Thursday, October 13, 2005

Dancing in the Streets

I have my fair amount of complaints about Japan, but one thing I really like is how lively the streets are in the evening. After school gets out high school and college age aspiring musicians take to the streets and serenade the walkers by. And un-like the US, people don’t even throw them money. They do it for sheer love of the music (and perhaps a little exhibitionism, but who am I to criticize?)

Also it is not uncommon to see girls outside with their boom boxes dancing on the sidewalks. Because of the cramped living quarters and limited amount of indoor space in Japan, this is the only place they have to practice their dancing. And so traditional Japanese reserve be damned, they have to abandon all shyness if they want to continue practicing.

They often practice in front of buildings with glass windows, so that they can see their reflection and practice their dance moves. There’s a group that practices in front of Gifu station, and I often walk pass them as I’m heading back to my car. I enjoy seeing them dance, but I usually just hurry by them without and try not to disturb their dancing.

As a big tall foreigner in Japan, often I’m as much of a curiosity to them as they are to me, and occasionally I’ll catch them staring at me, at which point I just wave or smile and nod, and that’s about it.

A couple months ago I was walking with my friend Matt, who’s less shy than I am, and wanted to get a picture of the girls dancing in the street before he went home to Canada. I was a bit nervous about the idea of approaching girls we didn’t even know and taking their picture, but, like I said, he is a bit less shy than I am, and the girls actually were delighted with the idea. They posed eagerly for the pictures, and were very keen to talk to us, and even tried to get us to come to their dance class.

And then I saw someone I actually knew in the group. A Japanese friend named Matsunami, who had apparently joined this dance class earlier in the year. He encouraged us to join as well.

The fact that I actually knew someone in these dance classes made me feel a lot more comfortable. And now that my Japanese teacher had gotten sick, and the classes cancelled, I did need something to occupy me during the weekdays. And I was very excited by the idea of getting to know all of these girls a lot better. They were a lot different than most of the Japanese girls in my normal social groups. They were decked out in American urban style hip-hop fashion, had on a lot of make up, and just looked like a lot of fun to be around. They’re the kind of girls I see everywhere in big cities in Japan, but never end up actually talking to.

But this was shortly before summer vacation when this all happened. Matt couldn’t join the class because he was getting ready to head back to Canada, and I didn’t want to join right before I took a 5-week holiday to head down to Kyushu. So I told Matsunami I’d give him a call once I got back from summer break.

Once I got back from summer break though, I more or less forgot about it. I would meet Matsunami in the bar, and he would encourage me to come, but I just kept putting it off. “Next week,” I always told him. “I’m a bit tired this week.”

Finally, Matsunami sent out an open invitation to all the ALTs via e-mail. “You should come this week,” he told me. “There will be lots of other ALTs trying it for the first time.” I decided that if I was ever going to try it, this would be the time to do it. Other people would be trying it for the first time. I wouldn’t embarrass myself too much.

And wouldn’t you know it. I was the only one who showed up.

Matsunami and I waited at the meeting point looking for other people. “This is strange,” Matsunami said. “There were at least two other people who told me they were coming tonight. They told me they really wanted to come.”

I’ll be honest: I was a lot more interested in the girls than I was in the dancing. In fact I really wasn’t that interested in the dancing at all. All of my previous experiences with dancing (being in “West Side Story” in my high school play, Airband at Calvin, and Dream Ball two years ago in Oita) had convinced me that dancing was not my strong suit. Sure I had fun at all these events, but it was in spite of the dancing and not because of it. The fun I had was because of the people around me and the social aspects. As far as the dancing, even the simplest steps I had trouble mastering. After weeks of practice I still was prone to suddenly forget what I was doing. And I was always the slowest one to master any dance step.

So I had mixed feelings going into it. I wanted to meet all the people in the dance class and expand my social circle that way, but I had a pretty good idea I would embarrass myself doing the actual dancing, and that’s never a great way to meet girls.

In the end I decided to go just because I thought it was a good character building exercise to push myself to do something I was uncomfortable about, and because things have been so boring around here lately I figured if nothing else I would have a good story to tell afterwards. But it did turn out to be more or less a disaster; pretty much the way I could have guessed it was going to go.

The very first move we had to do was really simple. Move our head to the music while keeping our bodies still. I couldn’t even to that. As I moved my head forward, my whole upper body followed it. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I saw myself in the mirror. I concentrated really hard on keeping the rest of my body straight, but it was a lot harder than it looked.

Then we moved our heads to the side. Again, my whole body kept wanting to move to the side.

And the class went down hill from there. I had a deja-vu feeling from my childhood of being in one of those gymnastics classes my mom used to sign me up for, in which I just could not do anything right for the life of me. But now I was in this dance class of my own free will, and couldn’t blame it on anyone but myself.

In addition, I began to get increasingly self-conscious about our open location. Anyone walking by the station could see us. And I didn’t exactly blend in to the rest of the dance class. I was a huge foreigner towering over the rest of the class, and always one step off from what everyone else was doing. And it was probably only a matter of time before someone I knew was going to walk by. I tried not to think about it, because the more self-conscious I got the worse my dancing was, but was pretty hard to clear that thought from my mind.

This became even more embarrassing when we got to the pelvic thrusts. I’m not exactly sure what I was doing, but I guess I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t keeping my back straight enough, or not thrusting enough, or something. The instructor came over to work with me, and I wondered what if my arch-nemesis Tom (who I’ve been running into more and more around Gifu city these days) would suddenly walk by the station and see the instructor trying to show me how to do pelvic thrusts. I would never be able to try and stare him down again.

On the plus side, everyone at the class was very friendly, and I left things open ended, saying I would like to come back if I have the time. (I have the time, but you know... got to leave myself a way out as well).

If I do go back, it won’t be because I enjoy the dancing, but simply because it is probably a good character building exercise to humiliate yourself once a week. If you can stand that, then everything else in life is easy.

Speaking of those gymnastics classes I was forced to take as a kid: it’s amazing how sometimes the memories of what you do when you’re little stick with you. I still hate gymnastics because of those classes I took when I was 4 or 5. Even as a youngster I guess coordination and flexibility were not my strong point. It seemed like I was the only one who couldn’t get it right. I could not do anything to make the instructor happy. He began to loose his patience with me more and more as the classes went on.

One day, I think I was about 4 or 5 but I remember this pretty well, I decided that if I couldn’t impress him with gymnastics, I would show him how fast I could run. And besides, running was something I could do. It didn’t require any coordination; it was just strength and will power. You decided you were going to run fast, and then you just went ahead and did it. I’m not sure if I was a fast runner in those days, but like all little kids I at least thought I was a fast runner.

At the end of class we had a time where we all ran across the gym to meet our parents, and I had the idea that as soon as the class was over I was going to sprint as hard as I could. Everyone would be so impressed. The instructor would say, “I thought you had no redeeming qualities what so ever, but man can you ever run fast. You’re all right after all kid.” Or something like that.

Anyway, the class was over, I ran as fast as I could, and got to where my mom and all the other moms were waiting, and waited to be congratulated on my speed. Instead everyone was furious at me. I had no idea why. It turned out that in my eagerness to run across the gym, I had knocked over and then trampled the little girl in front of me. I was so focused on running fast that I hadn’t even realized I had done it.

Anyway, everyone was standing around the girl to make sure she was all right. The instructor was really upset with me, the girl was sobbing. My mom made me apologize to everyone.
I guess looking at it now it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but it’s amazing how those events can seem so out of proportion huge when you’re a little kid. It’s something I always remembered, and often times it seemed like a metaphor for life: “the harder you try, the more you screw up.” I don’t know if anyone else feels this way about life, or if it’s just me.

Link of the Day
I'm a bit late in linking to these, but there's been some good blogging on my friends' pages. Phil uses his blog for good by to spread information on the problem of violence against Women.

Mr. Guam does an excellent job of framing the debate over Bush's threatened Veto of the McCain sponsored bill to end forbid torture by the U.S. military:

Sen. McCain is a highly respected Vietnam War veteran who served almost five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. President Bush is a veteran of the Texas Air National Guard for which he did no fighting whatsoever. The irony of a war hero fighting against the use of torture for information and a president with no war experience fighting for the use of torture as executive privilege becomes fairly evident

1 comment:

SN said...

The thought of you publicly "pelvic thrusting" on a street in Japan makes me want to throw up...from laughter as well as nausea.

I'm glad that your blog has come full circle back to random funny moments while living in Japan. I like your thought about pushing oneself (and sometimes humiliating oneself) makes everything else in life a little easier. when you're living overseas, those opportunities seem to come easier. living here however, seems like you need to make a conscious choice.

well put.