Tuesday was the first class for the new members of UKJGS, the student dance group that I ended up joining largely because I didn’t know what was going on. (This is what happens when you agree to statements that you don’t understand in a foreign language.)
Though the first few classes–when I had absolutely no idea what was going on–were extremely stressful, I’ve grown to love this dance class. It’s my chance to hang out with people, speak Indonesian, and generally feel like I have social interaction. And while it’s true that I still rarely grasp the larger picture of anything that’s going on, I’ve learned to accept that fact, which makes everything a lot less stressful.
I had no idea what to expect with this class for new members, though. What I’ve been doing is hanging around the sides while girls who already have formations and already know dances practice. I try to copy their movements as best I can and generally everyone ignores me, unless they need me to stand in someone’s spot. At this point, I’m used to and comfortable with the setup.
But how classes for new people would go was a complete unknown for me and I was nervous. So I showed up early. This I took to be a good sign. Before, when I was nervous about dance things, I would show up right on time so that I wouldn’t have to sit around awkwardly, feeling like I was invading someone’s space. This time, I figured if I was early, I’d be able to talk to people I knew and at least make myself semi-comfortable.
This is exactly what happened. I went and sat down with the UKJGS members who I already knew and after a few minutes of looking pitiful, I was given a task: writing numbers in a receipt book. As usual, I didn’t really understand the larger implications, such as how the receipt book would be used once I finished with it, but I was happy to have something to do. This kept me occupied and made me look like I belonged while more and more girls started to pile into the room.
When the class finally started, there were four rows of girls packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder. The class began with a long discussion about clothing, so–of course–I was on edge. Hearing a lot of Indonesian, but not understanding the details even when I try, makes me jumpy. What I gathered was that it doesn’t matter what kind of scarf you have to dance with. Did that mean I had to go and buy a scarf? I wasn’t sure. It’s this sort of confusion that makes me nervous and hyper-alert.
After the clothing discussion, we learned hand positions. Let me tell you, this blew my mind. When I started learning Javanese dance, I was thrown right into learning a classical dance. No body positions of any sort were explained. This was hard, especially because my body had no instincts to fall back on, since Javanese dance really has no relation to ballet.
But, slowly, I learned what was going on, at least in that one dance. Slowly, I was able to use my hands to at least approximate the shapes that the other girls’ hands were making. I never connected those hand positions to any larger picture, but Tuesday night all that changed. Tuesday night I actually started learning the foundations of movements I’d already learned.
The teacher demonstrated a palm-forward position and said its name.
I glanced furtively at the other girls, trying to figure out exactly what angle my arms should have. What I saw didn’t help. Their hands were all over the place. Some girls had their hands in front of their bodies, at chest-level. Others had them at hip-level. It began to dawn on me that everyone was as lost as I was.
The teacher ran through the other hand positions, one of which greatly resembled a hasta from Bharatanatyam. I continued to look around at the other girls, hoping to see what the correct hand positions looked like. But everyone else was looking around too. Some of them were even more confused than I was. For the first time since coming to Indonesia, I wasn’t noticeably the most lost in dance class. I’d already learned the hand positions. Not officially, and certainly not with names, but they were, at least, familiar.
With this thought, I relaxed into the class. I still didn’t understand most of the talking, but that’s the beauty of a dance class–you can just copy movements and not worry about the talking.
And there are somethings that are universal to any dance class. As usual, my biggest and most frequent correction was to fix my shoulders. In this case, the dancer teacher communicated her message by prodding at my shoulders. My body immediately responded by trying to adopt my best ballet posture. Then she prodded my shoulders again.
But the biggest similarity happened while discussing the hand positions. The teacher demonstrated how to stretch your hands at home, grasping one of her hands with the other and pulling it back. Then she showed us, again, the first hand position, emphasizing the right angle of the wrist, a position that I am currently incapable of replicating. “It should hurt,” she said. “Does it hurt yet?”
It did, but I kept my hands raised. If it hurts, that means you’ll be better next class.