How to overcome language barriers: Kelly Keesing’s cross-cultural journey

Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.
Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.

Communication is key in any scenario and even more so when considering to move overseas to pursue your dance dreams in a foreign country. Thanks to technology, communicating with friends and family around the world requires little effort, and staying in touch is not what it used to be.

Now, you’ve won the scholarship, been accepted into a school or received your first contract. This may happen in a short time frame, or you may have had time to prepare. Either way, before you know it, you have to think about these questions: Where are you going to live? How do you find a place? What’s the best way to get around? How do you meet new people? How do you read a class or rehearsal schedule and understand class instructions…all in a foreign language?!

Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.
Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.

Learning a foreign language can be both enlightening and exciting to some, and overwhelming for others. But be rest assured, others have gone before you! 

Australian dancer Kelly Keesing talks to Dance Informa about her cross-cultural journey. Originally from Perth, she trained in Sydney, continued her studies in Germany, and now lives and works in France. With an open mind, she has immersed herself in various cultures to fulfil her dance dreams and shares her insights on how to overcome language barriers. 

Kelly, you are quite the globetrotter! Tell us about your cross-cultural journey.

“I’ve certainly moved around a fair bit over the past five years (and plan to many more times). It’s not what I would’ve ever envisioned my life to be like, but this is how it turned out, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it! I’ve always just ridden the wave of opportunities (and setbacks!) that have come my way; the right things work at the right time.

I moved from Perth to Sydney when I was 16 to train at the Tanya Pearson Academy. Here, I was helped to develop and solidify a strong classical technique in such a nurturing and family-like environment, which was also the perfect place to begin my independent life away from home. I was able to discover my interests and diversity as a dancer, and following an audition tour, I instantly felt that the school for me was Palucca Hochschule für Tanz in Dresden, Germany. 

Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.
Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.

There, I commenced a three-year Bachelor’s degree program. The atmosphere at Palucca is something that can only be experienced; with such a varied program, the school is bursting with openness and creativity, but with such a high calibre of training. I threw myself into the work and improved at a rate that I (and some of my teachers) didn’t expect. By the end of my second year, I felt ready, so I spontaneously tried an audition in Marseille, and unexpectedly succeeded! 

So after two years in Germany, I accepted my first contract and moved to France. I definitely decided to take an unconventional route — being the first Palucca student to complete my studies (third year) whilst juggling a full-time job outside of Germany — but thankfully, I had the trust and support from the faculty to be able to do this. Doing both is not easy, and requires a lot of organisation, but this is what I felt I needed to do to challenge myself and feel fulfilled in dance. 

So far, working with Ballet National de Marseille has been a completely new experience and has certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone at times, which was exactly what I needed! Every day, I’m surrounded by an incredibly diverse group of people who challenge me artistically and are a constant source of inspiration. Living in the South of France is pretty great, too!”

Were you familiar with Dresden, the history and language?

“I had visited Dresden shortly whilst on my audition tour, so I knew how picturesque this little city was, but those couple of days were certainly not enough to soak up all the culture and history that Dresden has to offer. I was also not familiar with the language at all!”

Had you previously learnt a foreign language? 

Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.
Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.

“I briefly learnt Japanese and Italian when I was very young in Australia. I’ve noticed there isn’t a major emphasis on learning foreign languages in Australian schools, and I regret not learning another language on a serious level, as I’d benefit from it so much more now.”

Can you describe your first few days at Palucca.

“I’d been the ‘new kid’ a fair few times before moving to Dresden, so by this point, there weren’t any nerves, just excitement! Although I’m sure it helped that Palucca made the moving experience really smooth, and the first week is dedicated to being an orientation week, where you get to know your classmates, teachers, the University, and you’re eased into classes (which are thankfully all in English, so I never had a problem). This is definitely an example of an institution that is very used to dealing with international students. Almost half of my classmates were also new, so we were all eager to get to know each other, and it wasn’t long before we were like a family. In terms of things like finding a place to stay, there were definitely some difficulties.”

As the weeks and months went on, how did you begin to acquire the German language? Did the school provide lessons for foreign students?

“Thankfully, the school provided German lessons since it was a requirement to receive your A2 Certificate by the end of the first year. Having the goal of an exam to pass was a great motivator, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have learnt as much otherwise.” 

What resources, tools and methods did you use to build your vocabulary? Can you recommend any apps or other methods you found and still find useful for learning languages and translating? 

“Apart from the lessons provided by the school, I used Duolingo on my phone, German textbooks and an online learning course provided by the Goethe-Institut. I would also often watch Netflix with German subtitles. But what helped the most was having to figure out the things that I was surrounded by in my daily life —those talking around me, documents, signs, shops, restaurant menus, foods in the supermarket. In the beginning, using the Google Translate camera function for instant translation was often my saviour!”

How did your friends assist you with your language acquisition? 

“My German friends were always the greatest help to me, and if I needed anything because of the language barrier, they were there without a second thought! In terms of learning, I remember sending photos or voice messages of my German homework to friends, and they would correct me. A year later, those voice messages of my first attempts at German definitely came back to haunt me, often over the bluetooth speakers of the dance studio! We would also often sit at lunch and have conversations where I would try to speak only German, or they would attempt to teach me, which was definitely for their own entertainment and laughs!”

What obstacles did you face, and how did you overcome them?

“In general, I found that many Germans spoke quite good English. So facing obstacles wasn’t really a regular occurrence. Although one difficulty I did have was in apartment hunting. I quickly learnt that no matter how many emails I sent, I was never going to get a reply unless I wrote in German – the same if I would call from an international phone number. After some time, I was lucky enough to find a real estate agent who was fluent in English and was willing to help me! The next hurdle was sorting through pages and pages of rental contracts which I had to translate, but I got there in the end!”

With regards to auditioning for Ballet National de Marseille, what was the process? 

“The audition process in Marseille was over a couple of long days and quite demanding, and, like most auditions, there were many foreign dancers, so generally English was spoken.

I remember in the interview, they asked me if I would be okay with living and working in Marseille without speaking French, so it was clear that they were trying to make me aware that French would be spoken once I joined the company. However, I wasn’t afraid of this, having lived in a foreign country once before. And now, having worked here for the past six months, our company is hugely international (actually, there are only two French dancers), so everyone is constantly communicating in a number of different languages, and thankfully, English is the most common language between us.”

What tactics learnt in Germany do you now use in France to overcome language barriers?

“I guess I’m constantly facing the same language barriers in every country I visit and live in. However, being surrounded by foreign languages has weirdly just become second nature to me, and I don’t seem to notice it at all anymore. In fact, it’s much more of a shock when I visit English-speaking countries and hear those around me speaking my language. 

In terms of tactics, when I first move to a new country it’s usually most useful to know basic things to get you through day-to-day life, such as greetings, how to order at a restaurant, numbers, basic phrases and corrections that are given in dance class or rehearsal, days of the week, and names of classes so you can at least understand your rehearsal schedule. I also always ask friends or do my research (usually available on expatsites for your city) before visiting a doctor, dentist or hairdresser, to make sure there will be someone who can speak a little bit of English available.”

Describe the two cultures. 

Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.
Kelly Keesing. Photo by Pickled Thoughts.

“The two cultures are really quite different, each with its pros and cons, like every country. To summarise my personal experiences, I feel that Dresden was a wonderful place to start my student life overseas, as it was very safe, clean, affordable and super organised (in terms of the efficiency of getting my health insurance, and other administrative processes). But along with this, the weather is something that is difficult for an Australian to get used to, and because it’s a small city there’s not a whole lot going on…but in saying this I was usually preoccupied with school anyway. 

Just as I had adopted the punctuality of German life, I moved to France, only to find that everything and everyone is probably running 30 minutes late. After the initial frustration, I decided to join the laid back lifestyle of the French, and I can see why they like it! But in saying that, the sense of freedom certainly bleeds into the way the administrative processes work… which is not ideal. Although I really love the lifestyle in Marseille, it’s very open, there’s a lot of culture to experience and of course, the weather of the South of France is also a huge plus. 

In terms of language, knowing a bit of German (more similarities to Dutch) certainly didn’t help my French. The French pronunciation is something that I will continually find difficult to grasp, and it definitely is easier for those that know Spanish, Italian or Portuguese.”

What is your favourite thing about living and working overseas?

“I love living in Europe, and at this point in time I can’t imagine my life any other way! I’m very lucky to have been exposed to a number of cultures, which can take some adjusting, but I’ve always taken everything as a learning experience. So much can come from uncertainty and being open to risks.

I feel that as an artist it’s always exciting to immerse myself in the culture and surroundings of a new city. This gives me a constant source of inspiration and opens my eyes to new perspectives and opportunities. But my favourite thing would have to be the close connections I have made with people from all over the world – the best part about the dance world is that I’m able to reconnect with them constantly.”

What advice would you give young dancers who may feel overwhelmed about learning a foreign language whilst undertaking further dance training overseas?

“You need to remember that so many other dancers before you have also experienced this, and all the well-established institutions overseas have generally had years of dealing with international students. They’re prepared to help you, and they want to make the process as smooth as possible for you. They want to see you succeed!

You’re there to train and improve, but it’s also incredibly important to build yourself a strong support system of people you know can rely on to ask for help if you need it. Because you will need help sometimes…language barriers aren’t easy! Most of all, be open and willing to take this risk because no matter what, it’s going to be a huge learning experience for you!”

By Renata Ogayar of Dance Informa. 

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