Monthly Archives: February 2016

13 -We Came to Dance

I’m going to try to explain (or at least describe) this contact thing as I first experienced it.  As a total novice I don’t have much of a vocabulary to do so and I’m not sure how this will pan out, but bear with me…

Every night of the festival there was a contact ‘jam’.  It seemed a slightly strange phrase to use for a dance until I realised what it actually meant: a group of individuals coming together to play and to improvise and explore – not all that different really from what happens when a bunch of people sit down to play some tunes with guitars and drums and vocals (which was good since I happen to really love doing that).

I didn’t know how this would play out in a dance setting, but I wasn’t entirely in the dark.  I spent a fair amount of time aged nineteen to thirty devising theatre; a process involving a lot of improvisation and fumbling around in the dark attempting to create performance material from obscure (or at least non-textual) sources – abstract physical movement, sound, emotion, tone, texture, etc.  Put simply, I have a higher than average tolerance for crazy.  Anyway, I recognised the space I was walking into.  People were dotted around stretching and doing yoga poses and centring themselves.  You take whatever time and approaches you need to bring yourself into the present time and space and to shrug off the world outside.  It had been a while, but it felt familiar enough for me to find myself a place on the floor and go through this process without discomfort.

The space was gently lit by paper lanterns hanging form the ceiling and a pair of musicians were set up on a raised area along one wall.  A guitarist and a girl with a microphone and a sampler who created an ambient soundtrack of startling range and tonal depth.  After a while one of the teachers began speaking to the assembled dancers, bringing us from our solitary preparations into an awareness of the space and each other and getting us slowly up to our feet and moving around, while the music started to build a little and little moments of silent interaction between dancers started to happen.


In the jam there is a lot of soloing.  You start alone, and you dance and move as you feel until at some point you find yourself dancing with someone.  There are no set moves.  Some kind of physical contact is usually maintained between partners, using hands, arms, heads, torso, hips, legs and feet, and when touch is lost, partners will find a way to gravitate back towards each other.  From an outside point of view this dance can resemble water being poured back and forth between two vessels as the partners move and spiral together, taking each other’s weight, lifting and releasing.  Alternatively (and probably where I am involved) it is a clumsy bouncing off of each other and a battle to not fall to the heap in a graceless heap (though actually there is a place for such fumbling; it’s not always about looking pretty). This interaction may last thirty seconds or it may last thirty minutes, but eventually it will come to an end and then you’re back on your Jack Jones.


My first dance was with Manju; an Indian lady with a unique style and a frenetic, birdlike energy.  We caught each other’s eye and found ourselves circling around the palm tree that grew up through the centre of the dancefloor.  This interaction was a kind of delicate negotiation – a moment like getting a stranger cat to come and play.  The slightest false move at the moment will break, it seems at first.  The movement is tentative because you are mirroring, repeating, making small improvisations on each other’s gestural and energetic patterns, with focus shifting from eyes to hands to feet, all points making observations.  Also you are trying to keep focused on maintaining your balance, on the music, on your breath, on this being a dance…but in this moment actually, it all just happened on a little wave of intuition.  We gathered pace from our slow start and capered round the floor like children playing tag until we found ourselves at a still point, grinning at each other with our foreheads touching.  It was a natural ending and so we parted.  I danced with a few more partners that night, but it was never so fluid or easy or natural.  Beginner’s luck, I suppose.  Beginner’s mind, anyway.


By the end of the night I was drenched with sweat and I was tired to the bone.  It was still only my first day in Arambol, and this festival would be going on for the next seven days.  I found my way back to my hut in the dark and fell asleep to the sound of the sea.

12- Temple of Love (Eat My Goa)

(Excuse me if I lose the plot with these titles – I’ll be rinsing the song-title thing for as long as I find it amusing)

My plane was late.  An hour, then two, then three.  Before I even went to the gate to board I knew my connection to Goa would be long gone by the time I got to Delhi.  There wasn’t much point getting annoyed or stressed about this however and I didn’t – actually I was a little surprised by how un-phased I was by the delay.  Jenny had said that one of the main lessons India had given her was about letting go of control.  Maybe I was learning that too.  Still, I had my heart set on something more laid back than another foray into the chaos of the capital, so I decided to forget about my budget for a night and go instead to a faceless modern hotel in Aerocity a few kilometres from the airport.  I bought a ticket on a flight leaving at 11 the next morning and then checked into the Ibis and took the first of several long hot showers.  I washed some clothes in the sink, I ate a huge buffet dinner and I wrote in my journal, then in the morning I ate a huge buffet breakfast and set off to complete my journey south.

Arriving in Goa airport the first thing I noticed that all of my clothes were entirely unsuited to this new climate.  The blanket from which I had become inseparable, and the woolly hat and bed socks in particular were now completely redundant.  A small price to pay though, for this glorious warmth.

I had planned a night or two in Panjim, but on the spur of a moment I decided to head north to Arambol instead.  Ulli had told me about this Contact Festival he was teaching at, which was starting that day.  I had some notion of what it would be, as I had come across it a little in theatre days at university and in London in my twenties, but not a lot really.  I had been to-ing and fro-ing about the idea of it since Ulli suggested I might think about enrolling, but at some point late the previous night I had decided I might as well give it a try.  It’s not like I had any other plans or places to be.  Anyway I had sent an email to one of the organisers asking if I could join late.  I was still awaiting a reply when I got to the airport.  There was a huge queue at the taxi office but I got chatting to a couple of Geordie lads who were going to Vagator with two Indian girls from Mizoram in the far north-east and they said I could catch a ride as far as they were going.  They dropped me by the roadside somewhere (no idea where) an hour up the coast, and I found a bus stop and caught a very crowded local bus another 90 minutes up the coast to Arambol.

The sun had set by the time I arrived and I had no plan.  The guidebook had said there were a lot of huts and rooms on the beach half a mile from the town so I set off walking.  I hadn’t gone more than 20 metres when a hippy-looking Italian pulled up on his scooter and asked if I needed a ride to the beach.  I thought for a moment he had some kind of ulterior motive, but not to look a gift-horse in the mouth, I hopped on the back and a couple of minutes later he dropped me at the beach entrance and shook my hand before driving off again.  I found an overpriced room above a bar on the beach a hundred yards north of the beach entrance, dropped my stuff and set off to explore a little.  I didn’t find much really, and something I had eaten somewhere wasn’t sitting well and I had a sore stomach.  I turned in early and tried to sleep but my bed was about 20 metres from a hefty sound system cranking out Dub until the wee small hours.  At some point I saw I had an email from the festival saying it was fine and to come along at lunchtime, and a text from Ulli saying come along for breakfast at 9.30.  Either way I had some kind of plan.

I woke early and checked out, and walked south along the beach in search of Love Temple (the venue for the festival).  It was a glorious calm morning and the beach was dotted with joggers, walkers, fishermen, little clusters of people doing yoga and burly Russian mafia-looking types with tattoos and gold jewelry doing chest-expander exercises.  Everyone had the bronzed look of someone who had been here for some time.  I found the place and wandered up to take a look.  A bunch of young (20s and 30s) Europeans and Indians were taking breakfast – plates piled high with fresh fruit and muesli with curd.  Everyone looked very relaxed and were lounging around draped over each other like personal space had never been invented.  It all looked very friendly and nice, but also a bit like some kind of weird hippy cult.  I couldn’t see Ulli anywhere, and after standing around awkwardly for a few minutes and feeling entirely out of place, I skulked off to find breakfast some place else.  Sitting to eat at Samantha’s a few doors down, I asked Jimmy the manager about somewhere to stay and ten minutes later I was the proud occupier of a hut about 150 metres back from the sea.  Cobbled together from plywood and loose roof tiles, it had power and a toilet and a cold shower, and suited me pretty well.  I sat through most of the morning at Samantha’s and considered my lot.  I had come up here on a hunch and I didn’t think it was going to pay off.  This Contact thing was going to be a bit weird and probably not such a good idea after all.  The sky was clear and the sea was blue and the sand was warm between my toes, but I had no idea what I was doing here and I felt properly miserable – a fact made even worse by the feeling that if I could be so miserable here in this laid back tropical paradise, then there must be something seriously wrong with me.  A lot of this was lack of sleep, stomach upset and general disorientation talking, and I found my spirits rallied after a nap.  I still wasn’t sure about the festival, but I figured I should at least go along at lunch time and see if I could find Ulli, since I had made it this far.

An hour later I had enrolled for the festival and was about to take my first class.  My stomach couldn’t really handle lunch, but I had caught up with Ulli and he had introduced me around to a few people and everyone seemed very friendly and I thought I may as well just go with it.


It is worth explaining at this point that Contact is an improvisational dance form based around physical contact and collision between participants.  That’s not a useful definition, but it’s about as good as I could manage at this point.  I didn’t really know how it worked or what it looked like.  I walked barefoot into the workshop space (a wooden floored construction of palm branches about 20 metres across) and looked around.  A lot of people stretching and doing yoga poses – all pretty standard theatre workshop fare – this I could deal with at least.  Ulli was teaching the class.  He was clearly in his element here, relaxed and full of confidence.  It was nice to see.  The lesson was focused on approaches to giving and receiving weight and performing basic lifts.  We paired up for the first exercise and I found myself in danger of squashing an Indian girl of diminutive stature named Priyanka.  She assured me she would tell me if I was too heavy, and I gradually got there, starting to figure out that there are ways of putting all of your weight on someone without squashing them, but it is as much about how you carry yourself as how they carry you.  By the end of the class I was doing slightly more advanced lifts with another Indian, Akriti, and we were moving around with it and making transitions which felt very much like dancing, and whilst I wasn’t confident, I was at least having fun.

Most of the Indian students were here on a Dance Exchange scholarship programme and had already been working hard for several days (in Arambol that is; most of them were professional dancers in Mumbai or Delhi).  Akriti was struggling with shoulder and lower back pain so after the workshop I gave her a massage.  I may not be a dancer, but I know my way around a knotted muscle, and shortly I was inundated with massage requests – it’s a nice way to make friends, and I was happy to make myself useful.  The sun set in spectacular style and I sat and chatted to people and ate a chocolate and coconut ball which Akriti bought me as a thankyou.  My first experience of a contact ‘jam’, which was due to start in an hour or two, and I was feeling pretty good.  It was looking like my Arambol hunch might just be paying off.


11 – Amritsar

Eight of us caught the bus to Pathankot, three hours away on the Pubjabi side of the state line.  Besides myself there was Jeremy, Pascal, Ingrid, Mala (a jovial lady from Myanmar who is about to start a PhD on the position of women in Buddhism), Fabien, and then Patricia (another Lha volunteer from east Lancashire) and her Tibetan boyfriend with whom I never spoke and whose name escapes me.  We said goodbye to Courtney, Konrad, Artur and Azul, who came to see us of, and we rattled away on the state bus (which cost about 180 rupees).  My ipod ran out of batteries after one song but the view was enough as we wound our way from the Himalayas towards the flat plains of Punjab to the west.  Pathankot was a frontier town that reminded me of other such places I have passed through, like Corumba in Brazil or Uyuni in Bolivia.  There is a sense of there being no there there, but I always seem to like these places for the short time I visit them.  It was unglamorous and dusty and grey, but seemed pretty friendly from the moment we disembarked and found a single autorikshaw to take all of us with our baggage across town to the bus station.  I found myself sitting in the driver’s seat, while he leant across me to drive (this being possible since autorikshaws are controlled like motorbikes).  We were a little early for the bus so we stopped in for a quick thali and Jeremy and I admired a fleet of ancient-looking estate-class rikshaws, which looked like they were straight off the set of a Mad Max film, then it was back onto a bus for the 4 hour stint to Amritsar.

We arrived  in the old town after dark, and my first impression was of a place a lot like Delhi in appearance, but with much less hassle.  This impression didn’t last long.  Amritsar is the spiritual centre of the Sikh religion and the city centre had a distinct air of reverence about it, even away from the holy sites.  The closest thing I can come up with as a comparison is the Easter Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday).  When I was young this was always right in the middle of the holidays.  We would go to mass and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Thursday evening, then mass again on Friday at 3pm, then the vigil at 8pm on Saturday.  In between times I was on holiday and free to do as I pleased, but the whole period was permeated with an atmosphere of religiosity; like the volume dial on everyday life had been turned down just a little.  That is definitely how Amritsar felt to me.

We stayed in the international section of the pilgrim’s accommodation across the road from the Golden Temple; a series of high ceilinged rooms with beds pushed together and lockers and blankets, and in keeping with the Sikh emphasis on charity and service the hostel was free (donations of course being welcome).

The Golden Temple is open 24 hours a day.  A beautiful edifice of gold and marble inlaid with precious stones depicting plants and flowers and animal life, the temple is surrounded by the Pool of Nectar – a huge moat considered to have healing properties.  At 5.40am the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikhs’ holy book and living guru) is brought from its resting place in another building whose name I can’t remember across the causeway to the Temple on a golden palanquin.  Then at 9.40pm it is taken back the same way, then the temple is cleaned and polished by an army of devoted pilgrims and lay-people.  A couple of nimble young men tie ropes around their waist and climb onto the golden rooftop and the parapets to bring them to a gleaming shine.  Throughout the day an night the three rooms in the temple each have a priest (if that’s the word) reading from the enormous tomes of scripture in a musical drone, while the devout sit on carpets or the marble floor and pray.

I went twice to the temple in the evening.  You leave your shoes and socks at the compound entrance and cover your head.    The air was cold and the marble floor underfoot bitterly so.  Still, stepping through the gate and seeing the temple for the first time in its otherworldly splendour it was easy to forget the cold for a moment.  The second night I must have sat in the temple for well over an hour.  The floor inside had collected the heat of thousands of pilgrim feet through the day and was slightly warm to the touch, and it was easy to drift away in that atmosphere of holiness.  Sacred places of all religions seem to me to share a similar energy or atmosphere.  Perhaps it is something to do with the intentions of those to whom a place is sacred; that all of that focus and energy creates some kind of imprint that is tangible in the air.  Or so it feels to me.  On the Camino de Santiago there is a place in the mountains west of Leon called the Cruce de Ferro; a small iron cross mounted atop a high wooden post.  I don’t know its origins, but there is a tradition that peregrinos on the Way will carry with them a small stone to symbolise their burdens and intentions, and that they lay this down at this place.  A couple of days before reaching it, I met an Englishman who waxed lyrical about the holiness of this particular spot and how special it was to reach it.  I had my own stone, but I was sceptical and resistant to the idea (partly because I don’t like to be told what to do or how to feel) and I didn’t give it much thought until I reached the spot.  Walking up the mound to the foot of the cross, I had a sudden and profound moment of recognition that the hundreds of thousands of stones on which I was standing were the physical manifestations of the dreams, desires, fears and sorrows of all those pilgrims before me.  I sat down and I bawled my eyes out.  Anyway, there were no tears now, but the Golden Temple had a similarly strong ‘vibe’.


Afterwards we went through to a large refectory where a host of volunteers chop, cook, clean and serve food to up to 60,000 pilgrims every day, free of charge.  You take a metal thali tray as you enter, and sit on the floor in rows, then people come by with rice, chapatis, daal, vegetables, pickles and a sweet rice and almond pudding.  I enjoyed this proximity of spirituality and food, since few things work up an appetite so much as contemplation of the higher states of existence.

I explored a little of Amritsar, but most of my time was spent in the precincts of the Temple.  The notable exception was a foray to the Pakistani border to se the daily closing of the border ceremony.  There were seven of us, so we hired a taxi to drive us out there; or rather a beat-up old minivan. It started off okay, but after about 15 minutes we noticed that we were being overtaken by pretty much everything on the road.  By the time a horse-drawn cart edged by we knew that the game was up.  The van limped to a halt on the side of the road and the driver got out and started to stroke the fuel tank in an attempt to either warm it or give it comfort, I’m not quite sure.  After a minute he gave us some reassuring nods and we decided to pile back in and give it another try.  We were on the road for about two more minutes before the van finally gave up the ghost, and we got out an hailed an autorikshaw to take us the rest of the way, with Jeremy and I hunkered down in the tiny luggage section at the back, to the amusement of many passersby.

The final kilometre to the border had to be done on foot, passing through four separate checkpoints where my passport was checked and re-checked and I was frisked pretty thoroughly each time.  Eventually we were directed to seats in the foreign section of a stand of seats where there were already several thousand Indians being led in cheering by a moustachioed man in a white tracksuit (who looked like a highschool P.E. teacher) and a team of dancing girls.  There was a speaker system set out, which blared out a medley of nationalistic pop songs and everyone looked to be having a good time.  Over on the other side of the border I could make out a stand of women in saris and children watching the Pakistani version of this pageant.  I couldn’t make out the men’s section but I could hear their cheering roar every now and then through the gaps in the Indian wall of sound.  The ceremony centred on the marching and posturing of the border guards, who with high-kicks, head shaking and jabbing thumbs performed a dance of ritualised belligerence.  There was also a shouting contest, where the gym-teacher held a microphone to the mouth of a big-voiced soldier while he roared as long and loud as his lungs would allow, to the adulation of the crowd, before an answering call drifted over from Pakistan.  I am generally uncomfortable with displays of nationalist fervour, but the whole thing was clearly run as a joint collaboration between the two border forces, and a good time seemed to be had by all.

After visiting the temple that night I said goodbye to Jeremy and to Ingrid, who were both staying in a nearby guesthouse, and to Mala, since I would be rising early to catch a ride to the airport for my flight to Delhi and then to Goa.  In the morning I rose to find that Fabien had gone out to buy bread and cake and tea for a farewell breakfast, which we ate with Pascal, who also got up early to see me off.  It was sad to say goodbye to all these lovely folk with whom I had become friends over the last couple of weeks, but I was looking forward to the heat of the tropics and a new leg of my little adventure.


10 – Good Vibrations

The question of when to leave Dharamsala was waxing and waning in my mind.  I was in no hurry.  After my first days of periodic freakouts I was finding a nice equilibrium here in the mountains, with a degree of purpose, and good friends to hang out with.  Still, the issue was always there in the background.  Ulli was flying to Goa and Jenny to Pune.  Konrad was talking about heading up to Manali to do some snowboarding, Artur was heading south, Courtney was flying back to Seattle in a few days and in early February Jeremy was going to meet his brother in the northeast before going to Nepal.  It might not be overnight, but as is always the case with these travelling groups, the end was in sight.  When people started talking about a weekend trip to Amritsar, I figured this would be as good a time as any to take my leave.  Ulli had told me about a Contact Improvisation festival in Arambol, Goa, of which he was one of the organisers, and that sounded like a vague possibility.  Certainly after two weeks of walking round with a blanket wrapped round my shoulders, the prospect of a sunny beach in 30 degrees of heat seemed appealing.

In the meantime Dharamsala still had plenty of life in it.  Ingrid and Fabien were doing a week-long massage course and had planned a practice session at Konrad’s place using Konrad and Jeremy as bodies.  Since we’re both massage therapists they also invited me and Azul; an Argentine girl living in Barcelona whom Fabien had met earlier in the week.

Konrad was staying in the same guesthouse I had stayed at on my first night, but he had a kitchen and had managed to negotiate with the landlord for a stove, a couple of pans and some utensils.  It was a pretty homely set up if you discount the cold (he hadn’t managed to swing a heater), and a homemade brew of ginger, lemon and honey in little metal cups helped.  I did regret leaving my woolly socks at home, but at least the massage recipients had blankets to keep them warm.

It was interesting to see Ingrid and Fabien work, and it gave me some things to think about in terms of finding ways of keeping mobility and flow while working on the floor (as opposed to a table). I had a quick go, showing Fabien a couple of techniques that could be introduced, but mostly I was just happy to sip my tea and watch, and try not to give in to giggles when Azul kept making incidental clanging noises with Konrad’s singing-bowl (she had to remove herself to the kitchen until her own laughter subsided).  I’ve not been doing much massage over the last few months and it was a nice reminder of how much I like it.

The days passed and before I knew it, it was my last full day in McLeod Ganj.  Since most people had classes, Konrad had suggested the two of us either go for a hike or maybe hire a couple of motorbikes and go exploring.  This second option sounded badass, but I have never ridden so much as a scooter, and I figured that switchback mountain roads with treacherous cliffs were not the best place to learn…so a hike it was!

We were quite late setting off.  I had a long and fruitless foray to the post office to try and send some parcels, then we stopped off to eat a paratha at a little place by the square and buy water and Snickers bars.  Walking up the road to Dharamkot we were accompanied by a friendly local dog, but after giving Konrad some unwarranted attention when he left the road to relieve himself, we reached the edge of his territory and he trotted away back down the hill.

It was a beautiful day and we made good progress.  We had decided to hike to Triund again, since we both knew the way.  I was surprised how much easier I found the hike this time; maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t just done the overnighter from Delhi, or else all the walking of the last two weeks had given me a new level of fitness, but we made it to the top in three hours.  It was quiet up there.  Just one Brazilian of German descent and the guys who run the little guesthouse at the top.  The mountains were clear and utterly serene.  Konrad had had a didgeridoo made by a man in Bhagsu and had brought it with him, so when we were at the top he spent a little while playing it.  It was an oddly fitting sound, echoing out across the landscape.  We sat up there for half an hour, and I had a go on the didge – not too shabby though the circular breathing thing is entirely beyond me.  Then we ate our Snickers bars and headed back, reaching McLeod just after sunset and ready for a large amount of food and some Tibetan butter tea, which I had developed a taste for.


Later on a bunch of us went back to Konrad’s place for a sound meditation; lying on the floor wrapped up in blankets while he played the didgeridoo and the singing bowl.  Lying there in half-consciousness with the mountains in my mind and the oscillating waves of indigenous Australia beating in my chest I had this feeling a bit like the one you get from sorting out your kitchen cupboards.  A satisfying sense of orderliness after the confusion and chaos of my first two weeks in India.

We all made a plan to meet a little early the next day to make some room for goodbyes, since some of us wouldn’t be coming back from Amritsar and some of those staying behind wouldn’t be around when the others returned.  As for me, I would like to have returned, but I was glad to be leaving on a high.  I made my way to my room and wrapped myself in blankets with my shawl around my head one more time, thinking in three days time I would be sleeping in a beach hut somewhere tropical.  I could hear the sea rustling on the shore already.