Posts Tagged ‘Dance’

RYLA, Part two

June 21, 2011

From 7-10 November, 2010, continued.

The third and final day of the RYLA camp had been the longest yet. Again we’d been forced out of bed before sunrise, awoken at 5:30 for yoga with a counselor yelling in our ears.

“GOOD MORNING!”

It had been another long day. Not so much because of the attention from the other students, which I had grown used to. Rather, I was tired from dance practice, which had been going on since 9 a.m. and eaten up most of my free time. At the beginning of the day, I’d had just one minute of our dance memorized. After the morning’s three-hour practice, I’d taken only half of the five-minute song to memory. And at the end of our final practice, the performance less than an hour away, I still had no idea what I’d be doing for the final 30 seconds of the song.

Nor did our choreographer, but he had an idea. As the song’s final chorus began, we’d break away from our positions and I’d run to the front. Whereas I’d been hidden at the back or shunted to the side for most of the dance, I was to be the centerpiece as the song came to an end. Sitting on the pool’s edge, surrounded by the other students, I was to sit down, put one leg up, and shake both my arms with my palms inward, each pinky and forefinger my only digits extended.

This, apparently, is the American “Yo!” and it’s how we party in the U.S.A.

I understood what this man wanted me to do, but he didn’t understand my English. This posed a minor problem. I vehemently disagreed with what he wanted me to do, but I had no way of offering to him my own suggestion. No way would I portray American culture like this. No, I told him. He had no further suggestions.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

I was left with three options:

Option one: Do exactly what had been suggested to me. Perhaps I could even find a black Yankees baseball cap and an oversized hooded sweatshirt for added effect.

Option two: Run off the stage before the end of the song and stand arms crossed, crying, as the crowd and the dancers look at me in disbelief.

Or option three:

Improvise.

———

Like a good boy, I’m doing exactly what’s asked of me. I’m sitting quietly, going over the dance steps in my head. I’m wearing the largest purple sequined shirt the dance crew could provide for me, though it’s still comically small. I’m even wearing makeup, though I know it won’t make any difference, given how far away the crowd is sitting.

Heh. They still don’t know my plan for the end of the show.

Oh yeah. I don’t know my plan either.

It’s too late to think of one, however – the presentation has begun. Actually, it’s technically a Rotary club meeting, just one in which the RYLA campers are playing a prominent role. There’s also several speakers, whose involvement in the community means little to the small kids fidgeting around me. The kids don’t understand the importance of the people on stage, let alone their English.

Franzi wins an award. Most Outstanding Camper, Girl, or something like that. If it comes to a shock to anyone in the crowd, it doesn’t to me. The man with the microphone is heaping praise on her – well-deserved praise at that. She was the first asked to come to the camp, and was the only Rotary student to come without hesitation. She was asked to make a speech minutes earlier, and she did. Franzi’s the only exchange student in Nagpur who would have been here no matter what. And though she later understates the award and the accompanying positive words of the camp’s director, no one at RYLA deserves an award more than Franzi.

I also win an award. Best Campfire Performer – Boy. The night before, we’d gathered around a fiery pile of logs and plastic, playing two games of luck and concentration. Mostly luck. In game one, a competition of shouting other teams’ numbers, I’d caused my team to bow out early, saying the wrong word at the wrong time. In game two, an elimination game which required knowledge of nothing more than the English alphabet and the first letter of one’s own name, I was one of the final five competitors. I earned a bar of chocolate and the award.

The chocolate was enough for me. This award won’t be going on my resume.

The power goes out. This is an outdoor venue with no backup lighting except two small lights and the stars above. We’re plunged into darkness, but the speaker continues to talk, unfazed. This is India. We listen, and wait for our performance to start.

The speakers finish. The lights turn back on. We make our way around the pool and gather backstage.

Franzi’s dance goes ahead of ours. Only later would I learn of the tension she felt before she’d gone onstage, something she could blame on learning just an hour beforehand how seriously her costume sari would limit her leg movement. But from my vantage point, it looks like it goes off without a hitch, and it can’t look any worse to the parents sitting on the other side of the pool.

It always looks better to the audience than the performer. I think that’s just a rule of entertainment – no matter where you are in the world.

Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani begins to play.

It’s time.

I’ll skip to the end, because the first four minutes or so go more or less as choreographed. I’m slow to remember my steps a couple times, but it’s nothing too noticeable. But then the final chorus begins. And I have no idea what to do. The spotlight is shoved upon me.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

Option three: Improvise.

I continue to shake my body and dance in tune to the beat, as do the others. But after five seconds of this, it becomes clear there’s a desperate need for additional choreography. I slowly make my way to the front of the stage, and the other campers are ceding the center to me, egging me on. Still I have no fixed dance to perform. I resort to the type of dance I know best – head-nodding, arm-thrashing upper body chaos. Better for the dim light of discotheques than the focused spotlight of the RYLA camp stage.

This doesn’t seem sufficient.

I look to the others. They’re looking at me anticipatively, shouting, wondering why I haven’t already begun my “Yo! Yo!” performance. But I have no intention of “Yo! Yo!”-ing in front of this crowd, however poor its view of the stage. I sit down and continue flailing my arms my own way, anticipating the final note of the song.

The song doesn’t stop.

The final 20 seconds of the song feel like an eternity. The music doesn’t cease. The bright lights don’t turn off. Unless I want to run off the stage in tears, I have no choice but to keep flailing my arms without coordination. It’s the least prepared I’ve ever been for a performance of this magnitude, but it doesn’t really matter. The audience doesn’t know that I’ve done anything wrong. Nor do they care.

They just keep watching me.

There’s just no avoiding the spotlight.

🙂

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RYLA, Part one

June 20, 2011

From 8-10 November:

Five days before my tour of South India. I’m standing by the only swimming pool I’ve seen in four months. My costume, which has been given to me minutes earlier, consists of jeans, sneakers, and a purple sequined long-sleeved shirt about two sizes too small for me. A crowd of small school age Indian kids has gathered around me, some costumed and sitting quietly, others in plainclothes and joking loudly in their native tongues. The choreographers of our Bollywood dance have their cameras out, and they’re pointing them at me. The sun has set. Loud speakers are blaring loud Hindi music to entertain the hundred or so parents of these children, but the stone bleachers on the other side of the enormous pool are mostly empty.

Funny. If the people sitting forty meters away knew they were about to see a 6′ 3″ blond-haired foreigner perform a choreographed dance to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani, there probably wouldn’t have been any empty seats.

The three-day Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp, otherwise known as RYLA, has culminated in this performance. My group has spent the last three days learning a dance to a recent popular Bollywood song, and several other students – including the camp’s only other foreigner – have dances to perform as well. I’d been coerced into the optional performance just 32 hours before, under the impression it was compulsory. Thus I was shocked when all but three of the boys my age opted out. Now it’s too late.

I didn’t realize I had a choice.

———

In the weeks before RYLA, the Nagpur exchange students and I had been bombarded with requests for activities, usually on one or two days’ notice. We attended some. We turned down others. Some were interesting. Some were awful. It was always better when the others were present, so at least if the proceedings were unbearable, we’d have each other. But I was relying on the other exchange students for my RSVPs. I needed assurance that I wouldn’t venture into the unknown alone. Otherwise my response to an invitation would be “maybe.” And “maybe” normally becomes “no”…

Franzi, who had turned into a courier of sorts for these activities, was the one to break the news of RYLA to us. In fact, she’d given us a week’s notice, enough time for us to discuss amongst ourselves whether or not we should go. But except for Franzi, we’d all decided not to go, unwilling to subject ourselves to the attention we’d receive. It wasn’t worth it.

My host dad had found out about the camp the day before its onset. I told him I didn’t want to go. “Why aren’t you going?” he said. A legitimate question. I had no reply. For a month and a half or so, I’d been caught in the daily timepass I’d vowed to avoid. And indeed, I had no valid reason not to attend. So it was set. I packed my bag, and the next morning I was out the door. But reluctant to leave, I couldn’t help but think:

Why am I doing this?

———

Indeed, I considered that a legitimate question as I ventured the grounds of Bhonsla Military School just outside Nagpur on the morning of 8 November. I was the tallest and oldest in a group of about two dozen boys, but I was having trouble standing up straight. The sanitation of the breakfast that had been provided was suspect, and the bus ride in had violently jarred the contents of my stomach. Now my innards were in disarray; even though the Hindi-speaking army officer in full military regalia was instructing us to stand straight, I couldn’t.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

But a military camp is not the place to be weak, show weakness, or quit.

As the day went on, I was relieved to learn RYLA wasn’t really a military camp. Saket-dada had told me stories from camps in his childhood, how he’d been forced to run for miles on end and had been deprived of sleep for nights on end, unsmiling officers in the background shouting and pushing him on. But quick glances at the other members of the camp showed me it wouldn’t be like that. Though some of the boys came within an inch of my height and a year of my age, many of the boys and girls stood about two-thirds my height and looked as if a 100 meter jog would exhaust them – let alone a 10,000 meter one. So we spent the morning walking, not running, through the Bhonsla grounds and Vidharba fields, stopping at regular intervals as much for our rest as the attractions we were stopping for.

My stomach settled as morning gave way to afternoon, which was good – otherwise the day’s swimming and horseback riding would have been impossible for me. There was nothing significant about these activities to me – I’d ridden horses before, and I’d spent regular intervals each summer in swimming pools. But seeing the excitement of the younger kids vanquished my apathy. I saw it as the small kids smiled proudly on horseback – probably their first rides on such steeds, maybe their last. I saw it as they splashed wildly in the swimming pool large enough to accommodate five times as many campers as it did – especially in India. I saw it in the dingy Spartan sleeping quarters – a place where ones goods mattered not as much as the good friends around you.

Naturally, these kids took an interest in me, the likelihood of an ulterior motive correlating with age and ability to speak English. I was surrounded at every available moment, asked the normal foreigner-in-India questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? How do you find India? Do you like Indian food? What kind of music do you like? How do you find the heat? After dinner, the crowd around me had swelled to 30 and the questions had ventured into dangerous territory: Indo-Pak relations. Which country do you like more, Chris?

I was relieved when the group dissolved to assemble for the night’s nature walk.

Day two was more of the same. An early morning run through an obstacle course. Some laughably inaccurate attempts in riflery and archery. Military men teaching us about guns. People trying to teach me the prescribed steps to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani. Again, I was unintentionally surrounded by kids for an evening interview, and again the questions ceased to relent.

This time I tried taking a different approach, seizing the opportunity when a brief lull arose. I turned the same questions back on the people asking them: What are your names? What are you all studying? What are your hobbies? These were group questions, and their replies were curt; they seemed uninterested in giving me the same information they were requesting of me. Most of these students were in the higher standards; the younger ones generally stood idle, either unconfident or unwilling to try their English on me.

It soon became clear there were two rather distinct groups of boys. The first group mostly consisted of 9th or 10th standard boys who would ask me peculiar, often crude questions and follow up my answers by turning to the others with laugh-arousing remarks in Hindi or Marathi. Unable to understand them, their remarks didn’t frustrate so much as confuse me.

(And these were only boys. The girls were strictly separated from us for almost every activity of the camp. My contact with them was limited to the occasional brief conversation with Franzi or a quick five-second self-introduction. It was probably better that way. Most members of the camp were wrongly convinced Franzi was either my girlfriend or my sister.)

But whatever this older group was saying, it was clearly affecting the members of the younger one. Most of the younger boys were in my camp – at least that’s the way it was made to appear. On the eve of night two, a group of older boys were sitting on bunks 12 feet away from me, telling jokes in Marathi that I couldn’t understand. The young Hindi-speaking boys around me couldn’t understand them either, but they’d gathered the older boys were speaking of me unfavorably. These small children – none probably higher than 8th standard – had firmly chosen righteousness, and to them, that meant sticking with me. Despite their difficulties with English, they sat in the bunks surrounding me, trying to communicate to me the atrocity of some things that had been said against me, surprised that I remained unfazed.

I reassured them that I was fine. I was.

They were just trying to help. But I didn’t need it. Not this kind, anyway.

———

North Tour: Jaipur: A pretty cool place

April 17, 2011

Tuesday, 1 March

JAIPUR: The thing that everyone seems to forget about deserts is that at night, they get really, really cold.

Falling asleep at 1 a.m. without a second of sleep debt is harder than you’d think. So when that sleep is interrupted by chai-wallahs a mere three hours later, it’s a disorienting and disgruntling experience.

My first thought when I woke up this morning: “Why am I awake?”

My second thought: “Wow, it’s really cold.”

You don’t need air conditioning in this weather, but at least AC Sleeper cars come with blankets. Most of us having forgotten our own, we used scarves, hats, jackets and each other’s body heat to help out our metabolic systems. The chai actually warmed us adequately, but in doing so it became impossible for us to sleep. By 4:30 or so, we realized any attempt to fall back asleep would be fruitless, so we kept each other company until arriving in Jaipur around 6.

I guess we got off to a pretty good start in acquiring sleep debt.

But who needs a full night of sleep with the first day of sightseeing ahead?

From camels to snake charmers, Jaipur is the kind of city that makes you think of Indian stereotypes. Perhaps it’s because of them that so many foreigners are attracted to Jaipur. There’s no scarcity of outsiders here, either in the monuments we visited or on the streets we’ve driven by. We sprinted to the back of our bus and gawked the first time we spotted a non-Indian walking the Jaipur streets. (Our reactions to seeing foreigners are no better than those of Indians, na?) It didn’t take long, however, for us to realize spotting them would not be a rare occurrence.

Actually, Jaipur probably attracts so many foreigners because there’s so much to see here. Our sightseeing began with a huge wind palace – not as monumental or large as Mysore’s, but impressive in its own right. We found an assortment of impressively accurate astrological equipment at one site, including the world’s largest sundial (adorned with about 100 live pigeons).

At night, we ate a traditional Rajasthani meal and watched several performances – including dances and puppet shows. Once, I was called on stage to dance. I flailed my arms and shook my body in the least awkward dance I could muster. At the very least, it was an outlet for some of my dance-frustration.

Our tour was not off to a bad start.

🙂

“Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part two

February 14, 2011

What is normal supposed to be?

I’ve lost the ability to differentiate the ordinary from the extraordinary. I’ve come to expect the unexpected. Routines have been twisted, bent and contorted out of regularity. Surprises have become so commonplace that they cease to shock me. “Normal” has shifted, blurred, and undergone such a metamorphosis in the last seven months in India that I can no longer define it.

One thing I can say with certainty, at least, is that Wednesday was not a normal day for exchange students in Nagpur.

Whatever normal is.

It started with Hindi class. Rather, a trip to Hindi class. Nisha had recently come to Nagpur, and Anaïs and I decided it was a class she aught to see. The bike ride there was a long one, and a cumbersome one, but not all that memorable except for the amount of sweat I produced. I have nothing significant to report of Nisha’s first Hindi class.

This was followed by a recent addition to the daily program. A little after noon, we biked to our second ever crafts class in a flat across town. Painting and decorating plates are not among my inherent interests, so I found little reason to do anything but enjoy the company I found there. With participation neither compulsory nor free, I did little but sit and talk for the better part of two hours.

Normal. So far.

As had become increasingly common in the preceding week, lunch was to be eaten outside. I was among those who would be eating at Dominos, but the only one who was making the trip via bike. As someone familiar with the streets of Nagpur, I was bemused when what should have been a quick two-kilometer journey turned into a meandering escapade of a 5K. Despite my unnecessarily circuitous route, I arrived well before Michelle and Nisha, whose rickshaw driver couldn’t resist showcasing the passengers to his friends. Jakob and Franzi showed up after our meal.

My bike survived the journey intact.

We went shopping for a timepass. Actually, the others shopped. I just went with them and watched. We received texts that told us our dance and tabla classes had been canceled. Normal. Nowadays the two above classes are canceled more often than they are held. By the time we left for a different dance class, my bike had gone about 20 kilometers without losing any air.

I was under the impression these new dance classes were compulsory, but neither “dance”, “class”, or “compulsory” are words fit to describe the first two meetings. My part, as I’d learned the day before, was to consist of lying on the floor as a monk, get up slowly, and gesture vaguely at the other characters on stage. Even in light of the other performances I’d performed since coming to India, this looked to be especially bizarre. Wednesday’s “class” – or whatever you want to call it – was cut short, and we returned to our bikes after attracting considerable attention from some small children.

Anaïs, Nisha and I set off for home on our two bikes.

And soon came to a stop.

Both bikes had flat tires.

Say what you want about the amount of time we’d been on our bikes in the previous days, or how much strain we’d put on them recently. I’d been putting up about ten Ks a day on my bike since September, and Anaïs had been traveling about as much – if not more – on hers for about a month. Sexy or not, our bikes had been through a lot, and there was no doubting their durability.

Is it really possible that both our bikes just decided they were bas within minutes of each other? Could it be that the throng of small children that crowded around us and our bikes did no harm to the tires? Did the fact that those bikes were foreigners’ bikes really have nothing to do with their punctures?

Be they reasonable or merely rhetorical, I don’t think I need to answer those questions.

The first cycle-wallah we visited did the best he could. Our tires were pumped with air, and if only for the moment, it seemed all was well. We made the brief trip to the Poonam Chambers mall, and waited there for Anaïs to be picked up by her host family. It was nearly ten at night, and I had yet to contact my host family. It was time to go home.

I got on my bike. Nisha boarded Anaïs’.

Both bikes were once again flat.

The best I can say of what happened next is that I remembered I was carrying my host dad’s business card on me. At least I was able to call him via Nisha’s phone and explain I’d be getting home late. We called Pooja, who lived within walking distance, and asked where we could fix our bikes. She suggested we go back where we came from, to a bike shop next to our dance class. We left Anaïs with her family and went on, with only a vague idea of where to go and what to do.

But it’s hard to get bike tire tube transplants at ten p.m. We were redirected three times in a 20-meter long alley, attracting an increasingly large group of small children with each passing second. After a few phrases of survival Hindi, a couple phone calls to Pooja, and two or three firmly directed “No, beta“s, we managed to escape as Mr. Khatri arrived. But Nisha and I were on the verge of despair, our bikes still in disrepair.

We walked our bikes back towards the Khatri’s.

The 38th and final person to shout “foreigner” that day was probably the least subtle. A man on a motorbike speeding in the opposite direction put hand to horn for several seconds, and called out three-syllables at the top of his lung. You know what word it was.

Several seconds passed. Then Nisha spoke.

“It really sucks that that was just able to happen, and no one will do anything about it.”

But what can you do about it? I knew Nisha was referring to the moped man, but she may as well have been referring to whoever vandalized our bikes. The Khatris, at least, came through once again, giving us two bedrooms in which to spend the night, feeding us dinner, and not objecting as Nisha and I occupied their living room past 3 a.m.

Part of it is the nature of Rotary Youth Exchange. Part of it is Indian culture. Part of it is the exquisite group chemistry of the exchange students, and our inherent lust for spontaneity. But nothing about this year has been normal. Thus there is no such thing as a normal day while on An Indian Year.

As I went to sleep Wednesday night, I came to peace with life as foreigner in Nagpur, India.

Only the abnormal makes sense to me anymore.

🙂

To be continued…

The Nagpur International Marathon: Why I woke up at 5:55 on a Sunday

February 1, 2011

The list of things that can get me out of bed at 5:55 a.m. is a short one.

Were the Chicago Cubs baseball team to play in the World Series 12 time zones away, I’d wake up early for that. Once in a lifetime experiences like sunrises on houseboats are also effective motivators to pull off the covers before dawn. And cats jumping through my window, as I discovered last week, can be very effective alarm clocks.

Add Sunday’s Nagpur International Marathon to that list.

The shade of sky outside matched my still dilated pupils as the alarm on my watch went off just before six a.m. Save Jojo and Diana, our two dobermans, no one in the house was yet awake, and going on the texts I exchanged with Anaïs, no one else was awake in her house either. I walked up to the roof and watched Nagpur wake up as the contrast in the sky slowly increased. The air was unusually still, and the early morning cold was a refreshing contrast to the afternoon heat. It was a time of day I wish my consciousness occupied more often.

Nonetheless, I had very little time to spare as I rode off towards the marathon’s start with only a general idea of my destination in mind. On a normal day, the trip would have taken about 15 minutes, but the detours I was forced to make did little to expedite my journey. By the time the time I spotted Anaïs, Franzi, Jakob, Mr. Khatri and their matching yellow T-shirts an hour after my departure, the marathon had long since begun.

This was the third time in three years a marathon was being held in my city of residence. Champaign-Urbana has hosted the Illinois Marathon the last two years, and my classmates have been active in each as participants and volunteers. I wasn’t able to attend the annual mega-event last year, as the day doubled as National College Decision Day, tripled as the day of an important Rotary conference, and quadrupled as my Senior Prom. But I did bike the 26.2-mile course for fun.

Some things about marathons are just different in India.

I think it’s safe to say the Illinois Marathon will never have race-side performances like those we were a part of Sunday morning. A group of middle-aged men in yellow T-shirts and baseball caps stood in a group by the course and cheered – or, should I say, laughed – the runners on. Somehow the four of us ended up in the middle of the Nagpur Laughter Club, spurred to join them in exorcising, exercising, exhilarating laughter yoga.

Amidst the laughter yogis was a group of sari-clad teenage girls performing a traditional dance of their own, who somehow managed to pull off stunts and dance in rhythm while stealing not-so-covert glances at the four foreigners in front of them. We were forced to join them with stunning suddenness, musically accompanying them with either metal shakers or the clapping of our hands. It was just another one of those moments that exchange students seem to have so often in India – the kind of moment that makes you think: “How did I end up here?”

But while such moments occur with regularity, my reactions to them are no longer the same.

Since arriving in India, unusual events have been occurring unannounced and unexpectedly on a regular basis. While life here crawls along persistently, interesting things continue to pop up on short notice every few days. This pattern of traveling with scant preparation has been a constant throughout the year. At first I was frustrated by India’s unique approach to time – trips to temples, cross-town visits to family members and Rotary events early in the year caught me off-guard, and thus I found it harder to enjoy them.

Until I got used to them.

As we were instructed at July’s Rotary conference, the best answer to give when asked if you want to do something is usually “yes”. Because if the answer is “no,” the next question will just be “Why not?” Arguments against doing something often take more effort than the event itself – causing one’s laziness to backfire. If you say no, the experience is lost, and you can do nothing but ask, “What if?”

That’s why I was awake at 5:55 Sunday morning, despite having slept only three and a half hours that night. That’s why I spent an hour on my bike that morning to see the marathon with my friends. I was only going to say yes.

And why not?

🙂

Click to enlarge