Posts Tagged 'dance'

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.

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.


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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