And I’m lovin’ every second, minute, hour, bigger, better, stronger, power…

I can’t believe it’s already day the end of our 2nd official day of Movement Exchange! Yesterday we had the opportunity to spend time at the Aldea SOS Orphanage in Colon, Panama. SOS Children’s Villages International is a Non-Government Organization who offers innumerable services for impoverished communities all over the world, with an emphasis on child welfare. We spent the day yesterday playing movement games, leading follow-along dance combinations, having impromptu dance parties, giving countless piggy-back-rides, and acting as audience to the choreography they’ve developed working with their weekly dance teacher. The children were amazing to be around and it was the perfect introduction into the Movement Exchange experience.

As someone on my first Movement Exchange, I didn’t know any other volunteers who would be on the trip and as with anything, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. Yet upon the first meetings and greetings at the airport, I felt welcome. There is something intrinsic to dancers that makes introductions somewhat easier than with other strangers. There is a common vocabulary and universal experiences and basic passion for movement that don’t need to be stated or explained as might be the case with non-dancers.

Aside from feeling this comfort in a new community, our first day at Aldea SOS in Colon brought us together immediately. From quick problem-solving to inspirational creativity to laughing with the kids, this shared experience set the tone of our journey here and showed everyone’s personality.

This morning, we started our work with the dancers from the University of Panama dance department, whom we will be sharing the stage with in our big performance on Friday night. I’ll expound on that experience later…

This afternoon, our larger volunteer group was split into smaller groups to work with three separate organizations, with groups of kids that we will choreograph for and perform with on Friday. My group was at Aldea SOS Orphanage in Panama City. This is the first year that Movement Exchange is working with this organization. We learned that the children we’d be working with have had zero exposure to dance. So we started at the very beginning (as Julie Andrews would say, a very good place to start…) We led them in a simple warm-up to fun, upbeat music with things as basic as “step-claps” and “step-turns.” At the beginning, we probably were leading 40+ students in this movement exercise.

As you have probably guessed by now, this is a far cry from any experience most dance teachers will ever know. The kids have no “dance etiquette” about standing in lines or even simply continuing the class, because no one has ever taught them. A decent chunk of class was spent practicing going across the floor 5 dancers at a time with the next group starting after an 8 count. These kids don’t know what an 8 count is. So part of the experience was letting the ones who weren’t interested stand to the side and watch, or keep the free spirits who moved to the beat of their own drummers safely out of the way of the other children. I was consistently amazed at my co-teachers’ enthusiasm, patience, and creativity. Once we started the choreography, we continued to lose a few bodies here and there, but by the end of class, we still had about 32 dancers doing the choreography we had prepared for 10. I was blown away. It was truly one of the most wonderful things I have witnessed and have had the opportunity to help facilitate in my life. The two other teachers and I had pieced together some ideas to the song “#thatPOWER” by Justin Bieber and will.i.am. and were prepared to modify things as needed on the spot.

The result was more than I would have ever imagined, if I even would have known what to start imaginging. That’s super cheesy, but it has to be said. It’s not only about the visual of the large group of kids moving together, it’s the complex beauty of the situation. It would be an adorable piece of choreography done in a studio in a suburb of [insert major US city here]. But the bodies in that room had never danced before, never had that movement experience–and their joy and excitement was contagious. The most profound thing to note, though, is who these kids are, and what these bodies represent. For varying reasons, these children are living in group housing and being cared for from very early ages through adolescence. They don’t necessarily have a mom or a dad or their own bedroom or the cliché things we #firstworldproblem about. They vie for attention and affection because as much as there is and as amazing as their caretakers are, there is never enough to go around.

Dance cannot be a privilege for the lucky few. Whether in an expensive studio, or in an orphanage in Panama, kids crave movement. Giving them the time and space and structure to develop dance skills is invaluable. Ultimately, most kids who train in dance do not go on to be professional dancers. But dance provides fundamental skills that translate into all aspects of their lives. I recently wrote about these benefits in response to the “recital” phenomenon in US dance studios this time of year.

Coming to Panama, all of that pedagogical mumbo-jumbo continues to ring true. It’s an incredible opportunity to share all the dance I can possibly give to them. Yet in so many ways it breaks my heart that I don’t have more to give these kids. A few days of my time and attention doesn’t seem like enough. The hug of a little kid is always one of the most genuine physical exchanges you can have in daily life. The hug of a kid that has just met you and trusts you completely, wants you to stay, wants to know your name, wants you know their name (even if you butcher it with a terrible English accent), wants to be picked up and held and not let go, the feeling of the same kids running up to you again and again or waving at you across the room simply because they feel seen… we need to make up a new word for that feeling.

This also evokes ideas about dance in all communities. Within a mile of my home in downtown Chicago, children are shot and killed by teenagers (who are for all intensive purposes, just older children). Schools are being closed and 30,000 kids are being displaced. Arts education is very often one of the first cuts in budgets. I know a lot of great teaching artists and organizations in Chicago, but there aren’t enough and there aren’t enough resources.

Why are things like this? We know dance benefits at-risk youth. That’s not a point of debate anymore. As a new generation, as “dancers without borders” as one of Movement Exchange’s founders likes to refer to us as, it is our duty to continue to advocate for dance education. If you still have a hard time getting on board with these concepts, I suggest you come to Panama, and we’ll show you the joy and creativity and confidence and problem-solving skills kids get within one dance class.

I feel very lucky to be doing this kind of work if only for a short while. It is so important and I’m so grateful Movement Exchange exists to facilitate these relationships with the organizations in Panama. I look forward to the rest of this trip as I’m sure there will be surprises, learning and teaching, and continual affirmation that, while I might meander at times, the path I’ve chosen to follow in life is bigger than I am, and there are many who want to walk this path together.

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