“If this is not living, I don’t know what is.” Middlebury in Panama City

It’s only been a few days, and we’ve already lived, felt, struggled and delighted in so much—but most of all, these few days working with the children of Malambo and Aldea SOS and the students of the University of Panama and the National Ballet School have been about connecting with people through a love of movement.

We eight Middlebury students all came into the Movement Exchange experience with different backgrounds, dance histories and familiarities with Panama. Just geographically we’re coming together from all over: Akhila from India, Andrew from Kansas, ChiChi from California, Lorena from Ecuador, Mandy from Alaska, Miguel from Venezuela, Vanessa from Colombia and Vlad from Bosnia and Herzegovina. From the early moments in the airport through every full day of moving here in Panama City we’ve connected incredibly well as a group, each of us responding in our own ways to the challenges and joys of teaching and taking dance classes, but always being supportive of each other.

Throughout the week we’ve had several spontaneous moments of contemplation that have brought us together in a sense of purpose and intentionality: on Sunday night when we had just arrived at the Magnolia Inn, Tina, who’s been working with Movement Exchange for several months and is our fearless leader, guide, organizer and friend, led us up to the roof of the building to look out over the streets and listen to the quiet nighttime heartbeat of the city. The low rumble of distant cars, honking occasionally, a dog bark here or there, people calling out to each other across streets, music from passing cars. We sat up there on the roof for a lingering moment, breathing in Panama City and wondering what our week was going to be like, but knowing that whatever was to come, we would be there for each other.

Another moment on Tuesday came on our morning walk to the highest point in the city, overlooking the skyscrapers of downtown and the little peninsula of Casco Viejo, the old town neighborhood where we’re staying. After Monday when we’d had our first classes at the University in the morning and at Malambo in the afternoon, it’s safe to say that we were all nervous—working with children, we’d realized, is not easy. We had had three classes at Malambo in the afternoon, one with very young kids about 3-5 years old, one with 6-10 year olds and one with 11-16 year olds. Each group taught us something about what it means to lead and guide a class—we really had to work to keep our energy up to engage their attention and listen to their interests and needs. Because while as university students we might be more patient with an activity or exercise that is a little unfamiliar, difficult or boring out of respect for a teacher or the expectations of a classroom, if a child isn’t interested or engaged, they’re not going to fake it, and we lost their attention at various points on our first day in favor of playing on tables, running to the water fountain, leaving the room, hugging and holding on to us or simply not participating in the activity. We had come up against the struggle of wanting to share something that we love, dance, with the kids, but also trying to meet them where they were and understand that at times they just seemed to want hugs before we could do anything else. There were moments when we simply didn’t know what to do with a room of children all doing different things, going different directions and needing different attention, and certainly we pushed the limits of our patience and compassion as we inevitably got frustrated trying to figure out how to engage all of them. So after this first day when we all were feeling humbled and a little intimidated by what was before us, Tuesday’s hike was an opportunity to literally look at the big picture, and take some deep breaths in silence as we looked out over this unfamiliar place and prepared to try again and put our hearts into whatever we would do.

A few reflections from the group:

“Overall the experience has been humbling—the feeling of ‘I don’t know what’s going on, what do I do?’ is itself very humbling. I have felt in the group moments of communal contemplation in which we all share the same energy—everyone in the same active spirit with each other.” Miguel

“When we were with the kids we realized that there is something more than us—mostly at Middlebury we’re so focused on ourselves, on our own success, but teaching dance has changed my perspective on dance and on using my body for something else instead of just my own life—sharing and making dance available to others through my own dancing.” Lorena

“I realized that I have something that I’m able to offer to others that others have offered to me—there’s been a lot of time after we do things to sit, think and process what’s going here and at Middlebury. Because our days are so long we can really see and feel in a span of hours so many senses and body parts and parts of the brain being pushed and stretched and challenged. Being forced in our discomfort to take in all these things and keep moving and keep going through, it’s a constant exploration and exchange and dialogue.” Chi Chi

“This is definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve done. It’s a step towards overcoming certain insecurities, and it’s great to be able to do it in a group, and especially when we’re going to places and meeting people who are incredibly accepting and open hearted.” Vanessa

Wednesday evening after a visit to the market at La Central, all eight of us cooked dinner together for ourselves, Tina and Scotty in the hostel kitchen. Each person had a part in the dinner—whether it was cutting pineapple, cooking plantains, boiling tapioca root or doing dishes, all of us had a hand in creating something to share and appreciate together. This trip so far has been just like our moment at dinner: all of us doing our part and using what we know and where we’re coming from to share movement, laughter and joy with everyone we interact with here in Panama for the week, knowing that it is not really about who’s teaching or learning—it’s about experiencing the joy of dance together.

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