An American dancing in Russia

“I knew you were an American before I heard your accent,” said my Zumba instructor in Vladimir, Russia.  “I could tell by the way you moved your hips.”  After years of formal and informal dance instruction, following an instructor’s moves in the mirror is practically second nature to me, and I had danced with abandon, blissful, and happy to be in my element and moving to music.  I hadn’t realized I was so conspicuous.

Anyone who loves dancing knows that there is an instant connection with people you have never met before the moment the music starts and you are together on the dance floor.  It does not matter what language you speak, where you are from, how old you are, or what your past experiences are.  What matters is that you listen to the music and feel the music.  What matters is that you catch the eye of those around you and coordinate some of your movement so that you are dancing “with” instead of dancing “at” your fellow dancers.  The music can be in any language or without words altogether.  What is really important is not that you understand the lyrics, but that you feel the emotion of the songs.

By my second Zumba class in Vladimir I feel as much a part of this group of women as I feel a part of the regular crowd of dancers at my fitness club in my hometown.  They have accepted me with my accent and my American hip swinging and we all smile at each other and giggle when the choreography seems especially silly.

I feel similarly welcome dancing to live music at a café in central Vladimir that seems to host every cover band conceived in European Russia.  Whereas at American concerts people seem to slowly trickle onto the dance floor after a few brave souls initiate the dancing, Russians seem to go running for the dance floor the moment the music starts!  Another difference I’ve noticed, is that whereas Americans seem to mostly dance in small groups or couples, Russians seem to have no qualms about dancing solo or welcoming new people they don’t know into their dance circles.

Beyond fitness dancing and dancing on a Friday night to live music, we are also learning folk dancing at our language institute.  We sing songs and learn traditional dances that go with them and then dance and sing as one of our teachers plays an accordion.

In the end it all runs together.  Latin-American Zumba mixes with Russian folk music and Russian popular music when a pop remix of a folk song makes its way into our Zumba class.  American music becomes unrecognizably Russianized as Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive” is sung by a Russian woman and the brass band behind her starts playing faster and faster and everyone is clapping and jumping and it is Gloria Gaynor as I’ve never heard her before!

We all bring something unique to dancing – our style, choreography we’ve learned or created, the expressions on our faces, and how we engage with others.  In dancing, we are sharing culture without words: we are compromising, learning from each other, and figuring out how we can best work together through trial and error and by simply feeling what is right in the moment.  Somewhere in this blur of songs and dance steps there is a lesson we can take with us into the world:

Each of us brings something unique to the dance floor, but we need to remember to look around and see how others are dancing, meet their eyes, even share a smile, and remember that even if we think we know all of the songs, it is always possible to hear a song as we have never heard it before and to create a new dance. 

By: Julie Ammons

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Spring 2017

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