Founder profile: Marlyn Attie, Penn99

Marlyn Attie, Founder of Fundación Espacio Creativo


“We are weaving a thread between drastically socially unequal groups.”

Marlyn Attie is the Founder and Director of Panama’s Fundación Espacio Creativo (FEC), a non-profit organization that seeks to promote socio-cultural development through dance, education and innovation. FEC’s goal is to help young people who are living in marginalized or rural communities, experiencing high levels of poverty and those who belong to minority groups, by providing access to specialized dance training, emotional support programs and after-school tutoring.

FEC has been recognized by UNICEF, PNUD, the US Embassy, IDB, Panama’s National Secretary of Technology, and other government organizations who see in FEC a partner that is capable of executing measurable and impactful projects.

Marlyn was born and raised in Panama. Her parents are both immigrants from Lebanon and Aleppo. (Her father was born in Aleppo but grew up in Israel as an orphan). Marlyn grew up as a dancer, starting in classical ballet at a young age, and has continued dancing through the many stages of her life. (She even danced on the last day of her pregnancies!)

Maryln’s family had a telecom business in Panama and she wanted to prove to them that she could succeed in that realm, so she applied to Wharton. However, once she was at Penn studying for her BS in Economics, she struggled to leave the arts behind. Back in Panama, she realized that the business courses she took could help her serve the artistic community there. Her training in management, accounting and finance helped build a reputable and successful non-profit arts organization.

Along with the work she is doing with FEC, Marlyn is currently attending the second year of a Masters in Choreography from Codarts / Fontys University in the Netherlands, a hybrid program that allows her to continue her work in Panama and attend in person 3 times a year.

Tell us a bit about your company

Fundación Espacio Creativo is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote socio-cultural development through dance, education and innovation. Its three main intervention programs are the Enlaces Program, the Sandbox program and the Professional Development Program, today under the guise of the recently created COCO Contemporary Dance Company.

What inspired you to start your business — what opportunity in the market are you seeking to address?

Our aim is to generate opportunities through dance, education and culture. Youngsters living in marginalized or rural communities, experiencing high levels of poverty and those that belong to minority groups, can’t enjoy access to specialized dance training, emotional support and afterschool tutoring.

Since 2010, the Enlaces Program has offered a preventive care proposal for children aged 9 to 17 from the communities of Santa Ana, El Chorrillo, Barraza and San Felipe. Enlaces uses the performing arts as an instrument of personal and social transformation, allowing healthy development through a comprehensive academic, psychosocial and family support program. Its goal is to train young people capable of planning a responsible life project.

The Enlaces Program is an alternative for the medium and long-term solution of social problems that are epidemic in the areas where we work, such as violence, gangs, school dropouts, emotional deficiencies and poor social and cultural stimulation.

On the other hand, in small countries, the growth of the performing arts and related industries — and therefore the job opportunities in them — largely depends on the export of productions, which are made known through international festivals. Panamanian productions face limitations to compete in national, regional, or international festivals.

In the absence of updated programs, emerging dance professionals in Panama tend to continue their career and training internationally and seek to become part of dance companies abroad. The lag in stage training and productions inhibits innovation and experimentation, also contributing to the fact that the growth of opportunities for young people in the performing arts and associated industries are very limited by the low international competitiveness.

This implies an imminent talent fugue, which prevents the national scene from nurturing, maturing internally, and having continuity. Contemporary dance initiatives in Panama come mostly from alternative, self-managed companies. However, they are not able to achieve sustainability mostly due to lack of funding as well as the absence of spaces for creative experimentation.

What is it about your personal background, experience, or perspective that fuels your passion for this venture?

Panama could be a synonym for the word contrasts, and as a Panamanian I often find myself going over its parade of accents, shapes, rhythms and social classes that are very extreme. This characteristic of multiculturalism permeates everything that arises in it, and the creation of a contemporary dance company in this country has not been an exception.

COCO, Fundación Espacio Creativo’s contemporary dance company, serves as a platform for artistic development, collaboration and interdisciplinary creation between professional artists and young graduates of the Enlaces and of the Sandbox Program.

We are weaving a thread between drastically socially unequal groups. A thread made up by moving bodies that are constantly crossing between socio-cultural boundaries and creating a new space that only exists when they coexist.

I recognized that the core of the work would emerge from the blending together of the ideas and experiences of the group in relation to the space in which we were creating, and that the space was not the enabler of the activities but one of the many influences that would shape the work.

I realized that the creation of this new company necessarily had to acknowledge the social and familiar situations of the artists. The objective was for this new platform to bring about a sense of belonging: a space in which the dancers would be recognized for their work, a medium to contribute to society, and a network for interpersonal relationships that would strengthen the artist. It would involve a journey on collective identity creation, a phenomenon of great identity significance.

With the creation of COCO, the need to give continuity and space to the creation of contemporary dance is recognized. COCO proposes to be a high-level egalitarian space, where both men and women from the world of dance and other arts can continue to develop their talent and give way to their own scene; generating a cultural and social impact in the country and the region.

Source: Fundación Espacio Creativo

What are one or two of the biggest wins or most encouraging experiences you’ve had so far?

The Sandbox Program began its operations in May 2020 thanks to a seed fund granted by the Inter-American Development Bank. Sandbox is a project that integrates art and technology that seeks to increase opportunities for productive inclusion in the Creative and Cultural Industries for young people at social risk. This is achieved through a curriculum of technological training modules applicable to the performing arts to foster 21st century skills as well as the creation of an internship program that provides them with their first practical experience alongside industry professionals.

The project also seeks to strengthen the capacity for innovation and interdisciplinary experimentation with technology among creative professionals. SANDBOX — workshop house platform model — combines a space equipped for training, interdisciplinary experimentation and innovation, based on the integration of technology with inclusive and innovative pedagogical models for young people at social risk, professional artists and trainers.

Since May 2020, with the support of IDB Lab, SENACY, and Dekel Group, more than 231 young people at social risk have been impacted with our program which has 3 main phases:

Phase 1, 21st Century Skills course, where participants develop their creativity, assertive communication, digital literacy, etc.

Phase 2, Technical Integration. Technology Workshops, where participants learn and apply technology into the arts (e.g. photography, filmmaking, sound design, graphic design, programming, virtual reality, etc.).

Phase 3, Internship Program. 4–6 weeks of practical experience in a professional environment with partners such as City of Knowledge, the National Theater, the Museum of Contemporary Art, filmmaking agencies, among others in the Creative Industries.

This project seeks to continue providing opportunities for innovative education based on the integration of technology and arts with inclusive models for young people at social risk by impacting 143 additional participants for Phase 1, 94 participants for Phase 2, and 34 participants completing an Internship for Phase 3 from June 2022- February 2023 or a period of 9 months.

In the long term, the project seeks to increase the competitiveness of participants , assure their inclusion in the labor market within the TCCI, and help break the vicious circle of poverty and exclusion.

What has been one or two of your biggest learnings so far?

Dance offers a space for liberation and a way to explore the plasticity of identity. A moment of estrangement in which the artist is only a body in motion potentially free of attributes and categories. It also presents a fundamental component to explore: empathy. Within this empathy, which can be seen as an appreciation of the other and a resonance in the self, there is also a transformative level. Movement, I believe, has these elements of manipulation of the organism based on objectives in which awareness of body transformation takes a central place. Now, within this transformation, the artist experiences the world as an act around their body-consciousness, which implies a reinterpretation –consciously or not– of human understanding.

As we continued meeting every day at the studio, we came up with a simple way to collaborate, to construct, to unify, and to solidify relationships within the company by giving space to each dancer to propose simple movements that could either be adopted by the rest of the group, or remain as personal contributions. Each one shared a movement, like an opinion, like a personal anecdote. We treated each movement as if it came from a part of that dancer’s movement heritage and the inclusion of each movement helped us get to know each other better.

The union of many movements created a web/chain/basis/network that held us together, a way to hold on to each other, and a way to move around each other with greater sensitivity and empathy. By “listening” to each other’s movements and breaking judgements and misconceptions, we created a sense of shared respect among the group and generated a positive collective experience. It was a simple exercise, but this simplicity turned out to be the tool that brought us together, and helped us solidify relationships within the company.

What is an obstacle that you are grappling with as you continue to build this venture?

Due to the recent increase of innovative proposals within the performing arts sector in Panama, there is a perceived need for Art to take risks. Furthermore, to challenge and investigate creative processes and their products; as well as to invite the public to venture into new high-quality works. Within this challenge, the creation of a formal artistic organization is proposed, a contemporary dance company. Capable of influencing popular culture that tells its own stories and gathers the work of talented professionals from different kinds of Sciences and the Arts.

Despite a local market growth for the performing arts industry, the concentration of talent and artistic productions remain concentrated. This leaves an aggregate of missed opportunities for both the public to appreciate dance productions and aspiring entertainers to learn, train and make a living out of contemporary dancing.

Overall, the country experiences an economic loss for not taking advantage of exploiting the creative industries. The proliferation of the arts has a spillover effect for the creation of jobs in other fields such as marketing, publishing and advertising, design and architecture as well as helping local businesses in the hospitality area like hotels and restaurants.

There is also an artistic and cultural loss, not training enough artists to contribute to the artistic development of the country. From the beginning of humankind, we have transferred history, feeling and traditions through the arts, losing skilled dancers to continue these efforts would be a sad situation for all.

In order to bring to completion COCO’s potential, there is a need for external funding. It is the way to sustain the proposed coexistence of dancer’s needs as well as the exploration of their dreams. It is needed to support this shared space where artists from at-risk families can create and express their truest vulnerabilities and share them in a safe context without needing to wonder how they will feed their families or if the decision to express themselves through movement was the correct one.

What surprises have you encountered as an entrepreneur? Something out of left field?

I have been surprised by the engagement of private donors who have jumped in to support our cause. Our organization has been recognized by UNICEF, PNUD, US embassy, IDB, Panama’s National Secretary of technology, and other government organizations that see in us a partner that is capable of executing measurable and impactful projects.

Our board of directors is made of 3 women and we have been able to gain access to grants that specifically are looking to support women entrepreneurs. This is something we did not consider when consolidating our board.

What has been the most rewarding thing about starting your own business?

The biggest reward is the impact we have had in our students and young professional dancers. Selected students have been awarded full-ride scholarships in European dance universities and all of our graduates have been the first in their family to pursue an education beyond high school.

Read more about Marlyn here and connect with her here.



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