Category Archives: Life

If it’s not about classical music, ballet or the violin, you’ll find it here.

And the winners are…

Thank you to all of you who entered my giveaway drawing for Amazon gift cards and advance reader copies of A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA. I’m happy to announce the following:

First prize
A  $25 gift card from Amazon and a print copy of A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA, goes to… Andra!

Runners up
A $5 gift card from Amazon and an electronic copy of A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA, go to… Lisa Blanchard and Samantha!

 

Congratulations, winners! I will be contacting you via the emails affiliated with the comment posted (or if you emailed me directly). If you don’t hear from me by the end of the week (because tomorrow is the 4th of July and I ain’t working!), please do contact me!  If you have an AOL email account, they can be notorious for deciding that the Classical Girl admin email address is spam. Boo hoo, AOL!

And for the rest of you, thank you so much for contacting me and adding your name to the bowl. If any of you would be interested in being an advance reader and posting a review of the book on Amazon once it’s published (Oct 2nd), I will be making the novel available to all reviewers on August 2nd. It will be available through NetGalley, but if you’d like me to contact you and send you a reviewer’s copy privately, I’d be happy to do that. Just let me know, either in comments below, or via email.

Thanks, all, for celebrating my 200th post, and I look forward to celebrating with you all again, in three months’ time, when A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA gets released into the world!

                       

Want a taste of what’s to come on October 2nd? Here’s the opening chapter from A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA. Note that WordPress has squished some of the words together. If you prefer the better formatted version, click on this link:  Chapter 1, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa  

Chapter 1

The first thing I noticed was the AK-47, cradled in the arms of the Gabonese military checkpoint guard. That, and the fact that the man looked angry. He sprang to attention as our dust-caked van rolled to a stop, clutching his rifle close, arms at rigid angles. A steel bar, supported by two rusting oil drums, stretched across the unpaved road, preventing us from passing without his permission. Since my arrival in Gabon seventy-two hours prior, part of a group of twenty-six trainees, I’d discovered military checkpoints were common in Africa. At the first one, outside the Gabonese capital of Libreville, the guard had waved us through without rising from his seat. At the second, a soldier was sleeping in a chair tipped against a cinder-block building. Only the noise of our honking had awakened him. But this third official took his job seriously.

Inside the Peace Corps van, I glanced around to see if anyone else noticed the danger we were in. No one was looking. Animated chatter filled the overheated van. “Um, excuse me?” I called out over the din, my voice abnormally high. “Someone with a big gun out there looks very angry.” My seatmate and fellow English-teaching trainee, Carmen, leaned over me to peer out.

“Whoa,” she murmured, “he kind of does. Cool!”

Her fascination shouldn’t have surprised me. Carmen seemed to embrace the gritty, the provocative, evidenced by her multiple piercings, dark spikey hair, heavy eyeliner and combat boots. Although we were the same age, twenty-two, I would have given her a wide berth back home. Here, she’d become my closest friend.

Together we watched the guard draw closer. His eyes glowed with a fanatic’s fervor, as if he were drunk on his own power. Or simply drunk. The authorities herebore little resemblance to the clean-cut police officers back in Omaha who patrolled the suburban neighborhoods, stopping me in my dented Ford Pinto to politely inquire whether I was aware of how fast I’d been driving. That world seemed very far away.

Our van driver, a short, wiry Gabonese man, stepped out of the vehicle and waved official-looking papers at the guard. By the determined shake of the guard’s head after he’d perused them, it clearly wasn’t enough.

The two began a heated discussion. When the driver held up a finger and disappeared back into the van, the guard scowled, tightening his grip on his weapon. Restlessly he scanned the van windows and caught my worried gaze. And held it.

I am going to die. The thought rose in me, pure and clairvoyant.

I pulled away from the window in terror. “He’s staring at me!”

“What are you talking about?” Carmen peered closer out the window.

“No, stop.” I yanked her arm. “I don’t want him to look this way.”

“Fiona. He wasn’t looking at you. He was looking at the group of us.”

“No, he wasn’t,” I insisted. “He was looking for someone to single out.”

Someone to pull from the bus and shoot. The thought, however irrational, made my gut clench in fear.

Carmen studied me quizzically. “You know, they say taking your weekly dose of Aralen gives you weird-assed dreams. Even violent dreams. You didn’t just take your Aralen, did you?”

“No! And are you saying you don’t find this angry military guy with a gun more than a little scary?”

“I do not. I mean, I would if it were just him and me on an empty road at night. But we’re a van full of Peace Corps volunteers and trainees. How sweetly innocent is that? This is Gabon, not Angola. And besides, do you see anyone else in this van getting anxious?”

I glanced around to see if anyone else was bothered by the danger. Conversations had continued without pause. Aside from the occasional idle glance out the window, no one was paying the drama any attention.

“No, I don’t,” I admitted.

Our van driver returned to the checkpoint guard. He said something that made the guard relax his grip on the rifle. He opened one hand and accepted the two packs of cigarettes our driver offered him. Pocketing them, he gestured to a structure adjacent to his building, and the two of them strolled toward it.

“You know, I’m not sure who won,” Carmen said.

I released the breath I’d been holding. “At least he didn’t shoot off his gun.”

Another uniformed guard crunched over to our van. “Descendez,descendez,”he called out in a bored voice.

Carmen and I exchanged worried glances. The volunteers in the van rose, grumbling and stretching.

“What’s going on?” Daniel, another English-teaching trainee, asked, frozen halfway between sitting and standing.

One of the volunteers shrugged. “Checkpoints….”

This wasn’t part of the plan and that concerned me.Wewere supposed to arrive at our training site in Lambaréné by mid-afternoon. We’d already stopped once for a flat tire and another time for a steamy, bug-infested half-hour, the reason never made clear. No one else seemed bothered by all these delays. Or worried. I could only fret to myself as we descended from the Peace Corps van into the staggering humidity, squinting at the overhead sunlight. Away from the city, deep inside the country’s interior, the whine of insects was a noisy symphony of clicks, buzzes and drones. Jungly trees crowded the landscape, broken only by the red-dirt road and clearing. A group of children, wearing an assortment of ragged thrift-store castoffs, shrieked at our sudden appearance and ran from us. The rifle-toting soldier and our driver had disappeared.

“But what’s the problem?” I quavered, trudging behind the others over to a mud-and-wattle shack set up next to the checkpoint station. “How long will we be here?”

“Who knows?” a volunteer named Rich replied. “Long enough to have a Regab.” He entered the shack and we followed like ducks. In the dim room, lit by sunlight filtering through cracks, Rich pointed to a table where our driver was sitting, relaxed in conversation with the guard. Both clutched wine-sized green bottles of beer. Regab.

“There’s malaria, of course,” Rich was telling us after we’d grouped around a back table, armed with our own tepid Regabs. “Then filaria, hepatitis, typhoid….” He ticked off the diseases on his fingers, undistracted by the whispers and giggles of the children who’d returned. Through gaps in the wall, I could see them outside: a half-dozen pairs of eyes watching our every move.

“Don’t forget giardia,” a woman sitting next to me on the bench sang out. “Purple burps and green farts,” she added for explanation.

“These are diseases a person might theoretically get here?” I asked.

“They’re diseases the volunteers have right now,”Rich replied.

“You’re telling me someone’s walking around with malaria?”

“That would be me,” he stated with obvious pride.

I scrutinized him. Tangled blond curls framed his gaunt, stubbled face, but there he sat across from me in a poncho-like shirt with wild swirls of color, swigging his Regab and chuckling as if having malaria were great fun.

“Aren’t you, like, supposed to be delirious and burning with fever?” Carmen asked.

He shrugged. “The fever and chills come and go. I feel like shit at the moment, but hey, might as well drink and have a reason to feel that way.”

I stared at him, uneasy. “I thought taking Aralen kept us from getting malaria.”

“In principle, yes. But it’s chloroquine-based and the mosquitoes are becoming chloroquine-resistant.” He wagged a finger at all the trainees. “You’re not safe from anythinghere.” At his pronouncement, the contents of my stomach—an earlier lunch of mystery meat in fiery sauce over rice—leapt around.

“Oh, don’t go scaring them,” the purple-burps woman told Rich, her pale, sweaty face earnest. “It’s been yearssince a volunteer in Gabon has died, and it’s usually from car accidents anyway. Aside from intestinal parasites and skin fungi, I’ve never gotten sick. If it weren’t for the stares that make you feel like a circus freak, and problem students in the classroom, life here would be a breeze. Well,” she added after a moment’s reflection, “except for those packages from home that keep getting torn into at the post office and arriving to me empty. Oh, and the loneliness, of course. That’s a killer. But hey, there’s Regab.” She raised her bottle and paused to regard it with something akin to reverence.

“Have you talked to Christophe about the post office business?” Rich asked her.

“No. Think I should?”

“Definitely. He might know someone there.”

“This guy, Christophe,” Carmen said. “I heard someone else mention his name. Is he Peace Corps staff?”

“Only as a trainer for you English teachers. But his father’s the Gabonese Minister of Tourism, so he knows a lot of people.”

Regab seemed exotic, heavier and darker than the Coors Light I drank back home, but very drinkable, in the end. It began to soothe my jangled nerves, numb my overstimulated brain. Sitting in a dark shack in the sultry equatorial African interior almost became the grand adventure it was supposed to be. Pinging foreign music blared from a battery-operated cassette player. Two chickens crooned and wove their way around our ankles, pecking at the dirt floor. Inconceivable to think that only five days prior, I’d been in Washington, D.C. with the other twenty-five Peace Corps Gabon trainees, beginning preparation for our two-year assignment.

The delay extended into another twenty-four-ounce beer. Apparently our driver didn’t have all the correct papers qualifying him to drive a group of us in the Peace Corps van. Chuck Martin, Peace Corps Gabon’s country director, also en route to the Lambaréné training, could solve the problem with a signature. When he showed up. I drank more Regab and pressed the bottle to my sweaty face. Carmen fanned herself with her Welcome to Gabon! leaflet. “I need to use a bathroom,” I mumbled to her. “Where do you suppose it is?”

“Got me.” She shrugged and grinned. “I think you need to go ask those friendly guys at the checkpoint next door.”

Instead I asked the bar owner, in careful textbook French, the next time she brought beers to our table. “Là-bas,” she told me, pursing her lips in the direction of the back door. Over there. “Follow the path,” she added in French.

“Want company?” Carmen asked.

“No thanks.” I teetered through the bar and stumbled outside where the brightness momentarily blinded me. The Regab, heat and jet lag had made me queasy and disoriented as well. But I found the path and started down it.

The forest directly behind the checkpoint station appeared scraggly, commonplace. The thin trees and spindly brush were like something I might have found in rural Nebraska. The number of flies, however, was remarkable, as was their tenacity. Waving them away from my ears, nose and mouth, I wandered down the foot-worn path, in search of the latrine. Past the clearing, weedy scrub rose on either side of the path, up to my waist. I began to wonder if my translation for là-basas “over there” was way off. Because I’d gone pretty là-basand I was nowhere. The marching cadence, however, relaxed me. In the past week, through the Peace Corps stateside training and the group’s transatlanticflight to Gabon, I’d rarely been alone. And I craved solitude the way I craved dance.

Dance. My ballet practice.

The thought made me stumble. To deflect my attention from the sadness that billowed up like a storm cloud, I focused on my sister, Alison. Alison and her boyfriend. The rage kicked in, clearing my head, making me feel strong again.

Okay, so maybe the Peace Corps business had been a mistake. At least it had offered me an escape. Nine months ago, back in September, Dad had given me an ultimatum. I’d just commenced my fifth year of undergraduate studies—the cost of changing degree programs twice—performing with a local dance company, enjoying life precisely as it was.

“Time to wrap it up, Fiona,” Dad told me. “Get that psychology degree—”

“—Sociology degree,” I corrected.

“Fine. Get your bachelor’s degree and go find work. A real job, not just dancing.”

Dutifully I dropped by the university placement center the next day, where I scanned the listings of job offers and recruiting interviews tacked up on the bulletin board. My heart sank further with each one I read. Actuary. Oscar Meyer sales rep. Claims adjuster. UPS supervisor. No, no and no. They all seemed to want to crush something unnamed and precious within my soul, that only dance brought me.

ThenI spied a Peace Corps brochure. Teaching English in Africa sounded responsible and yet romantic. To placate Dad and my own anxiety over leaving dance, I started up the application process. The CARE commercials on television, after all, had always touched me, with their drama and beautiful background music. I visualized myself, noble and selfless, helping rid the world of poverty. Africa would be reallife, a true adventure, yet something with soul.

The acceptance letter six months later, after a series of interviews, made me want to run the other way. Somehow my grand idea, viewed up close, had lost all its charm. I told my family about the letter, more for show than because I was going to do it. But while Mom and Dad congratulated me, I saw my two siblings exchange glances.

“You’re still playing with that idea?” Russell, the eldest and the family’s academic super-achiever, asked.

Alison, the family’s beauty queen—literally: she’d been Miss Nebraska four years earlier, in 1984—didn’tspeak at first. Her expression creased in bemusement before she shook her head and began to chuckle. “Oh, Fiona,” was all she said.

I knew what that shake of my older sister’s head meant. I’d seen it constantly through my bumpy, awkward, adolescent and university years. It was the pained look you gave someone who’d just stepped in dog shit. This, on top of the most recent humiliation and grief she’d caused me. I had to get away from her. The Peace Corps was my ticket out.

“Yes, I’m still ‘playing’ with that idea.” I glared at them. “In fact, I’ve decided to accept.”

And so I did it. Except now I was stuck in Africa for two years, thanks to my sister—and, admittedly, my pride. But I was going to stick it out, even if it killed me. Which, evidently, it might.

It dawned on me that I’d walked for a long time without seeing the latrine. “Screw this,” I muttered. Stepping away from the path, I squatted down to pee. Afterward, smoothing my skirt back into place, I turned around and headed back. But the return began to confuse me, after the path forked. I stopped and looked around. Had that grove of banana trees been there before? After another minute of walking, my heart began to pound against my ribs. I retraced my steps back to the fork and went the other way. It was worse—I recognized nothing. Fiveminutes later, I turned around again. This time, I could find no fork at all. Dizzy and nauseous, I began to trot, stumbling on a gnarled vine half-buried beneath the path. I followed the path until I came to a new fork. Or had I taken this fork? The overhead equatorial sun offered no directional clues. It sank in that I was hopelessly lost.

I dropped to my haunches, covering my face with my hands, my breath coming in short, panicked gasps.

Eh… Ntang, wa ka ve?”

 I dropped my hands and looked up. Like a mirage, a tiny, dusty African woman had appeared out of nowhere. She stood in front of me in bare feet, bent from the wicker basket load on her back. A twig poked out of her matted hair. She wore a sheet of fabric, the print faded with age, wrapped around her body like a bath towel. As I stood up, her face broke into a wide grin, revealing gaps from missing teeth. Her milky-brown eyes lit up in pleasure as she reached out with both hands to clasp mine in greeting.

Ntang, wa ka ve?” she repeated, pumping my hand. She smelled smoky.

“Uh … bonjour.I pasted a bright smile on my face.

Ah, madame.She beamed at me. In French, I explained I was lost, and could she help me find the checkpoint station? She bobbed her head and cackled. It dawned on me that she didn’t understand French. I imitated an AK-47 with my arms, putting a fierce look on my face. She nodded and patted me. She began talking, a patter of incomprehensible language in a soothing, hypnotic voice. Her face was serious, eyes riveted to mine as if this would make me understand her language better.

 “I’m sorry,” I interrupted in English, my voice breaking. “I don’t understand a word you’re saying and I’m lost and I’m starting to freak out here. That stupid Regab…”

At this, her eyes lit up. “Regab, oye!”

“Regab, yes? Regab—to buy, to drink!” I mimed gulping down a big bottle, tossing my head back and making glugging actions. “Where—” I placed my hand over my eyes and with sweeping theatrical gestures, pretended to scope out the scenery, “—is Regab? With guns?”

This time she understood my rifle imitation. Taking me by the hand, she led me back the way I’d come. For a few minutes, I heard only the hushed rustle of the grass as we passed. Even the bugs seemed to be holding their breath.

We arrived at the fork. “Regab,” she said, and pointed to the right.

I paused. I’d tried this way already. She sensed my hesitation and made a little “eh” noise and nudged me down the trail. After a few steps, I turned around.

“Please, mama, this isn’t the right…” I started.

No one was in sight. The woman had disappeared into the grasses as silently as she’d come. A chill crept over me, in spite of the sweat pouring down my back. She’d been there and nowshe wasn’t. But I had no time to ponder the woman’s disappearance. Pushing down my panic, I hurried past the trees until I heard the sound of voices and laughter. The trail rounded a bend to revealthe clearing, the two buildings, the Peace Corps van, which, in my absence, had become two, with my fellow traineesand volunteers milling around.

Chuck, the Peace Corps countrydirector, a burly, vibrant man with a buzz-cut, had arrived. “Thereyou are, Fiona,” he said. “We were wondering what happened to you.”

“I don’t know where that latrine was that they were talking about. I went forever and got lost.”

He glanced to his right. My gaze followed his down a better traveled path, at the end of which stood a wooden outhouse.

“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”

As we walked together to where the others were starting to board the vans, I caught sight of the checkpoint guard. “Peace Corpse, oye!” he called out to everyone as they boarded. A broad grin nowcovered his face. He waved his arms, benevolent as a mother seeing her first-grader off to school, the image marred only by the presence of the rifle in one hand.

It was all too weird. I slowed down.

Chuck glanced over at me. “What’s wrong?”

It took me a moment to decipher my uneasy feeling. First, the rabid guard who was nowour buddy. Malaria Rich and his stories. Getting lost. The old woman. My intestines began to grumble, in tandem with my pounding head. I didn’t know what I’d seen out there or how I’d gotten un-lost or what had happened. Gabon was feeling a little like The Twilight Zone.

“It’s just that…things here don’t make sense.”

Chuck’s face widened into a smile.

“Welcome to Africa. You’ll be saying that a lot.”

 

My 200th post, and a giveaway!

Well, there you have it, my 200th post. The irony being, of course, I can’t think of anything profound to say. Guess I used up all my ceremonious profundity for my post earlier this year that celebrated 5 years of blogging. That, and my mind is in fiction-creation mode with — shhh, don’t jinx it — a third Ballet Theatre Chronicles book. No worries, we’ll just cut to the chase, because we all know why you showed up here…

A Giveaway!

To celebrate my 200th post, I am offering one lucky winner a $25.00 (USD) Amazon gift card and a print advance reader copy (US addresses only) of my forthcoming novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, out in stores on October 2nd. If the winner lives outside the US, they will receive an electronic copy (regrettably, postage for outside the U.S. runs a whopping $18.00 for a single print book, so, forget it!). To sweeten the deal for them, I’ll offer the winner electronic copies of all three of my novels. Sound fair?

                  

And for the rest of you — fret not, I will draw two more names as runner-up winners, and you will each receive an Amazon gift card for $5.00 and an electronic advance reader copy of A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. If you’re interested in putting your name in the drawing, you can either reply in “comments” below, or send me an email via my “contact me” tab above. I will print out all names, toss ’em in a big bowl and pluck out the winning names in two week’s time. For anyone who subscribes to notifications during this time, I will put your name in twice.

I’ll contact all winners via email at that time, but I’ll post their names here, too, around July 1st. Feel free to use a nickname or pseudonym, if you’d rather keep your anonymity. Just don’t use an anonymous email address because, well, that’s not going to help me contact you, now, is it?

Here are some stats I created in February for my post, “The Classical Girl turns Five.” I’m too lethargic to revise it now. You don’t mind, do you?

  • 196 posts created and shared (which has now become 200)
  • 207,951 visitors (in the past 3 years because my Google Analytics data only covers that)
  • 552,000 page views (in the past 3 years, because, see above)
  • 819 comments (+ 80 via email)
  • 10 pages (from the original 6)

Wondering what the top 10 blogs have been since 2013? Here you go — click on the title to get to the article.

  1. What do ballet dancers eat? – 80,188 views
  2. 10 odd facts about pointe shoes – 37,500 views
  3. 10 reasons ballet dancers hate Black Swan – 17,500 views
  4. Pianist Yuja Wang’s very short dresses and very big talent – 17,500 views
  5. Ballet Q & A – 11,457 views
  6. Ballet in Paris: I dare you – 9,519 views
  7. Ulyana Lopatkina and her swans – 7424 views
  8. 10 things you didn’t know about tutus – 6937 views
  9. John Cage’s “As Slow As Possible” – 5896 views
  10. Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16” – 5818 view

I served up some great snacks and beverages at my five-year celebration, and the good news is that there were leftovers. Here you go! 

     

Something sweet, perhaps?

           

And now something savory?

           

Above all, I want to offer a heartfelt thanks to all of my readers. In the early, early days, there were few readers and it was a crappy feeling. But with each new post came new traffic, and every 20th post seemed to grow white-hot and bring in hundreds of readers (see above Top 10 list). What a great feeling. Special thanks to the site, The Imaginative Conservative, which has been republishing many of my music essays of late, and we’ve agreed happily that it’s a win-win situation. They get new material, I get new readers, there’s been more dialogue and comments here at The Classical Girl, about art-related things, creative, beautiful things. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s a breath of clean, fresh air for the senses after a day oversaturated with media, conflict, bad news, polarity, and such. I love that the arts can connect us all. And it’s my goal to keep forging on for another 200 posts, to do my little bit to make that happen. I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting.

                                      

The Classical Girl turns five

The Classical Girl, as you longtime readers might know, was a concept I’d created on the eve of 2013. A New Year’s resolution of sorts. My ballet novels were long completed, out being shopped, and I missed researching and living inside the dance world terribly. I knew, as a writer, that it was good to enforce some assignment-like work into my writer’s life. So I dove in, headfirst. I shared more of that story in my two other anniversary posts, The Classical Girl Turns One Year Old and The Classical Girl Turns Three. Thinking of starting a blog of your own?  Wondering how your early visitor numbers compare to someone else’s? You’ll find out there.

As a five-year recap, here are a few stats…

  • 196 posts created and shared
  • 207,951 visitors (in the past 3 years because my Google Analytics data only covers that)
  • 552,000 page views (in the past 3 years, because, see above)
  • 819 comments (+ 80 via email)
  • 10 pages (from the original 6)

New since my last anniversary update

  • A giving program
  • A second novel that was named a Kirkus Indie Books of the Month Selection for January 2017, as well as being on the Top 100 Indie Book of 2017 list, and a third novel forthcoming.
  • Four dance seasons of reviews of ballet performances and dance articles (for a total of six seasons, including 2017-18).

Wondering what the top 10 blogs are? Here you go — click on the title to get to the article.

  1. What do ballet dancers eat? – 80,188 views
  2. 10 odd facts about pointe shoes – 37,500 views
  3. 10 reasons ballet dancers hate Black Swan – 17,500 views
  4. Pianist Yuja Wang’s very short dresses and very big talent – 17,500 views
  5. Ballet Q & A – 11,457 views
  6. Ballet in Paris: I dare you – 9,519 views
  7. Ulyana Lopatkina and her swans – 7424 views
  8. 10 things you didn’t know about tutus – 6937 views
  9. John Cage’s “As Slow As Possible” – 5896 views
  10. Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16” – 5818 view

Enough business talk. I’m celebrating, and you can celebrate with me. From now till midnight on Friday (Saturday, 8am GMT, 3am Eastern, 7pm in Australia) my two ballet novels, OFF BALANCE and OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT, Books 1 and 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, are FREE! Just click on the titles above.

                        

 

How about some bubbly for this five-year celebration of ours?

             

And something decadent but elegant?

           

Something savory? Good idea!

           

If you’re on a diet and can’t enjoy these cyber-goodies, well, how about some food for thought:

                  

And speaking of Africa, I’m putting the finishing touches on my newest novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, forthcoming in October, and can’t wait to share the cover with you. Stay tuned!

Thank you, dear readers, for helping me celebrate five years of The Classical Girl. I literally couldn’t have done it without you!

A Ballet Dancer’s Guide to Africa

 

Back in the 1980’s, I was a ballet dancer who went off to Africa. I could have used a guide. But I was young and didn’t even give the concept — ballet dancer + Africa = not — much thought. For the previous five years, ballet had been my world, even as I concurrently earned my college degree and worked. English teacher in the Peace Corps seemed to be a fun role to audition for. So I tried out, got cast, moved to Central Africa for two years. During which time I came to realize that classical ballet and provincial Africa don’t particularly mix and that I was a fish out of water.

Cut to present day, where I just recently completed my rewrite of “that Africa novel,” now in its third incarnation. If you’re one of my earlier readers, you might remember reading this post, and you’ll know the original 2002 novel was titled Black Ivory Soul. During the past six months as I rewrote, the working title became The Art of Foreign Relations. Last week, however, I pitched titles to a group of writer buddies, and they pointed out potential flaws to my shortlist (favored by me was A Ballet Dancer’s Guide to African Survival, which even I knew was too damned long). The trimmed title that resulted from the group brainstorm is A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, and does just what it’s supposed to do. Because, invariably, my elevator pitch for the project starts off with, “So, it’s about this ballet dancer who runs off to Africa to escape her problems…” No, the novel is not autobiographical. Well. Maybe a teensy bit. 

But I digress. That guide I could have used? While it doesn’t seem to exist, here are a few of my personal impressions. And bear in mind the impressions date back thirty years. Also, I’m not counting South Africa here. It does have its dance companies, choreographers, ballet dancers. I am thinking of Central and West Africa. If you have more recent information to share, or information about other parts of Africa, my readers and I would LOVE it if you added what you know below, in comments.

Tips for the ballet dancer heading to Africa…

  • Reconsider bringing your pointe shoes. They just go mushy fast in the humid, warm climate. Give your poor feet a well-deserved rest.
  • Don’t make any assumptions about the availability of a studio, a class, a space to do ballet.
  • Giving yourself a barre twice weekly in your home IS something you can do. Yes, for two years. Don’t think you have to give up ballet completely just because there might not be a single ballet community outside the capital city. (Or even there.)
  • Expect kids to hear your music and come running, and watch whenever possible. This classical ballet stuff is fascinating for them.
  • Ballet means something different in French-speaking Africa.  The French word for what I call “ballet” is la danse classique. On the other hand, Les Ballets Africains is a dance company based in Conakry, Guinea, one that promotes traditional dance and culture of Africa.
  • Dance is something so innate in the African culture, it’s a difficult concept for Africans to consider, the way Westerners compartmentalize dance, into something a young girl might do once a week, in a studio, paying for lessons, and no more. It baffles them to consider that some people prefer not to dance at all.

In A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, my character, Fiona, muses about dance and its place in Africa. Here’s an excerpt, where she’s talking with Christophe, her Gabonese friend (and so much more, but let’s not get into that angle here). And lest you feel annoyed with Fiona for clinging to her “I only do ballet” attitude toward dance in Africa, know that her metamorphosis from “ballet only” to embracing African dance is part of the story. A big part.

               

                                                                           ***

I waded out into the Atlantic, diving through the breakers. The undertow tugged at me as I sliced through the warm water, stretching my muscles, freeing my body. It felt glorious – the closest thing to dance I’d found in a long time. I swam back and forth for twenty minutes, releasing the surplus dancer energy I’d carried for weeks. Months. Finally I made my way back to shore and the chairs, dripping, chest still heaving.
“That was quite a workout,” Christophe said as I collapsed in the seat next to him.
“I needed it. Bad.”
“Are you dancing these days?”
I shook my head. “Got my ballet shoe stolen, remember?”
“We both know you could have obtained a replacement. In fact, give me the size and maker and I’ll order you a pair. A gift.”
I ignored the offer. “What would be the point, anyway?”
“Because you’re a dancer.”
“Ballet doesn’t work here.”
“Ballet is not the only form of dance.”
“It’s what I excel at. I’m not comfortable doing the other styles.” I watched the ocean thunder onto the beach and whisper its retreat.
“Have you tried?” he asked.
“Of course I have. It would be hard to avoid.”
Dance, I’d come to see, was everywhere here. The Gabonese danced at clubs, bars, parties. They danced in church; they danced in rituals; they danced to honor the arrivals of politicians and luminaries. They danced any time someone put on the right music, which meant, any music with a drum beat. Or any beat. One thing they didn’t dance to was classical music. I hadn’t heard a whisper of anything classical, aside from my cassettes—stolen in theft number six—since my arrival in Africa.
“And how was it?” Christophe prodded.
“I can’t dance African.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Why are you pushing this issue? You’ve seen me dance. I’m classical. I’m Caucasian. I cannot move like an African.”
And I didn’t need Christophe to inform me why, that something in me was too rigid and had to loosen, not just physically but psychologically. I knew this. I’d watch the Gabonese move with a freedom within their bodies that I couldn’t even imagine. Relaxed energy flowed from all parts of their body: the legs, the torso, the arms. Sometimes the movement would be so small, just this gentle, rhythmic shifting from one foot to another. There was an innate flexibility in their hips. When I saw toddlers learning to dance in tandem with learning to walk, I understood the source of the intuitive movement. Even before that, actually. Babies were tucked on their mother’s backs, tied in place with a spare pagne. Every movement the mother made, and she went right along with her business, the child felt. Jiggling, swerving, dancing, striding, straining, from a child’s earliest kinetic memory. I thought of my own Omaha upbringing and my first exposure to dance at age eight, with Miss Claireen’s class. And even then, it had been once a week, only in later years three and four times weekly. Less than six hours a week, through my adolescence. Ballet alone. Which I loved fiercely. No ballet available here? Fine. No dance, I told myself.
Christophe studied my stubborn expression. He shook his head and, to my irritation, began to chuckle.

                                                                       ***

Got questions related to Africa and/or trying to maintain a private dance practice there? Drop me a line! And be on the lookout, in October 2018, for A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. It’s a great yarn, with plenty of humor and heart. And heaps of Africa.

Want to see some great African dance? This is a YouTube of Umoja, a 2011 collaboration that brought together three artist groups in the West African tradition – Voice of Culture, Duniya Drum and Dance, and Oyin Dance. The event was held at Caponi Art Park in Eagan, MN. I love that there’s a Caucasian dancer in the mix. She rocks. It makes me think of my character, Fiona, once she’s evolved.

Nordstrom, Jo Malone & gifting kindness

The funny thing is that by the time I called Nordstrom lost & found, I’d made peace with the fact that someone else had requisitioned my $142.00 purchase of Jo Malone perfume. I’d visualized them spraying it on, sighing in satisfaction at the delicate English Pear and Freesia, or the zesty, invigorating Grapefruit, or the brand-new-to-me Nutmeg and Ginger cologne. When the customer service person in Lost and Found asked me to describe the product I’d lost, four days earlier, I hardly felt like going there anymore.

But let’s back up. Here‘s the story as I relayed it on Facebook the day before my last-ditch-effort phone call.

The stoned sense of exhaustion you feel after the sixth day of a road trip, 900 miles covered, friends, family, and one particularly unwell, beloved sister visited. The pleasure you get at spying a big mall when you have an hour to spare and want to do something special for yourself, because the next day, you have to do that 900 mile drive in reverse. The delight at seeing a Jo Malone counter at Nordstrom, because you’ve adored the sample of grapefruit cologne you just ran out of, and having a favorite cologne handy on a long drive at the end of a tiring trip is just perfect.

Adorably nice clerk named Christina + sampling a few new scents you’d never tried before = two bottles of perfume purchased to the tune of $142, which garnered you a complimentary Jo Malone gift bag (including a trio of three more scents – score!). Happy dance all the way out of the door.

The challenge of too much shopping mall stimulus 30 mn later and the relief of returning to a quiet car. The horror of realizing that the hand clutching the Jo Malone bag is empty. Racking fogged brain produces no clues. Retracing steps for the next 30 minutes to no avail. Bag is gone. Stupid, fogged, tired me, now minus my new treasure.

The child’s tears that arise when I return to the Jo Malone counter empty-handed, and see the puzzled, concerned look on Christina’s smiling face, which turns into pure compassion when I explain in a wobbly voice. I tell her I’m ready to just buy another bottle, to take the edge off a 900 mile fume and self-castigation punishment the next day.

“No, no,” she said. “We don’t want you spending more money today. Let me assemble you something.  That way you’ll have something to hold you over until you get your original bag back.”

“It might not happen,” I sniffed, the tears still, annoyingly, a steady leak. “It probably won’t.”

“There are good people out there,” she said.

“There’s both kinds,” I said, all pessimist and defeat.

Christina gave me a reassuring smile. “I have a good feeling about this,” she said, and set off to do what she could do for me right then.

The deep, deep appreciation for people in the world like her, who manage to find a silver lining for your cloud. She gave me another beribboned Jo Malone bag, with a second complimentary gift (free with a purchase over $130, so she told me “easy to give you another one!”) and two generous, oversized sample bottles of what I’d bought and lost.

In the end, back home, the reverse 900 miles traveled, and more accepting about my loss, calmness, amid a wry understanding that life is like this. Sometimes you lose and it just hurts. A bottle of perfume, a marriage, a house, a car, a life — you go through pain regardless of the loss’s size. When you’re tired and vulnerable, a small loss can feel huge. But, in return, life gifts you with surprises. Maybe the someone who’d found my unattended Jo Malone bag really, really needed it. They picked it up, took it home, and likely stared, agog at this unexpected bounty. Because that’s the flip side. My mistake had gifted someone $142 of lovely perfume, just as Christina, my lovely Nordstrom clerk, had gifted me with something I very much needed at that particular moment.

Kindness. Compassion. Price: immesurable.

And now you know what followed this aha, dear reader, that I myself didn’t while penning the above. That phone call to Nordstrom lost and found, a Hail Mary pass and catch combined.

I had indeed left the bag right there in Nordstrom (when?! where?!) and someone had turned it in. I waited, disbelieving, for the punch line, the “just kidding!” or “whoops, my mistake, wrong item, not yours!” from the customer service person speaking to me. None came. Instead, a cheery request for my mailing address, and would two-day shipping be okay? Free of charge, of course. A Nordstrom policy.

Nordstrom is a unique company, still family-run and owned since John W Nordstrom opened  his first shop, a shoe store, in 1901. This year marks the 20th year in a row Nordstrom has made the Fortune 100 “Best Companies to Work For” list —  just one of 12 firms to do so, and the only one in the fashion apparel segment. I’m not surprised; I’ve always noticed their quality customer service and you can almost feel it in the air, the culture of empowerment that they encourage among their employees. When I spoke with Christina over the phone, the day after my box arrived, sharing the good news, telling her what a difference her actions made that day, she agreed that Nordstrom is a great company. She shared that their new store manager told all the employees that one of his top goals was to keep employee turnover down. Think of it. What an affirming philosophy. What a nurturing work environment. I remember Christina’s comments the day of my loss, her “Oh, we don’t want you buying anything more today. Let me, instead, give you a gift.”

Is that the coolest thing or what?

I told Christina that her kindness to me that day had been one of the most unforgettable gifts I’d received. Even superseding the return of the perfume and gift bag, back to me via mail. Her sympathy and compassion in my time of tearful vulnerability had been everything.

“Oh, you just made my day,” she said, and my own heart swelled, all over again.

What a wonderful gift, kindness. It’s something we can give away free, to boot. It doesn’t require planning or analysis or foresight. It’s just doing the right thing at the right time for the right person.

Thank you, Christina. Thank you, Nordstrom. Thank you, Jo Malone. I’ll remember this gift for some time to come.