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  • Movement Exchange

An Abundance of Butterflies

Updated: May 3, 2023

The third day in Panama, and my second time returning to this special place...

I often find that coming back to things a second time around allows me to peel back a few more layers and better understand what it was that drew me to it in the first place. Since coming to Panama last Spring in 2016, the story of the formation of the Panamanian isthmus has stayed on the forefront of my mind- serving as inspiration and hope whenever a situation seems unfeasible.

Today, we delved into the history of Panama- one of my favorite parts of the exchange. With my own country's name so intricately and painfully laced throughout Panamanian history, I find it important to hold respectful space as an American traveling here. It's important to know what has come before you and how you can best work towards humbly building new relationships of trust, peace and positivity in a place where the intersection of our worlds has previously been one of great tension.

The Isthmus of Panama stands to this day as one of the greatest natural events in the world. Quite literally rising from the bottom of the ocean due to shifting tectonic plates, Panama'ks beginnings are adorned with symbolism and strength. The land that arose

And became Panama created a dramatic impact on the biodiversity of the world. For the first time, animals and plants were able to migrate between the North and South Americas. Next time you see an opossum, armadillo, or porcupine, think of Panama and know that those animals would not be in North America had Panama not bridged the two worlds. As I walk through the streets of Casco Viejo, so many cats skidder through the alley ways, and I know that the only reason is because cats (among dogs, bears and llamas) migrated from the North.

This migration reminds me of the migration the Move Ex diplomats make to Panama for our exchanges. Had it not been for Panama, I would not have made this journey towards understanding the power that dance holds to unify and bridge worlds.

The word Panama has been interpreted in a few ways- some thinking the first settlers in Panama came during August, the butterfly season, and that the words means "abundance of butterflies." This seems fitting to me, given that the country has undergone great transformation as it shifted from one regime to the next, enduring times of great tension and struggle with the United States, with Columbia and even internally with dictators like Manuel Noriega (who coincidentally died at 83 last night). From darkness comes light, and Panamanians know this well. Just like the butterfly emerges from the darkness of the cocoon, so too does Panama emerge from the darkness of its past.

Others believe the name to have derived from the Kuna word "bannaba" meaning distant or far away. This evening we watched Hands of Stone, a recent movie about the Panamanian boxing world champ Edgar Ramirez. In the beginning of the film, Edgar's wife says "We come from different worlds," to which he replies "It's all in the head."

While the kids we teach at Malambo and Aldea are so different from us (one might even say we come from different worlds), in our moments of dancing together we are no different. No water separates us, and no borders of the land define us. Panama has connected the Americas and fostered a world of connection and new relationships. Movement Exchange has connected two worlds to one another and shown that just like the abundance of butterflies, we can all undergo change and transformation that leads us toward a life where separateness and differences are "all in the head."


By Beth Whelan, GMU Dance Diplomat

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