Creative: Strengthen Your Spirit
Waltzing round a dirt floor hut
Dance has been around since the beginning of time. It’s one of those art forms that can restore the human spirit in a matter of minutes. Feeling down? Get up, hum a little tune, close your eyes, let your imagination take you to some faraway paradise, raise your arms, sway like a willow, and smile.
Lately I’ve been indulging in the joy of reading Travelers’ Tales: FOOD (edited by Richard Sterling, published in 1996). I’m almost at the end of the book - 52 stories on breaking bread around the world. One of the contributors, Paula McDonald, shares a story, “Waltz at the End of the Earth”, that will stay with me forever. Here is an excerpt:
There are moments when a sudden, unexpected connection is made somewhere in the world, powerful and undeniable. When the energy is exactly right, it doesn’t seem to matter where you are. Things just happen as they should.
[...] Two of us were on our way to “End of Earth”, the most remote beach on remote Hainan Island, the furthest south in a string of Chinese islands in the South China Sea. A ridiculous place to want to go; there’s nothing there. But the ancient Chinese believed the earth ended at the southern tip of this largest of China’s islands. Thus, to journey to “End of Earth’ was to show great “strength and courage”, qualities of utmost importance to the Chinese. To journey to “End of Earth” was to bring great good fortune to yourself.
[...] In a tiny village, we stopped for lunch at a small roadside house, a hovel actually, one of those one-room shacks that serve as home, restaurant, and mini-zoo, a combination so common in rural China.
[...] Despite the baking heat inside the house, we lingered awhile after lunch and drank more tea just to stay and not seem to rush away. And then, to our amazement, when her granddaughter finally left to take care of other chores, the old woman began to speak in English, obviously a language she had not used for decades. Bit by bit, straining to understand the stumbling words, we learned her story. She had lived in the isolated village for more than thirty years, surviving as best she could by cooking and selling the snakes and rabbits she and her granddaughter were able to trap.
Her story, told with no rancor, captured our hearts, and despite the need to get on, we stayed. The long-forgotten English words seemed to get easier for her as we asked questions about her life and encouraged her to reminisce. She told us of her childhood, of traveling and learning English at embassies as a youngster. Memories of another, so very different life. Yet, for all her losses, she truly seemed to have no bitterness. With one strange exception. When I asked her directly if she had any regrets, she could think of only one: that she had never learned to waltz.
One of her most vivid childhood memories was of being taken as a young girl, to a grand ball in Hong Kong where there were many English guests in attendance. The music was international that night, the first time she had heard anything besides the harsh, sharp cacophony of China’s music, and suddenly the ballroom was filled with swirling skirts and the sweetest sounds she had ever heard. Couples were waltzing, and, to the young Chinese girl, it was the most beautiful sight in the world. Someday she would grow up to become one of those graceful waltzing women.
She grew up. There were no more waltzes. And now there were no more illusions in her life.
In the silence that followed the story, I took her hand across the table. Then I quietly asked if she would still like to learn to waltz. Here. Now.
The slow smile that spread across her face was my answer. We stood and moved together toward our ballroom floor, an open space of five feet of hard-packed dirt between the table and the bed. “Please, God,” I prayed, “let me remember a waltz. Any waltz. And let me remember how to lead.”
We started shakily, me humming Strauss, stepping on her toes. But soon we got smoother, bolder, louder. “The Blue Danube” swelled and filled the room. Her baggy Mao pajama pants became a swirling skirt, she became young and beautiful again, and I became a handsome foreigner, tall, sure, strong... perhaps a prince who carried her away. Away from her destiny at “End of Earth.”
Paula McDonald lives on the beach in Rosarito, Mexico. On the clearest of days, if she squints, she can almost see China’s “End of Earth”. When the waves are quiet, she can certainly hear Strauss.
Here’s a little background on the above painting that I found at MUMA (Musée d’art Moderne André Malraux in Le Havre, France) to illustrate this story. The museum is located off the southern coast of France if you happen to be out traveling and want to see the original:
The Waltz was one of the first Nabi paintings by Swiss artist Félix Vallotton (1865–1925). The Nabi movement, which lasted only a few years (1888–1900), advocated a new spiritual impetus by means of art, combining all forms of artistic expression.
This painting depicts ice-skating couples twirling on the former Palais des glaces rink at the Champs-Élysées roundabout in Paris. True to the principles of the Nabi movement, which aimed to free painting from the bonds of realism and perspective, the work is done with an obvious desire to simplify shapes. Vallotton places emphasis on the image of the couples who bring the dance to life, as opposed to the individual characters, most of whom cannot be identified. The couples intertwined in sinuous ellipses and the multitude of tiny multi-coloured dots in the space around them contribute to the evocation of a night-time fairytale world in the glow of the artificial lights (the fine dust of ice lifted by the skaters and caught by the spotlights).
While the composition has not abandoned all references to perspective, with the red line of the balustrade cutting across the upper right corner, Vallotton introduces highly modern elements of construction. Like Degas, the artist widens the frame of the scene by placing several protagonists outside of the field of view, particularly the young woman in the bottom right of the painting. Wrapped in her partner's embrace, of which only his hand resting on her shoulder can be seen, she gives herself over to the dizzying dance with joy and abandon. In a strong counterpoint to this sprinkling of light and waltz of movement, the figure of the woman skating, etched like a woodcut (which very probably inspired her), gives the scene an image filled with the joy of being alive.
And here is Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace waltzing her heart away. You can dance along in your dreams.