A text message admonishing us to be on time for dance class meant that I showed up even earlier than usual, largely because I didn’t want to be grading papers anymore. Thus, when the new dance teacher showed up, only one other girl and I were there to greet her. I brought her hand to my forehead, kept quiet, and sat back down.
After dance class last week, my dance teacher had given a speech about how we should behave with this guest teacher. She was a professor from ISI, the arts university in Yogya, and so we had to be respectful. Come on time to class. Don’t talk when she’s talking. There were more instructions, but at least for me, their meaning got lost in too many unfamiliar Indonesian and Javanese words. It didn’t matter. I’d gotten the point.
So when the other girls arrived, I did what I always do when I feel particularly nervous and foreign: I stuck close to the people who I thought knew what was going on. When everyone got up to put on their jariks, I went with them. When they went back to stand in front of the dance teacher, I followed. When the teacher instructed us all to sit, I situated myself in the back, between two girls who I’d been dancing with since October. And I kept my mouth shut.
Usually when I’m nervous, my understanding of Indonesian decreases. It’s a lot harder to concentrate on understanding what’s going on when I’m also trying to look calm and happy. Not the case this time.
The teacher spoke in extremely formal Indonesian. I felt like I was back in language class. This was the Indonesian that I’ve been learning—no words contracted or pronounced in strange ways, no Javanese anywhere. The only time I couldn’t understand something was when the teacher used a word that I didn’t know and, surprisingly, that didn’t happen a lot.
She introduced herself, talked a little about the history of the group, and then went on to talk about the proper way to wear a jarik. “You have to learn how to wear this,” she said, “Even if it’s just for practicing, because maybe one day you’ll have a foreign friend and you’ll have to teach her.”
I looked at the girl next to me. We giggled.
The class went well. The dance was easier than the one we’d been learning before, and some bits of Javanese dance have finally seeped into my muscle memory. I had knowledge to fall back on when it came to learning the new choreography.
Not a lot of knowledge, though.
“Look,” one of my friends said during our break.
I dabbed at my sweat with the edge of my dance scarf and leaned over his notebook.
“I’m writing down the dance,” he said, “So that later you can memorize it.”
I looked at the notebook again. He had nine lines written down. Nine lines for the whole first part of the dance. If I were to transcribe the same thing, it would probably take me a whole page. He’d written fifteen words total.
“This,” I said, “Doesn’t mean anything to me.”
He laughed and started explaining whole patterns of movements signified by a single word.
I started scribbling notes.