Join the culture club

International days are a firm fixture of school calendars, and a fun and vibrant way for the whole school community to embrace and celebrate the diverse cultures and heritages that make up the school. For some GEM staff however, celebrating culture is more than just a one-day event – they promote their heritage to the world, every day of the year.

Cristina Cobos, a Spanish teacher at AAQ has been dancing since the age of three. Born and raised in Mexico City, she practiced ballet and Polynesian dance as a child and became a dance teacher at 14. Her passion for Latin American dance has seen her co-found the Latin-American Folkloric Ballet in Qatar, dance for dignitaries in the Middle East and receive the “Mexicanos Distinguidos” Award from the Mexican Ambassador for Qatar.
We caught up with her to find out more.

Where did your love for dance begin?
My mother signed me in for ballet and Polynesian dances, being the later the ones I liked more and continued dancing. I became a dance teacher at the age of 14.

What do you love about Mexican folklore dancing, and what makes it unique?
I love the joy, the colours, the soul and the variety of the rhythms and songs. Mexico is a country composed of 32 states and in each of them you can find several folkloric dances. The richness of the culture – both the indigenous and the Spanish-influenced – is impressive.

Tell us more about the dance school you founded?
Before living in Qatar, my family and I lived in Singapore where I founded a folkloric ballet called “Mexico Lindo“. My husband is an airline captain, and when he switched jobs from Singapore to Qatar, I decided I would like to have a group here with the same mission: to share the culture of our countries through dance, not only to the community of the country we are living in but also to our own ex-pat community. I wanted to make this group a safe haven for all those ladies that find themselves in a new country, facing a new culture alone. Isolation in these circumstances is terrible. So, I co-founded this group in Doha with a Colombian friend, Yulyer Prada, and that is why it’s called Latin-American Ballet, not Mexican.

Why is it important for you to share your traditional dance and culture with the world?
In the same way that I am proud of my language, which I have the pleasure of teaching at GEMS AAQ, I am proud of my culture and I love sharing it. Similarly, I enjoy learning from other cultures too. Culture enriches our lives. What would any of us be without our culture? Nothing. Our cultures are an essential part of our identities.

You were awarded the ‘Mexicanos Distinguidos” Award last December by the Mexican Ambassador of Qatar. That’s a pretty big deal! Not only is the award part of the Mexican government’s vision of “Feminist Foreign Policy” aimed at empowering women, but you’re also one of only seven Mexicans across the world to receive this award. How did that make you feel?

I was deeply honoured to be recognised with this award. It was one of the most important days of my life and I am grateful to our Ambassador, Graciela Gómez, and the Institute of Mexicans Abroad for recognising me.

You get to wear some stunning costumes with full-skirts and bright colours. Can you tell us more about them? Is there a historical significance to the dresses?
Sure. The dress you are referring to is one of the dresses from the region of Jalisco, Mexico. It has a very wide skirt that has the design of a star crafted with laces and ribbons. Its origins lie in the dress of “soldaderas” (female soldiers) of the Mexican Revolution, which also may have been influenced by the dresses used by the Spanish court ladies in Mexico in colonial times. It is one of many folkloric dresses from Mexico that are part of our heritage and culture.

How do you bring your Mexican heritage into your school life?

We celebrate United Nations Day on 24 October at GEMS AAQ. On that day, all my Spanish classes perform traditional dances from Spanish-speaking countries. Last UN Day, Grade 6 danced the Paso Doble from Spain; Grade 7 danced Jarabe Tapatío from Mexico (with dresses borrowed from our ballet); Grade 9 danced the Polka from Monterrey (yes, we also have polkas in our folklore); Grade 10 danced a Samba from Brazil (it’s not a Spanish-speaking country, but we have a considerable number of Brazilian students); and Grade 11 and 12 danced Salsa.
I taught these choreographies in between classes, and students benefited from learning the lyrics of the songs and learning about the culture of the target language.

How does school support your role as a cultural ambassador?
I have always had the support of principals and staff to participate in and organize cultural events. I am grateful for their support for UN Day and World Mother Language Day. This year the Languages Departments of our school will celebrate Mother Language Day in a different way, with more virtual activities, but with the same motto: “proud of my language”.

What’s next for The Ballet, and for you as an ambassador? How will you continue to share your culture and dance?

We will definitely keep dancing. As for now, there are plans for the FIFA Club World Cup 2021, since a Mexican team, Tigres de Monterrey, is coming to Qatar to play this month. We have danced at the inauguration of some stadiums in Qatar and hopefully there will be future events for us to be part of. In any case, the group will continue receiving newcomers and I will keep teaching what I know for free.

Where can we see you in action?
You can follow us on Instagram @ballet_folklorico_catar.

Geetha Suresh’s passion for the Malayalam language and culture spurred her to create a TV show for Malayalam speaking expats in the UAE. Balancing her job as a grade three teacher at Our Own English High School – Sharjah, Geetha writes and produces a weekly show, named ‘Aksharalokam’, which means ‘the world of letters’, that is aired on the World Vision channel. The show helps the Malayalam-speaking community in the UAE connect with their heritage by sharing facts, history and cultural events. Geetha, who had no previous TV experience, shares why she shone a spotlight on mother languages.

Why did you feel the need to create this show?
In my career of 19 years as a teacher, I’ve interacted with numerous expatriate students from Kerala who had a deep desire to learn their mother tongue, and that’s what motivated me to initiate a programme on languages. Learning the language of your heritage helps you understand your roots and culture, and connect with friends and family from that place.

Starting a TV channel isn’t like having a YouTube channel, how did you get started?
My family owns an event management studio, so I already had some access to space when I had the idea. Initially, it started as a self-funded project and after broadcasting the programme I started to receive responses from sponsors. Our first show went live on 17 September 2020.

How do you balance producing the show with teaching?
Each episode is 25 minutes long, but it takes up to three hours of shooting every week to create. I work on the show on Saturdays, and I spend my evening’s script writing for the next week. It is a lot to balance, but I enjoy it so much that it is easy for me to find the time.

What kind of content do you feature on the show?
I started with some amazing facts about Kerala and the culture of the Malayalam language. Then I focused on teaching Malayalam grammar, the alphabet and sentence making, and I added a fun quiz or riddle at the end of the show. The feedback has been very positive and encouraging – especially in terms of the riddle, which viewers really enjoy.

What’s the most difficult thing about learning Malayalam for a non-native speaker?
Malayalam is a Dravidian language so the spoken accent is quite different from other languages and may be difficult to follow

What’s next for ‘Aksharalokam’?
Season one of the show is completed, and I’ve started working on season two. After seven episodes, the students should get a basic knowledge of the Malayalam language. Next, I am planning to expand the show. Season two will have more emphasis on writing and communication skills, and I hope to reach even more people.

What do you enjoy about making the show?
I have been able to gain exposure to social media, connecting it to my passion for teaching. Through the show I have refreshed and deepened my knowledge about Kerala and my culture. The show enables me to teach my culture but it has also been a space for my own learning.

Where can we catch episodes of ‘Aksharalokam’?
You can watch episodes on YouTube: