We arrived to Arimae, an indigenous Embera community shortly after an impromptu visit to a Panamanian naval base. Arimae is a very small community of Embera people who still have a level of autonomy from the Panamanian government. As soon as we got out of the van, we were greeted by Alberto, one of the leaders of the community, and a group of young dancers. I can’t even describe how beautiful they were in their colorful skirts, beaded tops, necklaces and headpieces. They showed us four different dances, which represented two different type of birds, the toads waiting for rain, and a flower that opens and closes. I was so amazed to see how much the girls knew, they couldn’t have been more than 9 years old, and that they wanted to teach us one of their dances. We learned the flower dance with them. Then, they asked to see us dance and so three of the UC ballerinas performed Cupid in the little gazebo type structure. Watching them filled me with so much joy as you could see how excited they were to see us dance. Tinna of course had them peeling with laughter as she got them to copy her on the floor. The sound of their laughter will forever remain with me! Our dancing session probably lasted over an hour before we went to go visit the little artisan shop the women run to view their stunning beaded, carved and woven crafts.
The highlight of the day for me was that upon coming out of the store, the girls ran over to me and asked me to teach ballet for them. So, I spontaneously taught on the grass outside. I have never had such eager students with such big smiles. They begged me to go back under the gazebo structure. So we continued to dance there much to the delight of all the mothers gathered around. Then, they asked me to dance ballet for them, and to my surprise, I did! I improvised a ballet sequence that drew from the Spanish dance in Nutcracker. It felt absolutely incredible to dance ballet to the delight of these little girls. My smile was almost as big as theirs! Kim was there too and that was the first time she had ever seen me do ballet. The feeling of jumping and turning made my heart soar, reinforcing that I miss ballet and want to somehow find my way back to it.
Once everyone was done in the shop, Alberto brought us through the community and to the river. People were going about their daily lives and watched us with interest but with a level of respect; they knew that we had just been exchanging dance with their children. I loved winding through the peacefulness of the village and learning more about it from Alberto. At the river, we overlooked people bathing and doing laundry. What I would do to do my laundry and bathe in such a place! Unfortunately Alberto was saying that a ranch upstream pollutes the river and had had a very negative impact on its biodiversity and the Embera way of life. He looked so sad and I couldn’t help but feel his palpable spiritual pain. Our last hour in Arimae was spent getting juagua (indigo) tattoos from one of the women as the sun began to set. The tattoos are very geometric and symbolize different plants or animals.
Unfortunately, when the tattoos were finished, we had to say our goodbyes to our new friends. I was so overcome with the peacefulness and equality of the exchange we had just undertaken. I am extremely sensitive to how many people go into indigenous communities to simply watch and stare, reinforcing the belief that indigenous groups are somehow different than “civilized” groups of people. However, the several hours we spent with the Embera were founded on a shared love of dance, smiles and laughter. There was not a moment where I felt like I was anything other than a human being: I never felt superior and was able to get to know the people I was immediately dancing with. Additionally, we all showed enthusiasm to learn more about the dances, the artwork, the community and culture. Though we didn’t speak Spanish, we would ask questions to be translated for Alberto and listened intently while he was speaking.
It was such an incredible experience to be able to develop such a personal and unique relationship with our Embera hosts within only a few hours. It reinforces my belief (and that of Movement Exchange in general) that with dance, you are able to break many established barriers and connect on a human level with those around you. I will forever cherish those few hours in Arimae and keep them as a reminder of the power of movement and humanity.