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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Dance Journey to Nepal
by Daleela

How amazing that in Asia I gained a deeper understanding into my own chosen art.

I will never forget Nepal and the dance adventures we encountered. They will remain etched in my mind forever. What I found most amazing is how much I learned about Middle Eastern dance going to Asia.

Dance originated during a time in our history when human beings lived close to nature. In Nepal I was exposed to the different animal dances in the jungle and learned a few Nepalese folk steps enacting stories about lotus flowers blossoming, moons shinning and trees swaying in the wind. I can see how belly dance may have also have partly originated by copying nature and its animals, especially the snakes.

Interestingly, our exciting, first time journey to Nepal began in Hong Kong, China where we had a most enjoyable 11-hour layover. Despite the fact that half of the people at the Hong Kong airport were wearing masks in an effort to ward off the deadly SARS virus, my friend Tina and I returned greatly refreshed from our 11-hour layover. This is because after a long 14-hour flight, we wisely decided to leave the fear-ridden Hong Kong airport to see "Lantau Island". Lantau is a beautiful rustic island off Mainland China where we visited largest Buddha statue in the world.

Taking advantage of the beauty of the island, we hiked up its sacred mountain and without another soul in sight, we joyfully belly danced atop the mountain peak looking out at this famous Buddha statue. There was a haunting mist gracefully floating atop the mountain. Very strong winds pushed this eery white mist eastward across the mountain as we watched, thoroughly entranced.

While Tina, graciously offered to watch our backpacks below, I climbed up a bit further and found myself completely alone overlooking a beautiful bluish-green lake. I could also see the huge Buddha statue from afar as the Buddhist monks chanted their holy mantras below. With the wind urging me on, I decided to join the mystical dance between the whistling wind and the floating mist.

Alone, on top of this powerful mountain, I outstretched my long arms abandoning myself to the incredible spirit of this mountain. Simultaneously undulating my body, I allowed the powerful wind and the haunting mist to dance through my tired muscles and bones. Abandoning myself to the wind, it completely took my breath away and I felt its incredible power surge through my entire body.

Needless to say, I returned greatly invigorated to the Hong Kong airport, once again prepared to face the atmosphere of fear amidst the SARS virus. Such is the healing power of belly dancing with mother-nature.

About 6 hours later we arrived in exotic Nepal. Nepal is a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas. It offers a cultural heritage that is among the richest in Asia. This small country also possesses tropical jungles teeming with exotic wildlife and the highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest! Nepal enraptured my friend Tina and I with its natural and cultural diversity.

Our journey in Nepal began in the colorful city of Katmandu, marked by deep religious devotion. Here we were exposed to Hindu Pagoda temples, Grand Buddhist Stupas, monkey temples, a wealth of medieval art and architecture, and artistic palace squares honored as World Heritage Sites.

On the streets of Katmandu, monkeys bathed at the cremation sites, Hare Krishnas joyfully danced in the streets, young men celebrated their rites of passage into manhood, very poor "untouchable" families swept the streets, women freely breastfed their babies, and wild dogs and goats, as well as sacred cows and bulls, shared the already crowded dirt roads with the city dwellers.

It is no doubt that Nepal provides the setting for a vibrant culture. However, as much as I enjoyed the guided tours of the temples and other sites in Nepal, the highlights of our trip consisted of our dance adventures with the PEOPLE of Nepal, especially with the people in the Nepalese jungles and mountains.

The Nepalese possess a rich cultural heritage that includes music, song and dance; there exist dances which enact sacred stories and in which every gesture has profound meaning. Many of these dances honor the earth and the many gods and goddesses of Nepal. In the city of Katmandu, dancing is a serious art form. The Nepalese perform most of their dances in temples and on stage. Dancers who aspire to be professionals audition for performing arts schools consisting of a rigorous five-year dance program. Wow! I was impressed! For a time, visions of founding a four-year performing arts school in the states, offering Middle Eastern Dance as a focus, played in my head. In the remote Himalayan mountain areas and jungle regions the natives dance as a form of celebration, to honor animals they consider sacred, and as an integral part of their ancient ceremonies.

After a few days in Katmandu, we made our get away from the hustle and bustle of this city to the beautiful Royal Chitwan National Park. This Park, the oldest national park in Nepal, was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1984. We peacefully stayed in the heart of the park surrounded by the soothing jungles of Nepal. It was here in Chitwan that we experienced the true safari atmosphere of the Terai. We were offered guided cultural tours to meet the natives of the jungle and to experience their traditional self-sufficient way of life.

The Tharus are the indigenous inhabitants of the Terai. One of the highlights the natives offered was their Tharu folk dance show. At dusk, outdoors, under the beautiful moonlight, the drummers and stick dancers performed traditional jungle dances for us.

Interestingly, only the men are allowed to perform dances for the tourists. The one young woman in the troupe who DID perform was actually a MAN dressed as a woman.

Humorously, before our guide told us "her" secret, I remarked on how I thought she was very pretty. After their show, they invited my friend Tina to join them in their rhythmic display as I happily videotaped these exotic dances. A lot of Tina's hip movements from belly dance actually worked quite well with their jungle dances. This was only the beginning of our many exciting dance adventures.

In the Chitwan National Forest there thrive more than 43 species of mammals. We embarked upon an exciting elephant safari hoping to spot as many of the park's mammals as possible. It was a heart stopping experience to pause only a few feet away from the endangered, one-horned rhinos. We bravely took advantage of this rare opportunity to furiously snap close ups of these ferocious creatures. We were told to be quiet and stay very still. There was a mother and baby rhino wading in the river. As we crossed a muddy river, an entire group of these dangerous rhinos stopped drinking to look up at us. I was simultaneously thrilled and alarmed, as the leader appeared to be sizing us up. Tina and I then realized how wise we were to embark upon an elephant safari rather than on a safari by foot! Altogether we saw 8 different rhinos. Santa, a Terai native, acted as our jungle guide. He told us this was very unusual; most tourists are lucky to see even two.

Feeling very brave and with the spirit of adventure now etched in our hearts, we attempted to mount a bareback elephant via its trunk by hanging on to its huge ears. No doubt taking pity on us, two natives helped us up with a push from behind.

The elephants then took us to their bathing site and gently placed us into the cool jungle river below. We joyfully swam among these majestic creatures. In the refreshing river, man and beast together cooled off from the immense jungle heat.

I felt a strong connection to the power of the jungle and to the animals. It was not surprising for me to find out later that there were native dances imitating the jungle animals, including the elephants.  It was at the foot of these beautiful animals that I was inspired to dance in the water as I looked up at them in amazement.

Later, Santa showed Tina and I what the natives call the "elephant" dance. He bent forward from the waist as he swung his arms, his make believe trunk, back and forth and side to side. He then got down on all fours imitating the elephant's heavy, and powerful gait. He didn't stop here. He showed Tina how to act out many of the animals we had seen in our day in the jungle. This included the peacock and crocodile dances as well as a hilarious rhino dance. In this rhino dance, Tina and Santa humorously enacted a fight dance, both on all fours. In this wild dance the dancers circle each other until they charge and then butt heads. Ouch! Santa stated in the jungle this fight is almost always between two male rhinos over territory. Except in this case, Tina was not right for the part. So, Santa humorously adjusted the dance to display a male-female fight dance, explaining that they were a married rhino couple on the verge of divorce. We laughed at his sense of humor.

After watching Santa copy the animals in his native jungle, I am now inspired to closely observe snakes as the true and original teachers of the belly dance. I now more fully understand why people who live close to nature and to the animals naturally want to imitate nature and the animals. It is a powerful experience to connect deeper to nature. I see this also in the belly dance.

The Belly Dance, no doubt came out of a close connection to nature and the snakes. The people of Nepal also have their own snake dance as do many indigenous people all over the world, including East Indians and Native Americans to name a few. Wow! In traveling to Asia I was gaining a deeper understanding into my own chosen art.

Santa was more than just our guide. He was also a fun loving ham. Obviously, he loved to dance and he seemed to take great pride in his ability to entertain the tourists. On top of this, he was also an eager Belly Dance student. When he found out I was a Belly Dance teacher he begged me, during our coffee break, to show him a few Belly Dance moves. I don't know why we were being offered hot tea and coffee in the hot, humid jungle weather. But even though it was over 100 degrees outside and I had just finished drinking my hot cup of tea, I couldn't pass up teaching a student who demonstrated such eagerness to learn.

Wow! Here I was in the middle of the jungle, with the elephants, just a few yards behind us, teaching a jungle native how to Belly Dance. His enthusiasm was catchy. Pretty soon, a crowd of onlookers appeared as his stiff but eager body attempted to follow the relaxed, isolated movements of the shoulder shimmy. I must admit he WAS quite a sight as he attempted to look graceful. With great effort and with very stiff shoulders he managed to shake his entire body, but NOT his shoulders. All the while he carried a pained expression on his face. Our audience couldn't help but die laughing! Feeling sorry for Santa, no one laughs at my students, I invited the onlookers to come join us, but not one of them budged. I took this opportunity to point out how Santa was the only one brave enough to attempt to learn this art. No one laughed at him after that. Later, I realized Santa simply loved the attention and that included the laughs. So, I need not have worried.

The people in Nepal celebrate their New Year in April. Later that evening after dinner, while celebrating the New Year, Santa graciously offered to return the favor and teach me a typical dance of Nepal. I was thrilled to accept.

Tina and I noted how the men of Nepal, unlike many American men, were more than happy to sing, dance and express their feelings for us through their traditional music and dance. This is probably because they all grew up singing, dancing and playing the drums. It was refreshing to hear our other guide, Janaki, happily offer to play a small keyboard type instrument for us as he sang. He didn't care that he had a cold. Also, two of the male waiters offered to improvise on the jungle drums for us as we took our dance lesson. Wow, live music, in the middle of the jungle?

Their music, completely improvised, was very beautiful, because like Arabic music, it speaks from the soul. We'll never forget dancing in the jungle lodge with this wonderful group of live musicians playing, singing and dancing their hearts out freely for us. This is characteristic of the people of Nepal in general. We knew it would be a rare occasion indeed to find men like this back in the states and so we relished every moment of it.

The music and movements of these jungle dances were soft, rhythmical, soothing, almost hypnotic, reflecting the harmonious and relaxing sounds of the Nepalese jungle itself. Also, the consistent drum rhythms accompanying the soft melody lines were similar to belly dance music. The dance movements also showed some resemblance to belly dance, except there was more stepping, traveling and turning involved. Now I more fully understood why belly dance is also called, "Oriental Dance". Many of the hip and especially the arm movements are similar to the dances of Asia. We also witnessed this in India and in the Newary Dance show we had the pleasure to attend back in Katmandu.

Part 2 now ready!

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