Tag Archives: Dance

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province

I recently had the privilege to lead a group of grade 11 students on a week-long journey through Yunnan Province in southwestern China. As on the trip to Battambang, Cambodia that I led for this group as grade 10 students, we worked with the JUMP! Foundation, who continue to be my favorite people. They develop, design, and manage the program along with their partner schools and it’s an honor to work with them each year.

This trip was the first time many of our students experienced what it’s like to be a backpacker. We traveled with packs and on overnight trains, moving to multiple locations throughout the trip. There’s a lot of travel in one week because we spend the first and last days transitioning between planes, trains, and buses but it was a phenomenal experience. 

After a series of opening activities (JUMP! programs involve lots of running around and games, which are really fun, as well as group reflections that are valuable) and another bus ride, we arrived in our first base, Jianchuan.  The town itself is quite small and there was no restaurant in town large enough for all 63 of us so one of the restaurant families opened their courtyard and invited local chefs to cook the three meals we’d be eating there. The food we had all week was truly extraordinary and a major highlight for some of the students and even the staff.

JUMP! had told us about Bai, the minority group that we’d be spending much of our time with on the trip. China doesn’t have the best history in its treatment of minorities, but Bai language, culture, and style of dress remain vibrant and distinct. Learning about and from the Bai people began almost immediately. After some food and our first shower in 36 hours, we headed to a traditional pottery workshop and learned about the ancient art of black pottery that is famous in this region. Interestingly, it’s the use of pine wood in the kiln at the comparatively low temperature of 500°C that makes the pottery black. 

Walking through Jianchuan the next day was like going back in time. The main road of the ancient town was part of Tea Horse Caravan Road that connected to the Silk Road and although no longer a merchant spot, it’s still a functioning street.

Our morning activity was a scavenger hunt following a hand-drawn map through Jianchuan Old Town. We began at the central town square . . .

. . . with the goal of investigating the local economy . . . 

. . . a beautiful shrine . . .

. . . and a local park with pagodas.

From Jianchuan we headed to Shaxi where we’d spend the next three nights. Shaxi is a very small town and a bit like a fairytale. Like Jianchuan, it’s part of the Tea Horse Caravan Road, which is really cool. I even did some shopping there!

We had time to wander through town during our stay and it was so serene and beautiful. 

The countryside was equally beautiful and we went on a bike ride through the fields across the river.

In keeping with the connection to nature, we hiked Shi Bao Mountain the following day. It’s a beautiful pine forest with grottos, temples, and views of Shaxi and the fields beyond. My stereotypes of China had been fading since our arrival and I voiced that for the first time with my students up on the mountain. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. 

At the summit, we had a picnic linch of the rice rolls and rice balls that we’d made that morning, which had been really fun.

Then we spent the rest of the day in a tiny Bai village, Bao Xiang Si-Shi Long. “Bai” means “white” and many of the homes and buildings were painted white and then decorated, which was quite charming.

Much of the afternoon was spent learning a song in the Bai language. Bai bears no similarity to Mandarin, so it was a challenge for everyone. Our hosts also taught us a traditional dance and performed it for us in full traditional dress at a bonfire later that evening. Two singers performed the song that we’d painstakingly learned after transliterating the Mandarin characters and then we tried to show them what we’d learned of their dance. Try is the key word here, but the Bai people have only recently started teaching their language to outsiders so it was an honor to be included.

A major endeavor during our time in Shaxi was a fascinating anthropology research project that had students learning about local concerns as a result of migration, modernization, and the mixing of immigrants to Shaxi and the Bai locals. Students then followed a hand-drawn map around town to conduct interviews, mostly in Mandarin, to ask a series of questions they’d devised to learn more about the problems. Then, they were tasked with coming up with viable solutions, which prompted excellent group discussions about the appropriateness of walking into a culture and trying to be of help. On the last day of the trip, students presented their proposals to each other and the group voted for three of the ten presentations to give to some of the locals they’d interviewed. I certainly learned a lot and I know the students did, too. And as always, food was a highlight.

The end of our interview day was one of my favorite experiences of the trip, probably because it was so simple. We went stargazing! We don’t see stars that often in Singapore because of light pollution and cloud cover, but the sky in Yunnan was clear and bright. It was cold, too, winter cold, but we headed to the rooftop of our hostel after dark to lie there and simply look up. We gazed in silence for a while and then played a game of “I Wonder”. At the end of the day, I wonder how we all happened to be there.

Our final activity the next afternoon was a really nice follow-up to the stargazing, meeting people, and group reflections that we’d done throughout the week. My group’s leader and I also taught a few meditation techniques that our students enjoyed. So when it came time to hike an hour through the rice fields for half an hour of silence and solitude, our students were ready and looking forward to reconnecting with themselves and how they’d changed during the week.

And all too soon, we were back on buses, the overnight train, and the plane home. As a staff, we high-fived at the happy faces and safe return. As an educator, I delighted in seeing my students grow and mature over the week, developing new friendships and connections with others. And as a person, I was happy with the crisp air, bright sunshine, learning, and laughter that made up every day.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. -John Muir

Silent Disco Asia

Ever been overwhelmed at a party? Lights are too bright, music is too loud (or just plain bad), and there are too many people? Ever caught between wanting to join your friends for the night and wanting to DJ on your own?

As I learned last weekend, Silent Disco Asia has a solution!

Three DJs curate three different radio channels and one simply flicks a switch on wireless headphones to choose the channel and adjust the volume to their heart’s content. If the dance floor itself gets too crowded, the headphones reach outside and upstairs to the rooftop for more breathing room and beautiful views of Marina Bay. From there, you can see the light installations that are part of the iLight Festival and on view until the end of the month.

Me to my roommate: Take a picture of the back of my head for blog purposes.

In addition to being a lot of fun and a great way to literally dance the night away, silent disco allowed for excellent people watching. Headphones seemed to reduce many inhibitions that people feel sometimes on the dance floor; there was a great array of big moves and loud singing with a boldness that is far less common. The most hilarious part by far was taking off the headphones for a moment and listening to all the truly awful singing from people with huge smiles on their faces. Every so often, I’d make eye contact with someone else and we’d laugh, sharing our delight.

That’s what I enjoyed most about silent disco. People were there to spend time with their friends, sing as loudly as they were dancing, and just enjoy the music. When my friends frantically pointed to their headphones in obvious excitement, I’d change channels until I found what they were listening to (as I have trouble with spatial things, I could not for the life of me keep track of the three possible positions for the switch). Sometimes, I’d stick with my friends’ songs and we’d sing together, though other times I’d shake my head and flip back through the channels, laughing at the way our dancing did or did not line up.

It was a happy evening during which social awkwardness or anxiety didn’t seem to play a role for anyone. Maybe it takes a certain type of person to even consider silent disco, or maybe having your own space (and therefore the explicit freedom to do your own thing) in the midst of a crowd provided enough individualism and autonomy to make it easy to do just that – be an individual.

Interested? Silent Disco Asia will be here for the next two weekends and they’re advertising an upcoming Bollywood night. $25 gets you admission, a beverage, and guaranteed great music. Have a wonderful time!

Dance Class

I grew up dancing. I started in dance classes when I was three, competed for a few years in elementary school (think: sequins, makeup, anxious mothers fluttering around), taught dance in high school, joined a dance troupe the first or second week of college, took a ballroom dance class for credit. In addition to ballroom, I’ve danced ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, hip hop, and modern.

And then I stopped.

I guess other things took priority. At first I was a new teacher and grad student, and then I started spending a lot more time running or working out at the gym. I started doing yoga instead of dance because I could follow videos on YouTube and it seemed like less of a commitment when I was trying to write a thesis.

And then dance just melted away. It became this thing I had loved and had done – past tense. As years passed, apprehension and ego took over each time I thought about trying again. What if I’d forgotten everything? What if my feet slipped out from under me? What if my legs got twisted around and I turned the wrong way? What if, oh gosh, what if I was bad?

This was a concern because I used to be good, good at tap in particular. What if that was no longer the case?

But I knew that I missed it. I’d taken my dance bag with me to multiple countries and let it sit in the back of the closet, a not-so-gentle reminder of a love I’d let lapse.

Back in September, I took a step towards a new thing by starting meditation through a program at school and I learned, actually learned, what I tell my students all the time: It’s okay to be inexperienced. It’s okay to ask for clarification or advice or express uncertainty. Meditation reminded me that we all start somewhere and that it’s okay to start over.

So just last night, I took my first tap class since college. I will admit that I was nervous. I slept fitfully the night before and woke up early with a hint of anxiety just under my sternum, which is usually where I find anxiety when I (mindfully – thank you, meditation) probe for and analyze it.

But when I walked out of class, I felt like I was flying. I’d forgotten a lot but there were more steps that started to come back to me. I’d forgotten to keep my knees bent and toes pointed outwards. I’d forgotten when to shift my weight to the opposite foot and I did get twisted around a few times. But I remembered the three distinct sounds of a riff and how to spot a turn (on my right side, at least). I remembered flaps, shuffles, cramp rolls, and the ball changes that go along with them (at slower speeds, anyway).

I’d forgotten that dance is why I never used to paint my toenails and that it consistently leaves me with a high beyond anything running usually accomplishes. I’d forgotten that I used leave class laughing, testing out steps on the sidewalk, silently chanting the rhythms we’d been practicing. I’d forgotten why dance had been a priority for so long and I’m still not sure how I lost it.

I could not be happier to find it again.

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