Colombian Teachers Get Staff Moving During Latin-Tinged Dance Workout
After school on an autumn day, three teachers in Colombian soccer jerseys stand before some two dozen school faculty and staff assembled in a middle school gymnasium. One of the three, Natali Sanchez, has a microphone in hand and her hair in a bandanna sporting the yellow, blue, and red of the Colombian flag. “Get ready to sweat,” she advises the audience, speaking over a Latin cover of the ’60s hit “Good Lovin’.”
She hands the microphone over to Adriana Benedetty, and what follows is an energetic half hour of side steps, half-turns, reaches, and shoulder shakes. Benedetty leads the gym through salsa routines, then colleague Sandy Ardila González introduces the gym to merengue. The choreography develops in complexity and rapidity, with just enough repetition to keep the class following along to the rhythm of the jubilant music. Occasionally, the microphone finds its way back into the hands of Sanchez, who provides assistance and encouragement.
After an exhilarating and exhausting 30 minutes, one of the teachers joins the three Colombians. The music is lowered, and she leads everyone through a cool-down session of yoga poses. As things come to a close, the class of teachers bursts into applause.
“Can you all do this every week?” one asks.
It’s a reaction that confirms the motivating hypothesis behind the event. Before it, the three Colombian teachers at Gregg Middle School in Summerville, South Carolina, had the same thought: People who do not come from Colombia share the same interest in Latin rhythms and dance as those who do. And that is why the trio, all in the USA as Educational Partners International (EPI) program members, decided to lead this class for their fellow staff. The after-school session provided a fleet-footed introduction to both songs and dance styles ranging from the salsa to the samba, the cumbia to the champeta. And the participants loved it.
For world languages teacher González, the session constituted her first foray into sharing a slice of her life back home in Colombia via a cultural exchange event – though not that you would know it based on the afternoon’s performance. During the session, as Sanchez and Benedetty described a move that resembles rowing a boat, González instantly demonstrated it by pulling her arms back in quick swings to the center, left, and right. Together, the three worked together as if they had been leading fitness and dance classes together for years.
For Benedetty, a special education teacher who arrived in the USA in 2021, the afternoon represented her second dance-related cultural exchange activity. Her first, back in the fall of ’21, focused on cumbia and its history on the Colombian Caribbean coast. She presented it with EPI Spanish teacher Alfredo Daza, also from Colombia, who was then teaching at Oakbrook Middle School in Ladson, South Carolina. That event was much different: Held in conjunction with the Latin American Festival in Charleston, the presentation was a performance rather than a participatory session, with an estimated 500 members of the general public at the event. Afterward, attendees took photos with the duo and thanked them for sharing what cumbia represents.
Like Benedetty, Sanchez arrived to teach in South Carolina in 2021. For her first cultural exchange activity, she worked with Filipino teachers to create a joint activity sharing delicacies from each country. She decorated tables and a wall in the hall of her school with Colombian symbols, played traditional music, and introduced some 100 participants to buñuelos and natilla, two foods served at Christmas. (The first is a fried fritter, and the other a type of custard.) Participants asked many questions, and by the end, Sanchez noted how they could appreciate the particularity of her country’s cuisine and recognize that every country in South America has its own unique cultural identity, history, and influences.
That’s the common thread among all of these activities, diverse as they may be. Though they vary widely in how they are presented, what they communicate, and even to whom they are given, the audience for each comes away enriched by something learned – whether that’s a new dance move or the history behind a beat, the exposure to a new spice or the understanding of what distinguishes one country from another.
This bridging of the gap between cultures also takes place through activities that allow people from different countries to interact directly with one another. Last March, Sanchez created an event in which 22 of her students and 22 Colombian students wrote letters to each other discussing the biodiversity of their countries. That same month, Benedetty arranged a Zoom session in which Colombian students explained the celebration of Barranquilla’s Carnival, and students in the USA talked about celebrations such as St. Patrick’s Day.
After this latest activity, we wrote Benedetty to ask her what she enjoyed most. She responded that it was seeing her colleagues laugh, relax, break out of their routine, and enjoy a space that all could share, from the custodians to the principal.
“We have created a better link,” she wrote. “It was a great time to build relationships.”
She continued, “Thank you for allowing us to be here, and to show all the riches that our countries have to give to the world.”
If you would like to join in on the fun, put on your dancing shoes – or a comfortable pair of sneakers – and try to follow along with this recording of the activity.