SGI members’ experiences in faith

With or Without Dance

By Christopher Nembhard, UK
[© Denis Bourg]

When I was 19, my parents retired and moved back to Jamaica, which was the dream of many people from the Caribbean who had come to England in the late '50s and '60s. My siblings and I remained in the UK. I was the youngest of six children and I felt abandoned. With no one to keep me on the straight and narrow, my life consisted of drinking, partying and unstable relationships. I lived for the weekend, being completely reckless, not caring about anything.

After finishing school, I worked for a small printing company in Nottingham where I experienced racism and bullying on a daily basis. I had not experienced this kind of treatment before and could not understand how people could be like this. I wanted to leave the job but needed the money, so I stayed and tried to bear the daily insults.

This was the lowest point of my life. It was at these times that I really needed my parents' guidance. I remember crying in my bed at night and even thinking about ending my life.

One day in a health club, I met a dancer who was doing a show in town. We struck up a conversation about dance. I enjoyed dancing in nightclubs and I had wanted to be a dancer from around the age of 10, but because people from my background never did that sort of thing, I forgot about it until this conversation. This man encouraged me to go to London to audition for a dance school. I knew nothing about formal dance but decided to try my luck. I found a dance teacher, did six ballet classes, auditioned and won a place at a very good musical theater school.

After graduating, I was fortunate to get a place in a prestigious contemporary company, and danced for several companies after that. Some time later, while on holiday with my wife in the south of France, I went to see a performance by my favorite dance company. At the theater, surrounded by white, wealthy people, I felt extremely uncomfortable, remembering my past experience of racial discrimination.

Christopher with his wife and sons [© Julie Botticello]

The main character in the ballet we were watching was a black male dancer, whose performance was truly magical. Seeing him in the center of the stage being given a standing ovation, a new determination was born within me. In that moment there was no sense of discrimination. Time seemed to stand still. I decided I wanted to become a world-famous dancer, overcome my low self-esteem and help create a world free from inequality and discrimination.

I threw myself into dance, and as my career developed, a problem that I had previously tried to ignore became much more of a concern. I had what appeared to be in-growing hard skin, which would press on the nerves in the center of the balls of both my feet. This caused severe pain when dancing, resulting in me experiencing more and more injuries. Although I was fortunate to be given important roles and even have a ballet choreographed for me, I felt I could not fulfill my potential with this foot problem.

A Larger Life

It was around this time that I overheard someone at a dinner party talking about Nichiren Buddhism with my friend. I was fascinated and began to experiment with the practice at home the same night. I became involved in the SGI shortly after.

I continued dancing and was fortunate to gain a place in a company dancing with the world-famous dancer Sylvie Guillem, which to me was amazing proof of the power of my Buddhist practice. However, I was still experiencing pain in my feet. On one occasion, I sought advice about my problem from a long-standing SGI member. I expected him to encourage me to overcome my condition, but he suggested that I change direction. I was stunned and for a moment I became angry. Dance was my life.

Holding his fist in his hand, he said that if the fist represented dance, the hand around it represented my life. But, he said, stretching his arms out, my life was actually much bigger and vaster and dance was only a part of it. He continued, saying that I could probably expect to dance at the highest level for another two to three years but then would have to start thinking about changing direction anyway, so I might as well do it sooner than later. When I heard that, I remembered the passion I had once felt to rid the world of racism and discrimination. Deep down, I knew I had in fact been limiting myself. After this, I began to think seriously about how I could use my life to create more value, with or without dancing.

Over the next few years, I began the process of moving from being a professional dancer to seeing where else I could apply my skills. A close friend of mine had been working in school and community-based projects supporting children through training in conflict resolution and peer mediation. I was employed to support these children to gain confidence in themselves and to overcome problems at school. At the same time, within SGI-UK I took on national leadership responsibility for the young boys group, helping them develop their faith and friendships. This responsibility really mirrored the work I was doing in schools and also in the development of my family life, as by then I had four young boys.

[© Roberto Trillo]

Through all these experiences, I gained a real understanding of the importance of supporting the social and emotional development of young children. As a child, I had struggled with writing and spelling and had developed strategies to avoid these kinds of activities. Because of this experience, I naturally found myself able to empathize with children who were struggling.

With some encouragement from friends within the SGI, I applied for a Master's degree in movement psychotherapy, something I would otherwise not have had the confidence to even attempt.

I graduated as a movement psychotherapist in 2007 and have since worked with men suffering from schizophrenia, in forensic mental health and also with children suffering from sexual exploitation, drug and alcohol abuse and other difficult mental health and social problems. I also co-run a charity with the aim of supporting young people with emotional difficulties who are at risk of being excluded from education.

Through my Buddhist practice, I have grown in ways that I could not have imagined. I also feel passionate about my current responsibility as a men's leader in SGI-UK, helping men face their own challenges and grow in their humanity. The more responsible and compassionate men there are in society, the more we can be a great example to young people who are struggling to find positive role models in their life.

Last year, I determined to overcome dyslexia, which had prevented me from writing about my experience. Soon after this, I was contacted by a national newspaper to write an article about black people practicing Buddhism in Southeast London. In it, I was able to share my conviction with the readers and express my determination to tackle inequality and discrimination in society.

I have changed my weaknesses into strengths and made them the driving force for my development. I am determined to create a society where young people are truly happy, valued and nurtured to become capable leaders for the future.