MOVING INTERNATIONALLY: A Creative and Cultural Journey

By Nia Gopika Womack-Freeman

November 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Nia Gopika Womack-Freeman
Nia Gopika Womack-Freeman (second from left) / photo courtesy of artist

TWO HUNDRED MEN AND WOMEN dancing in neat rows to Chinese music projected over a speaker at a neighborhood park sparked my curiosity about dance in Shanghai, China. I joined these classes to practice Chinese, meet locals and learn new dance steps. I also wondered about the possibilities of teaching Creative Dance in this new setting.

I was first introduced to Creative Dance at Mills College in 1996. Years later I would work for Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Arts Program as a teaching artist, where I used the elements of dance: body, space, time and energy to convey ideas in a structured class format. By working with this class format (warm-up, exploration, improvisation, composition, share and reflection) students were able to access their own creativity while developing valued cognitive, physical, socio-emotional, and communication skills. After four years, statewide budget cuts took their toll and it became necessary for me to find new job opportunities. China offered new language, new culture, and new ways of pushing my career forward. So, in 2010, I moved to China and discovered how useful a Creative Dance approach would be professionally and personally. At that time I was seeking to clarify my values and shed what no longer had meaning. I found alignment with myself and my choices when I moved overseas, diving deep into what was important to me: rich spiritual and cultural experiences, family, living simply, traveling, learning and creativity.

Creative Dance relies on verbal prompts that are rich in descriptive language, an aesthetic of freedom of expression, and the desire to draw creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills out of the dancer. Living in China provided the opportunity to deepen my understanding of this art form and investigate who had access. The first challenge was how to give verbal prompts in a different language. I wondered if freedom of expression would be an important value in a communist country and how to encourage creativity when rote learning was the norm. Luckily, I worked at an international school run by a Chinese university. The parents valued elements of both Chinese and Western education, so they were open to their child dancing in class. My fourth grade students, all from different countries in Asia and Europe spoke English as a second or third language. To make Creative Dance accessible, I explored many approaches and discovered that lessons using time and space were most successful. It took working with a translator (sometimes a student), incorporating movements and props from familiar cultural dances and using music they enjoyed to fully engage their creative potential. Integrating dance with other academic subjects supported developing their language skills and dance knowledge. Through dance we were able to experience each other’s culture and build a community of respect.

In China, I experienced cross-cultural challenges because of the different communication norms, organizational structures and leadership styles. Improvisation was essential to my survival. Once, I rode my bicycle into a stream of other bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses, unsure of how I would survive. This dance of locomotors that at first glance looked like a chaotic sea with entry points leading to disaster was daunting. Not understanding the rules that governed traffic made me feel vulnerable yet gave me the impetus to discover. From observing and inquiring I learned there was a hierarchy. The largest vehicles were at the top having the right away and smaller vehicles and pedestrians had to yield—these were the improvised rules of the road. This hierarchy was evident in other aspects of the culture as well. With this awareness I could see how people flowed into traffic cre- ating openings with little resistance. I adapted this idea mentally by learning to be fluid rather than rigid; by opening up to new ideas and relaxing fixed notions and perceptions. Improvisation allowed me to access my “go-to” strategies and expand my choices, actions and reactions beyond my comfort zone. It allowed me to travel safely on the road and maneuver the culture.

In 2012, I left China for Malaysia and found a country rich in culture, religious traditions, a healthy environment, and the opportunity to teach dance full time. Three weeks after arriving in Malaysia, my family took a vacation to the historic city of Melaka, where we experienced a taste of the religious society. Their famous Harmony Street held a variety of places to worship such as, Saint Peter’s Catholic church, a Mosque, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha and a Chinese shrine all built from the 1600s to 1700s. The multicultural society exposed me to a rich array of languages, traditions, and dance forms from India, China and Muslim Malaysia: Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Bhangra, Chinese Fan & Ribbon dances, Malaysian Court Dances, Zapin, Joget, as well as fusion dance, a blending of contemporary dance with traditional dance. In Malaysia, I ran a dance program for middle school and high school students emphasizing Creative Dance, choreography and cultural dance forms. Again the skills of exploration and improvisation embedded in the creative process were useful in this new environment.

Trusting the power of creativity to carry me through hardships was a valuable way of knowing. My task was to engage students, who represented over 60 countries at an international school in Malaysia in their own creative process. I found this highly rewarding. In one class in particular students were frustrated with the lack of continuity in their group dance. They wanted me to tell them how to fix it, instead I asked questions. “What do you feel is lacking?” “What movement ideas are you seeking to convey and how are you doing it in other places in the dance?” “How can you use dance elements and relationships in a different way to express this idea?” They began reworking their ideas using improvisational tasks. As I watched their creativity flourish I saw the impact Creative Dance had on building community and respect in an international setting.

In Los Angeles, I had learned a framework for Creative Dance, in China I developed cross cultural skills while exploring the value of this framework and in Malaysia I directly implemented it with new understanding and awareness. Having fully explored this field in school settings K-12, I have returned to the United States, to Berkeley, California to work at Luna Dance Institute, where their variety of programs push my skill set and allow me to display the wealth of my experiences. Living and teaching overseas was my opportunity to practice exploration and improvisation personally and professionally. Thinking in the creative dance framework gave me opportunities to reflect on my own growth, digest what I experienced, and compose a meaningful reality imbued with new understandings. The creative process used in a dance class became equally useful in life.


Training and exploration in modern dance and cultural dances from West Africa and India has inspired her as an artist and world traveler. For ten years, she has been a dance teaching artist in public and private institutions in the US and abroad.