I stood center-stage in a colorful costume and stared out into the crowd eagerly filling the cobblestone square. Beyond, the Sudety mountains stood proudly before a glowing sunset. The music began, accompanied by colorful lights and a fog machine. A smile split my face, and I began to dance. A whirlwind adventure had landed me here, performing at the “Mi?dzynarodowy Festiwal Ta?ca XVI,” an international dance festival in L?dek Zdrój, Poland.
I traveled to Poland with my parents as part of a group of dancers from three Minnesota studios. When we arrived in the small town holding the festival, we were charmed by the Renaissance architecture and the warmth of the people. L?dek has a population of just over 6,000, and has been attracting tourists for centuries. Stepping into the streets was like stepping into the past.
The first evening we were there, my fellow dancers and I attended a bonfire for festival participants. We met some local Polish teenagers. We smiled a lot, and they did too, but the language barrier stood firmly between us. I went to bed that night worried about the coming week, wondering how I would make friends with people from across the world.
By 8:30 the next morning I knew that I had worried for nothing. I was welcomed into my first dance class of the day, Bollywood, by a friendly teacher who spoke both Polish and English with buoyant ease. Bollywood was a dance form unfamiliar to me, and I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces. But as I began to master the upbeat rhythms and complex hand positions, I began to feel at home.
That pleasant feeling of home-ness intensified as the week progressed. I learned who spoke English—no one, in some of my classes. I stood there and laughed to myself as a teacher from Belarus gave directions in Russian, which were then translated…into Polish. I also learned that a common language is not a prerequisite for friendship. Dance is the universal language.
As the end of the week neared, we rehearsed choreography to perform at a show on the final night. We scoured suitcases and second-hand stores for the right color shirt for this dance or that one. In class, we looked at one another with wordless, good-natured exasperation as the instructors ran the dances again and again and again. We shared snacks and smiles in solidarity as we realized that this magical moment in time would soon be over.
Friday night, dusk fell over the town square and the mayor climbed onstage with a microphone. He gave a speech of which I did not understand a word, and the crowd greeted the first performers with enthusiastic applause. I stood offstage wrapped up in breathless joy until it was my turn to dance. Then I took my place among my fellow dancers. And dance we did. This is one of my very best memories.
I am entering adulthood in a world that I worry is governed more by fear than by compassion. Discrimination and even acts of violence occur over cultural differences. As I look anxiously into the future I am reassured, however, by my memory of that night in L?dek. On that stage were dancers who’s native languages are English, Spanish, Polish, Russian. But when the music played, we made a plea for unity and joy in the universal language…dance.
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