Sunday, July 7, 2013

Burmese American Water Festival 2013

I have been working on a semi-secret project since April. Every Sunday night four friends and I would go learn Burmese dance, preparing to perform at this year's Thingyan (Water Festival). I volunteered to dance because I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was right.

Posing with our beloved teacher. He is the best! (Photo credit EK)
It was often discouraging because we were slow to learn and all the little girls who practiced with us were much better than we will ever be. But I looked forward to it every week because the dancing itself was fun and then hanging out with the Burmese community members there was also fun. Our teacher studied traditional dancing in Burma and is enormously personable and funny. The journey there ended up being as enjoyable as the festival itself.

So many things happened that I never expected, bringing surprise and joy every week. I was measured for an outfit by the freezers at Lin Asian Market, and I walked across the roof of an empty storefront building to climb in someone's window and change in their bathroom.One night at practice I found out that when coconuts grow on trees they are smooth, oval, and bright green; never hairy, round, and dark brown (I swear I will never buy a children's book unless it depicts coconuts on trees correctly--what a betrayal!).  People I had never met sometimes stopped me at the bazaar and said, "good dancing!" Little girls taught me the Burmese word for "sister" and showed me their best Gangnam Style.

Picture of the happy crowd during a cloudy spell (photo credit SM)

The day of the festival, we all crowded into Thaw Thaw's Beauty Salon early in the morning for hair and makeup. When the 5 of us emerged and started to enjoy the festival, people stopped us for pictures every step of the way. I was stopped by a nice couple who told me they drove up from Maryland the night before for the Water Festival, and were looking forward to seeing me dance. I heard similar stories of people coming from all across New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Canada. The festival organizers did a great job and I could tell everyone was thrilled with the result.

There was a large stage where the opening ceremony took place, as well as all the dances and music for the day. There was a row of tents where free traditional cuisine was being served, a bounce house for kids, and several vendors in the streets. One of the highlights was the water spraying stations, which included water guns and hoses. Lots of kids and adults played there, and I noticed it was popular with a diverse crowd which included people who just stopped by because they saw a commotion.

Me accepting leis mid-dance from a little girl (photo credit MD)
We went on stage in the late afternoon for our two dances. It was very exciting and nerve-wracking seeing hundreds of people in the audience. I've been on stage many times, and I can't think of a time where the crowd was so visibly excited and happy. They cheered when we started and they lined up to give us leis. Our teacher hadn't told us until the night before the performance that during dances at festivals, audience members will come on stage to drape leis around your neck while you are dancing. He said that sometimes when he dances, the stack of leis gets so high he can't see over them. Being the worst dancers there we didn't deserve as many leis as we got, but there was a lot more happening on that stage than just a dance, and I think that explains everyone's excitement.

Here's a link to a video of our two dances. Be warned, it's about 9 minutes long. In both dances I am the second farthest right as you face the stage. (Video credit DC)

Action shot from second dance (photo credit MD)
Now that it's over I am thrilled that I participated, although for some different reasons than I started with. Since the Burmese community is well-established in Buffalo, I didn't think that our participation would mean as much to them as it would to some other more recent refugee communities. Now I think it still meant a whole lot. My friends have told me that videos of our two dances are circulating like mad among the Burmese diaspora, including some very prominent websites. Our dancing is a very concrete way to show that Americans who may have born citizens are eager to learn about new cultures being brought in, and eager to promote and participate in them. For people whose traditional dancing and culture has been banned for decades and has resulted in them losing loved ones and freedom and health, that means a hell of a lot.

I am very grateful for everyone who helped create this wonderful opportunity. My life is immensely richer because of it, and I would love to participate again in the future. If anyone is in need of an Irish-Burmese dancer or model, I have my dress and know exactly two dances but not very well. ;-)

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