Seattle dancers become cultural diplomats during month-long trip to South Asia

By Eunbi Cho
UW News Lab

Spectum dancers and South Asian students following a breakdancing master class. (Photo by Alison Greer)

Dance is a language that can pass cultural barriers and unite people despite differences. At least, that was the theory behind sending Seattle-based dance troupe Spectrum Dance Theater to South Asia in February and March to serve as cultural ambassadors.

Last month, 11 members of the Spectrum Dance Theater returned from the month-long outreach trip to Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Spectrum dancer Shadou Mintrone in an email.

“Finding the common thread, dance and the arts, only supplied an even stronger bond,” Mintrone continued.

Two dancers teaching a class at the U.S. Embassy Colombo in Sri Lanka. (Photo by Alison Greer)

The international tour is part of a cultural diplomacy program administered by DanceMotion USA and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. During the trip, Spectrum Dance Theater participated in various workshops and outreach programs that drew local participants from the countries visited.

Mintrone said the purpose of the tour was “person-to-person diplomacy while also sharing the styles and experiences of American dance with countries around the world.”

According to Donald Byrd, 10-year artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, dancing abroad promotes cultural diplomacy by “extending American contemporary dance to international audiences.”

Byrd said American contemporary dance is very different from the dance in South Asia.

“Their dancing is often tied to traditions. In American contemporary dance, we place a lot of values in individual and innovation,” said Byrd during a phone interview.

Byrd said the intention of the tour was also to provide more contact with Americans.

Spectrum dancers at Bhadrakali High School in Uttarpara, India. (Photo by Alison Greer)

“People in other countries gain some insight about how Americans think. As Americans, we gain some insight [about] what is important to the people,” Byrd said.

He said that there is a misunderstanding and prejudice about Americans because media portray them negatively. Using dance as a form of cultural exchange, Spectrum Dance Theater is representing Americans to people in South Asia who may have little knowledge of Americans.

“It is called cultural diplomacy. It is creating mutual understanding. Trust can be developed and we can have a conversation about how our country and people can live together in the world,” he said.

Dance can be an cultural diplomatic tool because it overcomes the language barrier.

“It is difficult to convey complex ideas in a second language … [but] it happens through dancing,” Byrd said.

In addition to a cultural exchange, the tour was also a special experience for the American dancers.

“One of the highlights in Sri Lanka for instance was being able to create a hybrid dance with the local dancers,” said Mintrone. “The two ethnic groups of Sri Lanka along with the company members of SDT made an entire dance up for a performance at the ambassador’s residence.”

Though the tour has since ended, the connections made in South Asia still survive through social media. Byrd said the Spectrum Dance Theater has had more than 1 million hits on its social media pages during the tour, mostly from South Asia. People there continue to learn how Americans think through the Internet.

“It’s difficult to hate somebody that you know,” said Byrd. (end)

Spectrum Dance Theater will play an encore performance of “A Cruel New World/the new normal” June 5-9, and “Autopsy of Love (World Premiere)” June 20-22 and June 27-29 at Emerald City Trapeze Arts Building.

For more information visit spectrumdance.org.

Eunbi Cho is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. She can be contacted at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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