The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan - where thousands of people have died from disease, starvation and violence, and millions of displaced people languish in refugee camps - may seem too bleak a situation to inspire anyone to dance. But Philip Johnston, a faculty member in the department of dance, is using his passion for dance to heighten awareness about the conditions in Darfur and raise money for a relief organization that assists Darfurian refugees and other people in need.
Philip Johnston, right, performs with local professional dancers at the Corn Market in Belfast, Ireland. A focal point in the city where five streets meet, the Corn Market is a major shopping district where musicians, actors and dancers often perform.
Photo courtesy Philip Johnston
Johnston's humanitarian journey began two years ago when he became engaged in a conversation with someone who didn't know where Darfur was.
"I was somewhat shocked," Johnston said. "I thought that everyone had heard about it, whether they knew what was going on there. That provoked me into thinking what I could do to raise awareness about Darfur. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, then I came up with the idea of doing improvisational solo performances in different places throughout Ireland while I was there for the summer."
A native of Ireland, Johnston spends his summers there teaching dance.
An avid cyclist as well as a dancer and choreographer, Johnston decided to combine his passions for all three - bicycling to 30 towns and cities throughout Ireland.
"At first, I considered driving, but Ireland is pretty do-able by bicycle, and I thought, 'Why not go under my own steam?' At the age of 17, I cycled from Ireland through France to Italy, about 3,000 to 4,000 miles, and I remembered what a joy that was," Johnston said.
Johnston had been an admirer of the medical relief organization Doctors Without Borders, which assists people in Sudan and 60 other countries. Reading the books "Heart of Darfur," by Lisa French Blaker and "What is the What," by Dave Eggers, "had a profound effect on me," said Johnston about his decision to solicit donations to help people in Darfur.
Several months before embarking upon his bike tour, which took place during June and July of this past summer, Johnston began contacting local arts councils in Ireland looking for musicians and dancers that might be interested in performing with him.
Sponsors, including his father and a sports company, provided Johnston's bicycle, rain gear and other equipment.
Johnston flew to Ireland two weeks before his journey began to build up endurance cycling on its hillsides and mountains.
Johnston began and ended his 750-mile, three-week bicycle tour of the island in his native city of Belfast.
Johnston blogged about his experiences during his trip - the breathtaking scenery as well as his performances with professional dancers, dance students and exuberant onlookers who spontaneously joined performances. Along the way, he reunited with old friends, including his former dance teacher, Helen Lewis, who was celebrating her 93rd birthday.
In Limerick, he met and performed with four dancers from a dance company housed in a converted church that "is one of the most inspiring dance spaces I have been in for many years. ...," Johnston wrote.
In Sligo, Johnston danced on the street in front of his favorite sweater shop, and in Drogheda, he and dance students from a local studio performed on the street in front of Drogheda Cathedral.
Johnston performed twice in Belfast - once at the rose garden at Lady Dixon Park and again at the Corn Market, where a Romanian accordionist provided accompaniment.
In his blog, Johnston wrote: "At the rose gardens, Ursula Burn accompanied us; she is a well-known songwriter and harpist in Ireland. We arrived at Lady Dixon Park just after a summer tropical deluge and danced barefoot on the sodden grass. We wandered off into the rose garden intoxicated by the scent of the roses before a few final songs from Ursula. One audience member commented: 'This is how I want it to be when I leave this earth - dancers, a harp and roses!'"
When he performed on city streets, Johnston wrote the address of his Web site on the pavement and asked donors to make their contributions online through a link provided on his site.
Johnston's sister, Helene hosted an event at her house one morning to assist in the fundraising, and he gave radio interviews to promote his project as well. BBC Radio featured him on the program "Good Morning, Ulster," and a crew from BBC Television documented part of his journey. While in Ireland, he also met with representatives from Doctors Without Borders.
"Some of my students donated $10 or so, and I thought that was so wonderful - knowing that their donation was their lunch or dinner money," Johnston said.
Johnston has raised more than half of his $10,000 goal, and plans to continue his fundraising work through the end of 2009.