In times of strife, people try to find comfort any way they can—and sometimes, it's in art.
The power of dance was on display for a group of Palestinians in the West Bank recently, and they had a University of South Florida St. Petersburg student to thank for that.
Dwayne Scheuneman, 45, is a senior studying education. The retired U.S. Navy veteran was left a paraplegic after suffering a spinal cord injury in a diving accident almost two decades ago.
Because of that background, Scheuneman was asked to travel to the Palestinian territories in June to share his lessons with teachers and students at Sareyyet Ramallah, a dance program based in a community center in the West Bank.
"The first five days was just working with dancers and dance teachers, when they brought in the students with disabilities, we had 15 students who were teenagers who were deaf and we had three people in wheelchairs who came and took the class," he said.
Working with New College of Florida dance instructor Leymis Wilmott, Scheuneman and his fellow teachers crafted a number of pieces that blended everyone’s abilities together.
In one, the deaf dancers gathered together tightly in a circle, arms raised in unison. At the same time, Scheuneman and the other wheelchair dancers circled them, pretending to hit them with their fists in an effort to break into their group.
"Basically we created two pieces that talked about barriers and the things that come between people connecting and being together, that’s kind of what came out of our conversations with them," Scheuneman explained.
He also admitted the lessons came with their own challenge: most of his students spoke two languages he doesn’t: Arabic AND sign language!
"I’ll add to that is trying to teach them some movements maybe that involve their legs when I’m in a wheelchair and they’re deaf and I speak English and their interpreter is Arabic, it just was a matter of patience!," he said. "It was a lot of this!" he added, miming dancing with his fingers across his palm.
See a documentary that Scheuneman and Sareyyet Ramallah produced on Palestinians living with disabilities.
But those challenges were nothing compared to what came a few days into the trip when tensions erupted into violence following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens.
"While I was there, the Israeli guard had raided the city a few times, arresting people and a couple people would get shot," Scheuneman said. "On the first day, the city shuts down and people don’t come out; by the third day, the Palestinians are back to life as normal and their city is getting raided and people are getting shot!"
And in speaking with dance colleagues in Israel during that time, "I found on both sides, there were people who really just wish the war and the fighting and the tension just didn’t exist."
But there was a place where those problems disappeared—even if only for a few hours. Escape could be found inside the dance studio.
"All the tension that was going on outside, they didn’t speak about it, it seemed as if it didn’t exist," Scheuneman said. "In fact, I remember one day when the city was shut down, only one dancer showed up, and so we were in there, working with him, working on some choreography, and when we came out, and everything was quiet, he said to me, ‘I can’t believe I forgot that the city was shut down today, that today’s a martyr day.'”
The experience reinforced a belief that Scheuneman has long held: dance has a healing power, for the body and the spirit.
"This experience for me has really helped me understand that when I go and teach dance and do these workshops for populations that don’t have the opportunity to dance," Scheuneman said, his voice breaking. "I’m giving them inspiration and love really through dance, more than I’m teaching them any dance technique that they’re going to hold onto for a lifetime."