I am in my fourth lesson of Georgian folk dance. That’s post-Soviet Georgia, land of wine, pomegranates and polyphonic music, where men dance on the knuckles of their toes and leap through the air at great heights. I am in Tbilisi continuing a year of research on Georgian dance, and my classmates’ range from age 17 to 19. I am ten years their senior and only last year I was teaching dance to students their age in Athens, OH.
The class is taught in Georgian, a language I don’t speak –consequently, my body language and visual skills have sharpened dramatically. Two boys, looking decidedly older than they are, are sitting in the back of the studio. The teacher scolds them and they fuss back at her; she is tall and pretty with a decidedly cool character, and is probably around my age. Reluctantly the boys make their way to the middle of the studio while girls chatter and laugh, teasing their laziness.
We are dancing the Kartuli, a courtship dance epitomizing much of what is hailed as traditional Georgian dance. The man begins and after circling the floor invites the woman to join him –symbolic of a woman leaving her household to join his. The woman skims the floor on the balls of her feet with gentle arms. Her strength lies in the steadiness of her glide and the smoothness of transitions. If she changes direction, he follows, staying at her side. His arms are at his chest, which is puffed like a peacock showing off for her and his feet move quickly in short, brushing steps. In this particular version, the dancers do not touch with the exception of one moment where their arms meet above their heads as they spin.
I have never danced the Kartuli with a partner before (in fact I still watch the teacher to recall the steps) yet as the teacher mentions my name I realize she has told one of the boys to stand beside me. Within seconds we begin, a flurry of couples trailing across the studio. Occasionally, people talk to each other across the room during the dance, but I am completely clueless as to what is being said. In a moment we are spinning and the teacher brings my forearm to touch my partner’s as we directly face one another.
I don’t know whether to look at my partner or away, and I lack the language skills to ask him. Thankfully my body keeps it together, and my arm matches his for strength as we spin. To public eyes, Georgian culture seems to have little physical interaction between people of the opposite sex, save for a greeting or departing cheek kiss. In this version of Kartuli, a brief moment of isolated physical contact highlights how very dramatic touch may be. The mindful and purposeful touch is inherently simple in its directness, showing a connection between the couple.
How powerful an act of touch can be. Many of us can remember our first middle school dance, often parodied with couples holding each other at arms length, elbows straight and pelvises at a safe distance. Such close contact was so intense for the hormonally charged that students deliberately avoided eye contact with their own dance partner by conversing with the next couple over. I wonder if, as older, seasoned people who possibly hold different ideas of social norms, we forget about the power of touch. A consciously given hug can be extremely satisfying for both giver and receiver, and a mindful shoulder rub can be particularly comforting as the back-body does not receive much attention. Physical contact is a powerful physiological need, encouraging us to hold infants and pat the weathered hands of the elderly.
In the United States, I occasionally practiced contact improvisational dance, a modern dance technique where physical contact between dancers initiates and continues throughout movement exploration (improvisation). This form of dance deliberately uses touch to provoke movement while sustaining connection with one’s dance partner or group. By sharing weight and counterbalancing, dancers lift and turn each other, suspending independent force and allowing their movements to integrate with their partners’. Remaining sensitive to other dancers’ movements while responding to one’s own impulse is crucial in this technique. The solitary dancer is replaced by a choreography alive with the energy and impulse of a bigger entity. Though individually unique, dancers are externally motivated by physical contact. Each and every touch is significant and essential to directing the next movement.
At the end of Georgian dance class, I am briefly embraced and my cheek kissed by a girl who often translates for me. As we say our goodbyes, I witness the students give each other light shoulder hugs and customary cheek kisses. People do not act as solitary creatures, however: girls clasp each others’ waists while walking out of the studio, and guys throw their arms around each others’ shoulders. These conventional forms of touch provide camaraderie and social contact, which is necessary for human growth and, in my opinion, sanity. Isolation can feel all too real when we remain wrapped up in the drama of our mental activity, yet an act of physical affection can help alleviate that. We are not alone –
and these simple, connecting moments can provide us with powerful reminders.
Elizabeth Atwell is a dancer, yogini, artist and Fulbright fellow currently studying folk dance in the Republic of Georgia. You can follow her @yogicdancer and www.yogicdancer.blogspot.com (She wants to point out that her writings reflect only her opinions and have nothing to do with the U.S. State Dept., Fulbright Commission or any other entities in the universe!)