The twenty students are in four perfect rows in their ghos and kiras, a row of boys, then a row of girls. The music, a plaintive traditional song for yangchen (somewhat like a pipa or a hammered dulcimer), begins and the students bow at the waist in honor of the "chief guest" at this rehearsal for the National Day celebration (December 17). Their arms are extended, palms forward, fingertips nearly touching the ground, eyes down. And then they begin to dance.
Traditional Bhutanese dance is, in its aesthetic and its energy, the opposite of Bharatanatyam, the athletic, percussive dance of south India with which I was so enamored. Boedra (traditional dance & music) is performed as a group with the dancers moving in perfect unison, stepping slowly forward and back with an unemphatic bent knee kick in between. Like so many south and east Asian dances, the hands are the focal point: in what seem to be stylized mudras, the dancers turn their hands at the wrists, bringing the middle finger to the thumb as in a karana mudra, a hand position that dispels negative energy or evil. The arms are relaxed and move, winglike, up and down in rhythm. The dance is slow, graceful, almost hypnotic, and the dancers execute their steps effortlessly, looking straight ahead. The even, lulling pace of these dances reflects, for me, the attitude towards life of the Bhutanese: take things easy; don't expect too much; live a simple life; laugh.
Were students in America asked to perform contradance or even a tap dance (two kinds of dance considered traditional in the States) for a 4th of July event, they would likely sneer. In the American teens' imagination, traditional dances are considered the purview of old people or religious dissenters who still rely on horse and buggy. Here in Bhutan, participating in a performance honoring the birth of the first Druk Gyalpo (king), who unified the nation's warring districts in 1907, is a high honor: the students performing on Tuesday are 12th class students who completed their exams on the 14th and are free to go home, yet they have volunteered to remain until the celebration ends on the 17th. Their earnestness and commitment to perfecting their dance is remarkable.
Some of these students were in my English class, and to observe them in this context, where they are so clearly expert, is a joy. As they slowly turn, step, kick, step, deliberate and perfect, I realize how much I will miss these students and the warm, unhurried simplicity of life in Bhutan.