Speaking Their Language

Ohio State travelers stop at the Great Wall of China.

Ohio State travelers stop at the Great Wall of China.


Undergraduate dance and journalism double major Leisa DeCarlo knew her spring break study abroad experience in China would be enriching. But she had no idea how much.

“As dancers, we prepared extensively for this opportunity. However, the experience proved much less grounded in ‘performance,’ as we increasingly encountered moments of cultural exchange. Although we couldn’t communicate with language, dancing with the students was immensely rewarding in creating an unspoken connection,” {Leisa DeCarlo}

DeCarlo was one of nearly 30 students from Ohio State—including jazz musicians, dancers and rappers—who traveled to China in March to share their uniquely American art forms with audiences in cities and universities throughout China.

The endeavor was partially funded by a U.S. State Department grant awarded to the Center for American Culture collaboratively directed by Ohio State and Wuhan University (WHU) in Hubei Province. Students performed there and in Nanning, Xinxiang, Shenyang and Changchun—areas of China less familiar with the U.S. and western art forms.


Left: Who could resist a selfie with Ohio State alumnus and solo performer John Houston (left)?; Center: The Ohio State Jazz Ensemble’s tour jacket; Right: Dance students (left to right) Kelly Hurlburt, Alice Bacani, Leisa DeCarlo and Tamara Carrasco duri

Left: Who could resist a selfie with Ohio State alumnus and  solo performer John Houston (left)?; Center: The Ohio State Jazz Ensemble’s tour jacket; Right: Dance students (left to right) Kelly Hurlburt, Alice Bacani, Leisa DeCarlo and Tamara Carrasco during a performance of Dots by Rodney A. Brown in China.


The tours featured:

  • Four contemporary dancers from the Department of Dance, who performed a program of contemporary works that represent U.S. and western dance trends
  • 20 student musicians who comprise the OSU Jazz Ensemble who played a range of American jazz styles, including ragtime and traditional, swing, bebop and funk
  • Three members of the Ohio State Freestyle Rap and BeatBox Club
  • One Department of Theatre alumnus performing his solo show about Muhammad Ali

“This short study abroad experience was a great opportunity to represent the university and create a stronger bond between the U.S. and China. The grant was focused on presenting American culture and arts to Chinese audiences, and what more American way is there to do that than with American jazz, American dance and rap?” said Ted McDaniel, professor in the School of Music and director of the Jazz Ensemble.

At a Chinese university, for example, the Jazz Ensemble found the audience was unfamiliar with audience customs at a typical U.S. jazz concert.  “As an ensemble, we broke down the rigidity of the classical Chinese customs,” said Gabriel Koempel, jazz studies major. “We shouted words of approval while playing, applauded soloists, and clapped to the beat of the music. The audience quickly caught on and enjoyed something so different and more interactive than what they were used to.”

The musicians also were treated like celebrities. “The audience called for an encore and we treated them to Duke Ellington’s Oclupaca,” Koempel said. “As soon as we hit our last note, the audience flooded the stage to take pictures. All of a sudden we were the biggest thing in the university.”

The dance students felt the warmth of the local people as well.

“In addition to the dancing, we were stunned at the generosity of those we met,” DeCarlo said. “In each city, the Chinese culture proved one of immense hospitality, as the people displayed great kindness.

“More than a lesson in what it means to be an artist in the world, I will take away from this a lesson in what it means to be, merely, a human being in this vast world.”

Top