Monday, March 8, 2010

The flash dance, and being “followed”

October 17th, continued and finally finished

Buildings intended for tourists are built like mini-fortresses. You’d think they were embassies instead of hotels and restaurants. The barriers are necessary however, and getting out of the chaos of the streets is worth the lapse in egalitarianism.
For lunch, we went to a restaurant in the middle of a stone courtyard with benches and white chairs surrounded with tropical large-leafed plants. A walled garden. Our group was led down to a room with chairs set up facing a dance floor and the guide explained that we were being treated to a pre-lunch show of traditional dance. Pictures were Ok.
Three female dancers, young Asian women with beatific smiles, spun and waved their hands in graceful, yet aerobic, motions. Then a petite young man wearing a bright blue and gold costume walked onstage and set up three bicycle wheels and a silver tray. His smile was enormous and proud. He looked at us, smiling and exuding pride in his performance and the sheer joy of doing it. American Idol contestants could learn a lot from him on how to connect with an audience. His lively, dark, almond eyes connected with each of ours as he struck a pose and began spinning the silver tray on one finger. Then he picked up one of the bicycle wheels and began spinning that, resting it – still spinning rapidly – on his chin. He had to tilt his head back for this, and it was the only time during his act that he lost eye-contact with us.

Then it was back to spinning trays and wheels on each upturned palm, now and then on top of his head, and all the time he acted like he was having a blast. He was so in his element that the spinning appeared to take no concentration at all. It was effortless. His attention was on us, and my attention was completely given to him. Even now, I am half in love with him. And that is the effect every great performance should have.
Remember when the guide said “taking pictures is Ok”? In my opinion, using flash photography in a dark room aimed at a guy spinning a wheel on his chin is unappreciative, not to mention potentially dangerous. I can sympathize with the desire to capture the experience on film, but when your eye is stuck in a viewfinder, you can’t really appreciate, or be in, the moment. And performance art is about fully involving yourself in the moment, suspending disbelief and allowing yourself to be wrapped in someone else’s world of magic and amazement. You cannot do that with a camera stuck to your nose!

The cameras did make us laugh though – one woman recorded one of the dances on film and, during a brief break, played it back to make sure it worked. The woman in charge of playing and stopping the music records for the dancers was completely baffled by the sound. The poor woman thought her machine was broken until she saw the camera. I think she shook her head and laughed.
After a few more traditional dances with the three girls and young man in varying combinations, the dancers asked us to come up and try a dance with them, using sticks as percussion instruments. I am generally terrified of audience participation-type shows, and demurred when one of the girls motioned with a stick to come and join. Then the beautiful young man handed me two sticks, and I could deny him nothing.
So we all danced very clumsily next to our graceful hosts, completely embarrassed at first, then warming to the patterns and remembering how to play. We were all kindergartners again, following the leaders. And isn’t it fantastic that grownup women can do that? In a foreign country, aren’t all travelers much like children? Everything is new, exciting and unknown.
The afternoon finished with henna artists drawing swirls and flowers on our hands. The henna artists were dark young women in jewel-tone saris, with feet encrusted in black. They were accomplished artists, swirling and dotting organic designs like vines and flowers so quickly, as if it were nothing. We just had the on-the-go version, but henna designs can be very intricately detailed and are painted all over the palms and backs of the hands.
I’ve never played with henna before, so I was surprised that it comes in a thick dark brown paste squeezed out of a pointed tube. The paste dries to a crust on your hand and you let it flake off on its own. The stain is a light carnelian orange. You can use black tea bags to darken it, and lemon to make it last longer. I liked the effect so much that I asked for a henna kit for Christmas – I still need to try it out for myself; maybe with my two little sisters also. They love activities that involve mess.


Later in the day, between lunch and dinner, Beth (our fearless leader) and I struck out to try to find internet. I still hadn’t been able to contact my anxious mother from India, so I wanted to reassure her that I was alive. With crusty henna still drying on my hands, we walked out the high prickly fence of our hotel-fortress and turned the corner. Beth had heard that there was an internet café nearby that cost a lot less than the ridiculous rates our hotel charged to use their computers (and I mean ridiculous by London standards, much less Delhi).
As we walked, Beth pointed to a man in front of us and said to me in a low voice “that man is following us.” You would think that in order to follow someone, you would have to be behind them. But the street men of Delhi have caught onto that expectation, and they follow in front of you. That way, if you choose to go into a shop, the man will have gotten there first and will happily tell the shopkeeper that he brought the foreigners in and deserves a “finder’s fee.” Beth, being an expert traveler and hailing originally from New Jersey, had no problem asserting herself in this situation. I mention that she is from New Jersey, because in my experience, women who come from NJ and NY are extremely nice, and just as extremely assertive. She yelled at the guy to stop following us and left no doubt that she was on to him. This didn’t deter him in the slightest, but at least he knew that we were aware of what was going on. I never would have noticed him if Beth hadn’t pointed him out. I think in that moment, I took a big stride towards being a better, smarter, more assertive traveler. I always try to be very aware of my surroundings, but this opened up my mind and my eyes to the unexpected. And in India, it’s all unexpected.

1 comment:

Leah Marie Brown said...

Another fantastic read! I am fast becoming a fan!