I dance, therefore I am…

How folklore shaped who I am today – what made me human…

Listen, don’t judge, open your heart, feel the person next to you…embrace humanity in its entirety!

This is what folklore taught me, but precisely, these are the seeds that John Kuo planted through his teachings and I have finally harvested the fruits… it is only great teachers that create an unforgettable learning experience that rewards your entire life, but it is only when you step back and reflect that you assimilate their immense impact on your humanity!

About six years ago I made my first steps through the door of Balkanske Igre. Before me… a Chinese guy in a chaotic array of old folklore cassettes. I recall that sometime between his introduction to me and the beginning of a lengthy rehearsal speech, he played “Kamunite Padat” as if mockingly yet curious choice… followed by a self-recorded piece from Serbian village in the 70s… and so the music sporadically changed while his feet never repeated a single step. His feet must’ve raced through all of the Balkans, uniting them through rhythm and spirit… however small, unappreciative and divided they are…

5523483412_5a614a9d63_b… I finally came to my senses and then realised that THIS John Kuo is our ensemble director. Yes, I tell you, him, John – a Chinese American… (this has made many Bulgarians pop their eyes at me in an utter fascination as if only Bulgarians have the ‘divine skill’ to make out the complexity of the dance steps…)

So, John (whose biography I will later attempt to share) – a Chinese American, a senior employee at IBM, a graduate from University of Chicago, an honorary musicologist, historian, humanist, musician … and most of all a folklorist and a dance pedagogue! Speaking to John is like Googling information but put in multimedia chronological context. A typical conversation with John can morph from ‘five-paragraph historical’ emails sent at 3am, to regular chit-chat aiming at the mathematical explanation behind ‘shopska ruchenica’ (fast dance from Shop region), or an attempt at applied physics to assimilate how weight shifts between legs during ‘natrisane’ (specific vibration sequence in dance).

Learning dance through John adopted a meaning beyond the literal. It translated into meditation, a way of self-reflection…a way of seeing and being that has transformed me and many others who have opened their senses to the existential values of folklore.This I can say now, but, it wasn’t so easy, no, not at all… a couple years ago… a year ago, I wasn’t sure what John meant when he told me: “It takes a couple of years to absorb this… you’ll see”…There were moments of anger, annoyance, disobedience and even frustrated tears… it wasn’t easy, and John wasn’t either. I entered dancing as a hot-tempered college student with determined view and prejudices. John carelessly uprooted these barriers by incessantly challenging our biases, pouring nonabsorbable knowledge, questioning our values… and all through the grace of dance!
So many identities, such different politics and egos bigger than the room… though the one thing that united us was folklore! Balkanske Igre is an ensemble based on the love of music, not politics or history… it is not a place where borders divide us, but space where humanity unites us! After jumping through my own prejudices and mocking my own failures, I want to think that I have become the bigger person. I pity those whose biases remain bigger than themselves, and who see folklore dancing as a primitive village characteristic. I want to think that folklore dance is not just a set of complex sequences that could be explained mathematically, or that they are performed for the sake of performing… I see dance as a method of learning, a way of seeing and a feeling that connects us to ourselves and the world. I don’t see the art of dance as a tool or product… but dance as a way toward and at the core of humanity. And now that I have reached the confident moment of self-reflection, and folklore dance has become a way of being and seeing… I turn back to you John, and I thank you for making me a better person and dancer!


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