail on the head,” she says. With a goal of one million agents4change by World AIDS Day 2014, Giordano says, “I would love for dance4life to be a rite of passage for every youth. If we change the way we educate young people, we can really teach a lot of them how to live better lives.”
A&U Editor at Large Chip Alfred is a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.