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Thai Dance Students Go Back to School with New York’s Battery Dance Company

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Thai Dance Students Go Back to School with New York’s Battery Dance Company

Western dance workshop in Thailand underscores cultural differences.

There have been a lot of complaints recently about how Thai education isn’t progressing, with students being taught by teachers who read and memorize their lines from textbooks. But even so, in an industry like dancing where imagination and creativity should thrive, it appears Thai students are still being subjected to traditional ways of learning. Being exposed to Western ways of learning can be of immense help to students in Thailand and Asia open up to new ways of engaging with the world.

The United States Embassy in Thailand paired up with rumPUREE World Dance Studio in Thailand this July to organize dance workshops for young local students with the help of a contemporary dance ensemble, New York’s Battery Dance Company. Many of the students who participated came from underprivileged backgrounds, with some raised by a single parent who was unavailable to them. Some were orphans. 

The Diplomat had a chance to sit in on some of the classes to observe methods that certainly don’t fit the traditional mold for dance classes.

Sean Scantlebury, a teacher from the Battery Dance Company told his students ten minutes after starting the class that he would not be teaching any dance moves. “The dancing doesn’t come from me, it comes from you,” he announced. The students stared at him blankly without asking any questions, as is expected with most Thai students. True to his words, in the next few days, Sean didn’t teach any choreographed moves, despite being professionally trained in ballet and hip-hop. Instead, he taught techniques and drills meant to help them become dancers.

For example, in one exercise – the energy ball –students gather in a circle. The students were asked to imagine that there is a ball in the room being passed around that they play with using different parts of their bodies. The catch: their movements must be expressed through dance. It was a difficult exercise as it requires imagination combined with moving different parts of the body to convey the existence of a ball. Many of the students struggled. “There is no right or wrong,” Scantlebury stressed. Even so, many students looked awkward or didn’t try to move at all.

In another drill, the students were asked to convey their daily schedule, from showering and working to driving and going out with their friends – again, through  dance. This is quite challenging (even if you try it in the safety of your own room) and very few students were able to make it look interesting except for a few talented ones who appeared to have been born to dance.

One student told The Diplomat, “I don’t really think that’s real dancing. He doesn’t really teach.” When asked to clarify his method of teaching, Scantlebury said that telling students exactly how to move or giving them choreographed dance moves will not help a person become a dancer. Each student needs to have their own imagination and discover their own creative ways of dancing to reach their full potential.

Another student added that she’s been doing Thai dance for years. She was able to incorporate Thai dance moves when Scantlebury asked her to spell her name through movement. When she made an “O” with her hands, her movement became slow and gentle rather than fast, reflecting the grace it takes to learn Thai dance. Mira Cook, another teacher from Battery Dance Company, told The Diplomat that in general she found that Thai students in her classes are able to move more slowly and gently than her pupils from other countries.

Rather than transgress boundaries by encouraging students to move in different ways, Cook added that touching is quite taboo in Asia cultures. She explains that there is one move that requires one member of a pair to hold up their partner by touching their backside – a move everyone was reluctant to carry out. Scantlebury agreed that touching is a no–no in many cultures, but emphasized it is a crucial part of learning to dance. “To feel, to be passionate, to dance, touching is a vital part,” he said.  

Carmen Nicole, another teacher from the Battery Dance Company, observed another cultural difference that comes with teaching in an Asian culture. “The sweet, quiet nature of many Asian children connects better with a teacher that does not yell or raise a voice,” she told The Diplomat.

“They gain a lot when they lose the fear of being wrong. Raising confidence and risk taking is key,” Nicole explained. “I tell my kids that they will never be wrong no matter what and ask them to go crazy.”