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In Italy, Dance As An Antidote To Migrant Integration Tensions


There is a town in northern Italy with a novel approach to helping migrants integrate - contemporary dance classes. The program is a big hit with participants, foreigners and locals alike, but it has also infuriated members of Italy's growing anti-migrant party. Christopher Livesay has the story.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: Two mornings a week, about three dozen people gather inside the Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappa between Venice and the Alps. But they're not here just to look at Renaissance oil paintings.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: That's an interpretive dance instructor. She tells her class to close their eyes, breathe in, breathe out, then look at the portraits. Now recreate those images with your own body. Students twist to mimic a Robert Capa photograph of a fallen soldier and twirl like the statue of an angel.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Latin).

LIVESAY: The program is called Dance Well. While it's free to everyone, it was started as an outlet for people afflicted with Parkinson's disease. The condition attacks patients' motor skills. Giovanna Garzotto is one of the teachers.

GIOVANNA GARZOTTO: You rediscover the beauty in your body no matter what your limitations are. I mean, any dancer struggles with balance, flexibility, stamina, strength. So it's just a question of, you know, where your limits are.

LIVESAY: Eva Boarotto suffers from Parkinson's and dances in the program.

EVA BOAROTTO: (Through interpreter) It's a positive drug. One thing I love is dancing beside people who don't have Parkinson's. They don't pity us. Before Dance Well, I didn't go to the bank, I didn't go to the post office out of fear of judgment. Now I'm no longer afraid of people looking at me.

LIVESAY: That gave organizers an idea. What if migrants could use dance to overcome their social fears in the same way and integrate into Italian society? So this summer, they began inviting them from a local migrant center. Dozens started to come.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Italian).

LIVESAY: One of them is Cameroon national Suleiman Tapon, who swishes through the gallery in his socks.

SULEIMAN TAPON: (Through interpreter) When I first came, I was a little hesitant because you're white and we're black. In Italy, it's not easy for foreigners. They think we're here to take jobs and money from Italians.

LIVESAY: But on his first day of dance class, he says, that distance vanished.

TAPON: (Through interpreter) They came and gave me a hug. And it felt great. In the year and four months that I've been in Italy, no one's ever treated me this way. Now when I see the other dancers around town, they say hello to me. Ciao. Ciao, Suleiman. How are you? It's great.

LIVESAY: But it's not all hugs and smiles from the entire town. Roberto Gerin opens a fresh package of fliers. He's passing them out in the market for the Northern League, an anti-migrant party that's surging in popularity.

ROBERTO GERIN: (Through interpreter) We can't import all of Africa to Italy. It won't fit. And we can't spend our taxes on dance classes when Italians are having a tough time, too. Our nursing homes are in trouble. Our city can't afford public services. When you're in trouble, you think Italians first, outsiders second.

LIVESAY: His party has ridiculed the program. One regional councilman mocked it as a reality TV show called "Dancing With The Migrants." The dance class costs 20,000 euros annually, paid for by the city and private sponsors. Organizers point out the cost hasn't gone up since they began reaching out to migrants, when the only participants were townspeople and patients with Parkinson's like Eva Boarotto.

BOAROTTO: (Through interpreter) If it's wrong to use this money on migrants, then it's wrong to use it on us. Tomorrow, they might be the ones who need help, but right now it's me. And you know who's helped me dance the most? Suleiman. He has strong hands. I didn't know anything about his life, and he didn't know anything about mine, but dance brought us together.


LIVESAY: That kind of success has helped organizers win a 200,000 euro grant from the European Union. So next year, they're expanding the program as migrants continue to arrive and become less and less out of place. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Bassano del Grappa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Livesay