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School of Dance students spent alternative spring break in Panama using dance as a tool to empower youth and promote self-esteem.

By Molly Powers, marketing and communications coordinator, College of Fine Arts

While many students spent spring break relaxing on a beach, a group from the School of Dance at the University of Utah chose to travel to Panama to teach dance to underserved communities. The Panama Dance and Cultural Exchange is a service-learning program which partners the U with Movement Exchange, a dance and community outreach organization working in Panama City, to use dance as an educational medium to empower underserved youth, promoting self-esteem and creative development.

“Beyond Panama, dance is an important tool to teach all demographics,” said Natalie Gotter, a graduate student in the School of Dance. “The students that we were working with do not have access to arts education, so we were able to host a learning environment that encouraged self-expression, self-confidence and physical challenges in a way that they do not typically receive. Additionally, bringing in our expertise to the already established dance practices of the National Dance School and Gramo Danse Company facilitated cross-cultural learning. We were able to introduce new dance techniques and were able to learn new techniques as well.”

The Movement Exchange began its international dance exchanges in Panama in 2010 and since that time, they have held yearly performances with more than 100 youth and are currently funding year-round dance programs at three orphanages and two communities. The exchange network is made up of 21 university chapters in the U.S. who are committed to providing year-round dance education in their own communities.

Each year while in Panama, the students teach and co-teach workshops in choreography, technique and creative process while being fully immersed in local culture and the day-to-day life. They work and live with underprivileged youth at the Malambo Orphanage in Arraiján, the boys’ orphanage at the Hogar de la Infancia and the Fundación San Felipe. In addition, they teach master classes at the Ballet National School of Panama and the University of Panama.

What sets the Movement Exchange apart is their effort to make dance education programming in Panama sustainable. Not only do they work to provide a culturally enriching, service-based experience for U.S. dancers, but they also ensure the impact goes beyond the temporary, by supporting the dance education for underserved Panamanian youth all year.

Through this project, the School of Dance hopes to expand the U’s commitment to dance pedagogy and service learning by bringing a high level of performance, training and choreographic excellence to communities outside of Utah, as well as providing students with new cross-cultural understanding and teaching skills. By bringing new performance and choreographic perspectives to Panama, they hope to foster a community of trust, openness and understanding across linguistic and cultural boundaries.