Monday, March 28, 2011

Dance dance revolution?

I do not claim to be a connoisseur of folk dances of the world, or even a regular partaker in dance related activities, but even I was unable to fuse an invitation to see a pan-Turkic dance exposition last night at the Lincoln Theater. Türksoy, the International Organization of Turkic Culture*, was hosting a very interesting celebration of Nevruz, a 5,000 year old festival celebrated in Eurasia each year to commemorate the coming of spring "as well as the values love, fraternity, sharing, peace and friendship."** What does dance have to do with public diplomacy and competitive identity? Let us ask our dear friend Mark Twain. In 1862 he said that dancing "has a charming and bewildering effect. You catch glimpses of a confused and whirling multitude of people, and above them a row of distracted fiddlers extending entirely around the room. The waltz and the polka are very exhilarating--to use a mild term--amazingly exhilarating." Virtually every culture on this planet can boast of their charming folk dances, which, when performed, fill one with awe over the talent of the dancers, the intricacy and individuality of the costumes, and the traditional societal roles that they exemplify. A mesmerizing show of the traditional dances of a culture that you have either negative inclinations toward or have simply never heard of take important steps toward reshaping your views toward that country.

Anholt described the six aspects of competitive identity as tourism, brands, culture, investment, policy, and people. While a cultural expo may not relate directly to brands and investment, it does a great job of highlighting the attractive aspects of a culture and people, and paves the way for increased tourism. These effects are especially important for many of the countries that participated in the exposition last night, as many are newly independent, unknown, and have rarely benefitted from positive publicity. As Socrates observed, ‘the way to achieve a better reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear’ and what better way to improve your reputation than to show the world a celebration of the rich, diverse cultures within your region? There were over twenty performances, but the following were some of the most impressive to me:

One dance was a solo performed by a woman in an ethereal white costume that made her look like a swan with two heads. She used an indescribable technique that made it appear as if her arms had hundreds of tiny joints, and wowed the audience with her seemingly effortless wrist-flicking and fluttering.

By far the weirdest number involved five women in long, shiny brocade robes with sleeves twice as long as the arms within them. They swayed about to thunderous techno accompaniment, pointing at all corners of the theater with their ridiculous sleeves and looking smugly at the audience and each other. I did not like these dancers, nor the country from whence they came.***

My favorite performance was a breathtaking instrumental piece. Three young women in strange feathered hats played wooden guitars that combines strumming, plucking, and slapping techniques, and also employed very dramatic hand and arm flourishes, including one point where they all played the instrument of the girl beside them!

Many of the performers came from countries or regions to which I had never given a single thought, and now that the only thing I know of them is that they create complex and beautiful sounds and move their bodies in unbelievable ways, and now I want to visit all of these places and learn about more of their folk festivals and ancient traditions. And, if I ever meet someone from Uzbekistan, I will instantly be able to make a connection with them based on the fancy footwork of her countrypeople. And when I go abroad, I will be sure to dance a rousing waltz or polka.


*The organization was founded in 1992 with the lofty goals of promoting friendship among Turkic speaking nations, developing common culture, and transmitting histories, languages, and cultures to future generations. As Turkey is the host country and Türksoy's official language is Turkish, it seems to be a great tool for reinforcing Turkish influence in the region.

**According to the three Architectural Digest sized informative brochures we were given when we arrived, which offered us technicolor spreads about the performers from Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkey, as well as fantastic sounding places like Bashkortostan, Gaugazia, and Tatarstan.

***For the sake of international friendship and diplomacy, I will not name the country in question here, not only because I cannot remember which it was.

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