To be honest, there were boys dancing as well, and they too were hot. I’ve never really understood why there aren’t more male dancers in the States—I mean, it’s athletic, you’re acquiring a skill that a lot of women really appreciate, you end up incredibly fit, and you spend most of your time with equally incredibly fit women. And this is bad because . . . ?
But I have to be honest with you here. I’ve always been a sucker for dance. I mean, I think of myself as a generally graceful guy—I lettered twice in diving when I was in high school, which isn’t easy for a 6-foot-3 guy diving into an 8 foot pool—but the fact of the matter is, pretty much every dish that’s been broken in our house—check that: every thing period—was broken by me. It just happened again this evening. Supper was almost ready, so I pulled a couple of cups from the cupboard for the kids’ milk, then reached for the chocolate powder—and promptly hurled it across the room. I’m not sure why I did this. I don’t have any memory, actually, of throwing anything. I only needed to lift the jar maybe two feet from the shelf to the counter. But next thing you know, there’s glass all over the tile floor and chocolate dust drifting through the air like a mini cocoa-tornado. All because of yours truly.
In contrast, of course, dancers are in control. Absolute, total, powerful, beautiful, poetic, majestic control.
Especially these dancers. There were more than a dozen of them, but they moved in perfect coordination—a twitch of the leg, a turn of the wrist. One of my favorite steps was when they all spun from one side to the other, arms straight and locked against their torsos, so that the only thing moving were their legs in wide, high-motion arches. And it wasn’t just the big gestures that were tight: a flick of the hair, or a slight hitch as they pulled one arm across their chests. This wasn’t beginners dance set to the 2/4 rhythm of the bass and foot pedal. Whoever’d choreographed this thing was thinking about every tap on the high-hat, every grace note on the keyboard.
And there was more than that. There were waves, where first one dancer would rise and fall, then the next, then another, and so on back through the group until you had this undulating (sorry, I tried to avoid that word as long as I could) three-dimensional flow of bodies rising and falling. Remember when you were in third grade and would go to gym and Miss Brown brought out the parachute and your entire class would raise and lower it at the edges, causing the silk to rise and fall in waves of color? Now imagine that with 16 people not just moving up and down but side-to-side and forward and backward, all to the beat of a hip-hop soundtrack.
And the most glorious thing about it? Seriously? How sensuous it was. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word. Not sexuality or erotic pleasure, but an physicality that communicated itself into the bones of every one of the two- to three-hundred people standing there watching. There was tactility to their dance, a tension between flowing gestures and straining muscles. The moves were so subtle, so light, but the control was so absolute that it made your muscles pulse just looking at it.
I was impressed. Can you tell?
And there was more: turns out this single performance was part of a larger show, a contest to which every university in Hong Kong sent a team to compete. The orange and black folks were from my host school, but other teams were equally impressive, both in dance and in style. One team wore matching gold lame tailcoats, with blue and black checks underneath. Another team wore black pants with multicolored tops—though in the case of the men, this meant going shirtless with red, orange, blue, green and yellow body paint. I loved the fact that all of this—the costumes, the choreography, the hours of rehearsal, the mixing of the beats—all of it was student lead and student organized. What better example, I thought, of social harmony? A bunch of random students getting together and pulling something like this together on their own.
I know we have things like this in the States, just as I know that we have stupid rules that inhibit rather than enhance good teaching. But there was a qualitative difference to these dance groups that was is hard to put a finger on. The choreography was the same, perhaps a little better. The costuming was the same, with maybe a little more funk (Pink tennis shoes with orange shirts? Really?). Basically, all the bits and pieces were the same. But nonetheless it was a different.
CHC I finally concluded. Social harmony. Not a limelighter in the group, no one throwing themselves out front and center and taking it all in as though it—whatever it is—was all for them. My first year of college there was an unusually brutal review of a dance piece choreographed to “Feeling Groovy” by Paul Simon and that other guy with no talent. The number had three dancers: the choreographer/lead, and a pair of back-ups. Well, the lead woman must have pissed off the wrong folks, because the next Friday the review in the student paper made a point to single out this work, talking about the choreographer “showing off with egotistical regularity, while the back-up dancers flopped around like a couple of rag dolls.”
But on some level, I gotta say, I get the point. I’ve seen some brilliant dance performances over the years—Twyla Tharp’s classic “Little Deuce Coupe” comes to mind—and very often there was a sense that, somehow, the performance was all about the dancers, the choreographer, the arts, the elite—and not about the audience. At the end of these pieces, when we applauded, we were applauding for the performers, for them and not for us, the collective us, everyone, humanity, the human spirit, the body, the soul, a shared sense of what we’re capable of.
But not here. Not that blue-skyed Thursday morning in October, in Hong Kong. That morning, speakers thumping, sneakers squeaking, arms graceful and askew, legs bound to the ground or flying through the air, hips moving, hair flying, it was all about—
Ah geeze, I can’t believe I’m going to say this. I’m a bitter, cynical old man, after all, from a profession full of bitter, cynical people who don’t take lightly to nostalgia, sentimentality, or anything else related to puppy dogs, cute little kittens, and sunsets. But it’s true, so here goes:
That dance contest was all about joy.
And now, a confession.
Later that day I had to run up to my flat and put on a suit and tie so that I could go spend the evening with a bunch of sailors (long story, fodder for another post—in the meantime, feel free to let your imaginations roam). By the time I got back, the contest was pretty much over, the plaza filled with crowds of people, the various dance groups mingling with one another. Just in front of the banner backing the stage area was a crowd of my favorite orange and black plaid folks huddling together for pictures, holding their fingers in V-for-victory signs. I had my camera with me—for the sailors, of course—and I knew that if I didn’t include a photo with this post, my Face Book page would haul out some nasty old irrelevant image from something I wrote back when I was in eighth grade and pretty sure I was the second coming of Jim Jones.
So long story short, I headed down the stairs to the plaza and flagged the first group of dancers I could find.
“Can I take your picture?” I said, tapping two boys on the shoulder and holding up my camera.
They grinned. Not to stereotype, but I’ve yet to meet the Hong Konger who pulls that western thing where you fake a blush and say, “Me? In this old thing? But I’m so ugly! Why-ever would you want a picture of lil’ ‘ol me?” all the while checking your makeup in the mirror.
Anyhow, after I snapped their photo, I stepped closer so we could talk over the din of the crowd.
“That was great,” I said. “I really enjoyed it.”
They nodded, and one of them said, “Thank you.”
“So did you make up those dances yourself?”
They laughed. “Oh no,” the same guy said. “We couldn’t. It’s much too hard.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a little twitch in my chest.
“We have a—a—” the other one stuttered. Then he looked at his companion and said something in Cantonese.
“A coach,” his friend told me.
“Right,” said the second guy. “It wouldn’t be possible without.”
“Really,” I said, and now whatever it was in my chest was beginning to slide. Down. Quickly. “But you’re all just students, right?” I said, maybe a little desperately. “No training, right? Just regular kids dancing? Together?” I held off adding “in harmony,” but only with great effort.
“Oh no,” said the first one.
“We all have some training,” said the other.
“It wouldn’t be possible without,” finished the first, putting the last nail in the tiny coffin that held what was left of my shriveled heart. So much for a collective effort, an abstract sense of the common good drawing together a bunch of flatfooted, rhythm-less, uncoordinated miscreants so they could make beautiful art that connected with the audience. So much for my insightful essay and my Pulitzer Prize, and my dream of finally getting to date whoever the actress was who played Marsha on the Brady Bunch.
So much, in short, for joy.
I turned and walked away, scuffing the soles of my shoes so they would match the sole of my soul. Then another question came to me. I turned back to the dancers. “Who won?” I called.
They looked at me, quizzically. “Won?” one of them said.
“The contest. Who won?”
They glanced at each other, frowning. And then one of them figured it out and looked back at me.
“It was no competition,” he said. “It was just—you know—“ he gestured. “To get together and share.”
“Not a contest?” I repeated.
“Just to share?” I was grinning when I said it.
They nodded again.
Ahhhhhhhhh. Come to me, Marsha.
Note: This is a personal blog full of outrageous statements and incorrect
spellings that the Fulbright people don't agree with, or even understand.