Dancing Around The World


What I learned from traveling around the world for one year with a creative dance project

By Nejla Y. Yatkin

Most people travel around the world to get away from their jobs or they take off for a year to gain insights through travel. My work as a choreographer and dancer includes traveling to other places and creating with and for other artists, groups or institutions. I have traveled extensively collaborating on and creating different dance works my whole life, but I never traveled and worked on the same project continuously without returning home. 

I am not a writer. I am a dancer. I feel at most home when expressing through my body. For me dance opens up my thinking and consciousness. We are essentially embodied creatures. Our bodies are essential to our consciousness, to our selves and to our perceptions of the world. We are not incidentally embodied; we are fundamentally embodied. Our consciousness is intimately connected to our physicality. If you engage people in physical activity, you change their consciousness. That’s why I strongly believe that everyone should move and dance, and then do it some more.

In 2013 I was touring my piece Oasis -- Everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but where afraid to dance, which was inspired by the Arab Spring that began in late 2010. In between the performances of Oasis, I would rest in Chicago, where I reside, to prepare for the next project. During one of my meditations, I had the idea to travel the world and create site-specific dance performance workshops with local communities building more awareness around movement and empathy. I wanted to do what I called Dancing Around the World (DAW) in as many countries as possible to show that we have more in common than we believe. I was tired of the negative news, conflicts and separation continuously emphasized in world news reports. I wanted to experience for myself the world as a still beautiful place, full of hope, joy and celebration. I also wanted to show that people are kind and creative and happy souls. But mostly, I wanted to demonstrate that we all want the same thing: to love and be loved for who we are. 

As a dancemaker, it was important for me to show how essential dance is to expressing oneself physically. I wanted to show the benefits of dance beyond its entertainment value, beyond its performative contexts, beyond its physicality. I wanted to emphasize the intangible values of dance, its emotional, spiritual, mental and cultural virtues. Another reason I created the project was that I didn’t want to travel around the world as a tourist or a mere observer; I wanted to experience world cultures through intimate exchanges. I didn’t just desire to consume a culture, I wanted to add value to the culture I was visiting. What better way to do that than through dancing together! This most intimate art form teaches you about yourself and your place in the world in profound ways. As Martha Graham said, “Nothing is more revealing than movement.”

Once I committed myself to Dancing Around the World, the task ahead was daunting. But step by step, like in choreography, the pieces started to come together. First I had to write a project description and prepared a project presentation for funders. I also had to find presenters and host partners around the world who were excited about the project. Then I created a budget and early on realized that I couldn’t travel with my dancers because expenses were too large for a small company like mine. Plus being responsible for a company traveling around the world was much riskier for an independent artist like me. So I decided to travel only with my partner and collaborator, Enki Andrews, a videographer, photographer and multi-media artist. It was, I believe, essential to document the project, so we could expose our supporters and others in the community to the many places and dancers we engaged with. We wanted to take our community with us on our journey. 

Finding partners around the world was easy. Finding grant organizations to fund the project was more challenging. Many foundations and funding organizations didn’t believe an individual could pull this off or DAW didn’t fit into their funding criteria. Some funders thought it was too big of a project (or maybe I didn’t explain myself very well) but needless to say we received no funding from the traditional sources. I was driven to do this project; something deep inside of me knew it was important. So we organized a crowd funding drive on Hatchfund, a fundraising platform for artists, to raise funds for our international travel to 20 cities around the world. We were so blessed and in the end we raised more than $25,000. DAW was literally only possible because of those people believed in us and the project.

Choosing the countries, cities and finding partners in selected cities was not too daunting. I mapped out the first half of the year connecting with many of the communities where I had toured previously and the second half of the trip I organized while on the road. In each city we spent about two weeks, visiting 20 cities on four continents. At places where I performed solo pieces I had chance to slow down, rest, regroup and catch up with editing the footage from the previous city.

Dancing Around the World was intense and full of surprises. In most places our host partners greeted us warmly at the airport. The first two days of the residencies were our discovery days. We sought out locations where we could dance and film the site-specific performances. The aim was not to create a polished final piece, but to give people an experience of the overall process of internal transformation through movement across national borders. Through different emotional, physical, and mental exercises and improvisations, participants created new relationships with the city, with each other and in the selected public spaces we engaged with. 

In each city, I would teach an open technique class in the mornings to get everyone on the same mental, emotional and physical base. It’s important to start the day with a studio practice because it provides dancers with a protected space to open up and be vulnerable and trust each other. Since the workshops were open to any level, the challenge was to make the process as inviting and inclusive as possible. 

This journey began in Chicago and our first international city for Dancing Around The World was in Bogota, Colombia, the only city where we stayed for only one week. We continued to 18 different cities and collaborated with 18 different groups of dancers, institutions, embassies and art organizations.  

Now that I am back and reflecting on the journey, I want to share what I learned traveling and dancing around the world while collaborating with 18 different organizations and dancers in as many different countries. 

  • First lesson: Simplify your project description. Be very clear with your language and don’t assume people understand what you mean. Ask questions and clarify some more. Double check your facts. Some organizations say they understand your project but most arts organizations are understaffed and overworked and they can’t always pay attention to the details.
  • Second lesson: Travel light. Most people over pack their suitcase. You don’t need that extra pair of jeans and that extra pair of heels. I suggest you pack your bag three times and each time leave half of it out. Then you will have the exact amount you need for the road.
  • Third lesson: Take care of your body consistently. Get the rest you need. If you need eight hours of sleep, schedule and sleep for the time you need. Denying your body what it needs is not a sustainable strategy. We also found that having a steady breakfast routine was very stabilizing even when waking up in another country in a different time zone. Give yourself time to recover. We didn’t do much sightseeing. Since we were working for a whole year, we prioritized according to what our bodies told us.
  • Fourth lesson: Be flexible with your lesson plan: Make an outline but not a rigid plan. Being flexible during the process will create a deeper understanding and a deeper exchange with the participants. Being flexible creates an open exchange between you and the participants. By staying open you start to get a better sense of the place, the culture, the people, their hopes and dreams, thus creating a more rewarding exchange.
  • Fifth lesson: Sameness comes in different colors and shapes. Even though we all come in different shapes, colors and sizes, in essence we are all the same beneath the surface. We all have two eyes, a nose and mouth. We all have the basic structure of a body with two arms and two legs and you will discover that the body has the same limitations and possibilities around the world. Especially when you dance and improvise with each other.
  • Sixth lesson: Learn to listen. Each of us knows how to use our bodies to send messages, but not many of us realize that people in different parts of the world “speak” different body languages. This can include how we greet others, how we sit or stand, our facial expressions, our clothes, hair styles, tone of voice, eye movements, how we listen, how we breathe, how close we stand to others, and how we touch others. The pressure of body language can especially be felt in emotional situations where the unspoken usually prevails over words. But teaching dance around the world and creating an art piece with the body breaks down the barriers of cultural differences. Through sensitive listening you can adapt your creative project to communicate more effectively through nonverbal channels.
  • Seventh lesson: Teaching and working with people around the world, you realize that we are all connected. When we talk about going to war with another country, the people that will be harmed are the people you met in the workshops, the children you saw on their way to school, and the families you saw walking the streets arm in arm. Suddenly it becomes personal and it’s not okay to see them injured or killed. 

Of all of the benefits of travelling, I think that this is the most far reaching and important. Other human beings are our most treasured gifts here in this life. Develop a love for other cultures, religions and lifestyles. Let them see that we are all one. I believe if we do this we can change the world, one travelling peacemaker at a time.

To see samples of Yatkin’s Dancing Around the World projects, visit her YouTube channel.

Choreographer and dancer Nejla Y. Yatkin is a recent 3Arts and a 2014 Princess Grace Works in Process Awardee. Born in Germany with Turkish roots, Yatkin’s recent dances have been inspired by stories and events of significant places in the world. Such was the case with the Berlin Wall Project, Oasis, Everything you wanted to know about the Middle East but were afraid to dance and Dancing Around the World Cities (a traveling site-specific work around urban locations), which traveled to Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, France, Germany, New York. From April 2015 until May of 2016 she traveled around the world with a dance project entitled Dancing Around The World

In 2000, she started choreographing solo works inspired by great female choreographers. To date, she has choreographed five evening-length solos that toured nationally and internationally. She is also choreographing for her own project-based dance company, NY2Dance, as well as other companies including Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, The Washington Ballet, River North Chicago and the Modern American Company. 

Since 2001, she has been the recipient of four Artist Fellowships for her Excellence in Dance and Choreography from the [Washington] D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, an agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a three-time recipient of the Creative Performing Arts grant from the University of Maryland. Other awards include the Local Dance Commissioning Project by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the two Creation Funds and two Performing Arts Residencies from the National Performance Network. 

For her past creations, Yatkin has received five Metro D.C. Dance Awards. In 2005, she was named a “25 To Watch” by Dance Magazine and the award for Outstanding Emerging Artist by the D.C. Mayor’s Arts Award Committee. From the Princess Grace Foundation, she received a choreographic fellowship, a 2009 Special Project grant and a Princess Grace Works in Process Award for a residency at the Baryshnikov Art Center in 2015.

Besides choreographing, Yatkin is passionate about sharing her knowledge with the next generation. She was an artist resident at the University of Notre Dame from 2008 to 2012 and from 2001 to 2008 she was a tenured professor at University of Maryland, College Park. For more, visit www.ny2dance.com

Photo credits
All photos courtesy of Nejla Y. Yatkin
First and last image: photo credit: Enki Andrews

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