Dancing in Another Language

Posted on 14 November 2008 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Studio at Adama in Mizpe Ramon, Israel

At my first Hebrew lesson last year, I approached my tutor with this request: please teach me the names of body parts.  I realized that this vocabulary was essential if I wanted to conduct physical research in dance classes and workshops.  Yes, teachers were happy to translate their instructions into English for me, but I also wanted to understand their Hebrew instructions and their comments to Israeli students.  Just as the body is central to my research, it was the logical starting place for my study of the Hebrew language.

By the end of the year, I had mastered the names of numerous body parts and of many verbs commonly used in dance classes.  My teachers no longer needed to translate quite as much for me, and I felt I was more fully grasping their instructions by operating in their native tongue.  Now I’m continuing my quest to dance in another language by studying Hebrew in an ulpan, an intensive 5-month long language program.

I wrote the post below for my website on October 19, 2007.  Though I still have a long way to go with my Hebrew skills, it is fun for me to read this and recognize my progress!

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I have often thought of dance as a religious experience. That has been quite true here in the holy land: upon entering the studio, I find myself praying that I’ll be able to follow along despite the language barrier, and I thank God for my previous experience in Bartenieff Fundamentals and in classes taught by Bebe Miller and Michael Estanich, which are the most stylistically similar to what I have experienced in Israeli contemporary dance classes thus far.

Indulge me in the following exercise:

Imagine that you are in a dance class, standing with your legs in parallel. First you are asked to close your eyes (you can at least understand that phrase, since you learned the word for “eyes” as a child and you have seen the word for “closed” on signs in darkened store windows). Now, without any visual cues and barely knowing the words for different parts of the body – let alone any other verbs or qualitative phrases that might be used in a typical dance class – you are given verbal instructions. Mostly likely, you are not actually moving (you cheat and open your eyes periodically to confirm that the teacher’s monologue calls for a mental examination of your internal state rather than a physical exploration of external space). When you recognize the foreign words for “head” and “down,” you assume that you are supposed to roll down your spine – and thankfully, once you have rolled down to the point where you can peek between your legs to the dancers behind you, you find that your best guess was very good indeed.

This should give you a taste of my most recent ventures into Israeli dance studios. I had already mastered the words for right, left, up, down, body, head, legs, and hands prior to my arrival in Israel, but otherwise, I lack the vocabulary used within the context of a contemporary dance class. Because of previous experience, I assume that I should be taking stock of my body and clearing extraneous information from my mind during exercises such as the one described above, but instead I find my mind working overtime to catch any meaning – which means I can’t truly fulfill the intent of the exercise.

Improvisational exercises are the most difficult; I want to find the movement within myself rather than copy it from someone else, but in order to get a sense of the instructions, I usually need to observe the teacher or my fellow classmates. Fully choreographed exercises are easier because there is some mimicry involved, and I treat these as fun challenges. How much information can I absorb visually? What parts of the verbal instructions can I understand, and what new words can I learn because of their repetition and the accompanying visual cue? Can I really see the difference in the two versions that the teacher is demonstrating? What do my instincts tell me? It is a true adventure!

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