I can’t say I’m proud, exactly. Content may capture how I feel a bit better. Learning a traditional Mongolian dance and then performing it in under a week was not what I had in mind coming into the work week last week. And yet it was what I did.
I sat down in my manager’s office to sort out the plans for the day, which weren’t looking all that promising, but staring at my planner is a calming habit of mine. My managers were jabbering away with a couple other teachers when they all stopped and stared in my direction as my English-speaking manager asked, ‘Alyse… can you dance?’ She laughed, they laughed, I laughed. Except where their laughs were more of the this-is-a-funny-way-of-asking-her type, my laugh was more of a please-tell-me-you-aren’t-asking-what-I-think-you’re-asking sort of laugh. And, of course, it was. There will be a competition between the organizations of the town, I was told, and each one had to perform a solo song, a traditional music piece, a group dance, and a solo dance. Will you be that solo dance? I came up with excuses: you know, that one I did for swearing-in a year ago was boring, and I forgot the other one a student taught me last year. Don’t worry, my manager comforted me. A student will teach you.
Next thing I know, a 16 year old oversized doll (or miniature human?) walks in to discuss what dance she will teach me and when: Gants Hunii Yavdal– a dance my manager loves because of the beautiful music and strange movements but one that my director and other manager don’t like because of its length– and for 3 hours a day, every day. I don’t remember ever actually saying, Yes.
That afternoon was practice #1. I got the key to the gym in all its dusty, musty glory, and this would be my space for the week. I awkwardly did the moves as the Doll did, only she made them look graceful, and I managed to maintain my gangly-ness. One move requires moving while on the knees, and my learning that move wrong the very first day led to bruises that remained for the rest of the week.
The next day was a low point for me: I was not yet sold on this whole dancing idea, and I was gravely considering backing out. I can’t learn this dance in such a short time; I’m not here to be shown off as the cute foreigner; I should be doing something more important. But these were superficial excuses. What I eventually had to face was the fact that a) I have a penchant for laziness/complacency that I give into to the detriment of my personal ambitions; b) I have a performer streak within me that is rarely accessed; c) I have confidence in this inner performer; but d) I have strong doubts about her, partially due to the rare access and exponentially outweighing the confidence. I didn’t want to listen to that anymore; I didn’t want to be the wisher who never could simply because she never tried.
So I put on my tights, tied my shoes, and watched the professional on YouTube. Again and again and again and again and again and again.
My time was now split between the gym and the art hall, where the other acts had to practice in front of one another with their accompanying music. These were teachers, mind you, who weren’t teaching: our job became preparing for this competition. I would walk to and from school, 4 times a day, with my earphones in my ears, practicing the dance. I would sit with my eyes closed, going through the motions. I enjoyed the exertion. I felt justified in my dreams of being a dancer– I could do it if I had enough time to hold at least two full time jobs. Since I can’t, I’ll settle for being a part-time everything.
As the time got closer, the practices got more intense. Stop putting your hand on your thigh! On your hip! It looks bad as it is! I would hear from the Doll. People were fighting for floor space. The electricity went out for 24 hours or so, causing scheduling issues for the actual performance. It came back the day we were to go. My costume was still being made a couple hours prior to my going onstage. It ended up being too long and having other minor problems that the Doll considered major enough to require mending right away. Over and over the dance went in my head. I’ve done enough performing in my life to go through the motions of pre-stage nervousness without much ado, so the day didn’t really phase me. Just let me go, I thought. I’m ready.
It was over pretty quickly. What I didn’t realize was that the boots I had borrowed were needed by the very next organization’s performer (their rightful owner), so the minute I stepped off-stage, the boots were taken off my feet. I had to wait for my own boots to be delivered, completing my look of a Mongolian-dancer-turned-pirate look.
Because it was over, I wanted to go home. I wanted to get the hat that was limiting the bloodflow to my head off; I wanted to stop sweating by getting out of the suffocating cheap silk costume; and I wanted to eat something for the first time in 8 hours. But I couldn’t. We had to wait for the awards, an especially important event, considering our school took first place. The first announcement by the judges, however, was a speech about moi. Not that I knew that at the time. My manager had to tell me when it was done that they were thanking me for performing, that they thought I should take first place because it was so good (but not good enough to beat the professional who took it instead), and that I deserved a special mention. But not an award, my manager emphasized. Got it.
The Kindle came out at this point. I figured that if I wasn’t going to get an award, and if my honorable mention was already mentioned, then I would just read until I could leave. That is, until I was hit by the woman next to me because they were talking about me again. They apparently had decided to give me something after all. I went up there, wishing I had observed at least one person receive their prize to know whose cheek to kiss, and took a bag from a woman. Everyone else had received a trophy. I was thoroughly confused but thought that this was a consolation prize for being American. Pictures were taken, and then I was freed.
My manager explained that I got second place for the solo dances, but they only gave prizes to the first place takers. My bag was the sole gift from the sponsor of the event, Unitel (a phone company), to be given to a deserving performer. (That would be me.) We looked in the bag, and my ‘consolation prize’ was a brand new Android smart phone. I’ve never owned such a thing in my life, and now I get it for free. Only in Mongolia!
People shook my hand, kissed my face, congratulated me, toasted me, smiled at me, thanked me. I know you will be a celebrity now, said my manager. At least being known for something resembling a talent is much more flattering than being known for speaking English. Or for looking Russian, for that matter.
The following day, my school had a closing ceremony for a year-long training with visitors from the capital and with my own bosses from Peace Corps who were visiting for the day (by coincidence). This time, students at my school were in attendance, and I did it outside. It wasn’t as good as the day before’s performance, but I didn’t put as much weight on it. I had solidified my role as the American dancer already. People were still in impressed mode.
Watching myself, I’m not impressed. I see where I could improve; I see my flawed and awkwardly proportioned self; I know that I don’t look like the professional I watched again and again and again. I’m not proud, per se, of this dance. Rather, I am the opposite of disappointed. Does that make me pleased? Satisfied? I did it. I proved–mainly to myself– that I can learn a dance in a week, that I can do it well. And I don’t have to see my only role here in the Peace Corps, in Mongolia, or in my town in particular as strictly of a youth development worker. I am also an observer, a student, a friend.
It felt good to have a product for the effort I put in. It felt so refreshing to see–finally– the positive results of something I had done. This comes so rarely in the life of a volunteer (at least, in the life of this volunteer). I can’t feel bad for that. I refuse to. If it’s the only thing I do in my entire two years that is tangible, then I’m glad I did it. And I have to be ok with that.
Content, I guess I’d call it.