Is my body alignment correct? Are my shoulders placed slightly in front of my hips? What do I need to work on now in order to improve my leaps? I take body data as I pay attention to my breath, search for overworked muscles. This is what dancers do. Even as a beginning dance student, as young as age six, the intensity and discipline demanded by this art form place you, or rather force you, into the moment.
I am a devotee of body language. I note the posture of a woman in the market as she haggles over the price of apples, and I register the precise tilt of the head of the merchant who stands opposite her. I copy the unusual gait of a passerby. I walk down stairs in the rhythm of the person in front of me. I am at ease as I describe to myself, and understand my body in the present tense.
In 1994, when I turned forty -four, my husband’s work with UNHCR, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, took our family to Thailand, to Bangkok. And in that city suddenly my feet seemed too long and large, my waist at least ten inches thicker than most every Thai woman, and my breasts enormous. How will I ever find shoes to fit what were once considered average-size western feet? Will I dare to wear a belt around my middle, and will the buttons pop on my tight silk blouse?
Thai silk it must be, tucked neatly into a tailored skirt. Nylon stockings must be worn despite the hundred percent humidity, and no less than medium-high-heeled shoes are acceptable. This is the unwritten dress code at Chulalongkorn University, where I was employed in the dance department as a lecturer in western choreography.
Each week I asked myself, will my students consider my attire proper? One day, after several weeks, I wondered if the head of the dance department would notice that I was wearing the same outfit I had worn two weeks before. All this fuss, in order to be dressed appropriately to enter the university and then to deliver a thirty-minute weekly lecture before changing into practice clothes and continuing two hours of class in the dance studio. Some women wear tailored clothes with natural elegance. For me, a bohemian casual dresser, the demands of Chula, the University’s affectionate nickname, caused me to enter its iron gates with a mind full of what if‘s and a mouth full of will I‘s.
Throughout the Kingdom of Thailand, in every school, from kindergartens to secondary schools, and at all institutions of higher learning, an annual ceremony is held, called ‘Wai Kru’, translated as ‘bowing to the teacher,’ a ceremony in which students do just that, declaring their willingness to learn from their masters. Perhaps it was because of this reverence for teachers that my students appeared so shy and reserved that first time I met them. They were aged in their thirties and forties, accomplished Thai classical dancers, teachers and choreographers, who had returned to university to earn a master’s degree in dance.
Our first class began with a short introductory lecture on western choreography, and then on to the dance studio for practical composition work. As a first exercise, I asked the students, bunched together at the back of the spacious room, to write their names in the air.
“Now write your names as large as possible”, I called out. “Try to write as small as possible. Now reach up and write as high as you can. Try traveling around the room as you trace your name in the air.”
Very little changed no matter what my directives suggested. When I proposed they use body parts other than arms and hands to write their names, to consider using their ears, there were giggles and smiles but very little movement.
They are nervous, I told myself, and perhaps a bit afraid of this big-footed, thick -waisted creature who calls herself a dance professional.
Week after week, no matter how clear my directions, the students performed only small unfinished movements, fragments of what they knew from their classical training. Four weeks of work went by and no results. Something is amiss in my teaching, I decided. But shouldn’t those years of dance classes and rehearsals, albeit in a particular style, have provided the dancers with the creative tools to adapt to western expressive composition? Why don’t they embrace the freedom of creative movement, unhampered by style or a specific dance vocabulary?
I pondered these questions one evening as I locked the door of the studio.
Like all dance studios, this one was lined with mirrors. At times, mirrors tempt the dancer to over- emphasize external form, while at other times they encourage her to confront imperfections with courage. Those first weeks, self-conscious about my larger-than-average far eastern waist and bosom, I avoided my image.
The beginning of the second month in a new post, and I finally allowed myself more than a brief glance at my reflection. I first noticed my chin drawn into my rigid neck, shoulders slightly lifted with my shallow anxious breathing. I scanned my body to find my toes scrunched up, in an effort to make my feet appear smaller.
My eyes moved from my reflection in the mirror to those of the dancers behind me. I studied them. They danced tentatively, their movements indefinite, never quite reaching their end. They had become mirror images of me. My assertive dancer’s body, standing on crumpled toes, had lost its firm base.
I have taught them nothing, I thought. They will think me unworthy of their reverence for teachers. They will consider my choreography class futile. I repeated these concerns to myself again and again.
At once I realized that ‘will’ had become the word I used most in relation to my body. Will I be able to find shoes big enough? Will I look large with a belt around my waist? With my move to Thailand, I no longer described or understood my body in the present tense. I now occupied the future where every question and concern began with that threatening ‘will.’
The many years of dance discipline and resolve served me well. I quickly hauled my body out of the future and returned it to the moment.
Several weeks after my relocation to the present, once again I examined my image in the studio mirror. This time the lines of my body were clear, my movements definite. My students, however, had made little progress.
One more attempt, I told myself, try one more simple choreographic exercise.
“Have your body form a shape composed of round lines, and then have that shape move around the room,” I instructed the students. “Where does the shape take you? Do you want to move quickly or in slow motion?” These questions were meant to elicit spontaneous creative movement and I looked on hopefully as the dancers began to mold themselves into curved forms. But the rounded shapes were never to be—the dancers stopped mid-motion and froze, eyes downcast. Having lived in Thailand for over a year, I knew that a downward gaze signaled anger.
One of the dancers stepped forward.
“We cannot form a shape our body never knew, and then give that shape movement. In Thailand, we have danced using the same positions—always, always,” she whispered the last two words.
We have danced, we have danced, I too whispered. A new tense entered the room.
Quietly, I asked the students to choose their favorite Thai classical position. “Now, don’t move your feet, but let your arms dance to the music.” At once eyes lifted and arm movements flowed . The past and the present converged in dance as the students created movement in the present, inspired by traditional dance postures.
Thus began our long choreographic journey.
We left Thailand in 1997. My husband’s refugee work and my dance career took us from Thailand to Hungary, to Geneva, to Kenya, back to Geneva and finally home to Israel. As we moved from country to country, I migrated from decade to decade.
Over the years, the tenses I use to describe and explain my body to myself have grown more and more complex. In my fifties I often said, “I would jump higher, but my muscles aren’t warm enough. In my sixties, it is, “I would have been able to lift my legs higher, if only I had not injured myself.” Grammar has become the sieve a physical shift passes through in order for me to make sense of my forever-changing dancer’s body. This path of self description and understanding began with that move to Thailand, with the transition from present to future and back to present, with those words, ‘we have danced—always.’
Of all the tenses, I savor the present perfect, with it reassurance of the past, confidence of continuation in the present, and a hint of hope for the future.
Miriam Rother is a Canadian-born, Israeli-trained dance professional. Her work as a dancer, teacher and choreographer spans forty years in eight countries on four continents. She has worked with dancers of all ages, both amateur and professional, dancers with and without disability. Miriam is currently a second-year student in the M. A. program in creative non-fiction at Bar-Ilan University.