At this time last year I sat in classroom on West 11th Street, staring wistfully out a set of wall-sized windows, imagining what it would be like if cows could just wander through the Greenwhich Village traffic. I usually admire the pigeon-riddled pastels of New York City’s rooftops out those big windows, but at that time my thoughts were not in this city. My notepad rested on the laughably small flip-out desk attached to the arm of a sleek little New School chair. On the page, I had written, “To Do List: 1. Write Senior Paper. 2. Graduate. 3 Go back to India.”
I remember sitting there feeling overwhelmed trying to think of ways to describe the contrast between India and New York City. Between the classrooms in Udaipur and the classrooms at Eugene Lang. Between myself 3 months earlier, and myself in that moment. I looked around at my classmates—a small group of similarly manic and mildly disheveled seniors all trying to figure out how to pull together our senior capstone papers. I watched each of them as they nibbled pencils, puffed out their cheeks and sighed or pulled their hair, and I went back to staring out the window. I closed my eyes and the turquoised-copper rooftops and brownstones of New York turned to saffron and pink palaces glinting in the Indian sunset.
This still happens sometimes when I close my eyes. I see the giant lakes in Udaipur reflecting temples, peoples’ laundry, curious faces, elephants, and donkeys, painted rickshaws and trucks (…the list goes on). Sometimes, when I’m running, a subtle whiff of rose incense will waft by in Brooklyn, and I’m back for a second, soaking Udaipur up as quick as I can before my eyes open and my feet hit the concrete.
My “To Do” List has grown exponentially from what it was last year, taking shape around check 3. I finished my senior paper. I graduated. And have since poured my energy into going back to Udaipur. It has been a year of discussing, re-discovering and redefining what exactly it was that we did there in those three weeks in January 2012. A year of compiling, editing, re-writing, plugging and explaining to anyone who has two ears and asks the question: “what have you been up to lately?”
I’ve been working as the program coordinator for The Vanaver Caravan’s India partnership in Udaipur. I’ve been learning how to write grants. I’ve been creating timelines. I’ve been trying (fruitlessly) to understand excel. I’ve been creating a winter study abroad program at The New School and NYU TIsch for next year. I’ve been thinking about curriculum goals for the Performing Arts Academy we are going to help build in Udaipur, and I’ve been scheming about ways to feed hungry children and enrich their lives through the arts.
I’ve been painting the picture, cutting the pieces into jagged shapes, scattering them, and then trying to solve the puzzle I made in one fell swoop. I’ve also been collecting flowing shirts and loose-fitting pants. Of course, that’s just what I’ve been doing, and I’m not the only one involved in this project—to put things in perspective.
Some days, I feel as overwhelmed as I did in that classroom: writing the same things in different ways, telling the same stories over and over again until I feel like Jude Law in I <3 Huckabees. There are so many moving parts right now that will all have to come into place in order to make this into a reality that I could look back eight months from now and have nothing to show for it.
Keeping track of everything is like trying to contain a beehive. But we’re going to do it. We are going back to India. We are going to take a leaf out of the bees’ book too, and work together as diligently as we can to continue and expand what we started. The pieces will come together and in a year, if all goes well, a group of students will be sitting in classrooms in New York City dreaming of cows in the streets and glimpsing images of Udaipur under sleepy eyelids. In one year, we will be a little closer to changing the world through dance and music.
Wednesday, May 2nd
Wollman Hall, 65 W 11th Street, 5th Floor, Manhattan, NY 10011
Free Admission (Donation Suggested)
All ages welcome!
Light refreshments served.
The evening will be hosted by the Vanaver Caravan World Dance & Music Company, who will perform and teach dances from across the globe—from Chinese silk ribbon dancing, Spanish Flamenco, and Brazilian Capoiera, to Tribal Rituals from the Philippine Islands, Canadian Step, Appalachian Clogging from the U.S., and Israeli, and Kurdish folk dances. In addition, we will host a photography exhibit and discussion about our journey to India.
This event is the culmination of my project with the New School and my experience in India, which prompted me to create more programs in the U.S. that bring together people from all walks of life to enliven, teach, and inspire through dance & music.
Come! Enjoy yourself and immerse yourself in an evening of rich culture, vibrant performance, and good old-fashioned clog dancing! Please forward this on to anyone you think may be interested!
RSVP to WorldDanceCelebration@gmail.com
Hope to see you there!
World Dance Traditions on Stage
World Dance Traditions on Stage
Rajasthan Patrika Newspaper
January 28th 2012
* A Program of International Dances
* In step with dancers from America and Brazil
Udaipur’s Big Medicine Charitable Trust organized an evening of international dances on Thursday January 27th at St Mary Girl’s Senior Secondary School, Fatehpura. At this event we saw folk dances from various parts of the globe.
Much to the amazement and delight of the gathered audience, the participating school children put on a brilliant performance, dancing along with the American and Brazilian dancers (teachers).
This concert had a total of 101 students in the age group of 6 to 8 and 14 to 16 take part from the Mahila Mandal Mandal Girls Senior Secondary School, the St Mary’s and St Paul’s school.
The three chief guests for the program were the three principals, Father Remigius of St. Pauls, Sister Jyotsna of St Marys and Mrs. Madhu Sareen of Mahila Mandal.
Their Dance Presentations
The participants presented some of the following world dance variety: Canadian Step Dance, Indian Story Dance, Israeli Folk Dance, Spanish Folk Dance, Chinese Story and Rhythm dance, American Swing Dance, African Story Dance and Brazilian Martial Art Dance amongst other dances.
Rita Dixit, from the Trust informed us that the America and Brazilian dance teachers trained the students in the international dances within five workshops. The aim of the training program was to give students a direct experience and appreciation of dance training and dances from other countries.
Postscript from Rita Dixit-Kubiak
We are grateful to the Rajasthan Patrika for covering the World Dance Concert (dated 27th January, 2012) in their newspaper. I would however like to point out that the concert was not organized by Big Medicine Charitable Trust but the three principals of the schools that participated in the BMCT/Vanaver Caravan World Dance Pilot Project. I would also like to note that the American and Brazilian dancers that the journalist mentions in this article are Vanaver Caravan Troupe members, Miranda Ten Broeke, Marina Lopez, Ramona Staffeld and Gustavo Caldas.
I have been back in New York for three weeks and only now do I feel at home again. I jumped off the plane in Newark, New Jersey, at 4am on Monday, Jan 30th. I had time to nap and shower (a long, evilly indulgent shower) at home in Brooklyn before rushing off to school for class by 11:30am, and up to the Bank Street Children’s School at 3pm to teach world dance to my group of wildly buoyant six-year-olds. Needless-to-say; I did not “ease back into it.”
While it has been strange jumping back into my life here, I think I am glad that I kept moving. After a month of endless movement in India, my busy city life here feels calm. The overwhelm I used to feel in the crowded tunnels and sidewalks requires nothing more than a deep breath and a steady mindset. It has always been a goal of mine to figure out how to navigate crowds without jostling and fussing—I am one of those completely inept people who has never figured out how to maneuver through chaotic, overcrowded settings. I just bump into people left and right. But, it’s all a state of mind. I learned how to float through crowds in India and now it feels so easy here. Union Square subway station walking from the L to the 6 at rush hour? I am as nimble and slick as a mongoose!
For the first two weeks, everything came in vivid flashbacks. Every article I read for school, every dance class I taught. Every conversation I had … I was in two places at once. My soul wandered to India way before I even went there and I had to work very hard to convince it to be present in New York.
I felt like Peter Pan chasing his shadow. Or like an adventurous hobbit returning to the Shire (although that is an entirely unfair comparison, because those hobbits really went through so much strife and toil and I just taught dance and saw intense things. Both important, but I didn’t go to Mount Doom or anything). It’s more about the energy that fueled this project. I just put so much in … and now it’s done. Temporarily. I’m going back in less than a year (it’s not set in stone, but I never set anything in stone, so I’m not going to worry about that). Still. . .
Anyway, where was I? Or, more accurately, where am I? Physically, I am at School, reminiscing about my time in India. It was quite a time, I tell you. I get overwhelmed when people ask, “So how was India!?” and I keep answering “It was. Um. incredible. Great. Really, intense. But really great.” When I give this answer, I take a deep breath, shake my head back-and-forth, my eyes widen then find the floor, my cheeks pull my lips into a rueful smile, my shoulders shrug, and a short, abrupt sigh escapes from my chest through my nose. Occasionally, I skuff my foot.
I think everyone expects me to give them more but it’s hard to explain a series of experiences that you don’t fully understand in a place where you haven’t quite left. I think it’s hard to answer the question because I am trying to be here now, and to really be present. If I am always talking about India, I will never actually leave. I think it is important to actually be where you are, isn’t it?
Well, this past week, life in New York shoved itself into my body. My bouyant Bank Streeters had all of their dance-sharings, I went upstate and saw my family for the first time, I wrote papers in my school’s computer lab, and I danced at the Dance Flurry in Saratoga with the Vanavers. Nothing like familiarity to bring you back to the present! India seems 7,000 miles away again.
The Indian head nod was clarified. Over the weeks, when we have asked our students whether they’ve understood what we’ve been talking about, we’ve gotten the same response: Sideways head nods and blank stares. To us, this meant that they were confused. Some of them would cock their ear to the their shoulder (in a confused puppy manner), some would wiggle their heads back-and-forth, emulating a subtle, graceful, bobble-head style which—when you are trying to relay important information about the intense feeling of Flamenco, the laid-back rhythm of swing, the secret joy of Israeli folk dance, the gratitude in the African harvest dance, etc.—has been infuriatingly confusing for us teachers.
“Ok, but, does that mean YES or NO?”
And again, their heads would wiggle sideways—not up-or-down or back-and-forth, in the familiar contrast we have always known in the west. Eventually, we just had to assume that, despite their “yes, maybe, who knows?” head-wiggling answers, our students were comprehending what we had to offer.
They were. On friday, our teaching culminated in a dance sharing which turned out to be much bigger than we had anticipated. The press was there, and many of the Udaipur higher-ups, school administrators, parents and beloved relatives, and the kids, of course. Also present were all the members of our new Udaipur family. Rita and Madhu, of course. And Ranu, Kabra, Purvi, Lakshme, Bharat, Nisha, Narain, Sangita, Bhargav, Manish, Manish, Rahoul, Rahoul, Rahoul, Krishna,Vartika, Muscan, Kathrin… They were ever-present throughout this trip. Our cooking-teachers, and food enforcers, our hosts, chai masters, dancers, motorcyclists, conversationalists, teachers, students, liaisons, translators. Our friends. I’m really going to miss them.
We woke up at the crack of dawn yesterday morning and piled into our rickshaws, bleary-eyed and chilly. After picking up Laksme at his house in the old city, we caravaned out of the city to the temple of the local deity…. I can’t remember her name off hand, but I know she is a goddess of happiness. We got up out of curiosity and because we had promised Lakshme that we would go with him. Rita had told us that the priest of the this temple would summon the spirit of the goddess into his body as the sun rose and move in an unearthly dance. We arrived at the temple as the prayers were starting. Loud bells clanged around us, accompanied by the frenzied, tribal beat of drums played by little temple children.
The old temple priest had slept in that morning so it was another, younger priest, who led the prayer. He stood, holding a palm full of candles in the little sanctuary where the goddess statue stood. She was beautiful and scary at the same time. Golden-faced and misshapen. All around her were flowers, candles, and intricately colored tiles and mirrors, golden trinkets, bowls of ash, and burning incense. The priest swayed slightly, but did not summon the goddess into him. To be honest, I was a little bit relieved. The air around us was already static with a sort of magical, powerful energy and I’m not sure if I could have handled seeing a being possessed by a spirit in real life that early in the morning.
In front of the shrine, there was a … well, actually, it was a womb. Or the representation of a womb. It was a small carved archway, just high enough for you to crawl through. Lakshme happily scooted his way through, Gustavo and Ramona followed. I hung back for a few moments, worried that going through would somehow be disrespectful to a goddess I never prayed to. I am not religious, I don’t believe in God, but somehow, these Hindu gods shake me a little. There are over two million gods in Hinduism, each with a different, very specific story and purpose. Somehow, it’s not very hard to sort of just believe in these deities. It’s like believing in fairies or ghosts or spirits. And, naturally, I do believe in fairies. And I know, from fairy lore that you’ve got to be careful not to upset anything magical and otherworldly. I didn’t want to just crawl through this representational womb for kicks.
As I deliberated, I remembered something Madhu told me about Hinduism. She said that while there are many, many gods and goddesses, they are all really just various representations of one entity—that they exist to portray the countless aspects of humankind. I crawled through. And I thanked the goddess for all the happiness I have been surrounded by and filled with throughout my life.
When Lakshme contracted polio at age three—after receiving a faulty polio vaccine—his parents brought him to this temple everyday. They slept there, and prayed there. The priest, who was young then and now is old, rickety and toothless and sleeps in late, told them that the goddess was watching over Lakshme and that he would survive and go on to be one of the happiest people. He would make many friends and live a long life.
And he did just that. We sipped our chai around the sacred fire in open-air the temple and Lakshme beamed, telling us his story. “Life is so beautiful, isn’t it so? Mama Mia.” (Lakshme always says Mama Mia—it is his favorite phrase of all the languages in the world.)
Yep, Lakshme. It is so.
Yesterday, we banded together with a group of 5 Indian dancers that we’ve been training over the past few weeks. They revved their engines and we jumped on the backs of their motorcycles and flew. We flew through the winding roads, out into the country, zipping past monkeys and peacocks, skirting around cows and buffaloes, herds of tiny goats and ridiculous donkeys, waving at village children, beeping past trucks, stretching our arms out and screaming into the mountains, hills, and ravines. We rode up around a winding mountain, towards a temple at the top of a mountain.
As we reached the bottom of the mountain, we came across a group of about fifty college-age students, dancing to bollywood hip-hop in an ancient glade. Gustavo had been itching to “crush a party” so, off we went, into the throng of the party. Doing back-flips, and hip hop and afro-brazilian capoeira choreography. The crowd lost it. They swarmed us, taking pictures, surrounding us as if we were high class celebrities. I guess, when eleven dancers show up randomly on motorcycles at your giant college picnic and start immediately performing perfectly synchronized choreography to the music that you happen to be playing, it makes sense that you’d lose it. Still, it was surreal.
Eventually, we peeled ourselves away from the partiers and headed, on foot, up the mountain. It’s not that the view from the top of this mountain is indescribable…it’s just really, really hard to describe. It’s that type of natural, powerful beauty that you only find when you’re standing on the top of a mountain looking down at the rest of the world. This goddess temple is carved into the top of the mountain. You walk through a shallow pool of ice cold water and enter into a pitch black, tiny, narrow tunnel, just big enough for you to fit one-by-one. In the center of the mountain, there is a shrine. We sat and prayed to the goddess and the priest with the flashlight gave us each little goddess sashes, which we wore the entire way back. Tossing them back and forth on the zooming motorcycles. Holding each other’s hands as we flew down the mountain, zigzag-zigzag. I think I can say, in all fairness, that I have never felt more alive.
I seem to be moving backwards here. On Saturday we went to the old city, to our favorite lake-view patio. Gustavo had it in his mind to play his Birimbao (a brazilian instrument) with the old man who plays the the ravanhatta (see video below). Here we stumbled upon the two little goddesses I’d met earlier, along with a gaggle of cows, and a smattering of other adorable little urchins. RJ, our photographer, immediately befriended the children. As he sat on the ground and they crawled all over him, giggling and squeaking, Rita told me and Ramona the story of those two little goddesses. Their parents died. One of them is actually a boy and they dress up every day to make money off of tourists. Like many of the homeless children in the city, they have been sexually harassed countless times and will likely end up as prostitutes like the young girl with the baby standing over RJ’s shoulder, fascinated by his iPhone, begging for just a few rupees to feed her and her baby.
What do you do with that?
How do you grasp the gravity that sort of reality? Truths like this have a weight to them that I don’t understand. None of us do. We stood there and discussed this soberly, and none of us knew where to go with the information. I gave them each ten rupees and told them, in Hindi, that they were very beautiful. The young goddesses scampered off again and the young girl with her baby gave me a smile with so much relief in it, it hurt.
Life is as profoundly sad as it is beautiful and happy, Lakshme. Mama Mia.