Modern Dancers – Rock Stars Overseas. Awesome, but why? America, step it up.

Believe it or not, Parsons Dance and our lovely troupe of performers are a just a wee-notch below Peyton Manning and even C-lister Ginger Spice on the belt of public notoriety.  Shocking, I know.  However, if you take us to Italy or South Korea, our celebrity status gets a lot hotter.  Now why is it modern dance can have more mass popularity overseas while here in America, the average person may not even have a clear depiction of what modern dance encompasses?  What is it about the people and their culture that makes screaming “bis!” (encore in Italian) and jumping to their feet after an already extensive company bow completely normal?  I have some speculations on this reasoning; nothing is supported with scientific proof or even historic research just incase I fool you into thinking my credentials read, “dancer and anthropologist.”  For extensive research purposes (and to bring me back to my college years), I’m choosing Italy and South Korea in comparison against the States because the European and Asian lifestyles are so different from one another, yet when Parsons Dance travels to both, the beautiful response we receive from the people is nothing but warm, enthusiastic, and most significantly, bountiful and a plenty. 




First unproved theory posed by moi:  America, where you can go from rags to riches, is revered as the idolized “other;”  add in you’re from New York, and it brings another level of mystification and admiration.


Simplistic enough, what adds to the appeal of Parsons Dance while traveling overseas is, we are a modern dance company from America.  The curiosity and infatuation with people who are different than ourselves predates history.  Furthermore, the American fantasy of being able to freely cultivate your own success and dream as big as you dare still lives (despite opposing connotations of arrogance and greed, to name just two).  We are from a place resident Italian or Koreans merely visit, see in movies, scope out via the internet, or read in books.  We are the other to them.  As they are for us.  International tours pack a lot more excitement than those to the midwest because of the differences in culture we experience first hand.


Escalating the American bravado, New York City is one of the most influential and acclaimed cities within the States, let alone the world (“mmwhaahaha”).  New York City, for dance, is the mecca in the field and when Parsons Dance travels overseas, people associate our American, New York company as the cream of the crop.  (And we have fingers crossed and toes pointed our A-game hits the mark.)  The United States and New York City allegiance insinuates ambition and drive.  We put our noses to the grindstone and get the work done because of the deep-seeded adage, “If you put in the time, you will reap the rewards of success.”


When I talk to people from other countries and tell them, “I am here from New York,” I see their face light up and their eyes widen as they respond with an enthusiastic “wow”  – welcoming enthusiasm and generally a handful of questions, not necessarily originating from a place of envy, but wonderment at the least.  Going to the corner café for a morning espresso in Italy, the baristi would love to hear details of New York life to get a sense of what it actually was like from the mouth of a native and poke fun at a good old New York accent.  Additionally, in a matter of 10 minutes of shopping in the old village of Seoul, myself and fellow dancer Elena got stopped by two different and unrelated groups of high school students with their iPhones zoomed in on our faces to eagerly record our responses to questions on the Korean life, curious to hear the outsiders’ perspective.  


So bottom-line, when a New York based dance company comes all the way to Italy or Korea we have their attention, and people come out to the theatre with pleasure to see the presumed top notch athleticism and artistry.  




Second fat assumption:  America applauds independence which subtly lessens our connections with others and our value of in-person connections.  Cultures that value in-person connections are more willing to see a performance of live in-person connections, aka dance.


Connections and in-person relationships with one another resonates subconsciously to our value of live art.  Seeing people perform in front of us carries more intimacy and a realness nonexistent through a square screen of an iPad.   A society that places predominance on community and spending quality face-time with one another fosters a people more readily interested in seeing and appreciating live performance.  How we relate to one another is established primarily through our cultural structures of family and the workplace.  


Here in the States we love our independence.  Living on our own and providing for ourselves is a marker of true adulthood.  Think of the unnecessary stigma associated to living with our parents in our young adult life.  I’m reminded of my parents commenting to me after college, “Chrissy, you can always come back home while you get yourself a bit more stable.”  And my thoughts were a screaming, “Heck no!”  I took pride in immediately living away from my family as a young and fully functioning (most of the time…) adult (most of the time…).  The thought of moving back home after college made my skin crawl, and not because my family was complicated or challenging in ways beyond normal (they were, and are, complicated and challenging in too many ways to count for sure, but all in all, more than lovely), but because I was determined to be successful on my own.  


This dire need for proved independence continues to ooze into the U.S. work culture.  It is not a we driven work environment as much as it is an I.  Our stereotypical work environment revolves around declaring solo ideas in cubicles without the help from the multitude of brainpower sitting directly to our right and left.  We get to the workplace before everyone else and leave after everyone else to prove our independent worth and dedication to our company and hopefully reap recognition and monetary perks.  In terms of seeing live performance, this translates into, “What am I going to get from this?” alongside a subtle hesitation to take the extra effort to see others perform.  Workers spent from long work days want to head home and collapse into any activity with pea-sized brain power.  A dance performance is subjective and unpredictable; you may or may not be amazed, and you may or may not like what you see – not exactly a quantifiable sporting event.  However, our altering work culture incorporating group brainstorming and adding creativity to a sterile work environment are aiding in a shift towards the collective and hopefully will alter our view and attendance of the arts. 


In Italy, the importance of family trumps, and this ideal is so prevalent when we think of the country, it is what we envision – generations of one family sitting around a huge bowl of pasta Grandma made, yelling across the table at one another.  Adult children often live with their families until they are married into one of their own, and meals are savored together.  When in Italy, nearly every night we found ourselves dining late, meeting with restaurant owners, and wining with patrons of the company as if we were family.  I almost forgot work existed there in the most beautiful of ways possible.  I couldn’t even get a panini at 2pm if I was hungry because everyone decided to go home to eat, relax, and take a nap.  I’ve never been as hungry in my life as when I was roaming the streets of Tempio Pausania in Sardegna, without a lick of food in my belly left over from the night before, when we landed there in the middle of the afternoon and got lost in the desolate streets for an hour and a half searching light-headily to any food oasis.  I was convinced no one lived in the town and the show was going to have three people in the audience.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Once siesta ended and night time ensued, the streets became alive and the house was full.  They took time to eat together and then enjoyed the social company of each other at night.


Additionally in reflection of Italians’ work demeanor, it might have been easier to count the times when the stage was prepared for us at the appropriate time, and I don’t believe we started a show on time even once.  I’m reminded of Padova, one of my favorite Italian performances, held in an arena known to host music concerts and the like.  The audience was having a grand old time eating, drinking, and socializing before the show.  While we warmed up on stage behind the curtain, they were beautifully boisterous and we probably started at least a half hour late;  I thought this is how going to the theatre should be in the States – an enjoyable unstuffy event.  They were the most incredibly receptive and enthusiastic audience and it brought an energy I’ll always remember.  The relaxed and tight-knitted Italian culture makes for an environment where people place pride on showing up to social events, and enjoying art is an expected way of life rather than something weaseled into a busy schedule.


Similarly but with a completely different vibe, Koreans frown upon living alone and most people live with their families until they are married.  One of our Korean presenters expressed she typically hides the fact she lives alone, away from her family – just a tad different than the American prideful independence we hold so near and dear.  In terms of work, when rehearsing and performing in the theatre, it operated like clockwork;  the stage crew was dutifully efficient, timely, and went above and beyond.  One of the workers for the theatre would meet us in the lobby of our hotel to take us to the theatre a few blocks away even though we all knew where it was located.  Our American reaction was, “What a waste of their time, we’ll just get there on our own in time for call.”  The main difference existent in Korean culture is not so much their willingness to work, but the idea of work as a group activity.  Where as we think of accomplishing tasks solo in the workplace to get the notoriety we deserve, their idea of work revolves around the group as a whole.  One day we were all late to a call time because of a miscalculated trip home from one neighborhood in Seoul to the business district where the LG Center was located.  We notified our stage manager, Becca, as soon as we all realized we were stuck and had no way of being there without the luxury of an additional 20 minutes.  Being late is unacceptable, but this was an innocent mistake, we were all together, and our call time allotted this wiggle room without jeopardizing the show in any way.  We got a supreme scolding, had to mop our own stage before the show, and personally apologize to the crew.  (Wowza!)  They were there on time to let us in and we were disrespectful.  The Korean concept of work revolves around the dependance and productivity of the group.  Presumptuous at it may be, group-think culture condones appreciation for attending group-think activities and watching group-think art.




Final hypothesis you are free to deem unsubstantiated:  Our view of our bodies in America is held more in a place of modesty and taboo.


Here in our Protestant-raised country, unfortunately enough, even speaking of specific body parts, the sight of a woman breast feeding, or an act of changing clothes around others can bring people discomfort (outside our twisted alternative dance universe where we basically greet one another in the morning with naked hugs).   I honestly get a finger shook at me if I decide to change into my pjs in the middle of my living room back at my parents’ house.  More significantly, when a dancer is objectified on stage, it’s their exposed body under complete engrossed focus.  It’s no wonder why dance has the power to unleash uncomfortable giggles from youth and gasps of disbelief from adults.  Cultural norms of how the body is treated, with what respect, and the connotations specific parts of our bodies hold, plays an enormous role on how each culture treats dancing, the art form where the body is the primary vessel of expression.  


Italy.  Ahhhh, the fantastical capital of love and romance.  And yes, how romantic relationships are treated ties directly with how others’ bodies are valued.  I found Italian men particularly romantic and openly passionate;  perhaps to a slight fault considering my woeful experiences.  I’m having a semi-frightening recollection of a young Italian man who I met in Genova and shared a drink or two with over aperitivo.   Each of us comprehended about 5 sentences from one another max.  He then decided on his own accord to drive 2 hours to Cumo, our next city on tour, and show up backstage at our theatre after our tech rehearsal for a rendezvous.  Try getting rid of someone when you don’t speak the language.  It is oddly challenging.  (Picture me locked in my dressing room as he was slowly creeping up the stairs calling my name….not charming!)  Regardless, if I was interested, and didn’t think he was out of his mind, what a beautifully romantic gesture? (eek!)  After chatting further with company Italian, Elena, I learned how Italians comprehend, converse, and embody intimacy and indulging in a partners’ body (yes, I just jumped from romantic gestures to home-base….keeping it HS people).  Sex is not something people toss around casually for fun, or for points amongst friends.  When sex happens between two people, it is a big deal and marks a high level of intimacy.  Even men, don’t voluntarily boast about their sexual conquests; it remains cherished, personal, and told only in complete confidence.  Do I even need to go into how Americans view sex?  Romance is not exactly our country’s middle name.  Point being, Italians have a particular respect for one another and respect for the intimacy of the body.


Now while the mass conception of Korea doesn’t carry the same public comfortability with the body as Italy, my trip to a Korean bathhouse for a much needed spa day was proof enough to me that their culture was a far cry from our American values.  Melissa, Elena, and I placed all our clothes and belongings into a locker – yes all – and walked to a room filled with numerous different tubs of varying degrees, showers, saunas and steam rooms.  Friends, sisters, mothers, and daughters sat on stools scrubbing one another down with bath mitts, loofas and their own soaps with the casual heir of, “This is what I do all the time.”  They only peeked up for a moment to notice our unique American frames.  Gratefully we met this lovely Korean woman, who was a lawyer from New York (go figure!), who helped us communicate with some women who did full body scrubs.  If we were all the way in Korea, in an authentic bathhouse, we were determined to get the full experience.  Next thing I knew, I was getting a full aggressive scrub down by a Korean woman wearing just panties, on a table in my birthday suit, laying next to my girlfriends experiencing the same.  My arms and legs were tossed around and maneuvered like a rag doll as she scrubbed me in places I’ve never scrubbed myself.  After the ruff and tough exfoliation session, she proceeded to suds me up with a bar of soap, give me a little massage on my scalp and back, lotion my face, and just when I was so relaxed (and obviously clean) that my mind surrendered into complete nothingness, she took a bucket of water and dumped it on me as if it were gatorade and I was the coach of the winning Super Bowl team.  The whole experience was nothing short of amazing and Melissa, Elena, and I claimed to need a full scrub down at least once a week.  Never in my life has my skin been so smooth.  The reality – I bought a new loofa when I got home and still attempt to scrub the crap out of myself and quite frankly, often get too exhausted to do it with the vigor of a Korean woman.  (That is no easy work!)  Unfortunately, when I think of bathhouses here in New York, a slightly skeezed-out-ick feeling shivers through me.  Here they are perceived as slightly dicy and slimy while there it was beautifully open, comfortable, and perfectly routine.  


Bottom-line, I couldn’t fathom going to a bathhouse with my mother and as much as I would love for sexual relationships to be divinely coveted, there is an causal openness that exists shamelessly in America.  These possibly pitiful examples serve as legitimate proof of the cultural differences in the perception of the body.  These perspectives have no choice but to drastically influence how dance is viewed and how willingly someone from the mass public is to purchase a ticket to see an evening of the moving body.  




Now as much as I want to leave you with the lovely image of hot, secretive Italian romances and Korean women rubbing one another down in the nude, I have some culminating thoughts.  My apologies… 


It’s all well and good to take account of cultural differences, but moreover, travel opens our eyes to a new normal and is an opportunity to make choices about what we choose to value.  I am a product of New York and American sensibilities, but this is merely one way to live and sense the world.  When we travel and expose ourselves to other ways of operating in our lives, they can become a piece of us that we wear no matter where we lay our home.  So if we take some value in these European and Asian ways, individually we can uphold a glimmer of their ways in ourselves.  We can take interest in people from other places and learn that maybe their way of doing something is worth listening to and adopting.  We can put our selfish infatuation with who’s potentially calling us on our iPhones aside, and put the phone away to eat dinner with our family and co-workers with true eye contact held and a compassionate for those at the table.  We can fight for dance education so our children have a different view of the body.  Dare to influence those around us and shift one life at a time with the multitude of ways we can connect with others.  Perhaps before we know it, modern dance could take on the NFL and put the Spice Girls in their place.  

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