Moving To Change with Movement Exchange

By Mei-Ling Murray

This past July, ten U.S. dancers, ages 17-35, with dance training in jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop, salsa, and modern, traveled to Panama as volunteers to teach at-risk youth, as well as learn and perform dance through collaboration with local professionals. For two weeks, from dawn until dusk, these volunteers taught dance at various orphanages and foundations around Panama, and exchanged with the University of Panama’s Dance Department as well as the National Dance School of Panama. The participants immersed themselves in the Central American country by speaking Spanish, taking Afro-Panamanian Congo dance, learning of the indigenous Kuna community, and engaging underprivileged youth through movement. The experience culminated in a show at the National Theater of Panama, where both the volunteers and the students performed to an audience of 500 people. It was an exhilarating exchange, all orchestrated around the importance of dance as a catalyst for service, connection and empowerment.

This is the work of Movement Exchange, a non-profit organization that I am privileged to be working for as the Program Manager.

A year and half earlier, I met the founder of the organization, Anna Pasternak. Harvard graduate, Fulbright scholar and fellow San Francisco dancer, Pasternak single-handedly launched and ran Movement Exchange. After spending two years in Panama working for Global Brigades, an environmental NGO, Pasternak utilized her contacts and teamed up with Panamanian partners to create an international dance exchange program. What began as a small idea has now grown into a program where U.S. dance volunteers have the capacity to have an impact on youth a half a world away, while exploring and immersing themselves in a new country, all through the lens of dance. Since its inception in 2010, Movement Exchange has provided over 200 Panamanian at-risk youth with dance education, has been sponsored by the U.S. Embassy of Panama and the Ministry of Culture of Panama, and has established ongoing relationships with dance faculty and students of U.S. universities.

When I first came across Movement Exchange, I couldn’t believe how perfectly it aligned with my previous experiences with dance and travel, and how it so tangibly represented the numerous personal journal entries I had written about an ideal integrating of the two. In college, I studied abroad in Ghana, learning the traditional music and dance forms of various villages around the country. Though being in a third world country for the first time in my life was formative in itself, the trip represented an unplanned union of the degrees I was working toward in school: a BFA in Dance and a BA in Anthropology. Suddenly my relationship with dance took on a meaning it never had before; it was a way for me to deeply immerse myself into other cultures. A couple of years later, I was bitten by the travel bug and found myself in India for a few months without a plan. By the grace of some travel angel, I befriended a remarkable Indian couple who run a small dance school in Kolkata. I was immediately integrated into their small dance scene, and had the privilege of teaching ballet and creative movement classes to their students. It was this opportunity that painted my interpretation of India as a country.

A pattern began to emerge in the way I was traveling: I found myself relying on my dance background as the most genuine and rewarding point of connection to the true essence of communities. And with this realization came larger questions: why aren’t there such things as study abroad dance programs? In all of my training as a dancer, why wasn’t dance and cultural exchange instilled in my education?

So when I first stumbled upon the Movement Exchange website, my jaw dropped in recognizing that the swirling ideas and dreams I had about dance exchange were already manifested in a working non-profit, and in San Francisco of all places! I was floored to meet the like-minded Pasternak. We shared stories and enthusiasm over coffee for hours, and I was inspired how she had incorporated an element of service into her vision. Within in a few weeks, I was lucky enough to join the Movement Exchange team, working hand in hand with Pasternak to develop, organize and dream up this idea of dance and international service.

The mission of Movement Exchange is to provide an avenue for dance artists to participate in an international exchange that fosters cross-cultural understanding, awareness, self-esteem and community building through movement and service. We accomplish this mission by coordinating dance exchanges to Panama in the summer and winter. These exchanges can work in one of two ways: either through an Open Call, where dancers any age and from anywhere in the U.S. come together as a group, or as an exclusive trip with a University’s dance department or dance company. We have successfully brought dance students from Boston University, San Francisco State University, UC Irvine, University of Utah, and Indiana University, who notably, has created their own Movement Exchange club. Check out the fantastic video they made for recruitment for their next trip with us:

One thing we pride ourselves on is our commitment to sustainability. Though our program is in Panama for only a few weeks at a time, it is a priority to us that the impact goes beyond temporary. Too often do we see service tourism doing more harm than good: volunteers step into communities with good intentions, good advice, or good services, then leave without establishing a system for the continuation of those practices. So we have evaded this unsatisfactory model by ensuring that the dance education in Panama is perpetuated by local hands. Movement Exchange financially supports our partner, DanzaNova, and Panamanian professional dancers to instruct year-round at the same orphanages and foundations that the U.S. volunteers taught.

Our past alum, Doctor Jennifer Erdrich put it beautifully: “Movement Exchange is a rare and extraordinary organization because of its exemplary commitment to sustainability. With volunteers domestic and abroad, there is a constant presence of service-minded dancers bringing the joy of movement to children every week. It is a privilege to be part of a group with such steadfast participation who also carries the vision of social change through dance.”

Movement Exchange’s programming was built on a passion for facilitating opportunities for dancers to travel and give to foreign communities through their art form. Our work strives to propagate and nurture an awareness of how dance can be a cultural bridge, a language that transcends across borders, race, gender, age and economic background. If we take a look around, we find numerous other organizations with similar intentions. Dance United , based in the UK, uses intense contemporary dance training to reach out to marginalized and incarcerated youth. In India, Kolkata Sanved employs Dance Movement Therapy to empower women who have been the victims of violence and abuse. Dance4Peace is a Washington DC based non-profit  that implements a dance curriculum based on a system of social values, both domestically and internationally. A more performance driven company, Rebecca Davis Dance of Philadelphia uses dance as a method of reconciliation in post-conflict and developing countries. And here in the Bay Area, Performing Arts Workshop has been a pioneer and advocate for arts education for the past 45 years, by bringing teaching artists into public schools.

It seems as though there are pockets of brilliant ideas and varying frameworks for using dance as a medium to help, unite and uplift people. The next question is, how do we come together to achieve this larger idea more efficiently? How do we continue to develop a proactive, cohesive community of dance activists who are interested in their art form being a catalyst for change in the global community? Whether in our own backyard, or across the world, dance has the ability to serve a purpose beyond performance and social commentary; it can be the common ground and language for peace-building, youth empowerment, and community development. It can be the vehicle for service, cultural immersion, and a platform for generating positive social changes.

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