Month: May 2017

An Abundance of Butterflies

An Abundance of Butterflies

The third day in Panama, and my second time returning to this special place… 

I often find that coming back to things a second time around allows me to peel back a few more layers and better understand what it was that drew me to it in the first place. Since coming to Panama last Spring in 2016, the story of the formation of the Panamanian isthmus has stayed on the forefront of my mind- serving as inspiration and hope whenever a situation seems unfeasible. 

Today, we delved into the history of Panama- one of my favorite parts of the exchange. With my own country’s name so intricately and painfully laced throughout Panamanian history, I find it important to hold respectful space as an American traveling here. It’s important to know what has come before you and how you can best work towards humbly building new relationships of trust, peace and positivity in a place where the intersection of our worlds has previously been one of great tension. 

The Isthmus of Panama stands to this day as one of the greatest natural events in the world. Quite literally rising from the bottom of the ocean due to shifting tectonic plates, Panama’ks beginnings are adorned with symbolism and strength. The land that arose

And became Panama created a dramatic impact on the biodiversity of the world. For the first time, animals and plants were able to migrate between the North and South Americas. Next time you see an opossum, armadillo, or porcupine, think of Panama and know that those animals would not be in North America had Panama not bridged the two worlds. As I walk through the streets of Casco Viejo, so many cats skidder through the alley ways, and I know that the only reason is because cats (among dogs, bears and llamas) migrated from the North. 

This migration reminds me of the migration the Move Ex diplomats make to Panama for our exchanges. Had it not been for Panama, I would not have made this journey towards understanding the power that dance holds to unify and bridge worlds. 

The word Panama has been interpreted in a few ways- some thinking the first settlers in Panama came during August, the butterfly season, and that the words means “abundance of butterflies.” This seems fitting to me, given that the country has undergone great transformation as it shifted from one regime to the next, enduring times of great tension and struggle with the United States, with Columbia and even internally with dictators like Manuel Noriega (who coincidentally died at 83 last night). From darkness comes light, and Panamanians know this well. Just like the butterfly emerges from the darkness of the cocoon, so too does Panama emerge from the darkness of its past.

Others believe the name to have derived from the Kuna word “bannaba” meaning distant or far away. This evening we watched Hands of Stone, a recent movie about the Panamanian boxing world champ Edgar Ramirez. In the beginning of the film, Edgar’s wife says “We come from different worlds,” to which he replies “It’s all in the head.”

While the kids we teach at Malambo and Aldea are so different from us (one might even say we come from different worlds), in our moments of dancing together we are no different. No water separates us, and no borders of the land define us. Panama has connected the Americas and fostered a world of connection and new relationships. Movement Exchange has connected two worlds to one another and shown that just like the abundance of butterflies, we can all undergo change and transformation that leads us toward a life where separateness and differences are “all in the head.” 


By Beth Whelan, GMU Dance Diplomat

Panama Blog 1

Panama Blog 1

Today was our group’s first full day in Panama! We got up pretty early but it was all worth it to go on a hike and see all of Panama City. We even had the opportunity to speak with a Panamian officer. He shared a small piece of history about Panama which helped us open our minds to the incredible culture of Panama and learn about the obstacles it’s people have overcome. We also had our first day at the Malambo Orphanage! My group had the younger kids and it was a bit difficult at first to keep their attention on us but the parts where they were engaged made it all worth it! There was a time that we let them guide the movement as we followed and they seemed to love that. My group was also happily surprised that after reviewing some body parts in English they were able to sing “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” with us!! I look forward to teaching the Malambo girls again tomorrow. On the bus ride home we shared some of our highs and lows along with answering some other questions. I especially loved hearing from everyone about their reasons for coming on the trip and how they feel about dance right now. It gave me a lot to think about and reflect on. I appreciated everyone for opening up and I am so excited to spend the rest of the week with these awesome Movement Exchange members!

-Mikayla McKee, GMU Dance Diplomat


P.s. Pictured is the lovely Shirley who gave me a hair makeover at Malambo!
The other one is a few of us on our hike!

Big Smiles and Happy Hearts

Big Smiles and Happy Hearts

Wow! What a week full of laughs, tears and endless smiles. This was my second exchange to Panama with Movement Exchange. When I left last year, I knew that I had to come back. I spent all year working with my fellow dance diplomats on the Move-Ex board’s fundraising committee to make sure that I, along with many returning and new dance diplomats, could revisit this beautiful country. At the beginning of this week, I gave myself a goal to reconnect with my passion and love for dance. Stepping out of my comfort zone is something that I have always struggled with and I wanted to push myself to do this. If you know me well at all, you would be surprised to hear that the breakdancing class we took was one of my favorite classes. The class concluded with a cypher, where each dancer goes into the middle of the circle one at a time and lets the surrounding energy guide their movement. The energy in the room was so high which created such a safe space for everyone to go into the middle of the circle and dance. Not one person felt uncomfortable to breakdance in the middle of the cypher. This shows how this exchange has created such a supportive environment as well as friendships and memories with one another that I will hold close to my heart forever.

A huge learning point that I had on this exchange was the actual “exchange” that went on and improvements that I made as a teacher. Since I do not speak much Spanish, there was a huge language barrier which made it very hard for me to teach. Each day I would challenge myself to teach an across the floor combination to school, foundation or orphanage that we went too. By the end of the week I was able to communicate my combination in Spanish and the dancers understood. There was a specific moment with a little girl at the Foundation who liked to show off the English words she knew and she would help me with understanding the Spanish words I did not know so that we were able to communicate with body language as well as with the actual languages themselves.

One of my favorite moments this week was watching the girls at Malambo Orphanage perform three self-choreographed dances for us on our last day with them. Their contagious smiles lit up the entire gym. As I was watching, I started to tear up because these kids were so genuinely happy to share their hard work with us. I started to think about how not only do us, as dance diplomats, inspire the kids we work with here, but we are inspired by them, and this week these kids made such a huge impact on me. The positive energy and light that fills up the room when they are dancing with us reminds me why I do what I do and why I am pursuing a career in dance. I want to continue to positively influence others like how these kids have influenced me this week. Each individual dancer that I worked with this week had such a unique personality and passion for dance. This exchange has taught me to stay true to myself which is something that I often forget. I will be carrying these memories and special moments around with me forever.

– Kylie Vinitski, WMU Dance Diplomat

Beach Day!

Beach Day!

Ahhhhhh a relaxing day at the beach, just what the doctor ordered. After an amazing week full of spreading love and movement to the wonderful kids of Panama we were all excited to have this day to relax, reflect, and bond over all that we had experienced this week. Upon arriving to the island of Taboga, I was in awe of of how beautiful it was. The scenery was breathtaking, a sight you would never be able to see in the states. We eventually made it down to the water and set up our towels. It was nice to just lay out and take it all in, the smells, the sounds, the sun. It was also fun wading in the water with everyone. Today made me realize how close I have become to these girls. At the beginning of the week I felt like I only knew two of them and now I feel so much closer to each person! The beach was a perfect time to continue the bonding experience just in a different atmosphere than we had been all week. I had a fun time reminiscing everyone about the fun times we had in the classes we taught this week and the sweet kids we met. For lunch we went to a cute little “islander” hut! I got a fish fillet because I’m on an island in Panama, did I really have a choice? Sadly after lunch it was back to the beach for a few last pictures and then back to the hostel for our last night together. I’m mentally preparing myself for our last round of reflections and meal together. I’m really not ready for it all to be over. It went by way too fast.
I love the fact that through this exchange trip not only do we get to work with these kids and share our love of dance with them but also have the chance to experience a different culture than our own. I had SO much fun finally being immersed in a Spanish speaking culture and getting to practice my Spanish! It amazes me how different but beautiful it is. It’s also so fun to interact with the people of this culture and think wow, this isn’t a trip for them, this is their everyday. Looking back on this week my heart is so full. My heart belongs in mission work and I can’t wait to continue trips like this so that I can keep being a light and spreading love to kids just like these all over the world.
AnnMarie Aulbach (WMU Dance Diplomat)
Five Days of Dancing, A Lifetime of Impact

Five Days of Dancing, A Lifetime of Impact

Hello! My name is Arden Lapin and I am currently on my first trip out of the United States. This was an especially exciting experience for me because, not only did I get to immerse myself in a new culture in Panama, but I got to do some amazing volunteer work through the organization Movement Exchange. Me and nineteen other girls (who I now consider to be close friends of mine) spent this week engaging with children at Xielo, the Danilo Perez Foundation, Hogar de la Infancia, and most frequently, Malambo orphanage. We also were able to dance with students our own age at the University of Panama which has the only dance department in Panama which I found to be very cool. I hope in the future there will be more dance departments for college students, but for now, University of Panama is doing a wonderful job getting the ball rolling.

Panama is such a unique country and has so much richness to offer. I feel very lucky to have also been able to visit the ruins, beaches, and go on hikes. Experiencing a new culture through an exchange has been great because we have been constantly busy and pushing ourselves to make each day fulfilling.

My favorite aspect of this trip has been our visits to Malambo orphanage. While we were there we got to teach dance classes to two groups of girls. I found that teaching the younger girls’ class came less naturally to me, mainly because of my limited Spanish vocabulary. The language barrier was difficult, especially on the first day with the kids, but as our time together progressed I started to find ways to communicate nonverbally. Some of the most memorable moments I shared with the younger girls were through small gestures such as a girl coming over to me to hold me hand or acting like elephants with me when we played the animal game.
On the first day at Malambo when we went to our second class to teach the older girls, at first I felt a bit self conscious. The girls quickly picked up that me and a few others had no idea what they were saying when they talked to us in Spanish. Once they realized that we had limited communication skills, they seemed to lose interest in our class. I even thought that a group of girls might be making fun of me because I noticed they were all standing around looking at me and whispering and pointing. A little bit later, the girls went up to someone who was able to translate and excitedly told me that I looked like a doll because of my hair. I quickly realized that the girls actually just took an interest in me and were trying to figure me out and see what my personality was like. Once I understood what they were saying, I decided to go with the doll idea and acted goofy until they were laughing and it finally felt like we were on the same page. This was the first time that I felt like I shared common ground with the girls without trying to talk.
As the week continued, I focused on amplifying my acting and facial expressions with the kids to try to communicate and I found that I started to get a response from them. As the kids got more comfortable with us, the language barrier seemed to become less and less of an issue and I could tell that some of the girls recognized me and even would come over to me and light up when I talked to them.
By the end of our time at Malambo, I had made connections with some of the girls that quickly made a huge impact on me. I especially bonded with two twins girls who were constantly smiling. They were so silly and goofy and I swear I never saw them do anything but enjoy themselves and have a good time. Their excitement and joy was contagious and reminded me how important it is to have fun and not take yourself too seriously. Especially in a dance context, I think we can get very caught up in right and wrong rather than just living in the moment and reminding ourselves that we dance because it feels so good.
The most bittersweet moment I had on the trip was when we were leaving Malambo for the last time. The orphanage is on a huge hill and the girls followed us all the way up the stairs to our bus. I saw a girl standing alone nearby that I had played with earlier that day. When I came over to her she suddenly had the biggest smile on her face and gave me a hug and kiss on the neck that was so sweet and affectionate. I had already said goodbye to the twins downstairs, so I was surprised when I walked up to the bus and saw that they had been waiting for me. The two girls immediately sprinted over to me and gave me a huge hug. Even in our goodbye, the girls were still so smiley and bubbly. As I sat on the bus, they ran to my window, jumping around and waving and blowing kisses to me. The bus pulled away and one of the girls ran after us all the way down the hill until she couldn’t keep up anymore.
Although our time with these kids was short, we built meaningful connections that are bound to have a lasting impact for both the children and for us as dance diplomats. It amazes me how much trust and friendship that these girls gave me despite our very limited circumstances. The power of movement has given all of us an outlet for joy, expression, and communication that is not limited only to our service here in Panama. I look forward to applying the newfound concepts of compassion and sharing through movement that I have learned from my new friends here.
– Arden Lapin, WMU Dance Diplomat
What’s in an exchange?

What’s in an exchange?

Today opened my eyes to the importance of collaboration and participating in an honest exchange. Upon entering the Danilo Perez Foundation, we were prepared for a structured class with both a younger and older age group. Once classes began, we quickly realized we had to scrap our previous plans in order to attend to the chaos that arose. This resulted in us catering to their particular interests. With the younger kids who responded well to music, we engaged them in rhythmic patterns as well as games. When it came to the older kids, it was evident that a typical jazz or contemporary class was not the way to go. Seeing some of the kids improvising and showing off their social dances, I asked the kids “te gusta hip-hop?” and the desire in their eyes was so evident. Thinking on her toes, Alyssa Brutlag quickly developed a hip-hop combination incorporating some of their favorite moves as well as several new steps to add to their vocabulary. Not only did we get to see the kids in their element, but we were also able to build upon their interest with the hip-hop knowledge Alyssa brought to the table.

We are not here solely to help; we are in Panama to participate in an exchange – to learn just as much as we are teaching. Our responsibility as dance diplomats is to create a safe and secure environment for movers and shakers to express themselves individually, fully and honestly. When we begin to create that open space, it can lead to beautiful things. These girls, with a love for hip-hop, can express this passion openly because of the collectively secure atmosphere that was created. I am continuously in awe of the creativity that arises from a willingness to collaborate with these kids in Panama. What an amazing exchange we receive through the language of dance. You are never done learning, and sometimes the greatest teachers are those who have such a distinct passion to learn.

Abrazos y besos,
Kelly Anderson (WMU Dance Diplomat)

My Love for Panama Keeps Growing

My Love for Panama Keeps Growing

Hello! My name is Genevieve Brady and I am a dance diplomat from Western Michigan University. Today was such a rewarding day for me and everyone in our exchange. Another dance diplomat named Alyssa and I had the opportunity to teach at the University of Panama which was a life changing experience.  I taught a sassy jazz funk combination in the second half of the class and Panamanian dancers were so receptive and full of energy. The room was so packed with dancers from both Panama and Western Michigan University that every single one of us left with a new friend. I cannot begin to explain the amount of love and energy we all had while going through groups and exploring our sassiness. We cheered and banged on the floor for each other so loud that at some points it was difficult to hear the music. I am overjoyed and thankful that I got to experience something so irreplaceable, so beautiful, so organic. I will never forget his experience for as long as I live.

Next, we bussed to the Malabo orphanage. After being there yesterday, we decided as a group to build upon the material we worked on. In the midst of teaching dance, the relationships form. A girl in the younger group made a particularly strong impact on me. In Spanish, I asked her what classes she had in school today and one of them was English. She barley knew any words but I began to teach her colors like black, red, orange, and blue with objects around us. When she walked me to our bus at the end of the day, she gave me a big hug and said “te amo mucho” which means “I love you a lot”.

It is very difficult for me to verbalize the feelings of fulfillment that these kids and experiences have brought me. These words do not do this day, or week, or trip justice. I am so looking forward to taking this new-kindled passion for dance back to life in Kalamazoo, Michigan. ¡Te amo mucho, Panamá y hasta luego!

– Genevieve Brady, WMU Dance Diplomat