Home The Washington Diplomat March 2013 The Right Moves: Exercise, Sports Define and Transcend Cultures

The Right Moves: Exercise, Sports Define and Transcend Cultures

The Right Moves: Exercise, Sports Define and Transcend Cultures

Finding things to squabble about among different cultures is unfortunately easy. There are politics and religion, history and science. But one genre borne of competition is actually quite diplomatic: sports.

Sports and fitness practices from other countries serve as diplomats for participants and observers alike because they expose people to other cultures through movement, music and cherished tradition.

“People of all cultures enjoy watching sports. Therefore, the love of sports can be a unifying force — something that we all share,” said Jason Frost, technical and policy adviser at the New Zealand Embassy in Washington, D.C.

For example, Americans, long known for their distinct brand of football, have increasingly embraced “foreign” sports such as soccer — otherwise known as football around the world — rugby and other athletics (also see “Rugby, Cricket, Fencing, Other Sports Take on Traditional American Athletics” in the October 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

“Sport is a universal language,” said Philip Barton, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy. “Yes, it’s competitive, but each game is structured around universal rules and principles that apply equally whatever your linguistic or cultural heritage…. Talking about sports can break the ice in conversations between people from very different backgrounds.”

Here’s a look at five of those icebreakers:


Originated in 19th-century England, rugby has been embraced by many countries, including New Zealand, which made rugby its national sport.

“It is often said that rugby is more than just a game of sport,” Frost told us. “It is an integral part of the New Zealand culture. The national team — the All Blacks — is the current world champions and one of the most successful and well-recognized sports team in the world.”

That recognition helps put New Zealand on the map, he says. “As a small country, we are fortunate that we have a team such as the All Blacks who are identifiable throughout the world, even in places where people may not be all that familiar with New Zealand.”

Photo: Embassy of New Zealand
The New Zealand flag flies at the annual Ambassador’s Shield Rugby Match, a local tournament first organized by the New Zealand Embassy in 1997 that features a host of men’s, women’s, golden oldies and youth rugby teams.

Frost coordinated the 16th annual Ambassador’s Shield Rugby Match in November, a local tournament organized by the New Zealand Embassy that features a host of men’s, women’s, golden oldies and youth rugby teams. The first festival was held in July 1997 after a meeting between a group of New Zealanders playing rugby in Washington and then New Zealand Ambassador to the United States John Wood.

“The idea,” the Ambassador’s Shield website states, “behind the match was to promote New Zealand’s culture in the Washington area by pitting a team of expatriate Kiwis against a local select side. Following the game the players, officials and supporters would be invited back to the embassy to talk about the match and enjoy some New Zealand hospitality.”

That simple idea has become a huge success. During the most recent match-up, the New Zealand Ambassador’s XV beat the U.S. Military Combined Services, 41-18, but it’s more about having fun and sharing culturally than winning.

“That’s why we hold this annual rugby event,” Frost said. “As the ambassador has noted, rugby shows off many aspects of New Zealand culture — from the players performing the haka before the game, to the food and beverages enjoyed by those watching.” The haka is a traditional war cry and dance.

“New Zealand sporting teams are on some level role models to our young people, as well as representatives of our country on the international stage,” Frost said.

Kiwis cheering on their national teams get a taste of other cultures, too, he added. “New Zealanders also learn about countries through watching their favorite sports teams playing in them — whether it be the All Blacks touring Europe, or the New Zealand cricket team [the Black Caps] traveling to the Indian subcontinent.”

British Soccer

Soccer, another British creation, is one of the oldest competitive sports. England’s Football Association, the sport’s first governing body, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year; its Scottish equivalent is the second oldest at 140 years, the British Embassy’s Barton said.

“We’re very proud to be the country where modern football developed and where its first formal rules were set out in the 1860s,” he said, adding that the only thing bigger than playing the game is talking about it. “Football is our national sport, but complaining about our team’s performance is a close second.”

Photo: Challenger Sports Inc.
The Challenger Sports branch in Baltimore, Md., has been offering soccer camps for children since 1985 and has grown alongside soccer’s popularity in the United States. In 2012, Challenger brought more than 1,000 soccer coaches from England to teach more than 130,000 kids at summer camps in all 50 states.

England has 92 professional clubs, the Scottish League has 42, and the Welsh Premier League and its Northern Irish counterpart each have 12, making a total of more than 150 clubs in the United Kingdom, Barton noted.

“With hundreds of millions of viewers, the English Premier League is the most watched football league in the world, including in the United States, where NBC just paid $250 million to screen it for the next three seasons,” Barton said.

Like rugby, soccer is idolized worldwide. It’s played competitively in myriad countries such as Cameroon, El Salvador, Germany, Japan, Tahiti, Ukraine and Venezuela. But you don’t have to book a flight to try your hand — er, foot — at the game. The Challenger Sports branch in Baltimore, Md., has been offering soccer camps for children ages 2 to 18 since 1985 and has grown as soccer’s popularity in the United States has bloomed, said Sean Datson, a regional director at Challenger who coordinates soccer camps in Fairfax County, Va., D.C., Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. In 2012, Challenger brought more than 1,000 soccer coaches from England to teach more than 130,000 kids at summer camps in all 50 states.

“Providing our British soccer camps allows children to experience a perspective on soccer from coaches who grew up in a culture where soccer is No. 1,” Datson said. “The passion, excitement and energy shown throughout the summer by our coaches really has an effect on American children, encouraging a love for the beautiful game and encouraging continued participation as they get older.”

Besides teaching campers how to kick, Datson said, coaches help them learn about countries where soccer is played.

“Campers are put into World Cup teams on the first day of camp and are encouraged to earn World Cup points by learning about their adopted country,” Datson explained. “Themed days, such as fact day and flag day, allow the kids to find out five facts and draw their countries’ flags to earn their team points with the aim of reaching the World Cup finals on the last day of camp. Campers are also awarded points for showing examples of respect, sportsmanship, leadership and integrity throughout the week.

“The coaches keep the campers engaged during their water breaks as well, with games such as the ‘Great British’ quiz, where campers participate in answering multi-choice questions about Great Britain such as ‘Where does Queen Elizabeth II live?'” Datson added. “Learning from British coaches and hearing their stories about playing in England also has a massive impact on their knowledge of that island across the pond.”

Salsa and Argentine Tango

Dance, be it for competition or pleasure, sometimes blends aspects of many cultures. For instance, Puerto Rican salsa uses ingredients from mambo, cha-cha, guaguancó and rumba, said Laurie Anderson and David Norton, faculty members of the social dance program at Joy of Motion (JOM) Dance Center in D.C. and Bethesda, Md.

“When mixing these music and dance styles together with horns and other jazz sounds it became ‘salsa,’ a spicy mix, like the sauce,” Norton said.

Salsa classes have been popular at JOM for more than two decades, with attendance ranging from five to 30 people, Anderson said.

Argentine tango was originally danced only in tiny wharf pubs by sailors and prostitutes and was considered so risqué for public consumption that, in the early 1900s, people were jailed for doing it, he said.

Although many salsa steps are in English, Anderson plays salsa music by Latin artists such as Héctor Lavoe and Gilberto Santa Rosa to get students moving. Tango classes double as language lessons because Norton uses the Spanish movement names and the English translation.

“For those that delve into a dance fully, they find themselves immersed in the language, the band instruments, the history of the artist and even traveling to those countries to dance,” Norton said. “However, for the average person, I think the cultural gleaning comes when they go out dancing and find people of all races, ages, sexes, shapes and sizes dancing together. There are no politics on the dance floor. Even political opposites can enjoy a dance with each other.”

The students themselves provide a cultural lesson, too, Anderson added. “I have people from all national, religious, socioeconomic and age ranges,” she said. “It’s like the United Nations and definitely fosters an appreciation of those cultures.”

Belly Dance

Saphira, owner of Saffron Dance belly dance school in Arlington, Va., describes belly dancing as an amalgamation of folkloric dances from various parts of the Middle East. The goal of her school is to honor the movements and music in their original forms and contexts. Saphira does that by playing classical Egyptian music in her classes and explaining where a movement was born — for example, how a certain gesture was used in a port city to welcome the men back from sea.

“While no one country owns this concept of belly dance, Arabic cultures in many regions have contributed to it,” said Saphira, who opened Saffron in September 2007. “The way that I personally describe it is that it is an art form and a dance form that has been given to us by generations and geographies of women and by being in the ‘lineage’ of the women, as we learn the dance form, we want to pay tribute to where the movement comes from originally.

“The dance form is brought to us by women around the world who do not likely have the right and the ability to express themselves in a dance form the way we do,” she added. “I think that’s a really profound reality about our dance form.”

The formal name is “raqs sharqi,” which translates to Oriental dance, although many genres, including ballet, have influenced belly dance over time. That’s why Saffron includes in its 45-classes-per-week roster Oriental and ballet techniques.

Dancers come to her studio out of curiosity, a desire to increase their femininity, or because they are connected to someone with an Arab background, Saphira said. Whatever their reasons for coming, she hopes her love of the dance and culture inspires them to find out more.

“I would never suggest that my status as a Jewish American woman from Oklahoma is somehow creating a deepened understanding of Islamic culture because I’m doing belly dance. I would never represent that,” she said. “But what I do represent as being at least anecdotally accurate is because of my love and interest and commitment to the art form and the music form, the way that I share it creates a deepened interest, understanding and appreciation so that that student then has a deeper hunger and an interest in learning more deeply about the culture and music.”


Many scholars date the origins of yoga to about the 5th century BC, says Debra Diamond, associate curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. She is curating “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” which will debut at the museum Oct. 19 to Jan. 26, 2014. The show is the first about the discipline’s visual history and speaks to its popularity not just in the United States, where it has gained considerable momentum, but worldwide.

Photo: Bikram Yoga Bethesda
Yoga has become hugely popular in the Washington area, as seen in the packed classes at studios such as Bikram Yoga in Bethesda, Md.

A combination of physical, mental and spiritual exercise, yoga first came to the United States at the end of the 19th century and really took off here in the 1990s and 2000s when ashtanga and bikram forms became trendy, said Mark Singleton, author of “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.” A huge benefit of yoga’s spread — aside from helping people become healthier — is educating people about India, the discipline’s birthplace.

For one, it provides an easy entry point into the country’s religious or spiritual traditions because yoga has been central to many belief systems there, including Buddhism, Jainism and, to an extent, Islam, for centuries

“It may be India’s most visible cultural export, after Bollywood,” Singleton said. “Yoga has a very positive image these days and it’s a point of pride for many that it comes from India.”

Despite the good it’s done, the commercialism of yoga has taken a toll. “Yoga, such as it exists in many global contexts, is a tremendous source of confusion and half-baked ideas about India and Indian religion,” Singleton adds. “Yoga in the modern world has a complex history of interaction with many non-traditional elements, and in many cases would be unrecognizable to ‘traditional’ practitioners of yoga. The merger of yoga with what scholars call New Age beliefs would be one case of this.”

The global infatuation with yoga led Birad Rajaram Yajnik to study yoga in nine countries for his book, “The Great Indian Yoga Masters.”

“I have often wondered why yoga has become a worldwide phenomenon and the answer has been — flexibility,” he wrote in an article. “Yoga has adapted itself as per time, race, region … it adapts to any age group. It’s flexible around religions and regions, it has been taught via different means and tools over thousands of years.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.