Life on the streets and narrow alleyways of Cité Soleil, Haiti’s largest and most notorious slum, can be grim. Children scavenge for recyclable materials in putrid canals; dusty, fatigued women carry baskets on their heads after a day of selling under the grudging sun; and groups of unemployed young men sit idly in front of buildings pockmarked with bullet holes.
But in the midst of all this, in a roofless abandoned house, a group called Cyborg Dance offers young boys an opportunity to escape the chaos of the shanty town through breakdancing. Spread out across the floor, the dancers perform one move after another. A few focus on jerking pop-and-lock sequences, some practice their acrobatics, and others rehearse choreographed dances in small groups.
“Dancing is like a virus,” says Wendy Lazaire, a founding member of Cyborg Dance. “There are too many kids in Cité Soleil that have an empty stomach and an empty mind. We at least need to plant the dancing virus in their minds.”
The group came together in 2004, in the epicenter of the crisis created by the crumbling of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government. At the time heavily armed gangs controlled many of the capital's most popular neighborhoods, and picking up a gun was the only prospect for many young boys. The Cyborgs, however, found refuge in breakdancing.
“Everywhere you went you found kids carrying machine guns and fighting with rival gangs,” Wendy remembers. “In the mornings, you would find bodies lining the street. We realized we could stay away from that lifestyle by dancing. We chose dancing as our weapon against violence.”
Over the years, the organization has transformed from a small group of dancers into something resembling a breakdancing school that seeks to prevent youth gang involvement in Cité Soleil. Every week dancers go out into the streets to give visibility to the organization and encourage new kids to join their classes. They perform in different neighborhoods all over Cité Soleil, as well as other impoverished areas in Port-au-Prince, such as Bel-Air and Martissant.
Thankfully the levels of violence in Haiti are far lower today than they were during the 2004 crisis, but the work of the Cyborgs continues to be crucial for the youth in Cité Soleil. In the shanty town of over 300,000 people, the lack of opportunities for the tens of thousands of kids continues to make them vulnerable to gang involvement.
“All of the boys that you see on the dance floor harbor an overwhelming feeling of frustration. Most of them can’t go to school, don’t have a job, and see no way out of their situation,” said Mario Senat, a 32-year-old instructor involved with the group. “Dancing gives them an identity and makes them feel good about themselves.”
The group regularly impresses crowds at festivals and parties around the country. Ronaldo Guerrier, a 16-year-old dancer and one of the most recent additions to the troop, told me, “A couple of months ago, when the Cyborgs danced on the street in front of my house in the Bwa Neuf neighborhood, all the kids were screaming with excitement, cheering on the dancers after each move.” Winning over the crowd is no small ahievement, as the dancers have had to fight an arduous battle against the strong stigmas Haitian society has assigned to youth from Cité Soleil.
“I can’t even count how many doors have been slammed in our faces just because we’re a group of young guys from Cité Soleil,” Wendy told me. “If we are young and we live in the slum, we must be thugs, right?”
The dancers’ unrelenting perseverance in the face of adversity is reflected in their name.
“That’s why we’re called Cyborgs! We need to put our emotions, our fear, our grief… all of those human traits aside if we want to keep on dancing. We need to become robots—cyborgs of sorts—if we are going to keep dancing,” said Wendy.
Yet the group will have to overcome countless more obstacles before their dream of running a fully-functioning dance school materializes. The original members of Cyborg Dance themselves, most of them now in their 20s, put their meager financial resources together to run the dance school while struggling to support their families.
“It’s hard to keep the kids coming. They dance and work out, and we don’t have money even to give them a small refreshment after practice,” Mario said.
During periods of increased gang violence, rehearsals can be suspended for several weeks, because most dancers can’t walk to practice without risking their lives. Still, they keep breaking.
“If the gangsters knew how to dance they would drop their weapons immediately. If a kid knows how to dance, he will never pick up a gun,” Wendy told me. “Dancing got us through hellish times. We have a debt to the younger kids so they can get through their rough moments, too.”