Wednesday, July 24, 2013

One Step Forward, Six Steps Back

Scrubbing the squares.
Gentse Feesten, a celebration of music and theatre first held in 1843, is in full swing. Many of its 2 million visitors seem to be traipsing up and down the small cobblestone street outside our flat. Some walk up our tiny alley, chatting in various languages. All our windows are open in the unusual summer warmth so we eavesdrop on their midnight conversations without comprehending a word. It has become like having a brook babbling in the background.

Each morning when I venture out for croissants, fresh orange juice and a cup of ice (a most precious commodity to which Anita is addicted) our canal-street is littered with detritus and with people slumped sleepily on the curb, looking a little worse for the wear. By noon the streets have been washed by an amazing army of purpose-built trucks and the people revived by tiny cups of espresso, consumed at temporary sidewalk cafes that have sprouted like summer dandelions in the heat.

Each evening we drop by the Boombal, a folk dancing revival that started in Ghent in 2000, and Boombal Dansinitiatie, free lessons in folk dancing that precede the ball. Then move on to Swing City to watch the twenty-somethings jitterbug like our parents must have in the 40's. Despite the canicule -- oh my gosh, in this land of 3 euro bottled water they were handing out free cups, even though in Atlanta the heat wave would have been considered a mild summer day -- by the time the festivities fire up, the temperature has dropped and it is quite pleasant. Only the dancers seem to break a sweat.
Recovering from last night's festivities.

We've been watching a young woman with a curly mop of blonde hair participate in the dancing. Here I must emphasize young since she is at most three years old and joins in with a verve and enthusiasm that I can only envy. At the dance lessons kids are in the center of the circle, imitating the dancers or playing tag or riding tricycles. Somehow people avoid stepping on the little ones. I am beginning to understand how the dances are passed along and why so many young people are quite at home on the dance floor.

Last week Anita and I had our own private introduction to the art of mazurka. If Leen Devyver had only had students with more talent we would be competing in the Boombal world championships. She is a terrific teacher: patient, encouraging and able to analyze what approach to use with her learners. When I mention that we had Leen for a teacher, those who know the small circle of Boombal dance instructors are visibly impressed.

Leen must have realized that she had her work cut out for her when we admitted that we had never before tried to dance, not even to waltz. It was somewhat like saying we didn't know how to breathe and expected our session with her to make us into marathon runners. After confirming that really, we were complete novices, she found herself chanting one, two three, ma, zur, ka, as she led one of us in the most basic of steps. I had no idea that getting my feet to play a mazurka would be more challenging than learning to play those first mazurka notes on buttonbox. It was like thinking ice skating doesn't look that hard and then discovering just how hard it really is when you've never even stood on skates. After the lesson I could barely remember how to walk.

Genten Feesten Boombal Dansinitiate
At Dansinitiatie,  I've been tempted to break into kiddo group since they are at my level of dance and I did learn the tricycle as a boy. Instead I have been a sidelines dancer at the lessons, swaying and bouncing. Now and then I even try a step or two. The patterns are becoming somewhat familiar, like listening to a album of piano pieces and recognizing that you have heard that tune. Yeah, I know. Watching won't make me a dancer anymore than listening to music would make me a pianist, but I need a few more sessions to collect myself before I take the plunge. So, I kind of participate in a noncommittal sort of way.

One evening at the dance itself I stood, watching some terrific dancers. Standing beside me also watching was a woman who was dancing in place to the beat and squirming with the longing to be asked to join the fun. If I hadn't been old enough to be her grandfather -- really I have a granddaughter older than she -- and more importantly, if I knew even the first thing about dancing, I might have obliged. Instead I felt an empathy as a fellow onlooker and hoped that someone would rescue her from being a wallflower.

After some time, a guy around her age approached and with a confident courtesy extended his hand in invitation. I guessed them to be strangers because she hesitated a long moment before allowing him to lead her onto the floor. Later I saw her waltz past. She was beaming and sported a terrific smile which flashed a bright beacon each time they turned. And could she dance? Wow. She was an accomplished dancer, having long ago graduated from the center of the ring.

It was such an endearing moment. It made me want to learn the mazurka and to be a youngster again. Ah, well. I think I'll work harder on practicing on those steps. I fear that turning back the clock would prove to be even more difficult than dancing to one, two, three, ma, zur, ka.

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