Six IU students used dance to bridge cultural differences by teaching dance classes to underprivileged Panamanian youth over winter break.
Though circumstances such as providing their own water, foregoing hot showers and eating a diet of rice and beans initially shocked the IU students, sophomore Nathalie Bone said she called United Airlines on the last day of the trip to try to extend her stay.
“I did not want to go home at all,” Bone said.
The weeklong program, organized through the international nonprofit organization Movement Exchange, enabled students from IU, Butler University, University of Cincinnati and Cornell University to teach dance as a means of service.
Junior Alyxandria Sundheimer said she was most affected by the joy for life her students exhibited despite their lack of material privileges.
“They can hardly afford housing and proper clothing, further more dance classes,” said senior Angie Pan, president of Movement Exchange at IU.
Sundheimer said a 3-year old boy named Angel in her class already showed symptoms of AIDS, but nevertheless attended every day of the program.
“You could tell this little boy was excited to be in class, but he was just so exhausted that he couldn’t move,” Sundheimer said.
Movement Exchange has bases in Panama, Brazil and the United States. The IU chapter, one of at least 20 in the U.S., leads free weekly dance classes at Girls Inc. of Monroe County, Boys and Girls Clubs of Bloomington and Middle Way House.
Sundheimer said she structured her classes in Panama similarly to the classes she teaches each week at the Boys and Girls Club of Bloomington. While the IU students were unable to verbally communicate with their Spanish-speaking pupils, Bone said they formed physical connections through movement.
“It’s instinctual,” Bone said. “As long as you’re keeping them engaged, they’re willing to go along with you.”
Bone said her students demonstrated strong enthusiasm during class, asking to practice choreography over and over again, instead of taking breaks or playing games.
The university students, whom Movement Exchange entitles Dance Diplomats, taught for three hours each morning before taking their own dance classes from locals in the afternoons. They learned passo passo, folklore, bachata, contemporary, breakdancing and Panamanian hip-hop, all of which were foreign to them.
Nightly discussions on topics like U.S.-Panama history and the nature of diplomacy aimed to enrich the university students’ explorations of Panamanian culture.
“It’s definitely meant to help both of us,” Bone said of the experience.
Movement Exchange offers seven international dance exchanges to Panama and Brazil throughout the year. However, locally-staffed Movement Exchange programs in these areas continue their work year round, according to Movement Exchange’s website.
On the last day of the program, all participants in the exchange performed a showcase for the children’s families. The Panamanians danced routines the university students had taught them. The Americans performed passo passo, a traditional Panamanian social dance.
“I don’t know what will happen to these kids,” Sundheimer said. “Maybe one of them will grow up and become a dancer now.”
Pan, who went on the trip in 2015 and 2016, said the experience has changed her perspective and increased her love for dance since returning to Bloomington.
“We can still dance together, we can still talk to each other,” Pan said. “We can still make these connections even though we’re different."