Teaching Down Under in 1988
A Bert Balladine Reminiscence: Australia
by Najia Marlyz
posted April 28, 2012
Originally published in Habibi Magazine, volume 10, number 8, August 20, 1988.
Rewritten for GS April 1012.
A drive out to Bert Balladine‘s home on the farm in Petaluma (across the road from a commercial California vineyard) was always beautiful and relaxing. Bert had a generous heart in exchanging his ideas and experience with me concerning suitable teaching music and sharing his views on dance every time I went to visit. He invited me to bring a student or dance friend along with me on each trip, making the long drive less daunting. He was always full of ideas and poured them out for me to get me started along a new path to renew and expand my teaching repertoire.
On this particular trip to the “BS Ranch”, my eyes fell upon a greeting card displayed on his coffee table. It had dancing koala bears on the front. He said, "Look inside; you’ll see why I love to travel so far just to teach Bellydance in Australia!" I saw that his card was full of individual thank-you comments written by members of his last seminar there. "We haven’t heard much about the state of Bellydance in Australia these days." I mused. "Why don’t you tell me something about it, and I will take a few notes so I can write a new article or interview about your experience; that way, people will know that there is more to Australia than dancing koala bears." Between cups of strongly brewed Peet’s coffee I had brought to him from Berkeley and the continuous and insistent nuzzling from the soggy nose of Bert’s old dog, Wolfgang, we discussed both his trip to Australia, and his teaching experiences in New Zealand.
Bert’s memories almost always rolled out in a torrent–one idea, slipping quickly into another. Each time I left his house, my mind whirled with stories of funny incidences, new concepts, and a variety of dance and teaching tips. Sometimes, the trip home seemed shorter than the trip out to Petaluma (the “chicken capital” of the world) because my student and I would be lost in conversation, processing the new things we had seen and heard on the farm. (Several times we were so deep into our conversations that I missed my turnoff for the East Bay and ended up being forced to cross the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco before I could get back on the right path toward home.) Since Bert was already on a roll, reminiscing about his most recent trip, I decided not to interrupt his stream of thought–except to clarify points. What follows is Bert’s account of dance and teaching in Australia in 1988–the land often referred to as "down under."
"In the first place, you can only arrange international seminars with people you’ve already met. The risk is great; there is no way back after the investment. Nobody wants disappointment. No, nothing bad ever happened to me, but it is common sense. I am not so conceited that I think I am everybody’s cup of tea, and I feel you have to know the person with whom you’re working.
I’ve met Diane James of New Zealand in 1982 here, when I taught a smaller workshop. We have corresponded ever since…. Until the right opportunity came along, with a trip to Australia, I had had Australia on the back burner for a long time. It was the only continent I had not visited or worked (which is synonymous for me). I always have numerous commitments here and abroad. Meanwhile, Amaya went twice to both places. Finally, I could not procrastinate any longer. Even so, I have myself in a bit of a bind, because I have to leave for Germany soon. …I’ll be off to Germany, a place near Heidelberg, where I teach for a week each year.
Really, I had not met the Australians before, even though one of their top teachers and dancers, Marjolin, came here for the Rakkasah Festival a few months ago. She wanted to check me out and see if I was really qualified, because they have had unfortunate experiences in which people write puffed-up reviews of themselves in all the dance magazines, and then they don’t deliver.
If I had had any reservations about going, it was then. Australia seemed so far away, and for me it represented the "final frontier". It turned out to be the most enjoyable experience I’ve had so far! People there were eager and motivated. They showed a loving attitude towards me too, so I can hardly wait to go back. Their dance level is equal to ours here in the US– some good and some not. People there have the same music and information we have, but it is more difficult for them to obtain. Australian people seem more enthusiastic; they haven’t been so overly-saturated with master classes, seminars and festivals, either. What is different is that they are people who started later than our 1960s fad, and so they missed that strange pseudo-ethnic style that we saw born here in America. There are almost no musicians there, but they have a few nightclubs. They have fewer role models than we do. Nevertheless, through travel and video, dancers are pretty well ‘up on things’. I met a beautiful dancer from Perth, Lindy, who spent two days on a bus to come to my seminar. She was an excellent dancer, had traveled extensively in the Middle East and was very knowledgeable. I found that the area of Adelaide really looks much like California, and when you are surrounded by dancers, you feel like you’re at home anyway.
The real difference was that it was big. …Impressive… Multi-colored parrots were flying around freely!
Another difference, at first quite unnerving to me, was driving on the left-hand side of the road — especially when chauffeured by a dancer who was using a lot of body language as she drove!"
I asked him about communications and that fascinating Australian accent. He answered, "Well, I didn’t notice it because I have an accent too. As long as I can communicate, I’m really unaware of it at all. Now, look at next week! I will have all different varieties of the German dialect, along with Turkish and Slavic accents thrown in to boot!"
“How long is the trip from Australia to New Zealand?" I asked him. "It’s too long! I had to sit in Sydney for 6 hours and fly another 4 hours to New Zealand, and also there is the time change! I left at the crack of dawn and arrived at midnight. It is difficult to arrive at that time of night." "What did you do about your arrival at that hour?" I asked. "Well, I was met by my sponsor, Diane James, and was billeted in her home. Her husband had built a studio downstairs for her, and I spent many hours there teaching private and semi-group classes. The emphasis there is on quality rather than quantity. Another pleasant surprise: it turned out that Diana’s mother was a former classical ballerina, and I greatly enjoyed reminiscing on the dance scene as it once was when I was in ballet too.
At one point, she was demonstrating a particular hand position and ballet movement while cooking our breakfast. What fun!
There were a number of Australian dancers, who had studied off-and-on in America. One lady even participated in one of those mega-seminars we used to produce in America in the late seventies. We didn’t have a large turnout in New Zealand, so it seemed like half the population was there."
"Talk more about the seminar," I requested. "I don’t like to, because too many people have indulged in self-glorification," he answered. "One thing I can tell you though:
International seminars make you do more than you think you can when you see the dedication and sacrifices people make just to attend.
Both of my sponsors, Lassa and Diane, took great risks financially, and put their reputations on the line– especially Lassa, because she had not even met me before. They opened their homes to me and treated me like a member of their families, making me feel comfortably welcome. The stay itself was three weeks long, but it seemed longer, because I saw so much in such a short time. At the moment, I feel like going right back, but it is not possible.
Also, I think people need to have ample recovery time to digest the new information they have received.
I know when I leave here to go to Australia and New Zealand again, I’ll have something new, and I’ll feel anxious to see all those lovely, dedicated dancers again."
Ready for more?
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