As a BFA dance major at Western Michigan University, I have been offered many incredible opportunities by the Department of Dance. However, the opportunity that has had the greatest impact on not only my dance career, but my character, goals, and ultimately my life, is my participation with a student organization called Movement Exchange.
Movement Exchange is an organization that unites dance and service with the intention of providing dance education to underserved communities and creating equal opportunity for all in regards to the expression and emotional release this art form provides. Not only do we participate in local outreach, offering dance programs to preschools, afterschool programs, retirement communities, and anywhere else we can get our hands on, but every year we are presented with the opportunity to participate in an international outreach program.
So on May 7, twenty dance diplomats from WMU boarded a plane to Panama City, Panama for the experience of a lifetime. I was fortunate enough to be a returning chapter member, having gone on the trip last year. I thought I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I knew the hostel we would be staying at, the places we would be teaching, and was prepared for the struggle that would be created by the language barrier. My life was completely transformed by last year’s trip, and I was not expecting the second trip to have as much of an impact as the previous one had. Little did I know, my passion for dance, and more specifically spreading dance to the world, would grow even more.
One of the aspects of Movement Exchange that I greatly appreciate is how much of an exchange the experience really is. While we go on the trip with the intention of spreading dance education, we receive as much of an education as we put out. During our time there, we visited the University of Panama, home of the only dance program in the country. At the University, we taught a class for the students and the students taught a class for us, which provided for a true exchange of cultures. It was an amazing experience to be able to compare the grounded, organic style of the Panamanian students to the technical, refined style that we are used to in the states. Being surrounded by dancers with a background that is worlds different from ours provided me with so many opportunities for experimentation and growth within my craft.
We also took classes in break dancing and aerial silks, two very popular genres in the dance scene in Panama. Experiencing styles that I may not have the opportunity to explore otherwise was very exciting and allowed me to further expand my dance vocabulary. We also took some time to experience Panama as a country, visiting the ruins of Panama Viejo. These ruins are what is left of the oldest city in Panama after a pirate named Henry Morgan set it on fire in 1671. We also hiked to Cerro Ancon, the highest point in Panama City, and explored the world famous Panama Canal.
However, the bulk of our week-long trip was spent teaching dance classes of all styles in orphanages, local outreach programs, and foundations for the arts. On the first day, we taught four classes at Xielo, the only full time contemporary company in Panama. The students we taught were the participants in their social outreach program, and were between the ages of five and eighteen. As they ran into the building, their excitement was unmistakable. They put on their colored unitards and ran around the room, showing us how they could do handstands, backbends, and the splits. Since this was our first day teaching, the language barrier was definitely a shock, but the kids didn’t care. They would laugh when we butchered our Spanish, and giggle uncontrollably as we gestured and made fools of ourselves in an attempt to convey our thoughts and directions. The love of dance these kids have is infectious, and watching them do the combination we taught at the end of class rekindled the fire for sharing dance with the world that was sparked on my trip last year. A few days later, our group split up, half going to an all-boys orphanage in Panama City called Hogar de la Infancia, and the other half going to a local outreach program for underserved kids in the city run by the Danilo Perez Foundation. The three classes that we taught in these two locations were simply about loving on these kids and introducing them to the art of dance. These kids have had little to no exposure to dance, so what we could do with them was limited, but it didn’t matter. We had fun playing movement and rhythm games, and sharing our passion for dance with them.
The kids that ultimately stole our hearts however, were the girls at Malambo. The oldest orphanage in Panama, Malambo is an all-girl, Catholic orphanage in Arraijan, just outside of the city. We spent three days with these girls, so the bonds we created with them were undeniable. Over the course of three days, we taught twelve classes to the girls from the ages of five to eighteen. During our time here, there were three things that stood out to me the most. The first was the growth I could see in the kids from this year to last year. Not only had their overall dance ability improved as a result of the year-round dance education that Movement Exchange provides, but their personalities were changed as well. Girls who were reserved and sat in the corner the whole time last year, were going up to people and introducing themselves, participating in class. Girls that caused trouble last year and misbehaved to get your attention were polite and respectful during class. The effect that dance is having on the development of these girls, including their values and personalities, was incredibly evident during our time at Malambo.
The second thing that stood out to me was the positive light that these kids are. These girls have no possessions, no family, at least that can provide for them, and often times never leave the grounds of the orphanage. However, the willingness to smile, laugh, and have fun that these girls have is greater than that of most people in our country of privilege, instant gratification, and competition. Leading me to my third point, one of the sweet girls at the orphanage choreographed four dances for the others and they performed for us. Seeing the pure joy on these girls’ faces as they performed reminded me of why I fell in love with dance in the first place. Dance is an emotional release. It is an escape from reality into a world with no worries. Dance has always been there for me in my moments of sadness, anger, disappointment, and loss. However minute my problems may be, dance has always been there, and for these girls who have experienced more hardship, trial, and disappointment than most people will in their lifetime, dance is there as well. These girls who rarely get to leave the orphanage, some of which have never met their parents, some of them abandoned on Malambo’s doorstep, are turning to dance as an escape, and I have never experienced such an overflow of emotion.
My experience in Panama was a rejuvenation of my passion for dance. In a world where the focus is competition and perfection, I was reminded by the smiles on these kids’ faces that dance is so much more than that. I dance not only to bring myself joy, but to spread joy to others as well. I dance to change the lives of those I teach and get the chance to share my art with. I do not dance to master the triple pirouette or to execute the perfect battement. Through this experience, I have been reminded of this. For the girls at Malambo, dance is the only thing that is constant in their lives. They do not know for sure where they will be in a few months or who will be in their lives, but dance will always be there. And that is what makes it so beautiful.