Thursday, June 30, 2011

New Orleans 3: Danced Differences

I have written from new Orleans about my experiences with difference in people and in city-structure. Now, on to the culture of African and other ethnic dance. I have noticed many interesting things, from pedagogical to personal differences.

I have certainly had a fair amount of exposure to African and other 'ethnic' dance forms in my past, but most of it (outside of DJD) has been scattered, and here and there in terms of frequency. Having a whole lot of this kind of class in a row, the first pedagogical detail I have noticed is how the almost exclusive teaching method is mimicry. This has it's strong-suits, in terms of transferring nuance. It also has it's drawbacks, most of which have to do with picking up detail, or correct execution. Steps are almost never broken down, you just have to pick up what you can from watching. Part of me things this makes me less inhibited because I am less concerned with getting it 'perfect,' but another part of me thinks that if I am going to take this much class, I want to be sure to be learning the steps as they are meant to be executed. A particularly interesting example of this was Roseangela's class ( I came upon a chance to ask a question about the actual step, which I phrased in terms of what kind of shape we are looking for. She of course came back with the suggestion that we are not looking for shape, but rather what comes out as shape from what has been initiated by a movement pattern, which started in the first place from expressive impulse. I had to coax this out a bit, but that was probably just because she is from Brazil, and speaks pretty excellent English, but needed a little help getting the thought into terms I'd and other students would catch on to.

This was an example of a perfect response to the kind of question I offered. I feel like most African and ethnic styles teachers, in pretty much refusing to give exact shape details, mean to provide the idea that Roseangela did, it just often does not come across due to language or sound barriers (ie really loud drums!). I love the idea that detail can be excess and limiting, it just needs to be communicated in a way that relates to this suggestion to come across. Maybe that is true just for dancers who have had a lot of exposure to the opposite learning method; learn the shapes, then put the expression in. So, access the expression and the shape will come (African and other ethnic forms), or access the shape and the expression will come (Western forms of modern and ballet). Either way, we are dancing and thinking, thinking and dancing, and what a wonderful thing.

Along these same lines, I realize that by breaking less of the movement down, we are actually moving a whole lot more! Most classes have us following along for a warm-up in the center for about 15 minutes, and then the remaining hour and 15 of the class is spent going across the floor, learning by doing rather than talking. While I love talking and symantics, I also love moving, and it has been such a true pleasure to be locomoting pretty much the whole of each class. Maybe it is just a personal preference, but boy do I love not getting stuck in the center!

Another thing I have noticed is that the teachers whose 'training' has been completely situational (ie from being born and raised in the country of origin of the dance) seem to not mirror students when teaching. I say 'training' simply because many of them come from cultures that their experience with dance is not looked at that way. Instead, dance and music are things that everyone does together on a regular basis. That's a pretty awesome way to get to know dance. Anyway; We have been working in a classroom with no mirrors (which is probably best in terms of inhibitions). The teachers often face us, but when they do so, they end up starting on the right and meaning for us to start on the right when it looks to us like they are on the left. This is not a huge deal, and easy to adjust and figure out, but simply something I have noticed. My 'teaching training' has always emphasized the importance of both trying to face the students and also to mirror them (making me do the side opposite of what they are doing, but having it look like the proper side when I am facing them). However, when I think back to my experiences teaching over this last year, I can think of several younger students that would get more confused if I faced them and did the opposite side to look like their side. They more successfully understood when they could mirror me exactly (ie my back to them on the same side). Part of me now wonders that if, when I chose to face them, they'd be more successful if I stayed on the same side as them a looked opposite. I guess we humans have a fair amount of intuition surrounding directional capacity! Long story short, it seems like neither method is better than the other; just different strokes for different folks! A good mantra to remember at all times.

Here is another example of this 'different strokes' idea; start and end time for class. Almost ALL of my classes here (and pretty much any other African class I have taken) start late and end late. While this is frustrating to me as someone who is used to and prefers timeliness, but natural and best for people who are more used to a laid back approach as a part of their culture. And I'd say, in choosing to come to an African and vernacular dance camp, I have chosen to experience things the way these forms usually come; late!

Here is another interesting difference I have noticed; ALL of the teachers are VERY charismatic. Part of this is likely because they are living a life in dance, a life of their passion. Then again, I know many many people who are doing basically that, but very few of them communicate the kind of passion these individuals do through their teaching. Their characters are each so inviting and engaging that it is almost hard to even get tired in the middle of a VERY high energy class! As a teacher, I'd like to aspire to communicate that kind of passion to my students. Not just once awhile, but every class, like these teachers. In this, I have found dissolving my need to take each class the way I am used to (to a mirror, with details broken down, shape-based).

Now, on to the factor that I have not mused upon so lightheartedly; race relations. This is something that has crossed my mind in the past in taking African and other ethnic forms, but not as specifically until now. My first experience with African class was at the U of M. My class had all sorts of people in it, black, white, asian, American indian, etc, though primarily white (as Minnesota is generally). My next big experience was in Calgary. The major cultural factor I noticed there was that I was waltzing into a class that had been together for 15 years. Indeed there were many different races in that class as well, but many white people (again, the grat majority of Calgary is white). ***As a side-note, in talking about these things, I really do hate using color words to describe people. What does white mean anyway? I have a lineage, and it isn't 'white,' or 'caucasian,' its Irish, French and German. What does 'black' mean? Shouldn't it be Libyan, Congolese or maybe Cuban? Anyway.***

Here, I am very often of the minority in class, something I did not really notice until trying to introduce myself, unsuccessfully at that, to several people in my classes. That being said, I have had many people be very friendly, the way I am used to when offering an introduction. I thought at first that this might be a North/ South thing, but in talking to folks around the workshop, have gathered that it may be a white/ black thing. Chris, one of my apartment mates, who happens to be a 60-year-old white woman from Minnesota, has been taking African and related dance forms frequently for many years. She has been to many camps, and knows the scene in Minneapolis/ St. Paul. We got to talking, and she really does feel that there is often this harbored (or sometimes not) sense of racial tension in many of these classes. More frankly, this feeling that a white person taking African class is just, again, trying to take something that is not theirs. I have had the sense here and there that there are folks that are wondering what I am doing here. On the flip side, I have talked to many people who think its awesome that I am expanding my dance horizons and care so much to learn about their fascinating culture.

This topic could be a thesis in itself. However, the more I think about it and experience it, the more I come to a pretty simple conclusion; in any situation, in any place, there are both good people and bad people. All we can do is focus our energy on falling into the first category, and aligning ourselves with folks who do the same. I clued in on that idea shortly after having a negative introduction experience with one particular individual on the first day. After having that experience, thinking about this topic, and choosing to fall into category one, I have had almost nothing but fun, enjoyment, and genuine connection with those who do the same.

What a great, dancing microcosm of the world. Boy, am I glad I am here!!!

New Orleans 2: Cultural Differences

Back to the keys after a little more time. Yesterdays post was a little disjointed, due to being interrupted with grant news. An interruption I'll always be happy to take! Hopefully now I come back with a bit more of a gathered focus.

In this post, I'll muse about some more about cultural differences, particularly where the city itself is concerned. As far as the city, the first big thing I can say is that when I look around, I find it difficult to believe that most of the buildings down here, like anywhere else in the metropolitan U.S., are equipped with internet, and that we are in fact in 2011. The presence of history here is quite literal, and I wonder if that is part of what makes race relations so fragile. You look around and there is constant reminder of history. Then again, I think this is relatively true most places, but maybe not to the extent so clear that it is here. Gaggling at the old buildings makes you look at them closely, and while you do that, you realize that some are kept in excellent shape and therefore still majestic, and some are left to fall into ruins. This at first seems like a matter of carelessness, until you realize that the level of upkeep often corresponds to the economy of the neighborhood. Again, things are fragile here, and in talking to people, it seems that it is even more so after the hurricane; that any progress that might have been made in certain parts of the city was just whipped away. The feeling is that it will take another how many years to build back up that progress.

The living history of the city does seriously intrigue me, to the level of wondering what it would be like to be a resident and actually have time to be a part of the culture. I'll note that this feeling is gathered from my short amount of time out, because as I'll remind you, I am here to dance; I have been using my day time for 6-7.5 hours of class and breaks for meals and recuperating to go back to class! But I am indeed intrigued. Maybe it is because I have an amount of natural wanderlust. Maybe it is because I am noticing something that I think I can have a hand in changing, and I am a glutton for social punishment. Who knows exactly what it is. It could also simply be that when I am somewhere new, I want to get a pretty good idea of how the city lays, where things are, where to do what, so that I feel like I have an understanding of where I have spent my time. Then in comes a reminder that I will provide to myself; you cannot do everything all of the time. I came here to dance, and I should probably do myself a favor and focus on doing that and building relationships around that. It seems that sometimes, my tendency to want to do everything gets in the way of doing anything to my best. Am I seeing a pattern? 'I am stick of doing 9 or 10 things at 65% when I could do 4 or 5 things at 100%.' Have I not been repeating that over and over lately?

Getting off topic. Back on; It seems that I'll just have to keep getting out to explore as much as I can, however it might happen. In the course of my explorations, I have also come across some cultural differences that are not intriguing. As a Twin Citian, I am fortunate to be used to very cleanly public surroundings. Not the case here. I am also used to pretty easy access to well-organized information. I have been very surprised here at the lack of public information, and what I can find is not well organized, incomplete, or not very well presented (many of the websites down here look like they have not gone through an update since 2000!). This suggestion will probably come as no shock to anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in the South (maybe I am generalizing, who knows); Sometimes it feels laid back here, to a fault. I will be the first to admit that I think Midwesterners, including myself, can often be too uptight. However, that tendency certainly serves it's purpose. This laid back feeling here has manifested itself primarily through timeliness. We in the Midwest are pretty well on time. Here, everything starts late and goes late.

That's enough about the city as a whole. I guess I can sum it up by saying that I'd need more time here (like most places in the world). Damn that curiousity!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Orleans

This hour I had has quickly disappeared into a half hour. Amazing what good news can do! My call to MRAC this morning left me hyperventilting, on the verge of tears, screaming, and just plain excited. $10,000 for next year's Rhythmically Speaking production. Woah! Now, on to the bulk of my thoughts.

I have been surrounded by a big pile of cultural differences upon my arrival to New Orleans. The plane flights were pretty standard, but I realize that it likely due to the fact that I was sitting next to Midwesterners the whole time. I think we get fooled sometimes into thinking that the whole of our country is pretty similar. I am finding that to be less and less true the more I get around as an adult. Sure, I have been to most of the states in our union, but many of those visits (most, I'd say) happened when I was much younger and not responsible for as many things. I did not notice interactions with transportation staff, waiters and passersby nearly as much as I notice them now. I wonder what I would have thought had I noticed . . .

My experience in the deep south (New Orleans, Louisiana in specific), so far has been an incredibly mixed bag. I have had some kind, friendly and helpful people who have held doors, given directions and provided smiles. I have also had an angry streetcar driver, a testy class participant and a sometimes general feeling of displacement, both out and about and in class. In my mind, a number of factors contribute to my perceiving this place the way I have and me being perceived the way I have. I am not suggesting that I am a sociologist of historian or any other ian/igist that could diagnose why this land lays the way it does, but I am certainly entitled to gathering my own thoughts.

Cultural differences. Both in situational and dance interactions. I'll start with situational. The biggest thing that sticks out to me in bad situational interactions is the idea of tourism. I feel like about half of the time, I am received negatively if I give any inkling that I am not from here. I do not find myself in the wrong for asking people sitting at a bus stop where the bus they are waiting for will go. I also do not find it in the wrong to inquire with the streetcar driver about how to get where I am going, particularly after I had already tried on my own, several times before coming and several times after, to figure out online the transit system, only to fail. That falls under the other cultural differences I have noticed (to come later in the post). I was appalled at how our streetcar driver treated us. He stopped the streetcar in the middle of the tracks to come back and scold us for not asking for transfers right away when we boarded. Had he made himself seem more receptive to questions when we boarded, I may have thought to ask about that. I know that the job can probably be pretty grueling, but that does not provide free license to mistreat people as an outlet. Part of me really wanted to exit the front as we were leaving and get his badge number to complain, but it probably was best to follow my fellow Minnesotan Chris and Titos, the Congolese teacher, out the back of the train.

This and a couple of other interactions I have had have been frustrating in the fact that tourism is a big part of New Orleans economy. Service providers mistreating people who are visiting will not help them do well for this sector. The bad interactions have highly soured (but not duped) the good ones. I (and most people) have an experience or two working in a job that they do not like, but particularly in customer service, it does everyone including yourself better to be friendly while you are at it. It is sometimes easier said than done, but you always come out better for it.