A Dance Competition

We drive from UGM together, a parade of at least six motorbikes through the gathering dusk, all of us wearing some sort of red clothing, even me.

Dress code: red. I’d gotten that message. I’d also figured out where we were driving and why. (Another university. Dance competition.)

Our line of motorcycles pulls down a side street, around a corner, and stops. They’re discussing something at the front. The first few motorbikes turn and head in the other direction.

“Great,” I mutter. I hate U-turns.

But the thing is, U-turns are easy when there are six bikes trying to execute them at the same time. We block traffic. No one is getting by.

Someone figures out where the campus entrance is. I follow the line of single red tail lights in front of me.

* * *

We are thirty minutes early, unheard of in Indonesia. Usually, I show up to things fifteen minutes late. Usually things actually start fifteen minutes after that.

There are already people everywhere wearing red, sitting on the stone wall leading toward the stage, staking out seats.

“Sri! Sri!” people say.

I wave, say hi to some girls who I’d seen the night before.

* * *

We fill up rows of seats. There are UGM people on either side of me, UGM people behind me. I listen to everyone talk but don’t really pay attention.

Our team dances first. The MC, wearing a red kebaya, asks if anyone wants to explain the dance. We all look at each other. I understood what the MC said, so I look around too.

No one volunteers, so the MC reads off a card, introduces the dancers, says something about the dance.

I don’t pay attention.

Two of our dancers come from behind the audience, accompanied by a singer and two of our gamelan players.

The dance is good—clean, fast. Sometimes the spacing is just slightly off, but only slightly. The dancers have glitter on their eyelashes and shoulders.

Everyone around me yells.

I add my voice to the noise.

* * *

There’s another dance. In this one, they break clay pots on the ground and find different bits of costumes inside. Each girl represents a dance from a different part of Indonesia. One of the girls has gray and white feathers over her hands. I wonder where her dance is from.

I turn around when the MC comes back onstage.

Our group is going to dance again, the girls behind me say. I don’t quite catch the reason. Something about the judges not seeing it, maybe.

“So that was just a dress rehearsal,” the girl next to me says.

Our group does dance again and this time I pull out my camera and take some blurry photos. Well, I can pass them off as artistic later.

I scream along with everyone else.

* * *

There’s a problem with the stage lights. They keep flickering and I’ve decided that it’s definitely not intentional. It would make watching the dances distracting, except that the dances are so good.

In one, girls bicker, put makeup on, throw makeup at each other. One girl ends up coated in hairspray and unable to move.

In another, two girls create the frame for a mirror, one girl looks at her reflection, and one girl becomes the reflection.

In another, a group composed completely of male dancers performs a piece about people working in a traditional market. They toss burlap sacks. They lift each other.

And while all the stories occur, there’s dance technique to back it up. These dancers know what they’re doing.

* * *

The MC always announces the next dance, but this time she says there are technical difficulties. We’ll see a standup comedy routine first.

I hope the technical difficulties mean they’ll fix the lights, but as the comedian is plunged into darkness and says, “I’m afraid of the dark,” I begin to revise that opinion.

They give up on the stage lights and switch to flood lights. I can see the audience around me.

The comedian continues his routine. I am too lazy to try to understand.

I text my Shansi mentor’s daughter, asking if she’s there. I use Indonesian and avoid pronouns.

Yesterday night, I called her my friend. It was a simple enough explanation—“Oh, I’m here with my friend.”—but I couldn’t tell if I was lying or not.

* * *

The comedian has produced a hand puppet. She wears her hair in two braids and has a huge smiling mouth.

I gape.

The comedian has turned into a ventriloquist.

“I want to attend the busiest campus in Jogja,” the puppet says.

“Where’s that?” he asks.

“Mirota Kampus,” she says.

I laugh. The girls next to me laugh.

Mirota Kampus, what I started to think of as the Wegmans of Jogja after I kept running into people I knew while trying to buy apples or eggs or new pens.

* * *

The last dance is performed by ISI, the arts university in the south. It’s about natives in Borneo. The dancers all have intricate tattoos drawn across their backs and down their arms. Some carry spears. Some have feathers in their hair.

Their costumes are better ours, I think, But our dancing was better than theirs.

* * *

After ISI, the audience ebbs away while two guitarists and a singer take the stage. The UGM group is leaving too, except for the people who are staying to hear who won. Small clusters of people say goodbye and move off to the parking lot.

“Hi Sri,” one of my friends says. “What did you think?”

“It was cool,” I say.

“What about our team?”

“Awesome.”

“Do you think we’ll win?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. UGM was really good, but other groups were good too.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he says.

* * *

The power onstage goes out completely, cutting the music off and plunging the band and those of us still standing in the audience into darkness.

“Okay,” I say. “I’m going home.”

On my way to the parking lot, I pass another person from the UGM group. We run through the standard questions: Leaving? Alone? On your motorbike?

“Be careful,” she tells me.

“Thank you.”

We smile at each other.

I watch as her red shirt fades off into the darkness.

* * *

Facebook tells me the next morning: we won.

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