Later this month, Alice Mokonje Garsuah of Broadview Terrace, will be dancing in the Hartt School of Music’s ballet production of the “Nutcracker” (see box) gracefully gliding across the stage to the music of Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday classic.
But it wasn’t all that long ago that Alice and her family were involved in a very different kind of “dance”, a dance with death. In order to escape Liberia’s brutal and bloody civil war, Alice and her family had to sleep by day and travel by night in order to avoid the gun-toting rebel-soldiers, some as young as 12, who were shooting people randomly or killed to retaliate. Their journey began after soldiers threw them out of their home in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. They headed off into the unknown with nothing but the clothes on their backs, happy to be alive. Their destination was the neighboring country of Ivory Coast, but the way was long and uncertain. “Everyone was running. When you saw a group of people, you just followed them,” said Alice’s grandmother, “Ma Cora,” who led Alice, her granddaughter, Patience, her youngest daughter and Cyrus, her grand-son, to safety. For four months, they lived in the bush. Not daring to light a fire for fear that the soldiers would see it and find their hiding place, they subsisted on raw cassava, roots and potato leaves.
Eventually they reached a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. They stayed there for a year and a half and then moved to Hartford when Alice was nine. During this period of political unrest and frequent rebel attacks on the civilians, Alice and Cyrus lost their parents and remained completely in their grandmother’s care.
Upon arrival in Hartford, Alice’s family was assisted in adapting to their new home by Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Services. The Resettlement Office held drumming and music classes at an office building on Franklin Avenue, where refugee children of different cultural backgrounds benefitted of various educational activities after school hours. It was during these classes that Alice first displayed her dancing talent. When several Liberian refugee children formed their own drumming group, they chose Alice to be their lead dancer. The group , known as “Mokonje African Dance and Drum” has performed at several events and festivals throughout the Greater Hartford area.
Then a worker at Catholic Charities, Doina Lechanu, became close friends with Alice and her family and suggested that she should take up ballet. Doina was able to obtain a scholarship for Alice to Hartt School of Music, community division, at the University of Hartford. She also obtained a scholarship for Cyrus to study percussion. Alice admits that at first she wasn’t enthralled by ballet.“The African dancing was very different. It was loud, it was dramatic. Ballet seemed boring...but after two or three months, I really developed a passion for it,” she said.Alice started at a disadvantage since most of her classmates had been taking ballet classes since they were two or three years old. But she worked hard , constantly having to deal with muscle spasms and severe pain.
Because of her talent and hard work, Alice has made spectacular progress in mastering ballet techniques. She has danced in several performances, including appearances at the Spring Festival, last year “Nutcracker” and “Cinderella.”
“When I dance, I want to show all my emotion and pour out how I feel,” Alice said.“Music is very emotional for me.”
Alice is also a standout as a studentas well as a dancer. She was able to skip 6th grade and is now an 8th grader at Batchelder School. Doina, who has remained close to Alice and her family even after she left her job at Catholic Charities, said they are considering several high schools, primarily the Academy for the Performing Arts.
As for the future, Alice said she may become a dancer or maybe a teacher. Doina said she did not doubt Alice would enter college with a high academic score. “She’s a natural...she used to tutor the other kids in the class. I’d come in and she’d be teaching a group of children even though they were all the same age,they were listening to her. She is an amazing child,” she said.