Anima is a rising junior studying Human Biology. She volunteered at AGN School this summer.
By the third chime of the bell, I am halfway out the door, still laughing at the hilarious stories my 8th grade English class wrote today. Then a final wave goodbye, and I am flying down the stairs of Appu Arivaalayem Secondary School. It is 12:15 pm on a Thursday, which means it’s time for club activities with the AGN students. This week, I’ve promised the girls I’ll teach them some “baale baale” (their term for bhangra, a Punjabi dance style), so I quicken my steps as I rush to the AGN campus.
I spot the girls under the shade of a tree, frozen in a Bharatanatyam pose, knees bent in a plie, fingers unfurled like a flower. I’m a bit late, so I run over, drop my bag and kick off my shoes. Some of the girls beam at me, while others try to subtly wave without losing their balance. I pick my way over to the back row, carefully stepping around sharp rocks and sunny patches of ground. Once I’m in my spot, I drop into position, and we spend the next half hour stepping, twirling, placing our hands just so. The first attempt at a new move is always careful, a smooth wave of girls slowly flowing to the right—step, step, hop, step—and then to the left. Next, we add graceful arms, fingers arranged in front of our chest, and then extended out to the sun. The next attempt is faster, and the next one faster still. Then the dance teacher calls out, “Fourth speed!” and we all rush to keep up with her tempo, falling over our own feet and collapsing into laughter. The teacher shakes her head at us, hiding a smile as the girls and I keep giggling.
Soon, sweat is dripping onto our eyelashes and the soles of our feet are studded with pebbles, so we take a break. But instead of drinking water, the girls all crowd around me, asking me to teach them how to “baale baale.” I turn the volume on my phone as high as it can go, and “Kala Chasma” bursts out of the speakers. I perform the routine once, and the girls stare open-mouthed. One girl in the back pipes up, “Akka, it’s so fast!” I laugh—she’s not wrong.
I snap my fingers in a slower tempo, breaking each hop and step down into bite-sized movements. I can tell these girls are used to dancing with slow fluidity, to creating beauty through connectivity instead of power through choppy movements. So we create a bhangra style all their own, with soft ebbs and flows instead of sharp kicks and jumps. It’s a bit messy, with arms flying everywhere and feet kicking sand up into the air, but there are wide grins on all of their faces. One girl in the middle of the group ignores my instructions, sticks her fingers up in the air and spins around whispering “baale baale,” giggling to herself.
Teaching these girls my dance and learning theirs is a small window into my whole summer. I have taught these kids as much as I could—about writing, about my Nepali background, about social issues my friends and I face back home—and in exchange, these kids have taught me so much about their culture, their songs, and their uncontainable joy. There are times when we cannot understand each other, like when they claim I am “basically Indian” and I feel erased, or when I am sitting in a car, terrified and struggling to trust that we won’t crash into the oncoming Indian traffic. And those times are difficult and isolating, but then someone reaches out a hand to me, or maybe I reach out to them, and we pull each other out of the darkness. We listen and compromise, we each find ways to let go of our preconceived notions and biases, and we learn to dance together.
In this moment, I look at these girls, some who I’ve gotten to know over these past 7 weeks, and some who I have yet to meet (and limited time left to meet them), and a knot lodges itself into my throat. I’m leaving in a week, but I still have lots of memories I want to make with these students before then. So I turn the music back on and we dance, messy and uncoordinated and so, so happy.