Teaching dance in a foreign culture can be eye-opening on many levels, for both young dancers and their teachers. We talked with three American artists about recent projects in Bali, Russia and Cuba. They spoke of the challenges and the joys, and shared helpful tips you won't likely find in travel guidebooks.

Cultural differences can make even simple decisions complicated, says Venetia Stifler of The Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago, who has organized exchanges with China, Russia and Cuba. “You can read about these things, but it doesn't hit home until you travel and experience them for yourself."

And art is a powerful messenger. “As cultures evolve around the world," Stifler says, “dance remains the universal language to bring us together."

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Bali, Indonesia. Thinkstock

Kim Epifano

Founder and artistic and executive director

Epiphany Productions Dance Theater

San Francisco, California

In April 2016, Epifano took 17 American teenagers from five states to the village of Guliang Kangin, in Bali, Indonesia, for a 17-day residency to learn and teach dance, theater and music. Epifano is co-artistic director of trip sponsor Mudd Butt International, based in Telluride, Colorado. She's led similar trips to Turkey, Ethiopia and Vietnam.

In Bali, Epifano's group taught their hosts Stone Soup, a dance theater piece based on the fable of tricksters who make soup from stones and celebrate generosity. In turn, the American group learned the villagers' traditional Welcome Dance and Rice Farming Dance.

Epifano leads dancers in the village temple. Photo by Luke Brown, courtesy of Epiphany Productions

The kids change emotionally. We collect their cell phones when we reach the village. There is no internet. They live in someone's home. Art is the language, and they do a performance together, so that's bonding. They become pen pals and Facebook friends and weep when we have to leave.

It's always a moving and spiritual experience, even in the difficult moments. Bali can be extremely hot; it's challenging to sleep with just a little fan. We perform in a temple, the heart of the village. We wear sarongs every day to cover our legs. It's hard to walk up and down steps. They do holy rituals in the temple and we are respectful. It's tough dancing on concrete all day. The hard surface sends shivers up our legs.

Welcome Dance by Guliang Kangin dancer. Photo by Kim Epifano, courtesy of Epiphany Productions

Usually the Welcome Dance is done by young women and the Rice Farming Dance is done by men. We combine things so there can be boys and girls in dances. Gamelan [the traditional music of Bali, made by striking mallets on metallophones, gongs and other instruments] played by teenage boys is very moving and part of the show we make.

Language is tricky. Everything has to be taught in English and Balinese with a translator. You have to speak in short sentences and allow time for the translators. Scripts for shows are in two languages. The play [Stone Soup] has to move along with lots of dances, song and text that isn't too sprawling. We use props. Comedy is always a hit.

The dancers gathered daily in the Guliang Kangin village temple. Photo by Kim Epifano, courtesy of Epiphany Productions

It helps to learn first names, simple phrases and to count from 1 to 10. We bring our own sheets and towels, and I leave them for our hosts. A single bed sheet is a lifesaver in the heat. I give gifts like cashews, music—even my shoes." They give us gifts, too."

Lehrer Dance, performing Chukchi. Photo by Chad Cooper, courtesy of Lehrer Dance

Jon Lehrer

Artistic director

Lehrer Dance, partner company of University at Buffalo, SUNY

Buffalo, New York

In May, Jon Lehrer toured with his company of eight for two weeks in Perm, Berezniki and Yekaterinburg in the Urals, the mountains that separate Europe and Asia. They performed and taught at arts universities and a festival. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the cost of all flights, hotels, local transportation and artist fees were covered. Past cultural diplomacy tours have taken the company to Vladivostok twice, Kamchatka and Anadyr, the easternmost Russian city.

The Russian State Chukchi-Eskimo Song and Dance Ensemble, called Eygryon, performed for Lehrer and his troupe. As a tribute, Lehrer choreographed Chukchi, named for the indigenous people of the Chukchi Peninsula.

Lehrer Dance, performing Chukchi. Photo by Chad Cooper, courtesy of Lehrer Dance

We took a master class with the troupe from Anadyr, and it was intense. It started with a 45-minute ballet barre. They are serious. They have their own school and keep traditions alive through dance.

It's almost Native American dance, which makes sense because our Native Americans migrated. (We were across from the Bering Strait.) Everything from the waist down is ballet: pliés, tendus, all turned out. Everything from the waist up is Anadyr: arms like a reindeer or torso like a snake. We did animal movements across the floor. Jump like a reindeer. Move like an eagle and walrus. Imagine fishermen and hunters.

The company stopped for a break at the border between Europe and Asia. Photo courtesy of Lehrer Dance

During our break in the Eskimo area, snacks were pieces of bread with caviar and hot tea; fish eggs for the refueling snack.

Our two countries are in strife. We're in the arts. We are pro many things. Whether you agree or not, remember you are a guest. Wherever you go, stay humble and respectful. The Russians love to practice their English. They want to hear it."

Victoria Cudworth of Ruth Page Center. Photo courtesy of Ruth Page Center

Venetia Stifler

Executive and artistic director

The Ruth Page Center for the Arts

Chicago, Illinois

In October 2015, The Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago took eight dancers, three teachers and a group of 30 donors to Havana, Cuba, as part of a cultural exchange with Escuela Nacional de Ballet de Cuba Fernando Alonso. Dancers lived in small B&Bs and studied eight hours a day (Cuban ballet technique and contemporary technique, and method). The visit culminated in a joint performance with the Cuban dancers.

Venetia Stifler and Victor Alexander present Ruth Page International Partner Award to Ramona de Saa (center), director of Cuban National Ballet School. Photo courtesy of Ruth Page Center

Cuba is very complicated and worthwhile. And now that we have an embassy there, it's a bit easier, but you need an official invitation from someone in the country to start the process. We are lucky because our new director, Victor Alexander, is Cuban and he knew lots of people. Still, it took at least a year of research.

We had Cubans come here first, which made a difference. They gave classes, and dancers interacted and became friends. We gave a joint performance in our theater. So we were ready to go to Cuba. We already had friends to visit.

Catherine Conley of Ruth Page Center. Photo courtesy of Ruth Page Center

It's a different life. Cuban students live at their school. Their life is dance. American students are in a very high-quality school. Their life is pulled in many directions: family, school and dance obligations.

In Cuba, if you're a dancer, that's what you are for your whole life. In America, it's not so clear. You may be a dancer or a doctor or a lawyer. It's rewarding to see our dancers go toe to toe and kick it up when the Cuban students are here. They improve dramatically."

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