Not exactly what you'd call routine

Dance: Thirteen dancers from St. Paul's School for Girls were given a rare opportunity: to perform in Yokohama, Japan.

November 11, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

By the time they got to perform at Japan's Minato Mirai Hall, 13 students from the St. Paul School for Girls had already danced around a host of cultural barriers.

There was the language, the food, the time difference. But thanks to a crash course in Japanese, some flexibility and a lot of spunk, the trip was mostly a waltz.

The girls went to Yokohama, Japan, on Oct. 20 to dance in the Minato Mirai Hall as part of a sister-school exchange program between St. Paul and Suiryo High School there.

It was billed as the "Suiryo International Friendship Festival" and included student performers from China and Mexico. A grant from the Japanese government helped Suiryo High School bring the students to Yokohama.

"They were picked out of 25-28 girls," says Liese Weber-Frutchey, the St. Paul dance department chair who accompanied the girls -- freshmen, sophomores and juniors -- on the seven-day trip. "They were chosen because of their dance ability, but not just that. They were also picked because of their attitude to take this opportunity and make it something special."

Seniors were not chosen because of the other commitments of their final year of high school, Weber-Frutchey says.

The St. Paul students soaked in as much Japanese culture as they could before boarding the plane for the 16-hour flight.

"We got a little book by a Japanese teacher who works here," says Adina Konits, a 16-year-old sophomore at the Brooklandville school. "But it was little bit out of date. Some things were right, some not."

The students stayed with host families who helped ease the cultural shock. However, Crickett Herrmann, a 16-year-old junior, wasn't taking any chances. She came up with a novel approach -- just in case. "I took Polaroid pictures of all the essentials, like the toilet," she says. "I didn't really need them, though."

Japanese and English dictionaries were relied upon heavily by the girls and their host families. But a few lucky students stayed in homes where some English was spoken. "My host sister had just come back from Colorado," says Bonnie Wilt, a 17-year-old junior.

It was an easier adjustment than some assumed.

"I was kind of surprised," says Katie Dunning, 16, a sophomore. "I thought it was going to be very awkward, but everyone was really helpful. The amount of civility there is something."

And the challenges weren't all unwelcome. "I went there hoping to learn a little Japanese, and I did," says Keyia Jackson, 15, a sophomore.

Then there was the food. Americans are used to eating many more fatty dishes and sweets than the Japanese. The host families tried to accommodate. One student was supplied with sodas at every meal, even breakfast. Another was offered shrimp and beef dinners. And pizza, Japanese-style with seafood toppings, was on the menu.

The host families also served traditional Japanese meals that, generally, went over well. Especially if the students did not ask what they were eating.

The Oct. 24 performances brought the cultures together. Weber-Frutchey described the St. Paul girls' dance as "American-style." They wore black dresses, red gloves and black top hats for one of the four dance numbers and ended by joining the Japanese, Chinese and Mexican students in singing "It's a Small World After All."

"It was only 20 minutes, but it was worth it," says Rachel Scherr, a 16-year-old sophomore.

And, anyway, the trip was about so much more than dance.

"It's easy enough -- being in Baltimore County -- to feel a little secluded," says Dr. Evelyn A. Flory, headmistress of the school.

"The experience may be a bit of a culture shock. But they come back with a lot of confidence," she says. "It just opens their eyes to such a large world. They get to see things are done differently, and that it is OK."

"It's given me a rebirth," says Everett. "I am more open to new things."

She also discovered something else about long-distance traveling. "It makes you miss your parents a lot," she says.

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