Sarah Boulos shares how she moved from public health to founding the most prominent performing arts center in Nigeria, SPAN (Society for the Performing Arts in Nigeria). Her story is one centered in faith, persistence, and love of country. Tammy Oruwariye, Ayiba contributor, speaks with Boulos about her journey thus far.
What is SPAN’s mission for those who are not familiar?
SPAN’s vision is to build a performing art center for Nigeria where we will educate, empower, and present the performing artist and his or her God-given art. Our mission is to make sure we accomplish our vision while preserving the richness of our Nigerian culture, as well as to present, educate, and empower Nigerian and international performers who, through their God-given talent, transform lives and bring change to their community.
Your organization has been around now for more than ten years. What inspired you to start this organization? Were you always interested in the performing arts?
My faith was the foremost driving force of this inspiration. I wanted to please God, make Him smile, and my purpose unfolded. I received the call to dance for the Lord in my Bible study through an anointed lady called Una. And then I read The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, and after the fifth chapter of the book , my purpose became very clear as I was waking up one early morning and did not want to open my eyes. I saw a center, a stage, and people teaching dance, music and drama. This happened few months after a tragedy in my family occurred on Christmas Day 2003 in which I buried my uncle and my aunt who asphyxiated when the Christmas tree caught fire. On December 25th, my mother, brother, brother ‘s wife and her father, and cousin rushed to the airport in Cotonou, Benin and they found the earliest flight to get to the funeral of my uncle and aunt. They changed the Air France tickets for another plane with the passengers boarding and the UTA flight crashed. The burial of my seven family members propelled me then to birth this baby called SPAN.
As a child in boarding school, I studied ballet till the age of sixteen and then acted in the theater for almost ten years. I loved the performing arts but forgot about it and what it really meant to me. I wanted to help people and I thought being a doctor was the only way. So performing skipped my mind for the following ten years.
I studied biology and then public health. I got a Bachelor of Science degree and was finalizing my Master of International Public Health when I had to leave with my husband for Nigeria.
The arts, especially the performing arts, have not been given so much consideration. How does SPAN work on trying to overcome this hurdle of an unappreciated art form in Nigeria?
It’s been a continuous struggle with no government support or telecom company support or bank support. However, I have received constant basic financial support from my father ‘s company SCOA and the Groupe Fadoul, my friend Haresh Aswani with Indomie , De United Food Limited, Faysal el Khalil with Seven-Up Bottling Company, and Suresh and Adithia Chellarams with the Chellaram Group. The Lebanese Ladies Society, Small World, and French Ladies Society have also helped in my community center renovation. However, SPAN has sustained its executives and daily activities only by teaching classes in schools and studios all over Lagos. Our sponsor money only helps us in our events. We are yet to receive any grants to get us to the next level.
NGOs and other non-profits struggle incredibly to get funding in many countries in Africa, and Nigeria is no exception. How did SPAN combat this challenge in receiving support?
My friends believed in me and helped me as mentioned and foresaw how needful my project was. Furthermore, I teach over thirty hours of dance a week to make sure my staff gets paid and all the classes we teach for those that can afford it, the money is pulled back in the community center. We also have sometimes individuals who will drop a small amount or sponsor a student scholarship and this also helps us a lot!
How has the perception of the performing arts changed since you started in 2004? It seems to have grown in a positive way with parents accepting more that their children study with SPAN. Why?
Because they’ve seen the success of our students who have become leaders in the industry, have gotten married, obtained steady jobs, innovated projects, who won awards and received funding, and became also studio owners. From directors of award-winning Nigerian musicals to pioneering reality TV shows, SPAN’s members have soared!
In what ways does the current economic and socio-political situation in Nigeria affect SPAN?
It does affect us as we have fewer students who have been in our studios and the companies are yet to respond to our season programming, but because we decided not to focus on the situation, we have remained at the top of our game.
What is your dream for SPAN in the next five years and in the next ten years?
In the next five years I want to see a performing art theater rising up in Eko Atlantic City where our land is and in the next ten years breathtaking, life-changing spectacular productions and award-winning performing artists taking center stage in Africa.
SPAN’s center will become the example of overcoming the misconception that a performing art career is not as honorable as a business career in Lagos’ business district. In the next ten years, families will be able to watch international performing art events at SPAN and national performing art productions in a state-of-the-art theater. Nigeria deserves the best as I believe I serve kings in SPAN. In the next ten years, our performing art academy will become associated and recognized in the likes of Alvin Alley, Julliard, and Berkeley School of Music, and professors will line up to come and share their expertise in our center. Grants and local financial supports will flood to make sure this spectacular center stands strong. We will not have to struggle to convince famous acts to perform at our center! They will line up to come to Nigeria.
Dancing is an incredible art form of expression. There are many people in Nigeria and throughout the African Diaspora that aspire to be dancers or be in theater but are often discouraged by families, friends, and society as a whole. Do you have any words of wisdom for people that really love the arts?
Love your gift because you want to serve God with it. Become a leader in your performing art field and keep accepting all obstacles with a mindset “to never give up.” Don t hurt people to get ahead, share your secrets, embrace your strengths, and used them to help other fellow artists. Your weaknesses can only make you stronger and with great battles comes a greater responsibility to impact others with your gift. Your performance should always be filled with hope and bring change to someone’s life in the audience. Keep dancing, keep praying, keep loving your family, and show them how happy you are in your chosen field. Never ever give up. You may fall, you get up. You may stumble to get there. It’s good. Your character will be better for it. Blossom and mature because of God, not men. Slowly you will see that no one can touch you or discourage you.