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#51 Dancing

April 27, 2011

Expat Aid Workers are often in situations where they can’t fully speak the local language. This might be because they are new arrivals, because there are so many dialects to master, or simply because they suck at learning languages.

When words fail, however, there is always the language of dance….


In most countries, Expat Aid Workers are surrounded by dancing almost everywhere they go. When arriving at the inauguration of the school project, there will be children dancing. On the field visit to the women’s cooperative, there will be ululation and celebratory dancing. When the EAW goes to the office holiday party in BKK, there will be club-style dancing. When the EAW attends a local religious celebration, there will be spiritual dancing. When the EAW gets invited to the local wedding, there will be all-night dancing. When the EAW is accompanying a delegation of donors to a community, there will be traditional dancing. In the evenings, after the multi-institutional regional working group meeting, there will be drunken stress-release dancing. At that glocal party with the SLoNGOS there will be hook-up dancing.

Photo: NMAfA

Though EAWs likely don’t know a single traditional dance from their own country or possess the type of traditional costume that would be worn while doing said dance, they do understand the importance of dance to maintain identity in local cultures. EAWs will happily do research and fund projects that help local people maintain or recover their traditional dances. Traditional dances in countries other than the EAW’s are much too exotic and important not to record and document for posterity.

The EAW that’s returned home or who is home on leave will often seek out African dance, belly dancing, salsa nights or samba clubs as a way of showing off the dancing prowess acquired while away and maintaining multiculturalism and respect for the superior cultural expressions of foreign countries. Once an EAW learns a minimal amount of dance, it goes on the CV and they can get hired to run arts-based psycho-social or gender programs in post-conflict or post-disaster settings.

One favorite trick of locals during community celebrations is to get the dancing going and then make a point of inviting the EAWs out to dance in front of the group. If the EAW is female, she will shake her head and laugh, playing demure, until she is asked 2 or 3 times and can no longer say no. Secretly she thinks she will actually look pretty good out there (she’s seen her colleagues look like fools, but she knows she’s got some moves that will impress). She will do her best to get her hips going and not look stiff and uncoordinated as everyone cheers her on. They will tell her afterwards what a great dancer she is. If the EAW is male, he will jump up eagerly and a) dance in an exaggerated style to indicate that he knows he can’t dance or b) show off the salsa moves he learned when he went native in Columbia or Senegal for a few years.

Dancing does not come naturally in many of the countries and/or social classes that EAWs hail from, meaning it can be a moment of heightened self-awareness and insecurity for EAWs. No one wants to look like a tourist.


But dancing is inevitable in the same way that eating the food put in front of you in the community is. When dancing opportunities present themselves, the EAW simply cannot say no.

If you are ‘Bob’ (See #12 Field Cred) at an after hours or celebratory event that involves dancing, local staff will usually form a circle around you and clap, and you’d better break out your best dance moves as you become the center of attention. This is a combined gesture of respect, esteem, revenge and mocking that you should happily join in with or risk being seen as uptight. Watching EAWs dance gives great joy (and sometimes fits of uncontrollable laughter) to local people, and EAWs should comply whenever asked.

When amongst their own kind, EAWs enjoy dancing in groups to let off steam and stress after a week of life-saving meetings. And once the booze gets flowing, even the most uptight or insecure EAW dancer can be found getting down to old pop songs at the EAW house party. In countries with a good bar scene, the dance floor will be packed with EAWs getting their groove on.

The most common way for locals to pick up EAWs in these situations is to compliment their dancing. It’s usually some version of “You’ve been living here a long time? No? Really? Oh… I’m… I’m surprised! You move just like a [name for local person].” Or “You’re such a good dancer! Most men from [foreign country] can’t dance at all, but you are different.” If the EAW is one of those who’s desperate to blend in, these lines work quite well, and the EAW will have a very hard time not going home with you at the end of the night, or at least buying some rounds of drinks for you and your friends.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Finn permalink
    April 29, 2011 5:53 am

    What’s going on here? this post is a bit dry. Running out of good topics? Keep it up!

  2. May 3, 2011 9:33 am

    I was made to dance as penalty for being late to a meeting last time I was with the embera’s in Colombia… first option was singing… got out of that one at least. good lesson on “beneficiaries” not letting the foreigners behave different from them (anyone that was late had to do something)

  3. Darkwing Duck permalink
    May 13, 2011 3:09 pm

    Does somebody have footage of Tanzanians dancing like Americans? They stand still and snap their fingers, looking bored. Hilarious.


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