7 lessons learnedThursday, September 1st, 2016
Dancing Around The World - 7 lessons
What I learned from traveling around the world for one year with a creative dance project.
Most people travel around the world to get a way from their job or take off for a year to travel the world. My work includes traveling to other places and creating with/for other artists, groups or institutions. I have traveled extensively around the world and collaborated and created different dance works my whole life but I never traveled and worked on the same project continuously without returning home.
First I want to emphasis that I am not a writer I am a dancer, so I feel at home when expressing through dance. For me dance opens up my thinking and consciousness. We are essentially embodied creatures. We live in a body, and our body is essential to our consciousness, ourselves and to our perception of the world. The mind is not just up in your head, the mind is distributed throughout our entire body and nervous system. The entire condition of our body affects our perception of the world around us. The ways in which our hormones and biochemistry interact with the magnificent complexity of our bodies is essential to our view of ourselves in the world. We are not incidentally embodied; we are fundamentally embodied. Our consciousness is intimately connected to our physicality. If you engage people in physical activity you change their consciousness. That is why I strongly believe that everyone should move and dance, and then do it some more.
In 2013 while I was touring my piece entitled A"Oasis -AEverything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but where afraid to dance" which was inspired by the Arab spring. In between the performance tours of "Oasis" with my company NY2Dance, I would rest in Chicago where I reside to prepare for the next project. During one of my meditations I had the idea to travel around the world and create site-specific dance performance workshops with local communities to create more awareness around movement and empathy, which became Dancing Around the World. I especially wanted to do "Dancing Around the World" (DAW) in as many countries as possible to show that we have more in common than we believe. I was tired and anxious. Tired of the negative news, conflicts and separation continuously emphasized in the world news reports. I wanted to see and experience for myself that the world is still a beautiful place; full of hope, joy and celebration. And I also wanted to show that people are kind and creative and happy souls. But most importantly, I wanted to show that we all want the same thing in essence; to love and be loved for who we are. As a dancer maker, it was important to me to show how essential it is to dance and express yourself physically. Especially, I wanted to show the benefits of dance beyond its entertainment values, beyond its performative contexts, beyond its physicality. I wanted to emphasis the intangible values of dance, its emotional, spiritual, mental and cultural virtues. So many people are not aware of the subtleties that dance practice exposes people to. Another reason I created the project was that I did not want to travel around the world to be a tourist or an observer but I wanted to experience the world cultures through an intimate exchange. I did not just wanted to consume a culture but I wanted to add value to the culture I was visiting. And what better way than dancing together! To me dance is the most intimate art form and it teaches you about yourself and your place in the world in profound ways. As Martha Graham said "AAAANothing is more revealing than movement".
Once I committed myself to the DAW project the task ahead of me was daunting but step by step, like in choreography you start to see the pieces come alive and together. The first few tasks were easy: first I had to write a project description and prepared a project presentation for funders to be considered for funding. I also had to find presenting and hosting partners around the world to get excited about the project. Then I needed to put a budget together and early on I realized that I could not travel with my dancers around the world because the budget was too large for a small company like mine and being responsible for a whole group of people traveling around the world was much more risky for an independent company like mine. But we could make it happen if we traveled small. So I decided to travel around the world only with my partner and collaborator Enki Andrews, who coincidentally is a videographer/photographer and multi-media artist. I believed that it was essential to have documentation about the project, so that we could expose our supporters and others in the community to the places and dancers we engaged with. We wanted to take our community with us on our journey.
Finding partners around the world and getting them excited about the project was easy as well. Finding grant organizations to fund the project was challenging. Many foundations and funding organizations did not believe an individual could pull it off or it did not fit into their funding criteria. Some funders thought it was too big of a project or maybe I did not explain myself very well but needless to say we did not receive any funding from the traditional funding sources. I must say everybody I talked to, loved the project and thought it was a beautiful idea but when it came to funding I got a lot of rejections. Most feedback was that the project was too big. Still I was driven to do this project, something deep inside of me knew this was important and it needed to be done. So we organized a crowd funding drive on Hatchfund, a fundraising platform for artists, to raise funds for our International travel to twenty cities around the world. We were so blessed that we had a lot of support from generous individuals, friends and family who believed in this project and in the end we raised more than $25,000. This project literally was only possible because of those people believed in us and the project.
Choosing the countries, cities and finding partners in the selected places was not as daunting. I had a lot of international connections through my years of touring around the world. Latin America was the most responsive because I knew many communities there. I had recently toured to all the countries we visited in South and Central America multiple times giving performances or workshops. Chile was the only place where the project became a solo because we did not find a local partner. The first half of the year was mapped out and the second half of the trip I organized while we were on the road. In each city we spent about 2 weeks as we visited 20 cities in four continents around the world. Out of the 20 countries only 3 fell through with the partners due to local funding sources being cut but we were able to create solo performances. The places where I only did a solo piece gave us also a chance to slow down, rest, regroup and catch up with editing the footage from the previous city.
The process around the world was intense and full of surprises. In most of the places our host partners greeted us at the airport with a warm welcome. They would take us to our residency home or hotel and orient us about the city and the place we were staying in. Our hosts would share a schedule with us of workshops, of site visits and scheduled public performances during our residency. The first two days were our discovery days and we would try to find locations where we could dance and film the site specific performances. The aim of the project was not to create a polished final piece but to give people an experience of the overall process of internal transformation through movement. Through different emotional, physical, and mental exercises and improvisations participants created new relationships with the city, with each other and the selected public spaces we engaged with.
My daily schedule in each city was a little different but generally, I would teach an open technique class in the mornings to get everyone on the same mental, emotional and physical base. It is important to start the day with a studio practice because it provides dancers with a protected space to open up and be vulnerable with each other. In my classes I would train dancers in contemporary dance technique with floor exercises including physical theater techniques, partnering and guided improvisation. The daily class created a space for dancers to open up create trust with each other. The exercises also helped dancers to open up and fine tune their senses to each other and the spaces that they inhabited. Dancing in public spaces takes a lot of focus because there are many distractions outside. Concentration and focused exercises are a great tool to create a focused energy among the participants who have never performed outside and together before. Since the workshops were open to any level we would have diverse skill levels and diverse ages and the challenge was to make the process as inviting and inclusive as possible.
The whole journey started in Chicago and our first international city for Dancing Around The World was Bogota Colombia. Bogota was the only city where we stayed for only one week. We were in residence at the Casa de la Danza supported by the German Embassy and hosted by Vannia Ibarguen of Danza V.I.D.A.
We continued to 17 different cities and collaborated with 17 different groups of dancers, institutions, embassies and art organizations. The next city was Medellin where we spend three weeks. In Medellin we were hosted by Danza Concierto and Peter Palacio and the City of Medellin. I am not going to name all the countries we visited and all the partners we collaborated with but you can see their names on the credits of all the videos linked here on my Youtube channel
Now that I am back and reflecting on the journey I wanted to share what I have learned traveling around the world and collaborating with 18 different organizations and dancers around the world.
First lesson: Simplify your project description. Be very clear with your language and do not assume people understand what you mean. Ask questions and clarify some more. Double check your facts. Some organizations say they understand your project but most arts organizations are understaffed and overworked and they do not pay attention to the details.
Second lesson: Travel light. Most people over pack their suitcase. You do not need that extra pair of jeans and that extra pair of heels. I suggest you pack your bag three times and each time leave half of it out and you will have the exact amount you need for the road.
Third lesson: Take care of your body consistently. Get the rest you need, if you need eight hours of sleep, schedule and sleep for the time you need. Denying your body what it needs is not a sustainable strategy. We also found that having a steady breakfast routine was very stabilizing even when waking up in another country in a different time zone. Give yourself time to recover. We did not do much sight- seeing. Since we were working for a whole year, we prioritized what our body was telling us.
Fourth lesson: Be flexible with your lesson plan: Make an outline but not a rigid plan. Being flexible during the process will create a deeper understanding and a deeper exchange with the participants. Being flexible creates an open exchange with you and the participants. By staying open you start to get a better sense of the place, the culture, the people and their hopes and dreams thus creating a more rewarding exchange.
Fifth lesson: Sameness comes in different colors and shapes. Even though we all come in different shapes, colors and sizes. In essence we are all the same. We all have two pairs of eyes, a nose and mouth. We all have the basic structure of a body with two arms and two legs and you find out that the body has the same limitations and possibilities around the world. Especially when you dance and improvise with each other.
Sixth lesson: Learn to listen. Each of us knows how to use our body parts to send messages but not many of us realize that people in different parts of the world 'speak' different body languages. This can include how we greet others, how we sit or stand, our facial expressions, our clothes, hair styles, tone of voice, eye movements, how we listen, how we breathe, how close we stand to others, and how we touch others. The pressure of body language can especially be felt in emotional situations where body language usually prevails over words. But teaching dance around the world and creating an art piece with the body breaks down the barriers of cultural differences. Through sensitive listening you can adapt your creative project to communicate more effectively through the nonverbal communication channels.
Seventh lesson: Teaching and working with people around the world you realize that we are all connected. When we talk about going to war with another country, the people that will be harmed are the people you met in the workshops, the children you saw on their way to school, and the families you see walking the streets arm in arm. Suddenly it becomes personal and it is not okay to see them injured or killed.
Of all of the benefits of traveling, I think that this is the most far reaching and the most important. Other Human Beings are our most treasured gifts here in this life. Develop a love for other cultures, religions and lifestyles. Let them see that we are all one too. I believe that if we do this we can change the world,
One traveling peacemaker and of course dancemaker at a time.