Archive for the 'Dance' Category

The Lone Black Dance: Tiny Toones Record Release

I knew, I knew, I knew there was something there.

You hear about an organization: Tiny Toones. Founded by a deported Khmer-American, it works to improve the lives and futures of Phnom Penh’s street kids—through, primarily, breakdance. You don’t breakdance. You’re not Cambodian and you don’t even really listen to hip-hop anymore. But there’s something about it, something about it…

I’ve recently figured this out about myself: that things I should, by all logic, experience as intense emotions, vivid memories and blazing-eyed convictions, I experience instead as far-away feelings, a vague awareness, a dim hunch in the sunlight of my consciousness (oh silhouette, oh silhouette). And so it was with Tiny Toones.

I went to their album release party last Saturday. In their four years of existence, Tiny Toones has grown to encompass additional programs: computer literacy, Khmer and English literacy, harm reduction and music. The release of their first full-length hip-hop album was the end result of that new program.

The event was held on the rooftop of the Meta House, the minimalist white German cultural center. Like the show I’d gone to two nights prior, the crowd was a healthy mix of ages and locals/expats. And like the previous show, the kids behind the mike and turnatables all looked totally hip-hop American. It reminded me of being at a Youth Speaks event.

And so there were speeches and raffles and auctions and performances. They also showed some videos, including a recording of the performace that had won the organization a recent TED Award. Participants had developed narrative breakdances that depicted defining elements of their life stories (oh undimness, oh spotlight).

A girl depicted being abused, two boys violent robbery. They’d be in black for these, at the end of each, they’d shed their black shirts, under which there were white shirts, and they’d join each other, a representation of Tiny Toones.

They do one for addiction. Boys crouched around a make-shift pipe (oh soda bottle, oh tin foil). The kids in white pass by, and every time they take another boy in black with them. Finally there is one boy, in one spotlight, alone on the stage.

He does a strange dance, beautiful dance. His shoulder arch up like he’s attached to strings (oh puppet child, oh puppet child)—he rises, chest first and lungs full—and then drops back down, as though whatever held those strings (oh God-like fingers, oh typewriter of fate) had dropped him suddenly—and he crashes to the floor, the bottom, or what appears to be the bottom—in real life there’s always further you can go, downer and downer and maybe even death isn’t the basement (oh elevator of addiction, oh wobble of the cablewires)—maybe the dance continues on after that, into that, souls arching and crashing endlessly, winglessly.

Anyway, he carries on like that—spotlight and a bare stage, rising and falling around the homemade pipe—and I think: Well, isn’t that just it? Isn’t that the dance of it?

And it surprises me how much I relate to it. Though it shouldn’t. Because even though it would outwardly appear that I have even less in common with this kid dancing, a Cambodian streetkid, than oh, say, Charlies Sheen—you strip away the details, the circumstances—you strip away the lights and setting and the props—and isn’t that all you’re ever left with? Isn’t that all we (oh puppet children, oh puppet children) ever really do?—a lone black dance on a barren stage?

I smiled and thought: Of course, of course, of course.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—William Butler Yeats

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Dance, Dance, Evolution: Aerobic Dancing at the Olympic Stadium

It’s dusk at the Olympic Stadium, and it feels like a festival. Vendors have set up stalls selling snack foods, beverages, trinkets. People in sweat clothes swarm. Cliche club dance music beats out of stereosystems and, lined up along the cement ring of the stadium’s top tier, little old ladies dance.

It’s called Aerobic Dancing, and it’s about the goddamn most endearing thing I’ve ever seen.

I saw it my first night in Phnom Penh, along the riverside. A few sets of stereospeakers had been set up, and young men were leading groups in dance moves. I thought it was something for tourists, some sort of street performance. I looked for baskets of money and didn’t see any. Then I scanned the expressions of the dancers’ faces, and they were all totally in earnest, concentrated of getting the moves right. Now this, I thought, is something different.

It was recommended to me later that I go to the city’s Olympic Stadium at dawn (um, no) or dusk (um, yes!) to see some real aerobic dancing. Well, you didn’t have to tell me twice.

It’s bustling leading up the steep slope of the stadium’s entrance. People swing their arms and legs, warming up. Children run around. I get to the top, and it’s a buzzing beehive of fitness. People run the stairs. Down at the bottom, a crew of joggers circle the dirt track. But the overwhelming majority of people at the stadium are late-middle-aged women. And they are there to dance.

Now, I’m quite familiar with old ladies doing Tai Chi in the parks at dawn. And I’m even used to random young Western dude who thanks to Ghost Dog has aspirations of becoming an urban samurai and practices along. But this is something entirely different.

About a dozen different stations are set up along the stadium’s ring, where a cool dusk breeze passes. Their music and moves are all slight variations of each other: twists and kicks and stretches and arm raises, a little fancy footwork from time to time. The people in the front rows sweat, focus intently. Most of the others vaguely step along, moving this way and that, sometimes getting the moves right, sometimes not. It doesn’t really seem to be about that.

The leaders of all of these groups are young men, teenagers in some cases. Hair swept across the face, pink shirts, dedazzled jean pockets: they are boys that by American standards would be categorically, 100% flaming gay. But they’re doing their thing here. And a crew of older ladies are doing it with them.

I sit and watch for awhile: the various sets of raised arms, the shakes and twists, the echoes of club music. Before the Khmer Rouge, dance was one of the most important art forms in the culture. Most of the country’s dancers, along with other artists, were killed.

Well, this might not be a revival of a lost traditional art form, but it might be an evolution of that. It might be a new manifestation of a cultural predisposition to dance. Or it could just be exercise, set to a melting sky and sweet as fucking hell.

Not Your Normal Expat Scene: Khmer Kids Coming Back to Cambodia

“This not your normal expat scene.”

That’s all I kept thinking last night, as I stood sweating and stomach-sore in the crowd. I’d dragged myself out to a show, what was described to me as an all-girl indie rock band that sang in Khmer. Killer. No traveler’s flu would make me miss this.

It was a funny mix—local men in dress shirts and slacks, women in those super foofy sparkly dresses; kids, some just in the crowd, others wearing matching shirts for some organization I couldn’t quite make out.

And there were your typical expats—Western, mostly white. Some of them were extremely well-groomed, reeking of cologne and hair spray and kissing their friends on both cheeks. Some of them wore that aren’t-I-so-cool-for-being-here look. Some tried to dance along or move to the beat, and it was sad and cute in the way it’s always sad and cute. And others just seemed to be there, watching, enjoying the show, because that’s what there was to do that night.

But the kids putting on the show—the kids on stage and holding the cameras and checking the sound—they were not your normal expats.

Your typical expat does not drop their “to be” verb (“She crazy”), doesn’t say “y’all” or “aight.” They don’t wear baggy jeans and puffy sneakers. They don’t start NGOs called Tiny Toones or hip-hop groups called Klap Ya Handz, written in Godfather font. They don’t breakdance or freestyle or bust—and they don’t do it in the language native to their new homes.

I’d heard about the show from Bel, a girl I’d found on Couchsurfing. We had plans to meet up for coffee and even though my stomach was already getting wonky, something told me not to flake.

She was a cool girl and we talked for awhile. Her boyfriend was a Khmer-American who’d moved back to Cambodia, with no intention of ever leaving again. “He’s the most patriotic Khmer you’ll ever meet,” she said, and later he showed me the tattoo of a famous Wat across his back.

“There’s a lot of foreign-born Khmers moving back,” Bel told me. “Lots of artists and young people. And they’re really motivated to do something here.”

I wanted to see this; I wanted to glimpse what this was. Sure, I knew of people going back to their parents’ countries for a visit, but to live? To give up everything they know to fight for something better in a country they hadn’t grown up in? This was something different.

And it was. The show place was buried deep inside the maze of a mall, shuttered shops and a blinking arcade, bowling alley and bumper cars. I got there earlyish, paid a $10 cover—normal for the US, but exorbitant for here.

On stage was a DJ, two turntables and a MacBook glowing. Two artists were on stage, doing ad hoc graffiti art on a make-shift wall. “Empire State of Mind” came on. It was like being at any hip-hop show at home—except a hell of a lot hotter.

The first act was a hip-hop group called Klap Ya Handz. They spoke in a working-class English, like kids that grow up in Oakland. But in the songs, they flowed in Khmer. For one song, they brought out traditional Khmer drummers that were, well, bad-ass. During another song, the lead girl did what she later called “Khmer hands,” a hip-hop take-off on the hand movements of traditional Khmer dancers.

Cambodia lost a whole generation of artists during the Khmer Rouge. Traditional dance was virtually erased and, after Pol Pot, there wasn’t anyone left to pass it on. I’d read accounts of the few survivors left trying to teach the next generation, and it being hard—they were more interested, as teenagers usually are, in contemporary things. Like hip-hop.

The headliner was Laura Mam and the Like Me’s. They’re a bluesy, all-girl rock band from San Jose, California (local love). They’re Khmer-American and sing in Khmer. The crowd obviously loved them, singing along and snapping photos and waving their arms. I was told that they came to play in Cambodia relatively often. Either way, they showed the same kind of passionate pride in their Khmer culture that the kids in Klap Ya Handz did.

They played a song called “Diaspora”: “for all the refugees living in diaspora around the world—and missing Cambodia.” The crowd went crazy.

No, this wasn’t your normal expat scene.

Your typical expat is someone of relative priviledge; they have, say, a university degree and the social mobility to pick up and move around the world. Maybe they studied abroad, or spent time backpacking around. In any event, it occurred to them to leave their home countries in the first place and they had the means, however meager, to do it. The ones I encounter are largely middle-class; the uber wealthy ones exist on another plane, and I only see them in passing—the immaculate girls on the streets of Hong Kong.

These kids were categorically Not That. They’re the kind of kids, in the kind of scene, that I miss when I leave the US; when I think about moving abroad, I think, “Man, there’s so much shit I’d be missing” and this is part of what I mean.

And they bring their Americanness—their very, very Americanness—back here. But they’re making something new with it; there’s that frenetic energy, that spark you feel when cultures collide and you see people that are so intensely passionate about what they’re doing, you can’t help but feel it too.

Of course, not all of them are coming back by choice. The US opted to deport foreign-born convicts, regardless of whether they’d served their time, and nearly 200 people who were, for all intents and purposes, American were sent “back” to Cambodia. They brought their culture, a street culture, and they brought their art. And they’re doing shit; they’re bringing this to the kids of Cambodia, the next generation (ie: Tiny Toones).

So basically, watch the fuck out for these kids.

There was a shirt I kept seeing in the crowd, tons of kids wearing it. Its design was a take-off on the Star Wars logo, and it read: “The Khmer Empire Strikes Back.”

This was my first glimpse into this, my looking-through-the-peep-hole into this. I fully intend on investigating this more during my time here. But last night, sickness was calling, and I had to head back to the hotel.

The Foreigner at the Party

Tirana and Rome don’t have much in common—except that it’s absurdly easy to stand out as a tourist.

They come at it from different angles—Rome because there’s so many goddamn tourists (really, do Americans realize that there’s other countries in the world?), and Tirana because there’s so few goddamn tourists (really, do people realize how amazing it is?). But the effect is the same either way: you aren’t ever, ever going to blend in.

Some travelers get bummed out by this, and do everything within their power to fool themselves (and themselves only), acquiring affected accents and scarves for the local football team. But I say fuck it—no one’s gonna buy it anyway. So you may as well just dance.

Friday night felt like a riot in Tirana: chanting crowds, police sirens, streets shut off, smoke billowing and fireworks flashing. It wasn’t a riot, just the Albania-Bosnia football match. The insane energy of it all is a little anxiety-provoking for an American—if it were Oakland, someone would have gotten shot.

Our little clan from the hostel walked through the raucous roads; some had picked up Albanian flags along the way, but it wasn’t any use. We were varied races and ethnicities, all speaking English, and the stares we ellicted became almost laughable, necks craning and feet stopping cold.

“Hello, hello,” shouted a voice from a drunken crowd, as though to point out that we were different and didn’t belong.

Everyone got quiet and a little uncomfortable. I gave a stupidly exaggerated wave. “Howdy!” I exclaimed in a Southern accent. “How y’all doin’?”

And we all had a laugh.

We didn’t end up getting into the stadium. It’s my absolute fate with football—I’ve never managed to actually see a match. So we marched across town to a bar to watch it on TV, amusing everyone with our mispronounciation of “Shqipëri,” the Albanian name for Albania. One of the waiters was so amused he bought everyone at our table—fourteen of us—a round of drinks. Sometimes it pays to stand out.

After the match we went to another bar, an underground spot near the Opera House, walls covered in the photos of the artists that used to hang out there (as well as a healthy layer of cigarette smoke). A DJ was playing drum and bass from his glowing white laptop and everyone was dancing, arms raising to graze the low ceiling.

Again, we were the only foreigners. But the good news is, the language of dance is universal.

So universal, in fact, that everyone was shacking up, disappearing from the dark room in hand-holding couples. At one am, it was just me and the gay Dutch dude left. “We’re dropping like flies!” I screamed over the music.

He kissed me on the cheek.

Saturday took me back to Rome, throat sore and heart heavy, sad and actually a little ill to be leaving. I met up with my couchsurfing host in the evening; we got in the car and drove. And drove and drove, into the damp-smelling dark, street lights thinning and stars appearing. A friend of his was having a birthday party at his parents’ country home.

My first clue that I was somewhere I seriously didn’t belong should have been “country home.” Or the red-candle-lit driveway, that rambled on for half a block. It was dark, so I couldn’t see the house I walking into, but I could sense its presence—something large and sturdy and stately.

We walked into a huge living room, exposed wooden beams and tasteful vases. The crowd was art-opening-hip, wine glasses and expensive haircuts. There was a DJ. There was actual porchetta—a whole pig—being sliced by a little old lady in an apron.

I was in Toms and (again) a Talk Is Poison shirt. I still stank from Tirana’s cigarette smoke, dirty hair stuffed under a beanie. Even in the States, I’d stand out in a party like this.

But I didn’t get any snotty vibes from anyone, so I shrugged and grabbed a plate. I couldn’t really talk to anyone, but I smiled a lot, and people smiled back. No one seemed to mind me too much. It was one of those isn’t-it-funny-where-travel-takes-you moments: if you’d ever asked me, “Hey, do you think you’ll ever end up at a super posh party in a villa outside of Rome?”, I’d have answered, “no.”

After the pig was picked apart, the lights went down and the dance songs started cranking. Good time stuff: “Surfin USA,” “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun,” some old rock n roll hits and a couple Italian songs to round it out.

And I danced again. It didn’t matter that I was dirty and foreign and didn’t belong. There was a good time to be had, and sometimes, in the midst of a really good party, the only thing the really “belongs,” so to speak, is fun—the boom of the bass and the way your shoulder dips to the beat.

Dancing in the Fog: Weekend Wedding Part II

Everything grey. Not the soft, floaty kind of grey, but heavy, brooding, impenetrable—like being underwater, like walking through a dream: the landscape all sand and crippled trees, windswept by something that came before you, something you can’t see, some kind of endless passing of which the fog is only a part, only a symptom of a larger sadness—the solitary transience of the Northern California coast.

Destination weddings are fun, because the party doesn’t stop, isn’t confined to six hours in impractical shoes and unforgiving fabrics. And you get to feel like you’ve gotten away, vacationed, traveled. So it’s a two-for. Guests complain about them because they’re more expensive, discreetly accusing hosts of choosing distant locales to limit the guest count. Which could all be well and true, but my first experience at a destination wedding pretty much ruled.

To qualify, it wasn’t much of a destination—a two-hour drive down the Monterey Peninsula to Asilomar, what could have easily been a day trip. But something about it gave me just a taste of travel, a hint, like passing someone smoking a cigarette on the street—not the real thing, but enough of a whiff to remind you of the real thing, evoke some sort of not-so-secret longing you try to muscle through, distract yourself from, most days. Something about the weekend was twinged with longing (for what?), some kind of sickly bittersweet lonely. Maybe it was the fog.

Asilomar is a state beach and rustic conference grounds billed as a “refuge by the sea.” It’s got some history, some charm, some Arts & Crafts style flair. But the conference grounds/hotel was unfortunately bought out by some large hospitality chain in recent months, and the service has gone from homey mom-and-pop to corporate nickel-and-dime-and-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-quality. Whatever. The scenery is still beautiful and the wedding was still awesome.

The weekend started with a Friday afternoon BBQ and wiffle ball tournament that got froze out by the cold. We retreated to the bridesmaid cottage (which was more like a suburban home than a cottage, beige carpeting and all) for epic hanging-outage.

The cool thing about the whole weekend-long aspect of the wedding was that it really gave you a chance to meet people. Not just superficially, but, you know, to bro down. I suppose the destination wedding thing could be hell if you were trapped in some resort with someone’s insane family, but my friends Katie and Steven have pretty awesome friends. They’re scattered around the Bay, LA and NYC; the disparate groups had never really had a chance to meld, so the wedding served as the ultimate meeting (the whole reasoning behind having it be a destination affair). I’ve got a particular affinity for rad, smart, independent girls, and got to meet quite a few of them.

I also got to hang out with some super good old friends, the kind of people that have seen you grow, that you’ve seen grow—who you’ve walked through all sorts of brutal life shit with. The beautiful part is that we’ve managed to come out on the other side, all limbs in tact. (I’ve also got an affinity for survivors.) There’s not so many of us, you know, when it comes right down to it. And getting to hang out with a couple dope old friends that you’ve been through some shit with definitely serves to renew faith, lend some perspective, validate some small feeling inside you that everything might just be okay—almost like a small kind of prayer.

And then there was the dance party.

I like to get down; who doesn’t? But there was something different about this dance party. It wasn’t just the killer music (soul, 80s, old rock ‘n roll), and it wasn’t just the super cool folks. It was fueled by something within, some drive to… escape? That’s not exactly right, but close—a drive to push through a kind of pain, not just an immediate circumstantial sadness (checking the phone for text messages), but the deeper, desperate lonely beneath that (gone, gone, and left me here).

Whatever it was, I let loose like I rarely do, like I was trying to dance my way out of something. I thought of the kids that used to hang out the swimming pool I worked at as a teenager. It was North Oakland, an inner-city environment to say the least, filled with a bunch of little hood rats with nothing better to do than hang around the pool all day. Forget what they say about kids having no worries—a lot of these kids had pretty gnarly home lives. But I used to watch the way they’d play and find some sort of solace in it—the particularly child-like ability to shed all that shit and just play, find some small moment of release amidst the dysfunction and poverty and pain. Almost like a small kind of prayer.

Let’s just say at the end of the night, it was me, a dude who looked like Owen Wilson in Zoolander and danced like a gay stripper, and a ten year old girl who could break dance. Magical.

The next morning was all eggs and syrup and sleeping in. There’d been an after-party, then an after-after-party, and everyone was spent. We staggered around in the dream-like fog, hair half-curled and wearing sweatpants. People bundled up on the beach and ate the remainders of potato salad and cupcakes, wrapped in blankets and sleepiness and the grey, grey sky of California.

Red-Door Flamenco

DSCN3201The drama and thunder of it—

trance-like

when the notes sing sadly,

seem to pluck themselves

from weeping fingers,

when the wails of passion

get inside the hips,

become the bend of wrists,

the fistful of ruffles—

how unapologetic

the stomps are,

the throbs

of a furious pulse,

the exactitude of hands

that don´t stop clapping

until the blood reaches

its final fevered pitch:

a pose of breathlessness,

a sculpture gasping

with life.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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