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Service Learning with Dance Students in Panama

Posted on Thursday, July 1st, 2021

Today's post is by guest author Lorelei Rutledge, Associate Librarian, Faculty Services at University of Utah Marriott Library

Lorelei Rutledge headshot on rainbow background

Sun, sand, palm trees. . . sounds like the beginning of a vacation, doesn’t it? Actually, this description sets the scene for the beginning of my service-learning trip with students in the University of Utah’s dance program. The trip, hosted by Movement Exchange, was part of an “international dance exchange.” Dance students spend 8 days in Panama, learning about the country and culture(s). They visit multiple locations to teach dance to youth participants, mostly orphanage residents. At the same time, they meet with Panamanian dancers to connect and learn new skills. The goal is a fun and cultural exchange. The trip was also an opportunity for me to teach information literacy and cultural competence and meet a great group of students. 

During the program, I had three major goals as the service-learning librarian in residence. The first was to gather data about the students’ experiences, what they learned, and whether or not the information literacy and cultural competence workshops held prior to the trip helped them. My second goal was to support them as they took on the task of teaching dance to students from a variety of age groups and backgrounds. The third (much more prosaic) was to serve as a faculty chaperone, since the students split into groups to visit different teaching locations throughout the day. I wanted the students to feel empowered to learn about Panama before they visited and to feel supported while we were there. 

Prior to the trip, the dance professor organizing the trip invited me to meet with her students during several pre-trip workshops. The workshops were designed as an opportunity for the dance students to learn or refresh basic dance pedagogy curriculum and practice the activities they wanted to teach the participants in Panama. During my portion of the workshops, I talked with students about cultural competence principles, particularly implicit bias. The students were very receptive to these ideas and asked me lots of great questions. I also showed them how to use library resources to find out more information about Panama. Another librarian also visited the class and taught the students some introductory Spanish, including words for directions and greetings. 

    During the trip, I accompanied students as they taught in several locations, including a dance school for youth in Panama and two orphanages. The program that the students visited through, Movement Exchange, hosts dance classes in all of these locations year-round. When a visiting student group is not teaching, Movement Exchange pays local instructors to provide dance lessons so that the participants have continuity. Throughout the trip, we talked often about how it might be disruptive to the participants if they only got to do dance lessons when a student group was there to teach and why it was important to strengthen and maintain local relationships. In addition to these informal assessments, I also asked students to fill in pre- and post-trip assessments rating their understanding of cultural competence ideas, like implicit bias. Each night, the students also did a check-in with our Movement Exchange hosts, where they learned about additional facets of Panamanian culture and revisited many social justice and cultural competence ideas. 

    We also spent plenty of time off of the dance floor learning about Panama. We ate in local restaurants, visited local markets, and even spent one day on the beach. These interactions helped students contextualize some of what they learned about the culture during their teaching sessions. Our Movement Exchange hosts also connected us with dance lessons in Panama, which helped the students learn about dance and culture and make new friends.

    I don’t want to sugarcoat my story of the trip—I expected some challenges, and there were a few. The students worked hard from morning until evening, so at times nerves got frayed and people needed quiet time. As a librarian, I felt a bit anxious throughout the trip because I have a physical disability and am not much of a dancer. I worried that I would be too overwhelmed with my responsibilities to take notes on our experiences or engage fully with the students. Although the trip took a lot of energy, I was able to be fully present with the students. I also learned a lot about dance and dance education, both in the U.S. and in Panama. 

On a broader level, I also worried about our impact; were we disrupting local relationships? Were we using dance as an excuse to go on a vacation that inconvenienced the Panamanians that had to work with us? Fortunately, the program leaders also recognized these challenges. Movement Exchange goes the extra mile to develop lasting relationships with Panamanian entities like the orphanages we visited and to minimize disruption by providing regular dance support. Our program leaders also spoke Spanish and employed an interpreter to help students communicate effectively with the dance participants and other members of the community. 

    After the trip, students reported enjoying it but also struggling with some aspects. It was hard for many of them to see the kids in the orphanages, although we talked with them about the importance of avoiding pity or acting as if they were there to save the students in some way. Many also reported feeling murky about some of the concepts we discussed, like implicit bias. As a librarian, I also had some mixed feelings; I wished I had more time, both in workshops and out, to get to know the students before the trip. However, I think the trip was a valuable opportunity for library learning because students got to see information literacy concepts “in action.” They were motivated and engaged in part because they knew they would use this information on their trip. Overall, however, students reported loving the opportunity to teach and meet Panamanian dancers. I also had a good time seeing how information I taught was applied by students in their ordinary lives. 

Interested in more? See this book chapter: Rutledge, L. & LeMire, S. (2020). Exploring service learning with dance students. In S. Vong and M. Vjrklan (Eds.). Learning beyond the classroom: Co-curricular learning and information literacy. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.