Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Art of Arabic Dance

I took a deep breath, hands resting against the steering wheel, then stepped out into the night.  The dark and silent road reminded me of my stay in that house a few months ago.

My former host mom and I had contacted each other occasionally since.  It had been a while since I heard from her, however, so her message that afternoon surprised me: “A few ladies are coming over for a little party tonight.  Come join us. Eight o’clock.”

It’s difficult to know what you’re getting into when people say “a little party” here.  They were in the sitting room, where we had never sat while I lived with them.  The ten-year-old threw herself into my arms for a hug; her younger brother also allowed a quick embrace, before they fled upstairs to the family room.

I introduced myself to the other guests: a well-made-up momma with a restless infant, a contented-looking grandmother, and a handful of other ladies– all coiffed to perfection.  When my host mom entered, she was wearing black leather boots and a leopard-print dress.

We all exchanged kisses on the cheek, and small talk on our lives, as more women entered the room.  They would arrive with head coverings, long robes, and plates of food.  Then they would disappear briefly into the kitchen, and re-emerge with unveiled hairdos, mid-thigh skirts, and four-inch heels.

I repented of my terribly comfortable– and terribly worn out– purple flats.

A friendly shouting match over song selection ensued.  The woman closest to the stereo solved it by abruptly turning up the music, so much so that no one could talk.  The only option was dancing.

My host mom started things off, joined by her best friend, Amany.  The rest of us sat in a circle, clapping in rhythm and watching the graceful arc of each arm, the subtle twist of each hip.  I had been to enough parties to know that these “simple”-seeming movements are not easily duplicated by someone who has NOT been reared on hummus and pita bread.

A few others took their turns in the middle, until they finally persuaded the oldest woman present to perform.  Perfect, controlled movements of her knees, hips, and shoulders, almost faster than the eye could see, astonished me for about half a song.  Then she cut herself off and sat down.

“I’m old,” she muttered.  “I can’t dance all night.”  But her smile-lines deepened around her eyes, communicating: I’ve still got it.

After repeated cajoling from the other women, the young momma plopped her child into his grandmother’s lap and took the center.  She danced with skill equal to the oldest, but had more flexibility.  Kicking off her stilettos, she drew her whole body– eyelashes to toenails to fingertips and everything in between– together into a living, swirling work of art.

Grandma patted the baby’s back in time to the beat.   I remembered the words of a wise old teacher: Some emotions are inexpressible with everyday words.  That’s why we need poetry, music, art….

and dancing.  

Contented as I was, I knew what was coming.  The ladies looked my way.  “Your turn,” they said, uncertain of how much urging I would require.

Exclamations of surprise and approval accompanied me as I stood up.  Standing up showed I was willing, and that went a long way.  I also knew it was better if I was not alone.  “Dance with me!” I said, drawing the woman beside the stereo with me into the middle.

The rest encouraged me like I was a kid who had just colored a cute picture.  Amany even smiled and said, “You dance like my nine-year-old!”

Given how nine-year-olds here dance, I thought, that is just fine.

Then they pointed to the corner, where the oldest woman was sitting.  She was waving her arms, trying to tell me something, but I could not hear or understand her over the music.  So she roused herself and stalked into the center of the circle, her eyes alive with merriment, confidence, and sass.  She put her hands on my waist.

“From here down you dance like an Arab.  But from here up you dance like a foreigner!”  And she commenced again with waving, showing me how to move my arms.

I got home around 11:30, my stomach stuffed with their desserts, my clothes saturated with their second-hand smoke, and my mind straining to remember their advice.  Let go.  Stay strong in the core.  Make small moves– they have great power.  Be flexible and consistent, together.  Encourage those who hold back.  Hold stuff for them if they need you to.  Teach the ones who are struggling.

You don’t need to keep your arms close.  You aren’t being called to protect yourself.  Open up.

Be always willing.  Even when there is awkwardness.  Even when you look like a child.  

Even when there is darkness.  

I am learning to dance.

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In the Silence

Just awkward— the silence.  I searched for more words, looked at the ceiling and floor.

The assignment: find a partner whom you do not know well, from among fellow students in Ingrid Davis’ Leadership Coaching course.  Ask one good question.  Then listen— without making any statement, or asking a follow up question— for five minutes.

It was my turn to answer, so I filled the first one or two minutes with phrases.  Then the silence started.

A few years have passed since I took that class, but I think of those minutes, so silent yet so disquieting, often.  Most recently, they came to mind while I was teaching Public Speaking at the university. My students had studied techniques for interviewing and reading feedback.  They were assigned, as homework, the task of composing and asking excellent questions.  They came back excited to share what they had come up with:

  • “What do you want to be doing ten years from now?”
  • “Where is a place you would like to travel?”
  • “What job have you most enjoyed, and why?”

Goals, dreams, experiences— great things to ask about, I said.  They were smiling and confident.  What did you learn about people?

They kept their grins but avoided my eyes.  I discovered that out of 30+ students, two had asked their questions out loud; the rest had kept them inside.

Why?

Their gazes met mine again.  Hands shot skyward.  “I didn’t want to offend anyone.”  “I am afraid they will think badly of me.” “What if they can’t think of an answer?” They were held back, by the possibility of not being able to connect, from even attempting a connection.

Last week, I traveled to a small town in Germany to assist with a conference.  Contrasting the noise level heard from my Middle Eastern basement— mosques calling people to prayer five times a day, gun shots fired for every wedding or graduation celebration, and a less dramatic but no less salient rooster in my backyard— the quiet of my second-story hotel room was as soft as their down blankets.

The silence pried my fingers loose from the things I had gripped when we first arrived.  The busyness of preparations for the Young Leaders program.  The goodbyes of loved friends moving back to the United States.  The pressure I had been feeling with anticipation of new roles.

I try to escape silence, most of the time.  Whether through filling time with activity, or filling spaces with my words, I avoid quietness because it is unproductive and inefficient.  Or, that’s what I tell myself.

In truth, I might have the same fears as my students have when they resist asking deeper questions.  Staying on familiar, comfortable ground makes me feel confident and pulled together.  Silence is an undoing.  Venturing questions of depth, waiting for answers, is risky behavior— human to human, human to God.  Will He speak?  Will there be a connection?  Or will it just be space, empty?

In the coaching class, after a long pause, I found more words— deeper ones.  The silence had given me space to take the question to a more profound place than my partner could have done with a follow-up question or a reply, so when the five minutes was up, I was still finishing my answer. IMG_4877

Before leaving the area, after the conference had ended, friends and I took a cable car to a mountaintop.  Surrounded by a view that is beyond the words I know for splendor or scope, breathing in the cold, clean air, I could tell my iPhone pictures would be useful only for triggering memories.  The sense of climbing and climbing, each panorama surprising in loveliness and scale.  The broad space that was empty of construction, but overflowing with beauty.

Will I be able to carry that memory of silence and grandeur back with me to a desert in the Middle East?

I’ll have to try.  Because the potential for the connection ushered in by stillness is greater, in my mind, than the risk of rejection or a discomfortable silence.  Maybe, as my partner in class did, I’ll keep listening even through silence, and hear deeper things than I expected.

And maybe, just maybe, the deepest connections will take place in the silence.

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This blog is a little shorter than some.  Why not use the space for some silence?  Let me know how it works…