By Gillian Ebersole, August 4, 2020.

“Things can be so much more simple,” Miriam Hermina says, unfolding a piece of paper with an abstract self-portrait she created alongside a street artist in the Casco Viejo section of Panama City. Hermina refers to her experience teaching and learning dance in Panama as she describes the lessons she has carried forward into quarantine. Since visiting Panama and graduating, she remarks, “I’ve just been going through life with more compassion.”

On Friday, March 6th, ten dance students from Loyola Marymount University and Butler University boarded a plane to Panama. At that time, most other spring break trips had been cancelled due to the coronavirus. The dancers were headed to Casco Viejo in Panama City to teach dance as a part of the non-profit Movement Exchange. In the next week, the world’s idea of “normal” crumbled as the virus spread.

Meanwhile, in Panama, the dancers taught at the Aldea and Malambo orphanages and took classes from Panamanian professional dancers. Mid-week, their universities went online for the rest of the semester. In Panama, they had to suspend teaching their final classes at the orphanages in case they might be carrying the virus. LMU Dance major Eve Robinson observes, “I don’t think we understood the severity of COVID when we were gone.”

LMU and Butler students in Panama City - Photo by Eve Robinson

LMU and Butler students in Panama City – Photo by Eve Robinson

Now, almost five months later, the dancers look back on this experience with nostalgia. For many of them, it was the last time they danced with other people in the same physical space.

LMU Class of 2020 graduate Antonella Doblanovic describes how the experience made her reconsider her own perspective on dance. “Simple is powerful and constructive. There is a large amount of strength in simplicity and often that is overlooked.”

Natalie Pernas talks about how easy it can be to lose sight of dance right now. After finishing her first year at LMU online, she had hoped to return in the fall, but the university announced its virtual semester last week. Amidst the upheaval of the past few months, she clings to the memories of dancing in Panama. Pernas notes, “I think dance can bring people together in times like this.” She will attend the fall semester virtually from her home in New Jersey across the country.

Rising Butler senior Cody Maggiore echoed these thoughts about dance bringing people together. One of his biggest takeaways from his time in Panama made him realize “I would love to have a career in dance, but that is not what the purpose is.”

After months of quarantine, people poured into the streets to protest racial injustice and police brutality. Pernas talks about how people felt the need to use their bodies to demonstrate. In particular, she mentions a woman in Portland who protested by assuming various dance positions while naked. “The body is so vulnerable,” she comments.

LMU and Butler students in Panama City - Photo by Eve Robinson

LMU and Butler students in Panama City – Photo by Eve Robinson

Kennedy Schuelke, LMU Junior studying dance and pre-physical therapy, remarks that her experience in Panama taught her “Every type of movement is a form of dance.” This idea sustains her as she dances in her garage at a house she rents in Los Angeles. Since going to Panama, Schuelke has found dance to be a way for her to express emotion for the first time. She has processed many of the emotions in quarantine through dancing and improvising.

Looking forward, Maggiore says his time in Panama has fundamentally changed the way he looks at a future in dance. He notes, “A lot of my life has been geared toward making dance a career and I think that has skewed my perspective of what dance is.”

The work in dance is not over. All the dancers note the drastic difference in dance accessibility present in both the United States and Panama, exacerbated by the pandemic and the presence of economic and racial injustice. Part of the mission of Movement Exchange is to bridge this gap, even in a pandemic. Their goal of dance diplomacy connects movement and justice.

To that end, Maggiore comments, “I think dance diplomacy is using dance to bring different groups of people together under the umbrella of dance. It’s about learning from other people and creating something sustainable. It is ongoing, about continuing conversation, creating momentum.”

Doblanovic defines dance diplomacy as “seeing a drought and giving a drop.” Buoyed by their last few blissful days of pre-pandemic dance, this group of dancers is determined to keep the spirit of dance diplomacy alive.

Gillian Ebersole - Photo courtesy of the aruthor.

Gillian Ebersole – Photo courtesy of the aruthor.

Gillian Ebersole recently graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University Honors Program at Loyola Marymount University with a dual degree in Dance and English. While at LMU, she merged her love for language and movement through a series of choreographic research projects, culminating in her thesis choreography for eight women. She attended the Laban 2018 International Conference on an Honors Summer Fellowship and participated in the 2019 Summer Undergraduate Research Program drafting a book proposal about dance notation and literacy alongside Dr. Teresa Heiland. After learning from Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post at the Institute for Dance Journalism and Advocacy, she earned a position as a dance critic for the online arts collective Bachtrack. Two of her dance research papers have been selected by the William H. Hannon Library for publication, and two of her dance-inspired literary criticism papers have been published by the literary criticism journal Criterion. She has published poetry in the interdisciplinary journal Attic Salt, created a poetry installation for the Thomas P. Kelly Art Gallery, and performed her spoken word at various open mic nights. During her presidency in the National Dance Education Organization and LMU’s Chapter of Movement Exchange, Gillian started an after-school dance program at a local STEM high school and traveled to Panama City to share dance in the community there. She recently became a yoga teacher and currently works for the Department of Education & Community Engagement at Colorado Ballet. With over twenty years of embodied experience and exploration, Gillian connects language, dance, and yoga in order to share the gift of movement with her community.

Featured image: Students of Loyola Marymount University and Butler University with young dancers in Panama City – Photo by Eve Robinson