WSU Cohen Scholar crosses continents with choreography


Courtesy of Sandra Carlo

Sandra Carlo spent part of her summer in Nairobi, Kenya helping provide arts tutoring, shelter and community resources to residents in the Mathare slum.

A childhood of rigorous ballet lessons set Sandra Carlo on a path to Kenya. 

The Wichita State senior helped build community through dance this summer in Kenya’s Mathare slum, a struggling neighborhood in Northeast Nairobi. 

While Carlo’s experience was far from the typical semester abroad, she says it brought about an adaptability in her that has become one of her core strengths.

“I knew that going into the program, whatever expectations I had for it, my purpose was to do what they needed from me regardless of whatever mission I had in my head,” Carlo said.

Carlo found the opportunity through Performing Arts Abroad, an independent organization that operates Arts for Social Change programs around the world. She worked with Voices of Change All Over (VOCAL) and the Billion Music Family to help provide arts tutoring, shelter, and community resources to Mathare residents. 

While her core goal was clear, Carlo’s duties were in flux throughout the program. Every day invited new challenges.

“Normally, we’d know the day before, or have an idea of what we were going to do,” Carlo said. “But, definitely with East African culture, it could all change so fast. You had to be very open to what the possibilities were.

“There were very few times when what we were prepared for was what we ended up actually doing. It was really cool because it created a lot of on-the-spot moments where you either sink or swim, and when you swim, you’re like, ‘yeah, yeah, I can do this work.’”

Carlo’s flexibility and willingness to embrace change comes as no surprise in light of her relationship with dance. Though she danced all throughout her adolescence, Carlo eventually drifted away from the art. 

It took a rediscovery of her love for dance to truly find herself as a dancer, she said, and now she’s been able to harness that passion to help others. She said she sees her work in Kenya as a precursor to helping others right here in Wichita.

Carlo thinks of dance as something that truly builds up the community — individual by individual. No matter how big of a role dance plays in a person’s life, she says everyone could benefit from embracing the art form.

“With dance, with movement, with connecting with your body, I think that’s something anyone can do without formal training,” Carlo said. “While dance as an art is very specific and very athletic and requires a lot of discipline, anyone can feel that connection to movement within their body.

“I think the biggest thing in appreciating it as an art is to just move your body, right, just in your own space, to turn on your favorite music,” she added. “And I don’t think that’s something that, in my opinion, enough people do.”

The embrace of casual dancing makes the artform more available to both the community and to everyone in it. Carlo often finds herself navigating a blurred line between her technical training and her love of casual dancing, whether that’s with friends or just by herself. However, just like the reward of finding oneself capable in a challenging situation, the rush that dancing, and improving, offers is unmatchable for Carlo.

“If I discover a new way of moving my body that I haven’t before, in that discovery, in reaching, in figuring something out, it feels so natural. Like I’ve always been able to do it and then it’s all this hard work out the window,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s like I was born nailing this. Those are the moments I feel most at peace with myself . . . Those are the moments that brought me back to dance.”