A few words with Elsa
Born in Mexico and raised there and in the United States, Elsa Chahin is a true citizen of the world, one who believes in human potential. She proved this when she began ballet lessons at the late age of 21 and, a mere five years later, was dancing solos with the prestigious Taller Coreográfico UNAM, Mexico’s premiere neoclassical ballet company.
“Nobody ever told me that I couldn’t believe in my dream,” said Chahin, a statuesque 50-year old, whose toned body is still ballerina-ready. “It was [Taller founder and artistic director], Gloria Contreras, who said to me, ‘Elsa, if you want to dance with our company, you just have to learn the ballets.’ The fact that somebody of that caliber believed in me made me trust that if I worked hard I can reach any goal I want.”
And so she has. Although she left the company after dancing with them for only four years, Chahin has been combining her love of movement with her love of children into a career that has, literally, taken her around the world. Chahin is President of the internationally renowned non-profit corporation, Pikler/Loczy USA, through which she carries on the mission of Dr. Emmi Pikler. (The late Hungarian pediatrician developed a theory that the child is an active participant during his care, is never treated as an object and is allowed to develop at his own pace.)
Recalled Chahin: “Being a dancer is a very demanding career. My husband had been super supportive and patient with me, but performing so much made it difficult to spend quality time together. I think it was a good compromise to start a family,” she added, “and to give up something that had been the greatest love of my life.”
Chahin said she came across a book by RIE™ founder, Magda Gerber, and after the birth of her son, began going to parent-infant guidance classes.
“As I continued to understand more about this approach, applying it to my son and seeing the extraordinary results, I made a shift. I could see the effects about talking to my child with respect, about involving him.
“A year and a half into it,” Chahin added, “I started reading more about this approach, and learned the origins of how it came from Dr. Emmi Pikler in Hungary. That’s when I went to Budapest for the first time to attend a symposium, when my son was three years old. And I’m still going back regularly.”
Having traveled to dozens of countries as a keynote speaker and presenter at more than 100 national and international conferences and seminars on the topic of caring for babies with respect, Chahin has also co-authored In Loving Hands with Pikler’s daughter, 88-year old Anna Tardos, about the rights of children living in children’s institutions.
Elected as president of Pikler/Loczy in 2013 (and a founding member of the board since 2004), Chahin explained that the nonprofit corporation’s original purpose was to support the Pikler® Institute, commonly known as Loczy, for the Hungarian street on which it is located.
“It used to be a residential nursery,” said the striking brunette, “what people called orphanages, and was in a crisis situation because of lack of funds. Knowing all the work Pikler had done since 1946, I believed that it was important to help keep it open and fundraise – that was our original purpose.
“Now that the institute is a day care center, and a research and training facility, the purpose is to share the work of Dr. Emmi Pikler – her theories, her approach, what she believed in – and be able to make all of this accessible to the world.”
Chahin added that when Hungary was a Communist country, few people outside of Europe knew about Pikler®. “It wasn’t as widespread as today. I think that sharing this way of being with babies can have a positive effect on the world, and that is my main drive.”
In addition to her Pikler® work, Chahin is head of the dance department at Seven Arrows Elementary School, where she has taught since 2005 and where parents are encouraged to share their own talents with students.
“I told the director I used to be a professional ballerina,” recalled Chahin, “and that I’m also from Mexico. I knew they had a festival and asked her if she would like me to participate.”
Chahin not only produced that festival – and many others on an annual basis – but also her own choreographies, which have been featured in school concerts, including dances for Día de los Muertos, and a winter program that featured Alvin Ailey’s iconic work, “Revelations.”
“That marked a new beginning for my dance career, because,” Chahin paused and smiled, “here’s the beauty of it: I’m so grateful that I had this opportunity to learn how to be with children in a respectful way – to not force their bodies – because I would have been a completely different dance teacher.
“I was able to invite children to dance in a way that tapped into their inner joy,” she elaborated. “They wanted to explore the possibilities of movement and music, and not in ways you are “supposed” to do it.”
Chahin said that by giving children an outlet to express themselves freely, she had also asked for them to be co-choreographers. “Little by little,” she added, “I started fine- tuning my teaching skills to realize, wow, children love to participate. They have great ideas. Why not invite them and really see what can come out of this collaboration.
“Maybe they never took a dance class before, but they were able to feel the music. And by feeling the music in their body, the body told them how to move, and I think that’s something you never want to interfere with when children are growing.”
For the last 15 years, Chahin has also volunteered as a mentor, dance teacher and choreographer at Sheenway School and Culture Center in Watts, California, where she continues to adhere to the words of Gloria Contreras, “The arts can save the world.”
Chahin pointed out that children with socio-economic disadvantages, as well as those not coming from nurturing, loving environments, are able to connect with music and feel good about themselves. “We each have to choose to feel good about ourselves, because what happens is that a lot of anger and things that create negative emotions, we don’t necessarily have an outlet for them.
“But to be able to move the body and to get it out, this can quickly shift your state into a more uplifting and positive way of feeling. Exposing these kids to classical music and just feeling it connect with the heartbeat, is so beautiful. In essence, our first connection in utero is movement. I think that is why it’s so easy to connect children, regardless from what walks of life they come, to music and dance.”
Chahin, who earned executive certificates in transformational non-profit leadership, and fundraising and grant strategies from Notre Dame University, has also dedicated herself to the field of sensory awareness and mindfulness. Mentoring in Berlin and Budapest since 2004 under Ute Strub, a physiotherapist and lecturer on early childhood education and a Pikler® practitioner, Chahin is also co-authoring a book with the 86-year old German, because she said she wants to share Strub’s sensitive way of being with a wider audience.
“Ute will take an idea of something relating to children, being gentle with them when you wash a child’s hands, for example. And I can give you a list of books of why it’s important to be gentle and that information will stay in your mind, and perhaps you will understand on some level, but what Ute does is take this idea of being gentle with a child and she transports it to the body.
“When the body knows something, then there’s a mind-body connection and that information really becomes your own.”
Chahin agreed that this way of thinking aligns with her own movement background, but what, one wonders, is the attraction to working with elderly women such as Strub and Tardos?
“I seek them out,” Chahin declared. “The majority of my friends are older, and I think wisdom comes with age. I love age. When people ask me how old I am, I say, ‘I’m 50, and that makes me one year closer to my goal of being 100.’ To be able to spend time with women that have been on this earth, that have walked this earth and that have had struggles and overcame them, that’s incredible to me.
“Since time is the most important thing we have,” she added, “for somebody to share their time, they’re giving you their entire life. To be able to learn from these women – hands on, right there – not from a book, not from anything ethereal, but from the women telling you their stories, and that they’re willing to invest in me and share their knowledge, that is a huge privilege.”
Chahin, who still takes dance and yoga classes regularly, is also sharing her knowledge with people around the world. Her schedule is packed, with invitations to speak at conferences in China and Japan next year, as well as facilitating RIE™ and Pikler® training sessions in California, Florida and Oklahoma. She has also been asked to lend her expertise to an orphanage in Mexico, while requests from Canada and Australia are being considered, as well.
And that’s just fine with her, as Chahin says she both relaxes and does a lot of work on long plane rides. “What a miraculous thing a plane is. You come in, you sit down, you buckle your seat belt and 12 hours later you’re in another country. What has helped me to not feel stressed while I am working is that I truly am enjoying what I am doing. I am absolutely blessed that I have found what I love to do and get to spend my time that way.”
Through it all is Chahin’s life philosophy of inspiring others to become the best version of themselves. “I think we all can – and we all have – the potential to become better human beings, and to not just settle with what seems comfortable. If I can inspire that in others, it makes my life worthwhile.”
And while Chahin said that she wants to be a vehicle for information to be shared, she also thinks life has a purpose for her. “I am not looking for the opportunity to happen, I’m present for it to happen.
“I am purposely on this path and I am just walking one step at a time, with no huge goals in front of me other than if I can make a difference in the life of one child, then a butterfly effect starts. Who knows,” added Chahin with a glint in her eye, “maybe world peace is possible. I like to believe it is.”
She lives in California with her family.
By Victoria Looselef, Award-winning journalist and arts consultant