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A step toward connections

February 24, 2017

Dance has the power to transcend language barriers and cultural differences. Ohio State students from historically African American and Latino fraternities shared their artistic expression in China as part of a U.S. Department of State cultural exchange program.

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Selvan Manthiram and Annabelle Sudue laugh when they recall the celebrity status they enjoyed over the summer following stepping performances in China.

They are the latest Ohio State students to participate in ongoing cultural exchange programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Organized as short-term study abroad trips, nearly 50 students from Ohio State’s renowned Department of Dance to African American fraternities and sororities have transcended language and cultural barriers through artistic expression.

“We were spontaneously performing,” says Manthiram, a fourth-year in biology. “In markets, on the street, on the Great Wall – it felt very natural. People wouldn’t start swarming us until we actually started. The reaction was all love.”

The trips are organized by Bob Eckhart, American director of the Center for American Culture, a collaborative project between Ohio State and Wuhan University. The decision in 2015 to feature stepping – what Eckhart considers one of the most unique dance performances at Ohio State – led to a partnership with the Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male.

“The State Department was so pleased with the reception that they were very happy to fund a second year in 2016,” Eckhart says.

And Eckhart is pleased to offer study-abroad experiences to students who may not have those opportunities otherwise. He sees it as a crucial enrichment experience for their resumes as well as improving the quality of exchanges they have with the 3,600-plus Chinese students attending Ohio State’s Columbus campus.

“Speaking the same languages is the least of our worries,” says Sudue, a fourth-year in fashion retail studies. “I learned that there’s always going to be some type of communication. If you keep on trying, you can always communicate with people.”