01 June 2010

Freedom, compassion, adventure, and "Africa."

I remember the first time I saw African dance. I was a freshmen at the University of Florida, taking a modern dance class on a whim. Our guest teacher spoke only French, and I'll never forget her standing in the center of the room, doing the same movement over and over while each of us placed our hands on her sternum and back to feel how her breath flowed with the movement. Even without a language barrier, words cannot describe the fluidity of dance. I didn't dance much after that semester, instead dedicating my spare credit hours to mastering Arabic, but that moment stayed with me.

Four and a half years later, I found myself in the banquet hall of a government hotel long past its days of questionable glory in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Nine months of paperwork and planning had led to my arrival in Ethiopia in October 2007 as one of 43 Peace Corps Volunteers working in HIV/AIDS prevention and control. The first volunteers in the country since the late 1990s and the first health volunteers in the program's history, we were bursting with idealism and excitement about diving into a new culture. Twenty minutes into our orientation, after discovering that the Amharic alphabet has 231 letters and "thank you" has seven or eight syllables, depending on how formal you want to be, we wondered if we'd ever be able to communicate, let alone begin to understand this new home of ours.

But then the dancing started. Ethiopia is home to some 80 tribes, each with their own languages and dances, but the eskista seems to span ethnic divides. Done almost exclusively with the shoulders, it lacks the spirited leaping I later found in Uganda and the lightening fast feet of West Africa. Instead, it is an organic motion that looks simple until you realize you've never isolated your shoulders like that before. But it is in this deceptive simplicity and repetition that you find eskista's charm. Anyone can do it (albeit with varying degrees of skill). One by one, all 43 of us tentatively joined the circle, mimicking our language teachers' motions. As they smiled and nodded their encouragement, we caught each other's glances across the room, shrugged, and threw ourselves into it. Suddenly, Ethiopia didn't feel so foreign. So what if we couldn't pronounce half the alphabet or read a street sign? We could dance!

Dance remained a stabilizing force throughout my two years of service. Sure, I eventually learned to read the language and eat with my hands without looking like the rejected aftermath of a Jackson Pollock studio session. But dance was always there to build a bridge when words only widened the cultural barriers, whether smoothing over the inevitable awkward moments when discussing my marital status (or lack thereof) or when making friends on an isolated island in southern Uganda. Like the chocolate cakes that became my trademark, dance brought me closer to my community, creating common ground when my atheism, independent streak, and disinterest in domestic bliss and motherhood brought only bewildered stares.

Bushara Island, Lake Bunyoni, Uganda

For a ballerina raised in a carefully planned suburban community, African dance was a window to a new world where passion abounds and "wrong" answers are in short supply. To me, African dance is about freedom. Freedom to dance as you see fit, to let out a ululation or shout if so moved, to embrace your body for what it can do, not what it looks like. The perfectionist in me still loves ballet - that sense of constantly striving towards a goal, the concrete rewards for improvement, a tangible, measurable standard by which to be "the best." But African dance is something else entirely - the drum circle is like a diary, a place for dancers to pour their emotions without judgment.

Today, that's what African dance means to me. A place to tell my story, whether joyful or sad, without the added burden of words. I may or may not have stumbled into love in the Arsi Mountains, but I certainly found compassion and an unwavering patriotism for the American values I hold dear. The complicated emotions Ethiopia provokes in me defy rational or verbal explanation. I'm still resentful of the adjective "African" to describe anything but a landmass. The "African" dance I've experienced here at Dance Place bears no resemblance to the eskista of my Ethiopian days. But the spirit remains the same. It's a way to commiserate with others, to dance united despite our different paths to the circle. A place where participation matters more than skill. But most of all, African dance is a trip down memory lane, to the life I led, the friends I made, and the lessons I learned in a small mountain town in Ethiopia.

Meskel (finding of the true cross) celebration, Assela, Ethiopia

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