Bridging the Cultural Divide Through Dance

HOUSTON--()--“It was the opportunity of a lifetime!” said Shawn Welling, referring to his recent trip to the Middle East. Welling, founder of Planet Funk Academy, choreographed ten children ranging in ages from 8 to 15 to perform a montage of the history of American dance genres.

Selected by the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce (BUSACC) to represent the USA, the children traveled from Houston to Doha to perform for the Emir, His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, and 1,200 other VIPs representing CEOs and government leaders from the world’s energy industry.

The occasion was RasGas’ inauguration of their 6th LNG (liquefied natural gas) train. Qatar is the world’s leading natural gas exporter so this event was of utmost importance to showcasing their worldwide partnerships.

Diane Sawyer of ABC’s Good Morning America has heralded Planet Funk as ‘legendary,’ so when Nina Ridge from BUSACC called on Shawn Welling, Founder of Planet Funk, and asked him to pull together a routine in three weeks --- that wasn’t an issue. However, to convince parents of 8 and 10 year olds to send their children to a country in the Middle East most of them had never heard of ... that was a bit of a challenge.

“We’ve been organizing cross cultural student and teacher exchange programs between the Middle East and the U.S. for over a decade,” says Aida Araissi, President BUSACC. “We’ve never sent a group under the age of 18 so we knew we had to do something different to address the parents’ concerns.”

Luckily in Houston, the former U.S. Ambassador’s wife, Diana Untermeyer, was available to visit with the parents and bring her daughter, Elly, to talk about her experience as a 12 year old in Qatar. Elly sealed the deal!

Welling soon had his group selected, now came the easy part. Team USA had two weeks to perfect and demonstrate five decades of American dance styles starting from swing and progressing to an Elvis rock tribute, 60's, disco, a Michael Jackson tribute and finally hip hop—but keeping it within a traditional Muslim culture’s social mores. They were ready for their trip of a lifetime.

Sponsored by RasGas the group departed on an all expense paid trip to Doha from Houston and spent five days exploring Qatar.

“I’ve performed on Oprah, Good Morning America and all over the country, but I consider this trip as the highlight of my career,” says Welling. “I’ve never imagined a place as welcoming, traditional and yet modern and filled with opportunity as Qatar.”

In between rehearsals and performances, the children interacted with Qatari, Korean, Spanish and Indian children each representing their respective countries. There was genuine interest in one another’s culture and dance styles and the realization of how their common love of dance and music brought them all together in the unlikeliest of places on earth – Qatar-- the country they refer to as the Pearl of the Middle East—a reference to their history of pearl diving.

“It is the chamber’s mission to increase business exchanges between the U.S. and the Middle East. But we have always emphasized a multi-pronged approach to business development that incorporates education and cultural programs. RasGas gets it and that’s why they created such an extraordinary event incorporating children and dance traditions from the countries they partner with,” says Araissi.

For more information on the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce visit

For Photo & Video requests please email Nina Ridge at

For Planet Funk Academy visit


Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce
Nina Ridge, 713-880-8168


Bilateral US-Arab Chamber of Commerce
Nina Ridge, 713-880-8168