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Kyle Bursaw // Curb Magazine

United We Dance
Cultural understanding through dance

Misty Lown sat cross-legged on the rough hotel carpet, captivated by her students' sinewy backs twisting in rhythm to the drumbeat. She could remember lining them up at the barre in their pink tutus to learn their first tendu. But before her eyes, an African dance session had transformed her classical ballet students into boisterous African tribal dancers. "To buttoned-up Norwegians, it looks rowdy. But movement is movement, and dance is dance — it speaks to you. The girls came out fired up and full of life."

For most Americans, the word Wisconsin provokes images of lederhosen-clad, beer-bellied men with accordions slung across their backs, biting with a satisfactory snap into a freshly grilled bratwurst. What doesn’t come to mind are booming African drumbeats or the milky, gummy tapioca pearls in Hmong bubble tea. But these exotic snapshots of life in Wisconsin are just as true to life, and people across Wisconsin are bringing its diverse culture to the foreground through dance.

Breaking out of the comfort zone

Audrey Buchanan grew up in Madison and competed in traditional Scottish Highland dance. “My dad thought it was really important to learn more about my heritage through an activity I could take part in,” she says. “It was something I could excel in and [would] hopefully drive me to hold on to my roots.”

After arriving at college, Buchanan decided to get involved in the dance community on campus and enrolled in African dance performance. A classmate soon invited her to an African Student Association dance group he leads. At the rehearsal, she encountered the most challenging situation of her life. “I went, and I was basically the only white person there, which was kind of intimidating. But dance … was my negotiating medium … my way of proving that I was genuine and wanted to learn,” she says.

“One of the easiest ways of understanding a culture, apart from immersion, is through the arts,” says Chris Walker, assistant professor in the dance program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Buchanan’s instructor. “The theater has this fantastic ability of reaching human beings at an emotional level. Once something touches you on that level, then you’ve built a connection with it, which is far more than you’ve built when you just read the history of it through a … chapter in a history book.”

Juliet Cole, a leader of diversity education in the Green Bay community, knows the power of the arts – especially dance – firsthand. Originally from Nigeria, Cole is currently the associate director for the Institute for Learning Partnership at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Cole’s family was only the second resident black family in Green Bay when they moved there in the 1970s. Seeing her son struggle as the first black child to attend his elementary school, Cole decided to act. She began visiting area schools and speaking in public about her culture.

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