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Dance Around the World

Learn About a People and Yourself

"Plus bas (lower), Laura!” Vanina yells from the front of the class. She shakes her head. “And keep your knees together!”

I love to hear my name pronounced Lo-RA, with the fierce, rolled R of an exasperated Tahitian. I’m not masochistic, I just like to know I’m doing well enough to Tahitian Dancedeserve the attention.When I first started taking Tahitian dance classes at the Conservatoire, Vanina would look at me, squinch her eyebrows together, part her lips as if to say something, and then abandon the effort, as if she didn’t know where to begin. It’s eight in the morning and already sticky hot, but we’re near the sea and its breezes. Tiny Vanina, whose artistic skill and sensuality awes all but her fiercest competitors in the French Polynesian dance world, leads the class, a black pareo wrapped around her waist, a red hibiscus in her black hair. The class is mixed–Tahitian, Chinese, and French, the three major ethnicities of Tahiti evenly represented–with women of all ages and all sizes (there’s a separate class for men). Most of us start out uneasy with this style. We don’t want to accent our hips.

The drummers tap faster and faster, and I try to keep my knees bent low but together, my shoulders back, my hips rolling fast and smoothly, and at the same time move my hands in the gesture that means clouds gathering over the mountains. Vanina looks incredible doing this. More important, she looks like she feels incredible doing this. That’s what I’m interested in.

“Shoulders back, Lo-RA!” Vanina cries.

I am attempting to learn tamure, the famous sensual Tahitian dance. Upon arrival in Tahiti, I had been instantly fascinated by the way Tahitian women moved. Why can’t I move like that? I asked myself. Why can’t I feel inside the way they look like they feel–as if their own physical existence is a joy to them? I was physically far more fit than many of the women who moved like sensual goddesses–but I didn’t feel inside something they felt inside, and, frankly, I didn’t know many Western women who did.

Dancing and drums seemed to be at the center of it all. So I enrolled at the Conservatoire.

Now I have become an enthusiastic advocate for combining dancing with travel, work, or study abroad.

Enrolled at the Université Française du Pacifique in Tahiti, I struggled to learn the Tahitian language and to overcome shyness and get to know the other, younger, students–but it was in the dance classes where I had the richest experiences and where I reached the heart of what was quintessentially Tahitian. I also took away permanent talents which have enhanced my enjoyment of life in more ways than I can count and given me new opportunities to engage with other cultures. I have now moved to Paris, where, there being no traditional dance for me to learn, I am studying baroque dancing and teaching my own Tahitian dance courses.

It takes some research to find a good class overseas, but not more than it would take to find a good dance class at home. If you’re already overseas, usually asking around, checking the phone books, and even asking at the local tourist office will be enough to get you started. If you’re planning a trip or longer stay, contact the local tourist office of the country and, if you’ve taken courses in this type of dance, ask your local dance teacher for leadTahiti Dances or recommendations.

If you want to study African dance in Ghana or Senegal, your experience will be unique. But many, many people study step-dancing in Ireland, flamenco in Spain, tango in Argentina. The famous studio El Amor de Dios in Madrid attracts as many non-Spanish as Spanish students, and the exceptionally well-qualified teachers have packed classrooms.

Although it takes a little sense of adventure to walk into the first course, the experience is more than worth the effort. It has been fascinating for me, coming from an essentially Anglo-Saxon society, to realize how central dancing is to so many cultures. I’ve yet to find a more perfect way to learn about a people and about myself.

LAURA HIGGINS discovered dancing in Tahiti while on a Fulbright grant. She has also lived, worked, studied, and of course danced, in Spain and France.

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