Dance Classes & Cheek Kisses: Experiencing Culture While Studying Abroad

By Quinn Kanner

I’ve been dancing since I was four years old, and it’s become so ingrained in my life I can’t imagine giving it up. At Champlain, I’m a member of the Champlain College Dance Team, and when I left to study abroad, I knew I needed to find a way to continue dancing, even if only to stay active.

Quinn performing with Champlain’s dance team’s Spring Showcase in 2017. Photo by Steve Mease.

My First Dance Class In Argentina

I didn’t understand anything during the first contemporary dance class I took while studying abroad in Buenos Aires. The class began with a meditation-style warm-up: relaxing, regulating your breath and thinking about each part of your body. It was during this warm-up that I realized I didn’t really know the words for body parts or movements. The class became a little easier for me once we moved on to a more traditional dance warm-up, and my body was able to fall into a pattern of movements it has been practicing since I was four—movements that conveniently have French names, even in Argentina. As we moved on to choreography, I habitually started responding to anything anyone said to me with, “Sí,” (yes), even though I didn’t understand what was happening or being asked of me. I mean, to me, everyone was literally speaking in a foreign language.

Learning Language Through Dance

It’s been just over two months after that first class, and my professor made a joke about one of my classmates saying, “Sí,” to every direction without understanding them, just like I did that first class. It made me realize how far my Spanish has come. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t speak Spanish very well; I get nervous and overthink, which causes me to sound even more incoherent when I try and talk conversationally. However, my understanding has improved significantly, and that can be largely attributed to these extracurricular dance classes.

Some words have been pretty ease to pick up, because they were the same things my dance teachers have been telling me my entire life: lento (slow), despacio (slowly), ojo tus hombros (watch your shoulders), relaja (relax). There have also been some words that I didn’t know in Spanish, or English either, like coxis (coccyx, which is your tailbone) or sacro (sacrum, the base of your spine). It’s helped that both my dance teachers studied in New York, so they know enough English to answer my translation questions or make sure I understand moves when it’s been a matter of safety.

Post-class selfie with Argentinian dance teachers.
Understanding Argentine Culture

The nice thing about doing choreography is that even though the language is different, dance is universal. Contemporary dance in Argentina is the same as contemporary dance in the United States, and even though the songs we dance to are different, the melodies are similar.

In addition to providing a constant and common thread to my life in the United States, taking dance classes has helped me gain a better understanding of Argentine culture. It’s one thing to be told during orientation that Argentines greet each other with kisses, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for when each person who enters the dance studio walks up and kisses everyone there on the cheek. (It’s not quite a kiss on the cheek like we picture in the U.S.; your lips don’t actually make contact with their face. Instead, it’s more like you press your cheeks together and make a kissing noise.) Before one of those first classes, another dancer got distracted with paying before she could greet me, and when she realized she skipped me, she got flustered and worried I’d be offended. My professor told her not to worry because I’m American and don’t do the kisses, which made me realize that I might have been unintentionally slighting everyone.

I’ve also gained a better understanding of how time works in Argentina. Strict schedules aren’t really a thing here. Theoretically, my dance classes start at 8:30 PM, but in reality, they don’t start until 8:40–8:45 PM. When I showed up around 8:15 for the third time in a row, my teacher actually told me to not bother to show up until about 8:30.

Dance has always been a constant in my life, a way for me to express myself, have fun and take a break from being hunched over a computer. During my semester abroad, my dance classes continued to serve those functions while enriching my immersion experience. Through my dance classes, I’ve gotten to better my understanding of the language, experience Argentine social norms firsthand and grow as a dancer. Staying active while studying abroad is important for your health, and if you can find a way to combine your routine back home with an activity abroad, you’ll be able to adjust to a foreign culture more easily.

Interested in immersing yourself in a foreign culture? Click here to learn more about studying abroad with Champlain.

Quinn Kanner is a Junior majoring in Professional Writing with a Journalism specialization and a Foreign Language minor. She is a Student Ambassador and works as a Student Writer in Champlain’s Marketing Department.