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Rethinking Dance Education & the Value of Travel

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

by Aubre Hill Studying a cultural art has been rooted in travel for hundreds of years. Students traveled to find a teacher, seek out a mentor, learn context, or develop a richer understanding of the art itself and who they were as part of it. One of the amazing influences of globalism is our recent access to an array of cultural arts without having to leave our homes, and this has expanded with increased digital offerings where we can take classes and workshops, attend performances and exhibits, and even complete certification and degree programs. While these experiences may be rich in technique and developed curriculum, they are fundamentally bridging an expression into a diaspora or other culture. Thus the landscape in which the art was created is not part of the education process. This can change meanings, understandings, and connections. An art outside of its culture can be a window, but it takes a deeper commitment for nuanced understanding.

Dance studios worldwide create an accessibility to dance education inviting those not from the culture to learn and participate, which is amazing! But if this education is not embedded in cultural context, distortions can easily happen created by cultural bias reenforcing stereotypes, exotification, and othering, all of which are rooted in colonialism. This does not mean we should not learn; siloing cultural learning will further create misunderstandings and cultural hierarchy. This emphasizes a need to rethink how we approach dance education as not merely a series of shapes and steps but a language of cultural expression. And nothing integrates these pieces as fully as traveling to the culture of origin.

Travel has long been considered a rite of passage, a sojourn of great lessons, and a transformation of self. Classic literature like the “Odyssey,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and so many others share tales of great life-changing adventure. When only a third of Americans have a passport, I wander where our fantasy of travel may not be realized through actual experience.

By the time I made my way to Egypt finally, I had been studying Egyptian dance for twelve years. I was already professionally performing nightly, touring internationally, directing a dance company, and completely dedicated to an art that I only knew culturally through study and the Middle Eastern diaspora. Looking back I wonder how I had gotten so far into this field without direct cultural experience, but in reality I did not think I could afford to go, my Arabic was mediocre, and the logistics seemed daunting if not dangerous. While in the midst of some big life changes, finally making my way to Cairo seemed long overdue and essential to figuring how who I was and what I was doing with my life as a dancer. Little did I know how absolutely life changing that experience would be.

It is one thing to understand something from a book, and it is an entirely different realization to be on the ground hearing those words in a deep, visceral way. Throughout my month-long trip, I had moments of aha, “ohhhhhhh, that’s what that means,” and humbled silence.

Cultural identity is inherit in our understanding. It is the filter we learned to view the world, but recognizing it can be difficult. Travel can be one of the best ways to understand your own cultural lens. When we step out of our cultural space, our assumptions can give rise to awkward learning lessons and our discomfort can be a beautiful mirror to our expectations. And thus, all my awkward moments of learning while I traveled across Egypt. It was like having a toddler level of language and sitting at a table of adults to discuss life. The experience also shined a bright light on fantasies that had once felt empowering now fading with cultural understanding. Humbled but inspired, I came home even more unsure what my next step was but much clearer with how I had participated and what I needed to address.

The experience set me on an amazing chapter of decolonizing my education and weaving cultural education into my teaching. Ten years later, as I packed my bags to return to Egypt I remember thinking, “this will be a different learning experience but not an identity crisis.” Even in that moment, I laughed at myself. That is not how any of this works. That trip brought its own new questions and concepts to dig into, some of which I have only just processed.

Since then I have traveled to Morocco and the United Arab Emirates for cultural arts research. Both were vastly different experiences but ones I was able to have with more open eyes. Rooting my understanding of dance as a cultural expression makes me more aware of my own cultural influence and assumptions. This awareness allows for more curiosity and an openness to wide ranges of approaches. It fosters a genuine understanding that diversity is a strength, and as Robert Louis Stevenson so beautifully put, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Travel deepens our understanding of self, each other, and our wonderfully complex world. So, grab your passport, and let the learning begin.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain

Aubre Hill is an international dance artist, choreographer, educator, and event producer. Aubre has been a professional dance artist for over twenty five years including touring with the Bellydance Super Stars, headlining numerous international festivals, featured in her own FitTV show, highlighted in many films and videos, and a mover & shaker of the dance community. She has directed numerous dance companies in full theater productions as well as cultural events. She has trained and taught a generation of dancers, some of whom have moved into full professional dance careers. She was on faculty at California State University, Los Angeles teaching accredited courses in pilates, fitness, and dance for over 10 years. She owned and directed Movement Art Space, a dance and fitness studio in Los Angeles offering education for all ages and levels for three successful years. Aubre earned her Master's in Arts Management at Claremont Graduate University in 2022. She teaches a full online education program on Patreon including somatic practice and dance education as well as select in person classes in the Los Angeles area. Her teaching is known for her deep understanding of anatomy & kinesiology while embedding cultural context, history, and artistic expression for a rich educational and inclusive experience.

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