YARMOUTH – For her senior project, Holly Perkins, a 2013 graduate of New Gloucester’s Merriconeag Waldorf High School on the campus of Pineland, did something most teenagers wouldn’t conceive of doing: She brought the beauty of ballet to an orphanage in the wilds of Africa.
Perkins, the daughter of David and Heidi Perkins of North Yarmouth, has taken ballet classes and performed in many productions at Maine State Ballet in Falmouth since she was 4 years old. Earlier this year, the skilled ballerina used her connections at the ballet company to cast a wide net via social media looking for donations of new or used ballet attire. The response was overwhelming, and in March she brought about 200 sets of leotards, pointe shoes, tights and skirts to the Rift Valley Children’s Village in a remote part of Tanzania to give to the 80 or so children who live in the orphanage there.
And not only did she give the ballet gear to the children, she spent about three weeks teaching them the basics of ballet. Teaching one to three classes per day, Perkins used the backs of school chairs as ballet bars and brought books and videos to show proper technique. The kids learned how to stretch as well as several basic ballet positions. And the kids, most of whom had never heard of ballet before, loved it, she said.
“When I was a sophomore, we went as a family, and then this time my dad and I went,” Hopkins said. “And when you’re there, you live in a house with a group of kids, and the kids you absolutely fall in love with. It’s unbelievable. So I really wanted to return. And there’s no adoption at this orphanage so when you go back it’s all the same kids, so to have those connections was really special.”
Hopkins knew of the orphanage because her mother, Heidi, had been roommates with its founder, India Howell, in Portland when they were in their 20s. In the early 2000s, Howell planned a trip to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. She fell in love with Tanzania and planned to move there and work in the tourism industry. However, she quickly became aware of the many homeless children and set about opening an orphanage to serve as a permanent home for children up to age 18.
The Perkins family made an initial trip to the orphanage two years ago to spend time with Howell and the children. The return trip this spring was focused more on teaching ballet as part of Perkins’ senior project at Merriconeag, which requires all students to take a week off to pursue some meaningful project at the end of their high school careers.
For Perkins, the experience taught her about the spirit of others, both of those receiving the ballet attire and those donating it.
“The kids there have been through so much. They have such tragic pasts. Yet, at the same time, the children are so happy. They don’t pity themselves. They don’t think of themselves as orphans, so I think gaining the perspective of how people can turn their lives around and be happy is really something to take away,” Perkins said. “And for me, getting the ballet donations and having people help me to learn how to teach, I was absolutely amazed at how gracious people were to help me with this project. People really made an effort to bring ballet to these children.”
Many donations came from Maine State Ballet students and alumni, some from as far away as California and Utah. Other ballet schools in the area jumped on board, as well. WCLZ 98.9 FM gave Perkins $500 to spend on ballet clothing at Finer Pointes Dance Shop in Portland.
Linda Miele, artistic director of Maine State Ballet, was impressed with Perkins’ effort.
“She asked me if it’d be all right to put a sign up to get some donations for dance clothes for the kids, and I said, well, we can do one better than that,” Miele said. “We can get on Maine State Ballet’s Facebook, we can get on our website and we can get the word out. And we just got a huge response. She got a ton of stuff.”
Miele said she knew of no former students who aimed to share ballet with African orphans.
“This is such a great thing. We’ve had kids go into local schools and teach but never to Africa. Holly was able to combine her love of dance and a love for these kids in Tanzania and combine that to make a great experience for herself,” Miele said.
Perkins’s father, who helped police the kids while Holly taught the classes – a task that quickly became less difficult as the kids became infatuated with ballet, he said – is also proud of his daughter.
“It was amazing. It was one of those ideas that in many ways was a modest idea and then it kind of grew into this very emotional, kind of dramatic thing,” he said. “When those kids lined up at the Tanzania orphanage to get their ballet outfits, every kid, and there were 70 to 80 kids, couldn’t wait to get their leotards, tights and ballet slippers, and that was boys and girls. They were so turned on by the whole dance thing. And I didn’t really anticipate that. I was more afraid that Holly would put all this effort into this and we would go there and the kids would say, ‘Hmm. Ballet? Let’s go play soccer.’ But it was the exact opposite reaction. It was like, when can we come to class? So the kids loved it, and I was obviously very proud of her.”