At first glance, the kids from Meteti could not be more different from ourselves. We attend established universities in big cities. They live in a remote town in the Panamanian rainforest. We don’t speak the same language. How could teaching dance for a few days possibly make any difference to these kids? How could this trip possibly end up being more than a voluntourism excursion, ending with us departing perhaps with an inflated sense of fulfillment, but leaving the community just the same as it was before?
It was not long before I realized that this would not be the case. I was amazed by the depth of the relationships we formed with the kids. The language barrier inhibited communication only slightly – the kids were eager to help us with our Spanish and to learn some English. Not being able to communicate as well with words meant that we had to use movement, the universal language. Communicating through dance, since we were all moving together, created an atmosphere of mutual respect and I believe it strengthened the connections we made with the kids.
On the last day, we put on a performance. I could see the joy in the kids’ faces as we all danced together to the upbeat music. Although we could not adequately verbalize our appreciation for one another, our smiles, the hugs and kisses we exchanged after the show, and the collective energy of the group were more effective than words could have been.
Yes, I left Panama feeling personally fulfilled, but I believe I left at least some of the kids I worked with feeling the same way. Some of the parents spoke after the performance. They explained that learning dance was entirely new for the kids and were grateful to us for sharing this enriching and lasting experience. I am excited to continue to work with the amazing dance diplomats from UC, IU and Butler to establish an ongoing dance program in Meteti and sustaining a real impact in the community.
Panama. Where to begin. Well for starters, I spent seven days and eight nights in 90 degree weather with limited meal choices and language barriers that almost made communication nonexistent. On the other hand, I spent seven days and eight nights with some of my closest friends teaching a curriculum of dance to enhance community and self-expression while learning and thriving in a brand culture. If you ask me, I just experienced the most diverse week of my life.
Teaching and learning alongside my peers has enhanced my global awareness of the world and its differences in many ways. For starters, we located ourselves in a rural area called Chepo surrounded by Panamanian culture. Visiting local hangouts and eateries, purchasing the delicious Eskimo Pies at the local store, learning how to use bathroom facilities, and participating in the night life at the discoteca, we engulfed ourselves in their world and lived alongside their customs.
Appreciating more about the life happening around us, we taught at a local school for four days, the fifth cultivating a show for all of the student dancers to participate and show off what they had learned. Watching the class numbers grow over the four days ensured the fact that our presence was not only accepted by the community, but largely enforced by the students. We watched how they brought their friends and siblings to share in the exploration of dance and show off their skills at the final showing. No words can express the happiness shared that day of the final show, except for Exchange. We brought them dance, and they exchanged it for appreciation and willingness to try something new. Our efforts for a dance curriculum will not stop after those five days, but will continue to bring in other artists and teachers to share the knowledge of dance with the Chepo community.
Through self exploration, and study of the psychology and dance fields, I have seen the many ways that movement exists as a universal means of communication. Coming to Panama, I was eager to see how this idea played out despite language barriers. The second the children ran into the classroom, my nervous anticipation subsided, as the children began to participate immediately. My broken Spanish and lack of prior teaching experience didn’t get in the way of communicating how to do the steps. This was because all of the children, as well as myself, shared the same love, dance. Movement changed behavior–rowdy children were calm by the end of the week. Movement changed expression–shy children became leaders. And movement changed physical ability–within only five short days, children could perform full choreography for an audience by themselves.
The power of movement is astounding, and was evident throughout my entire teaching journey here in Panama. My mission feels nothing but further from complete, as I hope to share the power of movement with children all over the world.
Teaching this week in Panama has been a phenomenal experience. It was wonderful to be embraced in a new community that has culture different from my own. The students were warm and eager to learn. It was really satisfying to see their improvement and investment in the classes progress. Everyday we started class with a name game and each day I saw students become more creative with the movement that would accompany their name. Over the course of five days I saw level changes, turns, and the use of rhythm added to movements in the name game. WOW!
I also saw a developed confidence in students as they grew in competency. The culminating performance was an event that involved the entire community. Everyone came out to support the children of Tanera Public School. It was a day of sharing dance. I, along with other teachers performed as well as coached our students throughout their performances. Each child was given a toy after performing. Many students insisted on taking pictures with all the dance teachers and thanked us for this life changing experience. The truth is I’ve been changed by them. It was fulfilling to give dance to these children and be a part of their introduction to the expressivity of the art form. These students discovered their own personal expression and I’m honored I got to witness and be a part of the process.
On our fourth and final day of teaching, we got to solidify our dances, explore new concepts, and strength our relationships with the students. I was filled with pride watching all of the kids practice their dances and put their whole selves into each step. The high school group had 6 new teenage boys who joined us for the class. Although they were timid at first, they learned both of the dances really fast and participated the whole time. Their smiles lit up the room and encouraged the other students. It was wonderful to see their progression, from embarrassed and unsure to fully engaged and expressive, there was a huge transformation from the beginning to the end of class. The movement flowed through their body and I could see the way they grew more and more comfortable with the choreography and their own way of moving the more they practiced it. Not one person left class without a smile on their face and I was completely inspired by their authentic joy and self-expression.
During my Panama experience, I gained so much more insight about dance and how it impacts so many people in so many ways. When I first arrived, I was afraid to teach and interact because everything was so new and different for me. I felt that i would not be able to touch the hearts of children if they didn’t even understand my language but soon after about out the second day of teaching I realized that dance is a language within itself and it has the ability to stand on its own without any other supporting language. It has the power to reach the heart and minds of many all because movement is universal and I didn’t realize how true that was until I taught the children of Tanara.
I will never forget the final day of being with the children when it was time for their show. The smiles on their faces made me realize why I love dance so much. It makes me express myself in ways that words can’t and I am so happy that i got to share the gift of dance with others so that they could experience that same feeling as well. I also will never forget how dance brought the community of Tanara together. It was amazing to see how excited people were to experience the joy of dance with their own families. This experience as a whole has been amazing and I can be certain that I will never forget it because it has changed me and the way I think and I can’t wait to see how the work that I have done here will affect the way that I spread dance to others in the future.
One of the most touching moments this trip came on the final day in Chepo prior to the girls big performance. Community members and volunteers were setting up for the show and most of the younger kids were playing in the courtyard and running in and out of the classrooms when I went down the corridor towards the cafeteria to fill up my water bottle. There I found my oldest group of students, the high school kids, in a classroom practicing the routines we had taught them throughout the week. One of the girls was acting as a rehearsal director and helping the other kids fine tune the details in the steps while another girl was using her iPod as a speaker while streaming the songs from YouTube. Seeing the persistence and dedication of the students was beyond inspiring and emphasized the universal language of dance.