I’m sitting in a house on the outskirts of Paris, in a ville called Alfortville, which reminds me of Hackney, London. The black people here are very black, like they just came out of the sun in the sunniest part of Africa, not like the creamy blacks of America, who all have some white blood somewhere in their past. The african man at the local market suppressed a smile when I inspected my money before handing it to him, to be sure I was using the right denomination. I felt indeed like I was in a foreign country, and not the France of slightly mustachioed men with striped shirts and berets. As we walked through the neighborhood back to the house where we are staying, Andrew says, “I can see the influence of France on the architecture in Africa.” He spent three months in Nigeria, the Congo Republic and Mali. This observation fell on silence, but I got what he meant. I was calculating the influence of Africa on France.
Anyways, this is not about Africa or France. This is about the glory and adventure of being a traveling dance instructor. I’m in Paris (technically) and I’m sitting at a table in a house, with an empty cereal bowl, a cup of tea and a table covered in laptops, headphones and gadgets and I’m working alongside two friends on a perfectly partially sunny day. My friends imagine me wandering along the Seine, dancing to the quaint sounds of a hot jazz trio as we nibble pain au chocolat, having lively conversations with new attractive French friends, climbing to the top of the Tour Eiffel, unable to contain a swing-out while other tourists applaud and toss change our way. You imagine us, gazing out the window of our attractively outfitted train car, sipping a glass of wine, admiring the ancient houses in the French Countryside. We are entering a smoky club somewhere in the depths of Paris, a soulful jazz singer beckons us to the dance-floor. My partner takes me in his embrace and we twirl to the center of the room, the other dancers parting for us as we finish the song in a dramatic pose.
I am imagining this as well, but the problem with living in your imagination is that you find it depressing when reality doesn’t live up to the fantasy. So, I’m here to sell you the reality of what it means to be a traveling dance instructor.
As a dance instructor, you spend more time than you would imagine, at a computer. Some people manage to compress their workflow into their gadgets. Either way, you find yourself glued to a screen, whether you’re at a friend’s kitchen table, in a café or in the backseat of a car. There’s no getting around the fact that you have to send emails, facebook messages and texts to connect with the people who will hire you in other cities. You have to spend time booking flights, trains, or organizing rides. (Or, if you’re smart, like I *just* figured out, get someone to do this for you and then offer them dance lessons in exchange.) If you’re particularly enterprising, you’ll spend time building yourself a website, (or pay/bribe/trade with someone to do it for you), and managing a social network so that people don’t forget who you are. That’s where you post the photos of you swinging out on the Eiffel Tower, and dancing on train platforms so that people will buy your brand of dance fun to bring to their event.
There are things to manage back home, bills to pay, and people to stay in touch with. There are computers to back up, photos to sort, playlists to update. All of this busy work, that if you don’t get it done will crop up next time you need to have heat when you get home, connect with a friend or find that perfect photo for an event website.
And then there’s the class planning. Unless you are traveling with your sole dance partner, much of your class planning gets done online, if you’re lucky, via video chat. Otherwise, emails or google docs house your dance knowledge and the the finishing touches are put on in pubs, living rooms and on the social dance floor the night before you teach class in a new city.
The actual work of dancing happens so much less than I had actually imagined when I decided that I would travel and teach. Although my current travel partner, Andrew Smith and I have lots of dance things we really want to work on, the imperative of booking flights, finding places to stay and making sure we have enough work to feed us while we travel, eats up our mornings. By late afternoon, we sometimes venture out of the house and in the evenings we go to the local dances and yawn tiredly long before the party ends. We are grateful to get home and be in bed by midnight.
The moments we spend wandering these ancient towns, usually on our way to a grocery store (I have become a fetishist of grocery stores), are the ones that fill my memories with images. The bricked streets, shuttered windows, jaunty turrets, the peaked roofs… I want to photograph them all and I know that my iphone can barely begin to capture the subtle magic of being in a different place. Yesterday, as we wandered the tiny alleys of Paris near Saint Michel, Andrew asked me if I knew what my purpose in life was. When I was in my teens and twenties, this question seemed more important to me… to discover my purpose.
“To bring the joy of dance to the world! That’s the right answer isn’t it?” I asked. He laughed. I know that this is the purpose I’m living, but is it a true purpose? Is it a just purpose? I followed up by saying,
“I don’t really know what the purpose of life is. I think the longer I live the more I think that life is meaningless, life is pain, and your purpose is just what you decide is best for yourself at the moment.”
“That’s very Hindu of you.” He replied.
“Well perhaps.” There was a silence as I photographed a chef through the metallic mesh of a first floor window. We approached the fountain at Saint Michel.
“I guess more and more I’m just trying to be a better person. That sounds terribly cliché, but that’s what I’ve been working on.”
“That’s what religions are focused on.” I reflected on this for a moment, since religion… at least the organized sort isn’t something that has played a central role for me since about age 10.
Then we met our hostess, a Belgian girl studying in Paris. She took us to her favorite French restaurant, where you can get dinner for 10 Euros. We laughed and ate and filled ourselves with French food. I forgot all about my purpose in life till we got to the tiny party on the second floor of a pub near the Bastille. We were introduced, we put our things down, bought drinks and when we hit the dance floor, feeling the music fill our bodies and re-connecting with our purpose, I drank in the small glorious moments of being a traveling dance instructor.